My mom and I were standing out on the back porch of my childhood home. The sky was darkening and the field behind the house was alight with fireflies, casting about their glowing mating call as we waited for the more high tech fireworks at the local racetrack to begin.
“Are you sure?”
The question felt like it came out of nowhere. Mom and I seldom talked about my relationship. When I was in fourth grade and it was time to learn about Becoming A Woman, she left a book in the bathroom that I found, read, and then neither of us ever talked about it, even though the vague writing about men and women “fitting together” left me mildly confused and slightly afraid. I only dated a couple of guys in high school and she never asked me about any of them, which was fine because none were ever serious. When Jason and I got engaged, there was little talk about what that meant. Lots of logistics about the wedding, but no heart-to-hearts about what being married might look like.
So I was taken aback when she asked, “Are you sure?”
I didn’t know how to answer. After a good year when we first got together, Jason and I had experienced a lot of pain. Youth, separation by distance in a barely-digital world, and dealing with a yet undiagnosed mental illness had taken a toll on both of us. And while wedding plans were continuing to be made, there was an underlying sense of unease. Our phone conversations and rare times together were often tear-filled, and not simply because of the longings of youth. My mom obviously saw it, hence her question.
I had no idea how to answer. I wasn’t always happy in the relationship, but it certainly wasn’t all bad. It was by far the longest relationship I’d ever been in. It was the first one where I had said, “I love you,” and that felt like something I wasn’t allowed to take back. And it was the first relationship where those vague writings in that sex book years ago stopped being scary and just made sense.
Because my parents simply didn’t talk about sex, I was on my own trying to figure that out. Unfortunately, the hodge-podge of resources I compiled did not help me sort out anything. I had signed up for a Christian magazine at CreationFest, and in that I heard about fellatio and cunnilingus for the first time in an article condemning Dr. Ruth. I secretly bought self-help books about sex, trying to understand the mechanics, then I would turn around and immerse myself in AOL Christian message boards that condemned all sex outside of marriage. The only place I could find facts at the time was in books written by people who weren’t bound by the morals I believed were unquestionable, and the morals were informed by people who didn’t seem to think sex was worth all of the hype. In the vacuum left by the adults in my life, I created a weird space where I fed both my burgeoning desires and shames, creating an intense cognitive dissonance.
My young adult brain had to figure out how to reconcile my moral revulsion to impurity with my biological longing for sex. I read about saving yourself for your future spouse, but got around the need to save anything because Jason WAS my future spouse. I was afraid and desirous and the two fought each other every time we were together. Lines were constantly redrawn, each time leaving me less and less pure, according to the arbiters of female sexuality.
But if I couldn’t have a basic conversation about reproduction with my mom, how could I possibly say that I had to get married because I was already “biblically” married to him? I eventually told her that yes, I was sure I wanted to get married, but my certainty was based far more on our sexual past than on the actual relationship.
There are many excellent resources on the subject of purity culture and the way that it harms women in particular (I highly recommend Dianna Anderson’s book Damaged Goods). In my experience, my desire to have sex, coupled with my shame for giving into those desires, led me to the first time I ignored questions about my marriage posed both by other people and internally. If sex bonded us together, then it stood to reason that I needed to stay with the person to whom I was bonded. The guilt and shame of admitting that I was “beholden to my desires” was too great, so instead I told no one and entered a marriage that was built on very shaky ground.
I know that conventional Christian wisdom is to simply not give in to sexual desire. But the line can never be pure enough. What happens when there is the inevitable lustful thought? Or the brush of a hand on the small of a back? What if that chaste peck becomes just a little less chaste, just once? Building shame into the very fabric of sexual attraction (and God help you if your attractions aren’t heteronormative!) keeps people from truly exploring the relationship itself.
Many suggest it is the opposite, that unbridled sexual passion clouds judgment, but I believe that shame about that desire is a far greater adversary to honesty in a relationship. Certainly at the onset of a relationship, one might be swept up by the endorphins released by sexual pleasure, but that newness does fade to some degree, and then we’re left sorting out how we feel about the person. When we makes someone feel ashamed of their sexual appetites and encourage repression of those desires, we create a situation wherein if they give in to their desires, they can feel so overwhelmed by their guilt that they are unable to actually evaluate the suitability relationship itself.
Sex didn’t make me feel trapped, but shame about sex did.