If a divorced person told you he or she was worried about the wisdom of you marrying your fiancé[e], would you listen?

Or would you disqualify her advice because of her failure to make her marriage work? Even if she did everything right according to the Christian system and listened to her parents, waited to have sex until her wedding night, prayed exhaustively about the decision, and sought lots of counsel from pastors and mentors?

I am not going to be getting any brownie points among Christians for this piece, but this been driving me nuts and what else is my blog for?

Here is my best advice for good Christian kids looking to get married: have sex already.

I’m watching too many couples play Russian roulette with their lives because they aren’t listening to their gut instincts about who they want or need to spend their lives with because they happened to have found one person somewhat enchanting and willing to play the Christian marriage game and the stakes are: your whole future on this decision, made in the worst possible state of mind, horny celibacy.

Hermeneutically speaking, St. Paul’s “it’s better to marry than to burn with passion” was probably not about what you think it’s about. All my books are in storage in boxes, so I’d love to have someone with an accessible library help me out with citations here, but it’s pretty widely accepted in schools of theology that he was talking about couples disturbing idealistic celibate communities by sneaking off to have sex and making everyone feel either jealous and upset. As in: don’t be Gnostic, early church! It’s okay to not require celibacy of all Christians. C.f., Reasons why no one should ever be forced into celibate living against their will.  Not a lot of people have that gift, and that’s what Paul was acknowledging in that well-worn passage.

But what that passage doesn’t say (and honestly, what no passage in the Bible says) is “God’s best plan for your life is to be a virgin when you get married.” Seriously. Look for it. It’s not there. Two years ago a couple ex-fundy friends and I started hunting for it when we started to be troubled by why courtship was failing and why we were seeing so many unhappy marriages with good Christian kids like us who followed the rules. So we started searching the Bible ourselves and we haven’t found a much biblical basis for Christian purity culture and how it treats virginity and sexual experience.

There’s a whole lot about sex in the Bible, I learned. Most of it is dictated by the assumption that societies required clearly defined patriarchal lineage in order to operate (e.g., if your wife wasn’t a virgin when you married her, how would you know if her kids were yours and thus keep your family property and name in tact for the future?). Such things were very much a part of the historical period in which the Bible was written, but those things related to preservation of pure bloodlines are really irrelevant to our social order today. We can have healthy, happy communities without needing to be constantly in fear of the threat of a bastard child. Once that’s established, looking at the rest of the verses in the Bible about sex, it becomes evident that the sexual ethics laid out are essentially those of respecting each other and not abusing sex as a tool for power or domination or for revenge. It is, quite simply, an ethic of sexual behavior that values consent and human dignity and respect for social propriety within the context of an ancient patriarch-dominated culture.

If that was our culture today, it would be much more directly applicable, but that isn’t where and how we’re living. Today, we have a lot more freedom, a lot more ground gained in the realm of respecting diverse people groups and identities, and a lot less risk in terms of economic security and social honor riding on our sexual behavior.

Therefore I believe, based on my research, that it’s possible to have consensual, safe, and private sex* outside of marriage and not be transgressing any of the basic ethical guidelines for sexual behavior as laid out in the Bible.

But all that is just contextual framework for my primary point.

Christian culture over-values virginity at marriage so much that it heightens to an unreasonable degree the tension of an already momentous and risky decision. Marriage is, in a lot of ways, a jump off the cliff of adulthood that forces you to come face to face with yourself, and that’s when you find out just how much you can depend on yourself [to be mature and kind], without the parachute or training wheels of an easy exit. Most of us find as newlyweds that our selves aren’t really all that dependable, and we’re actually pretty selfish and immature.

Within Christian purity culture, sex, as an unknown and desirable thing (known to be powerful and good, but forbidden), necessarily becomes the bullet that we imagine blowing our brains out with if we pull the trigger at the wrong time, and we trick ourselves into believing that marriage will somehow protect us from spiritual suicide by pre-marital sex. We can’t know better if we’re still treating sex as a huge scary-and-wonderful unknown entity, but you’d think that our elders/wisers/more-experienced influencers would bother to let us in on the game before we sign on the dotted line.

But they don’t. Instead, pastors and parents and Bible study leaders and youth group mentors have bought into and perpetuated a false fundamental assumption that binds us to shame and ignorance as a necessary part of spiritual integrity: 1) we are required to take them at their word that sex is life-changing and terrible (in both senses of that word), and 2) we are required to make our trust in their definition of sex a fundamental assumption into how we weigh out relationships and how we decide who and when to marry. The bogey of sex thus becomes a looming question mark for us and the already-significant risks of choosing to get married to someone become exponentially more risky because there’s a huge piece of the marriage-choice puzzle that we are required to leave up to chance (which our good mentors have named God’s Will to keep us quiet).

Thus, when we good [read: virgin] Christian kids decide to accept this system, trusting our parents and pastors’ terms and wisdom, and denying ourselves basic understanding of ourselves as sexual beings (which we are, but they help us overlook this by telling us that perpetual fear and denial of sexuality is a form of healthy [and therefore godly] sexuality), sex as an unknown other becomes a non-factor in our choices for who we date and who and when we marry, or it becomes the secret but driving factor for who and when we marry. It must remain secret as a motive, because everyone knows that marrying just to have sex is a bad idea, but there is no other alternative for healthy, safe, and consensual sexual experience when we have bought into this system.

And if we are unlucky enough to be just a little too horny to effectively deny the existence of our sexuality until the approved time and place (the wedding night), we are caught in an impossible place where in order to keep being Good Christian Kids, we have to not question what our parents and pastors have told us—which is, essentially, that everything I just laid out in layman’s hermeneutics about biblical sexual ethics is lies and that God’s best plan for sexuality is total ignorance and total commitment to one person and one form of sexual experience forever and ever, amen—and to jump through all the Christian social hoops to land in bed with someone and not get ostracized or shamed for wanting to have sex in the first place

Or you just keep your head down and have sex and keep that part of your life so very secret and separate from your public social life, for fear of being found out for what you know they will think you are: a Bad Kid** with wanton desires and a sense of judgment that cannot be trusted.

So, in the end, if you want to be labeled a Good Christian Kid, you play by the rules that your parents and pastors have laid out for you, and inevitably (if you find another Good Christian Kid you like well enough, who likes you well enough, and who also agrees to play by the rules of this game) you’ll find yourself sitting somewhere with your boyfriend or girlfriend, and you’ll have a choice.

You’ll be just turned on enough with this person for the first time to realize that sex is probably something powerful (which means your parents and pastors must have been right, after all), and you’ll both be feeling it, and you’ll both realize that this situation can end in two ways: one, you follow the feeling and have sex and ruin your standing as a GCK in your own mind forever, even if no one ever finds out.  Or, two, you’ll indulge the feeling and fool around just enough to get scared of how good it feels and “put on the brakes” (a timeless analogy used by youth pastors everywhere, as if sex is a car rolling unobstructed toward a large and frightening cliff), which is to say: you stop and feel ashamed of yourself and look at your partner in crime and realize that no one can ever know except the two of you (because even a little sexual “sin” is enough to ruin your Good Christian Kid status), and that you are probably going to marry this person and you are probably going to be happy about it. Whether or not you really are happy doesn’t matter, because you’ve been practiced at denying parts of yourself (read: an accidental follower of Christian Gnosticism) for long enough that what’s one more thing? If you’re married, you’re going to be having sex, which means one less thing to ignore—and so your desire for real happiness can replace sexuality under the wraps of self-control and shame.

And then you’re trapped, because you let your pastors and parents think through your sexuality for you (which is such a bad idea, seeing as sexuality is such a unique and individual thing), and you got married because that was the only way to explore your sexuality and stay sane in the face of such overwhelming social pressure and potential shame, and if you’re really lucky you’ll both be moderately happy and mostly sexually compatible and have enough in common to make a pretty decent life out of a pretty bizarre and unbalanced decision.

But the chances of ending up with that ending to your story are pretty slim—and after my marriage ended, the stories of unhappy marriages launched on these terms started coming to me out of the woodwork. Our pastors and parents may adore Dannah Gresh, Josh Harris, and the Ludys, but those relationship and purity gurus are the lucky ones selling their stories through books and speaking events. They do not represent the vast majority of American Christians, and while they mean well, their idyllic solutions have shortchanged most people who bought into their system out of blind trust.

So, as a divorced woman who did everything right by the assumptions of that system and found that it was full of empty promises and bad hermeneutics, I dare you to think for yourself about your sexuality and your beliefs. Put down the gun—stop playing Russian roulette with your life on someone else’s word.

*Consent requires consent of all parties affected, so naturally, if you’re married and assuming that your marriage means exclusive sexual fidelity to your spouse, then you don’t cheat. Likewise if you’re in a relationship and the terms of the relationship mean that your girlfriend/spouse/partner/fiancé isn’t comfortable with you having close friendships with members of the gender that you’re attracted to sexually, then you honor those boundaries and act in a way that respects your partner’s comfort zone.

**In either scenario, young adults, who are pushed and urged to be mature and wise because that’s godly, are still socially seen and treated as children—and I think that, subconsciously, sexual experience functions as the only real coming of age signifier in this Christian subculture, which is an entirely different subject, but one that also ought to be scrutinized for bullshit.


I’ve been quiet here since I’ve been traveling, driving solo from DC to LA, but the other night I had the happy experience of an evening with Sarah and Micah Murray, and we talked a lot about our stories and processing the conservative Christian world we’ve come out of. And I had a flash of epiphany this morning as I drove away, so you’re getting an Immodesty Rail post instead of a happy-Hannah travelogue post.

***

When I started courting, I was hyper aware of how everyone else I knew had done this thing, what the stories in Josh Harris’s books showed as the “godly” ways to “walk out” their courtship in “good faith,” and what was necessary for having a healthy romantic relationship. Or at least, I knew what I thought a healthy relationship should look like and I had a pretty good idea of how to make mine look like a happy, godly thing for others to later emulate. This wasn’t conscious — this was just SGM culture.

See, the overall focus of everything in SGM (for me) was: be a good example for others. Every piece of my teenage and college years was set up in reaction to either 1) what my elders would think, and 2) what those younger than me would interpret as license to mimic if they watched my behavior.

Welcome to legalism.

And my ex, being who he is, was also really aware of what was and wasn’t socially acceptable in these circles. As a result (because, luckily for me, I was also aware that I was dating a person), I was tuned into this, too.

Given what we saw modeled for us in courtship culture (and, honestly, serious/”mature” Christian dating culture overall), his initial behavior as my boyfriend was much like this:

From xkcd

And it seemed like the reason he did this (well, the primary reason), was because of the culture in our Christian community where everyone assumed responsibility for policing each other (accountability) and thus you had to behave a certain way to assure everyone that you were being “above reproach” and “mature” and “godly” with your relationship choices. It was basically dating as social performance art.

Being uber happy with your new relationship — in a verbal performance sort of way, because physical demonstrations were too risky/sinful — was the best way to keep everyone off your back. I think, maybe, I engaged in this a lot more than he did. I’d be aware of the social expectations and talk up the positive things in our relationship and try to gloss over or tone down the negative elements. I felt compelled to talk about things that were too intimate to appropriately share (swapping dirt with your girl friends is one thing, but it’s entirely another to share that stuff with everyone to try to preemptively keep them from being “concerned” about you), and it drained me a lot. I felt like I was always on the defensive, needing to justify my relationship and my choices.

I’m not actively assigning motives here, but after all of that I tend to wonder a bit about why courting (or newly dating post-fundy life, or even newlyweds from this background!) couples tend to frequently feel the need to spam social media with announcements of how happy they are, how grateful they are for their bf/gf, how blessed and undeserving they are in/of the relationship. And I don’t really care about PDA if it doesn’t seem like a performance to make a statement.

But that all brings me to the problem with this defensive reaction to accountability in a legalistic atmosphere. Your simple motives aren’t good enough, and you are forced to second-guess yourself and over-think things to the point of cultivating insecurity and codependency. Decisions are made by committee — you talk yourself blue in the face telling everyone you know about your decision dilemmas, and ask endless questions about motives and fears, and then take steps based on where you are at the end of the accountability gauntlet. And advice from mentors and peers and parents is great, but this isn’t that. It’s losing yourself and appropriate sense of boundaries and privacy for the sake of fear, and you often forget to enjoy the ride of a new experience because you’re so afraid you’re doing the wrong thing.

I missed a lot of the joy in various “firsts” because I was so busy over-thinking everything and tense and afraid of doing the wrong thing. And that’s just silly. Dating is supposed to be about learning, not getting everything right the first time.

Why are Christians so afraid of making wrong choices and learning through mistakes? If we’re a practicing a faith that’s centered in grace and redemption, we shouldn’t be obsessing over having the Instagram-perfect, thoroughly “accountable” relationships like in the glossy courtship books our parents handed us. We should be enjoying learning about the beautiful things that can be had in community and learning about ourselves and each other, without fear.

***

All that said, I doubt I’ll ever recommend a relationship book to anyone ever again. Instead, I’ll shove a copy of Daring Greatly in their face and grin and say “this will change your life.”


Disclaimer: This is a semi-fictionalized story blended from a couple different real events in my life. All the guys who inspired this are good and well-intended men who grew up a lot afterwards. The point of this is not the guys themselves, but the ideas they assumed to be true because of the Christian culture in which we were raised.

We sat on the scrubby carpet of my dorm room floor, the door halfway open behind him. I held my mug of tea tightly, using the pressure to channel all my anxiety into the warmth and firmness of the mug.

“Mike” had IM’d me just 20 minutes earlier, when I’d just walked in from dinner. “Can I come over? We need to talk.”

I knew he was right. But I didn’t want to talk. I wanted to avoid this conversation. “I only have a few minutes,” I replied. “Come over and I’ll make a cup of tea. But I have to be somewhere with friends in 45 minutes.”

So he came over and there we were, sitting cross-legged on my floor, avoiding eye contact.

***

Dating at a conservative Christian school where everyone has read and seriously prayed about Josh Harris’s dating books is a complicated, dramatic process. Everyone takes everything too seriously, too soon.

After being isolated from male friendships by either coincidence or strategic parents (still not sure which) and my own insecurities around boys (after losing a really delightful friendship with one guy at 14 to a cross-country move and comments like “oh this makes me so happy! I’d hug you if you weren’t a girl!” me: Whaaat?), I got plopped down in the middle of one of those conservative Christian colleges where the primary campus traditions involve engagement hazing and a mad race to get hitched in May after graduation. And I was the naive INFJ who liked listening to people and felt horribly guilty saying no to anyone. By sophomore year I was in over my head.

So that evening, when I met to talk with Mike, a lot had happened already. He had scoped me out for a couple of months (I think we’d talked, one on one, maybe three times?), emailed my dad to ask permission to date/court me, gotten an non-committal “we should correspond and explore this, tell me about yourself” response, assumed he was going to be dad-approved, somehow found a stupid “husband qualities” list I had made early on in high school from an old blog, saw he matched a lot of them, and asked me out. I told him I’d think about it, but observed that I didn’t know him very well. (Reality: he was a good person, but I wasn’t “feeling it,” but I thought that I should give him a shot because…I didn’t know how to say no or feel like I had a right to turn him down).

In the month that followed I spent a little more time with him, but didn’t do anything outside of group events. He never asked me out to dinner, I never invited him over for a movie. Because, you know, conservative ex-homeschooler problems.

And then, he IM’d me and asked to talk alone. I wasn’t looking forward to telling him no — I didn’t want to hurt him. He was a friend. I didn’t know how to tell him “I’m not attracted to you” in a [conservative Christian] socially acceptable way. And the last time I had tried to tell a guy that things weren’t going anywhere, he ended up telling close friends that we were “unofficially a thing, but just working some details out” afterward. I was sure I had told him no! So I really, really didn’t want to make that same mistake again.

The conversation was brief and awkward. I remember we were both trying so hard to be kind and polite. I remember feeling flushed and restless the whole time. I remember that he was skittish about making eye contact.  But I was so proud of myself. I told him I didn’t see anything beyond friendship with him and I was as clear as I felt I could be while still being sensitive.

He was quiet for a long time. He finished his tea. He fidgeted with the mug. He put it aside.

“But God very clearly told me that you’re the one. How can he tell two people two different things?” It was sincere. He was hurting.

The perpetually impish side of my mind detached from the situation for a moment and snarked: “What the heck? Did he just say that? For REAL?”

But he was looking at me for an answer, and he was my friend. “Um,” I stalled. “Um, well, maybe God just hasn’t told me yet? Maybe he will? I’ll pray about it and I’ll get back to you if he tells me something different from what he’s been telling me so far. But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying to me.”

***

I recently read a post by Allison Vesterfelt called “God told me to break up with you” and I laughed.

This idea — making God out to be the agent for starting and ending a relationship (“God told me you were the one”) – -starts in a theologically okay place (God has a plan for your life and it’s really good to pray and feel at peace with a decision before making it), but it really twists his role in relationships and puts too much pressure on sincere Christians to over-spiritualize everything about dating.

I remembered Mike and his sad, serious question, and the drama it caused that year. And I got to thinking about this. It was more than just a symptom of a problematic over-emphasis on the  charismatic type of hearing-from-God/knowing-God’s-will (which is a common concern in both charismatic and reformed circles — a sincere, but misguided anxiety to do everything correctly causes a skewed understanding of how God reveals his will to believers). This was a huge part of it, and it remains a huge problem. But there was something else that bothered me.

In a later conversation (where I had to tell him no again), I felt pressured (not just by him, but by my own understanding of how to “do right by him” and by my dad’s probing questions about why I didn’t like this guy) to have lots of rational reasons for saying no. I had to come up with a list in my head beforehand. I remember I wrote the list down on an index card and pulled it out to go over on my way to “end things.” (“Things,” which never existed.) I felt like I had to prove why we would never work well as a couple, and my game plan was to find something about myself that I knew he would accept as a deal-breaker and let him down with that revelation so he would be sure to never bother me about this again.

Why did I feel like I was obligated to do this? To have two or three conversations with guys to tell them “no” as kindly as possible? To have a list of “rational” reasons why we wouldn’t work? Why was the burden of proof on me? Why wasn’t it okay for me to just say “no, I’m not interested,” and leave it at that?

From my current feminist perspective, now I see a lot of cultural assumptions about women that I was going along with which made me feel this unnecessary pressure to “prove” that my reasons for not dating this guy were valid.

1) Men grow up being told by media and culture that they’re entitled to a pretty girl and if they go through the motions of being a nice guy and woo her, they’ll win the game and get the girl. [see this expounded more here]

2) Courtship movement teachings promote the idea that emotions are deceiving and that being attracted to someone isn’t important in the long run in a godly marriage.

This is pretty messed up — emotions do matter, and attraction is important. Love isn’t all about choice. Love also isn’t sexual desire or infatuation. It’s much richer and more beautifully nuanced than that! But I believed that my lack of attraction to this guy and lack of emotional “click” were not valid reasons. [This is usually only a girls’ problem in these circles, because guys are supposed to initiate, and can therefore choose to initiate a relationship with whoever they are attracted to. Girls are only supposed to respond. Again: messed up. But because of his privilege and his feeling of attraction to me, I had to defend to him my reasons for saying no.]

3) Saying “God told me” is a way of playing the complementarian spiritual hierarchy card. If a man is supposed to be the head of the house, spiritually, and women are not to teach and to submit to male spiritual leadership in the church, then a guy saying he’s heard from God and “hey, babe, you’re the one for me!” puts her in a difficult position. Even though he’s not yet married to her or her spiritual leader, he has a position of greater spiritual legitimacy and authority, and so if she thinks differently, she has to first question his spiritual authenticity and then question the validity of complementarian hierarchy to defend her own spiritual discernment of God’s will. Most girls won’t think this through and will either go with their gut and shut the guy down, or realize they’re up against a system where their spiritual voice is less valid, and go along with dating the guy for a while to “give it a shot” and see if maybe God’s actually in it.

This is utterly inappropriate. A girl should be allowed to say no without playing the God card, and if she has to play the God card, it should be valid independently of “gender roles” in the church and which gender is supposed to lead and initiate.

[Where this line of thinking leads: What if a girl is dating a guy and they’ve talked about engagement and plan to get married, as long as things keep going well, and he says that God told him that should have sex. He says it’s okay because they’re going to get married anyway. He also argues that, since Mary and Joseph were “betrothed” and that was considered the same as being married in the Bible, it’s biblical! So then the girl goes along with it and has sex, even if she’s not ready/doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with it, because he “heard from God” and he’s her “spiritual leader,” since they’re “unofficially engaged.” This is basically manipulation, devaluing her comfort zone and her spiritual authenticity, and pressuring her into sex. And I’m not making this up — it happens.]

4) Girls are constantly given cultural messages that their feelings and opinions are always questionable because they might be “irrational.”

My first problem with this: this is a post-enlightenment concept which privileges reason over intuition. This is fine in the sciences, but the whole universe of human interaction doesn’t work on the basis of logic and we really can’t treat it like it does.

My second problem with this: If a girl who is sensitive and kind seriously desires to honor God, she will feel very pressured to avoid following her emotions or gut instincts on something. Because of this, I felt like my reasons (which were: I wasn’t attracted to him, I didn’t have any romantic interest in him) weren’t valid because they were intangible, intuitive gut feelings. He was perfect for me “on paper” — he matched the silly list I had made up once upon a time, my dad liked him, he had a solid career plan and no college debt, he was disciplined and spiritually mature (relative to my experience at that point),  etc. But I had this gut feeling that I shouldn’t pursue it, and I couldn’t explain it because God hadn’t “spoken to me” and I didn’t have a rational, deal-breaking reason to give him.

This is a false gender stereotype/expectation. People are rational and emotional. Reasons for relational boundaries are valid whether or not they make complete sense, are wholly emotional, or are wholly logical. People deserve respect, whether or not we agree with their reasons. But I couldn’t stand up for myself in this, because I was still buying into the idea that my reasons were invalid because they weren’t logical.

If you want to have biblical support for this idea, look at the teachings of Paul, where he urges believers to care for each other’s weaknesses and not make them stumble. He urges the Corinthians: if your brother is uncomfortable with the origins of the meat you’ve got for dinner, respect that and don’t serve it to him. It’s not wrong according to the gospel, but it makes him struggle in his heart. Be kind.

Likewise, if she doesn’t feel comfortable dating you, leave her alone. Don’t turn into a stalker like every chick flick male lead and “pursue her” until you’ve finally worn down her defenses. Let her be. Let her feel safe. Boundaries are healthy. Love her where she’s at: not okay with dating you!

***

I’m really glad that most people I know have matured and grown past this silly idea  that it’s okay to tell someone “God told me to date you/break up with you/marry you.” I’m not saying that it’s impossible for God to actually act that way, but it’s highly unlikely, given a quick survey of his history of acting in the course of human events. Yes, your love life and decisions are important to him because you’re important to him. But they’re probably not of such earth-shattering, instant significance that he’s going to you “look, she’s the one” without bothering to tell her that you’re the one for her, too.

Even if we don’t like someone’s reasons for saying no and feel they’re irrational, it’s not our place to push them into something they’re uncomfortable with.