Christians are Afraid of Sex

Not all Christians, obviously. It’s just that “Evangelical Christians who try to force schools into abstinence-only sex education only do so because they’re afraid of sex” is a really long title for an article. So don’t get angry just yet.

This is a story about growing up and learning, or not learning, about sex and sexuality in the world of Evangelical Christianity. I’ve been writing around the subject this week but I think it might help to offer a little bit of context. See, I come from two separate worlds. I went to public schools and got the full range of comprehensive sex education. I also went to church and got the full range of Evangelical sex education.

The two types of sex ed are subtly different but if you pay attention the differences are clear. In school I got to sit in science classes and learn about sexually transmitted diseases and watch my teacher put a condom on a banana. In church I was told that if you have sex outside of marriage you’re a dirty sinner and you’ll probably go to hell.

Here’s one of those things that I don’t think a lot of people appreciate: sex ed is tough in schools. I got a couple rounds of it at the tail-end of grade school and in junior high, so we’re talking the 10–13 year-old range.[1] This is a super uncomfortable moment for everyone, but it’s really hard for a 13 year-old, since that’s the time when the word “weiner” is really funny. Also 23. And 33. And, I’d assume, 43, and 93. But at 13 you’re just learning that it’s funny. So you get pulled into this unit where you have to talk about things that make you uncomfortable and you’re really not ready to face and it lasts a week or two in science classes and then it ends and everyone breathes a sigh of relief and goes back to dissecting frogs or whatever.

Sex ed in church, meanwhile, is a 24/7 thing that lasts from the cradle to the grave. When I was in junior high one of the leaders of my youth group got married. He got back and the topic of sex came up and his response was, “I will tell you this, guys, it’s totally worth it to wait.” That, right there, is Evangelical Christian sex education. It’s a technically sex-positive statement (“it’s worth it”) that reinforces the overall sex-negative message of Evangelical Christianity (“sex is only good when both people are married to each other”).

This is also the point where we began getting the message that boys can’t control themselves and it’s the girls’ fault. They did this primarily through dress codes. I used to go on the missions trips and retreats and there was always a dress code for girls that included “no tank tops.” If there was going to be swimming involved the rules also included “only one piece bathing suits.” There were sometimes limits on the length of shorts or skirts, but I only specifically remember the tank top and one piece bathing suit thing. The only limit for guys? We had to wear shirts all the time. Unless there was swimming involved.

All of this was to create and then reinforce the message that if something sexual happened it was the fault of the girl. Specifically it was the fault of the girl for not wearing enough clothing. This is something I now find super weird, as I have never in my life looked at an exposed shoulder and just immediately had all the blood rush from my head. To, um, my other head, I guess is where I was going with that. Meanwhile, if you ever meet a guy who hasn’t mentally constructed what a woman looks like naked even if the only time he’s seen her is in a biohazard containment suit at least once in his life, congratulations, you are talking to a gay guy. And, hell, most gay guys have probably done that a time or two himself.

My point is that an exposed shoulder isn’t going to turn a missions trip into a two-week fuckfest.[2] My other point is that boys naturally know how to control themselves. Boys hit puberty and immediately start obsessing about boobs and constant masturbation and all of that jazz. The vast majority of boys do not then immediately start sexually assaulting all of the girls around them because we know that’s not how we’re supposed to behave.[3]

I would argue that the Evangelical fear of sex is what creates all of the problems Evangelical sex shaming attempts to solve.

Let’s take homosexuality as an example. At some point in every straight person’s life they hit a point where they wonder if they are at least a little bit gay. They see someone from a long distance who looks like an attractive member of the opposite sex and as that person gets closer they realize it’s someone of the same sex. Or they read something that involves homosexuality and get aroused. Or they have a weird sex dream. Whatever.[4]

Within the Christianity I knew it was literally impossible to honestly explore the questions raised by these moments. This, I believe, is why we have so many stories of super anti-gay male Christian leaders who get caught with male prostitutes. They might not actually be gay at all but at some point they had a moment where they wondered and they began to worry and they pushed that thought down and only pulled it out late at night to worry over it and eventually they just couldn’t live without knowing. If they’d just been able to say, “Huh, this might be a legitimate thing,” and then gone and slept with another dude or fired up some gay porn they might have found out that, nope, that’s just not their thing and been able to move on with their lives. Of course there’s the flip side where they might have found out that, yeah, there’s something there but if no one told them that it was a horrible sin that dare not speak its name they could have just followed that road wherever it went.

This doesn’t actually get any easier for heterosexual self-exploration. Me thinking about sex with a girl was just as sinful as me thinking about sex with a boy even though me being attracted to a girl was expected while me being attracted to a boy was wrong. It was just assumed that god would play matchmaker and you and your future spouse would meet and enjoy a frigid, sexless courtship and then you’d get married and have glorious, mind-blowing sex. This would happen, by the way, because god will totes be there on the wedding night to make sure everything works correctly the first time.

For the record, this was one of those things that I actually worried about. I used to believe that, yes, there was that one girl out there who god had made just for me and fear that I wouldn’t find her attractive. Or, to let J.D. tell it:

I actually pre-date the time of internet porn. I grew up in the ’90s when unguarded Playboys were still the Holy Grail (and I never had any). So I did what basically everyone has done in this situation throughout history. I developed a vast repertoire of erotic friend fiction.

I, um, I didn’t write mine down. Or read it in front of the school. I kept it hidden away because it was shameful and wrong to ever think about sex.

Internet porn became a big thing when I was in my early 20s. It was an epidemic in Evangelical Christianity to hear the Christians talk about it. We would have men’s groups and accountability partners where we would all sit around and admit our sins to each other. The one that always came up was porn. To hear anyone tell it they were all addicted.

I did not watch porn. I did not want to become addicted. I did not want to make Jesus mad at me. I also had my own perfectly good erotic friend fiction to fall back on. The weird thing about all of that for me, though, is that sometime after I left Christianity it occurred to me that, hey, I can totally watch porn now. And I immediately found out that porn is exceptionally stupid. I was scared all along of becoming addicted to this thing because the guys around me were telling me that they were addicted to it and it was to be avoided and it was bad. So I avoided looking at it or thinking about it or seeking it out.

Once I actually gave myself permission to learn about it I found out that not only was it not a big deal, but it wasn’t something worth caring about.

And this brings us back full circle. In the Christianity of my youth everyone was scared of sex. Because they were scared of sex they refused to understand sex. Because they refused to understand sex they feared sex.

This would all just be a sad story except for the fact that it actually hurts people every day. Gay people are treated as pariahs. All sexual activity, wanted or unwanted, is blamed on girls who don’t follow a strict code. Boys are told that they are wild, uncontrolled and uncontrollable sex beasts.[5]

Finally, and crucially, this creates a scenario where absolutely no distinction is made between types of sexual contact. If girls are supposed to stop boys from sex then there’s no difference between sex and sexual assault. If all sex outside of marriage is bad then two teens experimenting is the same as two single adults cohabiting is the same as two married adults cheating on their spouses with one another. If homosexuality is a special form of aberrant behavior and it’s the job of the woman to keep sex from getting out of control then a gay man must be a rapist and a pedophile because there is no one stopping him from having sex with whomever he wants whenever he wants.

This, of course, is complete bullshit. It is a reaction driven by fear of a basic human drive and a belief that a few magical conjuring words will protect people from their own basic humanness. It comes from generations telling themselves and their offspring that sex and sexuality are bad and to be feared and a dark forest from which none who enter ever return.

Abstinence-only sex ed won’t make people stop wondering about sex. It does, however, take even the tiny brake of comprehensive sex ed off from that headlong charge into complete ignorance and self-hate. The thing that we as a nation are finally realizing is that teaching sex in schools might be the front line right now but it’s not the war. Evangelical Christians are currently winning the larger war over human sexuality on most fronts because their message that sex is shameful and sexual assault is the same as sexual congress because there is no such thing as consent is too widely accepted.

[1]It was age-appropriate, by the by, as somehow “grade schoolers learning about sex” becomes this big, scandalous thing. I vaguely recall getting sex ed in the fifth grade and it amounted to, “So you’re body is about to start changing. Or maybe your body has already started changing. Don’t worry. This is normal. These are the things you can expect.” That’s…that’s actually kind of important. Probably more for the girls than the boys, but whatever.

[2]The church I grew up in does an annual thing called CareFest. I think I need to send them an email with a suggestion for how to really get participation numbers up this year.

[3]I’m stating that end bit vaguely on purpose. I’d say that most boys are aware of the fact that they shouldn’t just run around touching girls in the naughty bits because duh but some boys do have to be taught that it’s a bad thing and don’t, at least at first, due to the fear of punishment. So for some of us it’s an innate level of knowledge and for others it’s a learned behavior. But that’s society in general. Some kids just know that taking another kid’s toy is bad and others have to be taught. We’re not all on the same level.

[4]I tend to hold to the “everyone’s at least a little bit bisexual” theory. Because sex is weird and attraction is complicated and it’s not always binary. Also, this entire thing is directed at your basic cisgendered straight folk. From what I understand there are plenty of people who never wondered if they were gay and just knew it from the start. Which is fine. I am not gay and have no lived experience as a gay person so I am would not dare to try to speak to that experience.

[5]”Sex beast” sounds like a good thing. Like, you’re really good in bed so your lovers are all, “Oh, him, he’s a sex beast. Just get him in bed and hope you can hold on for the whole ride.” And here we have the core of that particular problem.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read. If you enjoyed this or found that it made you think about the world a little differently please like and share.