Provoked by Elizabeth Smart’s story, this spring Christians have filled the Internet with discussions about sex—particularly abstinence education—so much that on May 23 the Atlantic posted a summary of these debates in “Why Some Evangelicals Are Trying to Stop Obsessing Over Pre-Marital Sex.”
Although these conversations are evidence that Christians are forming a more candid, holistic and theologically sound discourse about sex, an area that still needs more attention is the far-reaching effects of abstinence rhetoric on marriage.
While the movement is great at detailing— and exaggerating—the benefits of saving sex for marriage, it is dishonest about the challenges abstinence presents to couples who eventually tie the knot.
Jessica Ciencin Henriquez recently detailed how the abstinence movement affected her sex life and marriage in a revealing article titled, “My Virginity Mistake.” Henriquez relays how she pledged herself to Jesus at a purity ceremony at age 14, remained a virgin until she married six years later, and wound up divorced after she and her husband could not make things work in the bedroom.
Looking back, Henriquez states if she had not insisted on waiting for sex until marriage, she could have prevented her divorce. The provocative subtitle of her article reads, “I took an abstinence pledge hoping it would ensure a strong marriage. Instead, it led to a quick divorce.”
Henriquez’s story is important because it highlights an issue the abstinence movement rarely acknowledges: sexual incompatibility within marriage. While this issue may seem irrelevant, it is actually fundamental to traditional Christian beliefs about sex. The fact that sexual compatibility does not matter to Christians when choosing a spouse makes the shocking and countercultural statement that sex is not our God. It indicates that we are willing to make a commitment to someone with whom we may be sexually incompatible, with whom we may never have good sex, because the purpose of marriage is not pleasure, but formation.
Our discourse about sex, however, tends to tell another story, a story that elevates sex to an inordinate degree. The abstinence movement, relying primarily on anecdotes, promises the young unmarrieds that if they save sex for marriage, they will have what Claire and Eli call “reward sex.” In other words, sex will be everything they’ve dreamed it would be—electric, erotic, or, as Elisabeth Elliot, who helped initiate the movement with her book Passion and Purity, writes “unspeakably worth the wait.” Not only are these promises incorrect, but they imply that the purpose of abstinence is good sex, not obedience to God and the cultivation of virtue.
This discourse is not confined to the unmarried, however. Once couples say “I do,” for the rest of their lives, they are expected to have good sex and a lot of it. Christian publications are brimming with instructions on these two contradictory principles: sexual compatibility doesn’t matter when selecting a spouse, but after marriage, couples are treated as if having good sex is part-and-parcel of the call to be a Christian. If you aren’t having good sex, you are expected to go to your local Christian bookstore and choose from a variety of titles—ranging from the classic The Act of Marriage by Tim and Beverly LaHaye to the more recent Sheet Music by Dr. Kevin Leman.
In addition to misrepresenting the role of sex in a Christian’s life, this discourse also smacks of an inferiority complex that wants to compete with mainstream culture’s view of sex rather than modeling a rightly ordered sexual ethic to the world. For example, teachings on the Song of Solomon can range from using the book as a modern-day sex manual to a tool of manipulation to get women to acquiesce to inflated views of sex, such as a well-known pastor controversially enjoining women to perform oral sex because "Jesus Christ commands you to do so." These sort of teachings on sex indicate the spurious claim many Christians accept: that the call to be a married Christian includes within it an obligation to become a sex god or goddess.
Read it all here. I have to admit, this year, my ideas about sex have been continually challenged, but in a good way. I've been rethinking a lot of the standard fare I was taught in church and Christian school, evaluating them as compared to what the Bible actually says in contrast to what pastors and teachers opine. I'm very thankful, too.