I choose for my story to remain anonymous. As I have learned and listened over the years to other women, this is not just my story. This is the story of many other single women in the Church. Our journey with abstinence may not look the same, but in the end, it is the reason that brings us closer to God’s design.
“We are convinced that sexual gratification and personal happiness go hand in hand. Earthly delights are everywhere, a veritable banquet, and we feel entitled to join the feast.” Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel
My Promise to be Abstinent
I went confidently up to the podium at the foot of the stage to sign my name on the piece of paper. Although only a teenager, I didn’t pledge abstinence out of fear or simply going along with Church tradition. Instead, I felt the pressing of the Holy Spirit, an undeniable urging, to make a commitment of sexual morality. I don’t even remember the sermon that was preached to the youth on that Sunday over 15 years ago, but it made an impact. An impact that I have only recently come face to face with as I rewrite how I view myself and my sexual desire.
Learning What it Means to be Abstinent
Because I would be what you call a “late bloomer” in the romance department, abstaining from sex hasn’t been hard for me. However, that hasn’t left me unaware of our culture’s obsession with sex. Growing up on the tail end of the purity culture movement in the 90s, I didn’t know how to let the Bible guide me. It left me forming my own opinion of sexual desire around the culture’s while also trying to hold tightly to church tradition. As I listened more closely on Sunday mornings, I quickly learned sex and sexual desire were never talked about unless casually mentioned in a marriage sermon. So not knowing how to view my sexuality, I struggled to learn how to date after college. Being on my own in a small southern town I jumped at chances to be set up and tried all types of dating apps. However, when I couldn’t find anyone for me, I became complacent with my chronic singleness.
After moving cross-country in my mid-twenties, I felt it was imperative I get a boyfriend. With that desire for a relationship, the topic of sex came back up for me. Already being hooked on podcasts, I started listening to faith-based ones that talked about dating as a Christian. I couldn’t get enough. These podcasts led me to books about dating and preparing for marriage. Through both of these resources I indirectly started to get my questions answered about sex, but it was also creating more. What is the purpose of abstinence? What is sexual desire? Does God really think sex is dirty? I soon felt another prompting on my heart, and this time it was to learn more about sexual morality. Over a two-year period, I was able to find different books, both faith based and secular, covering the topic of sex. These books covered different scientific and psychological research, included anecdotes, and consistently linked it back to the Bible. I gained more clarity in why sex is a beautiful thing with your marriage partner.
What is the Purpose of Abstinence?
There are many reasons biologically that we should stay abstinent before marriage. Besides the very obvious physical consequences of having sex before marriage, there are also brain-based biological reasons that initiate a permanent connection with the other person. Gary Thomas in The Sacred Search explains this is because of oxytocin. This neuropeptide in our brain “creates or at least reflects feelings of warmth, affection, bonding, and intimacy” to another person, especially after a sexual encounter. Women have consistently high amounts in everyday life, making it easier for us to emotionally connect with others. Men on the other hand, only reach the same amount of a woman right after sex. This proves sex is at the core a relational act, no matter how casual people want to make it.
Dr. John Van Epp helps explain in his book, How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk states: “Sex and self are inextricably linked, and during a sexual encounter something happens that is more than just a physical act.” In other words, having sex with the guy I’m dating launches the relationship to the next level of vulnerability and risk, throwing the natural steps of a relationship out of whack. When I place physical touch as more important than trust and reliance, I get a more painful heartbreak out of it. If I can avoid that, sign me up! When I find someone who shares a mutual romantic chemistry and attraction with me, I don’t have to fall for the myth of sexual compatibility. It’s a relief knowing I have the rest of my life with my future husband (LORD willing) to learn what we like and don’t like in the bedroom. All this evidence of biological bonding as the consequence of sex added another piece to my abstinence puzzle. I, like many other women, am prone to jump ten steps ahead when getting to know a guy. When sex is out of the picture, I can easily move on whether it’s a match on a dating app or a relationship that isn’t meant to last.
What is Sexual Desire?
Like many, I didn’t understand the difference between sexual desire and the desire to have sex. I lumped them all together, considered them shameful, and threw it back at God wanting to get rid of it. I slowly learned I needed to connect with God instead. Talking to God in those vulnerable, yet all too common, moments allowed me to feel less shameful and quickly move on from those desires. But I knew I also needed to find a community of women who were of the same mindset in our singleness, so I could continue to protect my heart. As Kait Warman says in her book, Thank You for Rejecting Me: “The reality is, when we live in shame about our sexual desire…we become blocked from growing. When we don’t feel as though we can share our stories or the intricacies of what’s going on in our minds and hearts, we get lost.”
Finding a Christian community didn’t come immediately. When women in the church are considered an “old maid” by the age of 30, you are either lumped in a church group with people in their early twenties or with married women. After patiently waiting, I eventually found a church group of single women who have supported each other in our singleness and abstinence. Having these women at my side the last few years makes waiting for a relationship a bit easier and a whole lot more fun! I didn’t realize until after I formed these amazing friendships it wasn’t a desire for intimacy in a romantic relationship that ambushed me in those lonely moments. Instead, it was desiring deep connections with other people. Now being fulfilled socially, it confirms that sexual desire, or “social sexuality” according to author Debra Hirsh, really stems from the desire to connect with others on a more intimate level emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. Hirsh explains in her book, Redeeming Sex, that It has less to do with the physical act of sex and more to do with knowing others beyond ourselves. This deep longing to know and be known by others is just a “shadow” of how we want to know and be known by God, according to Sexless in the City author Kat Harris. Embracing my own sexuality will also allow me to be able to connect with my husband on a level more deeply than a simple friendship. Of course, without the need to mention, the addition of the desire for sex with him will allow us to know each other more. Just as God wants us to know Him.
Does God Really Think Sex is Dirty?
Besides the biological and emotional side of sex, there is the spiritual aspect where God urgently calls us to live a holy and righteous life. Phrases like “purity culture” and “staying pure” are thrown around in the church to scare you into abstinence. Purity means to be free from contamination, so the church often uses this word to bring shame on someone who was or is being sexually active. In the Bible, God uses the word “pure” for sexual morality not to scare us into submission. Instead, He wants us to choose abstinence because of why He created sex. God uses “purity” as a synonym for “holy.” Paul says in Ephesians 5:3, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” Yet, holiness can only be achieved because of Jesus’ death on the cross. Like in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Rather than striving for perfection through culture’s strict definition of purity, I can hold abstinence up high with an open hand knowing it is God’s best. He doesn’t want me to run from it, instead He wants me to know it is a beautiful connection between husband and wife. Sex has been like that from the beginning. In Sexless in the City, Kat Harris explains how beautiful the very first relationship and sexual encounter was between Adam and Eve. She says, “what trust and affection these two must have developed in that time of waiting to be wholly naked and unashamed with each other – not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually… It’s like God is saying from the beginning, ‘This is the type of relationship I want for you.’” Following Adam and Eve’s example in this way will prevent heartbreak and unhealthy attachment to someone who may never be my husband. God created sex to be within marriage because of its sacredness. We get to know our spouse after sex in the same way God knows us. We may only have a shadow of the deep and full knowledge God has, but it’s still a miracle, nonetheless.
Finally, My First Boyfriend!
After all the books I read and will continue to read, I feel empowered in my decision to wait. Patiently waiting has made me grow in my confidence and how I show up in life. I have learned to channel that sexual desire into my passions, hobbies, and my dating seasons. This growth helped me to make it past 5 dates with a guy by the time I was 30. We had a three-month long relationship that made me feel truly desired for the first time. Since we did not agree on abstinence, figuring out boundaries was hard. However, my decision to wait gave me the freedom to say “No” when I didn’t feel comfortable. In the end, I felt more in tune than ever to what God wants for us around sexual morality. Kat says it well in her book: “Little else will develop the muscle of integrity, discipline, and character like saying no to sex in the midst of a culture that worships instant gratification…Even though it’s really hard, perhaps saying no to sex outside of marriage is saying yes to a greater invitation.” I’m trying to tap into God’s invitation for holiness every day, especially around sexual desire. Some days are easier than others, yet knowing I am created in the image of God I don’t have to consider God’s design dirty anymore. Especially when He has called it good. It’s no less painful scrolling past countless Facebook friends getting married and having babies when I only recently broke up with my first boyfriend. But with each new match, each awkward date, and each ghosting, it makes me even more motivated to live my life to the fullest so I can find love in the end.
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