I remember a well-known youth leader and speaker at a big Christian conference I attended as a young person comparing sexual temptation to wanting to eat a ‘big chocolate cake’.
“You go into the kitchen. There’s the cake, oozing chocolatey goodness. You know you aren’t supposed to eat the cake. But it looks so good….what if I just dipped my finger into the icing? No-one would even know, right? What if I just sliced a tiny bit off the back where no-one would see…”
The story ended with the cake gone, your fingers and mouth covered in chocolate and an overwhelming sense of regret and shame.
You can never get that cake back now. It’s gone forever.
You get the picture. It’s the good old slippery slope argument.
Without perhaps fully realising it, this youth leader had bought into the idea of sex – of bodies, especially female ones – as consumable goods. I heard another story in which a white rose was passed around the youth group. As it went from hand to hand, it inevitably got broken. The speaker held it up at the end: ‘who would want this now?’ he asked. The rose had been passed around and lost its value. It was now worthless, crumpled, dirty. The warning was there, I think, probably more for the girls than the boys.
Sex makes you dirty. It makes you unloveable. It makes you unmarriageable. It makes you irredeemable.
Your worth as a woman is tied up in your body. Which should belong to your husband alone.
The assumption at these talks was usually that the young people present had not had any sexual encounters yet, but that as teenagers we lived through countless temptations and sooner or later might succumb to one of them. There was no acknowledgement that some of us might have already been in sexual relationships one way or another, and so for some of us the message that was supposed to say wait ended up saying it’s too late for you now.
The assumption at these talks was also usually that the young people were exclusively heterosexual. There was no acknowledgement that some of us were more interested in the strawberry shortcake on the other side of the room and hadn’t even noticed the chocolate cake. Or would quite like to try both. Or didn’t want to try either. And so for some of us the message that was supposed to say save it until marriage said this message isn’t for you and your relationships.
The assumptions were based on a model of sex and relationships which distinguished between sex that was good and true and intimate and beautiful (in a heterosexual marriage), and sex that was dirty and shameful and motivated by lust (everything else).
As I grew up I found myself increasingly caught in sexual tension. Not the chocolate cake temptation kind, but another kind. I formed a relationship with a woman that was good and true and intimate and beautiful. And I believed that any kind of sex we could have would automatically be dirty and shameful and lustful… because we were both women.
I couldn’t understand my own desire.
Why would I want something that would (I believed) be so harmful to me and to someone I loved?
Why wasn’t what we already had enough?
Why did my heart (yes, my heart!) ache at our saying ‘no’ to each other?
I was – we were – caught up in the middle of sexual tension. In many ways it is the same sexual tension that most Christians live in. It is the tension between “sex isn’t everything” and “sex is wonderful and intimate, an expression of love, a gift from God.” I see it again and again in Christian discussions of sex: we know that it is not the be-all and end-all of a relationship. But we also know that it is important.
Two straight Christians who commit to marry might live in this kind of sexual tension for a while and are seen, rightly, as being ‘in love’. They get married. Sex comes and goes. They grow together in relationship and intimacy. They might have children. They care for their children and each other. They grow old together.
Two gay Christians living in this kind of sexual tension are seen as ‘being tempted’. They go through a punishment (or it feels like it). They are told: get as far away from each other as possible. Get counselling. Confess. Change. Be single for the rest of your life.
My heart dropped out of my chest. Everything we were together was reduced to a simple equation: 1+1 = lust. It’s too late for you now.
As I have grown up, I have found it harder and harder to read desire in the terms I was taught as a young Christian. I meet lots of other people who do still read us and our (ten-year) relationship in this way: we have somehow been duped; what we are feeling is lust, not love. But living in the reality of it feels nothing like I imagined it might. I still remember what I imagined: a dark cloud falling upon us the moment we ‘gave in’ to the temptation; a fog surrounding us blocking God’s presence. Falling into an abyss; being given over to lust. To many, we are wandering in the darkness.
The reality was that the moment we kissed, I felt lighter than the stars.
The moment her hand touched mine, I found my home on the earth.
And when we shed our clothes, we were naked down to our bare souls, alone in the universe.
‘I didn’t think it would be like this’ I said, my dangerous imaginings vanishing into the light.
If I could go back, here is what I’d say to my young self:
You own your own body and its delight.
No-one can steal that away from you.
It’s not too late for you; it’s only just beginning.
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