We have been issued with the Christian sexual mandate. Not a date with an actual man, just to clarify (churches have not pursued this potentially winning idea. Something to do with the Bible, I think. Just one of the many reasons my application to the Moonies remains on hold). I refer, of course, to the accepted and revered mandate about sex: we don’t do it. We get married; and then we do it – ecstatically, frequently, without problems or further mention.
There are some for whom it has happened almost exactly that way. Yes, temptation exists – cue the couple who decided not to be in a room together with the door closed before they married (not a guaranteed solution for those with exhibitionist tendencies) – but there is also restraint. Responsibility. Accountability. The knowledge that ‘the wait’ will make it all worthwhile.
There are a lot of people waiting, though – waiting and then waiting some more – who could wait for 20, 30 years or longer. There are those in their early 20s who feel like they’ve already waited a very long time, and those some years older realising waiting might be all they ever do. The advice shifts over the years from ‘enjoy this time of preparation!’ to ‘enjoy your singleness!’ to ‘channel your energies into other things, use that time you’d have been distracted by a spouse – no, I don’t know why you haven’t met someone, you seem great to me – to pray and volunteer for rotas, don’t think about anything too stimulating and for goodness sake, don’t touch yourself. Or anyone else, for that matter. And let’s never speak of this again.
The focus is on meeting someone – being ‘ready’, finding The One, whether The One actually exists – and eventual promotion to the mysterious world of marriage. But is it really so all-or-nothing anymore? And where do we park the sex drive if relationships stall? For those that do couple up, there’s the awkward time in between first contact to happy ever after; that’s a lot of uncharted territory. The respectful averting of (metaphorical) eyes at unmarried couples’ arrangements and personal boundaries, the wide and varied landscape known as ‘everything but’. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
It can be a make or break issue, sending some running from God. Male and female leaving faith behind because the urge to have sex was too strong. Occurring mostly during early 20s, when finally away from parental eyes and surrounded by opportunity. ‘Tempted’, said the girls, by the idea they will struggle to meet a Christian man worth waiting for. ‘Overwhelmed’, said the boys (the polite word for horny); the battle between God and hormones was one hormones would win when the idea of settling down was years away. Some maintained a superficially Christian life and experimented, with porn, casual relationships, even prostitution. Others dived into marriage and have been having adventurous and interesting sex ever since (I sometimes wish I didn’t talk to other people. Especially enthusiastically-descriptive people) or not, because of guilt over their prior experiences or confusion over expectations.
When Christian couples are living together while planning the wedding and singles are dealing with frustration at best and sometimes morning after pills, pregnancy tests, STDs and hook-ups, are the only ones waiting for marriage before any physical interaction those without opportunity? In a 2011 American survey 80 per cent of unmarried 18 to 29-year-old respondents describing themselves as evangelical had also had sex. I wonder how perceptions are changing. When I go on a date, is one of us thinking no sex till marriage and the other thinking it’s the way to get to know someone, part of a normal relationship or even just a chance for some physical contact? If I mention a male friend is staying over, do people assume I’m sleeping with him? Would other Christians think I’m naïve if I want to marry someone I haven’t slept with as I can’t really know them? Does it matter? We teach but don’t police, one pastor said. It seems to be a matter for the individual conscience.
Does that mean grace has expanded to cover everything that feels good? That warm and fuzzy hug-in-word-form fornication seems to have floated away with the ark, along with chastity and abstinence, leaving many of us to find our own standards in relationships. We might think it’s a good idea not to sleep with anyone until we’re married, but it seems we do it anyway, often as we wait longer than ever before to meet someone and fight (or give in to) our urges, often in secret.
Can we create a culture where we talk about sex? Not hypothetically, from a distance, about waiting for it until marriage and that being worthwhile, but about what’s really going on. Why we often don’t – can’t – wait and why not. About what happens when we’ve already done it, and why it’s not about ‘waiting’ but about how we live. Let’s talk about why what we do matters. Not just with accountability programmes that focus on the symptoms, but through conversations that grow a deeper understanding of how our sexuality is shaped, how our culture influences us and what each of us is really worth. Can we grow to understand we are not separate from those around us, from the images we consume, from our own bodies? Let’s talk about it so we’re not left with awkward questions, difficult situations and broken hearts. Let’s be honest. Let’s help each other.