“Regardless of your sexual state, you are a human being, you are a created person of God, and you are whole.” - Dianna E. Anderson, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity
DISCLAIMER: This is not about why you should or should not wait for marriage, but rather an examination of each choice. With that being said, I want to begin with why I found it so important to write about this subject. If you’ve read my blog “What My MomTaught Me About Sex,” then you’ll know that when I was a preteen, my mom instilled in me the value of sex. She explained it to me in a way that made it seem sacred. When she was young, her mother had told her that sex is disgusting and if she ever does it she will be dirty. So, my mom made sure to let me know that it was beautiful and not bad at all. She never put the context of marriage on it, only love and respect. But she’s also made sure to let me know through the years that even if I’m not in love, sex is not bad, and I am not dirty or any less of a person for engaging in it. I’m so thankful for her healthy view on it.
It wasn’t until an experience I had with a boy about a year ago (when I was 21) that I started to develop an insecurity about waiting, because a guy I really liked told me he would be sexually frustrated if we never had sex. He wasn’t the only guy who said this to me. Since then, I felt that someone else could give a guy something that I couldn’t.
I used to believe, like many Christians, that my purity was based on my sexuality and physical activities. Religious or not, our culture and society values “virginal’ women, but who are also “sexy.” I’ve been told that men will only marry someone pure, wholesome, and who respects herself. Language taught me that girls who have sex (whether it’s one partner or multiple) are sluts and whores, which means they are shameful and dirty. Men who sleep around are players and pimps, which is a point of pride. For a girl, to be pure was a good and respectful thing no matter who you asked. And being pure meant not doing anything sexual.
After my first boyfriend, I felt like I had lost my purity. I was guilt-ridden and ashamed of myself (it’s important to note that as a Christian, he was experiencing the same shame as me), even though we never had sex. Then I discovered that purity is not about our sexual actions, it’s about our hearts. We both loved each other very much, so I stopped feeling ashamed, and I knew that I was pure because my heart was good and loving.
When I came across Dianna E. Anderson’s book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, I was thrilled, because she talks against the shame of the purity culture, and advocates sexual ethics inside and outside of marriage. She has a whole chapter titled “Let’s Get Biblical: Sex in Scripture,” in which she debunks five myths about waiting for marriage. I’m kind of iffy about her interpretations, but I appreciate that she put the Scripture in context and also discusses the ambiguity of many of them. (In this condensed version, I’ll present a few).
“Myth 1: Sex Makes People One Flesh”
What Anderson says:
She says that we are told, “Having sex with someone creates a lifelong marriage-like bond, which is why premarital sex is such a huge problem.” She says that Christians reference Deut. 22:13-30 to illustrate the unity of sex, which give rules about sexual relations. These verses focus on a woman’s virginity, divorce, adultery, and the consequences of rape. A woman was a man’s property, and her job was to “produce heirs to continue the family business and keep the genetic line going,” thus proof of her virginity was important so that the man knew that all of her children were his.
Advocates of purity also point to Matthew 19, where Jesus is asked about divorce, in which he replies, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” When asked why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus said, “… Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”
Anderson’s response to the common interpretation of this passage is that, “Marriage creates one flesh, rather than one flesh creating marriage.” So, it’s not sex that makes two people married, it’s the commitment of their marriage that unifies them.
What people say:
When asking my Christian, Catholic, and multi-faith uncles, all of them say the same thing – that the Bible is clear about the unity of sex. Two of them said that God sees you as married to whoever you’ve had sex with. The other one said that you are only supposed to have one sexual partner for your entire life, and if you’ve slept with more than one person, then you are a slut.
A young atheist guy told me that sex is just sex. It’s neutral – neither bad or good. There is definitely a bond formed, but it’s not bad to sleep with more than one person.
What context says:
The Oxford Companion To The Bible edited by Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan works like an encyclopedia for all things Biblical. A goal of marriage was to keep children and property within the family. It was vital that a woman be a virgin by her wedding night, because “families usually traced their genealogies through the male line, with sons inheriting the bulk of the father’s property" (Oxford 496). This is also why adultery was such a big deal, because it threatened the husband’s honor and lineage.
Concerning divorce, before Jesus’ teachings, divorce was legitimate, but looked down upon, and the “the formula used at weddings [was] “I am [your] husband… forever”” (Oxford 690). By the first century c.e., during Jesus’ time, there was a debate about the reasons a man could divorce his wife. Some argued that it could be for any small thing, such as bad cooking, while others said only adultery was a good enough reason. When the Pharisees asked Jesus about this debate, his answer was revolutionary when he said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:11), which put wives “on an equal basis within the marriage.”
Throughout my readings, I couldn’t find very much about the unity of sex, except for 1 Corinthians 6:16, “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.”” It’s hard to get around this idea of sex being unifying after reading that verse, but it’s also important to note that Paul is discussing sexual immorality here.
What I did find was a lot about the sacredness and unity of marriage. Marriage is compared to the covenant between God and Israel. The relationship was monogamous, because “Israel had only one God, and God had chosen Israel over all other peoples,” and “mutual fidelity was expected” (pg. 496). Marriage is supposed to reflect the very sacred, personal, intimate, and committed relationship we have with God. Sexual fidelity is a way to express this, but it’s not the core and reason for the unity of two people. Ancient Israel interpreted “one flesh” to mean “as closely related as brother and sister,” which makes sense for the way we view marriage today. Two people become family.
Myth 2: “One Man, One Woman”
What Anderson says:
Purity advocates say, “The assumption is clear: marriage is one man and one woman, forever.” Except that the Old Testament has various accounts of polygamy. Jacob married two sisters, Solomon had many wives and concubines, and Abraham impregnated a woman who was not his wife, yet none of these acts were condemned by God.
What people say:
Obviously, polygamy isn’t an accepted part of our culture today, but multiple sexual partners throughout our lives is. A married woman told me that her and husband wished they had been each other’s only sexual partners. She and her husband are not religious, but both have Catholic backgrounds.
I asked the young atheist guy how he feels when he learns about a girl’s previous sexual history. Though he didn’t think sex was unifying, he did say he was bothered when a girl told him. It wasn’t as though he wanted to be her first and only, but there still seemed to be this problem with her having been with other guys before him.
I asked a young religious girl, who had only been with her husband, how she felt about knowing that he had many sexual partners before her. She said that at the beginning of their relationship, she was very bothered by it. But eventually, she got over it because she knew her husband only wanted her and she trusted him.
What context says:
In the culture of the Old Testament, their views on sexual behavior are guided by the words in Genesis, “be fruitful and multiply.” God promised his people land, heirs, and many descendants, so having “children [was] the supreme example of divine favor… and childlessness was understood to be a curse” (Oxford 690). Thus polygamy was accepted so that a man could have many children. Only the wealthy could afford to engage in this, but Deuteronomic theologians wanted “even royalty to refrain from the practice because of its religiously adulterating possibilities” (Oxford 691).
*(See extended version for Myth 3)
*(See extended version for Myth 4)
Myth 5: “The Bible Clearly Says Premarital Sex is Sinful”
What Anderson says:
Purity advocates say the Bible is fundamentally clear about premarital sex being a sin. Anderson looks to “Song of Songs” (Song of Solomon) to find contextual clues that tell us it is about premarital sex. In this book, a groom and his bride are praising each other’s bodies and get explicit about their sexual encounters. Many scholars believe they are probably not married yet, and instead the song is taking place prior to the wedding ceremony. A commonly quoted verse is, “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires,” which is repeated throughout the song. Anderson believes it is talking about maturity.
Another popularly quoted verse is 1 Corinthians 7:9, “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Purity advocates say that Paul is telling us to not fornicate or have sexual immorality. Anderson’s interpretation is that Paul is urging us to not make sex an idol, meaning don’t make it the most important thing in your life. She says that the definition of fornication as “sex as idolatry” makes more sense than “sex outside of marital relationship.”
What people say:
Recently, I began to pose a question to many people. I asked, “If two people love each other, is it wrong for them to have sex whether or not they’re considering marriage or not?” Religious people had the hardest time answering this question. They kept going on and on about STD’s, having no morals because you’re sleeping with so many people, getting pregnant and having broken families. But they were avoiding what I had asked. Some did say that premarital sex is always wrong.
Yes, I think it’s wrong to have a lot of sexual partners because you are hurting yourself and others. But what if you’ve only had a few, or just one other partner? What if you are in a committed and loving relationship, and are being very safe? What if the woman doesn’t get pregnant? Then is it wrong for them to have sex outside of marriage? My mother told me that it wasn’t. My dad said something similar, but added a side note, which I’ll mention later.
While me and the atheist guy were talking, he said that there is bad sex and good sex. There is an unhealthy way and a healthy way. It’s our perception on lust and desire that is important. Sexual desires are natural and are not bad, but when they become the only thing you care about, then it’s bad. When you stop considering how your thoughts and actions will affect the other person, then it’s bad. But if there is mutual consent, respect, desire, comfort, and safety, then how can it be bad?
What context says:
The commentary that the Life Application Study Bible provides for 1 Corinthians 7:9, explains that during this time, new Christians thought that all sex was bad. So, engaged couples were deciding to not get married, thus “Paul was telling couples who wanted to marry that they should not frustrate their normal sexual drives by avoiding marriage.” He wasn’t saying marry the first person you lust after, because it is better to deal with desire than an unhappy marriage.
Now let’s talk double standards. In ancient Israel, “All sexual behavior that did not produce legitimate Israelite offspring to the holy commonwealth was, in varying degrees, censured or controlled… Premarital virginity, for example, was incumbent only upon females; there is no indication that males were expected to be virgins at marriage, and there is no provision in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) for lifelong virginity” (Oxford 690). If premarital sex was so bad, then why was it only important for women to be virgins?
Paul advocates celibacy and singleness, because he believed that married life took our attention away from God. If we have no physical distractions, then we could focus all of our attention on God.
Anderson and I share the same reason for exploring this topic – we are against the shame that the purity cultural puts on people, especially women. Also, we care more about the love for one another than condemning someone solely to their sexual status. I believe in a hierarchy of sins, because there are definitely some that are more damaging than others. Even if premarital sex is wrong, or having multiple partners is wrong, it is more wrong to shame them for it, because that is damaging and pushes those people further away from God, or from being in a safe and comfortable place among friends.
That’s why John 8:1-11 is beautiful. When an adulteress was caught in the act, she was brought to Jesus to see what he would have done to her. In verse 7, he says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then everyone left. When he asked her if anyone condemned her, she said no. So in verse 11, he says, “Then neither do I condemn you… Go now and leave your life of sin.”
I disagree with the idea that to be a credible Christian, you have to be a virgin, or you can’t be promiscuous. Jesus never talks about sex! Want to know why? Because it is not even close to the most important part of being a Christian. Sexuality should never be a defining trait for who we are, because there are so many more important qualities. If I could change language, I would say, “That person has virginity,” rather than it being who they are. And “They have a lot of sex,” rather than they are sluts. Sexuality is a part of our whole being, yes important, but it should not be the defining quality. Anderson agrees when she says, “The only thing that a sexually active person is? Is a person. Full stop.”
Anderson advocates that everyone form their own sexual ethics, and that it is not enough just to say, “No sex before marriage!” We need to talk about sexuality “with an ethic of knowing oneself and making good choices.” If we are only ever taught how to say no, then how can we learn to say a healthy yes? She says, “Instead of categorizing all premarital sexual activity as bad, we need to have conversations about consent, and pleasure, and peer pressure.” All sex before marriage is not bad, and all sex after marriage is not good. When talking to a friend about this, she said that her now divorced mother thought sex was bad outside of marriage. And even when she was married, she never enjoyed sex because her husband only cared about his needs. This is not a healthy way of engaging in sex.
Anderson believes that a personal sexual ethic allows people to live out their own sexuality, as long as it doesn’t hurt other people. In fact, a sexual ethic should start “in seeking the good in others.” We need to approach sex by first recognizing the other people as people, instead of just for the pleasure they can provide.
When reading and researching different verses about sexual immorality, there seemed to be no definitive answer on what that phrase meant. So, time to get only slightly philosophical. Morality consists of principles that govern between right and wrong, bad and good. But the problem is that everyone has a different moral compass. What is wrong for one person is not wrong for another. Thus, sexual immorality is different from person to person and between different people groups and cultures.
I think what is most important is to be honest with yourself. How do your actions make you feel now, and in the long run? What are your boundaries? Why are they there? Your choices should be for the right reasons, and should only come from you – not fear or pressure.
Waiting until you’re ready is incredibly important, and that doesn’t necessarily mean until marriage for some, but for others it most definitely does. Anderson says, readiness “means being comfortable enough with yourself and your partner to enthusiastically consent.” That could mean the wedding night, or it could not. Regardless, we need to respect other people’s choices. It is okay to be a virgin and it is okay not to be. It’s okay to be any way you want sexually as long as it’s consensual, mutual, and doesn’t involve hurting anyone.
What I have found most interesting is that even though I could use the cultural context of the Bible to prove that it is not clear about waiting until marriage, it’s the responses I’ve had from people, religious or not, that coincide with what I believe. I believe that God’s original intention was for one man to be with one woman forever, and that this union is symbolic of our union with God. But, because we live in a fallen world, we have been given rules and regulations to help us not be controlled by sin. Such as how Moses allowed divorce in the Old Testament, though Jesus says that was not God’s original intention.
When I asked the young atheist guy about sex, he said that in our cultural now, it is impractical to wait and that no one does. But then as we talked further, and we got into the discussion of how he felt about knowing about a girlfriend’s sexual history, he admitted that for him, sex is very bonding, but again he said that this isn’t an ideal world. So when I asked about the ideal world, I proposed this scenario: if he had the opportunity to only love and be with one girl for his whole life, who had only loved and been with him, would he prefer that? He said yes, but our world is not like that.
He’s right, our world is not like that, but it does in all practicality make the most sense to be monogamous for life. I learned that lesson, not because of sex, but because of love. After the pain of my first break, I concluded that God never intended for us to love more than one person or have multiple partners. It gets too painful and too complicated.
I’m very thankful to be able to have open discussions with my parents about these kinds of subjects, because the most important lessons I learn are from them. My mom was the first one who shaped my thoughts and views of sex, but my dad recently solidified them for me. When I asked him about his thoughts on waiting, he didn’t condemn anyone who didn’t wait. He didn’t provide any kind of judgment, or say what we should or shouldn’t do. But he did tell me this: that’s it’s beautiful to know after twenty years of marriage, if you’re still happy and in love, that you’ve only given yourself to one person. And I completely agree.
p.s. I still strongly believe that waiting or not waiting doesn't make anyone more or less pure. It's your heart that counts.
For the complete and extended version of this post, click on this link The Extended Version
The Oxford Companion to the Bible edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (Oxford University Press: 1993
New International Version: Life Application Study Bible
Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity by Dianna E. Anderson (Jericho Books: 2015)