I put the paper down. I was 15 papers in with 17 to go – sexual autobiography assignments of my graduate family therapy students. It was the second paper I had read in the last two hours of a young woman who had pelvic pain and vaginismus. My stomach was in knots. How many of these papers have I now read in my career? She had been married three years and had been unable to have sex – it just hurt too much. She was completely freaked out about sex and hated herself for it. It was like her vagina had a mind of its own and had shut itself closed. She felt like a freak. She had waited her whole life to be married, had kept herself pure, had not dated until she met her husband in college, and even they had hardly dated. They were involved in ministry at their church when they met, got accountability partners to help them with their sexual desire during their courtship and waited for the day they would be married. They assumed it would all be fine.
What she hadn’t noticed was what she felt and thought about her body, his body, or sex in general. She had only spent years avoiding everything she could about the topic. Staying as far away from it as humanly possible. But what sadly was now floating to the top since her wedding night was a distain she had for her body – especially her genitals. She had grown up seeing them as dangerous. They were almost separate from her. “They” were the tempters. She barely tolerated her genitals. She dealt with them functionally for elimination and dealing with her period. That was it. She knew it was ridiculous, but she saw his body as dangerous too, as was his desire. She had been told so many stories in her youth group of how men could not control themselves that she wasn’t sure his desire had anything to do with her at all. It was a force – a force that frightened her. This only made her hate herself more. She thought – “What wife is afraid of her husband and won’t or even, can’t, give him sex?” She wasn’t sure what she had done wrong growing up, but she was sure she must have done something. Sex was supposed to be easy, beautiful, blessed when you married as virgins – but their experience was hardly that. They loved each other, yes, but nothing about their sexual life felt easy. It all felt hard. Both struggled with sexual desire, performance issues, depression and anxiety. Both felt isolated with no one to talk to. Both were sure it was somehow their fault. Both felt horrendous shame.
Adult Manifestations of Childhood Sexual Abuse
According to the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecologists people who experience harm to their developing sexuality growing up, either from incest, molestation or, in this case, extreme fear, misinformation and silence, can typically exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety, fear, shame, humiliation, self-blame, distorted self-perceptions, a belief that they caused their harm, low sexual desire, arousal disorders, orgasmic disorders and may be less skilled at self-protection. In women we often hear symptoms of chronic pelvic pain, dyspareunia, vaginismus and non-specific vaginitis. It is not uncommon for this population to also suffer from eating disorders, obesity or self-neglect. When someone has been taught that the very body that can and does bring them pleasure can ‘turn against them’ either by being vulnerable to being taken over by a sexual perpetrator (this is the victim’s meaning of what has happened to them – they believe they caused it or “let it happen”), or by desiring sexual intimacy while being told that every bit of that feeling of desire, thought of desire, or action of sexual desire is wrong, a sin against the God they dearly love, a violation against their future husband or wife, and an impingement upon their future happiness (this is what the purity movement preaches), the most earnest and tender hearted Christian’s are left in a position to hate themselves and turn against their own body and against themselves.
Here are the kinds of quotes I hear year after year that provide evidence of sexual damage, abuse and pain caused by the particular combination of religious sexual silence, fear and sexual threat. It is this evidence that reveals the correlation between religious sexual shame and childhood sexual abuse.
“Here it was taught that female sexuality was equated with the “spirit of Jezebel” from the bible. The spirit of Jezebel was described as the sexual, manipulative, and controlling part of women that could draw godly men away from their calling by their seductive and enticing nature. We couldn’t hang out alone with a person of the opposite sex and obviously dating was illegal for the year. Hearing sermons and talks about this made me feel dirty and bad, in the very fact that I was a woman with those sorts of powers to pervert men. So I had to deny my sexuality. I guess it makes sense that that was the year I turned to food and gained forty pounds instead!”
“Any sexual experience I had as a child produced guilt and fear, especially sex play behavior. For a long time I thought something was wrong with me because of this. Because of these feelings, discussing sexuality became difficult for me. I felt like sexuality was ‘dirty.’ I think these experiences contributed to my feeling like sexuality and becoming a woman was shameful; that my parents did not accept that part of me.”
“My husband and I both came from good Christian homes and were virgins when we married at 23 years old. Both of our families didn’t talk about sexual matters. For most of the first 24 years of our marriage I had low sexual desire and my husband was the constant initiator. It set up a bad dynamic between us. All I knew was what I ‘should’ do and nothing about what I really wanted as a wife or a sexual person.”
“I was taught that sexual sin was more grievous than any other sin. Stories of how people’s marriages were permanently scarred and were in a constant state of struggle because they had been sexual before marriage were constantly told to us. Because sexual desire was so powerful and could screw up your life so much we were warned to not do anything that might stimulate our genitals because it would inevitably lead to sex. Being naïve, I of course believed this was possible. But because I couldn’t keep from getting aroused sometimes, I was sure I was the pervert God couldn’t possibly love. For so many years I was disgusted by myself. I know it made receiving love almost impossible and caused my years of not being comfortable enough in my own body to have an orgasm.”
Virginity is not the Issue; nor is Purity … It is Fear, Shame and Silence
It is important to understand that it is not teaching a child to wait to have sex until they are older, married or in a committed loving relationship that causes shame or sexual pain and dysfunction. It is the particular combination of Fear, Shame and Silence. Fear and Shame are the elements children experience when they are told their feelings for intimacy and connection, including their sexual curiosities and desires, are bad and wrong, a sin, not of God, disappointing to those they love, and place their future in jeopardy. Silence is the element children experience when they desire to understand about their changing bodies, their world, sexuality, gender, relationships, etc and no one they trust gives them accurate information each year as they grow. No one safe fields their questions. No one provides the knowledge they need to protect themselves, appreciate themselves or differentiates the truth about themselves from the marketing spin of their consumer culture that routinely sells bodies and people. This combination of Fear, Shame and Silence wrapped in a religious context of “This is of God” is what produces religious sexual shame that can manifest as symptoms of childhood sexual abuse in adults. The Purity Movement delivered this in spades … and we have a generation of young adults now trying to heal from levels of shame, depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunction unlike we have seen in recent history. If you’d like to hear the real stories of people who experienced this listen to the stories of Andrew, Randall, Anna, Sarah, Adam, Lauren and others here.
It is time we begin to develop a New Covenant Sexual Ethic – this is an ethic which demonstrates mutual sexual caring infused with love, grace, justice, acceptance and commitment. When you teach children these values and appropriate life and sex education EACH YEAR of their developing lives they will choose loving people to have in their lives and will make good decisions to care for themselves, their sexuality, their heart and that of others. They may make a mistake here and there … as we all do … it is part of human learning … but they will know how to love well – give love well and receive love well – both with another person and with their God. Isn’t this the point? To.love.like.Christ.?