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I grew up in the purity culture of the evangelical movement of the late 90’s and early 00’s. My uncles and dad used to rag me when I was little about going blind if I “played with myself” — or, even worse, that my hands would grow hair on the palms as evidence of the forbidden act, a mark of my sedition and perversion. I held on to very real fears about those threats until I was at least a tween. My personal relationship with my buddy was strained early on.
When I became a teenager, the influence of that evangelicalism was in full force: I knew I had to be a virgin until I was married (and I was, and I’ll probably talk more about that in another post). I knew I had to avoid pornography (and … well, I tried!). And I knew I couldn’t develop a personal relationship with my penis — if I were to touch it, I was supposed to hate myself for it and thoroughly repent (and boy, did I!).
If you’ve lived a life removed from this particular brand of Christianity, all this may seem anathema to you, foreign in some way — but for me, it seemed natural to believe that the desires of my flesh would lead me astray, and that I had to forgo those things in favor of a more pure and spiritual life (see Galatians 5:16-24). I often felt like the most wicked person alive after indulging in pornography and masturbating — a cycle of guilt that ruled my life and that rules the lives of many young people today who are afflicted with the lie that their desires are somehow sinful rather than simply natural and OK.
Every Christian event I went to between the ages of 10 and 18 was predicated on the knowledge that my teenage mind was determined to think about sex or some sort of fornication, and it was an obsession of those on the podiums to run the gamut of guilt-inducing sermons or tell us we were addicted to pornography. Every preacher was convinced that he was sexually immoral, and as a result, so was I. My penis and I were at odds, but we still had late-night liaisons (for which I always repented).
Showing Guilt, and Jesus, the Door
I’d been convinced I was a worthless sinner since the incomprehensible age of 6. My guilt was deeply held and had been reinforcing my own sense of worthlessness every time I failed to meet God’s holy standard. One can imagine that this constant guilt and the pain of feeling worthless might lead one to suffer from depression — as I did from a very young age. My sexual desires led me to a self-hatred and further into depression as I got older and was less able to defeat my sin. This thing attached to my body was nothing but trouble; the attraction I felt toward women was the result of an untamed flesh.
About a year into my marriage to the girl I had started dating in middle school, my doubts about the existence of God began to grow. I wasn’t flippant about it; it was a long process that had started years before and took a LOT out of me. As a doubter and eventually an atheist, I began to experience freedom from my religious past, from indoctrination and from guilt. It wasn’t until I started to reject the Christian faith and test the waters of defiance that I began giving this lifelong guilt the boot.
What if, just maybe, my buddy wasn’t so bad?
I can’t say I immediately moved from having a severe guilt complex to feeling sexually free. I can say that losing the belief in an omnipresent watcher who knows about every time I rub one out is a massive improvement in my psyche (not to mention considerably less creepy-sounding) and that living with less gut-wrenching guilt has been one of the healthiest improvements of my life. It’s nice to simply be human without fear that I’m going to end up in hell or on God’s naughty list.
Deciphering the ObsessionWhile I feel more individually free, and I know that those leaving the church in droves are feeling more free, it seems that evangelical Christianity is doubling its efforts to see that today’s youth are even more burdened than before by this plague of self-deprecation and the denial of natural desires. You see, it’s normal to need a sexual release — especially during puberty — and it’s abnormal to abstain from that release. The biological consequences are stress and frustration.
So why is the church is so obsessed with the sexuality of young people? Why were religious people so concerned with my personal relationship with my buddy, the penis?
I suspect it’s because sex and sexuality are the most human traits we have, rooted in the most carnal of urges — the need to procreate and to enjoy all that the process involves. When a person or religious system can create rules that dictate how and when one ought to experience that pleasure, a certain amount of power has been bestowed upon that system and removed from the individual.
Religious systems are, by and large, unfriendly toward individual freedom. And so the church must dictate rules to the man, and the man must dictate rules to the woman, and the woman — well, she’d just better follow the rules! This system of power is at the root of the religious obsession with individual sexuality and the reason all “alternate” sexuality has been deemed unfit within the walls of major religions unless there exist methods to control men (and women, via the “headship” of men).
It is through a belief that guilt will set you free, a guilt rooted in hate for that most pleasurable of organs (depending on your gender or gender identity), that major religions — most notably evangelical Christianity — find ways to make one regret being human. Let us not forget that Christianity considers itself rooted in Judaism, a faith that requires all men to cut off the most sensitive (read: pleasure-sensing) part of the penis.
Me and My Buddy
It took years to remove the idea of God from any sexual acts in my life and in my marriage. I was surprised by the fact that religious guilt wasn’t something I could just drop like a used tissue and move on from. It takes time, sometimes a lot of time, to grow out of our indoctrination and the self-hate we’ve learned since we were children.
My buddy and I are well-acquainted now, thankfully estranged from our former religion and the ties that bound us to our former conflict. I love my buddy, and I encourage you to find ways to love yours, too. Find ways to let go of the guilt that informed your past, and instead find ways to inform your future with things that make you happy and perhaps are indulgent in ways you wouldn’t have previously considered welcome in your life.
Why? Because you aren’t the terrible person your former religion said you were, and you deserve a reward just for coming to that realization. While I can only speak to the way I was made to feel as a young man growing up in this culture, I have no doubt that young women faced much the same, if not worse (slut shaming, anyone?). And if you are a woman reading this who has escaped the cycle of guilt, you too deserve to celebrate your freedom. I hope you can develop a personal relationship with the sexual organ of your choice, if you haven’t already.
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