If you are part of the faith community following this series, you’re probably relieved about now. I’ve proven to myself and maybe others, that there’s some merit in the teachings around sex and abstaining for the right kind of reasons – the connection between emotional and physical intimacy and so on.
Let me clearly articulate what you may have missed though. Church, I think you’re rubbish at talking about sex. Stop with the innuendo. I wish that churches were great places to talk about sex without it simply being about titillation. Maybe we don’t like to talk about sex because it exposes our vulnerabilities and our unique sameness, so we make it a comedy show and some sort of insiders club for those in the know. How exclusionary and short-sighted. How shameful that when we talk about good sex, we talk about how often you are or are not looking at porn, how frequently you have sex. At most, we use sex in sermon headlines and church notice boards to grab attention. What a waste of a gift.
When many people are looking for how to have meaningful, long-lasting intimacy with great physical expression – the Church manages to reduce sex to a marketing gimmick, without scratching the surface of the most complex and mysterious of human interactions. Yet at the same time, the Church is largely focused on governing the way in which human being engage with each other in this act, inside and outside the church.
The Church’s obsession with sex has almost always been lopsided, with an emphasis on women’s purity and virginity throughout the ages while historically men in the church have abused positions of power. They are not the only ones, but it’s a tragic reality.
The Church rarely talks about what good sex looks like or the power of real intimacy to heal, strengthen and nourish people. Instead, people are left to figure it out themselves so long as they do it within the bonds of marriage. Young people flock to the altar in the heady infatuation of lust, love and longing. The Church broadly has considered that if young people simply make it to the marriage altar ‘pure’, then their job is done. When people don’t make it to the altar until their 30s and 40s, or people get divorced, enter the Church later in life – you name it; the Church doesn’t say much at all. Sometimes that blistering cold shoulder is enough.
It’s not hard to be well-educated about sexuality these days; some of what the world has to say about sex is actually good and helpful. When it comes to how the Church talks to young people however, we run a sliding scale of sexual activity – from fantasy to masturbation, to pornography to acquiring carnal knowledge, all of it bad. We never talk about how to have good sex or how to build trust and intimacy through sex. It’s actually just putting our heads in the sand, when we could be educating and forming a view of sex that is beautiful, whole and helping people to form better stronger relationships.
As a youth worker, there have been times when I’ve felt like I’ve been a sham, talking about things I haven’t experienced in the hopes that I’m convincing in my delivery. And there are some things I’ve never said because I couldn’t say them with integrity. Thankfully – I’m not alone in this. I think we ought to be teaching and encouraging young people to explore and understand their sexuality through open and honest conversation, eliminating shame. Mostly, we should be teaching them how to build emotional intimacy with the right people. To do that, I think we start by painting the picture of what a great sexual relationship can mean.
It’s really great to be able to include the words of my friend Sean here. Sean has been working with young people globally for many years. He sent his thoughts before he knew I was working on this series and so I’m sharing them here.
“What Sex Means to Me.
The way that the world and the church talks and teaches about sex and sexuality is so often way wide of the mark.
The world largely reduces sex to merely a physical act that can be disconnected from us emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. If you watch movies, the internet, read books or magazines; then you could think sex was just about ‘getting it on’.
It is portrayed about fulfilling a need just like you eat food to meet the hunger need you feel. There tends to be no connection to sex being about intimacy, vulnerability, trust, empowerment and being known. It also seems to have no connection to the building up of the relationship between the two people.
On the other hand, the Church has too often taught about the dangers of sex before marriage but at the same time denies the reality that we are sexual beings. Sexuality is part of who we are. I personally spent my teenage years feeling like a rat bag because I had all these urges and thoughts. I spent lots of time praying, having cold showers and thinking I was a terrible Christian and person. Even when sex is taught in marriage it is usually about the act of sex and nothing about sexuality, sensuality and what occurs when two people give themselves fully to another.
My wife and I are involved in pre-marriage counselling and I have come to the conclusion that in church life young people are taught this fairy tale. If they save themselves sexually for marriage then when they get married they will have an amazing sex life. Well it isn’t true. I know so many newlyweds who had struggles in the area of sex when they first got married and I am hearing about so many couples who still struggle with sex, having been married 10, 20 and 30 years.
I think a lot of it is because the church hasn’t really taught about sex and sexuality in marriage and the world we are part of keeps portraying a watered down idea of sex.
So I decided that I would try to write down what sex with my wife means to me. I’m trying to express in words what I experience in the moment and what sex with my wife means in my life.
I will do my best to share what it all means to me
- My wife has a saying that goes something like this, “Sex isn’t everything in marriage but if it isn’t happening then sex becomes everything in marriage”. I like this saying because it is a great description of the powerfulness of sex within a relationship and how much the sexual side of a relationship can impact the whole relationship
- Sex for me is not about always getting this powerful orgasm that makes the room shake. Sometimes it is about needing to be alone with my wife and a chance to catch up with her while we make love. Other times it is about fun and laughter. It can also be about touch and tenderness. Sometimes it is just about a physical release and escaping
- Sex creates a sense of connection with my wife because it is about allowing myself to be known in the most vulnerable and emotional way. That is why to me sex is not just a physical act but just as much for me it is an emotional act. It is a release of emotions and feelings that I have that to be honest I cannot often understand or express but I just know that I have released some feelings and feel so much better (sort of like a good cry)
- It makes me feel like I can conquer the world and it makes the world a happier place (must be a release of those endorphins or something like that)
- At that point straight after sex the world stops and nothing else matters and suddenly I have clarity of thoughts and feelings. It is like it straightens me out and brings balance to my world.
- Sex with my wife is not about power and authority but it is about when my wife gives her body to me then she gives me so much more than her body and sexuality. It is giving me strength, belief and it opens up my emotions and my inner world.
- As a man I have sexual longings but just as powerful are the longings for intimacy and connection with this woman who sees me with such trust, belief and tenderness. I know the wider world teaches about how great sexual experiences are with various people but the strength I feel from knowing this woman is giving herself just for me is so powerful. It is like a warm blanket that is wrapped around me – there is so much security and hope in that.
- I learn to give my wife my emotions, listening, vulnerability and she learns to give me her body, womanliness and sexuality (so we meet each other’s needs and it is not about one holding power over the other)
- The more often we have sex then the better husband, friend, father and man I am because I am more confident in who I am because this woman I love is giving herself to me and there is so much power in that. Jack Nicholson states it succinctly in the movie ‘As Good As It Gets’ when he says to Helen Hunt “you make me want to be a better man”. That is what sex does for me – it makes me want to be a better man.
It is about challenging and changing our understanding about what sexuality and sex means and trying to relate it in terms that mean a whole lot more than what all of us have grown up with. I would be happy to dialogue more about these thoughts.”
It’s true that for many people, sex has been a source of pain, denigration and abuse both inside and outside the context of religion. For some, it’s been at the hands of family members or in supposedly safe environments. For some close friends, their first fumbling sexual encounters opened wounds that have taken a long time to heal. But there are other stories too, of great relationships where sex is a frank and everyday part of their world. Where sex is a healing tool between couples, where sex is celebratory. Much of what Sean talks about reminds me of the conversations I had in the backyard about the philosophy of sex.
I have often talked about sex as a language, a language you only use with the person you’re having sex with. Each new person is a variation on that language and over time, there are new meanings and layers of communication that happen with a single partner. When you have a language like that, you have new ways of communicating through pain, joy, exhaustion, loneliness. So I believe that how we talk about sex, should reflect that sex is a way of communicating not simply a physical act.
Sex becomes unhealthy and destructive when it’s hidden, secretive, associated with shame or becomes the only channel for bridging deep loneliness. There’s too much hiding away of good sex in our church culture for it to be healthy. We’ve assumed for too long that if the Church can simply get people married, the sex will become sacramental and everything will work out.
However, we find our way into those relationships through complex webs. More often than not, people enter into any sexual relationship with stories of past experiences or expectations that need to be given voice. We should talk more about how to have good sex and less about when to have sex. We’ve made the ‘when’ of having sex far too important, over the how and the why. The truth is, there are plenty of people having sex outside the bounds of marriage all the time. And plenty of those people rock up to church on Sundays. Sometimes they get married, sometimes they don’t – but if good sex is helping people build solid foundations of healthy intimacy, then sex is not the problem.
Commitment and fidelity are the challenges that society faces. Much of that work is done by helping people to build better relationships, so do you see the cycle? Plenty of people have lost their virginity in the backseat of a car in a church carpark and turned out just fine. It’s not ideal, but it’s not as destructive as we sometimes make it out to be. I believe we need less guilt and shame when it comes to sex and more discussion, recognition and skills-building in the areas of intimacy and relationships.