When I was in middle school, my number one priority was to finally get a date. But, not for a lack of trying, I was a bit slower to the dating game compared to my friends. It felt like I was the lone wolf at every event. My friends had dates to school dances, the roller rink, and even birthday parties. I’d be the only one without a date and then started to get jealous as stories started to circulate all around me.
Tall tales were beginning to spread about how Sarah kissed Jeff at her birthday party in a game of spin the bottle. Or when Chris touched Emily’s boob under the bleachers at the basketball game. Then the time Jenny gave James a handjob and he fingered her in James’ basement spread like wildfire. Looking back, I should’ve taken these stories with a grain of salt as middle schoolers often one up each other in order to climb the social hierarchy. But Chris touched a boob and I desperately wanted to know what it was like! What was it like to hold hands at the movies? What was it like to kiss a girl? What did a boob feel like? As hard as I tried, days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and months into years.
I didn’t have my first real kiss until my later half of high school. I had finally developed enough social skills to start dating a girl my junior year. We’d see each other at my locker before school started each day, or we’d pass in the halls between classes, but the best time was after school. After school we’d walk together down four long blocks to our old middle school where we’d say our goodbyes before she’d hop on the city bus to get home across town. We did this every school day, for what felt like, forever! Until one fateful day, I’d mustered up the courage to go for the kiss.
I was a nervous wreck! On our walk to the bus stop I could barely hold her hand because my palms were so sweaty. I had been giving myself a mental pep talk all day knowing I was going to shoot my shot before she got on that bus. As we were waiting under the shade of a tree, I was desperately waiting for the perfect moment to go in for the kiss and it just wasn’t happening. Then the bus came around the corner and it was time to say goodbye again. I was determined today was going to be the day. In my panic as the bus was arriving and what little courage I had left, I looked at her, pointed at my lips and said, “Before you go, right here.”
In my head I’m screaming at myself, “What the fuck!? How lame is that? That’s it, you lost your chance.” But to my surprise, she leaned in, gave me a peck on my lips, and walked off to the bus. I was left there under the tree in pure awe and wonder. I kissed her… I kissed her! What I had been longing for for so long just happened. I finally knew what it was like to feel the soft lips of someone I cared for against mine. I was on top of the world for the rest of that day. Shit, for the rest of the month! This girl was special. Over the next three years we fell in love and became each other’s firsts for many things.
It was a time in my life I will never forget, but mixed in with that time was a lot of guilt and shame.
Not only was I trying to navigate my first serious relationship with a girl, I was learning what it meant to have a relationship with Jesus. I was heavily involved with my church’s youth group in high school. My youth leaders did not shy away from giving sex talks over the years. I was always taught that sex is a gift from God, but God only reserves sex for marriage between a man and a woman. I learned all the reasons why I shouldn’t have sex before marriage. Sex before marriage would:
Only set me up to compare my past sexual experiences with my future spouse, only to cause struggles and division in my future marriage.
Cause unwanted pregnancies that would cause me to drop out of school and ultimately fail before I was ever an adult.
Give me STIs or HIV/AIDS, risking my life.
Make me a sinner and risk going to hell for eternity.
Make me undesirable and used goods to any self-respecting future partner.
As hard as I tried to be a good Christian boy, like many teenagers, our desire was too strong. We tried to resist each other, but any chance we could be alone, we made it happen. Over the next three years we got comfortable with kissing, then over the clothes stuff, then under our clothes stuff, then no clothes at all, and the shame piled on…
Periodically we would have the same conversation. Sometimes I’d bring it up, sometimes she would. One of us would become too guilt ridden and we would ask for a break from sexual activities. We would stop, but only for a short while. I don’t think we ever got more than two weeks in without breaking our no-sex policy. We tried so hard to stop but inevitably returned to getting into each other’s pants. Although we loved each other and had a lot of firsts together, our relationship fizzled out after three years. Unfortunately, the cycle of repetitive shame continued with my future partners.
Now I haven’t had a laundry list of sexual partners, but enough to count on two hands. Some summer flings at camp sneaking off behind cabins after everyone was asleep. A one-night stand after a few drinks in college. And some real invested relationships that lasted for years. Looking back, I was not the greatest partner.
The guilt and shame I carried from my Christian education pertaining sex came out in some destructive ways. Guilt caused me to lash out. Shame pushed me to emotionally manipulate partners. I ended up hurting some beautiful people along the way. I’d like to think I’m a pretty likable person and cultivate healthy relationships. Regretfully, I imagine if you asked some of my previous partners about me, they’d have a different point of view. For that, I’m truly sorry.
But not until entering my thirties have I come to realize that all that guilt and shame came from a foundation of lies and bad theology. The reasons given to me for not having premarital sex taught to me as a child were simply not true. Could there be consequences? Sure. Were they inevitable? Absolutely not.
Our desire for sexual connection is not shameful.
There are many stories of desire throughout Scripture. Some are stories of desire gone wrong and end up being destructive. Others are beautiful examples of what God might have intended to be truly passionate love, a love that is life-giving. A desire that drove Jacob to be an indentured servant for 14 years, being fooled, having multiple wives, all in order to be with the one he loved, Rachel (Genesis 29). A desire that drove Paul to write letters to communities he loved deeply. David Fredrickson, in Eros and the Christ, talks of the cultural intimacy letters carried, letters that bring both delight and torture, in ancient Israel. “In the ancient world, letters were reread, wept over, kissed, and placed in bed in order to soothe the longing desire they never failed to rekindle.” Desire is natural. Desire can be beautiful.
I believe desire was created by God to be shared consensually between partners in order to experience a life-giving connection that is good.
But no other book of the Bible tells a better story of desire than the book of Song of Songs. This book is hot and heavy! I mean, talk about erotic literature… Can someone please turn the fan on?
This seductive book in the bible tells a story of two lovers who long for each other but cannot seem to reach one another. In the eight chapters we learn that their desire is kinky as hell!
I had just left the guards when I found the man I love! I held him and would not let him go, while I took him to my mother’s house, to the room of one who taught me.
-Song of Songs 3:4 (ERV)
Your breasts are like twin fawns of a young gazelle. Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your eyes are like the pools in Heshbon near the gate of Bath Rabbim. Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon that looks toward Damascus.
-Song of Songs 7:3-4 (ERV)
Go ahead and read the rest of it. It is full of ancient erotic smut. Take your time...
As the story progresses, their love seems to be forbidden. They meet early in the morning or late at night under the cover of darkness. The man seems to be of a higher class or royalty with all the mentions of his fancy clothing. She seems to be of a lower class having dark skin, most likely from working outside during the day. In their social structure they are not “meant” to be, they are of different classes and not in an arranged marriage prepared by their parents. An ancient Romeo and Juliet if you will. But their desire for each other is so strong that they seek each other out in secret, speaking of a seductive desire for one another. Unfortunately, we are left hanging as they never do end up explicitly having sex though. But I think that might be the point.
When it comes to navigating sexual relationships as a Christian, I don’t think the question is whether or not to have sex. Instead, how do I see and/or treat the person(s) I’m having sex with?
Do I see them as an object I can use in order to get pleasure from?
Are they simply a means to my orgasmic end?
Can I see my sexual partners as beautiful human beings created by God, in God’s image, that deserve respect, enthusiastic & informed consent, and unconditional love?
While those questions might seem like extremes, I think most of us don’t fall into thinking one way or the other, but instead we’re all on a spectrum leaning in one direction. I think we ought to be seeking to discover within ourselves how we can lean more on the unconditional love side of seeing our sexual partner(s). To work towards treating our lover(s), married or not, as a whole human being that has their own autonomy and inherent right to say no, yes, maybe next time, or whatever they’re feeling at the moment. No one deserves sexual intimacy with anyone.
Sex is a gift that we share with those whom we choose, those we feel safe with, and sharing this gift is going to look different for each individual. There is no one answer that fits all people and situations. We ought to love those who we have sex with. I don’t mean you have to be in love to have sex. I mean when having sex with anyone we need to practice a love that recognizes their inherent humanity, goodness, and Imago Dei (fancy word for being created in God’s image). If I lean more towards seeing my partner(s) as an object I NEED to be making improvements in how I see others.
There are easy and tangible ways to do this. I can read or listen to sex-positive materials. I can read literature from people who don’t look or think like me. I can listen to podcasts to hear people’s experiences that will give me a bigger perspective on life. There are YouTube videos with sex experts teaching consensual practices. I have to ask myself some hard questions. If I answer yes, or even yesish, to any of the following, I can’t stay where I’m at and need to push myself to seek out and learn more on ethical sex practices.
Do I have any sense that I deserve sex from my partner?
Do I get visibly/audibly upset when turned down for sexual activity?
Do I hold resentment towards my partner because of our sex life?
If you answered even yesish to any of these questions, that does not mean you are a bad person (I mean, it might mean you’re a dick sometimes). It just means there is some work to be done on your own understanding of sexual ethics and that is okay. The real question is, are you willing to admit it to yourself (this may be very uncomfortable) and ready to actively work on yourself, seek out advice, and learn from others who have made these personal changes already.
We do not have to be ashamed of your desire for sexual activity.
Shame is destructive and not of God. Desire is God-given. It is how we use this desire that matters. The Bible is full of sexual encounters that are outside of marriage, heterosexuality, and monogamy. While hetero-normative monogamous relationships are often deemed by Christians to be the only construct in which the Bible endorses sex, it's simply not true. Take a deeper look. I think when we begin to see and treat our sexual partners with autonomy, enthusiastic & informed consent, and unconditional love we begin to move out of lust and into an authentic love.
This kind of love can start to break the “rules” and feel scary, much like we see in the book of Song of Songs. Their love breaks the rules for ancient Israelites. Their love doesn’t fit within the societal structures of what love or marriage is supposed to look like. Yet, they unashamedly follow their God-given desire for one another even if their love doesn’t fit the norms.
Love your partner(s)! Know what pleases them. Be willing to trust them and give them reason to trust you. Listen to them, believe them, honor them. Be authentic and give them compassion. This can look different in so many ways. Do your best to love someone the way they want to be loved. From one night stands to decade long partnerships, love your lovers unashamedly.
THANK GOD FOR SEX!
-The Dirty Minister
Eros and the Christ: Longing and Envy in Paul's Christology by David E. Fredrickson