Episode 30. Summer of Sex Ed Q&A!

August 19, 2021

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Episode 18. Freeing Women from “Biblical Womanhood” with Beth Allison Barr

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I'm Morgan Strehlow - writer and host of the Sanctuary Woman podcast.

Meet Morgan

Welcome to the Summer of Sex Ed Q&A episode. This is our very first Q&A episode, so I feel like I should probably explain something here…

The purpose of this episode is not for me to answer your questions. 

In this Q&A, the A does not stand for answers – because I don’t know all the answers, and I’m not going to pretend that I do.

What I do have, though, is Arrows. I can be a guide. So that’s the role I’m taking on today.

I’m here to give you arrows, and not answers. 

And one reason that is is because I think a lot of our sexual discourse has gone awry – there are a lot of people who tried to give definitive extra-Biblical answers where they should have been guiding us and directing us and discipling us on how to better discern with God the right answers for ourselves and our circumstances.

But just because we don’t always have neat and easy answers, doesn’t mean we should stay silent about the questions, or just keep our questions to ourselves. No… but I think this is mostly why we do. Because we know we don’t have all the answers, and we don’t like that fact – admitting that we don’t know is uncomfortable, it takes a bit of a hit to our pride, perhaps. As a recovering know-it-all myself, I can relate to this.

Are there questions with definitive, universal answers? Sure. Are there questions with definitive, universal truth? Yes! There are. And I don’t want to suggest otherwise. But those are not the questions that you have asked me. Nor are they most of the questions about sex or sexuality.

Because as much as the Bible talks about sex, it leaves many of us with more questions that it does answers. Some people really don’t like that. And some people are in denial about that. Me? I see it as an invitation. And invitation to a deeper knowing with God that requires prayer and discernment and exploration.

So without any further ado, let’s get your questions.

Q: Should the church even be teaching about sexuality or have they so deeply injured the trust of a generation that they have lost credibility?

There are a lot of reasons to distrust the church. The church is us, after all. You and me. And we…well, I don’t have tell you… we’re just regular people. But regular people, too, can help determine what the church’s impact can be and will be on this conversation in our own spiritual communities. We could be bystanders, passively critiquing the church without stepping in to carefully problem solve and course correct and reconstruct a healthier way to steward these conversations – across the genders and generations represented among our congregations. Deferring any sort of responsibility is easy to do. Especially when we don’t feel equipped to do the job of sexuality education ourselves. Or we don’t feel empowered to contribute. So we wait for someone else to do it – and do it right, by our standard – and then we get really frustrated when they don’t do it the way we think they should or they don’t do it at all. I’ve done this a lot.

I think one of the big misses that churches make in this area is not taking the time to really listen to one another and get to know how much their people are craving these conversations, and we can’t listen if we’re not creating safe spaces to talk, dialogue and share our stories. If all we’re doing is preaching AT each other, and not talking with one another and listening to one another, we’re always going to miss the mark. This is true for just about anything. Safe spaces are free of judgment, free of assumptions, free of stereotypes, and free of proof-texting and using scripture as conversation enders rather than conversation starters. Another big miss of the church is that we don’t always do a good job at listening to those whose voices and knowledge and expertise are credible.

So here are the questions you should consider as you decide if the church should be teaching about sex and sexuality: First: What do you believe is the role of the church? What do you believe is the role of the church for individual believers? What is the role of the church in the communities in which they exist? What is the role of the church in family life? In the shaping of children and youth? What is the role of the church in the lives of those who are not living in the context of a nuclear family? What is the role of the church in the discipleship of adults, single or married? Divorced or widowed? What is the role of the church in the flourishing of relationships and marriages? And second: do you believe that sexuality is at all spiritual? Or can it be? Does it have to be? And if our sexuality and spirituality are in any way connected, how does that impact the role of the church in our sexual formation, education and discipleship?

See how this works? I respond to your questions with more questions. That’s kind of my thing. Hashtag Enneagram Five.

Q: As a single, Christian woman, is it wrong to masturbate? I’ve felt a lot of shame around masturbation because it isn’t often a topic that’s talked about. I’ve never known if it’s okay Biblically and have never felt like there are people in the Church who are open to talk about it. Any thoughts on what Scripture says?

From my understanding (which, of course, has its limits), I don’t believe that masturbation in and of itself is something that is to be moralized, and I don’t see any reason given in the Bible that it should be. The Bible speaks to things such as lust and infidelity and “sexual immorality” (without a complete definition of what is moral vs immoral, sexually speaking), which means that we are left to our own discernment, with the help of wisdom and the Holy Spirit, to determine if it’s good for us personally. If masturbation is something that leads to immorality for a person, then that person probably shouldn’t masturbate – or should at least have some boundaries and accountability. For example, someone may determine that they will only masturbate when their spouse is present. And they will not masturbate when they are by themselves for various reasons. That’s a reasonable boundary and one I hear a lot.

But for those for whom masturbation doesn’t lead to immorality? I don’t see any scriptural reason for abstaining from it for moral or spiritual reasons. There is so much nuance and individuality to each of our reasons for choosing to do this or not do it, and none of them should be prescribed as a blanket moral code for everybody, everywhere. And that’s what we should be careful not to do. I also want to be careful to not use scripture to defend a position that may not be clearly defendable through scripture. Scripture is sufficient in giving us wisdom, but it doesn’t always have a clear and precise answer for all of our questions. This, in my opinion, is one of those.

I don’t think that the act of masturbation itself is wrong or sinful sinful. Can it lead to sin? Perhaps. For some people it might, but that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to abstain from it.

Here are some questions you should consider: Why do you masturbate? What is it about masturbation that makes you feel shame? Does your masturbation practice co-exist with something else that you believe is sinful or immoral? Is it possible for you to masturbate without that which you believe is sinful and immoral?

If you haven’t listened yet, we did a whole episode on the topic of masturbation with Kat Harris. You can listen to our conversation on episode 23. It’s a good one! 

Q: I recently learned that my husband has been masturbating to porn. When I confronted him about it he told me that he received his own revelation from God that it’s okay for him to continue watching porn and masturbating. I’ve expressed to him that I don’t like that he does that and it makes me feel like I’m not enough for him. He tells me that he understands my concern but he knows what’s best for himself, and that if he feels the spirit and receives revelation by doing it then it shouldn’t be a problem. He has no intention of stopping. How do I address this issue? What would you do in this situation?

First, I want to say that I am so sorry that you are feeling insecure in your marriage, and that you are not being listened to, honored or respected by your partner in the way that you deserve to be. Know that your partner’s reliance on porn is not your fault and it should not be your problem to fix. I think the part of this question that is most problematic for me, personally, is not actually the porn but your husband’s complete dismissal of you, his wife and his partner in marriage. He is only considering what’s best for himself, rather than engaging in vulnerable and honest conversation about what would be mutually beneficial for each of you and for your marriage, and then he is using the Holy Spirit as a scapegoat for neglecting the reasonable concern of his wife? Friend. Porn and masturbation aside, that’s not spiritual leadership, that’s not partnership – that’s selfish manipulation. And it’s wrong.

A couple of questions I have: Do you believe that marriage is a holy sacrament? Meaning that your mutual love for one another is representative of God’s love for you, and established for the good of both partners for mutual love and service to one another? Do you believe that you have spiritual agency and can discern from and hear from God on your own, separate from your husband? If the answer is yes, then how do you consider what you believe the spirit is telling you against what he believes the spirit is telling him? And then, do you believe God would lead your husband to do something that you feel disrespect you and creates hurt and distrust in your marriage?

Here is what I will say: I am a big believer in therapy – both individual therapy and couples therapy. While I would highly recommend that the two of you seek couples counseling together, I realize that that has to be a mutually agreed upon decision. In the case that your husband is unwilling to go to couples counseling with you, I would recommend that you seek out a counselor for yourself. If that’s not something that you can afford, I hope you can find a trusted spiritual leader in your church community, probably a woman whom you know and trust her wisdom. If that’s not an option, please open up to a trusted friend. I know this can be embarrassing and shameful to talk about, but you need to talk about it with someone you TRUST. And it doesn’t sound like your husband is that trusted person for you right now. I know this can feel really lonely, and that marriage issues like this can be really isolating. There’s a myth that what happens in a marriage is private and should not be discussed with those outside your marriage, and I don’t believe that’s always healthy at all. And I think it keeps many women silent and alone. You don’t have to do this alone. Talk to someone. If your husband can choose to do what’s best for himself, do at least this for yourself. You are worthy of that.

Q: I’m WAY more adventurous than my husband. He was raised with a ton of shame around sex so even talking about it is uncomfortable for him. Our sex life is beyond vanilla, even with toys. How can my husband challenge his shame and open up sexually?

Okay, friend. I relate to your husband a lot. And here is what I will say from my personal experience – I remember being in this place and really wanting to want to be more adventurous and wanting to have more fun and exciting sex, but being paralyzed and stuck in the shame. I am very cerebral and would always struggle getting out of my head and into my body, I still struggle with that. And, for those of us who have never talked very openly about sex, it IS uncomfortable, and i imagine it might be especially uncomfortable for someone who defies the sexual stereotypes associated with their gender.

Start setting aside times for conversation designed to help both of you open up. And be patient with him – don’t make him feel more shame for not living up to your sexual hopes and dreams for your marriage. There are some great apps and other great resources that help with this. My husband and I use an app called Card Decks that is developed by the Gottman Institute. It was recommended to us by our couples therapist and we will set a 20 minute timer at night after our kid goes to bed and go through the questions and take turns asking and answering. We try to do it a few times a week to connect and have good conversations that encourage us to open up with one another. There are a lot of different categories of card decks, including several relating to sex and your sex life. There is also an app called Spicer that you can install on both of your phones and connect your accounts, and it’s designed to help couples who may have trouble overcoming shyness or shame to discover what they want to explore or experience, and them help those start those conversations about sex. Another great resource created by a faith-friendly sexologist by the name of Cheryl Fagan, called Closeness: A Card Deck for Intimate Connection. I really love the resources that she’s creating, and this conversational card deck for couples is one those.

Q: Do you have any resources or practical tips for sorting through sexual shame and figuring out how to embrace my sexuality even as a single, Christian woman? I wish I had other Christians who I could discuss these topics with but even in my very modern church, the topic is only talked about in the context of it being wrong before marriage and right after marriage.

I do have a few resource recommendations for you for sorting through sexual shame and embracing your sexuality, regardless of your relationship status:

Books: A few of my favorite faith or faith-adjacent books on that would be great to read are Sex, God and the Conservative Church by Tina Schermer Sellers a therapist and a Christian who has spent much of her career working with and studying sexual shame among those who grew up in purity culture and then Sexless in the City by Kat Harris is a great book written by a single Christian woman in her 30s who documents her process of deconstructing and reconstructing a healthier sexual ethic on the other side of purity culture. Personally, my favorite book that has helped me embrace and understand my sexuality is Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski, and I think every woman, single or married, sexually active or not, could benefit from this book. It is not faith-based, but it’s science-based and super informative. I am a big fan of reading books like this with small groups of friends so that we all have a community of women to process out loud with and dialogue with. Reading these books by yourself is great, but man – engaging with the content of these books in community is really powerful and can really set yourself up for creating more intimate friendships with your people that includes openly talking about sex and sexuality in community. This could even include a church small group. I actually first read Come As You Are with three other women from my church, and that was most definitely a formative and powerful experience that really kicked off a long journey of shedding and overcoming sexual shame.

And since we just talked about conversation card decks to help couples have intimate conversations with one other, I will say that it would be really wonderful to have something like that for friends and small groups of women to do together. I’m not familiar with anything like that. And I think I might just have to create that for us.

So the next question will be the final question on this episode – and I saved it for last because not only is it the most complex question y’all asked me, but so many of y’all asked me a version of this question and I want to be sure to handle it with great care and nuance. And that’s the question of sex before marriage.

I want to read a few versions of this question I received, because there are elements to each question that are important to acknowledge. The first is:

Q: How are we approaching the sex before marriage conversation? 

I loved this question, but thought it was a funny question because of the use of the word we. And I loved it was asked this way. But I want to dissect that a little bit before we go deeper into this question. One of the common critiques of Western Christianity, more specifically American evangelicalism is this emphasis on individual faith, individual morality, individual freedom, individual choice, individual sin – individual, individual, individual. It’s so individualistic. And I see a lot of progressive Christians critique this part of the more conservative strain of American conservative evangelicalism …. And yet …. Many of the these same progressive christians insist on this very same individualism when it comes to sexual freedom and sexual ethics. This is just an observation of an inconsistent application of our faith practices and christian ethics – an inconsistency I’m certainly not innocent of myself.

So a few questions I want to challenge us with here – the opposite of an answer – the arrow – is this one: How and when do you differentiate living out your faith in practice as an individual and as one among a community – so communal faith in practice vs. individual faith in practice. Do you apply this consistently or inconsistently across the various domains and aspects of your life? Why or why not? Should an individual’s sexual ethic and practice be informed by their broader faith community or should it only be informed by their own individual discernment with God? What are the complications and potential harms of each? What makes each of these scenarios beautiful and beneficial?

And then, is the act of sex with another person an individual act or a communal act? And does the answer to that change on a case by case basis?

I don’t know if I have the answer to any of these questions, or if my answer is the right answer, but they are questions that I myself am asking and exploring right now.

Moving on to the rest of the question of sex before marriage… I want to read another version of this question I got.

Q: Do you know of any Christian books about sex that outline a view of sex that includes sex before marriage as good and permissible? I’m seeing a lot about freeing yourself from guilt but the thing for me is- I’m not ashamed of embracing my sexuality before marriage I’m ashamed of my belief system that made it so difficult to do that. I think I’m trying to integrate my faith back into my lived experience and I’m not doing it well. It feels like- if I listen to my body’s wisdom my only choice is to live on the fringes of Christianity or walk away from it. So I guess I’m looking for some guidance for the person who isn’t but wants to find a place for themselves inside the Christian communion. Any ideas?

There’s a lot to this question. And this question actually came from a good friend of mine who I’ve been in spiritual community with, who I know and love in real life. I am so glad she asked this question and I’m glad that her and I could have a good private conversation about this, but I wanted to address it here because I believe that her question and experience is so common and so representative of many in the generation of us who did grow up in purity culture with a sexual formation based in shame and suppression and false promises. And I think that in many ways this question is a gateway for many to faith deconstruction that could end of in any number of ways – included, as she says here, walking away from the Christian faith. This is an important question with seemingly no clear or perfect answer.

I do not believe that any one’s sexuality is an indicator of their spirituality. Do I believe they connected? I do. Here is what I want to emphasize, though: One’s sexuality is never an indicator of one’s salvation. Can you be a committed follower of Jesus who exhibits the fruits of the spirit and also be in a sexual relationship without being married. Sure I do! I know a lot of people described here.

There are a lot of faithful Christian pastors, theologians, ethicists and scholars with very different views on this topic. I’m not going to pretend that I am one with a valid view.

I really appreciate how Christian ethicist and author of the popular Christian ethics textbook, Kingdom Ethics, David Gushee categorizes a few different ethical frameworks of sexual ethics: the mutual consent ethic, which basically means anything goes as long as there is consent; the loving relationship ethic, which is exactly what it sounds like – sex is permissible and good as long as its in a loving relationship. And then there is what he calls the covenantal-marital ethic, which has historically been the Christian ethic of celibacy and/or fidelity, but exclusively between a man and a woman. In his book, Changing Our Mind, Dr. Gushee actually makes what I believe to be a really strong Christian case for same-sex marriage – and at the same time in so many ways this book is quite traditional and conservative because Dr. Gushee does hold to a covenantal-marital ethic. And there are a lot of reasons why, and most of them actually connect back to what we just unpacked when we explored individual vs. communal faith in practice and what is good for society at large, for the broader communities we live in and worship in and do life in – whom our decisions do impact – where there are vulnerable children – with half of the children in the United States being conceived accidentally. And most of those being both outside of committed marriage relationships.

I think there are a couple of different ways to continue thinking through this questions… one of them is this: Can we believe that sex within marriage be God’s best, while also believing that sex outside of marriage is not a sin? Because I’m not sure it’s as binary as we like to believe it is. That it’s either God’s best or it’s a sin. Maybe you do though? And then, a follow up question – if we do believe that sex within marriage is God’s best for sexual relationships, how do we as a Christian community best honor our fellow single Christians moving in and through the world as the sexual beings, just as God created them as, and also – how do we not prop up marriage on a pedestal so high that pushes so many couples into a covenantal marriage they have no business being in? And is getting married prematurely just because we’re super horny 20-somethings all that holy and honorable? I mean, it’s not hard to get married anymore. And, for some, it’s also not hard to end that marriage. Our sexual ethics, even when they come from a good place, have caused a lot of harm. I think we can all agree on that. I think what’s caused the most harm, is the binary nature of our ethic. And I think it might be possible to expand our ethic and seek God’s discernment in our lives, and with our Christian community if that’s what we value.

Okay, the last part of this question, is related to the last two, but trying to make more sense Biblically –

Q: Is it true what I’ve always heard in church / faith settings, that “God intended for sex to be within the confines of marriage only.” Though I lived my life this way, and waited till marriage because I was taught that was THE only way I have yet to find a verse that says that explicitly. I would love your input on what would you say Jesus’s heart actually is on that and what did God actually intend? 

I’m no Bible scholar, and just like many of you I have read all of these same passages that refer to marriage and sexual immorality – and I’m not sure if in good intellectual conscious I can make a solid, definitive case for or against sex outside of marriage for anyone other than myself. I certainly can’t for you. For me, the scriptures and the English translations aren’t super clear – we have a phrase that is used throughout the New Testament that seems to be a catch all for sexual sin – and that’s “sexual immorality” but I’m not entirely sure what all that includes. Sexual immorality, culturally speaking, has been a moving target for all of time and history. Personally, my own sexual ethic and understanding of the scriptures has shifted multiple times over the last decade of my life. I’ve regretted saving sex for marriage for much of my marriage. But more recently, and at the time of this recording, I’m mostly glad I did. If you talked to ten different people with various experiences of premarital sex and waiting to have sex, you will probably get ten different opinions about whether or not they are glad they did it, or if they regretted it, or if they wish they had done something different.

As we wrap up with this monstrous question with no easy answer, I just want to repeat: your sexuality, your sexual identity, your sexual choices – they are important, and I know they are important to you. AND they are not your spiritual barometer and they are not dictative of your salvation. Your choice to have sex or not have sex does not change the fact that you are a sinner. You can’t change that. Only Jesus can. Rest in relationship with Jesus. Talk to him. Pray. Discern. Invite people you love and trust into the discernment process if you feel led to do that. But I will not try to play your holy spirit. Because I am not that and I can never be that.

I’m just a girl with a microphone – who thinks that Jesus is worth knowing, even when we don’t know all the answers.

Who believes that there is room for you in this Christian faith, no matter your sexual choices or preferences – past or present. There are so many of us who want you here and who need you here.

Thanks for being here.

Thanks for listening along. For leaning into uncomfortable conversations. For asking questions, and then being okay with me not giving answers.

Take these arrows, these resources, and have fun exploring and learning and relearning. And asking more questions than you came here with.

One of the most frustrating, but yet – one of my most favorite – parts of the Christian faith is the mystery of it. And I think if we just keep seeking to know Christ better, and live a life that reflects the love of Jesus to ourselves and to one another, then we’re doing pretty good.

This concludes our Summer of Sex Ed series. I’ll be back later this fall with regular Sanctuary Woman programming, along with Sacred Clitirgy, the monthly bonus episodes where we will continue talking about sex and sexuality. In the meantime, may the peace of the Lord be with you.

Join us for more sexuality conversations in Christian community on Instagram: @sanctuarywoman.

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