Monday, August 11, 2014

She waited until her wedding night and wished she hadn't

During the past week, this article  by a Samantha Pugsley has appeared twice in my Facebook news feed - once via someone who agrees with the author, and once via someone who does not.  Given my relatively small circle of contacts, this is almost surely a sign that the article has achieved some level of virality.  Reading the piece, I was left saddened - both by the sufferings of the author herself, and by the conclusions she drew from her experience.

I think its important to begin by saying that I do not doubt that Ms. Pugsley's particular religious upbringing was responsible for her negative psycho-sexual experiences later in life.  Certainly it is true that a religious upbringing is better for a person's emotional and psychological well-being; there is sufficient research to make this fairly indisputable.  However, that does not mean that every particular church, religious educator, teaching, or other aspect of every individual's religious formation will always be good or follow this general rule.  Research also demonstrates the benefits of having both one's mother and father during childhood over single parent homes, but this does not mean that there are not some specific cases of fathers or mothers who are abusive, uninvolved, or otherwise detrimental to a child's emotional health.  In the same way, while religious upbringings are in general beneficial, there may be some which are harmful.

Indeed, there is sufficient evidence in Ms. Pugsley's article to suggest that her experience was one such negative case.  We don't know whether this was the standard practice at her particular church or if her involvement was an exception, but we do know that she took a pledge of sexual abstinence at the age of ten.  This is the first troublesome point.  While many churches and religious programs at some point offer teenage boys and girls the opportunity to make a chastity commitment of one kind or another, it usually happens after the kids have entered high school.  Some may even have something of the sort as early as 13 years old, but of course the difference between the average psycho-sexual development of a 10 and 13 year old is so great as to make the thought of such a pledge at the two ages incomparable - and even so those programs offering it at 16 or 17 would constitute the vast majority.  In any case, the point is that for a 10 year old to find herself making such a pledge is troubling, by no means a norm of any sort, and so early in her development that I would be surprised if it did not cause problems.

While this is the most egregious concern, there are others. The article also suggests that this pledge was for girls only, and that boys were to be held to a different standard.  Ms. Pugsley says that she was taught that it was a wife's obligation to fulfill her husband's sexual desires.  Sexual abstinence before marriage was linked almost causally to happiness after marriage.  Very tellingly, she also describes the state of her sexuality as something which seemed an ever-present concern throughout her years at this church, almost as though it were some profoundly important end all to itself which consumed the thoughts and conversation of those around her - almost as though her sexuality encompassed all that was important about her.

None of this is healthy, and none of this is consistent with how most Christian communities view sexuality.  Most notably, human persons are almost universally viewed more holistically.  One's sexuality is important - indeed some Christian theologies see it as touching the deepest core of a person - but it is nevertheless viewed as one part of many which make up a person's identity and value.  It is also a means - a means to communion between spouses - and not an end to itself. Taken together, these reasons are why Christians reject the argument that sex before marriage is important to gauge sexual compatibility between two prospective spouses.  According to most Christian theologies, a person should love his or her spouse wholly and entirely - mind, body, soul, spirit, etc. etc..  Sex is a wonderful means by which that love can and should be expressed between spouses, but it is an expression of a love that goes deeper and touches far more of a person than two bodies ever could.  A person's libido and sexual interests will always change over time, and the love that two spouses have must be rooted so selflessly in the whole of the other than should some perfect sexual chemistry that they at some point possess change, the love will not.  In other words, sex is an expression of a love that encompasses the whole of a person and should be at the service of that love - not the other way around; if a man (or woman) needs to make sure the sex is going to meet some certain standard before making a commitment, then there is a serious question as to whether he (or she) truly loves the whole of the other person.

There are other inconsistencies.  Whereas Ms. Pugsley seems to have been taught that standards are different for men and women, Christianity all but universally calls both men and women to chastity.  Speaking as someone who works in youth ministry and sees many materials intended for young people, I can assure you that a program which does not challenge men to an equal - or even higher - concern for chastity is a rare and strange thing indeed.  The notion that a woman has some particular obligation to fulfill her husband's sexual needs in marriage is perhaps more common than this, but still rare in Christian thinking.  Indeed, even the Bible itself contains a passage encouraging Christian spouses to be sexually generous with one another - male and female (1 Corinthians 7:5).

The most significant line of Ms. Pugsley's piece reads, "My virginity had become such an essential part of my personality that I didn't know who I was without it."  However this came to be, it is the wrong idea and an incredibly damaging one.  To this poor girl, her virginity had become so ingrained in her mind as that which gave her value that she did not know how to handle it when she finally consummated her marriage.  In most Christian communities, children are taught that they are valuable because God made them.  They are taught that God loves them.  They are taught that everybody sins, and that when we do God still loves us.  They are taught that our sexuality is a gift from God that we should cherish and guard and give lovingly to one person in marriage - but that this truth comes second to those mentioned above.  Wait until marriage, and guard your sexuality, not because it is bad, but because it is good.  If you should falter - in sexuality or in anything else - God's forgiveness is there for you.

Of course, there are those Christian communities which make sex into something shameful, and chastity into something defining.  Our author ended up getting this message so strongly all along the line that it was ingrained into her and eventually "blossomed" into an incredibly painful experience of marital sexuality.  The message that I want you to take away here is that it is not the notion of pre-marital abstinence that is bad or harmful - even for religious reasons.  Rather, it is the twisted and perverse approach to pre-marital abstinence that some may teach which can be harmful.

Consider the difference between two messages to pass along to teenagers (and not 10 year olds).  We could teach that remaining sexually abstinent before marriage is a central aspect of our faith, that those who do so are of incredible worth, and that God wants us to guard our virginity.  On the other hand, we could teach that God wants us to guard our sexuality and abstain until marriage because we each have a profound value and deserve all the best that our sexuality can offer in uniting us more closely to our spouses.  Clearly, the two approaches, while advocating the same ultimate decision, do so for radically different reasons which make all the difference in the world.

I am very sorry that Ms. Pugsley got the messages that she did over the course of her childhood and teenage year.  I am very sorry for all of those young women (and men) who do learn such perverse views of sex from their churches.  I'm sorry for what they have been through in the name of Christ, and it's very unfortunate that their experiences are leading to a rejection of the idea of pre-marital abstinence itself.  More importantly, though, I am sorry for the formation that they did not receive.  I'm sorry that they were not taught the Christian view of sexuality as a profound gift from God which is given to us to embrace.  I'm sorry that they were not taught how valuable they are in themselves.  The truth is that for every person who had the awful experience of Ms. Pugsley, there are many more who had a good experience with pre-marital abstinence.  Research shows this fairly clearly.

I would call upon those who are predisposed to reject pre-marital abstinence to look beyond the occasional article like the one under consideration here and investigate more fully the research into pre-marital sex and the greater breadth of more common religious teaching on the subject.  I would encourage those who are predisposed to supposed pre-marital abstinence to look more deeply into articles and cases like Ms. Pugsley's to make certain that you are not encouraging the sort of harmful and even un-Christian approaches which lead to cases like hers.

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