We start getting messages about sex and the culturally approved ways of expressing our sexuality long before our bodies even hit puberty. From birth, we are surrounded by these messages and we absorb and internalize them in the same way we begin to identify and learn other cultural influences like language. Many of these messages come from the society around us, many come from our immediate home environment, but often the most vivid and impactful messages come from the personal experiences we have when we encounter and explore sexuality for ourselves.
Growing up in the church, I got a lot of messages about sex. Some were explicit and clear cut, like the laws about who could have sex (heterosexual, married couples only!). Some were not quite as clear (Is oral sex a sin?), and many of the messages were implied, existing as an unspoken understanding and general attitude towards sexuality among believers which they never state out loud.
Early Confrontations with Body Shame
When I was about 5 years old, there was a neighbor boy with whom I would often “play doctor.” This basically consisted of stripping down and looking at each other’s genitals. The exploration was fueled by curiosity, a mutual fascination with our bodies, and the fact that we didn’t have matching “parts.” Usually after 15 minutes or so, we got bored of inspecting each other and we would move on to other games (at five that’s about as far as it goes). On one occasion an adult in my family caught us and I was terrified by the harsh reaction we received for our activities. My friend was taken home to his house and I was not allowed to play with him ever again. Around the same time, I was caught masturbating (although at the time I had no idea what I was doing), and again the intensely negative reaction left a lasting impression in my mind. I remember standing at a sink, being told to wash my hands, because they were “dirty.” I don’t remember any explanation for the intensity of their reaction, but I received the message loud and clear that I had been doing something terribly wrong.
As I grew, the messages and experiences compiled to form a complete picture in my mind which informed me about the way to approach and think about sexuality. I began to think of sex in a strange and often paradoxical way: On one hand, when explicitly discussed, they said sex is a “gift from God.. It was described as a beautiful experience that connects you to your spouse physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They often referenced the Song of Solomon to illustrate how erotic sex can be, and how beautiful is intimacy when sanctified by God. On the other hand, I was taught that there is a “dark side” to sex. Anything outside of the biblically defined parameters of pure, marital, God condoned sex placed you somewhere on a very slippery slope that ultimately lead to destruction and depravity. These activities included: premarital sex, homosexuality, pornography, masturbation, immodesty, thinking about sex too much (lust), as well as a myriad of other deviant sexual practices (I guess barn animals are next).
Sexual sins were understood to be different from other sins. A sexual sin was committed against our own body, which was not our own, but a temple of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:18-20). Sexual sin corrupted body, mind and soul, in a way that other sins did not. These sins defiled the heart and mind, and in extreme cases were described as the work of demons. They frightened us with cautionary tales about poor souls who indulged in seemingly innocent sins like masturbation or viewing pornography only to find themselves in an uncontrollable spiral of debauchery and sexual deviance that ultimately ruined their lives.
Around 10 years old, I discovered (again) the joys of masturbation. During a particularly vigorous session, I had an orgasm for the first time. As soon as the physical sensations subsided, I was mortified. I vaguely understood what an orgasm was, but had thought that it only could occur during intercourse. I assumed that this was why masturbation was a sin, because it could lead to orgasm, which should only occur within a marriage context. I dared not talk to anyone for clarification about what had happened, so I was left to draw my own conclusions about what I had done and what it meant.
I became convinced that I had ruined my future marriage and essentially lost my virginity (to myself?) and I was overwhelmed with a sense of panic. I begged God for forgiveness and vowed to never touch myself again. I prayed for his strength to help me be strong and resist the temptations of the enemy. My future happiness seemed to hang by a thread, and I was determined to resist my evil desires and restore my purity.
My resolve and commitment lasted a few weeks, but I soon gave in to temptation. Immediately after, I was flooded with intense guilt and an overwhelming fear that I had done irreparable damage to my future. Again, I pleaded with God for another chance to prove myself. Thus began a cycle that lasted well into my adulthood. I would resist my fleshly desires, sometimes for a period of weeks (usually days), but inevitably I would give in, and then immediately experience intense guilt, anxiety, and disgust at my weakness. I would often cry myself to sleep afterwards, desperate at my inability to control myself and terrified about the consequences it would ultimately have for me. As this cycle continued, I developed an underlying mistrust and hatred of my own body and the way it would respond, regardless of how much I prayed and repented and willed myself to ignore it.
Lies the Church Tells about Female SexualityChristianity is full of messages about sexuality and how that should be expressed for each gender. For example, we were told that women don’t really think about sex (I beg to differ) and that served to multiply my shame and it amplified the feeling that I was “not normal.” I had “too much of a sex drive.” We were told that boys were visually stimulated and thought about sex on a near constant basis. We were often told that “guys use love to get sex, while girls use sex to get love.” Married women would joke about how they tolerated sex because it was their “wifely duty,” and it helped them get their husband to take out the trash. There was no mention of women who engaged in sex enthusiastically, regularly, and for the pure enjoyment of the physical act itself. In the Bible, men were warned to stay away from women like this, because it would surely lead to ruin. Girls who were promiscuous were just “looking for love” or having “daddy issues.” Surely they couldn’t simply be interested in sex because they enjoyed it.
I learned to see my sex drive and overactive interest in sexual topics as further evidence that there was something very sick and corrupted inside me. I had no framework to analyze my sexual feelings/behavior other than the Christian mindset, and the isolation of guilt prevented me from talking to anyone about it. I believed that I had invited demonic influences into my life and given them a “foothold” by my continuous sexual sin. I lived with a deep and shameful part of myself that I hid from everyone. Even in my closest relationships, I believed that if this person really knew the truth about me, they would be as disgusted as I was with my activities, and they would reject me.
When I left Christianity a few years ago, I slowly began to realize exactly how much of an impact this guilt and secrecy had wrought in my life. The damage was not confined to how I felt about sexuality; it had ripple effects that spread into the rest of my life and had a huge effect on how I related to myself and others. My journey today is focused on rebuilding, getting to know/accept who I am, and learning how to be comfortable with myself and my sexuality.
Unlearning What I Have Learned
I am sharing my experiences, as difficult as it is to talk about at times, because a lot of the progress I’ve made towards a more healthy and realistic idea of myself and my own sexuality has come from hearing the stories that others have told about how religion affected them in similar ways. I have been incredibly grateful for those who are willing to share their stories, so I hope to help others who are needing the same support and encouragement.
If you’re just starting to explore the ways that your ideas about sex may have been affected by religion, an excellent resource within the secular community is the work of Dr. Darrel Ray. His book Sex and God and his Secular Sexuality podcast have been invaluable to me in reeducating myself and identifying many of the ways that I was affected by my experiences/beliefs. His presentation, “Did Jesus Masturbate?” is a great primer on the use of guilt around sexuality and how religion first creates the illness, and then promises to cure your disease.
I’d love to report that as soon as I became an atheist, my hangups and negative ideas about sex disappeared. Unfortunately, these patterns of thought/reactions can become very deeply rooted, and don’t correct themselves simply because you no longer hold a belief in a particular God. Unless specifically recognized and dealt with, they will remain embedded and continue to affect us. The good news is that it is possible to retrain ourselves, even after a lifetime of looking at sex in a negative or incorrect way.
[Image source: Shutterstock]
Kylie grew up in the Pacific Northwest, in a non-denominational church, and spent her youth jamming out to Michael W. Smith, DC Talk and Newsboys. She is part rational thinker, part creatively absent-minded dork. She recently hit the reset button on life, after living more than 30 years as a believer. She loves all things purple, elephants, craft supplies and bad puns/sexual innuendos. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.