What happens when you feel as if you have to be the sexual gatekeeper when you’re dating?
I am living, eating, and breathing our book The Great Sex Rescue right now. I take time off to eat and to cook, but that’s it. I’m even writing it in my sleep (seriously, last night I dreamt our whole lust chapter).
It’s due in at the publishers next Friday, and we’re writing like crazy and trying to find stories and Joanna’s running stats and it’s exhausting. But I feel like it’s starting to really come together!
Here’s what I really like about this project: I don’t have to prove why an idea is wrong. I just have to give data.
I’ve been talking for years on this blog about why the idea that all men lust and that lust is every man’s battle is a toxic message. We’ve talked more recently about how the problem is that lust objectifies. We’ve talked about how noticing is not lusting. My husband even chimed in about lust and respecting women!
But what I can do in this book is sum up those arguments quickly, to be sure, but then say: When women hear the every man’s battle message, they’re less likely to orgasm. They’re more likely to have sexual pain. They’re more likely to feel distant from their husbands. They’re more likely to divorce. Etc. Etc. Etc. We’ve got the numbers. (And what’s cool about this particular belief is that it’s not just believing it that’s harmful; even hearing it is harmful.) It’s just toxic all round.
There’s another message that we’ve found to be quite harmful: being the sexual gatekeeper before marriage.
Well, actually, there are plenty of messages that we’ve found to be harmful! But I thought I’d throw this one out today, because we haven’t talked about it much, and Rebecca and I are likely going to record our podcast on it next week.
When women feel as if they have to be the sexual gatekeepers, to make sure that as a couple you don’t go too far before the wedding, it impacts your sex life after marriage.
That gatekeeper role is very hard to discard.
Here’s what happens: you start making out, and the guy’s really into it. But you’ve been taught your whole life that guys can’t control themselves, and that they will want to push your boundaries. So you have to stay alert and make sure that doesn’t happen. You are the one who is responsible to make sure that it doesn’t get out of hand.
While you’re making out, then, he’s totally enjoying himself, getting into it. But she feels like she’s standing back, as if she’s an observer, looking at the whole thing from the outside.
Should I be stopping him yet? How about now? How about now? How about now?
And on and on and on it goes. She teaches herself to never give in to the moment, and to never allow herself to just feel. She must always be hyper-vigilant, or things will get out of control.
In my weekly email, that goes out on Fridays, I’ll be sharing some of our stats that we found regarding gatekeeping–including how it affects orgasm rates.
I often share extra information in those emails–info that doesn’t appear on the blog. If you’re not signed up yet for the emails, then hurry on over and sign up now!
When she marries, that “observer” role isn’t so easy to toss aside.
She’s so used to always judging what’s going on–“am I doing this right? Am I doing this right? How about this?”–that she can’t just let go and feel.
That’s often why women can have such difficulty learning to be aroused, we found, in both our survey and some focus groups. When you’ve trained yourself to be on alert, your body doesn’t automatically relax (of course with some women it might; but not all).
By the way, if you’re having trouble getting aroused, do try our 24 Sexy Dares! The 8 dares that the husband takes the lead on are focused on spending a lot of time on foreplay and helping you figure out what feels great to you. So they might help unlock that piece for you!
Does your marriage need some spicing up–and some fun?
How did that gatekeeper role get started?
I think there were two twin beliefs:
- Boys are likely to push your sexual boundaries, and boys can’t control themselves
- Your purity is your most precious treasure
The purity message was largely aimed at women, and not men, too. Sure, guys were told to wait until they were married for sex, but it wasn’t phrased in the same way to them. We read one book that was big in the purity culture about finding a spouse, and twice it described a situation where two Christians were dating and they “went too far”, but their conclusion was that SHE had ruined her life. SHE had lost her most precious treasure. What about him? There were two people there, but the book assigned shame to only one.
I don’t have time to write all my thoughts on this (and I’d like to save them for the book), but I’d also love to hear your thoughts on this.
Did you feel you were in the gatekeeper role when you were dating? Do you think that affected your marriage? We’d love to hear your stories, so let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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Yes! Oh my word yes. My husband and I dated for 3.5 years and we never had sex before marriage. Now we have been married for 13 years. I’m seeking counseling to help me through this. I said no so much that it left me feeling guilty in marriage and closed off. I love my husband so much. I wish I would have learned about sex differently than just purity culture.
I’m sorry, Laura! Such a common story. We really have to get beyond this.
I didn’t have a problem with it. I grew up in purity culture, but I fully understood to wait until marriage, then it is full on and I looked forward to it! I think one thing that helped is as we got closer to the wedding, my fiance and I became increasingly intimate. I think it would be a shock to go from just holding hands to full on sex, like some do in purity culture.
But, I never dealt with any mental blocks that sex is bad, even though I grew up in a culture of sex being bad, but is tolerated in marriage. I also grew up with, and still believe in the beautiful value of female virginity. I love love love that my husband was my first and only. Women who “messed up” have accused me of being insensitive to them for appreciating my own virginity, but I do not apologise. Their sexuality is their business, not mine, and no one is going to take away the beauty and value of my virginity that I gave to my husband. I am allowed that accomplishment and joy just like I am allowed to fully celebrate Mother’s Day and not have to reduce it for the sake of the childless, or fully celebrate my many years of marriage and not reduce its value because others divorced.
I also believe that female virginity is unique and special and more powerful than male virginity because sex affects us women more. Our very biological make up dictates that, from the hymen to being penetrated, to being weaker and more vulnerable than men, to getting pregnant, to experiencing pain. To equal it out to male virgnity is to lower it and is an insult. Yes, male virginity is important, and any it is very wrong for the church to put the onus on women in cases of out-of-wedlock situations. But, I think if we fully understood and valued womanhood, we’d have more gentlemen, less premarital situations, stronger rape convictions, fewer abortions, and stronger, more sexually satisfying marriages.
libl, you are so blessed to have such a strong sense of yourself! I wish it had gone like that for me. I grew up in a Roman Catholic family. No one talked about sex. I had the “good girl” mentality and tried to do the right thing growing up, but never really dated and had no real risk of becoming sexually active. College was a different story, and I came under the influence of my more liberal-thinking roommates (one of whom I went to HS with). I experimented even though I am not sure I really wanted to, it was just the thing to do. I am thankful that, even though I didn’t have a relationship with God, He was watching over me and got me through it.
I was always the gatekeeper, never knowing what I should be doing, how far I should go. I never took a stand. I regret this immensely. When I met my now-husband, we were just like everyone else I knew in that time period, intimate before marriage. I felt like I was play-acting a lot, just doing it for him, then when we were married I still felt disconnected. It has gotten better, but I feel those early experiences really harmed me.
I did not do a good job teaching my 2 daughters about sex. The youngest is strong and waited until marriage. The oldest is a risk-taker and I found out accidentally that she is no longer a virgin. I was deeply saddened by this, as I think it just reminded me of my own stupidity and my great loss.
I wish that I could help my daughters do a better job teaching their children (if they have any) that this is so much more of an issue than just allowing yourself a bit of pleasure without committing to marriage. It is giving up a bit of your soul, sometimes to someone you will never see again. I don’t know that purity culture helped. It gave my oldest something more to rebel against.
This is actually the kind of messaging that has really messed me up, and is a big reason I’m in therapy for anxiety and depression related to my sexual self-image. The idea that losing virginity is a bigger deal for women because of our hymens breaking, because there’s blood and pain, because we can get pregnant, the idea that it’s about our vulnerability and weakness, makes me want to crawl out of my skin. I felt so much relief when I learned that hymens have nothing to do with virginity (they can break for a dozen other reasons, some women don’t even have them, and many who do never experience damage to them through intercourse). Also, the concept that sex is more vulnerable for women due to penetration is, I think, a result of a very phallic-centric culture. How is it less vulnerable to have a very sensitive part of yourself enveloped by somebody else’s body, to be taken inside someone? Men are vulnerable to plenty of pain and even sexual injury, especially during position changes, and I think the reason we hear less about that is because women aren’t usually the more active partner (also due to social narratives), and men don’t often like to admit to that kind of thing!
What I’m saying is that these ideas that make sex into something that is all about vulnerability, weakness, and risk functions to drive a lot of women away from their own sexuality, just as it has for me. Sex can be about those things, yes, but not just for women, and there are more positive aspects to focus on, like pleasure and mutuality and respect and the wonderful strength and talent God built into our bodies to be able to do this in the first place! I’d love to see this image of female sexuality more, because the alternative has negatively affected many women, including myself.
Ruth, thank you for so eloquently putting this into words. I completely identify with what you have already said.
When “female virginity” (even that wording feels icky) is put onto a pedestal above men’s virginity it feels like my value is being reduced to my sex organs. Sexuality is incredibly important, of course, in that it is tied with our identities but I don’t think that sex is somehow more personal or more important to me than it is to my husband because I’m a woman. That actually makes me feel more like I’m being used rather than appreciated and loved. I think this mentality also feeds into the idea that women are men’s sexual conquests, which again, is very demeaning and it also allows for a double standard between men and women (men who sleep around are excusable, but women who do are dirty sluts).
Why are Christians still spreading the hymen myth? I think this makes us look ignorant considering that we are trying to base theology and spiritual beliefs on medically inaccurate information.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of libl’s post is that if “we fully understood and valued womanhood we’d have […] stronger rape convictions.” Given the context of the rest of libl’s comment, I assume this means that womanhood itself hinges on virginity? Or is somehow tied to virginity? This means that women who are raped are less women??? I may not be reading this right because it wasn’t spelled out exactly, but either way, I stand by my reaction that this take on virginity is really damaging for SO many reasons.
“Feeling used” is the perfect way to describe it! I can’t quite put into words yet why that’s the feeling this whole thing gives me, but I really appreciate you fleshing it out more than I’ve been able to myself. Putting so much value in women’s virginity definitely seems like we’re being set up to be men’s conquests, and sadly that’s how a lot of people explicitly view it. I’m glad you got something from my comment; I almost never leave comments here because it makes me pretty nervous!
I resonate so much with these words! It was the same for me. My parents encouraged a high view of sexual freedom in marriage, while still maintaining chastity before. It’s a delicate balance, but I didn’t have the same hang ups that side of my peers did.
Respectfully, I disagree with this pretty vehemently. I think an over emphasis on female virginity has created all kinds of trouble for marriages. It creates a framework where sex is a gift a woman gives to her husband – instead of a place where both people mutually enjoy intimacy and pleasure with each other. I was also a virgin when I got married because I still found value in choosing to wait – but I would argue that my virginity had very little do with the success of our sex life. Many women I know who went into marriage as virgins suffered from vaginismus, were willing to suffer pain because they thought it was required of them, and struggled to reframe sex so that it was actually about THEM – not just something for their husbands. My husband could not have cared less if I was a virgin – because he wanted ME, not my untouched vagina. Obsessing about female virginity and glorifying it over male virginity is just another way to objectify women – and I know of some virgin women who were essentially raped by their husbands on their wedding nights. So I disagree that emphasizing virginity would somehow fix rape culture. What fixes rape culture is a deep understanding of consent. I don’t mean to undermine your experience of being happy that you were a virgin – and also I think the teaching in this comment creates WAY more problems than it solves.
Growing up in purity culture I avoided guys so I didn’t cause them to lust or lead them on. I didn’t date or flirt or be too friendly, I felt I had to be a gatekeeper to every guy.
I’ve been married 5yrs and I do wonder now if all that “coldness” is why I struggle to initiate sex with hubby, flirt with him or be sexy or seductive. I find talking about sex so incredibly awkward and somewhat shameful.
You’re not alone, Louise! I hope The Great Sex Rescue can help you! At least you can see that it isn’t your fault. It’s what you were taught, and it’s natural that you feel that way. Sometimes just seeing where it all came from and that you’re not alone can be the freedom you need to unlock everything!
YES! My husband and I were both committed to saving sex for marriage, but I still felt the “burden” was on me. Perhaps because he was far more willing to initiate a make out session than I was. We weren’t teenagers, by the way. My husband was in his 30s when we met. We have struggled with sex for many reasons, but I know purity teaching/gatekeeping is part of it for me.
You’re totally not alone! We’re still working on how to help women turn off that little voice.
What about when you feel you totally failed as a ‘gate keeper’? And married to same person and struggling with intimacy always. Never thought so much about being a gate keeper, but it strikes a chord and now it’s about the gigantic shame felt some 21 years later and being crippled by it. This has affected EVERYTHING in marriage. What to do???
I wish I had an easy answer, but Rebecca and I will try to talk about it in next week’s podcast (and maybe a bit in this week’s.). I know it affects so many people. Please read The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, if you haven’t already, to see what God intended sex to be, and how women are supposed to feel freedom, and how God really does want it to be great for you, and not just for him. I hope that helps, and we’ll keep talking about this!
I honestly didn’t realize how turned on my husband got before we were married. He was great at stopping us when we were going too far, though I thought he was being overcautious at times. Then we got married and I realized how easily he got aroused and I felt terrible for how hard I pushed at times.
“She teaches herself to never give in to the moment, and to never allow herself to just feel. She must always be hyper-vigilant, or things will get out of control.” This is me! My fiance and I have discussed boundaries and he is incredibly good at keeping them – he’s never deliberately pushed the boundaries. But I have noticed a difference between us in the way we behave when we are together. He seems much more able to just ‘be in the moment’, while I do feel I have this constant ‘internal watchman’ keeping an eye on things.
And a lot of the teaching on boundaries really doesn’t help – I’ve read a number of articles that say you shouldn’t ask ‘how far is too far’ but ‘how can I honour God in this relationship’, and while I get what they are saying, it really doesn’t help – for me, it just shifts the question from ‘is this too far?’ to ‘is this honouring God?’ So it’s like I have this little internal dialogue constantly going on: “This is nice. I’m ok with it. Yes, but are you ok because it’s right or because your feelings are making you think it’s right? Well, I think it’s ok because it’s not breaking our boundaries. Yes, but is it right to be enjoying it this much – you might get too carried away, you know.” Meanwhile, my fiance is just ‘Hey, this is good!’
It’s not that I consciously feel I have to be the ‘gatekeeper’ as I trust my fiance. It’s just that I have this little internal voice that I can’t switch off. And I do worry that the voice may follow me into marriage, which will make things hard.
I can really understand why some couples choose not to hug or kiss until they are married – in one way, it must make life so much easier, since they don’t have to deal with these internal conversations. But in another way, I think it may make marriage harder for some of them, especially for anyone who has had a negative experience of sex beforehand (and let’s face it, when minor sexual assault is so endemic, there can’t be many women who make it to the altar without having had at least one unpleasant experience) I know it wouldn’t have worked for me, since kissing and hugging my fiance has helped undo some of the negative connotations I had around sex, and helped give me confidence to look forward to sex when we are married.
I’ve never been conscious of deliberately setting myself up as gatekeeper, but I think a lot of the underlying attitudes are the same. And I suspect most if not all of it is rooted in that constant teaching, all around, that men only misbehave because women lead them on. I’d love to know if anyone has any thoughts on how to make that gatekeeper redundant on my wedding day!
P.S. Your comment about the women who had sex before marriage being regarded as the ‘ruined’ ones really resonated. When I was in my teens, an engaged couple in our church got pregnant. Both were in the music group. She was taken off the music rota and all other church responsibilities immediately, while he continued as normal. I remember asking my mother why and was told it was because she’d had sex outside of marriage. “But so did he. It’s HIS baby.” I replied. “That’s different. Her sin is obvious because she’s pregnant.” Even as a teenager I thought that was pretty screwed up. Crazy thing is, if she’d had an abortion, the church would probably have been happy to let her back on the music rota – because her sin wouldn’t be ‘obvious’ any more…
Oh, that is so seriously messed up! That’s just so awful. Why do churches do this?
I *was* the pregnant teen. My dad was the preacher in our church. I lost almost all of my extracurricular activities, like band and the church drama team, while my boyfriend started new ones instead of getting a job to support our child.
Sending hugs to you, dear B. I hope you have found healing. I often think about the lady in my church and how unfair it was that she bore 100% of the blame for what was a mutual decision.
That’s just so sick, B. I’m so sorry.
Churches should not be judgmental as they have a lot to answer for too.
We’re working on that! It’s a great question. I think a lot of it comes down to shifting the responsibility to the guy as well, and then taking your time once you are married. Sex should be something you do once you’re aroused, not just because you’re married. When you don’t figure out that arousal piece before you have sex, it can get harder to figure it out afterwards.
My fiance has been great about this – one of the things he has said repeatedly is that we will take as long as we need to, and that if something isn’t good for me then it isn’t good for him either. So I know there will be no pressure from him, which is a huge blessing.
I’d love to know if the people who planned to keep sex for marriage but then ended up not did so because they made a decision to ignore their boundaries or if they were just overcome by the moment. Because the teaching I got a lot growing up is that if you give in to your feelings for a single minute, this red mist of lust will descend and when it clears, you’ll realise you had sex! And I’m thinking ‘really?’ I can understand if you are continually pushing boundaries, it’s probably easier to go the whole way, but I do wonder if a couple who are keeping their boundaries intact are going to suddenly have sex ‘just like that’.
One thing I am doing is to pray specifically about the sexual side of our marriage every day, that God will help me make that adjustment well (and soon!) and that sex will be the joyful thing for both of us that God meant it to be. I’m hoping this is going to challenge my ‘gatekeeper’ and make it easier for me to send it packing on our wedding day!
Hi there! My husband and I have been married for 5 years now. We planned to save sex for marriage, but we had sex after we became engaged. For us, it was not an intentional thing at first. We were both virgins before we met each other. I was 27 and he was 31. Up to the point of a proposal, we had made out with clothes on and touched one another and kissed, but not gone “all the way”. We grew up in very strict Christian homes, where you were expected to never have sex before marriage. I was not allowed to date in school, so I knew next to nothing about men other than being abused by several when I was little. So wanting to be with someone who loved me unconditionally was not a difficult thing. Our attraction and experimentation, which ultimately led to sex over a period of about a month, happened gradually in stages. I was the gatekeeper in our relationship. He told me after a couple of pregnancy scares that he would never leave me and that he always wanted a family. He also said he was raised to take care of and cherish your future wife, so for him it was a no brainer and I don’t think he lost much sleep over it. I, however, agonized for the months leading up to our wedding, which happened 4 months after he proposed. I wrestled internally and shed countless tears over what a disappointment I was to my family. (My mother actually married my dad because she got pregnant and she was sexually abused when she was a young girl too. ) I can not tell you how much I wish we had waited, not because people told us to, but because we missed the heart of God towards us in that season that we can not go back and do over. For the first 5-7 months of our marriage, I continued to be the gatekeeper and would refuse my husband’s advances. All of a sudden, because we were “married” it was okay to have sex. And I was so confused and hurt to be honest. My mom and I were not on speaking terms for a few months, and she would not acknowledge my husband for the first couple of years we visited them in another state (because he had “taken” my purity away). Now my family has eventually come around and we have 2 beautiful kids. We are reconciling broken relationships. I know this is long, but I wanted to answer your questions. We were both adults, we decided together to give in sexually to one another at different points in our relationship, and that is a choice we will have to answer to God for and no one else. It took a lot of healing for me to realize that and stop beating myself over the head for not being strong enough to resist. Being on the other side of it, at one point I asked God if I would ever be able to say this was a good thing. Now I know there are so many people who can relate to this part of our story because they lived it too. And God brought us through a dark time to glorify Him by drawing us closer together spiritually and emotionally. Someday I hope to be able to instill a godly and wise approach to sexuality and dating for my children, because there is so much I wanted to know and had questions about that were never answered.
Thank you for sharing – your comment about ‘the heart of God’ really resonated, because that is why we want to wait for marriage – because we want our relationship to be one that pleases God and honours Him. I’m so sorry for the pain you have been through in your family – I pray that the reconciliation which has begun will be total x
I absolutely feel for you and pray that as you wait that on your wedding night all guards will fall and never be picked up again.
When growing up I knew I wanted to wait until marriage. I met my husband and we both talked about waiting. Then we didn’t and I became pregnant. We talked marriage a few months prior before being physical with each other. Thankful we still are married but 17 years later I still feel like I’m keeping a guard up. I have recently have some physical set backs to where my body doesn’t want to work with me (lost of joint discomfort and inflammation to where intimacy is a little taxing on the body and once I get close my body sometimes shuts down). It’s been a challenge. I’m all for working to satisfy my husband but it’s really been stressful for him not being able to get me there. With all of that said I feel like so many parts of me just wants to let go and have fun but once we get down to it that wall goes up, I don’t let myself enjoy like I know I should cause I don’t want to feel or be labeled as a bad girl. But all of that is just silly cause I’m married and have been for quite sometime and we plan on being with each other forever. So why? Why do I let the guard go up? Why can’t I just leave them down and allow myself to enjoy my husband? Why can’t I just let go any past preconceived thoughts and teachings and enjoy the intimate parts of my marriage?
Thank you for your prayer Sue, and I pray that you will know full healing from these damaging messages too. And thank you for sharing your story.
I hope you find healing or help in dealing with your joint problem too. Have you had a diagnosis? I have a similar problem which is still under investigation, although a form of auto-immune arthritis is suspected, and we’re both aware that this could make sex a little more challenging for us!
Honestly, it’s a bit of both. Our situation was a bit different because we were long distance (8 times zones and £1000+ flight long distance). So you’re talking every day via video chat, but you only get to see each other in person once a year. So yes, when you do see each other in person, you want to kiss, hug, touch… explore. Because you want to be sure that they’re not a mirage, that they’re really real and your love is really real in real life too. “Want to” is not even strong enough language, it’s need. It’s desperation. It’s “can’t not”. But then every relative you’ve got has already made you PROMISE not to just get married because then they won’t get to be part of it, even though in retrospect it would have absolutely been the best thing to do just that… (In the UK the time from applying for the lisence to the wedding day needs to be at least 3 weeks, to give the public time to object if one is already married. And, let’s be real, back in the day it was also so the wealthy and powerful could interrupt and stop alliances they didn’t like. But in the USA it’s like, a day? No time at all in Vegas? And we were going to Vegas as one of several stops on the road trip we made. I think they thought we would do it for a laugh. But no, it would have been real. And it would also have made getting a visa MUCH easier, and family would have come around. And they should NEVER have asked us not to in the first place… 😥)
Um, sorry. Guess I needed to say that. Guess I didn’t answer the question very well. Let me try again.
It is a bit of both. Being very horny gives you about as much self control as being very drunk. There is a point of no return, after which base instincts take over and rationality is not even possible. But even in a situation like mine, there is still a choice. A situation like mine reduced the difference between the stage to make a choice and then the point of no return (a LOT) , but there still is a choice. Even if the choice is to pray because we can’t even decide in our own strength. And that’s the thing. Sometimes we can make a choice and then we get several attempts to stop and make a different one, whilst things are still under control. I’m not even just talking about sex, but about sin in general, or even life in general. But sometimes we get one shot to choose and then we need to live with the consequences. That’s one of the things that surprised me recently about some of the characters in the old testament, but in retrospect has also been true in my own life. Sometimes it is one shot, and live with the choice you made.
And you do only get one shot at being engaged (if your marriage goes ahead, of course). So, um, do just… do “being engaged” as well as you can? 😁
Matt from the Ten Minute Bible Hour on youtube, who is or used to be a pastor, tells couples to block out their last month before the wedding and not do any wedding preparation then. Everything should be finished before that last month. Because it’s the last month of this stage in your life and you need to invest your emotional energy into that and not into things that won’t matter after the wedding day. And also to just get chance to see each other because quality time in the week before the wedding is usually hard to come by. So take that or leave it as you like. 😘
Well if one of your boundaries is to keep clothes on…no, you aren’t going to somehow accidentally have sex. 😂 But when you are fully naked, and having genital contact without planned penetration, it’s easier to get caught up in the moment. But even then, full penetration does not happen accidentally.
We saved our kiss for the wedding day and I was very careful about hugging. I had very negative views on sex and wasn’t looking forward to it. We never exactly laid out out official physical boundaries. We always had a chaperone, Because I was afraid to be alone with a man….any man. We had Alot of honest communication and found our own lines. We did Alot of selected physical touch, but we did nothing sexual(other than the small butterflies), Because I didn’t want to. I could feel the potential to lose control and I didn’t want to go near that feeling until later. And it has pretty well worked itself out for us! We’re equally into sex, and my ptsd has gone away so much. Being married helped me relax and be happier.
As far as going straight into sex, we didn’t and that wasn’t our goal. He told me to take my time getting comfortable with it. He gave me the leeway of the first month! I didn’t end up needing it, I just needed to have no pressure to perform.
Exactly! The “no pressure” part is so key.
I trained myself not to feel any arousal or sexual excitement during makeout sessions with my husband when we were dating and engaged. Thanks to my conservative evangelical background, I thought that it was sinful to feel those things before marriage. That attitude has had repercussions far into our marriage (we’ve been married for 8 years.)
Honestly? I wish that we’d just had sex before marriage. Except, of course, I would have been dying of guilt if we had. But I do know this- we will be raising our daughter (and son) with no shame surrounding sex and sexual feelings. And I will not be upset if either of them has sex before marriage.
I totally hear you and am right where you are on this. I know Sheila can’t possibly agree with this, so I thought I’d speak up to offer solidarity. Lol
I just see it in a more nuanced way now. Any sexual sin was always unmentionable, so shameful and sinful that it was literally unspeakable, in the culture of my family of origin. We would have talked about serial axe murder or cannibalism but not about sexual sin. Which now just looks ridiculous.
Thanks, anonymous. I know that probably most people will clutch their pearls at my response. But honestly, when I look at the evangelical church I see an institution fixated on preventing consensual, educated premarital sex and enveloping the mere idea in shame, while giving at most a resigned shrug to the whole gamut of sexual evils practiced within the church- porn, marital rape, husbands treating their wives like sex machines, child grooming and molestation, sexual harassment, the treatment of single women like harlots in waiting… I could go on and on. And it’s all treated with this big collective attitude of “meh… well people aren’t perfect.” But let a young couple have loving, consensual, protected, extramarital sex? Then comes the condemnation with all guns blazing. And all based on a sketchy interpretation of the Greek word “porneia” which even a quick Google search will tell you refers to prostitution, but which Biblical translators decided to use the word “fornication.”
Frankly I think there’s a huge amount of technically “licit” sex going on in Christian marriages that is a heck of a lot more sinful, wrong, and even evil, than what happens when two teens in love get too steamy.
I think you’re on to something. I still think there are very good reasons to wait for marriage for sex, but until we get a proper sexual ethic which includes consent, and lack of shame, and an embrace of the body, and despises abuse in all forms, and is about dignity rather than coercion or obligation–well, we’re quite making a mess of it.
The good news from our survey is that a lot of people are doing really well. I’d just like to increase that number, and I think it starts with talking about sex in a healthy way, and not a shaming way.
Just look at the comments on this post. There is something very wrong in a church culture where adult women in a safe, committed (often on the point of marriage) loving relationship had consensual, mutual, enjoyable sex, and are beating themselves up for it, talking as though they had done this horrible thing. Do we honestly believe that God sees that love and delight and intimacy and tenderness and says, “Well sorry, you didn’t stand up in front of the judge or pastor yet so you’re automatically in the bad books for this.” And do we honestly think that God looks at a husband who professes Christ but who is a selfish, entitled jerk in bed with his wife, and goes, “Well, but it’s still better than that unmarried couple fornicating over here!”
Why is it that we talk about sin as being a matter of the heart- UNTIL we get to this issue of sex? Then it’s all about this arbitrary black and white standard. Premarital sex = bad, regardless of what the hearts of the two people engaging in it are, and marital sex = good, no matter how selfish and entitled either partner is being. It’s seriously messed up. And that’s not a world I want my children living in. No thank you.
Meredith, I think you’re really right. I do believe that God wants sex for marriage for very good reasons, but I simultaneously believe that the way we talk about this is hurting many people. We need to find a way to talk about it that does not elevate premarital sex to the worst sin in the world, especially when it’s with the person you’re going to marry, anyway. We allow that to taint our marriage, where we wouldn’t allow greed or envy to taint our marriage. We need to understand that there’s a bigger picture here, and often we get hung up on just one part of it.
I wish I had had sex with my now husband before marriage as well. I feel guilty for even thinking it, because it’s not biblical. There were moments before marriage that it would have been wonderful to have that freedom. Once we were married, that freedom to lose control and let go somehow did not naturally occur like I thought it would. I ended up being diagnosed with vaginismus and now my marriage consists of oral for him because sex is so painful and emotional. The highest percentage of women with vaginismus are those from religious groups. If I manage to have sex and get myself pregnant, I have no idea what to teach my children about sex. I want them to enjoy it without fear.
A lot of people in our focus groups told us the same thing. It wasn’t so much that they wished they had had sex before they were married as it was that they wished they had let themselves get carried away–and that that could have happened later. Instead they never got that “carried away” feeling back.
I’ve been mulling over that, and Rebecca and I will be talking it over in a podcast this week. But you’re absolutely not the only ones who have said that. We’ve heard it a lot (and honestly; I feel it, too. I wish my first experience had been when we were hot and heavy, rather than the vaginismus I experienced because I was tense, too).
I’m so sorry, Mary. And don’t feel guilty. You were robbed of something by a culture of lies about shame and sex. You can be angry– I am.
If you ever have children, teach them consent. Teach them love and tenderness and mutuality. Teach them self-worth and dignity. Teach them that they are in charge of their own bodies, and that they choose when and with whom to share them. Teach them they always deserve to feel safe and loved, and if they don’t then that’s a big warning sign that should not be ignored. Treat shame and guilt the way you would biohazardous waste– something to be avoided at all costs. And then set them free to make their own choices.
Meredith – my husband agrees 1000% with you. I have not really been able to understand why he holds this position until you explained it the way you did, contrasting healthy premarital sex between people who are committed to each other with unhealthy marital sex and how absurd it is we claim one is “bad” and one is “good” regardless of the hearts. I never thought of it how sin is a heart issue in every other area (not an external rule issue) but yet in this area we draw such harsh lines.
My husband says the church draws the line at legal marriage because it is simple – even though it’s so strange we “bow to the state” by saying people can’t have sex till the state calls them married. What actually makes a marriage? A commitment to each other before God. A couple can make that commitment and (in his opinion) therefore not sin by having sexual relations at that point without sinning. He thinks the church is too legalistic on this but at the same time understands why they do so. Making it a matter of the heart is more tricky and can open up a can of worms, which is why, as you said Sheila, it needs to be talked about SO much better. The emphasis must stop being on how premarital sex is a huge sin.
I really think a lot of the confusion could stop if we started understanding wisdom vs. folly. The Bible talks a lot about that–and we could say in today’s language “don’t be stupid; be smart.” We’re very quick to talk about sin, but often sin and folly coincide, and wisdom and righteousness do as well. If we can talk about the boundaries for sex in terms of wisdom, and not just sin, I think we’d be much further ahead. WHY does God want sex in marriage? What is it about sex and marriage that makes it good? Then we’d be able to more identify when sex in marriage is unhealthy, too, and we wouldn’t shame people as much for sexual sin outside marriage (which God never meant to be a special category of sin that we should never forgive ourselves for).
Yep yep yep. There are lots of nuances to how this plays out, but ultimately it sets a foundation of sex being more important to the man than the woman is, as well as all the benefits of sex being for the man and the consequences being for the woman. Most women I know literally had every boyfriend they ever had push their boundaries as far as they possibly could. Men were never told to have sexual boundaries. Here are just some of the messages sent and reinforced by this dating norm:
His pleasure > her pain, shame, safety, etc..
Sex is worth risking her reputation, purity, health, whatever because it feels good to him.
She can’t trust him to do what’s best or right for her if it means he has to sacrifice literally anything, much less something important.
Woman takes care of man and woman takes care of woman.
Sex is a resource for men that is harvested from women.
All of these are wildly contrary to intimacy, trust, safety and love. So glad you are covering this in your book.
We are! It’s really important. And it’s often the key to why women can’t relax.
I agree with this poster’s assessment of the situation 100%. This was what bothered me the most while dating and I wish I had been able to articulate it; basically to ask a couple of guys who professed to be in love with me if they didn’t care about how their actions would affect my reputation or feelings of self respect. However, I just don’t see any alternative to letting down the “gatekeeper” mentality prior to marriage; if anything, I wish someone had given me more information about how important it was to be alert and not just go along to be pleasing to a man who showed interest in me. Men pressuring women for sexual favors of all kinds is about the oldest story there is, I think we should equip young women to be stronger gatekeepers, if anything, and not to be afraid of offending a man by standing up for themselves rather than trying to accommodate him as much as possible while also trying to put on the brakes. I would like to see the church put a new emphasis on the value of singleness and not treat women like they are to be pitied if they don’t marry or have sex or children. There is so much pressure to be in a relationship, and so much is promised that is absolutely unrealistic.
Totally get what you’re saying, Jo. How about this: I’m wondering if the problem is less that women felt like gatekeepers, and more that teenage boys have not? Like they’ve gotten a free pass. Even Christian ones. Because we believe that guys won’t be able to stop, women are the ones who have to remain vigilant. But if we talked to guys about their responsibility to stop, too, then maybe women wouldn’t feel the whole burden, which I think is often the problem.
I also think that it’s unavoidable for women to play gatekeeper at least a bit. We’re the ones who can be raped. We’re the ones who can become pregnant. But the expectation at least should be there on the other side, too. There should be consequences for pushing boundaries. We should tell girls, “If you tell a boy you only want to do X, and he tries to make you do Y, then he’s not good for you and you should ditch him!”
> > Her sin is obvious because she’s pregnant.
Wow. Yes, that’s a pretty bad place to go. That kind of attitude teaches us that it’s okay to do bad things, as long as nobody really notices. And never mind that ALL sins are obvious to God.
I also don’t like the idea of a baby being associated with a sin. That’s just sad, too.
Yes, that upset me as a teen – it’s funny how I could see things more clearly as a ‘child’ than some of the ‘mature’ Christians around me!
I’ve noticed an interesting combination of attitudes from some Christian circles (in churches and on the internet)…
1. Men are the true children of God. Men are holy and closer to God. The world was made for Men, and Women are an afterthought created to serve their needs.
2. Men are completely out of control, lust all the time, and can’t control themselves, so women must be the gatekeepers.
I personally don’t believe in either of these, but it seems (in theory, at least) possible that one could be true and the other not.
But to believe both at the same time (as some obviously do) seems to be a HUGE contradiction. If Men are that holy and Godlike (we aren’t, trust me), how can it be possible that we’re always lusting out of control, and it falls to WOMEN to control the situation?
Nathan, I always enjoy reading the perspective you bring. Thank you. I’ve noticed those things, too.
Yes, I’ve wondered that too – how come these incredibly holy, super-spiritual beings just can’t control themselves if a woman so much as smiles at them…
I’ve thought of this a LOT, Nathan. This is what truly bothers me about the “every man’s battle” message. It talks down to men so much. I wish more men would see that and stand against it (and thank you for doing that!)
I definitely was taught the gatekeeper thing. We didn’t have sex before marriage and my now husband has apologized for pushing the boundaries at the time. I only ever had to say no, he was always trustable and still is.
My thing is…I still have to be gatekeeper in a way! We are married 11 years and have children. But he might be in the mood in the morning when we have to be up on time to say visit his parents and get the kids ready for whatever. I’m still the one that says no for practical reasons.
It’s not terrible or anything…just makes it harder to just relax during times where sex is possible.
That’s a really interesting point. I wonder if it’s that men just figure that women will say no if they don’t want to, and so men don’t get used to asking, “Is this a good time? Is this a respectful time to ask her?”
Another continued gate keeper here!
Saying no for practical reasons – this is me as well! It is so hard to balance responding to your husband’s desires (when it involves ignoring children, responsibilities, etc.) and your good common sense.
🙋🏼♀️ Yes, to gatekeeping for practical reasons (like the kids are around, or we have to get up for work…) like, what would he do if I didn’t say no to these times?!?
I’ve had to do this to…”I’d love to have sex now, but we have to be out the door in an hour and we have x and y and z to do to be able to do that…”
Not only was I the Gatekeeper, I was the “failed” Gatekeeper. We ended up having sex when I was 15, getting pregnant, and watching my parents and my church fall apart at the same time. Neither my parents or the church was my fault, but the timing was hard for a barely-16-y/o to rationalize. I married that boy, only to realize too many years later that he has a sex addiction, among other addictions. I’m not saying all males do, but as I go through our divorce, it can be difficult to not see every male in that light.
As I look to the future, knowing that some day I will wish to marry again, I feel concern that the hurts I have will carry over. I’m in counseling and will be buying The Great Sex Rescue as soon as it’s available. I also have Boundaries in Dating to read with my teenagers. I do still want to honor the marriage bed, but I grew up in purity culture and struggle to know, as said above, what honors God and how much of that burden falls to the woman. I know from experience that not all men will make sexual advances just because they’re alone with a woman, but being in a dating setup seems to change that attitude. How do I protect my daughters (and some day, myself) from sinful advances and behavior without creating mental trauma that will affect marriage?
That’s a great question, B! And I’m so sorry for the shame that was heaped on you. And so sorry for the divorce you’re walking through. That must be so difficult.
I think it’s so important to frame sex as a wisdom issue more than just a sin issue. Why do we want to wait for marriage? Because it’s wise. And God wants us to the wise thing, and God set us up to do the wise thing. When we talk about sin, we add so much shame. I think talking about things as wise vs. unwise and not only as sin is so important.
And maybe a love issue as well as a wisdom one? I know for my fiance and I, our primary motivation in waiting for marriage has been to please God, because we love Him. One of my regular prayers is that God would help us keep our relationship one that He smiles at, because it pleases Him.
Why does God reserve sex for marriage? It is yet another way that marriage is intended to be a picture of Christ and his Bride. Does Christ give all for those outside of his covenant? No, he calls those whom he has chosen. He promises them everlasting faithfulness. If we think we can bypass the covenant between man, wife, and God and give ourselves to each other without it, we are dishonest about the way He relates to us as his beloved.
That’s very true. I think it goes a lot further than that, though. I do think that the main original reason is that he wanted children in families and that he wanted women protected, beyond just the child bearing years.
He also wanted us to experience real intimacy and relationship.
I’m not saying that it’s only that; I’m saying that there are lots of reasons, and I like not just mentioning the spiritual ones but also the others, because that makes it easier to understand for people.
I don’t think purity culture is the only thing leading women to feel like gatekeepers. It doesn’t help, of course, and probably worsens the problem in most situations, but I think that even without the purity mindset women would still be prone to this. The simple fact is that the potential repercussions of sex are much more serious to women, and we know it. Sex for men is just fun, with the only real risk being that you might get an STD if you’re promiscuous. Women run the risk of pregnancy–nine months of physical sickness and discomfort followed by labor, followed by raising a child for almost 2 decades. (Or an abortion, which is an expensive and invasive medical procedure that men also don’t have to deal with.) Purity culture and judgment in the church aside, mistakenly having sex can alter the entire course of a woman’s life, in many cases condemning her to poverty if the father does not step up to help. Even in marriage, a woman who gets pregnant unexpectedly can still face reduced employment prospects and immensely altered societal expectations once she is a mother, and these are things that do not translate to her husband in most cases. Simply put, women stand to lose a lot in sex, and men don’t, so women have the most vested interest in being gatekeepers. Until we learn to hold men accountable for sex and parenthood the way we do women, this won’t stop.
Kya I totally agree with you. You are dead on point!
I started having sex at 15 years old but it was the girl who mentioned it and was curious. Now that girl is my wife. No harm no foul.
Kya, I agree with most of what you mentioned above, but I did want to add that men do suffer emotional consequences from adding sex too early into the relationship. It clouded my younger brother’s judgment from being able to really “see” different facets of the girl he rescued from a drug scene. We all told him it was not a wise decision, as she struggled in and out of an addiction to alcohol and drug use, she was not able to keep down a job for more than a couple of months, and her parents had told her she could not longer live in their house due to her lifestyle choice. He thought he could save her, help her get better. Deep down he is very sensitive to the pain and distress of others. This was the start of their relationship, and it was rooted in sex. He thought he loved her and that it was mutual. Over the last 8 years, we have seen more red flags with them and it has morphed into physical/domestic violence in the home. They also have a sweet 2 year old boy that SHE insisted they have because they were “in love”. He very much wants out but doesn’t know how to do that without endangering his son. I agree that our culture and even in the church as a whole people put way more emphasis on the woman standing to lose everything. But men also do go through things as well, we have to be careful not to put labels on people as it’s very easy to do. I mean, my younger brother has stood by this woman, agreed to have children with her (they had to take her IUD out), and has given her everything she could ever want while going into debt, buying a new house, buying her a car, etc. It is not the norm, but there are decent men out there.
I read your comment and had something to say but decided not to comment. Now that somebody decided to say you are dead on point I have decided to make a point. I would say I agree with you except for the statement that the only real risk for men is getting an STD. I would agree that women have more to deal with but there are consequences for men as well. The big one is being able to see character flaws in others due to blindness from having sex before marriage. I think you missed that point and while they effect both sexes it is the bigger point of the equation. I am sorry for what women have to endure if they choose to have sex before marriage and then have severe consequences for it. While I agree with what you mostly wrote I do think that men have consequences as well. Its not just a risk of getting an STD.
VERY true! Sex is just has far more repercussions for women than it does for men. I love your last sentence!
Sheila, I’ve often had this thought when you talk about how sex is often problematic emotionally for women. I am so glad you are (a) actually talking about the problem and (b) helping give practical tools to work through the problem.
There’s little getting around the fact that women are more at risk. Yes, both genders are at risk for STDs and perhaps improper emotional dependence. But, up until the advent of hormonal birth control, and up until birth control became socially (and “biblically”) acceptable, and up until other advances in modern medicine, pregnancy and childbirth related problems were the leading cause of death for women. And the only type of birth control that’s 100% effective is abstinence. (I know two women who got pregnant even though their spouse had a vasectomy.)
Sometimes I wonder if trauma can be passed down through the generations. If so, you have a monumental task ahead of you. That being said, I mean this as encouraging, because I think the tide IS turning, and you and your team are part of a growing movement. Even on the days when it seems like no one is listening (holla, Focus on the Family), it does make a difference to all the starfish you are throwing back in the sea.
Thank you so much! And that is interesting about generational trauma, too.
Did you ever see the movie Les Miserables? The one that Anne Hathaway won the Oscar for? When she sang that song about being abandoned after becoming pregnant, I was crushed. I wept like I haven’t wept before in a movie. I wept for all the women who had ever endured that. It was just so tragic. And it is all too common.
Interesting thoughts both in the article and the comments. I do think I struggled with this. But not just from purity culture. My dad’s side of the family is from South America. Add the Machismo mentality and that might explain why I spent my whole single life fighting so hard not to become sexual. 15 years into marriage and I still struggle to enjoy sex. But you know I think it’s more than just purity culture, or even other cultures, even in secular America there is this thinking that boys want the sex. I can see this even in hubby who didn’t grow up religious. I can tell by how he says things about our kids. How it will be harder for our son, and how our daughter will have to fight off the boys. I think this whole attitude is so deeply ingrained in human behavior expectations now.
Another “funny” thing is how I spent so many years gate keeping but then was willing to do “everything but” once I was together with my now husband. I’ve prayed, I’ve thought about it, sometimes I feel guilty at other times I remind myself it was a conscious choice. Just haven’t figured out the key to just be able to relax and enjoy sex with the only man I’ve ever even kissed.
I hear you! And you’re right–I do think it’s cultural as well, and not just the purity culture. The wider culture as a whole treats boys like this, and it does impact us.
I take a relaxed stance when it comes to sex and I teach my daughter the same but also teach her to use common sense. I tell her that she calls the shots and if the boy refuses to back down then that’s not the boy for her.
One thing that being in that position taught me (too late) was that the man who, when dating, continually pushed my boundaries wouldn’t respect them in marriage either – in the bedroom or otherwise. It took nearly two decades for that to change.
That’s so tough! I’m glad you’re on the other side.
Omg, this is 150% me! Great article! And when this is paired with spectatoring/body image issues… WOO BOY! What a combo!
For me, it wasn’t about what I was taught; it was about my actual experiences in dating. For me, dating was a year-long process of fighting for my boundaries to be respected. My husband never did that (one of the many reasons I married him). At this point, one of the problems I have is that it’s like trying to drive a car down the highway with the brakes clamped down.
100% yes to that last sentence. I did have to deal with some purity culture stuff, like my youth group going through the whole Josh Harris book. But dating definitely had the biggest impact on me there. The guy that I dated in college was constantly trying to push my boundaries past what I felt was right, and even went so far as to accuse me of making him feel like a “low grade rapist” during one incident where I got particularly upset about his actions. After I wised up and broke it off with him, it was years before I could bring myself to even think about dating again (and several more years before I actually did, with the man that I married. ) Having to be the gatekeeper for so long with someone who supposedly loved me was exhausting, and I really blame that more than anything for my vaginismus.
That’s so sad, Becky! And you’re right–that may be a big part of it.
That last sentence screams “Come As You Are” by Emily Nagoski. It’s secular, but still a GREAT book! I think every single woman deals with the stuff in that book to one degree or another.
I was raised in purity culture. I remember being told by a very well meaning adult who loved me and had my best interest at heart: “when you date, the guy will be the gas pedal, it’s your job to be the the brakes.” Granted, I didn’t date much in my little Christian school and church circle as a teen, but I believed this well into adulthood. I’m still untangling so many invisible knots from this mindset even though I’m now happily married to a wonderful Christian man.
Yes! How do people expect women to suddenly push the gas pedal once they’re married if they’ve been desperately pushing the brakes their whole lives? It is very tough.
That was not a very wise thing to say, well intended or not! And besides, everyone has both an accelerator and a brake. Her passion / attraction to him is her accelerator and her self control is the brake on her passion. Same applies to the man.
If the couple has a dynamic where he turns off his self control and relies on hers, and the woman throttles her passion as soon as it starts to bloom, because she has to be the gatekeeper… not healthy at all.
So, to clarify, I meant that the words spoken to you as a teenager were unwise. Not your comment.
Our brand of purity culture seems to have been really different than most. Both my husband and I were taught (not by our parents but teen camps and communities) that we were equally important in the pursuit of purity. It was not expected that he would push my boundaries- just that the boundaries would be very strict. No kissing for sure, handholding was up to us, but discouraged. I don’t really regret all that (though I’d have liked to kiss once or twice before the wedding day! ) what affected us, mostly my husband actually, was that there was a strong focus on emotional purity. He felt like he couldn’t make it clear that he loved me until we were married in case he somehow “led me on” and we didn’t end up married. Our courtship was definitely very painful for both of us because neither really felt loved or accepted. In the first year of marriage, we both had issues getting other gatekeeping and allowing ourselves to be sexual. It has been markedly easier for him to work through than me, but definitely was an issue for both of us.
Oh, that’s so hard, Ina, that he couldn’t express love before the wedding! I’m glad you’re working through that.
These comments are really interesting. I grew up in a Christian home (adopted into it 4.5yrs age) and couldn’t wait for marriage throughout my teens and had first boyfriend few months shy of turning 21. I did everything ‘right’ sexually as he did. Only kissed fully dressed but pressed up together so it was close and sensual. I always enjoyed it and could have done that for hrs but he was 8yrs older and was divorced. He very much initiated the gate keeping. At the time I just assumed it’s becuase he has been ‘there’ sessions didn’t last long so weren’t as fun for him and just accepted it as Him being godly. Anyways I broke it off becuase he wasn’t sure about ‘us’ but the pain I felt was immeasurable. I didn’t expect to feel so much pain becuase I had ‘done’ everything right sexually. Anyways, emotional pain didn’t cease so I ended up throwing my body away to a stranger 6 months later. To this day my relationships have been ‘disconnected’ sex or no sex but I’ve finally figured out my adoption trauma plays a role couple of years ago (I’m now 38). All I know is that there was too much focus on sex being the cause of pain and shame which lead to a lot of confusion in my first break up.
This is one reason why my husband and I chose to not to kiss before marriage. No one had to make that kind of call, no one had to put the brakes on. It’s not like we didn’t enjoy each other. We loved hugging each other and holding hands, he kissed me on the forehead a few times which was super sweet and romantic. There was so much fun and freedom on the day we married! Our first kiss was not G or even PG because we had it in private on our wedding day. We had fun, still do!
I read somewhere (I can’t remember where and I can’t find proof one way or the other so maybe someone can help) that in biblical times the engagement was the actual binding legal agreement and that often times intercourse happened before vows. To those in that time it was allowed because the putting a ring on it was binding. Is that true? It makes sense it would allow a couple to slowly become intimate. If so where did we get the idea to shame people about having sex after engagement but before vows if they followed through and got married? Don’t get me wrong I don’t like the shaming period but I wonder if the above is true why did we (as a church) become so fixated on the actual vows part of the arrangement.
Just curious in case anyone is a biblical history buff. I couldn’t find any solid answers either way.
I can’t find anywhere in the Bible where sex before marriage is pointed to as a good thing. And lots of places that indicate that it is not pleasing to God. They may not have had a ‘marriage’ that looked like ours, but there was a very clear definition between married and not married. Also, their betrothal was different to our engagement anyway – a betrothal was a really firm, unbreakable commitment. However much we may say we are committed to each other, engagements in our culture ARE breakable.
I think the issue is not ‘should we say sex before marriage is ok’, but with how people are treated when they do it – Jesus welcomes all those who come to Him in repentance with love and forgiveness and our sins are wiped out and ‘remembered no more’. But the church doesn’t tend to act like that – someone will be shamed, condemned and even reminded of their actions years down the line.
I bet most people on this thread who are feeling guilt or shame for having sex before marriage aren’t also beating themselves up for losing their temper, or lying or being unkind to someone years ago. We can bring other sins to the Lord for forgiveness and trust that He has forgiven, but when it comes down to sex, we hang onto our guilt even when God has forgiven. And I think this has EVERYTHING to do with those around us and nothing to do with how God views us. So I don’t think the church should be saying ‘oh well, you love each other so it doesn’t matter that you’re not married’ – instead, we should be saying ‘God has forgiven you for that, so it’s wiped out – if He doesn’t remember it, then neither do we.’ But as long as you have people (not God) holding out different standards of forgiveness for sexual sin versus other sin, you are going to have Christians burdened by shame & guilt.
If God has ‘blotted out’ someone’s past sin and ‘remembers it no more’, how DARE we bring it up again to shame someone?!!
That’s really interesting. I’d love to know that, too.
(though I still have an issue with that, because engagements can be broken, and would people get engaged just to have sex? But it’s interesting!)
I can answer that! You’re talking about betrothal. We see it illustrated in Mary’s story quite clearly. We know that she and Joseph were betrothed, but it’s clear that they weren’t intimate with one another. BUT, it was legally binding. Joseph wanted to legally divorce her because of her pregnancy. They were ‘married’ in a legal sense but not in a physical sense. God uses this language to refer to the people of Israel and the church as well! We see it in Hosea: “I betroth you to me in righteousness.” We see it in Jesus’s parables and descriptions. “I go to prepare a place for you.” The couple would be legally bound and the husband would go off to prepare the home for the bride. He would then come to return and fetch her and have the wedding feast.
We actually chose to do something similar to this. We got legally married a month before we held our wedding. We did not consider ourselves fully married. It was a wonderful period. We had completely pledged ourselves to one another and the excitement leading up the wedding gave us such a cool analogy to the period of time we are in now, waiting for our Jesus to return and claim his bride. It’s the one thing that we did in our courting/marriage process that I would 100 percent do again!
I’ve been married 38 years and have never been able to relax during sex because of the gatekeeper in me. I have now lost all desire for sex. Is there any hope for me or am I too old at 67? I submit for my husband’s sake but …
Oh, Ruth, there is always hope! When we get our thinking in line with Christ’s, he can make all things new and restore us.
Have you ever read The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, which talks about how to make sex great, but also about what God meant sex to be for women? That may help break down some of these barriers for you.
Wow, reading this post has been a light bulb moment for me. I’ve been married 15 years and my husband and I were engaged 3 years. We did have sex before marriage. We both had an incredible amount of mutual guilt surrounding our desires. Neither of us had been intimate in previous relationships. I like Meredith’s thoughts and wonder now if I should not have been so hard on myself. We knew we were sinning, there was shame in that, but should I have felt shame at having enjoyed what we were doing? Additionally, I was the one who initiated, really it was my husband who started out as the gatekeeper, he was so respectful. I had dated a few boys previously, but never had the desire for them that I had for my husband. Should I not have sought to stifle that desire?
When I was a teenager I went to a church service in which a local football star gave a purity talk. After the talk they handed out these little cards that were like “contracts”. I signed it and kept it tucked into the pages of my bible, a promise that I wouldn’t break. Several years later when my husband and I began dating, seeing that little card gave me so much guilt.
Fast forward to our wedding night and guilt free sex was less than spectacular. I had spent so much time telling myself not to enjoy sex that I really didn’t enjoy it and resented my husband for wanting it everyday of our honeymoon. This began a pattern of refusal, I didn’t get why we needed to have sex so often, we were married and living together now, let’s just enjoy each other’s company.
It wasn’t until after the birth of our first baby, when hormones kicked in, that I developed a true sex drive. It wasn’t as though prior to this I wasn’t wanting sex, it was just that it wasn’t very important to me.
Thank you for this post. I’ve been mulling this over in my head in light of my husband’s porn use, which I know is not my fault. I just have been asking myself why didn’t I enjoy sex in those early years of our marriage? Had I, would he have not searched elsewhere for satisfaction?
Oh, Leslie, I’m sorry for all the guilt you’re feeling! That really isn’t God’s desire for you at all. Please know that. He doesn’t want you to carry all of this.
And He doesn’t want you second guessing yourself about the early years and his porn use, either. Sometimes stuff just happens. What’s important is what we do with it now. Know that Jesus sees everything through new lenses. You’re not defined by anything you may have done in your past. But more than that, He wants you to have an abundant life now. So fight for that!
When we were dating the temptation to get carried away was real for both of us. There were times during our kissing where we both felt it was too much.
So early on together we discussed exactly what physical things we would not do. It felt a bit strange at the time and friends of mine who also were serious with their boyfriends/fiancees seemed surprised that we had “rules” to our “making out”. At one point we had decided three kisses a day, no longer than a certain amount of time. Hands were never to be placed higher than the knee on the other, kisses only on the face or hand, never lay down together or on the other person etc. We had more specifics but thats a few examples.
Sometimes I got the feeling I was too much, like men are so visual, and it was frustrating that way to feel like I had to be so careful not to tempt. My husband (boyfriend at the time) had intentions to be respectful, to be careful before marriage and took responsibilities at the same time not to push it physically with me. I guess I felt like the gatekeeper of visual temptations, but we were both gatekeepers of the physical.
Did it feel strange to have such specific guidelines? Yeah, definitely at times it was annoying and felt like we were making things so rigid and legalistic. But we kept telling ourselves, the more we don’t do, the more we have to look forward to.
Sometimes during our engagement we wondered what the point was in waiting, and looking back we could have survived with doing less but glad we avoided doing so much before our wedding night. Wasn’t easy and we could have easily had sex before marriage even with our specific rules, I’m not saying that temptations disappeared altogether. I do though still credit our “rules” as a big part of why we had so much saved for marriage, and that we listed them together is why I don’t feel like our boundary keeping fell on me.
Yes! I’ve been wondering about this since I got married 6 months ago. Getting aroused and orgasming can be really hard most of the time, and I realized a huge reason was because I’ve trained myself to remain in-turned on and hyper aware of not going too far. I taught myself to never think about sex so it wouldn’t be a temptation so much that now I still rarely think about it and feel it’s hurt my ability to want it. Definitely been a huge thing to work through. Thank you for helping me realize I’m not alone in this or crazy!
Ok so Alot of comments are talking about justifying sex before marriage. But God has shown in the Bible that sex belongs inside a marriage only. That makes it wrong and other sexual sins don’t suddenly make it ok. I think the thought is, maybe we change the way we date/teach about sex?
It was clearly taught to me that kissing and other commonly excepted gateway sexual things, we’re supposed to lead into sex itself. Since I understood that, why would I do it with anyone outside of marriage?
I had the privilege to watch 3 siblings have 3 very different ratings leading into marriages. I learned about what was important to having a successful relationship. Time meant nothing as the longest one married a narc. Intentional chaperoning was, and private conversations can be texted or later phone calls. And talking about physical touches! I had also been convinced that my trauma shouldn’t stay secret. So when he said I love you, I told him immediately.
So long story short: our dating style is the problem and solution, not premarital sex!
Hi Bethany #2. I have been watching this conversation and find yours and many others interesting. While my past is checkered and certainly wasn’t even remotely close to getting it right I am interested in helping mu children get it right. That being said Becca made a comment a while ago regarding this topic that I have never forgot because I found it so intriguing. She made the statement along the lines of “That if you cant wait for sex then get married”. I think she made that statement around the time before Katies wedding during all of Sheilas posts leading up to that event. I didn’t know what to think of it then or what to do with it. Seems relevant to your comment. Maybe she might expand upon that in next weeks podcast….it sure was an interesting comment.
To quote a comment that you quoted, Phil: “If you can’t wait, just get married?” Whoa. Marriage is not a cure for lack of self-control.
Not a cure. But it’s biblical to think of marriage as a gift for those who know God is not calling them to lifelong celibacy. Marriage IS a cure for sexual need as long as it’s in context of people first, not bodies.
Thanks for responding Phil! It means Alot that you responded, Because I like reading your thoughts too. The traditional excepted long dating times can definitely be harder for some than others. And being honest about being impatient to do things physically, isnt always a bad sign. For example, my love language is physical touch and in a dating setting, that easily can tread into passionate waters. But if you had a love language like acts of service or gifts, it is probably easier and wise to have a longer dating period. I don’t think everyone who is dating and can’t wait to have sex with their partner is lustful or lacking self-control. Some of us are just more wired to get to that point faster.
That’s my thoughts…
Yes, I think the point is, if you’re going to get married anyway, and you know that you’ve found the person, then get married quickly. Don’t get married just to have sex; but if you know you’re going to get married, then don’t dawdle. It can be too difficult.
What should one do if their family is pushing for a long engagement? My fiance and I are struggling a lot, and he keeps pushing to get married as a solution, but I don’t want to dishonour my parents by eloping early. (note: I am 25 but still have 2 years left to finish my degree).
Bethany2, I don’t see where in the Bible “God clearly says” that sex before marriage is wrong. The entire Old Testament sexual ethic is based on the premise that women’s bodies were the property of men (first of the father, then the husband). This is why a man who slept with a virgin was forced to pay the bride price for her. Because her body was now “damaged goods” and she would never be seen as valuable to another man. Men were allowed to have as many wives/concubines as they wanted, as long as they provided for them. Have you read the OT sexual laws?
The NT has some things to say about married sex, but nothing about premarital sex, especially as we understand it today. Again, in the ancient Roman culture, women’s bodies were property. You were a good virgin daughter waiting to be married off to whomever your father chose. If you were sexually active before marriage it was because you were a prostitute. The single verse in the NT which has been translated as “fornication” is actually referring to temple prostitution.
So I don’t think we can say that the Bible makes a black and white case against premarital sex.
I just got on to check out the comments again and I disagree. If you read the Bible and grow up hearing the Bible stories, it is in multiple stories. You could translate it as the OT men wanting to have ownership over a woman’s virginity. But the original intent was that sex belongs in marriage. In no story was it ever a positive thing to happen outside of marriage. Many stories of different sexual things happening and it is just not there. If you want to look deeper, then the definitions matter. Adultery and fornication, they infer to me, sex(sexual things) outside of marriage. And 3 Bible references that list them as things to be shunned by Christians. 1 Corinthians 6:9 (both are listed as sins to leave behind.) 2 Cor 12:21 and hebrews 13:4.
Wow, I can’t relate personally to this at all, but reading all the comments was very enlightening. My husband and I started dating as teenagers, we were both raised in the purity culture, but somehow I didn’t internalize the gatekeeping aspect… he never pressured me, if anything, it was me pushing the boundaries! We decided mutually that we would save sex for marriage, and it was a private decision— no one knows this, it’s no one’s business, not my parents nor my best friends were aware of my virginity status. And we had plenty of opportunities— he had his own apartment the last two years of college, and I had a dorm room all to myself. We were very physically affectionate but kept it to making out and hugs and handholding. About a month before our wedding we did go a little bit further, but stopped — we both have waited almost five years at that point and felt it was worth it to just hold out for that last month. I am really glad we waited, I loved losing my virginity with him on our wedding night. I’m sorry for everyone who also waited and wishes they hadn’t, that is really unfortunate. For what it’s worth, I know so many of my friends who didn’t wait, and their first experiences were nothing great. Do you really want your first time to be ten minutes of disappointment in the backseat of his car? Anyway, good discussion and I appreciate everyone’s comments
Tory, I think you’ve hit on a key here. When the boy also is very committed to boundaries and doesn’t push yours, I don’t think this affects women as much. I really think the answer is to help men see their responsibility, too.
“Here’s what I really like about this project: I don’t have to prove why an idea is wrong. I just have to give data.” I see this as a dangerous statement. Data can be obtained and presented to prove anything. Want to prove ALL men lust….Easy! Want to prove not all men lust…Easy! Just ask the RIGHT questions to the right group if people. ANYTHING can be proven (or disproven) with the right presentation of data.
Yeah… And I’m really wondering about the timing of the survey. I participated, but it was very, very evident that the questions were directly related to all the posts on this blog from the past year or so. Participants had been primed, so to speak, to think and answer a certain way. Not that this was the intention, or even that it was a conscious thing. Just seems like there was too much room for potential bias.
That’s also why, when we recruited for the survey, we made sure that we used other people to recruit. The majority of those who took the survey did not get there through my links, but through other blogs, etc.
To a certain extent you’re right. But we will also be posting our questions, and people can see that we asked them neutrally, and that we were only asking one thing per question (other Christian surveys that have been widely used really used invalid questions, because they were asking multiple things). For each question, we also had a second question that asked the same thing in a different way, so that we could make sure we were measuring things right. Just because statistics can be skewed does not mean that all surveys are bad.
We also use marital satisfaction measures and sexual satisfaction measures that had already been externally validated.
Finally, our results are in line with what we expected and with current research. So we’re very confident with what we found.
I also want to add that we have removed questions from our analysis due to reliability and validity concerns, which previous Christian surveys have failed to do.
Yes, if you have bad motives you can twist data. But we’ve made sure we haven’t, and have followed best practices in psychometrics and statistics in order to maintain research integrity.
Our goal is not to promote an agenda, it’s to stop people from being hurt. If something comes up in our research that shows something we believed was good actually caused hurt, we’d present that as well. We did have opportunities to present an agenda based on unreliable or invalid questions and we chose not to. We literally could not have done this survey in a less biased way. We have done everything in our power, now people just need to be willing to open their minds and listen to the over 20,000 women who we surveyed.
These are really valuable comments and discussion.
I would like to think that my wife and I took equal responsibility for ‘gatekeeping’ before marriage, though perhaps I put more of the obligation on her.
But regardless, I now know that even if we agreed on how to ‘behave’, we came at it from different perspectives.. We had been raised in somewhat similar evangelical churches but I now know we were taught very different things about sex.
I was taught a good balance of positive and cautionary things about sex in my youth group and from my parents. But my wife only heard negative things, if she heard things at all – much like what many women are describing here. And so she has struggled a lot with enjoying sex, again like what many people are saying here.
So even though we both knew “don’t do it before marriage”, we were very differently prepared for what would happen after marriage. I was 100% hyped up to enjoy married sex, while my wife was, deep down inside, unsure and hesitant. But we had no idea. Since we agreed on the ‘don’t do it” part, we made a (quite reasonable) assumption that we were on the same page for everything else about sex. Maybe a skilled premarital counsellor might have helped us see otherwise, but I doubt it. (There were other issues related to her family upbringing as well.)
It took many years, and having our own kids, to realize how differently we had been raised, and how much that has affected our sex life. Despite agreeing on “the rules.”
Bill, I think that is such an important point.
I’ve noticed many of these comments assume that the woman feels she has to be the gatekeeper because the man doesn’t take responsibility. But in my case, my fiance is incredibly responsible – I’m not ‘gatekeeping’ because I don’t trust him to do it, but because I’ve been surrounded by messages from a very early age that say ‘woman are…’, ‘women must…’, ‘women don’t…’
So even if the man has been taught well, there are still going to be problems if the woman has absorbed damaging teaching – and sometimes, they can even be raised in the same church and he will hear good things and she will hear bad. Some of the most damaging messages I heard weren’t preached from the pulpit but were shared with me via a chat over a coffee by the ‘mature Christian women’ of the church.
I read this a couple days ago and it’s been on my mind since. I am engaged and getting married in July. My fiancé and I dated a little over a year and our engagement will be 3.5 months. We are 24&25. I have been conscious of the gatekeeper thing for a while- I previously dated (briefly) a couple guys where I had clearly set boundaries in my mind of what I was okay with and then we started making out and some of those went out the window, honestly it is by the grace of God that those relationships didn’t last any longer & I didn’t go further than I did. My fiancé has been so respectful & really hasn’t pushed physically. We kissed earlier on, but we dated for about 3 months before we made out, and after a couple times I realized I just didn’t feel fully good about us making out, and I noticed that every time we did that I would spend the next few days seriously doubting if we should even be dating. I explained this to him, told him that plainly that if I continued to go against my conscience with him, that I would probably end up breaking it off at some point (which I didn’t want to!) And it’s been ~10 months since that conversation and there’s been only once that I had to say anything (and he backed off immediately). So it’s not really that I’m the gatekeeper in our relationship in that I have to be on guard or stop him, but that i was the one to establish the boundaries and they’re fully respected but they’re still kind of mine rather than ours. I think part of this is also that my fiancé had not dated previously and I had. I feel that I have a healthy view of sex in marriage, but I am a bit worried about being able to let go of the gatekeeper feeling.
Another thing Ive been thinking about with this – we are going to be using NFP, and as Ive been learning more about it, it feels like this will continue the gatekeeper thing somewhat. So far I know I’m going to use the OvaCue, but I’ll have to connect it to the computer to chart & interpret the raw data (since the simple color coding on the device doesn’t tell all you need to know for TTA). I think I’ll probably be doing another monitoring method in addition, I’m going to see a gyno in my area who promotes NFP so he’ll give me good advice I’m sure. But I feel like will be another form of being the gatekeeper, since I’ll have to take the measurements and upload the data and interpret the chart and remember this info later. I want to use NFP foe health reasons, but right now at least it seems like such an added responsibility on my end. ANd I Think it’ll be hard not to feel like the gatekeeper when I’m the one determining whether or not we can have sex.
Sorry for the novel…..
Being a gatekeeper was not so much an issue when we were engaged but the idea of women be a gatekeeper have some odd outworkings in our marriage. My husband is extremely considerate (I know I’m very blessed in this regard) and when we start kissing and whatnot it’s usually up to me to move things to the next stage and then the next stage and so on. The problem is that I’m currently on meds that affect my libido so kissing doesn’t do much for me and I’m not motivated to move to the next level. I’ve told my husband that the best thing he could do for me to get me going is just to take me to the bedroom and deeply make out with me. I’ve given him consent to just start at 3rd base if you will because that gets me turned on quickly. But he has been taught that women make the decisions on when the next step so it’s hard for him to be ok with going from 0 to 3rd base even though you know he is ready to go because he wants to be respectful of me which I do appreciate. Just wanted to add a slightly different perspective to this discussion.
So interesting, Karen! Yes, I’ve heard that from other commenters, too–that their husbands are so polite that things never seem to go anywhere. That’s a dynamic worth writing about, too. Thank you!
Such a fascinating discussion. One point I didn’t see mentioned here is that the flawed idea that women are expected to “hold men back” leaves little room for female desire. After I experienced failed relationships with disrespectful men, and a long time single, I’m now dating a younger man from a conservative upbringing. I told him I want him to set the pace of our intimacy, because I made bad decisions in my past related to guilt about intimacy and I don’t want him to feel pressured in the same way. (He’s a virgin.)
What is really eye-opening to me is that he’ll express interest, I’ll happily go as far as he wants (which isn’t intercourse), and later he’ll say, shocked but by no means upset, “I thought you’d stop me.” I said, “No, I told you you’re in the driver’s seat; that means you get to ask and if I consent, there we go!”
Also, the first few times we kissed, he apologized afterward for “taking advantage of me.” I initiated a conversation about consent and female desire…it was hard for him to understand at first that a woman could very much want to kiss, see a man without his shirt on, touch his body, think thirsty thoughts, etc. It wasn’t that he wanted something physical and I reluctantly agreed – it was that I had a lot of desire and was just waiting for him to say he was ready to express it too.
He also had an idea I found strange that “if you have sex (intercourse), then you have to get serious with the girl afterward.” I said my thought was the other way around…I don’t want to have sex until and unless it is a serious relationship. But also: it’s ok to feel “turned on” by people that are not the people you decide in the end to marry. It’s ok (and I think important) to distinguish between lust and love, before marrying the wrong person. Just because you hunger after someone physically shouldn’t mean you feel forced to marry them. I know people will disagree, but sometimes it takes some making out to discover that your body is the one saying yes, not your reason/wisdom. Find the right person and the right time to enter into life partnership.
He’s a wonderful and respectful man but it really opened my eyes to this apparently pervasive and dangerous idea that women will never have as much as (or more) sexual desire than men.
I was absolutely the gate keeper in a 2 year relationship before I met my husband. I had no idea how badly it damaged me until about 5 years into my marriage. I realized I could not “relax.” Not only that, in that relationship I was pushed much much farther than I was comfortable (and then dumped
) and it took me even more years to realize this was actually abusive and manipulative behaviour. I thought something was wrong with ME that I still felt damaged (secretly because “how embarrassing”) from relationship from 10 years ago. My children will be taught how to date, and be given some pretty frank details about how to be in a healthy physical relationship before marriage. What happened to me does not need to happen to them or their future spouses.
Amen, Eva! You can break the cycle. And I’m so sorry you were manipulated and hurt. That’s not okay.
I’m at my wits end.
My boyfriend and I have struggled with our physical boundaries for a long time. We’ve been dating for a year and half and started struggling about 6 months into it. We both desire to wait for marriage to have sex, and we have done well with that! However, we’ve done everything short of that. Literally everything….and in turn, we’ve done everything to not do that. Set boundaries, talked to older couples/mentors etc, read books etc. We have been “victorious” many times but when something happens, it just rips us up. I can feel the trust getting ruined in between us…we are plowing through boundaries, disrespecting one another and not displaying Christ’s love. It’s both of us pushing too….not one of us pressuring more. I think we are both not strong enough to say no and our bodies want it so much (even though we know it’s wrong and going to hurt us after). That’s why we’re struggling.
I have read all of your articles on this matter so I have a question…would this relationship be one that you would move forward in? We both know that getting married won’t solve the issue, but would it even be wise to stay with one another if we can’t respect the other now in dating? Or how do we start over and continue after living like this for a year? I know our attraction is normal and it’s only increasing as we get closer and are together longer. But why can’t we control the lust in our hearts? I’m just so scared that this will ruin our marriage. Do we stay with each other if this is a struggle?
Thanks so much!!
I found myself feeling insecure while dating my now husband because he *didn’t* push my boundaries. I had read all the books and was prepared to be the gatekeeper, but what I found was that we could cuddle and show a lot of physical affection without my husband losing control, and then I thought maybe he didn’t feel that attracted to me. He assured me that wasn’t true, and on our honeymoon I realized he was very sexually attracted to me. And I was able to totally let myself go, because I never had to be the “brakes” while dating…he shared the responsibility of keeping our boundaries intact. This article reminds me to acknowledge this and thank him.