Since writing my book on purity culture, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and guest posts for other podcasts, websites, and radio stations. For the most part, the reception has been good and I haven’t had many problems. We weren’t really expecting the attention the book has received because it was originally written for a very small audience and as such, specifically geared towards those select people. For this reason, I did not cover many of the things that I may have had I known how things would go (perhaps included more statistics and medical studies), but one thing that a few people have pointed out is that I never explicitly gave instructions for how to recover from purity culture. I give starting points, not a comprehensive guide for getting over sexual and spiritual dysfunctions.
I’ve had several requests for a follow-up book on healthy sexual ethics for Christians and for something geared more towards gaining healthy sexuality and spirituality. While I don’t feel equipped to take on a project like this, at least in book form, I can definitely share things that have helped me. I can’t give any hard and fast advice simply because recovering from indoctrination in purity culture and legalism is extremely complex and requires much more than just the experience of one person to come back from.
Sexual shame is a difficult thing to overcome, but it is a constant for many people who grew up the way I did. It is a shadow that follows us around, an ever-present skeleton in the closet.
Its mere presence in our lives fuel more guilt and shame due to the dysfunction it brings into our marriages and spiritual lives. It makes us feel like failures even when we did our best to follow the rules. The roots of the shame are more complex than just the messages we received that sex was “bad” or “dangerous” because many of us also deal with guilt from sexual assault, rape, or premarital sexual relationships. Many people like me were taught that our worth and identity was tied to our “purity” or virginity, so when we lost it (even if we waited for our wedding night), we also lost ourselves. Quite a few of us felt shame and guilt for participating in sexual intercourse within marriage, all because we were taught it defined who we were. There isn’t a quick and simple solution, though most everything begins with releasing these things to Jesus, which is where I left off in The Scarlet Virgins.
My peers and I have seen the side effects of these teachings, both spiritual and physical things like struggling with our faith, sexual aversion disorder, disassociations, repulsion toward bodily fluids (makes even kissing difficult), erectile dysfunction, sexual addictions, body image issues, etc.
The good news is that, for those of us who deal with shame surrounding sex, we aren’t alone. Jesus understands everything we’ve been through and forgives us when we fall short. He’s also given us each other and our experiences to help one another, so I’ll share mine in hopes that it will help you.
Here are some of the things I have found that can help when you are getting used to sex and intimacy.
#1 Address Misinformation
Think about the things you’ve learned about sex over the years. Things like “women who like sex are sluts,” “women don’t like sex,” or “men always want sex.” Now challenge those assumptions. Ask the men you trust what they really think about some of the things ascribed to them, ask women who are safe to talk to if they feel like they can’t be sexual because it would be abnormal. Confront the narratives you’ve known all your life and test their validity. Many of the common ones that I dealt with are false.
#2 Learn the Basics of Sex
When I was a young, I avoided learning about sex. Not necessarily because I was embarrassed, but because I was terrified. Since sex was “bad”, I didn’t want to poison my mind with knowledge about it. This knowledge included the basic anatomy and physiology of how reproduction works. This became a difficulty for me later on when I didn’t know my own anatomy or how sex and attraction naturally progressed.
Learning how your body is structured and operates isn’t shameful, and I don’t believe it takes any of the mystery away from sex. If anything, I think it makes it more amazing because you realize how intricate God made the human body. It also allows you to understand what is happening to you and to the person you are with, which can make it easier to avoid temptation when you need to.
#3 Seek The Positive
Unfortunately the message that some in the church often teach is all about not having sex, and very little (in my experience) about sex being good within marriage. Hearing this message of sex being dirty or bad over and over can condition us into believing that, even though it isn’t true.
To combat this conditioning, look for positive (and biblical) messages on sex like Song of Solomon to help ease your way into a new mindset surrounding sex. It may seem simple, but sometimes the things that seem like baby steps are some of the most helpful and powerful.
#4 Remove Expectations
Expectations about sex, whether they are from purity culture or secular culture, can really hinder intimacy on the wedding night. This can put additional pressure on newlyweds who were led to believe sex comes easily and naturally (with lots of sparks) on the wedding night. Certainly some people don’t have any problems, but those coming out of legalism and spiritual abuse tend to.
Let go of any expectations of how you think the wedding night should go, including going completing intercourse, climaxing together, and laying in bed to fall asleep afterwards (unless you want a UTI, you should probably go to the bathroom soon after). You both might be clumsy, will likely be nervous, and depending on how your wedding day went, might be more fatigued than you expected by the time you get home. There is nothing written in stone that you must have sex on the wedding night. It is okay to go slow with physical and emotional intimacy and take as long as you need, it doesn’t make you a failure or less masculine or broken. I’ve heard many couples say they wish they would have spent some time naked together and slowed down instead of nervously trying to have sex the second they got home because that was how they thought things worked.
Many of the expectations set by pop culture and even the church reduce sex to the physical or emotional, and while it is both, it is much more than that. It isn’t always easy and it may not always feel like anything beyond the physical, but often times it takes years to get to the point of sex “feeling” the way many people describe. Knowing that it is a learning process and that you don’t have to have it all figured out on a specific timeline is freeing.
#5 Express Yourself
I have always been ashamed to express myself romantically. There is a running joke among my friends from 4-H camp about my utter lack of ability to own how I felt about a guy beyond being frustrated and angry. I never even drew my first name with the last name of the boy I liked on paper like many preteens do. It was too dangerous, especially since I was taught that having a crush meant I had, “given my heart away” and that I had an “emotional STD” because of the attraction I felt. This led me to stifle all of my romantic and sexual energy, which was not only unhealthy, but ended up having emotional and physical consequences. Denial and suppression are powerful and often destructive things.
If you have difficulties owning your own sexual energy because of shame, you aren’t alone. Some of the things that have helped me overcome this in myself have been listening to music, writing poetry, writing fiction, writing nonfiction about what I’ve been through, writing my own songs, and drawing. You don’t have to ever show your creative work to anyone, but it can be very helpful to let the feelings flow onto paper or a canvas.
#6 Get Professional Help
When all else fails, there is no shame in seeking out professional help through a doctor or counselor. Some conditions may require professional help to overcome, like Vaginismus, Erectile Dysfunction, Sexual Aversion Disorder, etc. Sometimes just having a name for the problem you are facing can help bring you healing. Getting help is worth it, for you, for your spouse, and for your relationship together.
#7 Don’t Overcorrect
After growing up in sexual shame, many people end up overcorrecting in doctrine and sexual practices. I cannot count the number of marriage group I’ve been added to that use the phrase “the marriage bed is undefiled” to endorse no boundaries when it comes to sex in marriage. Not just things that could be considered gray areas for some Christians, but things like threesomes, bestiality, pornography use, etc.
The problem with these behaviors is that they are not biblical. We cannot correct unhealthy sexuality by turning to another form of it. This only compounds the issues and makes them harder to unravel and correct. While some issues do need professional help from earthly means, I truly believe that the only way to heal a broken sexuality is to seek the One who created it as whole and perfect. No amount of medication, therapy, or lashing out can fully take the pain and fear, only Jesus can.
Rebecca Lemke grew up in a tiny homeschooling community in the Midwest; the kind where you couldn’t talk about tattoos, spaghetti straps, Christmas trees, or the Easter bunny. Purity was a large focus of her childhood, perhaps even more of a focus than Jesus. She learned firsthand the perils of putting our focus on something other than Christ and now seeks to restore the Truth to the people she loves: Our worth is not in what we have done, but what He has done for us.
She now lives in Oklahoma with her husband and son where they spend their time taking walks, writing, and watching movies. Rebecca blogs at rebeccalemke.com and you can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @newcrunchymom.