For many Christians, the belief in “waiting until marriage” for sexual activity is often deeply motivated by their faith. But sometimes hiding underneath those convictions can be other unhealthy issues that may actually impede a happy sex life once they are married.
We live in a culture that is sex obsessed. Sex is used to sell everything from cars to beer to deodorant. It is a major theme in many movies and TV shows. It is talked about in the locker room, over coffee, in magazines in the check-out aisle and everywhere on the Internet.
Romantic relationships are often evaluated by the quality of sex that is a part of them. People are made to feel good or bad about themselves based on their performances in bed. Status is attributed to people based on their sexiness or their sexual prowess.
There are some Christians, including some LGBTQ folk, who believe in the idea of waiting until marriage. This belief flies in the face of our culture’s view of sex. It challenges the notion that sex is entertainment or something you can do to prove yourself.
For many Christians, the belief of waiting until marriage is deeply motivated by their faith. I personally believe that it is part of God’s intention for sexual activity, and that it is right and healthy for a couple to wait until there is permanence in their relationship before they engage in sex. It is a belief that I have lived out in my own life as a married man and I’m glad that I waited.
The purpose of this article, however, is not to make a case for waiting until marriage. To be honest I am often frustrated and sometimes disgusted by the way the church talks about sex and marriage. There is a desperate need in the church for nuanced, grace-filled, honest conversation about sex. I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of such conversations, rare as they may be.
I have noticed in these discussions, however, that sometimes hiding in the background of our commitment to wait until marriage can be reasons other than a deep moral or spiritual conviction. Sometimes those reasons are unconscious, and sometimes they are masked behind a morality that allows us to act as if we are morally superior to others who don’t share our beliefs. We may be disinterested in sex or afraid of it, which means that others in our society look down on us. And so having a moral reason to abstain from sex keeps us from facing our fears and allows us to even feel righteous about it.
Besides the problematic self-righteousness of a “my beliefs are better than yours” mentality, there may be other worrisome aspects. If our commitment to waiting until marriage is motivated by one of these other underlying reasons, then there will be big challenges for us in our sex life once we are married. And because of our commitment to wait, we are often not forced to face these issues, and that may lead to a rough start to the sexual aspect of our marriage.
Let me outline what I believe are some of these underlying issues and how we might choose to deal with them. Some of these have been part of my own experience, and others are things that I have noticed in other individuals. My goal in raising these issues is not to condemn or make people feel guilty. I hope that this will be a catalyst for some good discussion and self-reflection. I’m also not a psychologist or counselor, so if you think I’m way off base with some of these, tell me. I want to learn from the experiences of others.
1. Poor body image
Sex is very intimate. It usually involves being naked with your partner. I know there are some people who are scared of sex because they do not like their own body. It may be that they are overweight. It may be that they think they are too skinny. It may be that they are ashamed of the size or shape of their penis or their breasts or their vagina.
Part of our culture’s obsession with sex results in an obsession with certain body types. A guy’s masculinity is measured by the size of his penis. A girl’s attractiveness is rated on the size of her breasts. Magazines present pictures of models who are unrealistically skinny or over-the-top muscular.
Body image is something that I struggle with. In school, I dreaded showering after gym class because I hated being naked around my peers. Even when home alone, I have never really enjoyed sitting around in the nude. To be honest, I was very nervous about being naked with my husband.
As I reflect on my own experience, here are some suggestions I have to deal with this issue. First, I think that it’s important for us to learn to love our bodies. It’s important to realize that media (and especially pornography) do not give us an accurate view of the world. We are most likely comparing ourselves to an impossible standard.
Second, I think it’s great if we take charge of changing the things that we can change about our bodies. If we want to change our weight, we may need to change our diet and our fitness level. I joined a gym for the first time two years ago and it’s been great to see changes in my body.
Third, I think it’s really important for a couple to talk about their body image issues with each other. Being honest with each other about your fears is helpful. And in my experience, waiting until marriage really helped soothe my fears. When I was naked with my husband for the first time, I knew it was with a guy who loved me and had committed to spend his life with me. A lot of my fears melted away because sex was not about trying to impress him or win him over. Rather it was about the expression of our commitment to one another. There was something very beautiful in that for me, and that continues to this day.
2. Poor self-image
This issue is really a more generalized version of body image. We may not like ourselves, our personality, or our abilities. We may be socially awkward or have trouble connecting with other people. We may struggle with a lot of anxiety in life.
As a result, we may be scared of romantic relationships altogether. A healthy relationship involves being vulnerable and open with our partner. This may be really hard for us to do. Sometimes it may be easy to use the idea of waiting until marriage as a shield to protect us from facing these challenges. We may self-sabotage any chances at a relationship because it seems too scary.
To deal with this issue I think the three suggestions I made above all apply. We need to change the things about ourselves that are possible to change, we need to love the parts of us that are unchangeable (and the parts of us that are in the process of change), and we need to talk about our fears honestly with our partner.
For me it has been overwhelmingly healing to know that I have this guy in my life who loves me even though there are aspects of my life that I don’t like and that I am trying to change.
3. Unresolved questions about the morality of gay sex
For those of us who grew up in the conservative church, we have probably heard many horrible things said about gay people and the things they do in the bedroom. We were made to believe that gay sex is disgusting, perverted, and sinful. As we work through the process of reconciling our faith and sexuality, it can be hard to leave those messages behind. We may reach a place where we become comfortable with our attractions to those of the same sex. And we may enjoy the romantic side of a same-sex relationship. However, it can happen that we continue to have a lot of guilt about our sexual desires.
In addition, I think many of us have struggled with pornography. As a result, sex becomes associated with something for which we feel very guilty. Pornography does not grow good things in us, and that can then be transferred to our feelings about sex in general.
Rather than facing our guilt and moral questions about same-sex sexual activity, it can be easier to hide behind the idea of waiting until marriage. It allows us to delay working through our moral questions.
I strongly recommend facing your fears and doubts about these moral questions. Don’t push them aside. Talk about them with other gay Christians. Hear the stories of gay Christians you know who are already in long-term relationships. But most importantly, I think it’s good to talk about your doubts with God. He’s not threatened by your questions or your doubts. He knows your thoughts better than you do.
If I’m honest, even as a married man I still have my moments when I have doubts. They are not very often, but in those moments I have to push into what I know of God, and to trust that he has led me to where I am today and that he is continuing to guide my life.
4. Sexual trauma
I don’t feel qualified at all to write about the experience of sexual abuse victims. It is so sad that something that God created to unite two individuals could be used to totally destroy someone. Rape and child abuse are horrible, horrible things. There may be some less severe forms of sexual trauma where someone was in a relationship where sex was used to manipulate and control. Or maybe sex was entered into naively and then your heart was broken as the person didn’t treat sex the same way that you did.
I have not lived through a situation like this, but I can see how difficult it would be to have sex associated with something awful. I’m sure it is very hard to be able to put the past behind you and to be able to open yourself up to a new potential partner.
The best thing I would suggest is to seek out the help of a trained counselor, someone to help you work through the pain so that you are able to be open to the possibility of a future relationship. When I was going through my coming out process I saw a counselor and I found it very helpful. I’m sure that dealing with more traumatic experiences would also benefit from counselling.
Talking through this kind of trauma with a potential partner is also very difficult. But I think that it is necessary for a couple who plans to be sexually involved one day to be open with each other about their past. This isn’t something you want to bring up the first time you have sex. Of course, it’s also not first date conversation material, but as you grow closer to your partner and as trust is built, you will hopefully be able to talk about some of these difficult things.
5. A low sex drive or disinterest in sex
It’s a fact that sexual drive is a spectrum. There are some people who would like to have sex multiple times per day. There are others who could go weeks without sex. And there are even asexual individuals who aren’t interested in sex at all. If a couple is choosing to wait until marriage, these differences in sex drive may be difficult to identify. One of you may be fighting your sexual drive all the time while the other one may not face much of a struggle at all.
Since so much advertising and media is driven by sex, it can seem that the norm is to have a high sex drive. Our consumerist culture thrives on increasing appetite, and therefore the pressure in our world is to have sex often. Often it is easier for those with lower sex drives to hide behind a belief of waiting until marriage so they don’t have to stand out as someone who is not all that interested in sex.
I think the biggest thing we can do to address this situation is to acknowledge that sexual desire is on a continuum. You’re not a freak if you have a low sex drive or aren’t all that interested in sex. You should not feel ashamed for your sex drive.
However, if two partners have a very big difference in sex drive, this has the potential to cause a lot of stress in the relationship. It’s important for potential mates to honestly discuss their desires for sex. It can be helpful to talk about how often you engage in masturbation or how often you think about sex.
Every couple will face the challenge of a difference in sex drives to some degree; it just depends on how great the difference is. I found it very helpful to realize that my husband and I were not alone in this situation, and that this experience is pretty much universal for all couples.
I’m sure there are other underlying issues that get masked by the conviction to wait until marriage, but this short list includes some of the common ones I’ve encountered.
It is important for all people to reflect on their sexual values, regardless of their stance on waiting until marriage. I have many good friends who don’t share my beliefs in this area and I respect their point of view. My challenge to everyone is to carefully decide for yourselves what you believe about sex. Figure out how it fits with your values. Reflect on your motivations and make sure that you are making choices that aren’t steeped in fear. And once you’ve decided what you believe, then do your best to live a life consistent with your values. Living life in an integrated and consistent manner is the best way to live.
SHANE BAUMAN is the leader of the Waiting Until Marriage (WUM) group of the Gay Christian Network (GCN). He is also on the board of New Direction, a Christian LGBTQ organization in Canada. He is passionate about helping people reconcile their faith and sexuality.
If you are interested in joining the WUM group of GCN please feel free to contact him.