Working my way from fundamentalism to freedom (without losing my mind)

“Progressive” Christianity and Premarital Sex

50 Comments

Almost exactly one year ago, I read an article on Relevant Magazine that made me realize that I had absolutely no personal convictions to remain abstinent.

I had grown up in the dead-center of the purity movement. I’d worn the silver rings, made the pledges, condescended to the teenage mothers, read the Joshua Harris books, and all the other lovely rituals that seem to be involved in that movement. However, after an abusive partner coerced me into sex and eventually raped me, I had to let go of the basic tenets of the purity culture. The purity culture functions on the idea that virginity is the greatest gift a woman can give her husband. She is a used toothbrush without it, or a crashed car. It holds the idea that every time you have sex, you give away a part of yourself that you can never get back, and therefore you will necessarily enter into future relationships broken–your only value coming from the benevolent grace that God has on your insufficient self.

I gave up that idea and replaced it with a new “ethics of abstinence.” In these new ethics, which are often promoted in evangelical Christian circles that claim to be progressive (but usually aren’t), premarital sex was just the same as any other sin. It didn’t ruin me for life. I wasn’t broken or scarred.

But premarital sex was still universally wrong, and there were reasons. Several of these new reasons were listed in that Relevant Magazine article I read in November, 2011. According to the author, Ally Spotts (who I really appreciated during my earlier years of blogging. I don’t know that we’d agree on much now), we should wait for sex because waiting builds friendship, because “physical boundaries speak to the value you place on your sexuality,” because relationships should be about wholeness–not just happiness, and because we need to practice managing our lust.

She listed these as the real reasons God asks us to wait for sex. She talked about how other reasons–namely those held by the purity movement–didn’t satisfy her, and recognized that they weren’t satisfying the 80% of young Christians who had had premarital sex, either. So she attempted to come up with some new reasons, as many other Relevant writers and pastors and Christian bloggers (including myself) have tried to do.

But I realized something reading that article on that day.

Like Ally, the reasons the purity movement had given me didn’t satisfy me. But neither did Ally’s reasons.

Image via David Hayward

So I started asking questions in the comments section (advice: never ask questions in the comments section of Relevant. In fact, avoid that place like a cat avoids the vacuum cleaner. Your sanity will thank me). In asking the questions, I learned that no one seemed to have the answers. Instead of answers, I either got harsh judgement or other people who admitted to being just as confused as I was.

But in every comment that told me I was “abusing grace,” that I “must not be very familiar with the Bible,” telling me to “get married earlier, genius!,” to just find a fraternity house where they can set me up with a goat if all I want to do is get laid (FOR REAL), or comments that just listed every verse in the Bible that mentions sexual immorality (while failing to define sexual immorality), all I heard was “I don’t know the answers, and your questions expose that. I don’t know, and that makes me afraid of you.”

While I applaud evangelical Christians who move away from the blatantly destructive teaching that a woman’s (or a man’s) worth lies in her virginity, these new teachings that emerge in its place don’t stand up to the questions. They fall apart at the simple, honest questions of a confused recovering Fundy.

So why do Christians keep scrambling for these new reasons? Why do Christians accuse anyone who dares question these of perverting the grace of God or wanting to sleep with goats? Do these Christians who claim the label “progressive” not realize that they are just repeating the same patterns that they condemn in their more conservative brothers and sisters? Patterns of judgment, close-mindedness, denial of reality, and fear of the unknown?

Let’s get this straight, Christians. Choosing to wait until marriage is a personal choice that you can make for any number of reasons. It’s a good choice. But it’s not necessarily THE good choice. The values we place on sex can’t be universalized. Neither can interpretations of the Bible. Even the definition of marriage and of sex is fluid throughout history and culture.

We would do far better to throw away these paper-thin universal arguments against premarital sex. There are better things to focus on, like affirming one another’s humanity. Like not treating the people we are attracted to as sex objects. Like respecting the physical boundaries of other people without question. Like fighting the rape culture that’s so prevalent in the church.

We can’t universalize sexual standards. But we can treat each other well, so let’s start with that.

50 thoughts on ““Progressive” Christianity and Premarital Sex

  1. I’m late to the party, but this blog post gave me a big piece of what I needed to work through my own issues on sex. Split between a persistent new girlfriend who really wants to do the deed, a Christian ideology on abstinence that loses merit through the abusive and hateful preachers of it, the male peanut gallery telling me how awesome it is to have a sexually aggressive girl, and the whole pantheon of insecurities raging in my head about what constitutes a man.

    You put it really well: “The values we place on sex can’t be universalized. Neither can interpretations of the Bible.”

    When it comes down to it, we have to trust in God’s ability to speak to our own hearts and guide is in the correct direction. The advice that comes from others, especially concerning potentially twisted arenas such as sex and virtue, is just too distorted by the advisor’s own personal issues.

    tl;dr you’re right and when it comes to sex we should try to hear God directly instead of letting it filter through the mess of human confusion over gender and sexuality.

  2. A lot of evangelicals like me are questioning rules against premarital sex as impractical in today’s world. None of my single Christian friends are virgins anymore, and they don’t seem damaged because they didn’t wait. I think that being forced to wait is actually damaging.

  3. This is a genuine question – I’m not trying to be provocative in anyway, this is just something I am questioning at the moment. I am well versed in the arguments as to why/how the Bible supports the view that pre-marital sex is a sin but I can find nothing from Christians who reject this belief to say/explain that this is not what the Bible teaches. Again this is a genuine question – I would really like to know the theological basis of this belief. Thanks :)

  4. i can see why you freak people out, you’re an intelligent woman asking well considered, scripturally informed questions. no wonder you were insulted and abused with offers of goats. I’m just stunned you weren’t burnt as a heretic. Keep making folk think, God is proud of you.

  5. I think it’s a slippery slope from thinking about what it means to “love your neighbor” to individual sexual ethics. On the one hand, I do find some of the anti-premarital sex arguments fairly convincing. On the other hand, I’m straight, but it has always been blindingly obvious to me that the “traditional” view of homosexuality is wrong because committed, loving relationships are GOOD things for everyone. When I became a Christian I just couldn’t believe that a loving God would think the opposite. (That’s what happens when you get close to gay people before you get close to religion. It shapes you.) Since gay marriage isn’t legal where I live (although my church performs them), well, I’m ok with premarital sex in some cases, so I don’t have much of a leg to stand on for condemning it in others.

  6. I think its best to save that connection for the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with. The level of intimacy you experience while bonded in marriage is truly incredible and nothing before that comes close (trust me). I wish I had waited because everyone else before my wife was pointless. Not to mention one of the biggest reasons to wait before marriage is that it hurts your spouse. This part is most certainly true. Having to think about someone sharing that with your spouse makes you sick to your stomach. That alone should tell you its not worth it. Its not God’s best for us….

    • I would tell any partner I was with, spouse or not, that if they couldn’t get over the fact that I’ve had sex with other people before I met them or before I was committed to them in some way, they need to grow up. I’ve been in relationships where I was the one who needed to grow up and accept that I didn’t own my partner and couldn’t ask him to have waited for me his whole life. I’ve had situations where this was flipped and my partner was the one who needed to grow up. “That alone” tells me that our Christian culture (and even our secular culture to some extent) is teaching us some harmful things about sex and relationships.

  7. In all honesty, a great percentage of both Christians and non Christians practice premarital sex. However, God designed sex to be exclusively between a husband and his wife. But because of lust of the flesh many are not able to wait patiently for marriage before engaging in sex.

  8. I was never particularly convinced of the abstinence thing, although I was abstinent as a teen because I didn’t find the person I wanted to sleep with after one particularly horrible experience…the fact that I was a Born Again Christian gave me a really great “excuse” for not sleeping with anyone (perhaps this is something that we as Christians could talk about more – are we obsessed with “purity” partly because of fear of sex?)
    But then, when I met the person I want to spend the rest of my life with I experienced something really strange – I regretted that I hadn’t “saved myself” for this one person, not out of a sense of Christian guilt but because I suddenly just felt that I would have liked the “special-ness” of having the “first time” with that person. I in no way expected to feel like that, but I did. I am loath to apply this to anyone else, but it took me by surprise.

    • FWIW, I waited for that person instinctively, and the “first time” isn’t one of our greatest memories – I felt somewhat nervous and awkward, understandably, and we didn’t know each other very well physically. Your feelings totally make sense because of course you want to share everything, I just want to say that I’m sure that all of the other times you’ve shared more than make up for the one you missed!

      • In my experience the first time with a new partner is always a little nervous and awkward – i don’t think it makes much difference how many people you have slept with before them! it takes a while to get used to each others’ preferences and rhythms…and even years later you can still learn new things in the bedroom….

  9. To elaborate: trying to force people to keep their sexuality completely repressed, or even to not allow them to express love for romantic partners through sex when it is responsible for them to do so, is not compatible with loving them as yourself. Evangelical/Catholic sexual ethics do way too much damage to way too many people to be compatible with loving your neighbour as yourself.

  10. Personally, I abandoned the beliefs that premarital sex and homosexuality were sins because I came to realize that those beliefs were incompatible with the Biblical command to love your neighbour as yourself. Other contributing factors were that, as you found, the Bible is a whole lot less clear about premarital sex than people think it is, and that it’s reasonable to view Biblical restrictions on sexuality as culture-specific given that nowadays, we have methods for making non-straight-marital sex much less risky. I don’t regret ceasing to wait for marriage in the slightest.

  11. Hi Sarah. I really loved this post. A lot of what you write makes a lightbulb go off over my head, so that I wonder why I hadn’t looked at an issue from that perspective before.

    I find the behaviour of some of my Christian friends a bit confusing. I admit I carry my own bias into the discussion. I’m happily married, but had a number of girlfriends and lovers before meeting my wife-to-be (double digit numbers). I don’t regret a single one. I found each gave me valuable life experience and made me a deeper person in a very true sense.

    My Christian friend thinks that these relationships damaged me. However, she has never had a boyfriend, or even a date, which is a ounce of distress or her. I once suggested that she should practice flirting, and she was scandalised. She said she would rather be single than engage in mind games. I kept out of her business after that, but it struck me that her faith had not only prohibited sex, but also sexuality. She seemed to be holding out for a bloodless, idealised relationship which placed no challenges on her other than “be nice” and “be yourself”.

    Anyway, I just wanted to give some anecdotal evidence that abstinence carries it ‘s own risks of emotional harm and broken hearts.

  12. Sarah- this is a really thought-provoking post. :) I realized that I’m afraid to even QUESTION the idea of abstinence because I’ve been warned so many times about how much it would ruin my life to have sex. But that’s dumb- we shouldn’t be afraid of questions. We should question EVERYTHING. If something is true, then it can stand up to questioning.

    I plan to write a post on my blog with some of my own thoughts, and I’ll link to your post. :)

  13. The only other aspect of this which I haven’t seen mentioned so far is the children. I presume at least part of the reason for the whole “purity” thing in the first place was so that in a patriarchal system, any man could be (more or less) sure that the children of his wife were his. In our modern system we have ways of controlling the having of children – most of the time.

    Sure, contraception works most of the time. But if it doesn’t – and there will be times when it doesn’t – the couple have a big question over what to do next. And while it is certainly possible to get an abortion, that is not a choice without cost. And while it is also becoming more socially acceptable to have children outside of wedlock, statistics say that these children usually live in less stable families and more often in poorer circumstances than children of married parents.

    Not that all of this is a blanket reason to abstain. But I plan to teach my girls only to have sex with someone they would also be prepared to have a child with. The end result of sex may be a child, so I think it is wise to consider that as a possible outcome. I will also encourage them to be married before considering having children, as I think this provides the best context for being supported in the task of bearing and raising children. Therefore, I will be encouraging my girls to be married (or at least engaged) before having sex. I think it is very tough to raise a child on your own, and not ideal for the child either. And while I accept that marriage is not a guarantee that the guy will stick around, it’s the closest thing currently available.

    (Reading the previous comments – don’t most denominations which have a sacramental view at all, have a sacramental view of marriage? I would certainly say that marriage has a sacramental context – but I’m Anglican.)

    • I don’t know. I was raised Baptist and never heard of the sacramental view until recently.

      • (Brought up Baptist, currently practising Anglican – Church of England, to be precise – and the sacramental idea is definitely one I have heard more in my current denomination that I did before.)

        Considering the possibility of pregnancy is definitely a pragmatic view – I’m not sure I’ve known many fears similar to the one I felt when I thought I might be pregnant with my ex-boyfriend’s child, when we had a “one last time” reunion (and yes, we used contraception). The problem is that I started having sex with him when we were committed and convinced of a future together, it’s quite hard to pull back from that when you start to discover you were wrong. The mess of that relationship did eventually convince me that I need to set myself firm lines to not cross – it’s not exactly purity, the one rule being “nothing that could possibly get us pregnant”.

        The issue is, I’ve learnt that this is right for me at this time and I’m completely aware that it doesn’t apply to everyone. Most of us draw from our own experiences, which complicates the matter, because we are all different and we will all have our own unique reactions to similar situations. It’s obvious just from the level of dissent on this one post, of one blogger whose regular readers are more likely to agree with Sarah than not, that there isn’t a one size fits all approach.

        So with that in mind, from a pragmatic point of view, is it possibly just sensible to teach abstinence as an ideal? I don’t mean the way it is taught now – all of the shaming and the idea that we lose part of ourselves to every partner we have is really unpleasant and often damaging. But almost everyone commenting here seems to have enough years and experience under their belt to form their own opinions, while the first time most people hear any teaching about sex is probably before they’ve even reached puberty. Having considered, practical advice (and that means including contraceptive instruction) which leans to a more cautious approach is probably more sensible for teens who are still yet to find out whether they’re emotionally able to handle the possibility of multiple sexual partners over time. I guess in practice, it wouldn’t be an out and out abstinence approach, just more putting on a set of brakes to delay rash decisions.

  14. My brother has a purity ring, given to him by my parents. Equality in this, at least, is cool. But it’s still fear-based for the most part. Which is a shame, because fear and shame shouldn’t be connected with healthy sex at ALL.

  15. “We can’t universalize sexual standards. But we can treat each other well, so let’s start with that.”

    Love love love this. This comment I’m leaving is not a profound comment. :)

    Just agreeing that maybe it’s more important for us to work on being kind than it is perform questionable eisgesis.

    Also, someone in the above comments pointed out that he’s never seen a male wearing a purity ring; I should’ve noticed that trend before, but it’s a good point and disturbs me when I think about it. I mean, what the heck?

    • That’s the reason why I stopped wearing my ring. When I was in college, I carpooled with a couple of my guy friends to church and I noticed that none of them were wearing a purity ring and realized that I didn’t know one guy who had one. I don’t remember what was on my mind that led to this observation, but that was the last day that I ever wore that ring. Let just say that I had a lot to learn…

    • I’ve never seen that either. Though I’ve heard of some men that do.

    • When I was an evangelical, I saw just as strong an emphasis on purity for boys and men as for girls and women. It just took a slightly different form with boys and men. With boys and men, there was more of a focus on not masturbating or looking at porn, and I knew a lot of basically normal guys who thought they were engaging in depraved sexual sin, or even thought they were sex addicts, because of the belief that they should abstain from any sexual stimulation that wasn’t from a spouse. Girls weren’t supposed to masturbate or look at porn either, but there was an assumption that most girls wouldn’t want to, so it wasn’t emphasized as much for girls as for guys.

  16. Here’s a fun experiment: Ask a group of Christians to cite chapter and verse where the Bible says “A man and a woman shall not know one another in that way until they be joined in holy wedlock.” It takes about half a second for the wailing and gnashing of teeth to drown out the crickets.

  17. Ok, how about I make an argument from EXPERIENCE. I once thought as you appear to, that what was important was love and that sex as an expression of love was acceptable. I acted on that belief and spent years healing from the hurt I did myself and still regret the hurt that I inflicted on my partners. I cannot explain the reasons clearly, but I will tell you that every person I have known who has had a sexual relationship that ended in something other than the death of their partner has suffered significant emotional and spiritual harm. I learned an important lesson, I may not always understand the reason that God instructs us to avoid certain behaviors and exercise other behaviors, but there IS a good reason for those commands. Sex is not unique among sins in this respect, but it is one of the more self damaging sins.
    I hurt myself and I hurt others by not waiting until marriage for sex. I am not unique in that. I do not know anyone who has had sex outside of marriage of whom that is not true.

    • Any ending of a relationship hurts, spiritually and emotionally. It’s a risk we take, to be in a relationship. Marriage doesn’t end that risk, and in a culture where half of marriage ends in divorce, it hardly even reduces it. We all must make our own decisions regarding sex and everyone will be different and that’s okay. But waiting in order to avoid pain, again, is not a reason that can be universalized.

      • It is not just pain. It is not even primarily pain. I have a brother who lost his wife of many years to cancer. He suffered pain with her loss, but the only wounds he suffered were ones he inflicted on himself trying to make the pain stop. I am talking emotional and spiritual damage. For the most part I did not experience pain from my experience, but I was wounded. It took many years for the damage to heal and there are scars that will never go away. I don’t know anyone who chose not to wait who does not have similar scars, some are much worse.
        I see that you are determined to live by one of my father’s sayings that I have lived my life trying to make not true, “No one learns from another’s mistakes.” I am sorry that you have chosen not to learn this lesson from someone else and appear determined to learn it for yourself. I will pray that God gives you healing.

    • I know of someone who really regretted waiting until marriage to have sex because she discovered that she had a medical condition that made sex impossible. It caused problems in their marriage that they could have addressed had they slept together sooner. I have a friend who had to go to hospital and get stitched up on her wedding night. If they had had sex prior to getting married, they could have enjoyed their honeymoon. We can’t take individual experiences and apply them to absolutely everybody.

      • I do not know either of your friends. I do however know that everyone I know who had sex in a situation other than with a partner they were in a monogamous relationship with has emotional and spiritual scars as a result. This is out of a sample set several hundred people strong from all walks of life.

        • You say “other than with a partner they were in a monogamous relationship with.” Not all premarital sex is outside of a monogamous relationship.

  18. I still read Ally’s blog from time to time, even she does equate all premarital sex with promiscuity.

  19. The best explanation of Christian abstinence I’ve ever seen came – no joke – from a character on Glee. I don’t remember Joe’s exact words, but he basically said that it made him closer to God to not be involved in teenage mating rituals (he *definitely* didn’t use that term).

    I’ve read a ton of Christian self-help-type books, and I’ve sat through a ton of youth and college group things, but I never heard a reason that made that much sense.

    Sex isn’t bad. It’s a good that we’re postponing (in some cases, giving up entirely), for the greater good of our relationship with God.

    I’m not 100% sure exactly why I waited. I think for a long time, I had a very strong black and white sense of rules. I still do, to some degree. But I’ve become less judgmental as I’ve become more aware of the ways I self-justify, the ways I talk myself into doing whatever I want. It was a combination of knowing it would be wrong, and not wanting to just willfully cross a line I knew was there, a sort of societal pressure (I was something of an odd bird in many ways, and I didn’t want to be common in this one), a dash of inertia, and a scoop of social anxiety.

    I am certain I did the right thing on this count. 100%. But I hate to see how one thing is blown so out of proportion. I think a lot of the virginity movement has its origins in controlling women and preserving male power. The emphasis on virginity began with pre-modern concerns over paternity, after all.

    I mean, isn’t it always the girls who catch the brunt of this? I don’t think I ever saw a guy with a purity ring.

    I’m not sure what I’m getting at here, really. I still believe it’s best to wait, that it’s right to wait. I guess I’m saying I don’t agree with the culture that has risen up around it. Instead of pursuing chastity and celibacy as a spiritual discipline, we cling to an ancient-world emphasis on female virginity.

  20. I wonder if you’ve come across anyone who’s argued it from a sacramental perspective, both concerning our bodies and the world as a whole? I ask because I have not, at least not so directly. I too am unsatisfied with the purity movement and even the claims Ally draws on, but find my motivation to wait makes sense when I adopted a perspective that saw the world as sacramentally joined to God and the act of sex a sacramental joining to another. (There is complications of language here, I grant, because I don’t want to use the word sacrament in relation to coercion or rape and I also don’t want to use the word sex as a catch-all.) Since you have far more experience discussing sexual politics than I do, I wondered if the language of sacrament ever comes up in the discourse.

    • I have heard that argument and do respect it. I think it probably makes the most sense of all the arguments coming from a Christian perspective, but I never hear it from evangelicals. I mean, really I respect anyone’s personal or religious reasons. Still don’t think it can be proven to be THE Biblical perspective or anything, but if I had to pick a personal reason for waiting that would probably be it since I *really* value commitment as an aspect of sex.

      • As a young evangelical, this was my main reason. Oh, also being scared because of so many years of ridiculous fear-based teachings on the subject. But when I really thought about it and discussed it with my husband, our reasons we primarily for the sake of the sacramental nature of the act.

    • There’s still an issue there though, because you can’t just state that it’s a sacrament, there has to be a reason for it or it’s no better than the other arguments mentioned earlier.

      How does one arrive at the conclusion that either marriage or sex is a sacrament? What measure is a sacrament? Does God place any actual importance in them or is it entirely within our fallible human belief what power they hold just like any other ritual?

      • Agreed. Again, it can’t be universalized, though I like the idea of sacraments for myself. My old church nearly split over whether to use wine or grape juice for communion. Good luck trying to get them to agree on sex as a sacrament :P

        • This approach to sacramentality perhaps necessitates a rejection of a lot of post-modern approaches to how we view the world’s basic ontology. I suggest that as context for why there is reason to the claim and also that sacraments don’t fit into the tidy categories modernity likes to use. If we have a basic theology of the body, which is X, it determines what we believe about eating, sex, hospitality, sleep, etc. Since I tend toward a sacramental view of the world (from very basic, lay expressions of this in writers like L’Engle to a bit more sophisticated arguments from Hans Boersma and David Brown), I was curious if you had come across any cogent cases for sexual sacramentals. Not sacraments in the tidy “there are seven sacraments of the Church” but sacraments in the language of enchantment, in the language of the “world is charged with the grandeur of God” and therefore certain things become important or certain actions worth doing or not doing that would not otherwise be.

          • I would say that Walker Percy argues for this in his fiction through negative images/caricatures, but it’s not tidy or concrete.

            Also, I think that there’s no good way to argue for it as a universal, 7 sacraments sort of sacrament. It’s sacramental, but it’s not a sacrament like communion or baptism.

          • I think John Ortberg’s new book hinted at this idea of sex.

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