3 Lies the Church Tells About Sex

Some of the things we hear about sex and chastity—even from the church—aren't true.

Cosmo and Maxim aren't the only places that lie. The Christian community—the church—also perpetuates some false ideas about sex. The church's intention, no doubt, is noble and laudable, but in its fervent determination to preserve sex for marriage in a broader culture that is ever more hostile to Christian sexual ethics, the church tells a few fibs of its own.

Lie #1: Premarital Sex Is Guaranteed to Make You Feel Lousy

A theme that runs through many Christian conversations about sex is the insistence that if we have premarital sex, we'll feel bad about it. If we go to bed with our boyfriend, we will feel wracked with guilt, or, even more likely, we'll wake up in the morning feeling lonely and bereft.

To be sure, that is sometimes true. Sometimes after a one night stand, or after sex with your girlfriend of two years, or even after kissing a guy you don't know very well, you feel lousy. You feel ashamed, or alienated, or lonely, or just plain down in the dumps.

But sometimes it is not true. Sometimes, even after sinful sex, a person will feel fantastic. Consider one unmarried woman's reflections on her first sexual experience: "Because I felt so safe and comfortable, it was a beautiful experience, which grew into more fun and playfulness and touching and love throughout our four-year relationship .... [When I told my dad I'd had sex, he] wanted me to feel guilty, but I didn't; I felt sure of myself and happy in my relationship."

In insisting that premarital sex will make you feel bad, the church is misstating the nature of sin and the nature of our fallen hearts. The plain, sad fact is that we do not always feel bad after we do something wrong. To acknowledge that premarital sex—or any other sinful act—might feel good is not to say that premarital sex is good. It is rather to say that our feelings are not always trustworthy. In other words, if we felt lousy every time we sinned, there would be a lot less sinning in the world.

Lie # 2: Women Don't Really Want to Have Sex, Anyway

The second myth that pervades Christian conversations about sex—and I should admit that this particular myth really ticks me  off—is the notion that while men are randy brutes, raring to leap into bed at the first opportunity, women don't really like sex, and aren't that interested in having sex (premarital or marital). The idea that women aren't that interested in sex is certainly not new, nor is it uncontested. For much of Western history, women were thought to be less rational, and therefore more likely to abandon themselves to passion, than men. But beginning in the seventeenth century, women (in particular, white women) came to be seen as less passionate, less interested in sex, frankly less carnal, than men. Women might dispense conjugal favors, but they didn't crave sex.

Current opinion—popular and social-scientific—suggests that men's and women's libidos are actually quite similar. Over 57 percent of 800 women surveyed in 2004 said "they want more sex, no matter how much they are actually having." Adolescent girls are exuberantly, daringly sexual. Getting into a debate about who is more interested in sex—men or women, teenage boys or teenage girls—is futile. It is sufficient simply to acknowledge that women have libidos. Many unmarried women want to have sex, not simply because they are trying to please their boyfriends, but because sex is enjoyable for women, too. Women's bodies (like men's bodies) are wired for sexual pleasure. Women (like men) crave the emotional connectivity that sex seems to offer.

We Christians are not doing anyone any good when we perpetuate the notion that women don't really want to have sex. Are many women likely to encounter men who pressure them to have sex? Sure. But they are also likely to encounter pressures that may seem even more urgent and be even more persuasive-the pressures of their own bodies and their own desires.

Lie #3: Bodies (and Sex) are Gross, Dirty, or Just Plain Unimportant

This anxiety about bodies runs counter to the radical embodiment of the Christian story—which unequivocally proclaims that we were created with bodies, that God called our bodies good, that Jesus came as a body and saved us with His body, and that He is and we will be resurrected as bodies. As Paul tells the Corinthians: "You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body."

And yet Christians have been beset by ambivalence about bodily matters, especially sex, from Paul's day to the present. Many of us share a sneaking suspicion that bodies don't matter. Or we're confused about what role bodies play in our spiritual lives. Or we think of Christianity as something we do with our souls and minds and hearts; our bodies get sort of left behind.

But somehow the church still manages to convey anxiety and discomfort about sex writ large. In subtle ways we hear that the body is not important. We don't get much teaching on caring for our bodies or thinking about the food we eat, and as teenagers and single adults, we are told over and over not to have sex, but no one ever encourages us to be bodily or sensual in some appropriate way. Thus, many of us find it hard, once we marry, to accord sex respect, dignity, pleasure, or value; we've learned to reduce sex, and everything else bodily, to something that has only utilitarian function.

Rather than spending our unmarried years stewarding and disciplining our desires, we have become ashamed of them. We persuade ourselves that the desires themselves are horrible. This can have real consequences if we do get married. We spend years guarding our virginity, but find, upon getting married, that we cannot just flip a switch. Now that sex is licit, sanctioned-even blessed by our community-we are stuck with years of work (and sometimes therapy) to unlearn a gnostic anxiety about sex; to learn, instead, that sex is good.

For more from Lauren Winner, check out her conversation about spiritual practices with Don Miller, from the Convergence series. 

This article is excerpted from Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Brazos Press, 2006) by Lauren Winner. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

115 Comments

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Gary D. commented…

And by subscribing to such we become as under the law and not under grace.

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Nomorejunk commented…

Ok - so I hear there are problems with the way sex is presented - but I didn't hear the better option? Everyone, especially teens, are inundated in our society with sex from commercials, MTV, you tube and movies - maybe "the church" (or parents for that matter) just don't know what else to do? Yes, sex is great - God made it for goodness sake, and He doesn't make anything bad - but like everything else, His plans for how things work BEST have order (ie: Fruit in and of itself is good, but Eve's decision to eat what she did certainly was wrong).
Even things not made by God have order: Driving a car is fun - but you have to wait until you are a certain age and have a license before you can experience it - one day you can't drive, the next day you can - you "flip a switch" - is that bad? of course not, it's the law.
So arguing that you have been taught inappropriate things about sex is mute if you don't give a better option.

Rachel Robbins

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Rachel Robbins replied to 's comment

I respectfully disagree. I think it is important for many teens and young adults to hear the truth that their bodies and their sexual desires aren't dirty in and of themselves, and they are rarely hearing it from the church. I agree that alternantives are also necessary. However, I think these truths are a good first step. Only hearing "don't" from those in authority in our (teens and young adults) lives isn't really helpful if we can't also understand that it is something beautiful to be protected because it can be so wonderfully anticipated. Also, getting married and having sex with your spouse is not the same thing as getting your license, and it is actually hard and scary to learn to drive. In much the same way, it is probably hard and scary to get to know your spouse sexually.

Robert Woerter

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Robert Woerter replied to Rachel Robbins's comment

Is it true that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness,faith, meekness, temperance, and against such there is no law? Jesus said that the first commandment was to love the Lord with all your heart soul and mind and the second was like unto it love your neighbor as yourself, on these 2 commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Why do we preach salvation by faith but continue to insist that we follow the law. What about other sins like idolatry, greed, gluttony are they less sins than premarital sex. Lets face it we are all sinners and need forgiveness but it seems that most Christians of which I include myself, seem to consider premarital sex as worse than the others and some actually consider greed and idolatry to be virtues. If what we do is done in sacrificial love and hurts no one is it a sin?

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deenasafari commented…

"...we are told over and over not to have sex, but no one ever encourages us
to be bodily or sensual in some appropriate way. Thus, many of us find
it hard, once we marry, to accord sex respect, dignity, pleasure, or
value; we've learned to reduce sex, and everything else bodily, to
something that has only utilitarian function."

AMEN, AMEN and can I get an AMEN?! I wrote a blog about masturbation and said something very similar. The church in general has a somewhat nasty little habit of pretending sex doesn't exist (making it taboo) and when it is ever mentioned, it's almost only in the same sentence as the blessing of children. It's like sex has to be grandfathered in on something "positive" and God-approved, like children. So sex is unfortunately demonized because so many people grew up not knowing how to discuss it in a healthy way, so they inadvertently keep the negative connotations and pass them on.

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Anonymous commented…

Yeah, I also have never heard this taught at church services. My experience particularly back in Youth Group days was we got that sex was an exciting experience - virgins and non virgins alike knew it! - which is why we had to walk in God given parameters. I distinctly recall a preacher sharing that everything sexual that both partners within their marriag agreed to was fine as long as it was mutual. Quite radical when you think about it. And that was an American speaker visiting Australia back in the 1980s!

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Kbeugelink commented…

As a youth pastor I also wonder how people interpret what is being said by those who talk honestly about sexuality in the church. Sadly, few people are interested in hearing or listening well in our culture either. For instance If I talk about the biblical precedent for sexual relationships within the context of a covenant relationship and a student walks away thinking I said sex before marriage is "bad and gross" it's always the "well meaning" youth pastor that gets thrown under the bus with critique of capital "C" church.

I don't say this to detract from the points in the article. The recommendations in the article are well articulated and worth noting.

I just wish people would be as quick to reflect on their own hearts and motives when the Church talks about sex. An admission that "when we were 14-17 years old we also carried with us certain biases about the stuff we going to hear from the youth pastor", might shed some accurate light on what actually was said in those "Fundy" youth rooms.

The youth room (the Church) needs to also be the place where the caveat gets placed on the beautiful act of sex. It must also be the place where the youth pastor doesn't diminish or add to the act of sex for fear of putting ideas into the heads of teens. The truth only sets people free if they are willing to hear the truth. Even if the truth requires a certain amount of restraint that is not popular with a culture that only understands sex as a purely physical act. The caveat on the gift of human sexuality and those that speak of it get a lot of negative press, even in well meaning postmodern articles. When I hear counselors and therapists talk about the dramatic increase in referring patients to Prozac and other "coping" drugs because they are incapable of dealing with the associated pain of past sexual relationships I am only more determined that people (not only the young) understand fully the beauty, power and purpose of human sexuality.
I find it silly that there is a general distrust in the caveats that
the church places on human sexuality. Yet most parents of new drivers
would remind their teens that even though Mario Andretti declares that
racing cars at 300kms an hour is the most beautiful and wonderful thing
in the world, doing so in the wrong context can be life changing and painful. At some point the beauty of the act (as true as it is) is secondary to the reality of the pain we hope our children could avoid. Again the church must underline the beauty of the gift, but if a person is skeptical of the wisdom of boundaries is it fair to blame the one's reminding them of those boundaries?

What I find the church needs to seriously understand is how to talk the language of Grace among those who have fallen short sexually or revved their sexual engines to the maximum RPM's. The Churches past judgement of those who have fallen short sexually only increases the amount of people that distrust the Churches understanding of sex. In my conversations with those who distrust the church's understanding of sex I encounter those with a sex life motto that declares "I live my live with no regrets" while they stand in line for their auto-renewed penicillin prescription. What is more sad is the Church does not see how it has played a part in this concluded reality.

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