Wednesday, May 18, 2011

purity vs. abstinence, part 1 (the upbringing)

I was raised to believe in abstinence until marriage. And if you think that sounds weird, allow me to assure you that you don't know the half of it. I was one of those kids that wore a purity ring. I also carried an ATM card (Abstinence Till Marriage. Super cool, right?) in my wallet for several years. I read books, i wore t-shirts, i went away with my mom for a weekend where we talked about sex and i signed a covenant of purity.

And then i got to college.

I have already alluded in previous posts to "Casey", my asshole ex whose treatment of me at times bordered on emotional abuse. While he never explicitly pressured me to have sex with him, there was always an implied desire, and once or twice there were even implied threats of infidelity if i wouldn't put out. Since our relationship was mostly long-distance (i lived in Massachusetts, he lived in Texas), there was no way for me to know if he was being faithful or not. And even if i had decided to have sex with him, i couldn't, because of the distance. He had no job and no money, so he couldn't visit, and i had a job and money but not much, and was trying to save so that i could stay in Massachusetts after i graduated instead of living in Delaware with my dad. So we were pretty much stuck.

The one time he did visit, we almost had sex, but he stopped it just in time. However, we kept talking about when he returned to Massachusetts (he never did), and we eventually decided that sex was going to happen. We were in love, we wanted to get married, so why not?

The almost-sex, plus the decision to go through with it one day, sent me into a tailspin of questions about sexual morality. I carried a load of guilt about what had almost happened, and spent a lot of time reading the Bible, praying, and talking to friends about it. I wanted to know if premarital sex was really sinful, and if so why, and if not, when was it okay? And all this time, Casey was still far away, and going through a months-long depression that left him too listless and down to talk to me. At all. There were definitely times when i felt that it was a moot point, and that i would never talk to him again, but i loved him, and i kept on hoping.

Meanwhile, one of my closest friends was having sex with her fiance. She talked to me about sexual morality, and shared the guidance that had come from their premarital counselor (who was also my pastor). He said that the Bible never explicitly says that you can only have sex with your spouse. The Bible talks a lot about fidelity and purity, but not a lot about abstinence.

Now, you can make a lot of conflicting arguments about this. Ancient Jewish concepts of marriage were very different from ours, and it would have been difficult for the authors of the Bible to make a distinction between sex and marriage. So from this, you can infer that premarital sex is totally okay, or you can infer that God never bothered to make the distinction because He never intended for sex to exist outside of marriage.

But i was thinking hard about sexual purity, and this is what i realized: purity and abstinence are not necessarily the same thing, and you can have one without the other. For example, if a man and woman are married to one another and love each other and are having consensual, vanilla sex with one another and no one else, i don't think there is a single person or organization who would argue that that is impure. Let's also posit that they are religious, and that they believe that sex is a gift from their god to bless and sanctify their marriage. Sex in this case is pure and holy and based on love. They are living sexually pure lives, but they are not abstaining from sex. Or imagine someone who is fighting with their significant other and is witholding sex as a punishment. This is abstinence, but it is not sexually pure.
So which one matters most? If i had to choose, i would say that purity is what matters. If you really love someone, and they really love you, and you want to express that love physically, i think that's okay. Sex must be tempered with love, commitment, and respect, but sex in and of itself is not intrinsically morally reprehensible, even if it happens outside of the bounds of holy matrimony.

After reaching this conclusion, Casey and i broke up. Not because of the sex issue, but because he was a dick and i finally couldn't take it anymore. Have you ever been in a basement or attic or some small, dim, stuffy room? At first, it's kind of uncomfortable, but not totally unbearable. But it continues to get worse and worse, and you start to suffocate more and more, and then all of a sudden you feel like you're going to die and you run outside and breathe in the fresh air and sunshine. Everything is brighter and warmer and cooler and softer and cleaner. Everything is more beautiful and smells better than it ever has before. This is what it was like to go from dating Casey to dating John.

Anyway, i was still confused and vulnerable and hurting. My head was a wreck from Casey, and i was still not really sure about the whole sex thing. It's difficult to change twenty years of habits and beliefs in a few months. And i was also pretty sure that i was changing for the wrong reasons. It is impure to have sex to keep your boyfriend from leaving you or cheating on you or both. It is impure to have sex just because you're horny and don't feel like exercising self-control. It is impure to have sex because you're angry and hurt and confused and vulnerable. Which leads me to part 2.

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