I was taught very explicitly in my ELCA churches and my ELCA family that sex is something to save for marriage. Sex is a gift, but we must only use it in the right context. Sex is beautiful, but dangerous. I was also taught explicitly through popular culture that being partnered is a main goal of human existence and happiness. So, I always wanted to have a boyfriend, and I was going to wait until I was married to have sex.
So then, with the guys I dated, I did not have sexual intercourse, but we did negotiate up to full body make-out sessions in our underwear and bra, just not touching any covered areas, since we could be in that amount of clothing in public in swimwear. (“Decency” rules were so confusing for me as a kid – why could we be in bikinis at the beach but not in front of people in a bra and underwear??)
But I was saving sex until marriage. Well, until I was 23. At that point I had been with my boyfriend-to-be-husband for almost four years, and I finally got to the understanding that I wouldn’t regret it if I had sex with him.
But I was also an ELCA youth minister. And teaching my high school kids the approved message of “save sex until marriage” while making an informed and mature choice to have sex with my boyfriend felt supremely dishonest. I rationalized it away by saying that saving sex until marriage at least helped me wait until after college, and I didn’t get pregnant during school because of it, so maybe it would help them in the same way. But the dissonance was so loud and stressful I could feel it constantly in my own body. I felt like a fraud.
This affected my ability to have a healthy sexual relationship with my boyfriend. I felt guilty and shameful and conflicted, and would make pronouncements that we should stop and wait again until we got married. But sexual intimacy was part of the way we connected with each other, and so in the moments we felt closest we would end up being sexually intimate again. Guilt and shame were piling up inside of me. This went against everything I was taught as a young person related to dating-while-Christian, and while I knew that I didn’t agree with the teaching that sex was bad or dangerous or only for one special person, I couldn’t shake the interiorized feelings that I was bad and wrong.
I also was having questions about our relationship and whether we should be together anymore. We used to do youth ministry together in the same region, but he had quit his ministry job, and I was planning on quitting mine, because both places had controlling conservative leadership.
But the idea of giving up on this partnership that I had introduced sexuality into terrified me. I was afraid of being alone, of starting over, of being a failure. So instead of breaking up, we got married.
I know that sounds like it’s the opposite decision, but for us in our ELCA context it seemed like a solution. We would be allowed to move in together while starting new ministry jobs. We would stay committed to the promises we had made each other for the past five and a half years. Everyone in my ministry context had already been asking us for years when we were going to get married. It was a move that felt like it validated our relationship in the eyes of our church communities. We were on the path we were supposed to be on. We proved we had a successful relationship. My sexual dissonance would go away because our sex would be sanctioned.
But, of course, getting married did not fix things. We were great roommates, splitting household responsibilities, cooking and laughing and playing video games together. But being married didn’t make us adults. Being married didn’t automatically make our sex good and holy and non-shameful. Being married didn’t make us closer. It just made us legally married.
We divorced three years later. I don’t regret it. It was the path I needed to take to understand how shaped I was by church culture and “Christian” lifestyle expectations. When getting married is the ideal and the norm, then getting married, regardless of to whom, feels like the right choice. When having sex while unmarried feels sinful, the answer is not to get married, or to stop having sex. The answer is to authentically examine your relationship, your level of intimacy, your trust, your respect for each other.
The ELCA’s teaching and policies about sex and marriage trained me to think that there was only one way to live an appropriate Christian life. I fit my life into this mold, even though it was restrictive, painful, and forced, because I was taught that it was the right thing to do. We need to rethink how we talk about relationality in our churches. How we talk about sexual intimacy. How we talk about civil marriage as an ideal. There are many ways to build relationship. There are many ways to build family. There are many ways to be responsibly and respectfully sexually intimate with others.
I think I will always have these lingering internalized feelings of shame about my sexuality. This is the oppression I carry around with me because of our ELCA theology and policy. The ways in which we police sexual relationality are harmful and cause pain. I’ve seen this in congregations, in family, in seminaries, in the candidacy process. My story is not a unique story. This experience is the opposite of grace, of being freed by baptism to serve the neighbor, of the Lutheran assertion of an embodied incarnational God. The ELCA needs to repent of this oppression and change the way we teach people about sex and marriage.