I’ve been realizing lately I need to have compassion on younger me who was taught toxic stuff–and didn’t know how to reject it.
And as I shared yesterday in my “Fixed it for you” posts, sometimes I’ve even taught that toxic stuff myself! But when you know better, you do better.
Since The Great Sex Rescue was published two months ago, so many women have sent me emails saying how much the teaching in the evangelical church has messed them up, and how they want to do better with their own daughters.
Right now, Joanna Sawatsky, my co-author for The Great Sex Rescue, is visiting for 3 weeks, and she and Rebecca are writing the first draft of our mother-daughter book that’s coming out next year. So we’re thinking a lot about what to teach teenagers instead.
Last week, I asked on Facebook, “what would you tell 16-year-old you about sex & relationships if you could go back in time?”
I had over 200 comments on that post, but I’m going to distill them down to these 18 important themes:
1. If you date someone, you don’t have to think you’re going to marry them.
A number of people chimed in on this one!
“You don’t have to basically commit to being married before you get to actually know someone that in fact, that is extremely dangerous and often how women end up in abusive marriages.”
“A coffee date isn’t a commitment.”
“It’s okay to love another person even if it doesn’t work out. I was so scared of “giving my heart away” to the wrong man. When I finally did decide I found “the one” and gave him everything I had I felt trapped and did not leave when I should have. I did all the “right” things but it set me up for failure as I had little experience with what a real relationship should look like and I ignored all the red flags because as soon as I kissed him I thought that was it, I HAD to marry him.”
“It’s ok to date and not have it work out. You don’t need to marry the first guy that comes along. You will not ‘miss out’ on getting married.”
“You don’t have to be loyal to the person you are going on dates with, they don’t own you, you can enjoy dating multiple people and getting to know more than one person and not waste all your time on that one expecting it to work to marriage.”
2. God expects BOTH of you to have self-control, not just you–and consent is a thing!
“God expects both men and women to have self-control, that it is not solely “up to the woman” to decide how far the physical relationship goes.”
“Setting boundaries together is a wonderful way to talk about things and see what kind of a guy you’re dating. Is he going to honor me and himself now? If he isn’t, will he honor me and himself later?”
“If someone doesn’t respect your space and your autonomy, they aren’t worth another thought.”
“If I had to be the gatekeeper due to his lack of self-control before we married, it would not magically turn that lack of self-control into something positive in marriage.”
“No is a full statement- it doesn’t need a long apologetic explanation- no means no.”
3. You are not “damaged goods” if you mess up.
“You’re not a consumable, you don’t lose value over time or because of things that were done to you, or for your mistakes.”
“Getting married just to stay out of hell is extremely wrong & bad. Most people are not as adult as they think in their late teens and 20s, and sins are forgivable if you do make a mistake.”
“Purity is not based on your virginity.”
“If I had sex with someone that doesn’t mean I have a permanent emotional attachment to them.”
“You are still worthy, valuable, not damaged goods, if you have sex before marriage- you are not a wilted rose or a second hand ‘white elephant gift that no one wants to claim’ simply because you had sex.”
“Kissing isn’t a cardinal sin.”
4. Wait for sex for marriage–not because it’s a huge sin but because that’s for the best.
A lot of people emphasized that the messaging around waiting for marriage for sex needed to revolve less around the fact that it’s a sin and more around WHY God wants us to wait.
“Sex is for marriage, because it’s actually designed – and yes there is science for this – to bond you to your partner. We wait not because it’s bad, or because we want to stay “pure,” but because it’s POWERFUL and GOOD and we respect that power and goodness by employing it as it is designed – within marriage.”
“Sex is a wonderful thing for you and your future spouse to share only with each other. It’s special and sacred. It will get better over time because you’ll know each other better and deeper… And you’ll get better at the act itself!”
5. Relationships don’t define your worth.
“Someone finding you attractive or not does not define your worth. Marriage doesn’t make you worthy, Jesus makes you worthy.”
6. True love looks like Jesus.
“If someone is telling me that something is loving, natural, or true, but it doesn’t look like Jesus, that is not love.”
“Do not sell yourself short by ignoring all red flags. No!! Just being a Christian does not mean he will change his toxic ways no matter how much you think Christians will change when they know they’ve hurt you. He will not see you more after hours of praying. Run. Your health depends on it.”
7. The people who truly love you can likely see clearly as to whether a relationship is healthy or not.
“I also wish I would have known the difference between my parents’ permission and blessing in my first marriage. It may have saved me from marrying an unfaithful man, because they were not blinded by hormones and could have seen the flags.”
“Trust an older wiser person who loves you and sees the red flags and warns you and listen.”
8. You can decide who you invite into your life.
“It is okay to say no and not worry about disappointing people that do not care about you! Take care of yourself and more so, who you choose to invite into your life.”
“Waiting and thinking the first person who shows interest in you is who you should marry is stupid.”
“just because you have sex with someone doesn’t mean you’re “stuck” marrying them. Same for getting pregnant.”
9. Good men ARE out there–so don’t believe that all men are terrible so you can’t expect anything better.
“There are men out there who are loving and caring, and that you are lovable.”
“There are many good men who will see you as a whole person and not just as someone to have sex with.”
10. You deserve real information about sex.
A lot of people chimed in on this one, even saying they would tell their teenage self not to listen to the conservative church they’re in, but to seek out real medical information about how their body works, and how sex works, and what sex even is. Here are just a few:
“All about how sex works, how our bodies are made and what consent is. Not the basic this is a penis, this is a vagina but like how it works, why it works, what is important in a relationship. Not the full blown purity culture, sex is bad, avoid it at all costs, then get married and go wild.”
“More about my own body and how it works. Literally an adult and married and still learning facts about the female body.”
“I’d want to know about the physiology of arousal.”
11. Girls can have sex drives, too.
“Wanting sex doesn’t make you a weirdo. Being a sexual woman doesn’t mean you’re a freak. Your husband isn’t going to automatically want it all the time.”
“A healthy understanding that sexuality shouldn’t be an obsessive focus but also not ignored. It is just part of being human. And that it can be understood and talked about in logical medical/scientific/psychological ways that don’t require ridiculous gender stereotypes but can acknowledge sex/gender group differences.”
12. Waiting for marriage does not guarantee you will have a great sex life.
“A great sex life does not ‘Just Happen,” it’s an art, a science and a learned skill!”
“Though staying away from sex before marriage is a good thing, it will not guarantee you a great sex life and an amazing marriage free from struggle.”
13. Don’t trust adults just because they’re adults.
A LOT of people shared heartbreaking stories about this one–and issued lots of warnings!
“Honey you were right “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” is terrible. Your youth pastor naively teaching from it isn’t evil just young herself.”
“Some adults do not have your best interest in mind.”
“People are fallible sinners…..even “church” people. So, don’t let their behavior get between you and God. They’re not a reflection of His love.”
“Don’t trust that Assistant Youth Pastor when he offers to give you a ride home.”
“An older man trying to date you as a teenager is a huge red flag, not a compliment.”
14. You don’t need to make yourself small.
“Don’t sacrifice or downplay your success or achievements in order to make him feel stronger or not hurt his feelings. If a guy is hurt or upset when you win or succeed at something, he’s not someone you should be with.”
“It’s okay to take the lead.”
“Your voice is just as important as the voice of a man’s.”
15. Asking questions and having doubts is not a bad thing.
“It’s okay to be curious and ask questions, and if people refuse to give you answers that makes them toxic, not you.”
“Stop destroying your self-confidence thinking that you are being humble. It’s condemnation, not conviction that is fueling that.”
“Don’t believe everything you are taught if it is not backed up by appropriate, contextual scripture. This is why it is important to learn the Bible and the history surrounding when it was written, then compiled as “The Bible.”
16. Your body is not dangerous.
“How you were created by God is beautiful. The end. Looking like a woman is not a sin.”
“I had a youth pastor tell 12-17 year old girls that our leggings and bikinis caused lust and encouraged cheating on their wives. That’s pedophilia and completely vile. I thought it was my fault old men sinned against their wives and weren’t faithful.”
“You having breasts doesn’t cause other people to sin/stumble. Being noticed doesn’t mean you’re dressed inappropriately.”
17. Christians aren’t automatically emotionally and relationally healthier than non-believers.
“It is not a requirement to be a Christian to be a good spouse, parent, leader, woman/man, have a good marriage, good sex etc etc These things are commonly HUMAN. PS you will meet many healthy people who are other faiths or agnostic/atheists that are healthier as people and relationships than Evangelicals you know just to prove this point.”
“I was told that non Christians are incapable of real love, because God is love and if someone isn’t saved they don’t understand love at all. Then I realized how many “Christians” didn’t apparently understand it very well either.”
18. Don’t worry so much about what you look like!
“Stop plucking your eyebrows so much. Oh and eat a cookie. You aren’t fat.”
Those were awesome! And honestly, I think if I had asked five years ago (and I likely did), most of the answers would have been, “don’t date too young!”, or “make sure you wait until marriage.” But people are really saying very different things now.
Or rather, we’re emphasizing different things.
Yes, sex is meant for marriage, but we need a LOT of nuance in this conversation. What is consent? Whose responsibility is it to make sure you don’t go too far? What about sexual assault?
And we’re recognizing that we need to talk a lot more about what constitutes a healthy relationship, rather than just telling kids to wait for marriage. I think that’s a positive change.
And I think I’ll end off with these three comments that all said great things!
In The Whole Story, our puberty course for moms/daughters or dads/sons, we talk a lot about healthy relationships.
We talk about boundaries, and dating, and sex, and so much more. Especially in the older versions of the courses, we can help you have those conversations with your kids. We start the conversations–you can finish them. If you want to make sure that you’re having these healthy conversations with your kids, check it out.
You’re telling me WHAT goes WHERE?!
Talking about sex with your kids doesn’t always go smoothly.
That’s why we created The Whole Story, our online course that walks parents through the tough conversations and does the hard parts for you!
Did we miss something? What would be your #19? Or is there something you’d take out? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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There’s still an idea out there that girls who “friendzone” guys are b-words. Just because a guy is interested in you doesn’t mean you owe him a relationship.
I do want to correct that first time sex can hurt. It just can, BUT, it’s ok to go slow….very slow until it doesn’t hurt. You don’t have to grit your teeth and get through it right away so your husband “doesn’t regret marrying you.”
The amount of bull excrement we were taught is disgusting and shameful.
I threw away all the mother daughter books I collected during my Vision Forum years. Thank God He didn’t give me a typical daughter. I would have become a stuck up toxic conservative fundie. I know I would have if I had the baby doll and tea party frilly dress girl. (Nothing wrong with that, but I would have taken it down a toxic route.) Her uniqueness has been a path to my healing and learning.
I love that! Our kids are often our biggest healers. Parenting them lets us see the toxicity in our communities we may never have noticed before. It’s how we grow.
– Stop worrying about whether he’s the “right” kind of Christian and start paying attention to whether or not he’s a good man.
– Your highest calling isn’t to get married. It’s fine to want to get married but don’t let your life revolve only around that. Think about who you are, what makes you tick, what are your passions, what makes you feel most alive. Pursue those things, don’t repress them or hide them away because you think they will distract you from finding a husband or preparing to be a good wife.
-You should be able to support yourself.
– You have a sex drive and that is just fine.
– Your needs, feelings, and dreams are important too. You deserve to have your boyfriend/fiancé/husband care about them. Your life should not revolve around him.
Oh, so good. I think women especially need to remember that we do need to be able to support ourselves for sure. And, yes, just because he says he’s a Christian doesn’t mean he’s a good man.
Love these Meredith! As a 40-something single-again (divorced 19 years and broken off an engagement 3 years ago) woman, I remind myself that my value and worth come from God, not the approval of man. I hate how the church (mostly evangelical and fundamentalist) indirectly preaches that marriage and motherhood are a woman’s highest calling. While I would like to be married someday (children may not be in the picture for me), I think focusing on God first is top priority. Women should learn to be independent financially and emotionally instead of waiting around for a husband to take care of them.
Yes, very true.
Learn a marketable skill.
Learn simple accounting.
Learn the basics about how a car works.
Learn to shoot and learn to fight.
Learn when to shoot and when to fight and when to run.
Learn simple repairs.
Learn some basic medical skills.
Learn that just because somebody is a preacher that doesn’t make them an authority on everything..
Learn to gain all of the knowledge that you can on a given subject from all of the sources that you can.
Learn that that everybody is smarter than you about something.
Learn that there is no free lunch and no guarantees. Life requires work.
Learn that doing the right thing does not guarantee a successful outcome.
Learn to plan for the future.
These are great, Boone!
Boone – the free lunch one is SO TRUE. I learned that one the hard way cost me big time lol. Can laugh now but it wasn’t funny when it was happening.
Wow! These are all great! I’m glad the conversation is changing and we’re getting a clearer picture of God’s wisdom for marriage.
I’d add take your time. You don’t need to be married by the time you’re twenty one. Go out and live life, go to school, travel, learn skills, learn how to take care of yourself and make friends wherever you go.
1) Staying single is a valid, Biblical choice. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with you if you don’t want to marry
2) Christian marriage doesn’t have to look like the marriages you see around you. God never meant marriage to look like this. (The ‘examples’ of marriage I saw in church were the main reason I grew up wanting to stay single)
Yes, I heard so many variations on #2! “You don’t have to agree with your pastor. You’re right that the pastor is an evil man.” etc. etc. Sometimes the examples we had in church were awful, and we should raise kids to have the ability to say that out loud when necessary, rather than making them think they have to agree with everything.
Try to really enjoy being single …. take advantage of this time…. have fun…. make friends… be a friend…. don’t wish it away. Once you’re married and a parent it’s great but it is harder. I wouldn’t trade it but being single -while you are -is great too if you can take advantage of it. My girls got married in their later 20s and had wonderful adventures traveling and living in different cites. They had great jobs. Now they are married with kids and enjoy that too, but I’m glad they didn’t waste their single years focused only on marrying.
Also while you don’t want to marry a selfish, demanding jerk, you also don’t want to over romanticize guys and be looking for a perfect fictitious character. Guys are real people too. Healthy guys also want to be loved for who they are. You want someone with good character who is humble and will grow and change with you.
– Just because you didn’t say no, doesn’t mean you consented or that it was ok
– A nervous laugh instead of a slap to the face does not mean that you consented or that it was ok
– Just because it has happened to everyone around you, doesn’t mean it’s ok
– Just because you let him get away with it before, doesn’t mean you have no right to say no the next time
– If the doctor says it’s medically necessary, but something seems wrong, run! scream! Or AT LEAST ask if a female nurse can be in the room with you. If it really was medically necessary he would have been willing to do it in the presence of a female colleague
– stop downplaying your experiences just because it wasn’t rape. Assault and harassment are still assault and harassment, and it’s allowed to be traumatic even if other people have been through much worse
– Not being able to insert a tampon, once, ever, is a GREAT reason to go to a gynecologist. And a pelvic floor physiotherapist. Don’t wait until you’re married… husbands are a lot bigger than tampons
– MEN have the responsibility to control their OWN bodies. Not you.
-Despite all this, not all men are totally depraved. One day you WILL find a nice man and get married and settle down and have a family. And like it. Even though you don’t want to ever do that it a million years right now!
and a bonus, not totally relationships related but female body related:
-It is NOT normal to be in so much pain on your period that you vomit, can’t stand up, go into medical shock and pass out almost every time. And when old male doctor after old male doctor repeatedly tell you that you’re normal, keep insisting on a second opinion (from a female doctor) until someone takes you seriously so you can get your life back.
Oh, Lynne, these are so good! And I’m so sorry.
I’m thankful that I haven’t been traumatized by these experiences, and that I haven’t experienced nearly the trauma that others have, but they do shape you and stick with you. I only wish I spoke up sooner, I know countless people wouldn’t have had to deal with the same things I did if I had spoken up. I was one of the first of many victims of that doctor, dozens have come forward (nearly 70 – but not me) with stories of assault by him over the course of many years. Most of them worse than me. The law has caught up with him now, at least.
So I guess that emphasizes another point! If something is wrong, SPEAK UP! you may not be the only one. You may be able to prevent countless others from the same trauma (or worse as they get bolder and more depraved!)
Seeing a female doctor doesn’t always help – I saw more than one young, female doctor who told me “period pain is part of being a woman – get used to it”. So it doesn’t matter if your doctor is male or female, old or young, keep insisting on another opinion until you find a doc who agrees that throwing up and/or passing out is NOT a normal reaction to a normal bodily function!
Here’s what I would have told 16 year old me, if I could go back and talk to her.
1. You are not a freak for not being interested in dating until your later teens. Seriously. There’s so much pressure to have boyfriends by the time you’re 14, it’s ridiculous.
2. There is nothing wrong with you if you aren’t engaged by the time you graduate college. There is nothing wrong with you if you aren’t married by the time you’re 25, or 30, or if you don’t marry at all. Your marital status does not determine your worth in the eyes of God, nor should it determine your worth in the eyes of the church.
3. If a guy you’re dating is constantly pushing your boundaries and then blaming you for being upset about it, RUN. It’s far better to be single than to be emotionally abused.
4. For the love of common sense, just because you’re a virgin doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still go to the gynecologist. I probably could have saved myself a lot of literal pain and heartache if I’d had the slightest clue about my vaginismus before my wedding night, and maybe I would have caught it sooner if I hadn’t waited until I was engaged to go.
This is all so true and I wish someone had told me this.
I think all the advice ultimately could be summed up with calling it individuality. Learn how things work, and question everything. And recognize that what works for your best friend isn’t necessarily the way for you. Learn to listen to instinct and God’s voice.
Those were key to me recognizing, it’s up to me to leave the relationship between my sister and I. Even if nobody else realizes that it’s the best for me. And it was the best thing I ever did for myself. But predictably family tried to tell me it was unhealthy.
I didn’t need to know this until adulthood, but some might need to know at 16.
That porn addiction can be as strong a drug addiction.
That having a real person available doesn’t make it easy to quit because the real person isn’t photoshopped, fake, and different each time, so it’s not as simple as sex here or sex there.
Even if you comply when it hurts, it won’t make him happy.
That replacing porn with marriage is like replacing cocaine with coffee.
Don’t just ask God what’s permissible, but ask what’s beneficial.
Even if you start in a marriage that’s not beneficial, God can make it beneficial (only if both of you are willing).
Wow. This made me sad, but also hopeful that we’re recognizing the bad stuff. I’m only 22, but if I could tell my teenage self anything… 1.) Quit hating on your body. You aren’t ugly, you’re plus size and have conditioned yourself to have low self esteem and think you’re ugly because of all the bullying you went through and feeling unwanted because your birth dad left because of his substance abuse issues. 2.) Even if people think it’s weird, childish, or too wild, it’s okay to have your own style…if you want to wear flower crowns, cat ear headbands, and/or cosplay dresses as normal clothes, go for it. Quit hiding in sweatpants because you think you look fat; wear what makes you happy. 3.) You don’t need to be obsessed with getting a boyfriend. you’re spending to much time jealous and angry that you haven’t dated yet. Being a bit of a romantic is okay but you’ll be fine single 4.) singleness is amazing and you may find yourself wanting to stay single as an adult and that’s okay! Singleness isn’t failure or Gods backup plan for you. It’s as good as marriage and you make your own choice about which you want abs change you’re mind as you get older and grow 5.) you’re not weird or useless because people are confused by you and don’t know how to handle you. You are Autistic; God gave you unique quirks and it’s not your fault people don’t handle “different” well. Lastly, related to 5…6.) it’s okay to be yourself and take up space, even if you think outside the norm. You are you and should love how God made you. When you get older, you’ll realize that people are confused by you being you, but also enjoy it because it’s you’re authentic self…people may not understand but most are nice and genuinely willing to adjust and learn, so making other people feel comfortable shouldn’t be an excuse for you to hide and make yourself small
I agree with all of these. I would add–
Make friends. Really good friends. Spend time with them. Maintaining friendships can be harder after you get married but it’s worth it throughout your life.
Go on an adventure. Take the summer job in another state or country. Save up for a vacation.
Follow you dreams.
Learn about investing for the long term and start now. Set aside a percentage of your income, even if it’s tiny, for retirement, for fun, and for a home.
LOVE LOVE these!! Oh how I wish my parents had had resources like this.
One thing I think I would mention is in regards to #18 is maybe consider rewording it to “Have a cookie, your body is beautiful just the way it is and a cookie isn’t going to change that.” I think we act like girls are obsessing about being thin and wish they wouldn’t… until they are heavier and then we can tend to make their food choices a big deal when so many are dealing with things non food related like hormone changes, stress, big life changes, etc.. that all can have an impact on their bodies. in fact, let’s destigmatize the word fat. It’s okay if our teens are curvier, or weigh more than typical… let’s not push them into harmful diet culture.
Thanks for changing the conversation and focus of sex and intimacy so that all may flourish!!
I was surprised to not see any mention of the “M” word – masturbation. I realize it is controversial, but contrary to what is said – the bible DOES mention it in positive terms, once you get past the poetic language. (Song of Solomon 5.2-5) As a corollary to #11, yes girls have sex drives and it is ok to explore and enjoy that by yourself. God does not hate it. I wish someone would have said that to us 50 years ago.
Don’t assume that singleness means your life is on hold, or that your life can’t really start until you get married.
Dream today, come up with some life ideas and goals, and go try it out. Also, these dreams are not a fall-back in case “Mr. Right” never comes along. If they’re a fall-back, get a bigger dream.
And honey, you are surrounded by a ton of very toxic people. Even some of the people who love you are toxic. You need boundaries–and anyone who doesn’t respect your boundaries and makes you feel like you’re a bad person for having boundaries, is not someone to let be close.
Don’t enter a relationship to needy to break it off.
It’s OK to date around. Really.
So good! I love the bit about not assuming your life is on hold especially!