What if both purity culture and the hookup culture are teaching people to treat sex with dissociation and disconnection?
Today I’m proud to turn the blog over to Sam Jolman, a licensed counselor in Colorado who is passionate about promoting a healthy idea of sexuality to Christian men especially. He sent me this excerpt from a longer piece he’s working on about developing a Christian sexual ethic, and I thought the insight was amazing and worth sharing.
As we’ve been talking about attachment theory this month, I see so much overlap here. We’ve taught ourselves not to FEEL–to avoid. And we can never really attach to our spouse unless we learn to let ourselves feel.
“It’s always nice,” said a college student to professor Lisa Wade, “to have a clean, emotionless hookup.”
Lisa is the author of American Hookup, a whole book dedicated to deciphering the casual sex culture on college campuses.
She writes that possibly the most essential rule to hook up culture is this: Don’t feel it.
Whatever you do on your hookup—from making out to oral to intercourse with anyone from a friend to a stranger—make sure it does not move you. Wade calls it compulsory carelessness. As another student said, make it “…fast, random, no-strings-attached sex.” (p. 135). Hooking up should bring no emotions and mean nothing so that it’s no big deal.
Emotions are talked about like an STD. You don’t ever want to catch feelings.
In her book Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein writes:
Catching feelings meant developing an emotional attachment and was, for many girls, something to protect against when hooking up, just as they would guard against catching herpes or chlamydia.
Don’t feel it.
It’s such a bizarre endeavor, an attempt to stop something that seems implicit in the experience of sex itself. Why would you not want to feel it? The body and heart are wired for its pleasure. But then the whole culture would collapse on itself. Hookups wouldn’t work anymore. They would be too moving and invoke too much care and connection to one person. That would be to admit its power over you.
The only way to accomplish this is through alcohol. As Peggy Orenstein points out, “Hookups aren’t just lubricated by drinking; they are dependent on it.” (p. 117) It turns out, when it comes to sex, it’s really hard to make it not matter without some help. In the words of one freshman girl, “Being sober makes it seem like you want to be in a relationship. It’s really uncomfortable.” (p. 119)
Andrew, a college freshman put it this way to Peggy Orenstein,
The sex can feel like two people having two very distinct experiences. There’s not much eye contact. Sometimes you don’t even say anything. And it’s weird to be so open with a stranger. It’s like you’re acting vulnerable, but not actually being vulnerable with someone you don’t know and don’t care very much about. It’s not a problem for me. Its just—odd. Odd, and not even really fun. (p. 78)
Andrew can’t admit he struggles with it. He’s following the rules.
Whatever might be said about purity culture— the churches failed attempt at imagining and instilling a strong sexual ethic in our youth— this could be its best summary statement: Don’t feel it.
If it’s sexual desire, you simply cannot trust it.
If you’re a woman, you probably weren’t being modest enough and need to be afraid of tempting a man.
If you’re a man, your desire is probably lust and needs to be confessed and controlled so you don’t become a monster.
Yesterday, in a counseling session, a man said to me, “Growing up in church, you’re trained to feel that all sexual desire is awful and you’re not supposed to feel anything.” This man is laboring to find his body again after suffering the toll of purity culture in his youth. If that weren’t enough, he also suffered sexual abuse within the church. But because we don’t talk about sex, he has only recently begun to name and grieve this pain.
One man wrote to author Sheila Wray Gregoire about the popular sexual purity book Every Man’s Battle, “I can’t say loud enough how much this book made me believe that I was going to grow up and be a monster.”
Purity culture doesn’t go away once you get married. It just changes.
For men, sex becomes a need you must quickly get met by your wife so it doesn’t become lust or an affair. And if you’re a woman, well, there’s really no room for you to want anything. Sex is a duty you need to fulfill to keep your husband from stumbling. Remember, “Don’t deprive your spouse,” is the most important verse on sex in the Bible, which somehow still isn’t about you. In all of this, there is no room for the play of actual sexual desire.
All of this is accomplished with a deep moral fear. Purity culture holds that you actually have purity before God that you need to obsessively keep. It equates purity with hyper virginity. Do not even think sexual thoughts. And it’s all driven by a deep and abiding moral fear. This isn’t the knee shaking wonder that people experience before God or an angelic visitor and are reassured, “Don’t be afraid.”
Purity cultures really wants you to stay afraid.
And it works well at shutting people down. Psychologist and sexual abuse expert Dan Allender, in The Wounded Heart, points out that fear and arousal are competing experiences in the body and cannot be reconciled together. They are not meant to be together. And fear will win out.
What if you’re NOT the problem with your sex life?
What if the messages that you’ve been taught have messed things up–and what if there’s a way to escape these toxic teachings?
It’s time for a Great Sex Rescue.
Hookup culture uses alcohol. Purity culture uses fear. But the goal is the same: Don’t feel it.
Don’t let your body “…love what it loves,” in the words of Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. From wildly different values, both cultures hold that we can actually stop ourselves from feeling it. We can be sexual and not be moved. Like a pinned wrestling match, it’s an attempt at having power over the force of human sexuality.
It’s an arrogant power. It carries no reverence for human sexual design. “Saying we can have sex without emotions is like saying we can have sex without bodies,” says Lisa Wade. So the only way to accomplish this then is through turning off your body. Shutting it down. Numbing it out. Hating it, even.
In reality, the only thing getting turned off is the connection to your body.
Your body is still there, but you’ve disconnected from it. And this traumatizes people immensely. We weren’t meant to live separate from our bodies.
“The price for ignoring the bodies messages,” writes trauma expert Bessel VanderKolk in The Body Keeps the Score, “is being unable to detect what is truly dangerous or harmful for you and, just as bad, what is safe or nourishing.” (p. 99). This distrust and dissociation of the body leads to putting people in real crisis.
As coauthor Rebecca Lindenbach wrote in the Great Sex Rescue, about her experience of purity culture, “My body became the problem… My body is so dangerous that it can kill boys’ spiritual lives.” Another woman wrote, “I wasn’t a person, a human, a woman, a sister… I was a walking talking collection of tempting body parts.” Can you hear the disembodiment?
Yesterday, I also sat with a woman who wept, “I can’t even see myself naked and not flinch.” She was taught repeatedly in Purity Culture to not arouse a man with her body. And even now in marriage, she cannot relax into her own body and enjoy the arousal she brings her husband, nor her own arousal.
Hookup culture isn’t faring much better.
According to American Hookup, one in three college students reports that their hookups were traumatic or difficult to handle.
Let’s be clear that the suffering is not equal between men and women. Writers for both cultures expose something called the orgasm gap—the nearly 40-50% difference in frequency of male orgasm to female orgasm. Research shows that this is not a biological difference but a purely social construct. There is not a value on mutuality or female pleasure altogether.
It seems to arise from the darker patriarchal value on male pleasure, where male drive dominates and women’s responsibility is to satisfy. It plays the stereotypes that men are strong and women are attractive.
As mutual pleasure falls away, so does consent.
In The Great Sex Rescue, the researchers found that women who believe the tenants of purity culture, are 79% more likely to have sex out of obligation and 59% less likely to experience arousal. To her body, obligation sex mirrors abuse. As Peggy Orenstein put it, “It’s the right men feel to sexual pleasure, how dejected and even potentially angry they become when denied it.” (p. 80, Boys & Sex).
When men are taught that sex is an uncontrollable need, we know why.
Both cultures are guilty of fostering this more insidious rape culture against women, which Lisa Wade describes as, “a set of ideas and practices that naturalize, justify, and glorify sexual pressure, coercion, and violence.” (p. 206).
All of this strips sexual experience of the wonder and pleasure and reverence it’s meant to hold.
“When our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive,” said Bessel Vanderkolk, about being disconnected from our bodies. And when sensuality goes, so does our sex. Or here is how one junior said it to Peggy Orenstein,
I’ve had two one-night stands in college, and both of them have left me feeling empty and depressed, I have no idea what I gained from those experiences other than being like, ‘Yeah, I had sex with someone.’ There were no feelings of discovery or pleasure or intimate connection, which are really the things that I value. (p. 99)
The solution is the same: We must return to our bodies.
We must learn to live with the inherent vulnerabilities of being a person in a body—especially a sexually alive person. Yes, sex is powerful and it can be a lot to let it bowl us over and undo us.
But if we return to our bodies, we get back our sensuality.
A woman wrote to Sheila Wray Gregoire, “I finally understood that sex was a God-sanctioned way to experience a complete, ecstatic loss of control mixed with intense, overwhelming pleasure. And it completely blew my mind.”
Even in the hookup culture people are recognizing the difference being fully present makes. Lisa Wade found that her students who engaged in sober sexual experience had very different experiences too. “They talked about having sex while sober in these reverent tones, like it was an amazing unicorn: it was meaningful in a way that drunk sex was not.” (p. 117)
When we allow ourselves to be truly vulnerable–as commitment in marriage facilitates–we usher in this returning. If we forsake our numbing shame and fear and drugs, we get back our play and our risk and our openness and our pleasure. We can truly know another and be known. We get back the awe that’s mean to make us grateful for being sexual beings. We can be changed by our sexuality, if we feel it.
So add this to your sexual ethic: Make sure everyone is feeling it.
Sam is a professional therapist with over 15 year of experience in narrative focused trauma care. He specializes in men’s issues, couples counseling, and sexual abuse recovery. He writes regularly for his blog on topics of sexuality, spirituality, and mental health. He loves helping people heal and find freedom amidst the plots of their lives.
He lives in Colorado with his wife and three young sons, the people that inspire his writing and ideas the most. Together, in their pop up camper, they are exploring the best camping spots in Colorado. Sam goes to therapy, mountain bikes, and can be found trying to catch his breath on the floor of his local CrossFit gym.
What do you think? Have we been taught not to feel? How can we overcome this? Let’s talk in the comments!
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