Sexual guilt. If there’s one thing young, evangelical Christians know how to do really well, it’s surely that.
From the first time your Saturday night teenage fumble is followed by an earnest youth group Bible study on “not even a hint”, you become ever so familiar with that sinking feeling in your gut. And next time, it won’t take ’til Sunday morning to feel it.
You learn the reason for the guilt. It’s very simple. You feel guilty, you’re told, not because sex is bad. It’s because sex (and anything that ‘hints’ at it) outside of marriage is bad. It’s a catch-all explanation for the years of guilt and shame that your average evangelical teenager will feel, right the way through to young adulthood.
It’s dangerous. Really dangerous.
The result is this stupidly one-dimensional ethic that divides all sex in to two categories – within marriage, and outside marriage. One good, one bad. One helps intimacy and love, the other creates pain and shame.
Imagine how that belief plays out in real life:
As an evangelical teenager, still working things out, discovering relationships, testing boundaries, making mistakes, you find yourself in a situation which you sense is not quite right. You get caught up in the heat of the moment, and realise you’ve been too pushy, pressuring another person to go further than they were comfortable with. When realising you’ve done something wrong and hurt another person, you feel that familiar guilt.
Instead of associating this with the pressure you inflicted, and learning a valuable lesson about consent, you simply assume the guilt you feel is because you did something sexual before marriage.
The same goes for other poor decision-making, whether messing around with a friend’s ex, or leading someone on in order to boost your own ego, or breaking the trust of a sexual partner. As soon as you realise it was a bad move, and feel a sinking, guilty feeling, you assume you know the reason. Sex outside marriage is bad, so of course you’re going to feel guilty for it.
You never learn to consider what else might have been wrong there.
You never learn that there’s much more to having a good sex life than whether you’ve got a ring on your finger when you do it.
I discovered recently, thanks to a sermon I was expecting to hate but turned out to find really useful, a little phrase I’d overlooked in 1 Thessalonians 4. One of those “avoid sexual immorality” passages. As ever, we’re left to work out what sexual immorality actually means, and marriage, it turns out, isn’t mentioned at all. What it does say is this:
“…in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.”
What if that was the starting point for interpreting sexual guilt? What if immoral sex wasn’t defined by the legal status of your relationship, but by wronging and taking advantage of other people? How much more would evangelical teenagers be thinking about consent, about being considerate to friends, about empathy and kindness?
How many mistakes would I have avoided repeating?
If we teach young people that sexual immorality is simply sex outside of marriage, we leave them totally ill-equipped to negotiate the dilemmas and decisions they’ll need to make with understanding, consideration, and common decency.
Perhaps it’s right that evangelicals should be well aware of our sexual failures and mistakes. Perhaps a bit of guilt is a good reminder to make better choices next time. But if the dividing line between good sex and bad sex is marriage, that guilt is going to be dangerously misinterpreted.