“Your body is a wrapped lollipop. When you have sex with a man, he unwraps your lollipop and sucks on it. It may feel great at the time, but, unfortunately, when he’s done with you, all you have left for your next partner is a poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled sucker.”
I cringed behind the wheel, appalled at the quoted words I heard coming from my audio copy of “Half the Sky” as authors Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristoff discussed this statement uttered by Darren Washington, an abstinence educator, at the Eighth Annual Abstinence Clearinghouse Conference.
Sadly, it wasn’t too far off many Christian messages I’ve received about sex.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
Growing up, we didn’t talk about sex in my family. Truth is, I kinda wish my parents did. Not in a lecturing way or in an embarrassing way incorporating stick figure drawings, but honest talk about human sexuality. When you give youth freedom and a framework for values that don’t demand or shame, they are generally receptive to what you have to say. (Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, sorry. We can talk about this over Christmas dinner. Should make for lively conversation while we’re passing around the ham.)
According to the 2010 National Campaign report, eight in ten teens (80%) say that it would be much easier for teens to delay sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents. Similarly, six in ten teens (62%) wish they were able to talk more openly about relationships with their parents.1
Moving away from the home realm and into public education, I remember first being presented with the birds and the bees in 6th grade health class. I didn’t quite understand it, but “The Miracle of Life” video in 9th grade biology class certainly helped clear up a few things. Then came my freshman year of college in which my Sexuality in a Diverse Society professor instructed the class to write a list of as many words as we could think of for “penis” and “vagina.” One person from each group had to read their group’s list aloud to the class. There were lots of giggles and guffaws, plus a few phrases I never thought to associate with human genitalia, leaving me utterly baffled and slightly disturbed.
Sex-ed’s debut can be traced back to the 1970s, when there was growing public concern about STDs, teen pregnancy, and increased access to birth control.2 Currently, 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education. 17 states and the District of Columbia require that information on contraception be provided. 37 states require that information on abstinence be provided, 26 of which require that abstinence be stressed, while 11 require that it be covered.3
Generally speaking, you can’t be a teen in America and not hear something about sex during the course of your education, but the content of what you hear may vary greatly depending on your state, locality, whether the school was public or private, or whether it had a religious affiliation.
Moving away from public education into the media, it can go without saying that sex messages are rampant. “Whistle,” a song apt to play on any pop station since its release in summer 2012, teaches youth how to perform oral sex in one catchy tune. But let’s not be naïve here, sex has always been sung about, whether subtly or directly. Baby boomers, remember Peggy Lee’s 1958 hit “Fever” and Righteous Brothers’ “Ebb Tide” circa 1965? Oh, and let’s not forget about Marvin Gaye’s 1973 smash hit… well, you probably already know the title.4
Now from the media to religion: this is where I heard both the most appalling—as well as the most beautiful— messages about sex, some of which are quoted below. Too often, I fear the Church is silent and bashful about sex; one reason, I purport, that youth look to society and friends for answers to questions that they fear are not allowed to be talked about in religious settings, perhaps feeling embarrassed for even pondering such thoughts or questions.
Conversely, when the Church has spoken out about sex, many messages I heard have either been shaming or repressive. Specifically, shaming messages have concentrated upon condemnation of pre-marital sex, and in the process, have hurt and shamed young men and women who have regrets in this arena. Not a picture of the grace and forgiveness I believe Jesus wishes we could experience, and certainly not helping any of us to forgive one of the hardest people to forgive when it comes to something so personal: ourselves. Repressive teachings in the Evangelical culture are those often associated with women and sex. This included messages ranging from giving your husband pleasure whenever he wants it because this is what he is entitled to as “your leader;” to “You’re a woman. You shouldn’t feel sexual until you’re married. Be pure and chaste.”
I think there’s a place away from both the over-sensualized music videos of Rihanna gyrating on YouTube, and away from bashful “don’t have sex” conversations that discusses sex in a real, authentic way, unabashed in rich, non-shaming, gracious, and open discussion. Bona fide conversations, not lectures, that point to something to bigger than ourselves… our Creator. Herein describes some of those aforementioned messages and a more holistic alternative:
10 Worst Messages Received About “Christian Sex”:
10. “In the past, teenagers heard lessons or sermons with theologically suspect object lessons–involving simulated plane crashes, cupcakes with mangled frosting, boards with nail holes in them, roses with missing petals, and wads of chewed gum–meant to be analogies for sexual sin and its consequences.” -Linda Hoffman Kimball, Teaching Saintly Sex (great article on not-so-great teachings)
9. Give your husband sex whenever he wants it, even if it hurts you; menopause is no excuse. -Debi Pearl, Created to be his Helpmeet (see chapter 16)
8. “It is your role to lead your wife into a fuller understanding of what Scripture teaches about your sexual relationship.” -CJ Mahaney, Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God: What Every Christian Husband Needs to Know (With a Word to Wives from Carolyn Mahaney)
7. “Homosexuality provides a particularly obvious example. Lesbianism typically presents a different picture from male homosexuality. Many lesbians were once actively, unambivalently heterosexual, whether promiscuous or faithfully married. They might have conceived, borne, and raised children without much questioning of their sexual identity. But over time the men in their lives proved disappointing, violent, drunken, uncomprehending, or unfaithful. Perhaps during the unhappiness of a slow marital disintegration, or while picking up the wreckage after a divorce, other women proved to be far more understanding and sympathetic friends. Emotional intimacy and communication opened a new door. Sexual repatterning as a lesbian came later. The life-reshaping ‘lusts of the ﬂesh’ were not initially sexual. Instead, cravings to be treated tenderly and sympathetically—to be known, understood, loved, and accepted—played ﬁrst violin, and sex per se played viola.” -David Powlison, Making All Things New: Restoring Pure Joy to the Sexually Broken (I would love to see the research that supports Powlison’s claim that “many lesbians were once heterosexuals unambivantly heterosexual but the men in their lives let them down”).
6. “We women were designed by God to be helpers and to make men successful.”- Carolyn McCully, Sex and the Single Woman
5. “We need to discover what makes us attractive to our husbands. What clothing, hairstyle, or makeup do they ﬁnd most appealing? As always, the standard of “modesty and self-control” set forth in 1 Timothy 2:8-10 applies. And we should strive to care for our appearance—not only when we go out, but also at home where only our husbands see us. As my childhood pastor used to say, ‘If the barn needs painting, paint it!’ Well, what color should that barn be painted? The answer is, whatever is attractive to our husbands!” - Carolyn Mahaney, Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God: What Every Christian Wife Needs to Know
(Maybe we can explore how to honor our husband’s/wife’s/girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s preferences regarding attraction, but what I wish I would have heard from Christians in my life is that first we need to discover what makes ourselves feel comfortable in our own skin. We need to have our sense of self before delving into the wishes, preferences, and requests of what others would like from us. That quality- being a person who possesses their own sense of self and identity- is damn sexy.)
4. “When we choose to obey God and give our bodies to our husbands—even if we don’t feel like it—God will reward us with pleasure.” -Carolyn Mahaney, Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God, pg. 118
(Should women be encouraged to “martyr” themselves with their vaginas for the sake of a man’s sexual promptings? I’m not saying to ignore your partner’s desires completely, as that would be selfish, but if women are to pleasure their husbands when they don’t feel like it, why aren’t men being told that they should pleasure their wives even when they have E.D. or aren’t “in the mood?”)
3. “Let her breasts satisfy thee at all times, and be thou ravished always with her love.” -Proverbs 5:19
(Is it physically possible for a woman to satisfy a man with her breasts at all times—24/7—? Additionally, this puts high value and emphasis on a woman’s breasts- is that fair? What if she has a mastectomy? Similarly, some men who have ED experience feelings of worthlessness, shame, and depression.5 When we put so much emphasis on particular parts of the body, we forget about the rest: the WHOLE person that you committed to loving “in sickness and in health,” which, I think, also includes “in arousal and non-arousal.”)
2. You’re not married: Sex is bad. Sex is bad. Sex is bad. Sex is bad. Oh you’re married? Sex is good. Sex is good. Sex is good.
(Is it wise to make grand-sweeping claims that sex is a “bad thing” that suddenly becomes “good? Can we better articulate this by proposing that there is a life stage in which sex can be maturely enjoyed physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and other life stages in which this would be premature?)
1. Sex is solely for procreation.
(What about Proverbs 15-19? 1 Corinthians 7:3-5?)
10 Best Messages Received About “Christian Sex”:
10. “Let me teach you something. Those who tell you that sex is intimate and sacred… they’re right. But please also know that you are God’s child, not an item to be assigned a value.Your sexuality can never make you worthless. It is your responsibility to respect and love the part of yourself that creates pleasure and life. Get to know yourself well enough to decide what’s right for your body. Always honor your boom-shaka, va-va-va-voom, and chicka-chicka-wow-wow, because this world is jam-packed with people who will try to tell you what those things are for. And if you lose your own voice amid the warnings, whining, and admonishments, you’ll lose the most important matter at hand: Your Creator gave you sexuality because He loves you. It’s a blessing. And it only belongs to you.” -Abigail Wurdeman, Sexual Responsibility
9. “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.” -Song of Songs 2:7 (“Can’t Hurry Love” pops in my head every time I come across this verse.)
8. In response to Rob Bell’s then-five year old son asking his wife, Kristen, what “sexy” means: “Sexy is when it feels good to be in your own skin. Your own body feels right, it feels comfortable. Sexy is when you love being you.” -Rob Bell, Sex God, p. 46
7. “You are not alone. Whatever you struggle with, whatever you have questions about, you are not alone. It doesn’t matter how dark it is or how much shame or weakness or regret it involves, you are not alone.” -Rob Bell, Sex God, pg. 62
6. “If you are prudish or embarrassed by sex, your parents may still be looking down their nose at your sexuality, or at least that’s the way you are perceiving it. Work on reeducating yourself about the beauty of sex; desensitize yourself to the ‘no-no’ attitude you have toward it. If you feel ashamed, you may still be in a preadolescent stage regarding sex… If you are repressing your feelings, you may be keeping other sorts of adult functions from developing as well. All these functions affect one another, and as your repression of your opinions lifts, so will repression of sexuality and creativity… You can’t repress just one aspect of yourself; it usually affects many areas.” –Henry Cloud, Changes That Heal pgs. 246-247
5. “Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial.” -1 Corinthians 6:12 (Something to the tune of we have freedom here to be whoever, do whatever, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Also remember that every choice we make- not just our sexual decisions- has a consequence- either positive, negative, or a mix of both).
4. “Her desire for children doesn’t come from between her legs. It comes from her heart. She believes it’s possible God wanted to give His children a gift so grand, that He created the most intense bodily sensation.” -Susan Diamond, God’s Gift So Grand
3. “The soul needs beauty for a soul mate
When the soul wants…the soul waits …
No I could never take a chance
Of losing love to find romance
In the mysterious distance
Between a man and a woman
For love and faith and sex and fear
And all the things that keep us here
In the mysterious distance
Between a man and a woman”
-U2, A Man and a Woman
2. “How then might a Christian define sexuality? Sexuality is a beautiful, good, extremely powerful, sacred energy given to us by God and experienced in every cell of our being as an irrepressible urge to overcome our incompleteness, to move toward unity and consummation with that which is beyond us. It is also the pulse to celebrate, to give and receive delight, to find our way back to the Garden of Eden where we can be naked, shameless, and without worry and work as we make love in the moonlight.” –Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: Guidelines for a Christian Spirituality, pg. 196
1. The entire “Flame” Nooma video by Rob Bell.
If none of those messages hit home, consider another alternative: Gracious, comprehensive, and holistic dialogue to counter an all-too-often rote conversation about just waiting to have sex until marriage. This one’s particularly for all the girls out there— as many messages (such as the “lollipop” quote) are disproportionately directed at girls’ “purity:”
1. To all the high school (and middle school) girls out there— if you have a friend who is being pressured into having sex, do her a favor and help her listen to and discover that voice that’s inside of her, her very own, somewhere, potentially pleading to be heard among the sea of other voices trying to drown or dissuade her. In a joint-survey, Seventeen Magazine and The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy discovered that one in five teenage girls (22%) reported having sex because they were pressured to (not because they wanted to).6 Help a sister out and ask her to look deep inside and see what she really feels.
2. If anyone tries to shame you or invoke fear about a sexual decision you have made in the past, remember that you are more than your past regrets and realize that the person sharing this is more concerned with displaying pompous power than being a source of grace and guidance in your life.
3. Ask yourself some good questions. What does sex mean to you? What do you think is the purpose of sex? How do you believe you can honor yourself, your relationship(s), and God with your choices?
4. Don’t be afraid to speak up when you hear something that seems incongruent with what your heart, soul, and faith tell you— Even if it is someone from the Church.
5. Challenge yourself to define your view of love. This is the most beautiful thing I’ve read about love and wish to include it as a reading at my wedding one day (way down the road):
“I will love you like God, because of God, mighted by the power of God. I will stop expecting your love, demanding your love, trading for your love, gaming for your love. I will simply love. I am giving myself to you, and tomorrow I will do it again. I suppose the clock itself will wear thin its time before I am ended at this altar of dying and dying again. God risked Himself on me. I will risk myself on you. And together, we will learn to love, and perhaps then, and only then, understand this gravity that drew Him, unto us.” -Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz
And one final question to ponder… where does your affirmation come from? If you can’t find value, worth, and acceptance from within-the person made and loved by God,- it’s going to be even harder to find it when placed into the hands of someone else.
What messages have you heard about sex? What resonated with you as wise and helpful and what was not?
Looking back, have your views about sex changed over the years?
Why do you think conversations or messages about sex are often “hush hush” or overtly hyper-sexualized? (I realize that sex is a personal and intimate thing to discuss, but on the whole, I believe it is being talked about anyway—- and often in extremes.)
Melissa Otterbein is a research assistant in a Baltimore City HIV/AIDS clinic and blogs at melissaotterbein.wordpress.com