Feb 22, 2011

Love, Sex, Marriage. All or none of the above

I just spent a lovely Valentine's Day with my husband. It was our sixth Valentine's Day together. We met in January of 2006 and were married that August. (Hey, when you've spent your entire adult life unmarried, you don't waste time dating Mr. Wrong or letting Mr. Right get away.) It's been a terrific four and a half years. We'd each spent years in counseling before we met, so I like to say that Larry came “plug-and-play.” We get along well and enjoy each other immensely. Nevertheless, we've had lots to unlearn, like selfish behaviors, weird habits, and how to enjoy the perks of marriage we'd survived without. The Nike slogan, “Just Do It,” goes a long way.

A year ago I sat down for an hour-long interview with Craig Spinks of “Recycle Your Faith.” We talked about a lot of issues, including sexuality. Craig posted a portion on Valentine's Day and titled it, “Christian Sexuality: Shut Down.” Ouch.

I grew up in a nice, polite Lutheran church that didn't discuss sex. As a single adult in a hip groovy nondenominational church, I was taught I needed to find my identity and contentment in the Lord first. Only then would He bring the right person my way. Aren't you glad this idea wasn't taught during the Black Plague? The human race would have died out. The only real directive I got was like Nancy Regan's anti-drug campaign: “just Say No.” But as Reverend Jesse Jackson famously remarked, kids also need something to say “yes” to. Christian singles need something more than 'Just Don't Do It.'

Not long ago, Jonathan Acuff, author of Stuff Christians Like, blogged that Christians have ruined sex.  (I'd inject that Satan has done the lion's share of ruination). Acuff cites four ways he believes Christians ruin sex.
1. Sometimes we teach guilt, not abstinence.
2. We have few ways to discuss it.
3. We write 10 books about lust for every one about the gift of sex.
4. We are afraid to be creative in sex

Are you uncomfortable yet? Good, I'm not alone. This isn't an easy topic to discuss. In Point 1 Acuff points out how we grow up hearing how destructive sex is outside of marriage (and boy, is it), but then don't know what to on the wedding night. “You're supposed to magically, instantly shed all your guilt and fear about sex. We're taught guilt for years and then left on the doorsteps of our marriages to figure it all out by ourselves.” That brings him to points 2, 3, and 4. It leaves one the impression that the world is having all the fun and we're left with bland, boring procreation tools.

But what has secular society have to offer? We live in a dysfunctional age, in which we are biologically ready to procreate at age 15, but the culture wants to postpone adulthood until we're nearly ready for the rest home. You know this is true if you've watched Seinfeld, Friends, or seen any of Judd Apatow's movies.

This week author Kay Hymowitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal, Where Have All The Good Men Gone? It's excerpted from her book, Manning Up. “Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This 'pre-adulthood' has much to recommend it. But it's time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn't bring out the best in men.”

Well it certainly doesn't encourage the character Christians want to teach the next generation. Why grow up, the article asks, when young men have a Play Station, sports bars, and “lad magazines like Maxim, which makes Playboy look like Camus?”

Man, am I glad I got out of the dating circuit. Back in 2005 my roommate and I held a series of dinner parties for the singles we knew, in hopes that some might pair off and end up walking down the aisle. Over and over I observed a series of men, unable to make a move to ask a woman out. As frustrating as it was, I can't put all the blame on the guys. If it's true that men reach their sexual peak in their teens (and women in their thirties, oh the irony!), perhaps the motivation to get hitched is dead by forty. I also think that Christian men, in an effort to not do the wrong thing, do nothing at all. The church teaches them to be nice and tame. I also know that many men become addicted to pornography. And as the pool of remaining women shrinks, and those remaining become more desperate and shrill (I was guilty!) is it any wonder a man would be tempted to turn to pornography over a scary spinster?

This brings me to the article the Huffington Post ran on Valentine's Day: Why You're Not Married, by Tracy Macmillan, a TV writer with credits on Mad Men and The United States of Tara. Macmillan writes to secular women, giving six brutally funny reasons that are impossible to dismiss. I know, I was guilty of most of them!

1. You're a bitch. Meaning, you're angry. It scares men off.
Don't rant about politics. Least of all don't rant about men not being men

2. You're shallow. Ladies, are you looking for someone who loves Jesus, and has a six pack? Listen to the writer on Mad Men. “The only thing that really matters is character.” When I met Larry he wore his hair long. He thought it made him look young and artsy; I thought it made him look old and white trash truckery. He eventually cut it praise God. But I'll tell you, one day he looks like a frog and another day he looks like a prince, and it has less to do with Larry's grooming than with my mood.

One last look, and then say goodbye to the John Hamm poster hanging on the wall of your emotional boudoir. If it helps, tell yourself he's got lousy character.

3. “You're a slut. Macmillan mentions the hormone Oxytocin that is released when a woman gives birth or has the big O. It bonds a mammal to its partner or child. Here is a worldly, secular writer telling us we can't have casual sex because it effs us up. "Sex And the City" is a crock. Science is catching up to the Ten Commandments. Now we know.

4. You're a Liar. Macmillan refers to the woman who's afraid to tell the guy she's ready for marriage, because it might scare him off. I was guilty of this. I hung out with a Christian guys who I thought would come to love me eventually, or secular guys I told myself would come to love Jesus eventually.  Of the first type: ladies, the eighth time he gives you a foot massage, ask him if he's interested romantically. Just think of it as fact-finding. If he says no, you say, Check, please. If he says he doesn't know, you say, Call me when you do, check please. He's not going to 'grow to love you' at some later date because you've managed to convince him. Guys decide early. Guys who can't decide are incapable of dating, or at least, of dating you. If he wants that kind of contact with a woman, he can go to massage school or hire a therapist. Forget missionary dating and Christian babysitting. They turn you into liars; and the worst is, you lie to yourself.

5. You are selfish. Macmillan says we spend too much time thinking about our thighs, our clothes, our wrinkles. This is the female counterpart to men and their Playstation. Go volunteer at the library and teach someone how to read. Go sit in on the nursery or the junior high youth group. Because ladies, your cat hasn't told you you're moody. Your husband will, either by saying it or withdrawing from you.

6. You're Not Good Enough. And by that, she means you don't think you're good enough, which is why you're looking for some guy better than you are: to make you feel better about yourself. Don't look for someone to make you feel better. Look for a person of character. Because looks and money won't cut it.

So that was the cluster of info for Valentine's Week. What do you think? Does the church need to talk about sex? Is it the church's responsibility? How much have your expectations been shaped by secular culture? Are you ready to write a book about hot Christian sex? Good, because I'm not going there.


Claudia said...

GREAT post.

And, ummmm, in answer to your last question - I have a few. 'Is That All He Thinks About', by Marla Taviano is very good - although more about attitude than, errrrr, practical issues. If you get my drift. But I sort of feel the need to hide it on my shelf. You know, in case my pastor comes over. Stupid, right?
Thanks for talking about it :)

diane said...

Oh I like this a lot!
You know what I like best? I like that you didn't write "7 Things you can do to be married in One Year" because that would make me scream. Instead, this is about looking for someone with character while also improving my own character.

Miss you!

Anonymous said...

I like this, Susan.

I was 29 an unmarried and was made to feel like a loser who was never going to get married. I cannot imagine how much worse it is for women, and especially for women over 29.

James W

Tony Timbol said...

As a Christ following father with two adult daughters who love God and want to get married, I have bemoaned the fact of so many "adolescent men" aging but never growing up both inside the church and out. A very poor pool to draw from.

Yes, the secular culture pushes a do-it, feel-it theology. But just as bad, if not worse, is a lack of celebration of the creation design of sex and poor practical teaching on the subject for singles and marrieds as outlined in this great article. Men should be taught to love their unmarried sisters within proper boundaries so at least they can feel someone gives a damn and for even a few minutes lift the burden of unfulfilled longing. The reverse is true for men as well but then again, we have playstation :). Seriously, there are always risks of emotional and physical involvement, but then where does walking by faith come in? And if christian singles cross some boundaries, what, pick up stones! Or does walking by faith only apply to everything EXCEPT SEX! Sorry, didn't mean to yell. I could have used healthier single relationships in my twenties with caring sisters and brothers that included talking about sex (which we never did). Might have made me less of a selfish SOB the first 17 years into my marriage which with God's help has survived to 27.

Thank you Susan and keep writing!

theresa said...

Hmmm...the "you're a bitch" and "you're a liar" really resonated with me. I am 40 and technically single- although I just recently started dating someone.

I wasn't raised in the church, so it's hard for me to say what the church needs to do in regards to sexuality. I always thought it was the parents that needed to do this. You know how they say "it shouldn't be taught in schools, it's the parent's responsibility." However, lots of parents fail at this -so perhaps role models in the church that come along side and disciple younger believers? It's all about relationship I think.

Simone Says... said...

being raised catholic i pretty much reserved my table in hell by the time i was 14 years old. today i'm different. for me a good christian man only needs that light in his eyes. the six pack is akin to a bonus track.

Anonymous said...

I have so many thoughts about singleness and the church- I don't even know where to begin.

The funny thing is- I was just thinking about this today. I'm a single, smart, christian young woman in her twenties and I don't know how to meet men. I don't know where to find them! I consider skipping around to all the churches in town but that just makes me feel insincere over my reasons for being there.

I was raised in a christian home, went to a christian school for a while, was homeschooled and finally went to a christian college. All that christian education and no direction on how to start and maintain a relationship with a man.

I was fed that baloney about 'kissing dating goodbye' as a teenager which made me kind of scared of the opposite sex. So I think that was a church fail for me.

I don't know what needs to change about the church in this area but I definitely think it needs to happen. Hopefully before I'm 50 years old!

PS: Your book helped get me through a terrible heartbreak last year. Thank you so much!

Susan Isaacs said...

Silver-Autumn. I'm glad the book helped you. It means a lot to know that! Yeah I think when our parents do so much to protect us from pain, they also protect us from life and experience. I think it's a great idea to go check out other churches. Why isn't meeting the right person a priority? Go for it. It's kind of like auditioning, I had to do a lot of them before I booked a job. There's no harm in going out there to practice. I heard a relationship expert say, "men really do want to be your hero. Give them a chance." I heard it at the right time.

David K Wheeler said...

When I read about the "adolescent male problem" as the reason for "plague of singleness" in the church, I have to wonder. My experience tells me women are just as blocked as men, caught up in adolescent fantasy of JTT knocking on their door as much as our interests are distract, well, elsewhere. I have two points with this:

1. If marriage and a serious partner is your priority, don't hesitate. Stop complaining, and get ready to get messy. I like Tony's perspective on grace in the midst of the journey.

2. Let's stop hating on singleness. Single men, single women, let's quit languishing our relationship status and do something constructive. Susan, glad you pointed out things like volunteering, things that make us better people all around. No point in moping. What's attractive is people engaged with themselves and their communities. If marriage is your endgame, you're better off participating in something bigger than yourself while you're still single. But there's no benefit in besmirching the single person, because, I promise, some people are better off celibate--even if there are dreamboats among them.

The short of it: Hell yeah, the church's got to talk sex; and, this time, let's have a safe, honest conversation.

Thanks for posting, Susan. Thanks for being rad.

Susan Isaacs said...

Dave: absolutely true. Which is what I loved about Macmillan's post on HuffPo: reminding women how our crap gets in the way. Both sexes need to do things differently. Thanks for your perspective, Dave!

Anonymous said...

Susan - THANK YOU once again for speaking so honestly and forthrightly. It's a breath of fresh air between the two ridiculous extremes of our culture.

The world tells us to just "do it" with anything that moves. Those of us who choose not to follow that philosophy have the church telling us, "Just don't do anything at all! Your natural hormones are bad! Never even think about someone of the opposite sex!" This message is delivered to us by pastors who got married young, have been happily married for years, and have NO IDEA what they're asking young single people to go through.

I feel sorry for the women who can't find a decent man to date in church. I admit, I'm still struggling to come out of the "eternal adolescence" phase myself. It's hard because there's no guideposts in our culture for doing that. Our fathers just *were* men; today's culture rewards us for remaining boys. Is it any wonder that so many young women pine after men twice their age?

I wrote an article on my own frustrations with the conflicting messages for young single men in the church, and how I'm finally learning to cope. It's on pg. 8 of this online magazine. I would be honored if you would read it and give your opinion on it! (It opens as a PDF file - let me know if you have trouble viewing it.)


Sloane said...

Ah, the Christian foot-massager. I had one of those (well, not literally a foot-massager but an ambiguous non-dater) and I still wonder what his deal was. I think it's cultural - Christian cultural and US cultural. I like a guy who knows how to ask a girl out, which probably helps explain how I ended up in Mexico, marrying a Mexican.

Ed Blonski said...

I'm a preacher who recently preached on the 6th Commandment (You Shall Not Commit Adultery). My point was that parents need to have the on-going conversation about God's good gift of sex and sexual purity with their kids (remembering to be age appropriate).

The Church needs to encourage parents to do this, help them with Bible-based resources, and prayer. Not do it for them but walk along side them as they talk with their kids.

I've been married for nearly 20 years (this August) and we have three sons. Oldest is 14 and I started having the "sex talk" with him when he started 7th grade. My resource was "Preparing Your Son for Every Man's Battle." We were able to have a frank and open discussion about God's good gift of sex and how God wants us to enjoy the gift.

The "sex talk" sounds scary, but I found that it really wasn't. I think that I was greatly helped by the fact that my son and I have a great relationship. He trusts me. I tell him I love him at least once a day. He knows that what I say to him comes from that love.

theresa said...

Susan wrote:

"Yeah I think when our parents do so much to protect us from pain, they also protect us from life and experience."
Bingo. I wasn't raised in the church and became a Christian at 18. I noticed these overly sheltered "church Christians" at youth group that were late on learning life's lessons. I told some of their parents "you are trying to protect them from the very thing they need to learn from".

Some of them did not appreciate that and thought i wasn't perhaps the best influence on their teenagers. But when some of those kids made some tragic life choices later on in life, i was not surprised.

Christian Parents: CHILLAX and let your kids bump their heads a little!

Jim Kelley said...

Susan, thanks for your candid video; it helps capture your affect/passion. I loved the anorexia bit because it reminded me of the ways I stifle my own passions to point of becoming numb. Still not sure life as a monk is all bad, but am glad you have Larry. Blessings on your home.

The Way We Are said...

I love this! Thanks for saying it as it is.

wondering04 said...

LOL, I married young, left husband and divorced right before my final marriage - now 24 years long, I had stopped looking for a husband and met my current one in the most UNROMANTIC way possible - he helped me clean out a clogged toilet on a boat in the Boat Basin of NYC. With that kind of a beginning, everything else was up.

I am writing to say I just finished your book Angry Conversations with God, and was touched - I had my own angry conversations and could relate to many of yours. You end by talking about God's bar-b-que, or music minister often says we offer ourselves up on the altar of the Lord and when the fire gets hot we jump off and don't give a complete sacrifice. What God wants is to say "Well done....good and faithful servant." I am praying that I stay on the altar of sacrifice until I'm well done, not raw and half baked.

GLad to know that you have Larry!

God bless you, Heather

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