Christianity / purity / sexuality

how christians have sex

Over a year ago, when I had just turned 25, I lost my virginity.

The phrase “losing my virginity” is fraught with problems, as it implies a couple untrue things. I did not misplace my virginity. Nor did I have it violently taken from me. I gave up my virginity willingly, after weeks of contemplation. I gave it up. I didn’t lose it. Losing signifies negativity. You don’t want to lose things. You don’t want to lose a basketball game, or your iphone, or your mind.

I didn’t lose my virginity last year. I started having sex last year. That’s not it, entirely, either, but it’s more true.

And as built up as sex had been, raised as an evangelical and believing early on that true love waited and that my virginity was a present meant to be unwrapped only by my husband, I was strangely at peace with the sex I was having. I didn’t believe it meant I wasn’t a Christian anymore. I didn’t believe it meant I was tainted in any way. The God I had come to trust (kind of) and call on (occasionally) wasn’t the kind of guy (ungendered supernatural being) who would be shaking his head in disappointment at my mid-20s encounter with penetration.

So I began having sex, and then we broke up, and then the sex stopped. And I was fine. Many months passed.

But a few weeks ago, I watched a documentary about purity culture, Give Me Sex Jesus. The opening scenes are just bits of interviews, gay men who grew up in fundamentalist homes that sent them to “rehabilitation” camps, women who were still rocking their virginity into their late 20s, a couple who had waited until they were wed to kiss, a man who refused to budge in his aggressively literal interpretation of the Bible.

Almost immediately, I was crying. I didn’t know why. I am an empathetic crier, this is true, but I wasn’t crying because of the stories on the screen. I was crying for myself, for my own story.

Before moving to Los Angeles, I attended a conservative Christian college in a suburb of Chicago. A lot of my college friends waited until they were married to have sex. And they married early, at 22, 23. But when I talk to them now, I don’t ever feel like this is the path they would have advised for me. It was a fine decision for them, but I don’t believe exactly what they believe, and I don’t know when, if ever, I will marry. And I used to think they would be disappointed in some of my life choices, but that hasn’t been the case. Last month, I visited San Diego to do some comedy, and I told a college friend to come out for a show. I hadn’t seen or talked to him in four years. And he watched as I told the audience about losing my virginity, as I made jokes about hand jobs, as I said I was after “that vitamin D.” I had a good set, I think I made him laugh, and yet I knew I was also revealing a lot about myself, a lot that had changed since college. Back then, I questioned the rules our school had in place – no drinking, no drugs, no sex outside of marriage – but I still adhered to them. I made out with guys I wasn’t dating (taboo), but I never took my clothes off for them.

We talked after the show. I asked about his wife, his job, his church involvement. He had, it seemed, continued on the path that our Christian college would’ve wanted. I had not. “Are you disappointed in me?” I asked him, timidly, spurred on by my glass of wine. “Why would I be disappointed?” he laughed. “You are doing what you were made to do. This fits you. It makes so much sense.”

So if all of that had already happened, why was I crying as I watched the documentary?

The couple who waited, they referenced their dating relationship, when he had asked her a couple times to not wear certain shirts because they caused him to “stumble.” They talked about how, even now, even married, he has to close his eyes during certain parts of movies to remain faithful to his wife. And I was shocked at their commitment to this ideology. When I hear about couples like this, I am waiting for their enlightenment. “So, when did they STOP believing that bullshit?” But this couple was so happy. So deeply sure they had done the right thing by waiting.

And maybe it was the right thing. For them. That doesn’t mean it was the right thing for me, and I had done the wrong thing. I knew that. But as I watched them talk, I lost certainty. I thought, “Maybe I should have waited. Maybe I did mess up. Maybe I am tainted now.”

I thought all those beliefs had been eradicated, but they are still there. Which makes sense. I grew up listening to Rebecca St. James, who has a song called, “Wait for Me.” I listened to Barlowgirl, who sang, “No more dating, I’m just waiting like a sleeping beauty – my prince will come for me.” I grew up reading the Christy Miller books, whose protagonist writes love letters to her future husband, promising that she will save herself for him. I read books whose heroines wore purity rings. In middle school, I myself signed a purity pledge. “Although I don’t see the need in signing this,” I told my parents. “I was planning on waiting anyway.”

These days, I joke about this. I don’t bemoan it. I talk about it like I’m removed from it. But it’s still there, inside me – it made me. And whether or not I believe all that purity dogma is true doesn’t matter, because occasionally it still feels true. It feels like I have made a horrible mistake. It feels like the more men I have sex with, the less valuable I am, the less I have to offer.

One of my problems, I’ve come to name, is that I’ve tried to rid myself of this way of thinking about sex but haven’t replaced it with anything concrete. Evangelical Christianity made it really easy to know what was right and wrong. It was easy to know when I was supposed to feel guilty (most of the time). I never really had to think about what I wanted in regards to sex because all that mattered was what the Bible said. And now I have to constantly question, “How do I feel about this? Will I regret this? Does it matter that I don’t know him that well, don’t like him that much, don’t think this will lead anywhere? If he does this, should I do that? Because I want to? Because he wants me to? Because it’s expected? Because I’m drunk? Should I do anything when I’m drunk? What is this saying about me? Does this say anything? Am I saying yes because I am horny or because I want to be nice? Will this change our relationship? Do I care? When is it okay to leave?”

And those questions are exhausting. Those questions are what usually keep me from having sex. I am not in the moment enough to do what I want. I don’t know what I want enough to be able to do it. I don’t have enough confidence in this new way of doing sexuality to not be prey to the old ideas causing me occasional, crippling bouts of self-doubt and remorse.

Someday I hope I will be able to celebrate the fact that I am a sexual being, and I hope I can have sex with complete peace. But for now it is a headache, a source of anxiety, a Pandora’s box I wish I had kept closed not because that would’ve been the right thing to do but because it would have been easier.


22 thoughts on “how christians have sex

  1. This is so good, Rachel. Purity Culture taught us how to say no to having sex, and how to feel shame. It makes learning to say yes so much messier.

    I remember my youth pastor saying that if we waited to have sex we wouldn’t have any sexual baggage, but their guilt-heavy teachings is what has given so much of us baggage when it comes to sex. Thank you for this.

  2. Sex has long since been a colorful topic of debate. Spiritual and non spiritual cultures all have a mouth full to say about it. “Absolutely no sex before marriage” or the “of course sex whenever and however” take. Honestly, cultures vary as much as personalities, and even our own personalities vary from day to day. Nothing stable there to rely on. What may be cold and dead today could tomorrow be burning with passion. So obviously we are not a reliable or moral standard. We need something higher. Bigger than we are. We need truth.

    God created sex, and good grief, if he dreamed it up, he certainly must have been in favor of it. But like any wise father, he set boundaries. He knew how wild the passion was he created, he knew where it could and would take us.

    But where we get lost and disillusioned is when we depend on our opinions more than his word. What felt so good and right one night with that guy will someday pale in value when everything is shaken and laid plain.

    God knew how deep the connection sex is. He said that when we have sex, we are joined to someone. It’s a deep bond that can never be reversed, even after both “move on…” Really, he knows all about each one of us.

    The truth is, we all mess up. We mess up big. We all need something way bigger than us to make those desicions for us when we just don’t know.

    So don’t let Bible thumping people who live hypocritucal live turn you off from the truth. Let the Author of the Bible be your friend, you confidant, your guide. He made you, and he cares deeply for you…

    • I’m a 41 year old guy and I can’t say I regret being a virgin. I’ve had late nights of passionate kissing but it never really went beyond that. And I regret giving that much away. Not that I’m a prude – it’s just life is about journey. I never met a woman I wanted to go that far down the journey with. Sex is huge. Really huge. When we treat it casually we don’t esteem it or even celebrate it like we should. That’s why no sex until marriage for this dude. Obviously being 41 I have made my share of dating mistakes – I sometimes agree with the culture that I should be married by now. But maybe I am in the right place for me. I am rebuilding a career. I am on an adventure. I am meeting great new friends and even flirting a bit with some women who are also trying to follow Jesus and figure all this out. We haven’t turned our attraction off. We just have a growing appreciation for intimacy in marriage. My take. For real – yes if I had a girlfriend we would cuddle up and watch a movie. But we would also go for really long walks, road trips, and just talk about life, our opinions and thoughts and Jesus. We would test that bond. And then if it held – we’d get married and have passionate sex every night. 😉

      • I don’t at all hold that waiting until marriage is wrong. But I don’t think not waiting should be held as wrong, either, and it’s unhealthy that the church historically preaches so vehemently that it’s sinful.

        Additionally, waiting until you’re married to have sex doesn’t mean you get a fast ticket to good sex every night. It doesn’t work like that at all.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this, and voicing what’s not okay about Purity Culture. Shame kills.
    This did my heart so much good.

  4. Rachel I struggled with this too. I did things with men whom I cannot even remember their names. I started drinking heavily to deal with (forget) the remorse. But, God is writing your story. I wouldn’t trade where I am today for anything. I love my husband (started as a one night stand) and can’t think of life without him and my kids. I never would have met him if I hadn’t given myself to someone else. Never. We even talk about how it was a God thing that we got together.
    Don’t let the guilt eat you up. It is the hardest thing in the world to forgive yourself.
    Thanks for sharing yourself! You rock!

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  6. I always read posts like this with so much sadness- God loves you and would never want you to have a negative view on sex! It’s a private issue between you and God that you can work out together like you would with another human being. When I was single I was certain that when I was in a relationship I would have sex with my partner, because it felt right and I was a ‘modern Christian’ and many of my church friends said that it was something that God had blessed them in. But when I started seeing my (non-Christian) boyfriend at 22 and chatted with God about my relationship, I basically asked him what he would think about it if I went ahead. And basically, God told me, ‘It’s not the biggest deal, but I’d rather you didn’t’, loud and clear.
    I think this doesn’t have to be a terrible internal struggle and such a negative experience, and it causes God great sadness that human interpretation has led to so much pain and confusion around sexual behaviour. God built our bodies for sex- he thinks it works better amongst the married, as in the bible, so that’s what he’s likely to encourage you to do if you ask him for advice, because he loves and cherishes you. But if you do have sex, literally just pray about it. It may be that waiting isn’t right for you. Regardless God loves you no matter what you do, so don’t let ordinary people like us dictate how you feel about sex. Just take it to him instead and be upfront and honest. You’ll never regret it.
    I’ll be praying that you find peace in your heart about all your past and future decisions, because it’s what you deserve and what your God wants for you. Chat directly to him, rather than listening to all that both secular and Christian society has to say!

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  9. Rachel, I follow your work, and share your work to all my friends! Your pieces are some of my favorites. Do you think you’ll ever post any of your stand up routines via Youtube? I am liberal feminist Christian and your work hits me. We need a voice like yours. Thanks for keeping it up– even through grueling seasons and post-grad blues. Your work makes me feel less alone, and less hopeless about Christianity as a group.

  10. Pingback: how christians have sex | Church and Sex

  11. I might be the only male who’s responding to this (inferring from the previous comments) but I’ll offer my two cents anyway. Having jumped into the evangelical world head-first as a teenager (with no church background whatsoever), I was immersed in every aspect of it for years. Met my wife at university and we waited four years to get married, and of course didn’t have sex until the wedding night. In retrospect, probably a big mistake. We stayed married for many years despite the fact that we had sex maybe 15 times at most, all of it within the first 2 years of marriage, and all of it not very satisfying (and no kids, but that was a choice she wanted). It turns out she was essentially asexual, and after many attempts at counselling, our marriage failed and I was undone, emotionally and otherwise. (BTW, yes I was faithful to her for all those years but towards the end the temptation to stray was awfully strong, and it was mainly emotional in nature). Through all of this, the church (that I knew of it) did dick-all and wasn’t there for us or for me. We separated, I moved to take a job on a different coast, the divorce came and I started life in a different world where the community of faith people I found were authentic and grounded. I met someone younger, never married but fully in the evangelical world (in ministry to university students at an evangelical school, where I also worked as a professor no less). We got serious and actually had sex (intercourse) a few times before we got engaged and then married a few months later. My analysis: I totally get why some (many) people in the church (evangelical world) have this perception of sex as something “devalued” in the present modern culture but having walked that route and seen its fruit (in my life and in the lives of many others in the church), I can honestly say that we are really screwed up and are screwing this sex thing up big-time (puns aside). Seriously, leave the judgements aside, embrace yourself and don’t let others mess you up. I love your story, Rachel because it’s your story, you tell it for real and you are a truth-seeker. Have sex or don’t have sex “before marriage” — it doesn’t matter really because it doesn’t change what God sees in us. My convoluted path has lead me to one unalterable conclusion: elevating sex and siphoning it off can be just as dangerous as devaluing it and sexualizing everything. God loves me and the church as it exists is essentially lost when it comes to fully embracing people and their sexuality. I’m hopeful because of who God is and NOT because of anything I see in the church. No disrespect to some of the comments here but honestly, when you think you know something, stop and let it go.

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  13. Amazing, amazing article. First time I’ve come across your work and I will search for more of it. You are a voice of truth and a God ground breaker.

  14. Rachel I feel like you are writing my story. I was also raised in a very traditional christian home and I waited until this year to have sex (I am 26), and once I did it…I was like oh that’s it? That wasn’t that big of a deal. Truth be told I had flirted with the line of “purity” for a while and had done everything but the actual “p in v”.
    I remember being bewildered that I didn’t feel any different, because I had been raised to believe that sex changes you on this deep level, and that it makes you less valuable somehow. I’m not sure if you were ever given “the duct tape analogy” but that analogy has been burned into my brain, and basically says that the more things you “stick yourself to” the less sticky you become. But I didn’t feel like that at all.
    I still felt like me, and I still felt like I had just as much love to give as ever. I was just trying to figure out life, and for once I was letting myself be honest about what I actually wanted. Which was not to wait until marriage. (I can’t imagine not even seeing my husband’s penis before marriage. Like what if it was a micro-penis?)

    But I relate soo hard to what you are saying about not having any ideology to replace purity culture with. Sometimes I feel lost and I don’t know if what I am doing is right or wrong, or good for me, or not good for me, and sometimes I worry that I’m a slut, but then I think well what does that even mean, and why the hell would I slut shame myself, and who cares? And how do I even figure out what is right and wrong anymore? What standard do I have to measure my feelings against, when I don’t have the Bible anymore. Even though I still believe parts of the Bible, it bothers me to know end that I have become one of those “picking and choosing Christians” and who am I to decide what is right and moral? And what do I even believe anymore?

    The hardest part is dealing with the fact that my family doesn’t know, and would have their hearts broken if they did and I feel like I am leading this double life to protect them and to not cause a lot of drama that I know would lead to nothing. Because we will never agree. And ya, that really sucks.

    • Yeah, as freely as I post about it online, my mother refuses to read my work so to protect herself from the truth. It’s unfortunate that she would prefer to not know, that if she did, she would be disappointed, though I don’t view it as bad news myself…

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