I’ve been reading up on sexuality in college. In March, I will be teaching an online course on sex and relationship counseling for college chaplains, and covering similar ground to my blog series on Anglican sexual morality. This week one thing stood out in particular. Church leaders send this message to young adults all the time: “Wait to have sex.” Wait until marriage. Or, if you’re of a more liberal bent, wait until you’re in a committed relationship.
This is the wrong message.
The idea is good. I believe that marriage is the best context for marriage, but I’ve realized it creates a ridiculous dichotomy. Sex is something you have within marriage and until then you…wait for it…”wait.” It’s as though the concept of chastity (sexual morality) were completely different in the two realms. Surprisingly little advice is given for how we are to navigate singleness other than a list of don’ts. Surprisingly little advice is given for developing a healthy sexual relationship within marriage as well and newlyweds who have waited can find the process unenjoyable and unfulfilling.
The most popular alternative, at least among college students, seems to be blind trial and error. (Okay, high school students as well, but let me keep a little of my idealism.) Find someone and try it out. They too report being dissatisfied with their early experiences of sex. Most of us are still figuring out what it means to have friends well into the early twenties. Our social networks are largely imposed by family, school and church in childhood. Not until we live on our own do we truly appreciate the work of forming new relationships. And, when friendships are difficult and confusing, romances are even more so.
Let me propose an alternative way of looking at it.
Don’t wait for sex; prepare for it.
Figure out what it might mean to you first before figuring out what it does mean. We have little respect for people who decide to pick up hiking by simply wandering off into the woods. Sex is one of the few areas where we leave people to their own devices, largely because we’re scared to talk about it. With that in mind, let me suggest a few ways someone might prepare for sex.
Spend some time with your body. Get to know the way you operate, and not just in the crude and simple ways. We often go into sex expecting a partner to know more about our anatomy than we do. Be practical. Give some thought to how you feel based on diet and exercise. Many have naïve assumptions about how alcohol affects their emotions and no assumptions about how it affects their body, and yet they assume alcohol will make sex easier or better. If you want to experiment, be a good scientist and work with one variable at a time.
Spend some time with your desires. It’s easy to be unaware of what you really want. Religious culture teaches us to suppress sexual thoughts and feelings and secular culture sets up unrealistic, competitive, and highly unrealistic standards for sex and relationships. I recommend meditation and prayer on this – really. Take a hard look at what you think you want and what you might really want. You probably won’t know until you try a few things, but you can rule out some options. Sex, for instance, is not a good time to figure out how you feel about boys vs. girls. Find people you trust to talk to. If you’re lucky, go to close friends and mentors with experience in sex and relationships. Don’t assume on the basis of scripture or culture that God feels a certain way. Talk to God about it.
Start slow, shallow, and diverse. One of my students said her father wouldn’t let her have a boyfriend until she’d been on dates with at least 20 different boys. I found that a little too formal, but I think the idea is sound. It can be easy to jump at the first hint of romance and attempt to make it everything, but that romance – and others – are better served by taking the time to think about what you like and dislike about a relationship. I think it’s sad that American culture has lost most of its dating rituals. There were times when activities – a dance, a long conversation, a shared meal, a walk – were decoded for us by the culture. Now there are very few fixed markers. It’s worth taking the time to experience a variety of relationships before starting physical intimacy and it’s worth getting to know one another’s hopes, fears, and expectations. I think the friendships discovered and traumas avoided are well worth the time.
Enjoy yourself. Make sure activities are fun and informative for everyone involved. It amazes me how many people seem to miss this principle when planning dates. (You knew I was talking about dates, right? … Really? … Yes, it applies to other things as well.)
Build gradually. Make life and love a learning experience. Figure out what that means to you. Maybe you should keep a journal or talk regularly with friends. Think about where you are and where you are going. As with all forms of learning you start out misinformed and clueless. That’s okay, as long as you don’t start at a gallop. Take it one step at a time and find ways toward your goals.
Integrate your life. Sex and relationships are not independent of the rest of your life – though they do need a certain amount of room to grow. It matters how your sex life affects your prayer life and your friendships and your work and your family. It will matter in marriage and it matters now. Pay attention to how these things overlap and interrelate.
In short, chastity really is the same throughout life. It means caring about people and how you relate to them sexually, romantically, and emotionally. It means paying attention to how your actions shape your character and the world around you. It has to do with whether you understand and love better after than before. For many, this will mean sex is harder than they thought; it takes preparatory work, practice, and analysis, just like everything else in life. It also means sex and romance are manageable. There really are rules for what works and what doesn’t, how relationships form and develop. So let me say it one more time.
Don’t wait for sex; prepare for it.
If you really want quidelines for when to start having sex, l say more about that here (when and with whom) and here (sex before marriage?).