As a disclaimer, I should say that I have many presuppositions as it relates to sex. I will try to shed as many of those as I can in this article; but, alas, I am a former evangelical; I identify as a male, and I am white. There are doubtless other factors that influence my perspectives on sex, but those are likely the most significant ones.
Let me also say that I am a work in progress about this issue. This article contains my honest reflections about where I am on these issues. They may not be where I stand on these twenty years from now. If you choose to leave a comment on the article, please make it productive and respectful, so that we can all learn from each other.
Since adopting a more progressive worldview, I have struggled to reconcile ideas around sex with my faith. Evangelicalism’s polluted environment around sex has made it hard to distinguish the good from the toxic. From “purity culture” to issues related to sexuality, evangelicalism has done such a terrible job at addressing issues of sexuality that help build people up instead of installing a sense of fear and shame that their views have become toxic. Perhaps the most damning for evangelicals has become their rampant hypocrisy over the years. As more and more women come forward about sexual abuse we are learning just how much evangelical pastors in power have not practiced what they preached. However, this should demonstrate just how problematic evangelicalism’s views on sex are. These are not just individual “slip-ups” or church leaders who have “fallen into temptation”. No, these demonstrate the extent to which the problem persists.
One of the toxic environments that evangelicalism creates is in the unequal treatment of boys and girls surrounding this issue. Girls are treated much more harshly than are boys. The purity of girls is of the utmost importance and doing anything to sacrifice this purity means that one has committed the ultimate sin. Nobody seems as concerned about boys losing their purity. When I was growing up I distinctly remember there being a type of formula related to this. It was the boy’s job to protect the girl’s purity and it was the girl’s job not to tempt the boys with her feminine wiles. Part of the protection part meant that the girl’s father would also be involved by presenting the girl with a beautiful purity ring that would serve as a reminder about her commitment to “save herself” for marriage.
My Own Evolution
I have three children (one who is almost a teenager), making this issue more and more at the top of my mind. As a parent, it’s not always easy to distinguish between what I desire and what I think is right. Sex is one of those things. For example, I have two daughters. I don’t want any dude touching them until they are 30 – just being honest. But I recognize that this is not a healthy view for them. But, how do I know what is healthy? Is there a magic number when they can begin having sex? Will I ever feel comfortable with the idea? What does the Bible really have to say about sex before marriage?
The older I get the more I see how much my intrinsic desire to protect my daughters is partly a result of my sexism. But, I also see how much my sexism is similar to many beliefs within evangelicalism – specifically purity culture. The most predominant sexist tendency of mine is the unequal treatment I have towards my son. For whatever reason, I don’t worry about him as much as I do about my daughters. I can see all my former evangelical pastors telling me that this is completely normal, and it means that I am a good father because I adore my daughters. But I know this isn’t true. My son is capable of making the same mistakes (maybe even more) as my daughters, so why do I think this way?
Passages Related to Sex
I have no proof of this, but I think the reason that evangelicalism creates such a toxic environment around sex is that theology is largely written by men, many of whom are also fathers. Despite evangelicals heralding that sex outside of marriage is wrong, and oftentimes presenting you with a long list of verses that prove this, there is actually nothing in scripture that says this. Instead, evangelicals often present verses that talk about sex generically (e.g. sexual immorality) and infer that this must include sex outside of marriage.
I want to take a moment to make an important distinction here. There is a difference between having sex outside of marriage and committing adultery. Having sex with another person while married is immoral by biblical standards (from my reading). This is what is meant by keeping “the marriage bed pure” in Hebrews. Or in 1 Corinthians 7:2 (et al.) “…each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.” These passages are specifically talking about not committing adultery and having nothing to do with sex outside of marriage. The biblical authors are writing in the context of their Grecco-Roman culture were committing adultery was a serious offense.
Unlike societies outside of the Grecco-Roman culture, the Romans took adultery very seriously. Many of the ideas presented in Scripture about adultery are a reflection of the Roman attitude of the time and not necessarily unique to early Christian thought. This is one reason we know that these passages are talking about adultery more specifically and not sex outside of marriage more generically.
I should add that it’s not just men who are responsible for creating a toxic view of sex. There are plenty of women who have contributed to this discussion in very unhealthy ways. However, they are largely influenced by the theological power brokers within the Church – mainly fathers who wish purity for their daughters and men who wish to maintain power over women.
I still think there is something sacred about sex. When you have sex with anyone, you leave a small piece of yourself with that person; and they with you. You can never get that back. That doesn’t make it wrong, it is just a biological and psychological fact. That means that sex should be something special and not a frivolous activity. It should be practiced with caution and done safely.
Ultimately, my wife and I decided that pre-marital sex is not necessarily wrong, but it is something for adults to practice and not children. Children lack the emotional maturity to make important decisions like who to share their bodies with. Hell, even many young adults lack the same emotional maturity. However, when you add the additional complication of intense hormonal changes that teens experience, then it makes the issue much more complicated.
We are also open with our children about sex and have many conversations with our older daughter. This openness is important because as she gets older she will continue to feel pressure from friends and we want her to feel that she can come to us without fear of how we will react to her questions – or maybe her mistakes.
Much more could be said about this issue such as sexual abuse within marriage and other related issues, but I am limited on space. Suffice it to say that sexual abuse within marriage is a very real thing. It is much more prevalent than we all probably think and deserves full attention in an article all to itself.