Abstinence is Death

In an interview with Christianity Today Christine Gardner talks about the language that Evangelicals use to talk about abstinence. Gardner’s book is entitled, Making Abstinence Sexy–a telling encapsulation of how Evangelical abstinence are striving to affirm the culture’s obsession with sex–and visions of abundant, great sex in particular–while giving it a distinctive, Christian veneer:

They are using the very thing they are prohibiting to admonish young people to wait. They are saying, “If you are abstinent now, you will have amazing sex when you are married.”

Holy non sequitur, Batman!

Gardner thinks that Christianity has something to offer that has been largely missing from these abstinence campaigns:

Language of sacrifice and suffering can be transformative to those who know that sex sells everything from cars to deodorant and, now, abstinence.

I think she’s getting close. Abstaining from sex is suffering, dying to the desires of our bodies. In a world where people are regularly remaining single into their thirties and beyond, it’s death with no this-worldly promise of new life.

Perhaps reframing abstinence as participation in the cross of Christ is better preparation for marriage than the promise of great sex on the other side.

Image: photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

No only is there no correlation between abstinence now and quality of sex then, this framework perpetuates a self-centeredness that can make sex a source of conflict and tension rather than intimate oneness.

Whatever else sex is, it is also an extension of the other dynamics of who we are both as individuals and as couples. If we are insecure and distrustful in our relationship, that will play out in our sex as well. If we are looking to sex simply as the avenue of self-satisfaction, we are going to discover that the presence of another person with their own set of needs and desires is an annoyance and hindrance.

That’s the deeper problem with the “sex will be great if you wait” dynamic that some seem to be advocating in the church world. It buys into the idea that sex is about “me.”

First, whether you’re Christian or not, sex is always going to be about “us.”

But then there’s the more important fact for us as Christians that “love” is not about seeking our own. Our understanding of sex needs to be reframed as an expression of the self-giving love of Christ by which we are called to make God’s love known in the world.

In other words: if we frame abstinence as the death that it is, we are putting our sexuality within the Christian narrative of Christ crucified. This is the same story within which we are called to love our partners Christianly in our sexual relationship.

19 thoughts on “Abstinence is Death”

  1. Of course, we could also simply say that true love is about obeying Christ’s commands rather than our own desires. I guess I don’t understand why one way of looking at this is necessarily superior to another.

  2. I’ve spoken to a lot of college students about this topic and I have also found that you have to put sex in the context of the Biblical and Gospel story and our participation in it. It is the only way it makes sense.

  3. Sex sells abstinence. This is why all the Misdionary kids go ape-crazy in college, and why late 30-” and 40-something Christians hook-up at alarming rates. “true love waits” but what happens when prince charming doesn’t come? “oh well, waited long enough…” not to mention divorced Christians. Abundance, happiness, great marriage, sex… these are not the goal (contrary to most pop-preaching) and when we make them our aim, they, not Jesus, are our gods.

  4. This is really neat. I am generally uncomfortable with the whole abstinence-promoting culture, but in a framework like this I could actually get behind it. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

  5. This was so refreshing to read! Thank you. I agree wholeheartedly. So much abstinence talk in the church seems to reflect a desire to play the same game as culture at large, but with a weird handicap. I think to a degree we really are supposed to be playing a different kind of game entirely, and by placing “us” before “me” and recentering our obedience on Christ (rather than the false promise of a big, belated sexual payoff), we’re on our way to recapturing a distinctly Christian sexual ethic. What better place from which to be salt/light! Thanks again for your post.

  6. There is a good deal of irony in much of our teaching of abstinence. For instance, I find the whole emphasis on “purity” problematic. First of all, who feels pure about their sexuality? We all carry some guilt and shame around the matter. Guilt and shame can keep you from lustful pursuit–for a while. But, in the end, shame is likely to drive us toward our addictions rather than away. Second, “purity” language treats everyone as a possible impurity. It pits you against everyone else. It isolates. Lust preys upon the isolated. Why not instead talk about “wholeness”? The best way to curtail lust is to have a range of healthy, supportive, non-sexual relationships.

    1. First of all, who feels pure about their sexuality? We all carry some guilt and shame around the matter.

      Um, actually– I don’t feel any guilt or shame at all about sex– about what I do or about what I feel. While I have a clear set of moral rules about sex (NEVER have sex with anyone without their enthusiastic consent, never lie about sex or go behind someone’s back, always take precautions to prevent diseases or unwanted pregnancy, etc, etc, etc…), none of them are all that difficult to follow, so they don’t lead to feeling bad about myself. I’d feel terrible if I ever broke any of them, but I never have and don’t expect I ever will.

      Abstinence, on the other hand, strikes me as really hard to follow. I think you’re on the right track with talking about wholeness, but it’s going to be really, really hard to try to do something so difficult and not feel bad about yourself when you want to slip.

      Then again, I’m not a Christian, so I’m probably missing out on the ways that sacrifice of personal enjoyment in honor and obedience to Christ can be differently fulfilling. I’m sure there’s a lot of good to be had there. I was just struck by what you said, and wanted to point out that shame/guilt aren’t inevitably linked to sex. That link only happens if you’re taught that sex is bad (unless it’s purified), rather than that sex is a neutral thing (which has mostly good results but can do harm in certain contexts).

      1. Tanks for these reflections. You’ve given some important points to consider–including not underestimating how much our own narratives of what sex “should” be contribute to our experiences of guilt and or shame when it plays out differently.

  7. The extreme emphasis on virginity in evangelical circles is problematic. It encourages a mindset where premarital sex the first time is horrifyingly bad, but afterwards it’s not that big a deal. So if you’re not a virgin, what you do only matters a little bit. Especially if losing your virginity is fun, rather than traumatizing as the abstinence programs said it would be! Lauren Winner wisely doesn’t say much about virginity in her “Real Sex” (maybe the only good popular-level evangelical book on the subject). If the early church had this kind of mentality, I doubt many gentile converts would have bothered with sexual morality.

    And I say this as a rare 25-year old male virgin who will probably remain that way until marriage, though not without my own sexual sin in the past. As you mentioned, sexual ethics need to be put in the context of discipleship in general. I know full well how difficult the historic Christian teaching is, especially since I have no immediate prospects for getting married. I like to think I’d be a pretty good catch, but I’m very bad at charming women and at dating.

    Part of me would like to be convinced by the liberal arguments for why we don’t need to follow traditional Christian teachings on the subject and how loosening up on sexual ethics is actually more faithful to the broader principles of the Bible. But I’m not, even though I am relatively liberal on some things.

    And I say this as a rare 25-year old male virgin who will probably remain that way until marriage, though not without my own sexual sin in the past. As you mentioned, sexual ethics need to be put in the context of discipleship in general. I know full well how difficult the historic Christian teaching is, especially since I have no immediate prospects for getting married. I like to think I’d be a pretty good catch, but I’m very bad at charming women and at dating.

    Part of me would like to be convinced by the liberal arguments for why we don’t need to follow traditional Christian teachings on the subject and how loosening up on sexual ethics is actually more faithful to the broader principles of the Bible. But I’m not, even though I am relatively liberal on some things.

  8. JRDK,
    I’m with you on this. My marriage is much more about participation in the cross of Christ than I really understood when I was younger. The idea of “just wait it out and then you will be satisfied” misses the point that we are called to carry our cross each day and in every aspect of life. The more you practice it, the better equipped you will be to do it.

  9. My problem with the whole abstinence promotion in the church recently is that the idea of purity tends to focus primarily on young girls. I understand that alot of the push for abstinence comes out as a reaction to the hypersexualization of younger and yonger girls in the media, but if you focus so much on sex and virginity and its still sexualizing the girl. Its not focusing on her character or her ethics or personality it focuses solely on sexuality and recasts it as “purity.” Nearly every girls event I went to while at church was just focused on how sex is dangerous, how all men want to do is use me, and very much so focused on our relationships with boys rather than our spiritual or personal growth. It was never as explicitly stated as I described above but it was the message I was left with and has stuck with me.

  10. I too have a lot of problems with the way abstinence is presented. I speak from personal experience. I am almost 60 years old and never married, and yes, I am still a virgin. There’s a lot of married people in the church who think that is rather precious, as if I were their pet virgin. I am not and I do not like to be patronized in such manner.

    I think that there is a lot of myth and propaganda embedded in the abstinence message. I can truly say that I have probably lived the abstinence lifestyle for longer than some of its proponents have been married. I think several decades of semi-voluntary chastity, of sleeping alone, of just plain LONELINESS gives me the right to speak out on this subject,

    I would like to see some honest statistics regarding the number of women like myself who fell for the abstinence fable and are still waiting for marriage in their 40′s, 50′s, and 60′s, as compared to women who did not wait until marriage and are still involuntarily single. No one wants to talk about what happens when waiting means never.

    By focusing on young women, the abstinence movement may be setting them up for a lifetime of disappointment. I don’t think it is any secret that by and large, single men are not buying into the wait until marriage bit, and they are also not coming to church in any great number. The abstinence movement ignores these two facts and tells young women they can have their cake and eat it too. They can abstain from sex and still hope to have a normal dating life. Let me tell you, it does not always work that way.

    The fact is, if you choose to practice abstinence–and there are good reasons to do so–it takes as much discipline as becoming a vegan and it will affect your life just as much. It will affect who you socialize with and where you socialize. Try being the only vegan in a group of carnivores and you will see what I mean.

    My advice to young women who believe in the abstinence myth is two-fold. One, if marriage is really your goal, don’t just sit back and wait for it to happen. If waiting for marriage is what you want, you ideally need to be married BEFORE you hit your mid-twenties and definitely by the time you are thirty. By the time you hit my age, if you have never married, you have only a 1% chance of making it to the altar under the best of circumstances. That leads me to my second point. You had better have some kind of skills that will enable you to earn a living and support yourself alone in case marriage doesn’t happen on your timetable.

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