It’s hard to figure out how to write a blog post on sexuality, when you work for the church.
Most humans are sexual beings. And in my experience, the church is mostly terrible at being honest about sex and sexuality. I did an informal social media poll of Christians, asking what messages they received from church growing up. Here are a few examples:
“I was going to hell” (from a gay man)
“Not to do it until you’re married”
“That it was shameful… all of it”
“Sex is bad – save it for the one you love”
“If I had relied on church teachings, instead of the streets/cars/books, I still wouldn’t understand where my children came from”
“Nothing, except sex waited until marriage!”
“Evangelical youth group: No sex, no Disco (b/c it’s all about sex), sex is the DARK side, and: don’t talk abt it”
Here’s a great characterization of this stream of responses.
Plenty of respondents had other experiences to report. Several mentioned the PC(USA)’s (contentious) curriculum called “God’s Gift of Sexuality,” or the joint United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist Association curriculum called “Our Whole Lives.” Some attended churches where sexuality was discussed insofar as gay and lesbian inclusion was a part of the church’s work.
Here are a few other responses:
“Personal sex/sexuality: Nothing shaming or empowering. LGBTQ community was mentioned in sermons in a ‘stop oppression’ context”
“We had a class… Taught us to be ‘good stewards of our bodies,’ allowed us to ask questions safely, the teachers were open and not awkward”
“Actually had best sex ed class at church”
A few #facepalm moments cropped up, with one friend’s church showing Dr. Dobson videos, and a friend whose church had a progressive, sex-positive class, but whose evangelical summer camp included this ringer: “Masturbation is sinful because it sets up unrealistic expectations for your husband.”
Growing up, I learned from church that sexuality was to be contained to marriage (one man and one woman, of course), and sex in that context was great. I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn anything about masturbation. Once my dad preached about humans as sexual beings in a non-shaming way, but that’s all I remember.
My parents were pretty open about bodies, sex, and sexuality. They also wanted to impress upon my brother and me the importance of waiting to have sex until marriage. They did a pretty good job of explaining why. They told us that sex was a gift. They never used the words “pure” or “purity,” instead using “covenant.” We didn’t follow all of what my parents taught us, although I think my brother and I held onto the spirit of their teachings about healthy sexual expression.
And then I went to college. My understanding of sex and sexuality took a leap in a direction you might not anticipate.
I volunteered with the county health department doing harm reduction work. I handed out condoms in area bars and to people in the downtown area, as well as bleach kits for needle users. I distributed information about STD and HIV testing, and had conversations with people who needed information or resources in regards to their sexual health. Every bar night, I was on the receiving end of some older men joking they would like to try out the condoms with me (reinforcing my commitment to work against public gendered harassment, but that’s another post). I got involved in harm reduction work through a service learning trip in college, where we worked with Father River Sims, a priest committed to serving the people of the Tenderloin District of San Francisco with love, not judgment. (You can support his work here.)
I developed quite the disgust for germs and diseases, and plenty of appreciation for sex-positive messages: Bodies are beautiful! Sex is awesome! Sexuality is a fact of life! Humans are sexual beings! There are lots of different ways to respect sexuality and bodies! There are many ways to get a disease! The easiest way to avoid getting a disease is not having sex! Use protection! Communicate with your partner! These messages did not hinge on marriage conventions or the overbearing attachment between sexual activity and procreation. I learned that the conversation about sex workers and sex work is far more complicated than the narrative that sex work is (and therefore sex workers are) sinful, or the equally reductive narrative that all sex workers are engaged in this work because they are victims.
As a young adult, just when I was hanging around sex-positive public health educators, my denomination newly committed itself to restricting ordination to faithfully married straight people or completely celibate unmarried people. This was meant to target gay and lesbian people in ministry. The phrase “self-affirming practicing homosexuals,” often used by proponents of this particular ordination restriction, still makes me chuckle.
I was a member of a certain judicatory committee’s oversight of people on the ordination track. One person in this process was living with his partner. They were engaged to be married. They were heterosexual. I didn’t see how this person’s life could be an issue. But because of the regulations on the books, the committee decided they had to discuss his living arrangements. Three rather uncharitable thoughts popped into my head. The first was: “These two are smart! It costs way less for one household than for two separate households that are planning on merging anyway.” Theological education is expensive these days. The second was, “This generation doesn’t usually get married at 21. Welcome to the 21st century.” The third was: “Don’t they know that as many as 94% of all young adults have had some kind of pre-marital sexual experience? Do they really expect all people called to ministry are in the 6%?”
That regulation is no longer a part of my church’s polity. But somewhere along the line I had the revelation that church discussions about sexuality and gender identity were in part contentious because of genuinely faithful differences of belief, but also because much of the information held by church people was inaccurate and outdated, and certainly not based on the diverse messages about sexuality and marriage presented in the Bible.
I have a list of messages I wish Christians would hear at church:
-Masturbation is awesome.
-Sex is not necessarily about procreation. Each can happen without the other!
-Sex can be funny. Laugh-out-loud funny.
-Boys and men are just as responsible for their sexuality as are girls and women.
-Good sex involves respect for yourself and for the other person.
-Playing “hard to get” isn’t a real thing. It’s a rape culture lie. (And rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power.)
-Your pastor probably has sex. No need to fixate on that fact, please.
-More people than you know have had bad sexual experiences. Tread lightly and gracefully.
-Please don’t get married just because you want to have sex. Get married because you really want to be with this person FOREVER in this particular kind of relationship, even when your partner gets on your last nerve. Marriage is about respect, joint assets, combining family systems and creating a new one.
-Don’t judge or dismiss sex workers. This discussion is plenty complicated.
(Do you have any to add?)
For too long, the church has often placed limits around sex and sexuality that do not empower us to make good, healthy decisions about relationships, or leave too many of us clueless and insecure about our bodies. In a child sexual abuse prevention training, I was horrified to hear that children who do not know very much about their own bodies are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Knowledge really can be power.
I want the next generations’ conversations about sexuality, sex, gender identity, and relationships to resemble the second list of social media responses. The family and the church are the de facto locations where values around sex and sexuality are formed, and I want these communities to have the capacity for discussions based on accurate information, and theologically grounded values. The church can equip parents to approach conversations about sex and sexuality with children in healthy, honest, accurate, and appropriate ways.
Where shall we begin?
A few resources: