I grew up in a Methodist Church in a small town in North Carolina. When I reached my pre-teen years, I moved from the children’s programming to Methodist Youth Fellowship, or MYF. Most of the time, I felt comfortable with the lessons they were teaching. Except for the talks about sex and sexual purity. The message MYF pushed to us was an abstinence-only policy: “Our bodies are the Lord’s temple and we should keep them pure.”
“No problem,” I thought. “Is anybody really interested in sex? This will be easy.”
I thought all the “normal” kids were like me, and teenagers who wanted to have sex were some kind of deviants or had no self-control.
In high school, the sexual purity talks changed tone. According to my youth pastor, temptation was everywhere, and sexual temptation was something that every teenager struggled with. Our church hosted some kind of sexual purity rally where the guest speaker held a cinderblock high over some poor guy’s groin and talked about the risks of sexual contact, and how we all needed to be constantly on the look-out to avoid the temptations of the flesh.
My teenage brain was struggling to understand this. The adults were obviously concerned that the teenagers would fall into this temptation. It was different than when we did fire drills at school. The adults there didn’t seem particularly worried about whether we learned how to exit the building the right way.
Could the loss of sexual purity be a real danger?
I knew that the media pushed sex and sexuality pretty heavily on TV, in movies, in music, and in commercials, but I thought that it was some misguided advertising thing. I was already feeling weird and broken based on what my friends were telling me about their relationships, and the increasing pressure I felt from my high school boyfriend to do more.
I was frightened and worried, but I never felt tempted. Oddly enough, the breaking point that changed my sexual behavior came from a different lesson from the MYF. We were talking about temptation in general, and how “if life seems easy, you’re not living it right.”
The moral of that lesson was that living a Christian life isn’t meant to be easy, and that if you are living a holy life, the forces of darkness will fight you every step of the way. I know now that they were trying to be reassuring to people who felt like life was only getting harder. But at the time, my take-away was that if your life seems easy, you’re going in the wrong direction. And my life seemed easy.
By the time I reached this “realization,” I was sixteen.
My boyfriend very obviously felt sexual temptation about my body, and I felt frightened and vaguely disgusted by that. I told myself that “normal” teenagers were tempted, but I had no idea what the temptation to have sex felt like. And I questioned whether I was doing the right thing in my relationship.
Unfortunately, while I was struggling with my inner issues, I also began struggling with an outside one: my relationship with my boyfriend. Everything he wanted to do sexually, I didn’t want to do. At the time, I didn’t have any assurance that “I don’t want to” was a valid reason to not do something, so instead, I tried to find logical reasons and biblical arguments against doing the stuff my boyfriend wanted to do.
But I couldn’t. And he was doggedly persistent. As he shot down argument after argument, I found myself exasperatedly saying, “Okay, fine!” and agreeing to do things I had never had any intention of doing.
Sex was the only thing that I felt I had a solid argument against.
The Bible says not to have sex outside of marriage, so that was that. But the arguments continued, and I began to feel validated. “My life’s not easy anymore, so I must be doing something right,” I thought. After we had debated the sex thing yet again, I found myself wondering if this was “temptation.”
After experiencing my boyfriend’s persistence, I concluded that the males of our species, at least, experience a physical want for sex. But I felt that if it were up to the females (of which I thought I was obviously an average example), nobody would have sex.
Women who wanted to have sex must have some kind of hormone imbalance or something, I thought. But at church, they had said that all of us teenagers had to watch out for temptation. Were the girls just watching out for their boyfriends’ temptation?
If so, why hadn’t they given us words or scriptures so we could fight back?
With each new experience I had with my boyfriend, I heaped a new layer of shame upon myself. I felt like I was giving in to temptation. After all, I thought, isn’t agreeing under duress “giving in”?
Looking back now, it is clear that I was in an unhealthy relationship. It’s also clear the church’s teachings weren’t helpful to me as I tried to navigate this period of my life. And yet, I don’t feel cheated by my church for falling short. There were a lot of questions that I had that I thought I could answer by myself. If I had gone to my pastor or my mom with my concerns, maybe I wouldn’t have had to struggle for so many years in my relationship.
While they might not have had any knowledge of asexuality, they might at least have helped me discover that “I don’t want to do that” is a totally valid reason not to do something sexual, that consent matters, and that I deserve a relationship where my partner and I are mutually respectful of one another, and mindful of each other’s boundaries.
I know now that not every person experiences relationships, temptation, and sexuality in the same way.
And that is okay. The important thing is that we have a support system and the resources to help us discover for ourselves who we are. Then we can feel free to be true to ourselves.
Photo by Trevor Hurlbut