When people on the outside think about fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals and others who teach that sex before marriage is sin, they often seem to have this picture of people who are completely sexually repressed, who feel shame about having sex and can’t bring themselves to say the word “sex.” Now I’m not denying that such people exist—they certainly do. What I want to point out is simply that this does not describe all fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals who teach that sex before marriage is sin. It does not describe my parents and never has, and it doesn’t appear to describe Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar either.
Last Wednesday Jessa posted this photo, the first public photo of her kissing her husband Ben Seewald. The couple had married the previous Saturday, but chose to have their first kiss in private. Then yesterday, Jessa posted this photo of her parents kissing, saying her mother had texted it to her. The image was obviously an attempt to recreate the kiss picture between Jessa and Ben, with the same angle and expressions, etc.
Yes, that’s right, Jim Bob and Michelle recreated their daughter’s first public kissing photo. And yes, this feels very much parents who forget that boundaries are a thing and use their children’s relationships to garner attention for their own (Michelle had her wedding dress displayed at Jill’s reception, and Jim Bob and Michelle kissed on the stage during Jessa’s wedding while she and Ben kissed in public). But there’s something else this moment points to. The oldest of twelve purity-ring-wearing homeschooled children, I grew up in the same culture as the Duggars, and seeing this photo immediately brought my mind to my parents.
The moment the second photo came across my feed, I turned to my husband Sean. “I know this really is going too far and all, but this is totally something my mom would do,” I told him. Sean laughed. “Oh definitely,” he said. “She would totally do that.”
My parents never showed the slightest bit of shame when it came to marital sex. I grew up watching them kiss in the kitchen, and even drop bits of sexual innuendo. It was always clear that they were completely into each other. It’s funny, they did things—said things—that would probably scandalize many completely ordinary American couples. It’s not that what they did was ever wrong, it’s just that they weren’t at all shy about their sexual desire for each other or the beauty of marital sexual union. And they never attached even a hint of shame to their union or to marital sex in general.My parents’ openness about the joys of marital sex was never stilted, never something they were putting on to make waiting some worth it to us children. From what I know of them, the Duggar parents appear to approach marital sex in the same way.
And yet, as a teenager I believed that even the slightest sexual thought or fantasy was sin—because this, too, is what I was taught. And this is what is so weird about the worlds created by people like my parents, and Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar. Marital sex is seen as healthy and good, and is approached without shame, but premarital sex is portrayed as something that could ruin you forever. Not only is it sin, they teach, it also cripples relationships and is a sign that the couple doesn’t really love each other—at least not in a deep, lasting, truly caring sense. And not only that, but even thinking about sex when you’re not married is equated with having premarital sex.
When I got married, my mother switched from drilling me about whether I was having sex with my boyfriend and applying so much pressure and guilt on the topic that I didn’t want to so much as talk to her on the phone to making quips about sex and gifting us lacy lingerie in my size. It literally happened overnight. My mother immediately became so supportive of my sex life—and so open about it—that it was almost too much. While sometimes weird, it certainly beats what came before. I can ask my mom to call back later because both children just feel asleep and Sean and I desperately want to have some intimacy, and she’ll respond with complete support and understanding and not an ounce of shame. In fact, were she in my position she’d probably just say “have sex.” I’m the one who prefers to use code words like “intimacy.”
So, are my parents sexually repressed? The reality is more complicated than a question like that allows. My parents did a number on my siblings and I through their incredibly sexually repressive approach to not only premarital sex specifically but also adolescent sexuality in general, but when it comes to marital sex they appear to be less sexually repressed and more open about sex than your average parent of their generation (or so says my informal polling of friends not raised in my parents’ conservative evangelical culture). Given Jim Bob and Michelle’s constant surveillance of their courting daughters but immediate recreation of their Jessa’s first marital kiss photo, I suspect the same is true of them as well.
And yes, it can sometimes feel like whiplash.