My last post: I was trying to write too much in a short space. I wanted to talk about the evangelical emphasis on virginity that turns nearly every physical encounter into foreplay. And I wanted to talk about another kind of passion, extolled in the Bible, to leave everything and follow Christ. Instead, the last post launched this in my WP notebook:
In Colombia, I had a class of seniors who were reading. All of their big adult bodies in narrow rows of desks, the boys with their long legs kicked out; the girls sitting with one leg crossed over the other, ankles turning circles. They leaned back in their chairs or slouched over their desks, flipping pages in the afternoon heat. I glanced around the room and saw a boy take a long strand of a girl’s hair and twirl it around his fingers. I saw a girl place her hand on a boy’s thigh. They rested against each other, reading and turning pages.
I didn’t have that growing up. As an adolescent, I got a very limited view of what physical affection was appropriate between boys and girls. My parents were affectionate with each other and with us, but I was a Christian teenager in the nineties when the True Love Waits campaign collected signatures from kids vowing abstinence until marriage. I got a chastity ring with a tiny heart and cross that I got tired of explaining and once told a boy was an Irish wedding ring.
The church itself said sex was sacred and the marital union represents Christ and his bride, the church. Sacred sounds mysterious and mysterious sounds like you aren’t supposed to ask questions. But what virgin wants to ask why God chose sex as a metaphor of Christ’s love for the church: it’s too much to think about when you’re fifteen.
The closest I got to an honest discussion about the emotional aspects of sex was at church camp one summer when the boys and girls split. We all knew this meant the boys would talk about porn and the girls would talk about saving your heart and dating Jesus.
(Which still sounds weird to me. Dating Jesus. He’s God. You don’t date God.)
But that summer, we knew the couple who’d gotten drunk at homecoming and had sex and regretted it. So the female campers and counselors really dug into the idea of guarding your heart, a charge given to all Christ followers and relating to far more than your private bits. It was the first time I heard the term “second virginity” which I hate about as much as “dating Jesus” but still, it prompted me to think about what happens when good Christian kids lose it.
And I’ve thought about this a lot since. After moving to Colombia and seeing the open affection between teenage girls and boys, I wondered why I grew up afraid of touching a boy. Afraid, really, that I wouldn’t be able to stop myself and one teensy tiny touch would spark this giant sex torch and burn the place down. And by touch, I mean: hug, kiss, hold hands, lean against, breathe in. I don’t mean hands down the pants. That might burn the place down.
Let’s not undersell self-control. And let’s not neglect the gift of affection. Here in the Middle East, I see teenage boys hold hands, kiss cheeks, pat backs in camaraderie. And the girls, as is given everywhere there are girls, hug and walk close. Though public affection here is usually kept to same gender, it is still treated in a way I didn’t see in the States.
As in: affection isn’t just sexual. I remember watching the seniors in my Colombian classroom, wondering if I should say something, as I might have in Wisconsin. Something like a whispered “Hands to yourself please.” That makes sense after coming from a school where an eighth grade boy was caught with a hand down his lab partner’s pants; from a country whose high school dance rules have to specify no simulated sex acts at prom.
It was another month or so before I understood that the affection between my senior boys and girls didn’t necessarily indicate who was dating whom or whether there was any sexual interest. Living in Colombia and now Kuwait, and seeing normal affection between teenagers, I wonder what got skewed during my adolescence. By the time I went to college and started dating, I had no sense of reasonable physical boundaries. Everything felt really good and really bad. Only one young man I dated held a more careful approach to our physical relationship and the affection shared was truly that, unattached from sexual expectation.
So I’ve been writing around this for nearly a decade, sorting out my own experience and observing what cultures practice. Sometimes I’m angry because I think it’s horrible to act as if a couple kids snuggling during a movie is robbing them of sexual joy in a distant marriage. I wonder if the hook-up culture in the States (and elsewhere) is partly born of neglecting affection. We crave touch and if the touch available is an accelerated sexual relationship, then maybe that’s what we take. But what if girls and boys keep the affection they have as kindergarteners, leaning on each other during reading time, linking arms across campus? What if kids got to keep touch that wasn’t tied to sex?
I may be speaking to the limited experience of Christian kids told sex is beautiful / holy / sacred / special / awesome, but only within marriage. I may be speaking of those same Christian kids whose every physical pleasure came with guilt and fear that this was too far. But if this was too far, why not go ahead with that too, in a spirit of equal sin and delayed repentance?
This is widening to bigger things and I’ll go there, but not now.
Follow up: I read Ephesians this morning and chapter five addresses expectations for husbands and wives, tall orders to both partners in a marriage, and the union’s illustration of Christ and the church. It’s worth reading carefully, as I believe the whole marriage (not just sex) is designed to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the church.
More follow up: The adults in my younger life, especially my parents and church community, were good examples of living our faith. When I consider my fear that physical affection was as sinful as sleeping around: that’s my mess. My parents didn’t put that on me. Because I didn’t date until college, a lot of my questions about what was okay were not answered. I only had this idea that sex was special and worth waiting for – a message repeated in many forms in evangelical media. Consequences like pregnancy were obvious, but no one had a concrete emotional or intellectual reason why abstaining was worth it.
I suppose that’s a kind of the point. Faith doesn’t always lend well to concrete intellectual reasoning. We have to take a leap.
But still. I wish I’d been fifty times less freaked out about whether it was okay to hold hands. I was not chaste, but a constantly fretful, guilty college freshman. So I keep writing to understand that part of me and other good Christian kids, who fell short on purity but still yearned to get faith right.
Christ wants it all. Every part of our lives. And when I was a teenager, it seemed it was my responsibility to steer clear of sex. I don’t agree with that anymore. My holiness is not dependent on my careful choices. I am made holy only in Christ.
I pray differently because of my wider Romans 7 experiences. I pray my appetite is changed. My physical, emotional, and spiritual appetites do change. I beg to want what is right. I ask again and again.
I didn’t know how to ask like that when I was a college freshman.
Yet more follow up: As for the hook up culture and returning simple affection to adolescents: I think young men and women need to know the value of their lives and bodies and treat one another with tenderness. If sex distracts from a better relationship, quit. Know a person more than their body. But this also goes to the heart. If we’re motivated by fear or guilt or selfishness, love gets choked.
Last follow up: This is what happens in my head, readers. I’ll keep writing around this topic and find a story. Maybe not anytime soon. But write fearlessly. Write the tough stuff. Write the offensive stuff. Write the confusing stuff. It’s much easier to close the notebook, but give yourself another page or two.