A lot of cultural arguments revolve around the definitions of marriage, sexual mores, and family. For many Christians, these constructs are defined by biblical authority. But if—like me—you aren’t convinced that the Bible completely and inerrantly transcends its time and culture, sexual mores become quite a bit more subjective. As a junior in college I found myself drawing blank when trying to determine the guidelines of my sexual mores. Now I’m just starting to piece them together again.
My introduction to sex education was an official school gathering of all the fifth and sixth grade girls. The memories are dim, but always include live color pictures of bloated and poxed genitalia, the vague idea that all males are intent on having their way with us, and the sudden weight of responsibility to set and maintain strict boundaries against male desire.
Then came seventh grade. The groups were co-ed. We sat around the classroom in a circle and listened to a tape recording of a girl explaining her ‘first time.’ The encounter was apparently driven by sheer boredom while hanging out with a casual male friend. She talked about how it wasn’t fun, how her reputation was ruined, and the boy—previously her friend—ceased to respect or even acknowledge her. Then we were given cartoon diagrams titled things like “Slippery Slope” (a steep progression from ‘holding hands’ to ‘intercourse’), “Wedding Night Casserole” (featuring an embarrassed wife offering her new husband sexual ‘leftovers’ in a casserole dish as he sat dejectedly on the side of the bed) and “Men are like Trains, Women are Like Bicycles.” (I still don’t entirely grasp that metaphor.)
The sexual agency of women was never discussed, only the various ways women may be hurt by the sexual advances of men. We talked about abstinence, and how sex before marriage usually results in the male party losing respect for the female party who ‘let it happen,’ and must then suffer through the resulting emotional attachment for men long gone. I’m sure rape was discussed, but I don’t remember what was said beyond the admonition against ‘winding him up.’ Masturbation wasn’t discussed. Erotica wasn’t discussed. Porn was discussed in the vaguest and most derogatory terms. Sexual orientation wasn’t addressed, and neither was gender identityalthough I think there was a brief acknowledgement that yes, some people are gay, whatever that means. This was the skeleton upon which an adolescent me laid the flesh of sexual misconception.
Perhaps unintentionally, it was implied that girls simply weren’t that sexually driven; or, at least not enough to initiate sexual encounters (or dates, for that matter). If a girl was ‘forward’ she was assumed to be a victim of sexual abuse or the emotional victim of an absent father. In short, the very fact of our sexuality was taboo. We were not to indulge it, we were not to think about it unless it was in the context of how we could best ‘save ourselves’ for marriage.
I find it interesting that when referencing sexual behavior, a person who ‘saves herself for marriage,’ and a person who ‘saves sex for marriage’ are doing the same thing. The synonymy of these phrases seems to indicate that institutions which employ both these phrases in the promotion of abstinence, on some level, actually equate a woman’s personhood and her lack of sexual experience. Instead of being a unique, intimate, and participatory experience, my first sexual experience was portrayed to me as a casserole I would serve up to my husband. It was as though the purpose of my sexuality was the eventual consumption by my spouse. If I ‘let’ another man engage with me sexually, I would have only leftovers to offer my future mate.
In high school I read several Christian relationship books. From these I learned that sexual feelings for anyone besides my husband were to be met with iron resistance, that masturbation was inappropriate because it stole intimacy from my future marriage and robbed my husband of the opportunity to shape my tastes, and that the ideal relationship was predestined by god. Men and women with sexual experience prior to marriage were always portrayed as ‘broken’ or ‘tarnished,’ ‘used’ or ‘spoiled,’ as though the act of sexual intercourse were innately damaging, and only a legal marriage certificate could provide the necessary antidote. The quality of the relationship as a deciding factor in sexual decisions wasn’t usually discussed. And the sex taboo took a bizarre turn when, at the last moment, hip youth leaders told me that marriage was not only a seatbelt, but would imbue ‘awesomeness’ and ‘fun’ into an act previously described as a vehicle of shame.
Looking back, my sex education seems almost absurdly bad, and perhaps that is a product of selective memory. Still, it was this education that helped to shape my understanding of my own sexuality, if only because when I started dating, the walls of shame, confusion, and misinformation were either going to block avenues to a healthy relationship, or be torn down brick by brick.
UPDATE (4 July 13): Another blogger posted this, explaining the sex education she wishes she’d had growing up. It’s a well-written survey of what comprehensive sex education actually looks like, and I find it particularly relateable because our sex-education wish lists are almost identical. Check it out.