By Andrew Broadley | Illustration by Yi Jong
Growing up my family always ate dinner around the dining table. We were never allowed to have the TV on, not even in the background. That wasn’t the way good Christian families ate dinner. This was our dinner rule, among other rules, and growing up I came to realise that is very much what Christianity, and religion as a whole, is about – rules. Often I could see my own parents frustrated by their own rules. An interesting news piece shuttered due to dinner being served, a meal delayed by a lengthy prayer. But the rules always remained. Dinner was our family time; reserved for discussion and connection. But it wasn’t all that effective.
My family is both big and small. I am the youngest of seven, but I have very little in the way of extended family. My grandparents passed away all either before I was born or shortly after. My mother’s parents are post-war Dutch immigrants who came to New Zealand alone, and the little family my dad has is down in the deep south. So although I am the youngest of seven, my family has never really felt large. We never had rumpus dinner times with laughter and conversation, or big gatherings, or itchy knitted sweaters, or that older cousin who came bearing gifts of fireworks and cigarettes. There were no Christmas traditions or events or the things you usually associate with a big family. As far as I remember we all kinda ate our food and left.
In many ways I blame Christianity for this. When you are growing up and navigating your feelings, relationships and identity, religion can be a real drag. You begin to deviate and you begin to find your own footing, and if this exploration doesn’t align with your religious beliefs this creates a sense of guilt or shame. You begin to hide and lie and you begin to form a barrier with your own family and open communication comes at a cost of this. And a quiet dinner time meal is only a symptom of a wider issue.
Growing up I was ever aware of this presence of heaven and hell. When you are young you have this notion of good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell, but as you get older you start to learn that this isn’t the case. People who follow specific rules go to heaven and those who don’t go to hell. It’s not about good or bad, it’s about sin or not sin. And as I am sure many of you are aware, sex outside of marriage is a big tick for the sin column. In church you learn about sex surprisingly frequently for a strictly PG rated environment. You learn a variety of the age old metaphors for sex. Such as the crumpling of the flower that is no longer pure (classic Jane the Virgin) or the sticky tape metaphor, where you are shown how when you stick tape to too many things, too many times, the tape loses its stickiness and its worth. You are taught how to conceal and repress and to save yourself and you are taught how you will be rewarded for it later. But for most, that’s a long time to wait.
It’s 2020, and sexual liberation is in full swing and most people want to get down. And there is nothing wrong with that. But those who grow up in a religious environment can have a harder time embracing this than others. When a good part of your life is spent teaching you to feel shameful for these feelings it can be difficult to flip your mindset. You wonder why you feel this way, you wonder what is wrong with you. You are taught to believe that these desires are wrong and you start to believe that you are flawed. But these are feelings that nearly all of us feel. And to create a narrative of shame around something that is chemical, hormonal and a natural aspect of our biology is pretty messed up. Religious or not we are all human and denying the freedom to express and explore is not the role of the church. Have sex if you want to. Don’t have sex if you don’t want to. But don’t abstain for rules or for guilt. The potential harm of these narratives go beyond a sense of guilt or confusion. They can easily manifest in more harmful ways (see Catholicism and its history with paedophilia) and in many cases it can lead to addictions with pornography. Now the actual statistics in this field aren’t an exact science, but some studies suggest that around 20% of Christian men have suffered from porn addiction at some stage in their lives, more than double that of non-Christian men. Now this could be in part due to the heathens’ understanding of ‘addiction’ and the saints’ understanding being different. But it does point to the fact that shaming sex doesn’t make it disappear, it only makes it pop up in other areas. An argument that is made over and over again in the form of drugs, prostitution, abortion and most things in life. Again, there is no reason to feel guilt or shame over pornography, but there is an issue with Christians turning to it in secrecy. Watching porn to learn about sex is like watching Transformers to learn about robotics. It’s not going to help you much. If you haven’t had proper education and exposure to the reality of sex and this becomes your main source of sexual content, issues are bound to arise.
Nobody loves dating for half a year and then walking down the aisle at 20 more than a couple of young white christians.
Now the church is entitled to their beliefs, but the manner in which they are taught needs to shift. A narrative of shame and guilt is damaging. I know that first hand. And for women in particular it can be even harder. The church’s narrative around sex and purity is ultimately targeted towards women. It is based on the ideas of purity, that you haven’t been spoiled or ruined. And for those that have been, it can bring upon a huge sense of guilt or shame. And for those that haven’t, it often brings the same.
Christians love to marry young. Nobody loves dating for half a year and then walking down the aisle at 20 more than a couple of young white Christians. And while I congratulate them on their everlasting happiness, we all know half the reason for it is because they are sick of doing hand stuff over the clothes. But what happens when you have been shamed for your sexuality and taught to repress it and hide it. What happens when you have been told to hold onto your virginity so tightly that it becomes ingrained in you and has formed part of your identity? What happens when you are taught that with two simple words and a signature on a registry that this shameful sin is now a celebration and a reward and will be everything you ever dreamed of? And what happens when it’s not? Many young christians have talked about the loss they felt after having sex within their marriage. That the magical switch didn’t flick. This title they were praised for having is now gone. This act that was dirty is now holy, but still feels pretty dirty. Years of suppressing something and years of guilt for having these feelings don’t just go away in an instant. And even when this guilt does pass, a lack of general education and exposure to healthy sexual relationships (Whether that’s through irl experience or good sex ed) can result in unhealthy sexual relationships and habits. If you are in a relationship that is founded on suppressing and hiding your desires you aren’t going to have the tools required to discover what you like, want and need in a relationship. Alternatively if you are in a relationship that has had to turn to channels such as pornography for your eduation you aren’t going to have a good understanding on how to navigate a real relationship. One that values female pleasure alongside male. One that values intimacy, consent, and mutual trust and exploration. This isn’t to say you can’t be a virgin and also understand sex. But virginity held due to shame and a lack of openness isn’t the same as making a conscious decision surrounding it. The key to healthy relationships is communication, and being shamed for sex is never going to provide the platform for healthy, open communication.
I am not here to rag on anyone who may be reading this and also may be planning on waiting until marriage. But what is important when it comes to sex is being in control of your decisions. You can have all the sex you want, or none of the sex you want, or even none of the sex you don’t want (probably don’t have all the sex you don’t want). The choice is yours. The current structure of shame and guilt and purity that surrounds the church is damaging. They are free to express their opinions, but those opinions shouldn’t come in the form of degrading young people to a piece of sticky tape.