“Our sexuality affects everything we do, and everything affects our sexuality. The same is true of our spirituality — that which is most deeply meaningful to us. We can deny both. But denying them does not mean they are not both alive in every breath and heartbeat of life.”
― Tina Schermer Sellers, Sex, God, and the Conservative Church
Growing up in a more traditional church I was taught that sex was bad, dirty, and dangerous. The underlying message was “stay far, far, away from it, until you are married, then it’s okay”. There were no conversations about sex that were positive, it was fire and if you got too close you would get burned. Period. (If you want to know more about Shame & the Conservative Church please read Tina Sellers new book Sex, God, and the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy)
This “sex is bad” message that I received made me want it more. The arousal of rebellion and the untouchability made me want to explore the “forbidden fruit” of what I was missing out on. So with only the word “no” and no further instructions or guidelines, I began my exploration journey. My explorative journey was innocent at first with more seasoned friends showing me the way, I began to feel more confident and freer to indulge. Pornography began to teach me how to relate and engage women and slowly I became more and seductive and over-sexed. My interactions with women became potential places of fantasy fulfillment, as pornography taught me that anything was possible, I could let my lust run wild. You never know the barista at the coffee shop could suddenly rip off her clothes and jump over the counter because she could not resist my bearded disposition, I had to be ready at all times. Clearly, this belief and many others are absurd, and yet without addressing our unconscious beliefs about sexuality we cannot transform them. Below is a helpful list that we as parents and church leaders can do to begin engaging healthy sexuality from our positions of power and influence.
What can Parents & Church Leaders do?
#1 Be Real About Sexuality
Our own unaddressed sexuality comes out and impacts the way we lead and parent. With authentic sexuality in place, we can lead and parent from that real place, which is what people including little people need the most.
Yesterday we were all riding in our van on our family trip to goodwill as we began discussing the beauty of how our bodies work. My four old loudly proclaimed “Women poop and pee from their vaginas!”, and my two-year-old daughter quickly retorted that “I pee from my penis!” Their shameless excitement for having figured out some new knowledge was palpable! Clearly, we had some clarifying to do, and we did. But I was so proud of my kids and frankly proud of us as parents that my kids are thinking and talking about their bodies (without shame!) and coming to us with their questions. As Tina Sellers always says, we must have 1,000’s of small talks about sexuality with our kids, rather than the one big awkward bird’s and the bee’s talk. This sets a foundation for later in life, that sexuality and our bodies are not bad, but beautiful and that it is safe to bring questions and talk about sex within our home, rather than to look to pornography or elsewhere for an education. Let’s be real about our sexuality and break the cycles of silence and shame!
#2 Shame as motivator
If our motivations are to help young people attain healthy sexuality by shaming them into health, we have a long way to go, shame is a terrible motivator. If shame is used it pushes people into awful patterns of unhealthy sexuality and misplaced passions. Shame pushes sexuality underground when the truth is, it must more and more come into a glorious light. Sex is fabulous and beautiful and as parents and the Church must have the courage to enter into its terror and beauty with more integrity, nuance, and wisdom. Healthy sexuality and beauty are the best motivators to grow into mature sexual beings.
#3 The moral conversation is not enough
The moral conversation was ultimately a shaming conversation. Let’s take pornography, for example, the moral argument for looking or not looking at pornography was not motivating or powerful enough to actually promote lasting change, and remove the desire to not objectify women. I knew it was wrong, but could not stop until I grew a deeper understanding besides just “don’t do it because it’s wrong.” I needed to know the depths of women’s goodness, I needed to know more deeply the depths of my own goodness.
The moral argument merely produces more shame which fosters those who are struggling with compulsive sexual behavior to seek more comfort and relief. As Robert Masters says in his brilliant book To Be A Man, “The point is not to get morally righteous about this- for doing so only drives it further into the dark, and probably increases its appeal-but to look deeply enough into it to see its psychological, emotional, and social underpinnings.” Morality can never be the only conversation but a healthy and beautiful alternative must be offered to its cheap impostor. Which leads to my next point.
#4 A Healthy Sexuality Must Be Offered
Though we did not talk about sex growing up, we all lived it. As sexual beings we cannot escape our sexuality no matter how uncomfortable it was for our parents and/or our church leaders, the more we silence there was, the more hidden our sexuality became. Why are we freighted by something so glorious? Why so terrified of our own pleasure? We must begin to build and promote a new healthy sexuality that our kids and our congregations are drawn to, that is “sex-positive” and affirms sex’s beauty and honor’s its power. For this to happen we must be deeply in touch with our own personal narrative of sexuality. Without this connection, we will be cut off from our sexuality thus not talking about it as often as we should. Which leads to #5.
#5 We Must Know our Own Story: Holding our Sexual Brokenness and Goodness Close
Have you told the truth about your life? If it’s true that “our sexuality mirrors everything else we do in our life” (Masters 2015) we must begin to be honest with our sexual stories. Have you been sexually abused? Have you been a sexual abuser? Have you been shamed for your beautiful body? What is your story of sexuality? Have you spent your time and energy in minimizing your own darkness and sexual brokenness or level of compulsive sexual behaviors? Have you made your sexuality all about darkness and brokenness? We have to make peace with our stories of sexuality, both in its glory and depravity. We must tell the truth of our sexual complexities. Many times folks either deny their sexual brokenness or indulge in it, neither are healthy. Many people deny the beauty and deep goodness of their sexuality and thus remain disconnected from a core part of what makes them most human.
First, we must own our sin and sexual brokenness regularly. To transform these heartbreaking cultural norms as Christians we must lead with our brokenness, as Paul demonstrates in 1 Timothy 1:15 “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.”
I was facilitating a workshop on addiction a few years ago. The workshop was nearing a close, and I was fielding questions from the audience. I was asked a question along the lines of: “Have you as a professional ever struggled with your own addictions?” Maybe it was less direct than that, but I was presented with an opportunity to break my silence—to step out of hiding for the first time with people I sensed would embrace me in the midst of my shame. I knew from my experience with clients who had honored me with their shame stories that inviting a safe person into the places where self-condemnation prevailed was liberating and healing. With trepidation but hope, I admitted to a room full of strangers that I had been addicted to Internet pornography. I had never confessed my addiction out loud, except within the confines of therapy.
When the words left my lips, I nearly lifted my hands in an attempt to grab them and wrangle them back into my mouth. In a panic, I thought to myself, what have I done? But then I began to feel something wash over me; a divine and holy kindness, like baptismal waters washing away my shame. Maybe that is what the Holy Spirit feels like. In a place where I had always held self-contempt, kindness snuck in without my permission. The shame lifted as I entered my brokenness, and I was able to own my story publically for the first time.
As I gazed around the room, scanning for expressions of judgment and disgust, I found none. What I did find were soft eyes full of tears and kindness locked onto mine; their faces were gentle, their bodies leaning in toward mine as I continued to share a condensed version of my addiction journey. Even though I had spent years in therapy engaging my shame and experiencing a modicum of healing, this terrifyingly sacred experience of self-disclosure turned out to be the most liberating of all, not only for me but perhaps for my listeners. Marianne Williamson wrote, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” I had been liberated from my fear, from my shame and self-hatred, and because of that freedom, others began to feel the same release. Many folks came up to me after the workshop and thanked me for my courage. Through continued acts of bravery into brokenness, we can be healed.
Sexuality is not all about brokenness. We can’t just talk about the negative painful aspects of our sexuality but have the strength to enter into its glory and beauty. It’s difficult for us to bear beauty well, we normally get spooked and sabotage. Goodness feels too vulnerable and potentially exposes core desires we haven’t quite made peace with yet within ourselves. That exposure is terrifying if someone else has access to our raw open sexualities. Stepping into sexual goodness produces hope and desire, which feel entirely too susceptible to heartbreak, so we cling to control focus only on the broken parts of ourselves, and become convinced that even if goodness is there for a moment surely it won’t last. What does it mean for you to press into the goodness of your sexuality? Asking yourself why so negative in your approach to something so holy?
#7 Telling the Truth of our Stories:
We not only must know the truth of our stories but we also must tell the truth of our stories. Despite the potential darkness or fear of our stories, God is truth and the more we tell the truth of both our glory and our darkness the more we can experience God. Men must humble themselves, own their failures, and make peace with our shame of being abusive and a part of this suppressive system that has silenced a part of God’s image and oppressed women. Women must make peace with their shame and self-contempt. It is not your fault or your bodies fault if you were abused and attempted to be devoured by an insecure and fragmented man. If men and women can begin to tell the truth of there experience truly understanding and forgiveness will come as result. Here is a beautiful heart-wrenching example of telling the truth of sexuality, this is an example of brokenness, humility, courage, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Our story of rape and reconciliation | Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger. (Trigger warning to those who have been abused.) When we tell the truth of our stories we have the opportunity to break cycles that we have historically enacted.