Politics, religion & sex

by Kristin on November 10, 2008

in Belief, doubt & hope,Culture, ideas & paradigms,Love, family & community

photo by dizznbonn

It’s a fairly established fact: politics, religion and sex are The Big Three. They’re the topics we’re not supposed to bring up at big family events or parties—the ones that make people sit up and take notice or squirm (or both). They each carry a lot of weight individually; when they’re combined into a single discussion it’s explosive.

That’s probably why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about a New Yorker article I just read: “Red Sex, Blue Sex: Why do so many evangelical teenagers become pregnant?”

While I’m not an evangelical, I am a Christian, and I know a thing or two about how religion shapes our earliest understanding of our sexuality. I also know something about the kinds of consequences those perspective can have down the road. I actually blame my divorce, in part, on some of those understandings, but I’ll get into that later.

Being the mother of three girls, ages 8, 10 and 12, also makes me extremely interested in this subject. Our youngest began asking questions about how babies were made more than a year ago, soon after Jason and I got married. Her logic was “you’re married so that must mean you’re going to have babies soon.” She’s a scientifically-minded girl, so we decided it was time to get technical in our explanation of baby-making and birth control.

At any rate, all three of our girls are inquisitive and somehow exceptionally cute, so Jason and I are already bracing ourselves for when they’re 12, 14 and 16. We do not take the subject of sex education lightly, and we’re convinced there must be a better paradigm for sexuality than the one most Christian children are inheriting from their parents.

Pregnancy & marriage statistics are tied to red & blue states

What I found so fascinating about the New Yorker article was how clearly the statistics back up what I’ve long suspected. The five states with the highest divorce rates, the youngest marriage age, and the most teen pregnancies are all traditionally red states (by traditionally red, I mean pre-Obama, 2008). When you reverse the statistics, you get all blue states, with the exception of North Dakota, which had one of the five lowest teen pregnancy rates.

Here’s how the article’s author, Margaret Talbot, summarizes the red state-blue state divide when it comes to teenagers, sex and pregnancy:

Social liberals in the country’s “blue states” tend to support sex education and are not particularly troubled by the idea that many teenagers have sex before marriage, but would regard a teenage daughter’s pregnancy as devastating news. And the social conservatives in “red states” generally advocate abstinence-only education and denounce sex before marriage, but are relatively unruffled if a teenager becomes pregnant, as long as she doesn’t choose to have an abortion.

My own story, and the one I want for my daughters

As someone who grew up in a blue state and a “blue family” that went to church every Sunday, my own experience fell somewhere in between the extremes. The biggest problem, looking back, was that sex simply wasn’t discussed much—at church, home, or school for that matter.

I knew, though, that my parents would be greatly disappointed in me if they knew I had sex before I was married. I also connected that viewpoint to their religious beliefs.

It follows, of course, that living with my college boyfriend after we graduated was also not going to be OK, which is the main reason I got married at 22. How long can healthy young adults be expected to exist without sex? Or how long can they sneak around trying to hide the fact they’re having sex, whichever the case might be?

I know LOTS of people who married young for essentially the same reason—they were either tired of waiting to have sex or they were tired of living a lie and feeling guilty about it. My second husband, Jason, is one of those people, too. Unfortunately, as the New Yorker article points out, “women who marry before their mid-twenties are significantly more likely to divorce than those who marry later.”

That doesn’t mean everyone who gets married too young gets a divorce, or that I directly blame my parents or our religious beliefs for my early marriage and divorce. It does mean, though, that encouraging my daughters to not get married too young is a greater priority to me than encouraging them to hang on to their virginity, at all costs.

Encouraging waiting, while promoting “sex is good!”

It is also very important to me that our kids understand their sexuality as a good thing, not a bad thing. When parents pound the “sex is bad” idea into their kids’ heads, in an attempt to convince them to avoid it, it can seriously backfire. Not only does it not keep them from having sex, but it develops in them a deep sense of shame and guilt in relationship to their sexuality. I suspect that issue played a complex, negative role in the problems in my first marriage, too. It’s time for churches to break the guilt-spreading cycle!

There’s no doubt that this issue is more complex even than it was when I was growing up. Here’s another good summary of the problem from the “Red Sex, Blue Sex” article:

Like other American teens, young evangelicals live in a world of Internet porn, celebrity sex scandals, and raunchy reality TV, and they have the same hormonal urges that their peers have. Yet they come from families and communities in which sexual life is supposed to be forestalled until the first night of a transcendent honeymoon.

It’s confusing. I do really want my daughters to wait—to respect their bodies and their sexuality, and to take every decision they make very seriously. I want them to be extremely cautious and safe. I don’t, however, want them to mess themselves up in the process of waiting.

So I’m not sure how I’ll tackle the problem with my girls in the coming years. What I do know for certain, though, is that not talking about it is not the answer. Continuing to blindly present sex to our kids in the same way it was presented to us in our churches and homes and schools is not the answer, either.

Honesty and lots of information are always good places to start, as parents. Maybe I’ll just say to my girls something like this: “I love you so much, and I want the best for you. It’s really complicated. There are so many angles to consider, some which will affect you now, and some which will affect you down the road. Here’s how I messed up, and what I learned. Here’s a vision of the hopes I have for you.”

And then maybe I’ll let them read this post, too. Is there anything to lose in that?

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  • KarenDV

    Have you read Lauren Winner’s Real Sex? She addresses these very same topics. I haven’t read the whole book yet, so I can’t vouch for any conclusions she might make, but it might be worth a look.

    Of particular note are Winner’s remarks about the church community’s role in “sex ed,” a term I hesitate to use because it sounds finite, when instead (as Winner says) it should start at day one and continue into adulthood, even for married folk, getting progressively more detailed and complex. This culture of discussion that seems nonexistent in a religious context.

  • http://living-intheory.com SugarJones

    This is such a great post and so well thought out. I grew up in much the same way. Strict Catholic family living in a Bright Blue state. So of course, I ended up pregnant at 17. It was a tough situation, but I never once thought about abortion because of the “heavenly” implications. I married the young man who got me pregnant. And after one more baby, we got divorced. It wasn’t pretty. Funny thing is I had plenty of sex ed to have avoided the whole debacle. I knew I needed to be on the pill, but I had far too much Catholic guilt to get myself into a clinic and actually confess to the nurse that I was having s-e-x. I was filled with shame for having sex. Then more shame for getting pregnant. And the ultimate shame… getting divorced.

    I’m not following the tenets of the Catholic church any longer, but am a big old Jesus Freak Christian. I know that I’m perfect in Him. But do I want my daughters to go through this?

    Hell no!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin

    Karen: Yes, I’ve also read *part* of Lauren Winner’s book, Real Sex. (If anyone out there has read the whole thing, please speak up!) The New Yorker article actually references some of Winner’s perspectives–the ones that I really agree with. But, like you, I haven’t read the whole book so I can’t say I agree with everything she says. I should probably put that back on my reading list. :)

    Sugar: Thanks for sharing your story. I think the shame/guilt issue is huge, as you point out. It could be even bigger than the education piece, but the needs vary for different kids in different situations. So…I think you have younger kids now too, right? Do you know how you plan to address this issue of sex and guilt and religion with them?

  • http://dagsempire.blogspot.com/ Dagny

    I sent a link to the article to my mom. She loved it. She grew up in a red state. My Pentecostal grandma never discussed sex with her. My parents got married while they were in college and were divorced ten years later. My mother was always open in her discussions with me about sex. She didn’t want me to grow up the same way that she had.

    My mom wanted to send the article on to one of her younger sisters — the one who always votes Republican because according to her, Democrats have no morals. Of course, she wouldn’t take the time to read the article if sent to her because she’d see it as just more liberal propaganda.

  • Jim

    Lots of food for thought in this post. As a United Methodist pastor and a father of Jeremiah (18) and Rebekah (16) this is something I wonder/worry about as well. I look forward to reading the article and possibly the book. If anyone out there has read the whole book – let the rest of us know about it.

    karen I agree that the ideal would be to talk about this from day 1. I will not deny the church has some responsibility in this but this is not something that many families discuss openly and honestly. The times when I have seen church(es) try to do something directly about teaching – the response from people within the church has been less than overwhelming to say the least.

    Sugar is right that shame / guilt can compound the problems. This is where grace should be more readily offered and received.

  • Natalie Hart

    Kristin, great post! I’ve been talking about this subject a lot with my friends lately. Gotta love it when there’s something on your mind and you suddenly see it everywhere. I highly recommend the book Growing Strong Daughters (2nd ed.) by Lisa Graham McMinn, a prof of sociology and mother of 3 daughters. This is a book I edited for Baker (both editions) and the second edition has a great section on girls and their bodies, sex included. She, too, talks about how the focus No No No before marriage can lead to many women having difficulty saying Yes Yes Yes after marriage. About how all the things many churches teach lead to the idea that sexual sins are the worst sins ever, and that sex carries a tint of shame no matter what.

    In particular, I was struck by a section titled “Keeping the Value of Virginity in Perspective” where she recounts a conversation with one of her daughters where the girl says she’d kill herself if she got pregnant because it would be so bad to be pregnant before marriage that she’d rather die than people find out. When her mother told her there were a lot worse things to have happen to her than having sex before marriage, like drug or alcohol addiction, the girl was shocked. Here’s how McMinn ends that section: “While we need to teach our daughters how to recognize and avoid situations that might quickly get out of control or that might lead to date rape, we need to do so in a way that does not overemphasize their virginity as their most important quality. Our daughters’ sexuality is only one part of who they are. While it is an important part, a healthy perspective can be distorted by an overemphasis on it.”

  • Pingback: The Nature of Christian Organization Today - Part 2 « Community of the Risen

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Dagny: Your mom is a very wise woman. She learned some things the hard way, perhaps, but knew how to help you avoid some of those same pitfalls. If I can do that with my girls, even a little…

    Jim: Thanks for reading and leaving your first comment! Yes, the idea of teaching sex ed at church, in any way, is going to be controversial and probably not widely well-received. I’ve heard some really good sermons that don’t shy away from issues of sexuality, though, and I’ve heard pastors do a good job of simply mentioning sexuality along with the many other things that need to be given another look by Christians. I think just simple mentions of the topic in church can help people think and talk about sexuality as more a part of who we are, as whole creations of God.

    Natalie: I *must* read that book. It sounds really good. The part you quote about keeping the value of virginity in perspective seems right on, to me. Thanks for sharing that with the rest of us!

  • http://dagsempire.blogspot.com/ Dagny

    OK. I’m going to take a stab at trying to put together all the things that my mother told me growing up.

    The first part involved educating me about the changes that happen in the female body during puberty. Because my mother has a sister who started her period at age 9, this education for me began around age 7 or 8. I was told these were all normal things.

    Once I started having a period (age 10 or so), my mother started discussing sex. She felt it was her duty at this point because she had a daughter who could become pregnant. She talked about how it was normal to have feelings. And she put things just how the article said — that getting pregnant young could limit my life choices. Her preference was that I would abstain from sex but if I chose to have sex, she wanted me to be comfortable enough to discuss birth control options with her — preferably before having sex. (My paternal grandmother echoed many of my mother’s words during those years as well.) When I said that I had no intention of having pre-marital sex, my mother countered with, “You say that now but sometimes you get caught up in the moment and all other thoughts are forgotten. I just want you to be prepared for it.” My mother also stressed the importance of being in a caring relationship — marriage was not a requirement.

    I waited until college. And before having sex, I went to the doctor first to get birth control. Because that’s what my mom would have wanted me to do if I had discussed it with her. And because I knew that I wanted to finish college and that it would be difficult if I also had to care for a child. (I have always been pro-choice but knew that that was a choice that would be difficult for me.)

    I think the key is to give your girls a strong enough foundation that even if they don’t discuss things with you, you know that they will make the best choice under the given circumstances.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    FYI: This post was published on the site Jesus Manifesto on Tuesday, and there are a whole bunch of really insightful comments there, too. There appears to be a great desire among Christians to talk about how we can do a better job addressing issues of sexuality.

    Here’s the link:
    http://www.jesusmanifesto.com/2008/11/11/politics-religion-and-sex/

    Thanks again for all of your thoughts on this.

    KT

  • Joseph of Antioch

    (Also posted on Jesus Manifesto)

    Last night I caught part of a british made documentary on TLC about the Purity movement & “Purity Balls” where girls as young as 9 or 10 pledge to abstain from sex before marriage in a public ceremony with their fathers. It was kind of creepy. In the interviews with the families it appeared to me that many of the parents had regrets about their own past actions & were trying to impose an ideal of “purity” on their children as a result. There was also an interview with a young woman who was raised in the Purity movement, did & said all the right things, & yet still wound up pregnant by her first boyfriend, who was also in the movement. She’s now somewhat estranged from her parents and still dealing with her feelings of guilt & shame.

    I recently finished reading The Body And Society by Peter Brown. It’s a dense history of sexual renunciation in early Christianity by a Princeton historian, & well worth the effort. What I found interesting was that the sexual ethics of christian communities in the Roman Empire took many forms in different contexts. Some communities married their young people off as soon as possible as a way of keeping their sexual behavior within acceptable ethical limits. In some communities, virginity was an idealized state imbued with spiritual glamour. Some communities had problems develop when married women declared themselves widows after baptism, even though their husbands were still alive. Marriage in the Roman Empire was usually arranged, and “family values” were viewed as the backbone of the empire. A young woman could be prosecuted for refusing to marry. A good example of this can be found in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla.

    It seems to me that the Purity movement is a form of fundamentalist reaction to our lack of community in fragmented postmodern America. It is an attempt to impose the restraints that would exist naturally in a village or a tight ethnic community. As such it tends to come off as bright & shiny evangelical fascism.

    The problem I have with most of the debate about sexuality in this country is that it’s simplistic. I’m sorry, but sex is complicated. It’s not a problem to be solved by imposing vows of chastity on prepubescent girls or passing ballot measures against gay marriage. (That’s a whole different can of worms.)

    I did like Lauren Winner’s book Real Sex, mostly because of her honesty, but felt it could have been more encompassing. Drawing on Wendell Berry, she primarily makes the point that sexual ethics are determined by community. As we live in a society where community bonds have been eroded by technology & media, the question arises: How do we find & form community?

    peace
    joseph

  • Ron S.

    (1) I really appreciate you, your faithfulness, and your thoughtfulness.
    (2) I thought your comments about Winner’s research were very good and insightful.
    (3) The one thing that seemed to be one of her main points that I do not think is limited to the area this data looked at is that people/teens usually do not live our values if we are left to work them out individualistically, living what we believe to be best works far better when there are supported pathways, supported integrity, supported choices, supported openness, etc.
    (4) I think saving the blog and reading it to each of your daughters at the proper time (as best you can gage it) and then giving them time to read it alone and respond later to you is a great idea on your part.
    (5) “halfwaytonormal” is my favorite of all site names I have seen so far. Wish I had thought of it first! (Ha! Isn’t that an example of our wonderful self-centeredness.) It is great.

  • http://TrackBack Joi T.

    Immediately after reading your blog today my mind began to fill with what I think is the basis of the wisdom of much of the “puritanical” thinking that we all rebel against. I need more time to work on that, and I want to assure you that I’ve thought about all of this for years! However, this old piece that I have saved for probably 35 years is so good that I need to share it for what it may be worth in the whole realm of this very complex subject. It’s called “Why It’s Bad to Be Lucky in Love,” and it’s from a book, Evocations of Love, by Alexander King and Peter Altenberg. This quote speaks of something that seems to have vanished in our world, beleaguered by the obsession of satisfying our sexual urges almost immediately at the expense of losing the priceless focus which should be fulfilling the heart’s deepest need for a lifetime of companionship as partners in life.

    “If you really love a woman, then her very breath, the emanation of her blouse, the smell of her hair, must have the power to enchant you utterly. Everything about her should have a magical quality for you. An ocean of longing ought to engulf you day and night while you are thinking of her, and this longing should almost make you ill, almost insane; and only then, when you have reached a state which borders on absolute frenzy, you should stretch out your arms and fold her in your embrace. On lesser terms you have no right to this happiness.
    Woe to those who are lucky in love! They are denied the joyous, painful, slow accumulation of yearning which finally fulfills itself in the heart’s ultimate ecstasy. They have been cheated out of the most valuable gift that life has to offer.
    Whom does the Don Juan, flitting from flower to flower, actually cheat? He cheats himself.”

  • http://singleoftheday.com Jody

    I think it’s interesting to read a post like this from some who has a religious background. I’ve always wondered how religion can promote the things they do, then have followers who ignore it or at the very least have followers in an age where intelligence is more prominent than when religion (as it’s known now) started.

    I grew up with parents who belonged to a religion but decided they didn’t want to force it upon their children. Personally I’m very grateful for that. I’m not religious, but I believe in certain qualities of it. When it comes to matters of sex and human sexuality though, I find that religion fails miserably with most people.

    From personal experience, the women I’ve dated that came from extremely religious families had one of two behaviors. 1. They were locked up tight and not very happy (no sex). 2. They were promiscuous and though temporarily happy when fulfilling a basic human need, they were still unhappy due to the guilt.

    In my background it was and is a good idea to be very open about your needs, your wants and desires with someone. Unfortunately in a world where so many are hiding or dealing with a religion it’s often times hard to express those things with others.

    Kudos for doing that even from within a religion. It gives those of us hope that not all people partaking in an organized religion are drones.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Jody, I’m really glad you shared some of your own experiences around this topic. I find it so fascinating. Sometimes I think I missed my calling as a sociologist. :) Anyway, your descriptions of the two types of women from religious backgrounds sounds pretty much accurate to me. That’s exactly what my husband and I DON’T want for our three girls, which is why we’re trying to find a balance. It sounds like your parents did a good job of teaching you about the importance of honest communication and expression. Our hope is that we can figure out how to teach our kids that, and also tie it into our beliefs about God’s love for them. It won’t be easy, but it’s a very worthwhile pursuit.

  • http://www.earnestparenting.com AmyL

    I have to admit, you pushed some buttons with this post, but I find that we end up mostly on common ground when it comes to how to handle the issue with our kids. I’d like to offer a few thoughts, with the caveat that I’m still thinking this all through and they’re probably not complete thoughts. They’re worth considering though.

    First: there is an assumption in the “two types of women” comment that there are only those two types. I disagree. It is possible to wait for marriage to have sex and not be unhappy.

    That does take a great deal of discipline, which leads me to thought number two: we seem to have lost the desire (ability?) in this world to ask discipline of ourselves or our children. When you’re in a situation that requires you to call on your self-discipline in order to resist temptation, is that easy? No, not usually. But it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be disciplined, nor does it mean that living a disciplined existence is miserable. The rewards of disciplined choices are usually not immediate, we cannot always see what we’ve gained, but the standards are still worth pursuing.

    Third: I see a difference between someone who is religious and someone who is faithful. Religious-to me, anyway-usually refers to outward behavior that relies on ritual and tradition. Faithful-again, my definition-means someone who makes choices in a genuine effort to please God. As part of my own faithful behavior I make certain choices. I do not require those same choices of others, however I hope my children will make the same or better decisions.

    Fourth: I wonder about the whole red state/blue state thing when it comes to communication between parents and children about sex. Doesn’t age and generation have something to do with it? I know that people even ten years younger than me are much more open about sex and so on. I haven’t read the study, but I was just wondering.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Amy, I am so glad you took the time to really respond with your thoughts on this difficult issue. As you can probably tell, I’m still trying to work out my own views on this. Hearing views like yours really helps.

    You’re right—there aren’t just two types of Christian women. As you said, “It is possible to wait for marriage to have sex and not be unhappy.” Unfortunately it’s just very rare, probably in large part because of the discipline issue you bring up (although I think the lack of open, honest conversations with our children on the subject is even more lacking, and more important).

    In regards to your third, point, it’s a very important one, and I really like how you put it. Thanks again for reading and commenting. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

  • http://www.earnestparenting.com AmyL

    I have 4 sons, so we’re in different worlds to some degree. I agree about the open and honest conversations. As my boys (the older ones are 10) have gotten to the point of even being able to tolerate the subject we’ve brought it up.

    Because I’m with them so much of the day, I usually am the one doing the talking, but so far that’s been okay. Their dad gives input if it comes up when he’s at home and I anticipate more father/son talks in the future as conversations become more….detailed.

    Two concepts that are bedrock to my parenting are foundation-building and arming. Everything I do-everything-with the boys is about laying a foundation for the future. They get irritated with me for making them learn different things, but I want them to have as much experience in as many areas as possible by the time they’re 18. I’ve considered adopting Monk’s line: “you’ll thank me later.” Lol.

    As for the arming, that’s a biggie too. I try to explain to the boys in advance what will happen to their bodies over time and how that will affect their thinking and feelings. (Right now they still think girls are gross.) When the change does happen and girls start looking attractive, hopefully they’ll think “Hey, mom and dad told us this was coming” and trust us more. I also plan to be pretty detailed as to the possible costs of pre-or extra-marital sex in hopes of strengthening their own discipline.

    Of course if they don’t make it to marriage as virgins, we’ll deal with it. It’s not going to make me stop loving them. I’d probably sigh a bit and roll my eyes though. I have a friend whose nephew got a girl pregnant and wanted to be a father to the child. The family was heartbroken when the girl wouldn’t allow him any kind of rights and it was a big mess. I didn’t hear how it came out, but that was an unexpected scenario. I hope it’s not one that plays out for us.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    AmyL, thanks for following up. You’re absolutely right about how we’re in different worlds, to some degree. Boys and girls need different things and struggle with different issues in general, but particularly when it comes to sexuality. Even with four boys like you have, or three girls like I have, each child will require a slightly different approach, depending on their personality and strengths/weaknesses/needs. That’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a parent, and one of the most important things to remember. You can’t simply find your preferred parenting method and apply it in the exact same way to each child. A lot of tailoring is required.

  • http://bettyduffy.blogspot.com Betty Duffy

    I think that Amy L makes a very good point–THE POINT–really. If we love Jesus, we want to please him. If we fail in this mission, if we commit sin, we believe in his power to forgive us. This is the message I want to give my kids: Jesus has no use for perfect people. He knows we will sin and that’s why he came. But we don’t get around guilt or shame by redefining sin–and premarital sex is clearly defined in the Gospel as a sin–not THE preeminent sin, not the worst sin we could ever commit, but a sin, which is worthy of shame. Shame at the act of extramarital sex is pretty much a universal, which leads me to believe that it is not Churches which instill this feeling in us, or parents, or other Christians. If it were not written in the Gospel, it would still be written in our hearts, because so many people who are not Christians still have shame at the experience.

    I tend to think of it more in terms of what we can learn from our guilt and shame. Like you, I was once in a relationship where I thought that we were too young and healthy and in love to NOT have sex. I dated that boy for three years, became engaged to him, and finally, FINALLY realized that a lof of that guilt and shame and incredible sex was distracting me from the fact that I was about to marry the WRONG GUY. Nevertheless, I made the exact same mistake shortly thereafter with another wrong guy. Sex is good. It is powerful. And by the time I met my husband, we had both been around the block enough to know that we didn’t want to screw up our relationship with the fog of pre-marital sex. As a result, I have the distinction of being the only girl he ever dated seriously who he didn’t screw, and vice versa. But the clencher, the key, was that to NOT have sex before marriage, we both had to entrench ourselves in prayer and Sacrament. We could not have survived chaste courtship (especially as we’d both been sexually active in the past) without a mutual desire to make our relationship pleasing to God.

  • http://bettyduffy.blogspot.com Betty Duffy

    A caveat: My husband and I were both raised in conservative Catholic families, and are now, ourselves conservative Catholics. It seems the single greatest determinant in sexual behavior for both of us was finding someone who shared our faith and values. When one member of the relationship is not on board, it makes abstinance VERY hard.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Betty, I really LOVE the way you put this: “This is the message I want to give my kids: Jesus has no use for perfect people.” I’m going to use that with my kids, if you don’t mind. :)

    I have to admit, though, that while I think I ultimately agree with what you’re saying, some of the ways you word it make me squirm. (And I don’t think squirming is a bad thing, btw!) For instance, calling extramarital sex “a sin, which is worthy of shame” is not necessarily a false statement, but I think it has the potential of being very misleading, mostly because of your use of the word “shame,” not your use of “sin.” (Someone could write a dissertation on this alone, I’m sure!)

    In general, I’m not saying we should be avoiding talking about and recognizing sin. I just really wish Christians would focus on a more broad array of both obvious and subtle sins, and look at how they are interwoven and how they play out in our lives in all different ways.

    For instance, I wish people would talk about ALL of the ways we sin against each other/hurt one another in ALL relationships—married and unmarried. Sex gets too much attention, and as a result many other important issues are ignored. Similarly, marriage is treated like a magic wand erasing sin—it’s as if once you’re married, everything is fine, at least in regards to your sex life. The reality is that a lot of sin, sexual and otherwise, happens within a lot of marriages. It’s time for the married people to stop focusing on the speck in the eyes of the unmarried.

    I also don’t fully agree with what you said about guilt: “…which leads me to believe that it is not Churches which instill this feeling in us, or parents, or other Christians.” I do think you’re right in saying many truths are written clearly on our hearts, but I think churches and Christians do play a really harmful role in demonizing and elevating feelings of guilt, particularly in certain areas like sexuality. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think the way Christians often experience guilt is the way God actually wants us to.

    OK, now I’m thinking I need to just turn this into a follow up post! :) I want to wrap up my comment, though, by letting you know how much I love being challenged to think and dialogue more about this. I really appreciate your comment, and your very real perspective and voice, and I’m so glad you found my blog.

  • http://bettyduffy.blogspot.com Betty Duffy

    I would love it if you wrote a follow up post, and discussed your feelings on shame a little more. I think I’m understanding that you think shame is the evil that should be done away with. I completely get what you’re saying about the primacy of sexual sin as a monument in the lives of the unmarried. You’re right that marriage is no magic wand, and that there are many many other sins to be concerned with both within marriage and without. I don’t see how shame for that particular sin (or any sin) should hence be eliminated. I appreciate shame, for any sin, because it is a signal to me that my life requires some examination and change, whether those changes are to let it go and quit being so scrupulous, or to really step back from the occasions that faciliate a particular sin (and I’m using the word sin so much here, because you said it was ok to do so–did I get that wrong?).

    Very much enjoying the dialogue. Thanks for putting the questions out there.

  • http://bettyduffy.blogspot.com Betty Duffy

    Sorry for all the dangling participles, split infinitives, and passive tenses up there. I’m a grammar freak, but writing with a frustrated nursing baby on my lap has allowed me to let it go tonight (in spite of my shame).

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Betty, thanks for following up. I’ll have to think about this a bit more—a follow up post is a great idea.

    I wonder if maybe I don’t have a problem with the idea of “shame,” but perhaps with the word, which is so often directed towards children (“shame on you!”) and dogs. :) And maybe when the word “shame” used in connection to sex and sexuality, it makes me particularly worry about all of the damage that can do later on.

    I do appreciate this thought, though: “[shame] is a signal to me that my life requires some examination and change…” Can we come up with a word that’s better than “shame,” though? “Guilt,” as a word, has its own problems, but it seems more introspective to me, while “shame” seems more often directed from one person to another. Maybe we should make up a new word! Christians could use some new words. So many of the old ones have too much baggage.

  • http://www.genevievecharet.com Genevieve Charet

    Okay, so I’m jumping in here much too late to be of any use, but I’m new to Kristin’s blog and was especially drawn to this post, and that’s my excuse for adding my two cents!

    I was raised as a conservative Catholic, educated at Catholic institutions, and taught that premarital sex was a no-no. Here’s the thing: I’m hearing that many of you who are politely disagreeing with Kristin would like to teach your children to abstain before marriage, yet still leave them feeling proud of their sexuality and full of the warm fuzzies about how they were raised. While that sounds nice, I’m not convinced it’s possible.

    To say that you’re proud of your sexuality is to say that sexual urges are natural and good and are there for a reason. To maintain this and then to tell your children that consummating these urges outside marraige is disrespectful of the body and of other people is wildly confusing. Beliefs such as these may keep your children virgins through a number of superficial or fleeting romances. But once they are convinced they’ve found someone special, once they feel that they have a mutual, earth-shaking love, it will be hard for them to believe that anything they do to express love is hurtful, disrespectful, or wrong. They may not see how formal marriage vows would make a difference, especially if they’re in long-lasting, cohabiting relationships. I can’t say I blame them. Marriage or no marriage, sex can be used to hurt or heal, and people who hurt will do so with or without the use of sex. Being a virgin does not shield any of us from the wounds of bad love.

    Good, bad, or indifferent, the Church does overemphasize virginity, especially for young women (when was the last time you heard the tagline “virgin and martyr” used for a male saint?). When girls are virgins, they are taught to hold their heads high–when they fall, or show themselves to be imperfect, they inevitably then feel shame (there’s that word again), as if they’ve lost something that made them special, that they’ve given something away that should be mourned. Is it really better for our daughters to be virgins with egos or non-virgins with complexes than to feel that sex can have a place outside marriage? By overemphasizing sexuality teachings (to the extreme neglect of some others), the Church often sets girls up to feel shameful when they have acted against these teachings. This is sad enough, but perhaps not as disturbing as what follows: soon enough, girls get tired of feeling bad about themselves, say, “to hell with, I’m going to love myself anyway,” associate their bad feelings with the Church, and then LEAVE the faith entirely because it has never made them to feel good about the choices they make regarding loving others. How counterproductive.

    I understand that it is much easier for me to say these things now that I have left the Church and can think outside of the framework of those beliefs. I don’t want to upset anyone, but perhaps I can help you to think about how your teachings might be understood and felt by your children. It’s a new world with the same old problems–it may be time for us to change our way of thinking.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Genevieve, I’m SO glad you jumped into the conversation. This is one of those topics that I’m always coming back to in my mind, on one level or another, and it seems to be one that many people are pondering. I think we need to keep putting our heads together, discussing the issue and doing some problem-solving in this “new world with the same old problems.”

    Your perspective, particularly as an ex-Catholic is really interesting and important. (Is that how you describe yourself? Ex-Catholic? I know that particular label has all kinds of baggage.) This is SO important, and you put it so well: “When girls are virgins, they are taught to hold their heads high–when they fall, or show themselves to be imperfect, they inevitably then feel shame….Is it really better for our daughters to be virgins with egos or non-virgins with complexes than to feel that sex can have a place outside marriage?”

    I think you’ve inspired a follow up post! Well, you actually wrote a really great follow up post, disguised as a comment, which has inspired me to take up the topic again. Stay tuned…and thank you.

  • http://salvagedfaith.blogspot.com Katie Z.

    because I was reading the post from today, I clicked on this one – and they are intimately related!!!

    I firmly believe that sexuality is about honoring and respecting our bodies and ourselves and the gift of pleasure that God has given us. But far too often, we limit discussions about sexuality to intercourse and marriage – when sexuality encompasses what clothes we decide to wear, how we feel about our physical bodies, intimacy with another human being, etc.

    Sex=marriage doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because it dishonors all of the parts of sexuality that we experience before/during/after/without intercourse. It doesn’t work because it creates a cycle of shame that leads men and women to hate their bodies and their selves (and this happens disproportionately with women). It doesn’t work because sex within marriage is not always holy and healthy and equating them has led to the perpetuation of marital rape and spousal abuse.

    Sexuality and marriage are intrinsically connected, but they are not mutually exclusive.

    My partner and I waited three years before “doing the deed.” That’s not to say that we didn’t do everything BUT before then. We lived together for a year and a half before we were eventually married – seven and a half years after our relationship officially began. In all of this time, both beforeand after marriage, my partner and I took seriously our discussions about our bodies and our relationship. We honored and respected each other. We grew together emotionally and spiritualy and physically. We gave in to some temptation. We prayed together. We made mistakes and we learned from them. In all of that, the only shame/guilt I have felt has come from outside. Imposed upon me by people who didn’t take the time to listen to or hear or share with me what I was experiencing. I think Betty is right – when we feel shame for something it does make us think about whether what we are doing is right or wrong. But when blanket shame is imposed upon us, without the understanding of what is really happening in any given relationship, I think we are talking about a different animal.