This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
I ask about 100 people, either by phone or by knocking on doors, the same question each week as an organizer at a reproductive health nonprofit.
“Are you a supporter of women’s health services such as breast cancer screenings and birth control?” I say. Typically people will tell me “sure,” say they aren’t interested in taking my survey, or tell me that they are already strong supporters of the movement and will fill out whatever I have for them that day.
One particular morning while out canvassing, I knocked on a door and a woman answered. After running through my usual spiel, I was taken aback by her answer. “No, I practice abstinent sex and depend on the Lord for my health services,” she told me.
I smirked to myself as I tried to interpret “abstinent sex,” which I assumed meant that she is celibate now to strengthen her spirituality.
But then I remembered she sounded a lot like me nearly a decade ago.
When I was 14, I decided to wait until marriage to have sex. I was so proud of this revelation that I wore it like a badge of honor, as part of my identity as a teen. Sometimes I would try to determine who the virgins in my school classes were, and the non-virgins—of course, the latter were, in my mind, the bad kids.
I held the moral high ground as a “good girl.” The premise was simple: Good girls were girls who did well in school and did not pay attention to boys. Good girls were those who waited for love and marriage, and took the time in our youth to develop other interests in academia and community service (in our churches). It was as if as soon as a young woman had sex, she would become disinterested in school, church, and volunteer activities, I was taught by faith leaders to believe.
I was playing by the rules of my Protestant upbringing. I learned in church that sex was bad, unless I was married, because the Bible said so. Preachers referred to scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 6:19 (“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit that is within you, whom you have from God?”) and Galatians 5:19 (“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality.”) to support their claims that sex outside of marriage is sinful in the eyes of God and makes one dirty.
And yet, as a minister now, I realize that these scriptures do not speak directly to sex inside modern marriage as we know it, and “sexual immorality” could mean many things. For example, many biblical scholars agree that porneia, from which the word fornication is loosely translated, does not necessarily mean premarital sex. It can refer to many sins of sexuality. As Boykin Sanders explains in True to our Native Land, in 1 Corinthians 6:9 the word porneia refers to men being sexually involved with their father’s wife, and other forms of adultery.
But for many churchgoing young people, the pressures to abstain from sex, based on inaccurate interpretations of scripture by preachers and other church leaders, are compelling. For me at least, abstinence meant that I could stay spiritually and physically pure, and able to focus on things that were important to me, such as school, deciding on a career, and loving myself outside of a relationship. These are positive teachings from church, but it is also important for young people to understand that having sex doesn’t necessarily mean that we lose those parts of ourselves just by doing it.
I’ve frequently heard in church the idea that our bodies are “temples” to discourage individuals from having sex. But, I wondered, how does having sex dishonor our temples? This question made more sense to me when I learned in divinity school about Western philosophy and the idea that our bodies and souls are separate, and that in order to be a good Christian, we have to give into the desires of our spirits by denying desires of the body.
That philosophy didn’t make sense to me, because not only is it used to encourage women to be abstinent, it encourages people to pray about illness instead of seeking treatment or taking measures to be healthy (such as healthy eating, exercise, and annual doctors’ visits), encourages Christians to ignore mental health issues, and doesn’t allow Christians to grieve in their own unique ways. Growing up, I frequently heard sermons for people who were in real pain, where they were told to pray and God would give them strength. Indeed, prayer can give us strength, but prayer as a quick fix without acknowledging pain and grief can invalidate human pain.
Over the years I also came to understand that abstinence is a spiritual practice, and while it is a fine one, all of us do not have to adopt such a practice in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. It’s actually impracticable to seek to attain the exact spiritual practice of others since we all walk different paths in life. A starving person, for example, would not be able to fast, nor would someone with diabetes or another medical condition that affects their diet. They would need to adopt other methods to practice their religion. Many people who choose not to abstain from sex adopt other spiritual practices to fulfill their religious experience as well.
Abstinence would not help me in my advocacy work fighting back against poverty, inequality, racism, and the patriarchy. Yes, I could hold the badge of honor that I was celibate, but if that was the only thing I did to practice my religion, I knew I was doing it wrong.
Ultimately, shaming me from having sex did not improve my spiritual journey, it just made me feel guilty about my own natural urges.
The first time I had sex I thought it was going to be life-changing—and it wasn’t. We did it and held each other after, and the next morning, as I usually do as a young minister on Sunday mornings, I went to church.
I always thought I would feel differently, that it would change me, or that I would feel an incredible loss. Or worse, that I would be forever attached to the person (I’m not). It was an important milestone in my life, and I was careful about choosing the person with whom I would experience it. But it didn’t change who I was as a person.
As much as I was discouraged by faith leaders from having sex before marriage, I still did it, like many spiritual women who have come before me. In fact, a 2011 study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy revealed that 80 percent of young people who self-identified as evangelical Christians are having sex. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of African-American regular church attendees support access to contraception and abortion. Why? Because we are having sex and understand that contraceptives and abortion are essential parts of our health care.
These fights against women’s health care—such as the recent attempts to defund Planned Parenthood or the refusal of Catholic hospitals to provide basic reproductive health care and perform tubal ligations for women who need them—come down to the fact that women are having sex, and men in leadership, whether they are faith leaders or elected officials, don’t agree with it. Instead of saying they don’t agree, they depict sex as a traumatic experience and stigmatize reproductive health care, painting abortion as a sinful and regrettable act. Most recently, the Pope instructed priests to forgive women for having an abortion, suggesting their decisions about their own bodies and families were wrong.
Many people in leadership believe women should be punished for having sex. They believe pregnancy is a consequence of acting irresponsibly, so women must endure it whether they want to or not. They believe women who have had sex should be deemed ineligible for dating and future relationships. Some faith leaders believe women should be punished by experiencing spiritual turmoil and feeling separated from God. But we don’t have to—and shouldn’t—feel shame. I don’t feel bad about living out my humanity in this way.
I’m glad women are fighting back against slut-shaming. Sexuality does not have to be a secret, and religious individuals should not have to feel guilty for having sex. There are many reasons to have sex, just as there are many reasons women may opt for contraception or choose to terminate a pregnancy. For many of us, these decisions are not shameful, they are simply a normal part of being human.