Sex and evangelical American religion have a lot in common: Both are weird and personal; both inspire prescriptive, reductive public dialogue; and both are used as conduits for ecstasy, punishment, comfort, self-satisfaction, and pain that can turn into pleasure. When I was a teenager going to music festivals for the first time, I’d watch crowds of people throwing their hands up and feel like I was back in the mega-church where I grew up, a congregation in the tens of thousands that boasted a decent house band and a massive worship center I called the Repentagon. Recently, I disturbed myself by realizing that the name I’ve said more than any other during sex is probably “Jesus.”
Because we rarely see sex and religion intersecting in non-troubling ways, and because it’s unfortunate that “virgin” is a social punch line in a country where Plan B isn't available over the counter, I called up a half-dozen Christian women this year and talked to them about sex.
“He pursued us, and now we belong to Him.”
There’s something Byronic about the way that some churches present the idea of God to young Christians, particularly women. A divine creator romancing fallen humanity through a display of sacrificial devotion far more intense and visceral than anything you’d find in a rom-com — once desired like this, how can we not live in obedient submission? “We are Christ's bride,” one woman told me, fairly breathlessly. “He came and pursued us to be with him, and now we belong to Him, and I think that's really beautiful.”
One woman I interviewed talked about a Bible study she’d gone to in high school: "It was called Sacred Romance. God was the Great Romancer. I was in the middle of a breakup and I just kept telling myself, 'Don’t ever forget that He loves you more than your ex-boyfriend ever did.’"
As for me, I remember a girls-only Bible study session at a middle school church retreat, during which a chirpy blonde woman with glossy pink lips put wedding veils on all our heads, turned on Moulin Rouge, and fast-forwarded to the “Roxanne” scene, the slow grimy drag of that tango. “Remember this feeling,” she told us. “This is what you have to look forward to on your wedding day.”
“There had been fondling, you know, I’m human.”
It was hard to find someone who’d actually waited until marriage to lose her virginity. I only talked to one woman who did it by the book; to alleviate wedding-night pressure, she and her husband had waited not just until after the wedding but until the morning after. She told me, "I felt so liberated by the fact that I'd never had sex before, not even oral sex. There had been fondling, you know, I’m human. But I felt so protected in that moment, with all expectations stripped away. It was so freeing, so exhilarating."
In many of the stories that felt more familiar, there was still a religious component; one woman had lost her virginity at 14, to a boy she’d met as her mom was dying. “We were just young kids trying to process this thing,” she said. “We cried together almost every day. We were going to church together. We were spiritually close, and it felt right to be physically close. So we started to have sex, a lot of it, all the time.”
Another woman had simply compartmentalized the anti-sex parts of Christianity and decided to trust her instincts: “I have my body image issues — I don't like sitting in my swimsuit next to someone skinny, stuff like that — but with a guy, naked, I feel really comfortable. I’ve always just known what to do.”
For most of these women, their physical convictions were just as important as their spiritual convictions; if the two came into alignment, all the better. One woman, mentally flirting with the idea of sex, experienced clarity one night in Vegas.
"I met this hot cop,” she told me, “like an actual cop who was hot, not a Chippendale. We started making out in the casino — really going at it, it was amazing — and he persuaded me to come up to his room, where we fell onto his bed. He pulled up my dress and got naked all of a sudden and asked, ‘Can I put it in?’ I was totally horrified. I said absolutely not. Then he just sort of put it on top of me. I pretended I heard my phone ringing and basically ran away.”
“It’s a rule to protect you.”
I asked these women the same question over and over. Why is sex before marriage considered wrong? Essentially, everyone answered the same way: “I believe in the Bible, and the Bible says so.” Most added, “But I’m not going to judge anyone who does it.” Most, of course, were also doing it.
“It has more to do with your identity as a Christian,” one woman said. “How you see yourself, how you want to feel, how you want to be treated. This is hard for me to articulate, but I think that any sin that we commit comes from an internal issue that we have with ourselves — something we’re born with, like pride or greed. With sex, it could maybe be a problem with self-control, or wanting to receive a certain type of attention or feel a certain way.”
“I think it’s a rule to protect you,” another woman said. “To keep you from opening yourself up emotionally to the wrong people, to heartbreak and hurt.”
I remember when I came home from school in fourth grade wearing my very first purity ring. I waved my hand in the air proudly. “Oh Lord,” said my mom, who is an evangelical Christian. “Take it off, take it off now.”
“I was never acting out of an urge that was pure."
Guilt, bargaining, and confusion all played at least minor roles in each woman's story. One talked about a high school boyfriend, saying, "I believed that God wanted the two of us to be together, but that we'd cursed our relationship forever because we'd had sex. There was an inner voice just screaming at me about what I’d done, much louder than the voices that told me not to lie and cheat and steal. I would read books and identify with characters who were prostitutes, that’s how low I felt."
Another brought up middle-school masturbation: "I knew what I was doing, even though I didn’t know the word for it, and I knew it was sinful. I knew even then that I wasn’t taking care of my body in a holy way. I wasn’t acting out of an urge that was pure."
My friend Maya, after her assault: “I was furious at God. I couldn’t understand how I was the only one of our friends who made the decision to stay a virgin, and I loved the decision and defended it, and then He let this happen.”
Purity, this tightly conditioned idea, with so much more to give! In my own life, the times I've felt the purest have involved another trinity — sex, drugs, etc. — and the God that I came to know as a kid, that vague metaphysical presence, was always there in my bones to bless me.
“I have a huge sex drive – it’s how God made me.”
All the women I talked to readily admitted that the evangelical church doesn’t handle sexuality well. From the woman who’d waited until marriage: “It's a big institutional and doctrinal flaw, this idea that sex is bad, sex is wrong. When you're told that your whole life, how are you supposed to just flip that switch when you finally get around to doing it?"
I asked her how long it took to hit her stride with her husband, to feel comfortable having sex. “A while!” she said. “Two or three months, because he was studying for the bar nonstop and we could only really try on weekends. We laughed about it, like, thank goodness we didn’t have anyone else to compare this to.” She added, “But now it’s wonderful. And you know, sex is all over the Bible. God commands us to have communion with each other.”
They all told me that they hoped there would be a generational change in the church, a shifting of priorities. “It’s not our job to grade,” one woman said forcefully. “The emphasis we put on sin is out of proportion. That’s the biggest problem I have with the church.”
Another said, “We should change the conversation. It should be understood that sex is beautiful. It should be more about what you might want to protect yourself against, and how. It should be more about not doing things that could harm you.”
“If I’m truly a Christian, I should be able to understand what grace is. And feeling terrible is not grace,” said another woman, who’d described herself as having “a huge sex drive — it’s how God made me.”
She added, “I went to a bachelorette party where they were asking all the married girls for sex advice for the bride-to-be. I just sat there, listening to them talk about fussy lingerie and complicated games and weird sex menus, and I didn’t say anything, even though I wanted to be like, ‘Girl, just buy a vibrator.’ You know, I have a lot of friends that are waiting, or have waited, and it was great for them. But that’s just not how it’s going to be for me.”
Previously: Interviews With Virgins.
Jia Tolentino is a writer in Michigan.