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  • Writer's pictureSharon Beck-Doran

Healing for a Late Bloomer: Thoughts on Sex, The Bible and Purity Culture

I’ve come to realize that breaking up is a process. A couple of months after I broke up with Biff he called drunk and begging for me to take him back. I thought he was in trouble and for some dumb reason I hopped in my car and tried to rescue him. I doubled down on the pour decision by taking him back only to be told two weeks later that he hadn’t really meant it. He really didn’t have time for a girlfriend because he was working full time and going to nursing school. The week after he broke up with me for a second time he was fired from his job and had to drop out of school.

The following summer Pastor Densel invited me to serve with him as the worship pastor at a small church in the northland. He had been there for me with Biff. Even though he didn’t know the whole story, he was supportive and a friend through the breakup.

At the same time, I was putting a lot of effort into reclaiming my chastity. I put my purity ring back on in an effort to remind myself of the commitment I had made to wait until I was married to have sex. My efforts were not always successful. Sometimes the ring just felt like a joke, but I was still committed.

I often felt like a fraud. I was supposed to be a pastor. If people knew I had failed in this, I would be ruined.

My shame killed my creativity. I quit writing songs and blog posts. What did I have to talk about? I couldn’t talk about my life in any kind of an authentic way. For the first time, I had something to hide.

Me in 2012 near Lake Tahoe. I took Fred home to meet the fam.

My shame was also killing my chance at a healthy relationship. In 2012 on Thanksgiving Day, I broke up with my boyfriend of 8 months. It had been my longest so far. We’ll call him Fred. We weren’t right for each other, for sure, but I realized that I had done a lot to mess up the relationship.

I had been terrified that I would lose my job at the church if someone found out we had sex. Really, the job wasn’t the thing. I envisioned a very public shaming where everyone knew that we had sex. I would not only lose my job but never be able to work in ministry again. Yes, I realize now this is a bit overblown. At the time though, it seemed very possible.

Fred could never understand what the big deal was. From his perspective if you’re in a committed relationship, sex is just part of it. Unlike Biff, he was very respectful and never made me feel pressured. On the few occasions that we did have sex, my horrible regret was enough emotional whiplash to dissuade him from allowing it to happen again.

My roommates were a small safety measure, but Fred lived alone. His place quickly became off limits. I had a house rule that boyfriends/girlfriends couldn’t sleep over. I made him set an alarm to go home at 2am so as to not break my own rule.

I didn’t regret that we broke up. I was so relieved. We were talking about getting married. Fred told me that he had to return the ring. The desire to be settled and end the struggle of trying to abstain from sex was so strong, I almost made a huge mistake. If I were married, then no one would care anymore what had happened before.

But I deeply regretted the way I treated him. I was not a good girlfriend. I realized I had done damage to the relationship and to him.

After the breakup, I remember talking to my mom on the phone. I started to cry as I realized, “Mom, I’m afraid to date… I’m afraid I might mess up and disappoint you.”

“Oh honey,” she said, “you could never disappoint me. I love you so much.”

My best friend Amy was a great sounding board. I could tell her anything and I imagine she’d ask, “So how was it?” She was my safe person. But I knew she was just going to tell me to enjoy myself and not worry about what other people thought.

I thought about talking to Pastor Densel. I imagined what he would say, too. Sex before marriage is sin. Besides, I would have rather ran through the streets naked in an ice storm than have that conversation.

I had also gone through a pretty severe bout with depression. Working two jobs and adding a not great relationship with a side of fear will do that to a person. Medication helped me feel like myself again, but I needed more than just a pill.

I knew I needed help. That was when I started going to therapy for the first time. I wanted to find someone to share my life with. I needed to get healthy. I didn’t want to screw it up when I finally found someone I wanted to be with. I wanted to be in the best emotional shape possible so that I could be a kickass partner one day, preferably soon. Next week would have been a good timeline for me.

Ironically, this was also when I reconnected with my old friend, Adam. I reached out to see if he and his wife wanted to come for Sunday night brinner (breakfast for dinner) at my house. Except I didn’t know that his wife had just left him. Turns out, we both had a lot of work to do on ourselves.

During our first session together, I told my new therapist that I needed help with dating. I explained my struggle to date and not have sex, trying and failing to live up to the standard of the church with a constant fear of being found out.

The first thing he said to me was, “Sharon, it’s no one’s business what you do in the privacy of your bedroom.”

“Yeah but,” I argued, “I’m a pastor…”

My therapist would also explain to me the phrase “No means no.” Like when I tell the guy I’m dating, “No, I don’t want to have sex,” that means we don’t have sex. So simple, but at thirty-something this concept was a new one for me. Understanding consent wasn’t covered in the True Love Waits handbook from the Christian bookstore.

A few sessions later he would ask, “Have you ever wondered, why are a bunch of old men so concerned with your sex life?”

Now, a decade later, I know my fear was oversized. At the time the threat of scandal loomed large in my psyche, but did anyone really care that much? I had been conditioned to be on guard against this sin. The constant vigil would create a spike of anxiety at my own arousal well into my married life. Surely it mattered.

I looked to the scriptures for guidance. I knew it had to start with the first command that God gave to Adam and Eve. Be fruitful and multiply, or as the newer translations put it, “Be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1.28, NIV). This is a compelling command and although I have failed to procreate, I still respect it.

The Old Testament has a lengthy list of rules around sex. All written by men to men. Things like don’t have sex with your sister, don’t have sex with your dad’s wife, don’t have sex with animals, don’t have sex with a woman during her period. Doesn’t that sound like something a dude would say to another dude? “Dude, don’t have sex with your mom. That’s just gross.”

Adultery is also mentioned several times throughout scripture. Israel is described as a covenant people, so this makes sense to me. God keeps commitments and we should too. Plus, no one wanted to raise or give an inheritance to another guy’s kid.

In the New Testament, sexual immorality is mentioned a couple of dozen times. English has a lot of words that could apply here: fornication, adultery, solicitation, orgy… I could keep going. The Bible is much classier than I am and it just uses this catch all term that refers to any kind of sexual immorality.

Many times in the New Testament sexual immorality is paired with eating food sacrificed to idols. It may be in some cases that the author is specifically talking about having sex with temple prostitutes. I think its ok to conclude the implication is to avoid all kinds of sexual immorality, not just the most obvious ones. What exactly constitutes sexual immorality? Well, it’s assumed that the reader would already know. No need to spell it out.

The context of the ancient world, actually the world up until recent history, is important. Women in general were not able to support themselves. Their primary contribution to the economy was their ability to have children. Men held the decision making power. When it came to sex, women were given in marriage, or just given, in the case of women without status like Hagar, Bilhah or Zilpah. They were servants who had children on behalf of their mistresses. The idea of autonomy, that a woman would choose her sexual partner or even if she wants to have sex or not, wasn’t a consideration. If a man chose to have sex with a woman, he assumes responsibility for her. To use someone for your own sexual gratification without offering her protection and financial support was both a sin and a disgrace.

I also like to think that teaching against divorce in the Bible was geared toward the protection of women. In a patriarchal society divorce leaves a woman worse than destitute. She is not only unable to support herself financially, she is also marked as unwanted, used up, damaged goods.

Is this how God would intend us to view women who aren’t virgins? This question gets at the heart of something deeper: Is the Bible prescriptive or descriptive?

As I read through the Bible there are certainly ideas about sex and relationships. For example, King David, described as a man after God’s heart, had many wives and girlfriends. The sin he is called out for is taking someone else’s wife and having her husband killed. Polygamy was the norm until the rule of the Roman Empire.

Additionally, there are several examples of prostitution that seem to be acceptable. Rahab helped Joshua and his army conquer the city of Jericho. Tamar posed as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law, Judah, who would say, “She is more righteous that I.”

The story of Ruth shows a widow who comes to Boaz in the middle of the night and quietly “uncovered his feet and lay down.” (Ruth 3.7) I think it’s not a stretch to imagine this might be a euphemism. She did exactly as her mother-in-law had suggested. Boaz seems happy about it and decides to marry her.

However, teaching around sexual purity hasn’t been limited to scripture passages about sex. As a young woman I was taught to take care not to be a stumbling block to a brother, referencing Romans 14.13 or 1 Corinthians 8.9. Never mind that both verses are talking about food. Women were taught to dress modestly because our appearance might cause men to lust. Our bodies were responsible for their sin.

I went to Christian school and we had a dress code—long skirts, high necklines, no short sleeves. I was at school convention in middle school when my teacher came to me about my dress. It was a wrap around and especially windy that day as I walked across campus in Newberg, OR. One of the male sponsors I’d never met from another school had talked to her about my legs being exposed in the wind. I needed to change clothes and considered burning the dress from embarrassment.

Many evangelical groups have gone so far as to teach that wives are their husband’s protection against sin. Megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll talked about this regularly in his sermons at Mars Hill. Wives are tasked with satisfying their husbands sexual needs so that they won’t want to view pornography, seek out prostitutes or be tempted to have sex with other people.

Can you even imagine the women who have lived through this? To have a husband be unfaithful in some way and convinced it’s her fault? How incredibly devastating.

I believe that this teaching is harmful to both men and women.

The story we told men is that they are slaves to their sexual urges and impulses. They have to constantly guard against impure thoughts. Masturbation was frequently taught as sinful. Desire can easily get out of control. Being alone with a woman could create the temptation and opportunity for a sexual encounter. Lingering looks at a woman are dangerously close to the sin of lust. Imagining sex was nearly as sinful as having sex.

All of this is a lie. You are human beings made in God’s image. You were made with sexual desire and although it can be powerful and maybe even scary sometimes, it’s not evil.

Pushed to suppress natural and healthy sexual development, many young Christian men have been forced into the shadows where shame and sexual compulsion thrive.

The damage to our relationships cannot be overstated. Purity culture would have us believe that men are insatiable and women just aren’t that interested in sex. Women have lived into this assumption for who knows how long. If the role of women is simply to service their husband’s sexual needs or bear children, what consideration is there for her own sexual desire? Maybe it’s not that women don’t like sex, but that if given the option, they’re just over bad sex.

Purity culture also dehumanizes women. When a man is told to look away, does he ever really see her? Are women image bearers of their Creator to be respected and admired, or a dangerous temptation to be avoided? If a man’s wife is tasked with satisfying his sexual needs, how is she a person? Isn’t she being used for her body in the same way that a man uses pornography for one sided gratification?

I believe this applies exactly to what the Bible refers to as sexual immorality. Women have been left vulnerable to sexual exploitation because they were raised by the church to see themselves as sex objects rather than children of God, created to reflect the divine image and character. This is the sin of the church and I call out on behalf of these women: It’s time to repent.

We started with the wrong question, so it should be no surprise that we came up with the wrong answer. We asked, “Is sex outside marriage sin?” We have been so concerned with what people were doing in the bedroom that we neglected our personhood and our relationships.

What if we asked better questions? Questions like: Does this relationship honor God? Am I treating my partner with kindness and respect? Am I helping him/her be the best that they can be?

I believe that men and women are created equally in the image of God. We were made for each other. God didn’t perform a wedding ceremony for Adam and Eve or command they say vows. We humans did that. Honestly, I’m a fan. I think there is a ton of value in promising before God and these witnesses that we are going to love honor and cherish each other forever. I think it’s a good idea to get a marriage license and have the state recognize your contractual obligation to each other because that’s how we do commitment in western society. But you won’t find that practice specifically outlined in the Bible.

I think God is a romantic. Why else would he give us this wonderful desire for each other? When I think of all the beautiful ways that we human beings come together and complement one another, it blows my mind. Sex is a part of that and it grieves me that we mess it up with so much junk.

The scripture says that, for this, a person will leave their “father and mother and [be] united, and they become one flesh. Adam and Eve were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2.24-25, NIV) That’s the important part. Two people coming together as one, exposed and shameless. I imagine these words poetically, relationally, sexually and literally through the children that are part their mother, part their father and something completely new all on their own. Yes, I believe God is a romantic.

I think in this question of if, when or who you have sex with, you get to answer for yourself. If you want to wait until you are married to have sex, I support and affirm you in this decision. Waiting until you get married to have sex is completely possible and should be respected. Some people do this and have happy and healthy relationships.

For me, I felt like the effort not to have sex strained my relationship and did more harm than good. Many others have made a similar decision and have happy and healthy relationships.

I just want you to be able to make a good decision. Not because you’re afraid of going to hell or afraid of what other people might think, but because you feel empowered to make the right choice for you and your partner.

I want the same for you as I do for myself, to show in up in your relationship as your best self. I want you to find healing from shame and pursue love, shining in the light of God’s grace.

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