You Can Overcome Your Sexuality?

Over the next week we’ll be featuring posts from a few friends of ours at The Marin Foundation that will be sharing a parts of their stories connected to faith and sexuality. We’re starting with a post written by one of our volunteers here in Chicago and she decided to write this first post anonymously.

“You can overcome your sexuality!”

I’ve heard this message my entire life.  From the pulpit. On the radio. During Wednesday night youth group. It was pounded into me from my early adolescence. Before I knew what it was, I knew that I had to fight it: my budding sexuality. I couldn’t be curious. Curiosity gives you AIDS. I stuffed it way back into the recesses of my imagination. Everything I was taught added layers of confusion and fear to my already confused and fearful adolescence.

I received a purity ring at age 13. This was a new trend in conservative Christian churches at that time. The idea was to give your daughter jewelry and make them promise not to have sex before marriage. But I didn’t know that. Unfortunately, another trend in the same churches was to not talk about sex at all. When I was given that ring, I knew it was a big moment for my family—my parents were both teary-eyed—but neither they nor any other adult in my life explained what the ring was for. They said, “If you accept this ring, you promise to live a pure life.” The word “sex” was never mentioned. I slipped it on my finger, because it meant so much to my loving parents, and I would be whatever kind of pure person they wanted me to be if it made them so happy.

I later asked an older friend to tell me what it meant.

As a normal preteen, I started to gain weight and develop sexually. I hated the way my chest, hips and thighs were becoming curvier. I was scared that developing into a woman somehow meant that I would become impure, that somehow my womanhood would make me a bad girl. (Society contributes to this image of women who embrace sexuality as “sluts”, and I believe many of us young women feared that label from a very young age.)

I wanted to stay a little girl, the sweet and innocent Christian girl that my parents, my youth group leaders and Christian community wanted me to be. If I could avoid growing breasts, I could avoid the all the negative attention. Not from the boys, but from fearful adults.

So I stopped eating. I thought if I could keep the perfect little girl body, I would finally be able to conquer my sexuality. To demolish it for good. I forced myself to become unaware of my body. I refused to take any joy in it, assuming that any pleasure was sinful.

I became anorexic not to pursue some ideal sexual image, but to avoid one altogether.

I enrolled in college weighing 85 pounds. It was a private Christian college, but I met people who were considered liberal by my community back home. I began to take an interest in my appearance, borrowing roommates’ makeup and clothes. I started dating boys. I developed friendships with normal-sized, beautifully curvy girls. It was there, surrounded by this crowd, that the freight train of my sexuality came barreling through the wall that I had built.

I fell in love with a boy in college. I hadn’t planned on it. I had planned on a life of celibate missionary work, a la Mother Theresa. I did everything I could to appear “not sexy.” I wore baggy athletic pants with clunky leather shoes, parted my graduated bob down the middle, and weighed less than my family’s dog. But during my transition from innocent Sunday school girl to protestant nun, I met Chris, the boy who would become my husband.

As sophomores, our affection for each other was so cute and so, so sappy. We look back on it with a grin and a gag. It was all midnight picnics and one-on-one bible studies, hand-holding and pledges of chastity.

But beneath the Christian courtship facade, the pent-up sexual energy that I thought I had extinguished inflamed my body. I started to take pleasure in my body again. I ate. I wore mascara. I masturbated. But I kept it all a secret.

I still wanted to prove that I was not horny, not unpredictable and still a virgin. In my all-girls dorm, I felt I was alone among my studious, mostly single friends. While sexuality was never discussed in my circle, my work as a resident assistant on campus meant that I was enforcing the “No PDA” rule. I caught those other girls sneaking boys into our female-only dorm and going down on boyfriends in the backseats of cars. Ironically, while I gladly scrutinized and squelched their behavior, I secretly felt camaraderie with them. Despite attending a conservative Christian school, they also felt sexual curiosity and had a drive to experiment. And Chris told me all kinds of stories about other couples’ sexual experimentation on campus. They talked about this kind of stuff in the guys dorm. It was hush hush for all the virgins in ours. No girl wanted to be that girl.

That girl. The girl who is curious. The girl who embraces her body. The girl who loves sex. We all knew who that girl was. The slut. As if the Christian purity influence wasn’t enough, we girls had a supplemental and rigorous set of measurements.

I knew how to play this game. I was good at it. But I was becoming that girl on the inside. I was developing a huge, unfulfilled appetite for sex. And it scared me to death.

Chris and I made it to our wedding night by the skin of our teeth. We were married 7 weeks after graduation.

Marriage was portrayed to me and everyone I knew as a kind of magical light switch. One day intercourse is a lusty, sinful act done in the darkness of secrecy, the next it’s a pure union done in the light of everyone’s approval. But the guilt that had been so carefully enmeshed within it? That lingered. I suddenly had permission to fulfil my desire for sex, but I still did not feel the freedom to enjoy it. Was it possible to be a faithful wife, and yet still be a slut? That girl? Someone who actually loved sex?

Chris didn’t seem to have any hangups in this area. He loved it. He had no inhibitions. His energy, creativity and drive made me simultaneously scared and jealous. How could he be having so much fun with this. It wasn’t supposed to be fun. It was supposed to be sacred. Or something.

Then I discovered yoga. Like sex, yoga was also outlawed by my church community growing up. But I wasn’t in the rural Midwest anymore. When Chris decided to go to grad school, we drove a moving truck out to California, the land of vegetarianism and microbreweries, bikinis and bikini waxing. And yoga.

I really didn’t want to try yoga. But the coupon-loving Midwestern girl in me couldn’t turn down the Groupon for Bikram yoga, which I’d heard reduced stress, eliminated migraines and converted Type A personalities into zen masters.

A decade after I started the journey to disconnect from my femininity and my body, I walked into my first 90 minute, 105ᐤ yoga class. I thought I had learned to force my body into submission. I thought I’d maintained rigid control. However, I reacted violently to the poses and stretches required during yoga. My mind struggled to communicate to my body. Yoga showed me just how disconnected I had become, not just from my body, but from relaxation and pleasure… even from God.

I had always thought that the physical world and the spiritual word were disconnected and mutually exclusive. But the more I tried to distance myself from my body, the further I felt from God. As I started paying more attention to my body, I felt somehow close to God again. I was relearning what it meant to be a creature, his creature, bearing his likeness.

An aspect of our identity as individuals is desire: a desire for spirituality, for friendship, for food, for hobbies, for sex. Thwarting our desires makes us less human, but it does not make us more spiritual. Overcoming our sexuality–and expecting others to do the same–dehumanizes. Unnatural is not the same thing as supernatural.

I’ve learned that God built me with hunger. A hunger that reflects his own zeal. A hunger that finds fulfillment in the richness of this created world. I was afraid to feel hunger.  I was so scared of becoming a glutton that I became a waif instead.

Here’s something that I never would have dreamed of saying five years ago: I love sex. I love food and exercise but most of all, I love sex. And I even love loving sex. If that makes me some kind of slutty wife, then I’ll gladly accept the label.

Hunger is the best seasoning, they say. Maybe that’s why, having starved myself for so many years, everything is tasting so, so good.

Much love.

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  • Thank you so much for writing this – my reaction to much of what you wrote was visceral… I still struggle now having been married for 11 years. I actually went a different direction than you did – after high school. In high school, I flaunted my commitment to stay pure… or tried to – I wore shirts that said “I’m not doing it.” (having sex, that is), and I experienced similar embarrassment at my own developing sexuality and curiosity. Unfortunately, it led me into a stronghold of addiction to pornography and later in college, a surrender of my body to a number of men who never should have had the privilege. After getting married a couple of years after college, I struggled (and still do) to see myself as a clean and holy vessel – I even refused to wear a purely white wedding dress because I didn’t feel I deserved to. God continues to set me free in this area of my life, sometimes in leaps and sometimes in ant-ish steps forward…

    one of my questions to you is this – are you saying that you would have been better off indulging your curiosities and desires prior to getting married? What do you feel it looks like for a girl (or boy) in our current culture to place her sexuality under the authority of Christ? I went the direction of just indulging my curiosities and it led me into a lot of pain… granted, part of that pain is a result of the heaps of guilt laid on and the lack of talking and acknowledging sex and sexuality at a young age, but I still believe plunging into my curiosity was the wrong way to go.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the “third option” looks like.

    Thank you for your vulnerability and openness. It’s needed… and deeply appreciated.

    I think I may enroll in a yoga class.

    • anonymous author

      Gail, thanks for your thoughtful and honest response! To return some of that honesty…..I really don’t have all the answers to that. My husband and I talk about it a lot–how much energy we spent worrying about how far was too far when dating/engaged, how much guilt we felt after going “too far”, etc. We both feel that all the guilt and stress over NOT having sex was harmful to us, especially to me, with my tendency to want to *under*sexualize everything. While my husband and I have thought a lot about what would’ve been a “3rd” or “better” option, neither of us have really come to the perfect answer. I do believe that God intended sex for a committed couple (personally, I believe this includes members of the lesbian and gay community who cannot currently legally marry in many places). And I do believe that issues of human sexuality (including when and how to have sex, orientation, gender, etc.) are incredibly beautiful and important topics. If we aren’t discussing them and encouraging the Church to embrace these discussions, we’re hurting everyone (definitely those in the minority–the LGBTQ community especially!).

      Anyway, thanks again for your response and for joining this conversation. I know my answer isn’t super practical, but I think maybe that reflects some of my own hesitancy to have a final, one-size-fits-all answer.

      PS Hope you do some yoga! 🙂

  • Alli

    I myself grew up in the “just don’t do it” expectation with no explaination. I went through phases depending on where I was in my relationship with God and certain boys/men – abstinence, having sex in committed relationships, experimenting without inhibitions. In my relationships I have come across a couple different “third options” and I myself have a plan on how to raise my children.

    One guy I dated claimed to be a virgin and was going to be until the day he married. And technically he was (married at age 32). However, he missed the part where lusting is the same sin as the action. So, he had no guilt about fooling around. As long as we didn’t have sex, he still felt righteous in his purity.

    As far as my plan on how to raise emotionally healthy children, I plan on talking about it. A lot. About the physiology of it, about the possible physical consequenses, about the spiritual implications of staying celibate and of giving in, about the value of it, and about the role of grace in all of it.

  • JLynne

    This whole idea that one has to “overcome” sexuality has always struck me as odd. And it is odd that so many churches seem so obsessed with sexuality in general, and I think it boils down to the deeply embedded hatred of women’s sexuality that is at the heart of ‘biblical” old testament christianity. From the story of the fall of eve on down.

    I’m not from the school of hook ups or sex for its own sake, and I most certainly happy when I’m in social situtations where I don’t even have to deal with male sexuality at all– gay or straight. What I feel sad about is the stuff straight women get subjected to in these conservative churches… the purity rings, the male pastors with their “porn” fixation on young girls and sex… the sad cycle of repression, then obsession then black then white.

    I feel sad that straight women have to go through this.

  • John

    Thanks so much for writing this. In the Christian world you always hear about these things from a guys perspective. I really appreciate your vulnerability in writing this. It definitely is something I will share with my daughter and have a difficult conversation about. From all in my family, (and especially me, as a dad) thank you.

    • anonymous author

      John, thanks so much for your comment. Thank you for being aware of your daughter’s potential needs and for being an awesome parent! Much appreciated and I hope those conversations go well. I’m sure she’ll appreciate them even if its awkward and she can’t vocalize it right away.

  • Thanks for writing this 🙂

    I am a 27 year old virgin, I say this because I was raised in the church and to some degree I remember the “True Love Waits” conferences and “saving sex for marriage” spiels… At one time I could say that I was saving sex for marriage because the church told me so. In the last 4-5 years I have revamped my reason why, to which I am saving sex not because the church told me so, not because my parents told me so…but because I want to.
    But it isn’t easy, I identify with St. Augustine’s quote of “God give me chastity, but not yet” because I am not cloistering away my sexuality, I dig the ladies and I’m praying with my eyes open for one, but the sexual part of who I am is not non-existent. My sexuality also raises eyebrows; “you’re 27 and a virgin?!?” As if I am some kind of oddity that’s to be on display at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Then there are the high fives and good-for-yous from people I go to church with, some of it is pandering behavior but I know some are genuine in what they have to say.
    My day will come and I will embrace it with all that I am! 🙂 I will be my beloved and my beloved will be mine.

  • Every time any one speaks their truth honestly and openly, we become collectively and singularly stronger. Your words are powerful and beautiful. Thank you for sharing them.

  • JLynne

    It seems that a lot of this is simply fallout from the upheavals of the so-called male sexual revolution. The conservative churches just go into reaction, and also church in general never has been very good on sexuality issues to begin with. One of the radical things about gay and lesbian centered christianity is that we do deal with the spiritual and the sexual and believe that connecting the two honestly is about liberation. For most lesbians and gay people, a gay-lesbian culturally oriented church (where gay people attend every Sunday and are central), it is usually the first time several things happen 1) we are told god loves lesbians and gay people and our relationships 2) it is the first time we see women as half the pastors of the MCC denonomination– it is a radical equality preached by gay and lesbian pastors, who have personally overcome incredible hatred to get where they’ve gotten.
    I don’t think any straight privileged christian person has any right to dictate sexual statements at gay/lesbian worlds. The straight person has no idea about our culture, they are outsiders to our traditions, our spirituality…. it can be well intentioned, but it is not about interior knowledge.

    Sexuality is not something that is to be overcome, one way or another. And I think lesbian sexuality has unique insights that actually might be of value to straight people, just as we have unique perspectives in what it feels like to be social pariahs 24/7, or erased and excluded from life…. we are allowed to be mixed in but not to be authentic.

    Sexuality has many things controlling it…. it is abused and misused by men who believe it is a form of social control of women, that it is about paternity/ownership, or that it is even about men at all.

    Patriarchal ideas of sexuality, and the lives of people like St. Augustine are really about male ideas of sex. So they are suspect because they don’t really understand what it is that women might want…. rape free zones, an end to male preditory sexuality, lesbian safe spiritual spaces with no men in them…. and perhaps more support for gay men who are sick of being called faggots, or sick of being demeaned as men.

    And what gay and lesbian culture has to say about sexuality is profound… it says that we fall in love easily, that our networks of ex-partners form extended families, that we are all not on the exclusive partner hetero/patriarchal model— this doesn’t exist for most lesbians over 50, and who really pays attention to the life experience of lesbians in their 40s, 50s or 70s?

    I think the hetero male centered church and the male authored biblical texts tell us more about oppressive sexual ownership systems than they tell us about god, who is love, but whom I will question about authentic love from a lesbian-centric erotic/intellectual/spiritual perspective. Sexuality is not overcome, it is fully the power of the woman alive, it is the erotic as power to quote Audre Lorde who has a lot to say on the topic. Christian churches would be well off using her essays as spiritual texts.

    Is the suppression of sex, the overcoming of it a metaphor for the male idea that perhaps they shouldn’t be raping or hiring women for rape by the hour (prostitution)? Is the suppression or overcoming of sexuality about the male mind and body? It certainly has very little to do with the lesbians I know and love, and perhaps it is easier for women to love in general.

  • DKahng

    I am so glad i read this.
    You can overcome your sexuality…..
    This term freaked me out for a minute because some things tend not to sit right with me after having to deal with my own issues. Overcoming my sexuality? “screw you” is my first go-to response before reading. Which is what led me to read on.
    Being raised in “the church” sex is bad, sex is bad…. Can’t talk about sex… Sex before marriage is wrong. That message blended with “homosexuality is a sin” and “gays are going to hell” really messed with me. My questioning stage was horrific! For one who had been secretly masturbating since I was a young kid…I was convinced something was wrong with me. Once I hit adolecence and realized I might be attracted to women I was frightened for my soul. I dove into “religion” and was constantly praying for my soul. If I did enough good in the world maybe Jesus would spare me??? I craved the “well done my good and faithful servant” and hoped my attraction to women would be looked over.
    When I reached college and I had the pastors kid as my boyfriend I figured, “well, he’s a nice guy…clearly going to heaven- maybe I can catch a ride with him!” only to find out he was addicted to pornography and we dabbled into the lust side of things. I personally was just curious if i could actually be sexually attracted to men and had to work through some things and came to the conclusion that I loved him, but really didn’t want to be with him forever as a wife. That was a hard decision which really gave me a downward spiral into being convinced I was going to hell. I met a nice girl who was the president of her Christian club on campus in hih school just like me. She was a Christian virgin just like me. She was pretty and popular and had a lot of things going for her. I admired her as a human being in this big scary world. A few months into being her friend we had a deep talk which led me to confess that I was sometimes attracted to women. I had never told anyone before. About a month went by and she came to my dorm room and came onto me. I went with it! Confused me, but I just went with it.
    At this point- I had already fooled around with my exboyfriend. I was clearly more sexually attracted to women then men. I hadn’t done anything more with a woman than i had with a man. My guilt was crippling me though.
    Still no one talked about sexuality. My Christian college had a “overcoming being gay” seminar. The “exodus” pray the gay out idea. I’m still convinced that speaker is still gay and in denial.
    All this to say-
    Several years later I’m just going to be me. Christian and a Lesbian. I don’t give my body away in a manner that is disrespectful to my body and my soul. I understand now the importance of not giving a little bit of my heart away everytime I am with someone in a sexual manner regardless if penetration exists or not. Being intimate with someone is intimate!!! My body is my temple. I’ve gotta take care of me! God wants us to be “pure” for our own sake because the alternative is painful and can rattle us up and take us to dark places. My God loves me for who i am. So yeah- i Have overcome the stigma that surrounds the word sexuality. thank you for opening up this line of conversation. -D

  • JLynne

    Dakhng– a very thoughtful commentary. I would highly recommend you read gay and lesbian christian authors, so you see an “in-group” understanding of the bible. It would be powerful for you, it would provide a scholarly alternative to the fundamentalist straight gang that really knows nothing about a larger lesbian and gay christian communtiy. Meteropolitan Community Churches is a good start, books by Patrick Chang, the episcopal divinity school professor of theology has incredible work on christian moral development of gay people. It starts with the gay community, it creates lovely steps for accessing god’s love, and is very clearly written. A whole world awaits you Dkahng. This lesbian, gay, queer theology and movement is worldwide, it’s been going on for over 40 years, and believe me, you will be reading stories of people just like you! Rev. Mel White of Soul Force is also an excellent writer, and there are loads of lesbian theological writers, pastors etc. as well.
    I applaud your good sense, your moral strength, and your courage to be who you were created to be. I’m sorry you didn’t have enough support to figure all of this out from the get go, but you did come to understanding of yourself in very hostile environments. I like Patrick Chang a lot because he creates a very gay loveable moral framework that give gays in long term relationships good guidance. To learn a moral way of life from a gay loving/lesbian lovely perspective is essential. I also think as a lesbian, it is important to access the great lesbian pastors and teachers as well, because gay men and straight men, no matter how well intentioned have no clue about lesbian spiritual/moral or woman affirming development, they just don’t. If you want more lesbian christian resources, there are thousands of things available on the Internet, on Amazon books, in the library, and at liberal seminiaries nationwide. Good luck!!!