abstinence

Sex Talk: New Relevant Article and Some Better Ways to Talk about Sex

A few months ago, Relevant asked me if I would do a sort of follow-up article to the article I published back in June, one that specifically dealt with overcoming shame in your sex life. I admit, I felt oddly stumped by this. I didn’t want to offer generic advice that boiled down to a bunch of clichés like, “Let go and let God.” At the same time, I didn’t want to take my experience and make it a how-to list. I didn’t want to claim that anyone can find freedom from shame by following these 5 easy steps. In the end, all I could really say is, “This is what happened to me. I hope it’s helpful or encouraging in some way.” That article was published over at Relevant today.

When I write pieces that point to the places I think purity culture got it wrong, I inevitably get comments saying, “Ok, but how should we talk about sex?” That’s a fair question and one that I hope a lot of people who are smarter and more influential than I am will put a lot of thought and time into answering. I don’t have a complete answer, but I do have a few thoughts about it.

I’ve shared some of these thoughts in different articles and guest posts over the past few months, but I decided to streamline them here. If you’re tired of reading about sex and purity culture, I will understand if you give this one a pass. I’m kind of tired of it myself. 😉

I don’t think churches are going to stop teaching abstinence. I’m not trying to make an argument that churches should stop teaching abstinence. But if churches are going to teach purity and abstinence then one thing that needs to change is the language we use to talk about sex, especially with teenagers.

What We Should Stop Saying:

Purity culture is famous for its metaphors. Growing up I heard things like, “Don’t start the engine if you aren’t ready to drive the car” used to warn teenagers that any physical contact (including holding hands and kissing) was a slippery slope straight into the jaws of fornication. I also saw and heard many illustrations that compared a person (usually a girl) who lost their virginity to a stick of gum that had already been chewed, to a rose that has had all of its petals pulled off, to a toothbrush that a lot of people have used, or to a cup of water that a bunch of people have spit into.

These kinds of metaphors equate humans and human sexuality with objects. They carry connotations that have resonance far beyond their intended effect. If you are used to thinking of human sexuality as a machine – an engine that starts if you hit the right buttons – you are ignoring the complexity of human sexuality and are isolating it from its place in the framework of our humanity.  Before marriage it looks like this; “Don’t press this button or flip that switch or you’ll cause sex to happen.” After marriage it can look like this: “I pressed all the buttons and flipped all the right switches – I am expecting sex to happen.” And if it doesn’t happen, “What did I do wrong?” or worse, “What’s wrong with my partner that they aren’t responding the way they are supposed to?”

Human sexuality is complex and it can’t be (and shouldn’t be) separated from our emotional, mental, spiritual, or otherwise physical state. This kind of language enforces the idea that our sex drive is the thing that controls us, rather than teaching a biblical, holistic view of the person where all the aspects of our humanity are equally valued.

The second set of illustrations (the chewed gum, the stripped rose) carry the message that our primary value is in our sexuality, or more specifically in our virginity. They say that our worth is tied to one part of us – our sexual status. This a terrible way to talk about a human being. It creates the image that sexual sin is the unforgiveable one because you can’t get clean once you’re dirty. It also provides a strong connotation of sex being dirty. Sure these illustrations are meant to be about pre-marital sex, but it’s pretty hard to make that distinction when the thought of sex conjures up the image of a dirty toothbrush or a communal spit cup.

What We Could Say Instead:

I think churches should focus more on teaching wholeness. Youth pastors should teach about whole and healthy relationships instead of isolating sex as though it exists in a vacuum.

I have seen and heard many Christian leaders try to produce “purity” in teenagers by building fear. The message is often something along the lines of “If you take one step down this road, you will lose control and not be able to stop yourself.”

I have to wonder if this isn’t a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy with teenagers. If you are constantly being told (directly or indirectly) that you are incapable of making good decisions, eventually you will start to believe it.

This kind of language fails to look at the person (specifically the teenager) as a holistic being. This attitude ASSUMES that teenagers must be controlled by their sex drive above all else. It teaches them to set strong boundaries out of fear that they will lose control instead of teaching them that their sexuality can exist in healthy balance with the other parts of their humanity.

I wonder if instead of teaching teenagers that they need to set these boundaries because they CAN’T make good decisions, we honored them as whole human beings who possess a sex drive, but also will and intellect and emotions and, most importantly for Christians, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which gives us the power to make right choices. Teenagers (and adults!) are still growing in their ability to handle all of these things. Even as adults we need healthy boundaries around any activities that we may go overboard with and that would cause one aspect of our humanity to be out of balance with the others. Setting boundaries is a way that we help ourselves to grow in wholeness.

So instead of looking at it through the lens of “These are the things I’m not going to do because I am afraid I’ll lose control” I think it would be far more powerful to choose what you ARE going to do and why you are going to do it. “I’m going to set boundaries that help me make wise choices so that I can grow as a WHOLE and complete person.”

With this kind of attitude, the boundaries you set are not just about controlling or suppressing sexuality. They are about engaging your mind and your will, creating opportunities to listen to the Holy Spirit and to grow in your ability to consistently make good decisions. Boundaries are not about restricting you because you are out of control. Boundaries are about creating opportunity for you to make the good decisions that you ARE capable of making.

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You are Not a Gift to be Unwrapped: A Letter to my Daughter (Guest Post by Briana Meade)

Briana BioFor the second part of my Sex and the Church series I am so honored to have my dear friend, Briana Meade contributing this beautiful letter to her daughter. I am so moved by her vulnerability in this post. Briana and I went to Wheaton College together and even did a study abroad together one summer, but somehow didn’t really connect until we both began writing years later. I am a huge fan of her writing and an even bigger fan of her heart. Briana is currently working with her agent on a book about millenials and blogging at http://brianameade.com

If you missed the first post in this series, you can find it here. You can also subscribe to or follow this blog (see the Subscribe via Email box on the side) to make sure you catch the rest of the awesome guest posts in this series. I am also still accepting guest posts. If you have a story you want to tell you can email me at lily.e.dunn at gmail.com.

*****

Dear Zoe,

I want to tell you a story. It starts out with a group of boys and girls. They are handed thick pledges that look like business cards.

“I promise God…” the cards begin.

There is a 5th grader in the corner. She has sparkly tennis shoes. She bites her lip in concentration, doodles sparkly pen onto the card. She whirls her signature carefully, dotting the “I” with a little star.  She giggles and turns to the girl next to her.

I remember exactly where I was. It was an air-conditioned room with pillows strewn on the floor. I had a crush on the boy next to me—another fifth grader with a cowlick haircut. I determined, in my heart, way before I knew the obstacles I would face, that I would meet my husband at the altar. That I would be proud.

That same day, I was told that I was a gift, waiting to be unwrapped. I imagined myself as a silver present with a droopy silk pink bow. What a beautiful gift I would be. My future husband would round the corner to see a shiny treasure bound with perfect execution, tiny triangles folded and taped on the edges. That was virginity. Me wrapped in a box.

This was the beginning. Over the next eight years I learned more lessons from the church – that my womanly body was dangerous and shameful and needed to be hidden.

That my body was a commodity – a wrapped gift, a perfect rose, an un-chewed stick of gum. And along with that, that I had no agency in the matter of my sexuality. It was something that would be “opened” by or “given” to someone else.

That there are two kinds of girls in the world –girls who adhered to modesty/virginity requirements and those who didn’t. That those girls would be separated like grain from chaff. That this was the ultimate value judgment. And we did not discuss what it meant in cases of sexual abuse and rape for girls to be “unwrapped” without a choice.

I lost my virginity at sixteen. I heard every single one of these messages communicated loud and clear. But I also heard very gentle messages from my parents that were affirming and compassionate.

This was a message I received from the church—your body belongs (as a gift) to your future husband, your parents, Jesus, the church.

I want you to know, darling, that this was a lie. My body belongs to me. It is me. I am my body. My self cannot be separated from it.

You are a beautiful gem. Your body is yours. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to learn to steward it but you are not a gift for any human being, nor will you ever be. You are not a bouquet of roses or dahlias or sunflowers waiting to be “given” away. You are purely, ultimately, only you.

You with your ability to jump a foot in the air. You with your twirling on the tile at your daddy’s work like a ballerina. You with your laughter and underwater bubbling in the soapy tub. You as a stomping teenager. You someday as a spectacular, beautiful adult with a body.

The real gift, my dear, is sex. Sex is the gift, waiting to be unwrapped. Sex is lying on the table wrapped in blue paper hearts, waiting for the perfect occasion.

If you open sex early, you are still loved. You are still body. You are still you.

If you open it on time, the celebration will be easier and it will be good.

This gift is for you, dear. When you open it early, it is often disappointing. It diminishes the power of perfect timing.

Could it still be disappointing if you wait to open the gift? Maybe. I can’t promise you anything. It’s entirely possible.

Wrap your heart around the receipt of the gift and the true giver. That celebratory day will have streamers and confetti and cake.

You’ll join the person you love the most, who has shown up to enjoy your gift with you.

This man who will carry the treasure side-by-side—from apartment to house—for the rest of this remarkable short life.

What a holy, surprising, and beautiful adventure.

It is good, this gift that God has given you of sex.  I’m sorry if anyone’s told you differently, but you are not the gift. Your body is not the gift.

Don’t let anyone tell you anything else.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Briana Meade is a twenty-something mother of two toddlers who is passionate about singing “Royals,” Starbucks Salted Caramel Mochas, and learning that she is not a special millennial snowflake. Though not in that order, exactly. She writes at http://brianameade.com  and tweets @BrianaMeade.

Tag, You’re It! (I Want to Hear Your Story)

The last few weeks have felt like swimming through fog. Since the beginning of July I’ve felt like I was just trying to get by, just trying to push through my days as quickly as possible until our trip back the the US on August 12th.  We all need a break from our routine and from our work  now and then, and in my case, I also need a break from living in another culture. I need a few weeks where I can relax the part of my brain that’s always on the alert, trying to figure out what’s going on. A few weeks where everything is just easy.

This last week has been a perfect storm of  emotions, both good and bad – the stress and then relief of finishing up my English camps, the sadness of saying good-bye to friends who are leaving Korea permanently, the incredible joy of welcoming our dear friends’ daughter into the world, the helplessness and distress we’ve felt learning that one of our indoor cats has gotten out and is missing, and of course all of the planning and excitement and stress of preparing for our trip. As someone who feels all the feels, I am reaching the point of complete emotional exhaustion.

We leave Korea tomorrow morning and, after a series of long flights and layovers, will arrive at my parents’ home in Louisiana where we will spend 5 days before heading on to my in-laws in Ohio. We are very much looking forward to seeing our families and enjoying the familiarity of home. We are also interested to see how living abroad for a year has changed our perspective on home – will we remember how to drive? Will we bow to greet people on accident? After Ohio we will fly back to this part of the world where we’ll spend a few days exploring Bali before settling in for a new semester of teaching.

(I know, I know, that sounds incredibly extravagant and exotic, and of course, I feel very blessed to have this opportunity, but before you give me the stink eye, keep in mind that Indonesia is quite close to Korea, and the entire country of Korea is the size of Indiana, so from here it’s more of an ordinary vacation spot, like living in the Midwest and going on vacation to Florida. Also remember that I did not complain (much) when you put up your pictures from all over Europe and the Caribbean while I was teaching school ALL SUMMER LONG).

With all of the upcoming travel I will likely be away from the blog for the next few weeks, but in the meantime I am hoping to hear from some of you. I am working on a new project related to my recent work on purity culture, saving sex for marriage, and the way the church handles pre and post-marital sex. I am collecting stories. Specifically, I want to hear about your experiences in your churches and faith communities – what you were taught about sex and abstinence (as many specific examples as you can remember), and- if it applies to you-how that positively or negatively affected your understanding and expectations of sex and sexuality in marriage. I will ask permission before using any information you share with me and am happy to change your name if you are uncomfortable using your own.

You can leave a comment here, link to a blog post you may have written on this topic, or send an email to lily.e.dunn at gmail.com. I can also provide a questionnaire with specific questions to answer if that would be easier.  Looking forward to hearing from some of you!

We-all-have-a-story-to-tell1

 

Lies About Sex Part II: The Myth of the Magical Wedding Night

Head over to Brett “Fish” Anderson’s blog, Irresistibly Fish, for the next installment of my series on lies about sex. In this part I talk specifically about the myth that “saving” sex until marriage will guarantee and magical wedding night.

“I don’t think there’s any fundamental problem with an awkward wedding night. In fact, I think we should embrace that kind of messiness more in our lives. I don’t believe everything needs to be tied with a pretty bow in order to be good. And I don’t think we have to achieve our most perfect selves in this or any other area to be ready for marriage. The problem wasn’t the awkwardness or the messiness – it was the false expectations and lack of comprehensive information that made us feel isolated and embarrassed, believing we were the only couple on the planet who had experienced this.”

Read the rest of the piece HERE and be sure to check out some of the other pieces on Brett’s site. There are a lot of great stories and perspectives there!

Image credit to wonderingabouterin.blogspot.com

Image credit to wonderingabouterin.blogspot.com