I've been sharing this 3-part essay from my book, Free to Be, over at No Longer Quivering. Hop over there to join in the discussion and to read some other amazing articles. Read part 1 here, and part 2 here.
Sexuality and Shame: Part 3 — Sexaltation
I’ve heard so many sermons about sexual temptation, so much focus there, but they are occasionally balanced with messages about how holy and pure sex is within marriage. Within marriage only. Imagine, “Sex is sinful, evil, wicked... Oh, now you’re married--okay, you’re free to enjoy yourselves!” I wonder, what does a piece of paper or a pronunciation of “man and wife” actually change about the messages we’ve received all our lives regarding sex? (Or about relationships in general. Marriage is a very interesting institution, but I shan’t go there now.)
All of the Christian families I called friends instructed their children to save themselves for marriage. Most of them included instruction in the dangers of touching or kissing and even warned against the dangers of giving their hearts to another of (falling in love with) the opposite sex until they married. In the cases of my friends it seemed to be balanced with an example of affectionate, loving parents who also taught that sex, when done right, was a joy.
I attended two weddings of such lovely young couples whose very first embrace was shared within minutes of their wedding vows. Unfortunately, I am no longer in their lives, so I have no way of knowing if they are happy in marriage. I must allow that for some young people this has perhaps worked well and they are happily joined to the only person they have ever kissed, with no regrets. I’m not knocking these fine folk. I feel privileged to know them.
I wanted this pattern of modesty and purity for my children. This, I thought, would keep my children from experiencing the shame I experienced. They would have no regrets.
But, what were my regrets, really? If I were honest, did I regret my sexual experiments? On the contrary, I was glad that I’d had so many exciting and pleasurable experiences. Yes, maybe I would have been just as glad if I’d only ever known one man and called him husband, and if I’d been his only gal, just like I’d imagined. (I still find it a very sweet thought.) More than anything what I genuinely regretted was the shame. What I regretted was that I was so embarrassed by my natural desires and activities that I foolishly detached myself from reality, making life-altering mistakes instead of thoughtful decisions about what was best for me and my partners. What I regretted was that I was so focused on the forbidding and ever-tempting sex that I didn’t take time to explore other important things; education, for instance. What I regretted was that I was so focused on sex that I wasn’t more discerning about who I shared my pleasures with and before I knew it I was stuck in marriage, painfully aware of my loss of opportunity to find a quality mate with whom I could deeply share other beautiful experiences.
So, what if all I was really offering my children was an opportunity to experience shame and regret? What if I could be open with them about their humanity instead? I could encourage them to learn about their sexuality and to not be afraid of it, but to be wise in their explorations, not foolish like I was. I could let them make their own decisions regarding their sexuality and relationships. I envy Denny’s experiences in his community in Memphis. I want that freedom for my children.
Teaching young people that their natural urges are evil is a recipe for anxiety and shame. There are many variables, but this is the crux of it. My own story is just one example of how denying one’s sexuality can be detrimental, but I believe it’s a fairly common one.
Last night Denny and I looked up the current teen pregnancy statistics from around the world. Out of some dozen or so countries the U.S. rates the highest by far. Higher by two thirds (down a third from the 1990’s), with some 40-something out of 1,000 teen girls becoming pregnant. Are we just that ignorant? Or are we just that ashamed? Both? So many variables, but it seems that our teens are seriously lacking in sex education. And why is that? Is it because by and large we are not as open about sex as we should be? Because sex is more of a taboo than an accepted part of our humanity? I can only speculate.
By focusing on sexual “sin” Christianity also sets us up perfectly for exploitation by those looking to make a buck. American pop culture thrives on the forbidden fruit. Why is it that across most of America breasts are viewed as sex objects, carefully covered and uncovered to provoke sexual response, but in many primitive cultures women bare their chests just as freely as the men do? Why do so many women feel that their bodies are inadequate? How and why did we, in our “developed” countries, get to this place? Why are American’s shaving and primping and nipping and tucking, changing our bodies from their natural state? How and why has everything become sexualized? What the hell are we doing?
Body image is no small issue, separate but related; I shall not wholly delve into it here. Again, it appears to me that we are generally less accepting of our bodies than folk in many other countries. I can’t help but suspect this is born out of our unnatural over-focus on sex which is born out of our attempted repression of sex born out of our fear of God. Maybe I’m imagining things. But personally, when I got over my ideas of God I became a lot more comfortable with my sexuality. I found myself relaxing more into what Denny had described about himself and his friends, accepting sexuality as part of being human, learning to be open and unashamed. When I relaxed about my sexuality I soon discovered I had also grown more comfortable with my body, not quite so down on myself. Denny is so accepting, making it much easier to relax and be human. For the first time ever I am with someone who sees me as most attractive in my most natural state, hairy legs and all. Being accepted by him has aided me in accepting my own humanity. It has been very liberating. I can’t help but imagine what would happen if more men and women could speak up and speak out about being natural, being normal, being human.
My first tentative step into my new culture’s sexuality occurred this spring when I realized that I wanted to take my friendship with Denny to a new level. Inexplicably drawn to him in every way, perceiving that he lived in a perpetual state of acceptance of his humanity, I felt I could approach him with an offer of sharing something more intimate than our already close friendship. I had in mind a kiss. I thought of little past that. I wanted to have at least that one moment with him, to kiss him deeply and sweetly and express my love and appreciation for who he was and what his friendship meant to me. I felt that he would be receptive, as well as understanding and accepting if that were all we were to ever share beyond our friendship. So, one day, after we had walked and talked and he had encouraged and comforted me, I asked him, “Can I kiss you?”
Early in my marriage I occasionally daydreamed about what I would do if I found myself single. I would want to find that one special someone. I would have the opportunity to do things “right.” I would find a Godly man with whom I had much in common. I would be proper and pure until our wedding night. Now, here I was, newly single and newly deconverted. I’d barely had time to think about the next step, I was just living free, exploring my humanity. I had no intentions of having casual flings, but it just seemed so natural and right to share a kiss with Denny, who was easily the most amazing, interesting and attractive man I’d ever known, with whom I had so much in common. If it turned into more, well, that would just be mighty natural and right, too.
It did, of course. And it was. Is.
Neither of us had expectations that night, a couple weeks later, when I showed up at his cabin alone. We were comfortable with each other and free to explore our relationship. Nothing could have been more sweetly human. I daresay it was the first time in my life that the sex was not for the sex, but rather for the expression of emotions. Deep, complex, truly intimate. Beautiful. Completely shameless.