Sex, Religion, and Shame
Another school year is in full swing. Frat houses around the country are once again swollen with partygoers and intoxicated youth. Sunday mornings once again mark the regret of thousands of young women who hooked-up the night prior and either cannot remember what they did, or do remember and are trying to forget.
Another hook-up season is in full swing.
...And another article about sexuality in college is written by people who have no intention of exposing themselves to it. The good Catholic and Muslim folks over at the Washington Post’s religion blog, On Faith, have watched all the American Pie movies they could get their hands on and written an open-minded, honest examination of the college party lifestyle, and how the decisions made in the wee early hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings affect the men and women involved in them.
Wait, I’m sorry, that must have been another article. This one tells us that men are grope-y rape monsters and women should be ashamed for seeking out sexual pleasure. Another thrilling dispatch from the religious world.
Obviously, I have some issues with this article and the attitude about sex that it supports. It’s a story I heard far, far too often when I was growing up within the religious mindset: “You, Young Virgin, have Something Special! Protect your Something Special, Young Virgin, and don’t let anyone have It until you’re married to them!” I heard this in a Protestant church that was more liberal than most (for a Protestant church, at least), but these Catholic and Muslim writers come from backgrounds where this message is taken one step further -- Women should be ashamed of the sex they have, but the men? Well... I mean, c’mon, bro, they’re guys! Let the guys be guys. They really shouldn’t be sleeping around so much, but if they do? Eh, they’ll be alright. But shame on those women that sleep with them.
Even when I was swimming in the ideological Kool-Aid, I saw the inherent double standard, and I didn’t like it. The only time I ever heard anything close to what the girls were hearing about sex was this one guy at a Christian boys’ summer camp who talked a lot about our virginities, and not losing them. He wasn’t a touchy kind of guy, but still... he was really into talking to 13-year-old boys about not having sex. Regardless, he was still one of the few people in a religious leadership role who not only told me to wait until marriage, but told me, a boy, about that Something Special and how I shouldn’t let just anyone have it.
The realities of adult sexual relationships aside, I’m glad he tried to make the religious abstinence discussion more gender-equal. If it happened more often, I’d be more inclined to accept that lifestyle as something other than glorified, dogmatic slut-shaming. But as it stands, that’s exactly what it is: women who have sex outside of marriage are whores, and men who have sex outside of marriage just can’t help themselves. The article doesn’t even attempt to hide it: “For many women of faith on college campuses, not only is such behavior a direct violation of their faith, it is the degradation of women, plain and simple.”
And what about men of faith? A male-female sexual relationship requires more than a female. (Obviously, how the religious feel about male-male, female-female, and other-other relationships could take up another seven rants. For this one, I’ll be sticking to what I’m experienced in: male-female.) How does this “degrading” act affect the man? Is he horrifically scarred, dirty, and unclean? Or is he just the grope-y rape monster, and it’s the woman’s fault for allowing herself to get tricked into his clutches? The more you blame women for pre- and extra-marital sex, the more you allow -- and even encourage -- men to pursue that kind of lifestyle. If you really believe that kind of sexuality is wrong, you need to discourage everyone from it, not just one of the sexes.
Hearing this message from everyone outside of summer camp, I grew up terrified of a part of myself. I thought myself no better than a rapist whenever I saw a girl in a low-cut blouse. I nearly cried when my friend brought over the aforementioned American Pie and the exchange student, Nadia, had her steamy webcam scene. (“My future wife! What would she think if she saw me now, staring at those... Wow, is that what everyone’s been talking about? Those are boobs? Uh... Hey, maybe this isn’t so bad- NO! FUTURE WIFE, I’M SORRY!”)
The message incessantly shoved into my conscious was that women were precious, fragile flowers and men had disgusting, primal urges to have all the sex they could. So, naturally, I fought my disgusting urges for the better part of my life, refusing to allow myself access to entire parts of my thought process. It was an incredibly healthy way to sexually mature, let me tell you. And by that I naturally mean, “unbelievably damaging way to think about sex”. Thank goodness for that drunken night in sophomore year... perhaps I’m getting too personal. The point is, the message the religious send about sexual relationships does far more harm than good.
Before I go any further, I want to say that, to the authors’ credits, they do dedicate a whole three sentences to the problem of date rape and sexual assault on campus, and how it affects women far, far more than it affects men. Perhaps they could have spent more than three sentences talking about that. But I understand that one needs a lot of space for all that shaming.
Not only is the “abstinence until marriage” lifestyle damaging, it’s plainly counter-productive. Ostensibly, the idea seems to be to protect Young Virgins from the creeping hands (and genitalia) of those who want one thing, and would do anything to get it, even lie about their level of commitment. But I ask you this, dear reader: Which relationship has a better chance at being a healthy one? The one with the person who is honest about what they want and what they are willing to commit to, or the one with the person who expects their sexual partner to commit exclusively to them for life and split all their income 50% before they ever even spend the night?
The ones out there who are willing to lie to get what they want aren’t going to be deterred by a marriage contract and a promise before God if they want it bad enough. All the expectation of marriage will do is filter out the ones who actually know what they want out of a sexual relationship, and won’t lie or make promises they don’t intend to keep in order to get it. These aren’t the people you want to drive away, but that’s what the marriage filter does. Those people go on to have happy, healthy relationships with others who have the same expectations they do, while the ones who are waiting for THE ONE more often than not end up with someone who doesn’t know what they want when it comes to sex, or someone who is going to lie to them to get what they want. And they wonder why so many of their sexual relationships end painfully.
In the end, I may be beating a dead horse by writing about how closed-minded and damaging the religious view on sexuality is, but it’s something I bought into for a long time, and I feel hugely unburdened now that I’m free of it. If I’m able to convince one other person to see the error in it and to think for themselves about sex, I’ll have done something right. “Don’t have sex until you’re married” might be an easy message to pass along to younger generations, but a far more realistic and practical one would be, “Only have sex with people who expect the same things out of it as you do.”
If you want to wait for marriage, then wait for marriage, but make sure you’re with someone who wants to wait, too. If you want to go to a party tonight, get crazy, and go home with someone whose last name you’ll never know, well for goodness’ sake get a bulk package of condoms and get to work, friend. But don’t shame other people who don’t share your view, and don’t be shocked if you end up with someone who wants something different than you. We’re all beautifully different people, and you’re cutting yourself off to a huge part of the human experience when you expect us all to align.