The church doesn’t talk about sex enough. And by talk about sex, I mean really talk about sex—not just warn young people against premarital sex, quote random bits of Scripture from 1 Corinthians, or reference “God’s design” for procreation and marriage. What I mean is actually get into the nitty-gritty of how Christians experience sex, what people of faith could expect attempting intercourse for the first time, and how sexual desire fits into the lives of people in and out of marriage.
The church has spent so much of its energy warning against sexual sin among high school youth groups. This has left many young adults entering into marriage somewhat in the dark about and hesitant—wary even—to fully embrace the fullness of a sexual relationship.
But why does this have to be?
If God is good, all the time, and if God created sex—which is good (“good” as in God’s inherent goodness, not “good” as in stellar) all the time—then shouldn’t we feel comfortable talking about sex more often than we do in our faith communities? Jesus said very little about sex in the New Testament, but Jesus also cared holistically about people’s lives. He cared about just and righteous living that was free from shame. If Christianity pronounces that sex is part of God’s plan and that human sexuality is integral to how human beings bear the image of God to the world, shouldn’t the church be talking about sex, sexual attraction, sexual desire, sexual orientation, and sexual abuse at least as much as mainstream media and pop culture?
I just got married this past month (praise God for my beautiful, lovely wife, and praise God for all of the challenges and difficulties we are learning to navigate together . . . ). Here are three things we’ve been learning about sex that the church never really talked about growing up:
1 . Sex can be hard.
No one tells you that sex can be hard. But, it can be.
Like learning any new skill (particularly ones that involve a partner), it can take work, effort, and sometimes intentional practice for what sometimes feels like a pretty steep learning curve. It can require an almost embarrassing amount of communication for two human bodies to coordinate the physical positions and motions that constitute intercourse (one of the many things left unsaid about sex in our Christian contexts and high school sex education classes growing up).
It takes effort and persistence to figure out what works and what doesn’t for both individuals when it comes to sex. On a physical and practical level, what is comfortable or relaxing for one individual might be difficult for the other. Arousal and emotional connection are not always a given. Giving and receiving pleasure can be riddled with miscommunications, insecurities, and sometimes frustrations. There can also be a lot of brokenness and trauma, even amongst couples who have done healing work.
Sex can also be emotionally consuming. The cultural perception of sex is always this spontaneous, enthralling passion that culminates in an ecstatic orgasm for both parties. Real-life sex —at least in the beginning—can sound much more like: “So, what do we do now?” or “Ouch, that kind of hurts,” or “That’s okay, maybe we can try again when we have time.” This is another thing we’ve learned: there can be so many other things that demand a couple’s time and energy that sex can sometimes feel exhausting or overwhelming just to initiate, let alone communicate about.
- Sex Requires Communication
A lot of it. There is planned sex, and then there’s unplanned sex. There’s figuring out the physical anatomy of your partner. There’s communicating what feels pleasurable and what feels uncomfortable (or painful). It involves asking for what you want and need and listening to your partner do the same.
Sex requires communication even before entering the bedroom. Between intimacy, physical climax, contraception, comfort, and exploration, among others—sex can encompass many different priorities. Each person of faith will also have differing beliefs, attitudes, and expectations towards sex.
Cultural starting places can also have a big impact. The Asian American church seems pretty silent regarding topics like masturbation, condoms and protection, sexual orientation, and the realities of sexual abuse. Not many Asian immigrant parents engage their children openly about such taboo “topics” (other than warning against premarital sex, perhaps influenced by a cultural emphasis on obedience and honoring the spousal relationship). My parents were Chinese immigrants, and even conversations about dating or puberty felt awkward (or coerced). As an Asian American growing up in the church, the lack of vocabulary and dialogue around sex and our bodies made for a pretty confusing environment to know how to think about physical intimacy and preparing for my own marriage.
God made our physical bodies good and glorious. Jesus compares our bodies to temples of the Holy Spirit! It’s inconceivable to me then that God would love our physical bodies but stutter over saying words like vagina, clitoris, or penis. Sex requires communication and the more comfortable we are with our own bodies, the more we can celebrate what God made very good. Different cultures and communities will approach this communication differently. There is a way we can honor those differences and yet strive for gospel-oriented instruction that glorifies what God intended.
3. Sex is About Intimacy
Sex is primarily about intimacy—an intimacy that is fully naked and fully unashamed. And “fully naked” and yet “fully unashamed” is hard to come by! It’s a lofty goal that biblical wisdom suggests is possible in a committed covenant. As a newlywed just at the start of this journey, I know with certainty that this desire for intimacy extends far beyond mere physical nakedness. Sex is about being naked and vulnerable with your partner on an emotional level too. The reason why there are so many hurtful experiences (and movies made about this) is that it’s impossible to separate what God intended to be a package deal. But while sex is hard, sex requires a ton of communication, and our starting place for understanding sex is fallen, the beauty is in the process of learning and growing together. My wife and I are learning to love and to be loved in our marriage. We are learning to be totally naked with each other and also to be totally unashamed. It’s a reflection of what any Christian’s journey (for people of all relational statuses) should be towards Christ.
So if you’re a Christian and you have questions about sex but don’t feel like you have a safe place to ask them and be received without judgment, be encouraged to start up a conversation with someone, especially if that someone is someone in your church. Know that there are others just like you. We are all in the same boat, humans created with sexual desire. Jesus took all questions seriously in the bible. Maybe he didn’t say much about sex during his recorded ministry because of the cultural context of his Jewish audience. But I bet Jesus would have a lot to say and teach us about sex in our current cultural context.
It’s a shame that the only airwaves that seem to circulate the Christian world are debates over the theology of sexuality in the church, scandals involving pastors or leaders in the catholic church, or controversy around homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Sex has a huge impact on people’s daily lives as they try to live out a committed relationship that honors each other and honors God. There is a lot of abuse of sex (in the church and outside the church) that can lead to incredible hurt and inability to connect with a partner. For committed Christians in dating relationships within the church, there’s often fear or guilt surrounding physical boundaries and “how far is too far?” In order to encourage our youth and young adults to embrace a godly view of sex and to fight against societal distortions of what sex is for, we should open up more conversation that is grounded more in practical practice than abstract theology.
Let’s constantly remind ourselves that sex is natural, sexual desire is part of God’s intention, and sexual intercourse is part of God’s good design for Creation. However, If the church doesn’t actively normalize the questions, anticipations, and curiosities surrounding sexual relationships, and educate young people in the process of getting ready for sex, that responsibility of education essentially gets ceded over to mainstream culture: that is movies, pop culture, and porn.
There is so much more the church can do to celebrate sexual relationships. Sex should be talked about in the church. We won’t always get it exactly right, but I personally think it’s important to begin starting conversations somewhere.
This piece first appeared on Andrew’s blog, asianamericanchristian.org.