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“Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if boys had vaginas and girls had penises?”
Eating skittles under a kidney-shaped table, I peeked out under my Bible costume at my apparently sexually advanced friend. We were four years old and having snacktime at Vacation Bible School. That is my first memory of any type of sexual conversation or experience.
This perhaps surprising setting of Bible school sex ed represents my own conflicted journey through the maze of sexuality and spirituality and how they connect -- and conflict.
Although every person’s spiritual journey, just as their sexual journey, is totally different, perhaps my story will be something many of you can relate to. I was raised in a conservative evangelical home where my morality was defined by what the Bible, my parents, and my Sunday School teachers thought. I was fortunate enough to attend a church where sex was seen as a blessing from God and sexual conversations were open- but with the caveat that heterosexual marriage as the only moral method of expression. I still felt sexual feelings like when my friends and I giggled over naked pictures we found in books or on TV late at night or played with our naked Barbies, commenting afterwards ashamedly that we “had to pee.”
Growing up, I took it for granted that sex was something I would save for marriage.
When I was 13, my parents gave me a “True Love Waits” ring as a symbol of saving my virginity for my future husband. All throughout high school, this idea was not altered. I had only one close friend who was not a virgin and my friends and I would gossip about the girls at school who had sex and I could not envision why any husband would want a wife who was less than "pure" for him. Also, because I did not date in high school, sexuality was not even something I dealt with -- I was too busy with church and school and friends to date. Conversations about sex with friends consisted of either jokes, dreams of our wedding nights, or virginity.
When I began my first relationship in college, my faith was already being challenged greatly, as often happens in college. However, I knew in my heart that saving myself for marriage was something I would not give in to, because I felt that anything less would be a disservice to my future husband (interestingly enough, I thought no such high standards for my future husband; it didn’t matter to me whether or not he was a virgin on our wedding night. In retrospect, this speaks volumes to the double standard of virginity often imposed upon females, while its seen as natural for men to “sow their wild oats” before marriage.) However, my boyfriend felt differently about sexuality; he felt it could be a really special part of a committed relationship, but he respected my decision and let me draw the boundaries in the relationship.
Around this same time, other friends became both less sure of traditional Christian faith and also more sexually expressive. We also began to talk more about it and as friends started having sex I realized it really doesn’t change someone. I had some idea before that once you started having sex outside of marriage you became some kind of sinful monster, but my sexually active friends still drank coffee, babysat, studied for tests, and grappled with the big questions of life. They were still my friends.
As my boyfriend and I grew closer and closer, sexuality became more of an issue for me as I struggled, as many of you do, with the competing feelings of wanting to express the sexuality with someone I love, and the deeply ingrained values of my parents and childhood church. Throughout it all, as I became more comfortable with some activities, I also became aware of myself as a sexual creature both with my boyfriend and on my own through masturbation.
I wish I could say this is a conflict I have fully resolved, or that I had some kind of concrete answer for you about how to resolve it yourself, but to this day I still fight to determine whether or not abstaining from intercourse is something I choose due to religious ideas I’ve outgrown, or whether it is something I want for myself as something to share with only the person I marry. The difficult, and beautiful part, is that my faith journey and my journey to discover my sexual self walk hand in hand.
However, perhaps it will be helpful to address some of the common themes that I have noted in my experiences and studies of religion and sexuality. I do want to state that I come from, as I stated before, a Christian background, so my experiences may be dramatically different from those of you with nonreligious, backgrounds, or those of you of different religions. Also, I am not addressing the topic of homosexuality and the common conflict with religion, since it isn't personal to me, and as it is such a weighty topic that it deserves a separate article.
One common concern that arises surrounding religion and sexuality is the misguided idea that pleasure and desire are sinful and dirty. As I talked to friends to prepare for writing this article, one of my good friends, raised Catholic, explained a traumatic experience from her youth. She was attending a church conference and had a crush on one of the camp workers. She also happened to be wearing shorts, and one of the female leaders pulled her aside and told her that her lust for the worker and her tempting him with her immodest shorts was sinful and she should pray to a saint who was also very beautiful but fought off sexual advances to remain virginal and saintly.
Often, virginity is portrayed as the ultimate goal for women in a religion, although this is not the case. This can become confusing with religious terminology such as the emphasis on the “Virgin” Mary, instead of focusing on Mary’s important role in being the mother of Jesus and thus changing history; which has nothing at all to do with her sexual behavior.
Many backgrounds teach that sexual expression of any kind is inappropriate except for within the bounds of heterosexual marriage. There is an idea to shut off sexuality until the sacred wedding night, when all feelings and experiences will come together in a beautiful bed of roses and fireworks will explode. Not surprisingly, people who think of sexuality as sinful do not automatically become comfortable in sexuality upon marriage and in fact struggle to feel pleasure and override the guilt for years and years.
No matter what sexual behaviors you feel comfortable expressing, it is important to realize that we are all sexual beings and to try and repress that is detrimental to emotional and spiritual well-being. This isn’t to say that if you agree with your religious mandates to abstain from intercourse until marriage, for example, that you can’t express sexuality. You may find it better to enjoy kissing or making out, oral sex, masturbation, or simply becoming aware of your own body through yoga or other exercise. The important thing is to increase an awareness and enjoyment of your own body and its responses.
One important point to realize in grappling with sexuality within a specific belief system is to differentiate between religion and spirituality. Spirituality is an all-encompassing way of life and how you view the world and your role in it. Religion is the institution, such as the church that offers a community and guidelines for living. Some people connect the two, and others don’t.
Another huge challenge comes from not only determining what belief system to follow, but also the fact that even within specific belief systems there is a wide range of opinion over sexual practices, such as “It’s a sin to have sexual intercourse before marriage, but oral sex is okay.” “Making out is okay, but if the guy gets an erection you’ve gone too far.” “Sexual fantasies are only okay if they are about your spouse.”
Unfortunately, because sexuality becomes confusing and the lines are blurred, many teens (and people in general) end up trying to deny all sexual urges and thoughts altogether, because it seems easier to just ignore it, if we actually could. However, this suppressed sexuality often leads to feelings of shame, guilt, or even eventual unsafe sexual actions due to being caught up in the moment and feeling to think through contraception or relational aspect, often leading to more guilt or even STI’s or unwanted pregnancies.
Just as sexuality does not create your entire personality, neither does it determine your spiritual self. Yes, it may be an important part of your morality system, but no belief system or religion is based off of your sexual behavior. You can be free to learn, create, question, and challenge any belief system (or lack thereof) regardless of your sexual behavior.