Hooking Up vs. Holding Out:
Helping Youth Find a Healthy Sexual Balance
Convincing young people to save sex until marriage is only half the battle. We must also help them prepare for a healthy sex life within marriage.
By Shannon Ethridge
I will never forget the day one of my childhood friends received a swing set for her birthday. Why? Because the scar on my forehead will not let me forget.
The contraption had typical swings, a slide, and a U-shaped bar for twirling around. But it also had something I had never seen on a swing set. The shape of a cage it had benches facing each other, allowing two people to pendulum swing at the same time. Two attendees climbed onto the benches, and I pushed them, hoping I could have the next turn. As I pushed, the girls squealed, “Higher.” So I pushed the way I pushed someone on a typical one-person swing — putting my hands on their back and plowing forward until I ran under the swing to the other side. I pushed high in the air.
I then realized the weight of the second person prevented me from pushing the swing high enough to have clearance, but my body movements were already committed. I was caught in the backlash of the pendulum swing when the foot rest caught my forehead and dragged me down to the ground, flat on my back.1
Many young people in churches find themselves in a similar dynamic. They assume they are strong enough to fight against their own flesh, so they push the envelope — watching whatever movies they want ... listening to whatever music they want ... dressing as provocatively as they want ... spending as much time alone with the opposite sex as they want. Only then do many discover that their sexual resolve is not nearly as strong as they originally thought. Rather than saving sex for that special someone, they begin letting life (and all of the sexual temptations that come with it) drag them down. They start hooking up instead of holding out. Why bother resisting once you have lost your virginity? they reason. I know this mindset all too well.
When the Pendulum Swings to the Left
If anyone had asked me in sixth grade if I wanted to remain a virgin until marriage, I would have said, “Of course I do.”
In the seventh grade, I would have said, “I think so.”
By eighth grade, I would have replied, “Maybe.”
As a freshman, my response would have been, “I don’t see how that is possible.” Indeed, my innocence became just a memory that first year of high school. I was date-raped by a guy I was not even officially dating — an 18-year-old boy with whom I had been flirting for attention. I never told anyone for fear they would blame me, or at the very least label me with one of those names that echo in a girl’s ears. You know ...slut, whore, tramp. Because I kept this secret, I had no one to help me heal from this traumatic experience.
A few months later my parents allowed me to date (too prematurely, but they only discovered this in hindsight). Because I believed someone had already stolen my virginity, I had no reason to withhold my body from most of the men I dated. Sex became routine in my relationships — the price I felt I must pay for the attention and affection I craved.
I appeared to most in my world as the Christian girl who had it all together. I attended Sunday School and church regularly. I was the president of my youth group. I would attend Christian concerts and yell, “Praise God! Praise God!” But I would often have sex with my date in the backseat of the car on the way home, oblivious to the hypocritical life I was living. At 19, after 4 years of reckless dating, I was shocked to realize how my sexual scorecard had grown. I lost count during those years of looking for love. (See sidebar, “Forbidden Fruit vs. Not-So-Guilty Pleasures.”)
God got my attention and drew me back to a sexually moral lifestyle in my early 20s. I was enrolled in mortuary college and working at a funeral home in Dallas, Texas. I expected to be embalming people who were in their twilight years and had died of natural causes. But I was shocked at how often I was embalming people in their 20s and 30s, who died of AIDS or committed suicide once they discovered their HIV positive status. I was not HIV positive after 4 years of sleeping around, but truly grateful for the wake-up call. I met a 26-year-old virgin, who was willing to look beyond my past, and married him 1 year later. It took several years to sort out my sexual baggage and find forgiveness, but I am thankful to say we just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary, along with 15 years of ministry to young people about healthy sexuality.
Many friends who walked similar paths in the 1980s were not so lucky. At my 20-year reunion, I was saddened to see how many marriages had crumbled since college, many due to sexual incompatibility, extramarital affairs, pornography addictions, etc.
I think back to what our spiritual leaders (pastors, youth directors, parents) could have done differently to guide us through those tumultuous teenage years. Sadly, I never remember a single Sunday School lesson, youth group event, or sermon focused on sexual purity. An unspoken “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rule loomed large: Don’t embarrass us by asking questions about sex, and we won’t embarrass you by trying to bring it up. Maybe adults thought that silence about such a taboo topic would keep us innocent, but there is a difference between innocence and ignorance. Hosea 4:6 says, “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.”
Although I believe wholeheartedly in the inerrancy of Scripture, I must say I am often tempted to interject a parenthetical phrase into Hosea 4:6. Its meaning would be clearer if we said, “It’s a lack of [the right kind of] knowledge that causes people to perish.” I will explain by shifting our focus to the opposite extreme — examining the other end of our pendulum swing analogy.
When the Pendulum Swings to the Right
Terra was raised in a home and attended church where sex was talked about — often. Leaders often quoted Scriptures about sexual immorality and she memorized these verses. Statistics regarding sexually transmitted diseases and premarital pregnancy rates were discussed at the dinner table. Any sexual insinuation or innuendo on television resulted in the remote control getting pressed in record time. Parents purchased purity rings for every child’s 13th birthday. Terra wore hers proudly for 9 years, until she married at the age of 22. As she shopped for wedding gowns for her special day, nothing but a bright white dress would do to symbolize her pristine purity. It seemed the recipe for the perfect marriage — two virgins walking the aisle, dragging absolutely no sexual baggage behind them whatsoever.
Although the wedding day was a success, the wedding night was deemed a disaster. Terra confessed, “Before I came out of the hotel bathroom, I was crying over the thought of relinquishing my role as a virgin. It had become such a source of my identity, I wasn’t sure who I would be if I was no longer a virgin.”
Terra’s husband, Trent, was patient. No pressure. They had the rest of their lives, right? He finally got to make love to his wife on the fourth night of their honeymoon, but Terra found it painful and “slightly disgusting,” in her opinion. In the coming months, she tried to open herself up to the possibility that married sex was a blessing, but admitted that it felt more like a burden, stealing the wind completely from Trent’s sexual sails. After less than 2 years of marriage, Trent decided to jump ship. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to twist my wife’s arm to let me have sex with her,” he insisted.
Perhaps you think Terra’s situation is an extreme case. Think again. I am hearing this sentiment several times each month from life-coaching clients or through e-mails such as Lori’s, who said: “I have been married for 9 l-o-n-g months. Growing up, pastors preached sexual abstinence constantly. Not only was I taught that sex before marriage was bad; I was never taught that sex within marriage was good. So I have pretty much always thought of sex as a terrible thing that should never be done, least of all enjoyed, and that the only reason you should ever need to have sex is to get pregnant.
“So, as you can probably gather, I hate sex. I’ve never enjoyed it and never want to have it. Perhaps it is something subconscious because I cannot seem to get rid of all of these negative thoughts about sex implanted in the back of my mind.
“I do not know what to do. It is destroying my marriage. I have tried to enjoy sex for his sake, but the whole time I cannot wait for it to be over so I can be left alone. I do not even enjoy kissing or cuddling with my husband anymore, because I always think he will try to push me to go further, and I do not want to. I do not even like sleeping in the same bed with him for fear that he will try to initiate sex.
“I am at the end of my rope. I feel like I do not even want to be married. I want to be alone. I want to have my space, where no one expects or wants sex from me, and where I can sleep by myself.”
Yet another couple divorced after only 7 months of marriage for this very reason. She simply could not relax and enjoy something that she had been told over and over was “dirty ... wrong ... despicable,” and he was not willing to spend a lifetime just holding her hand.
Perhaps you think this dynamic is unique to women. Think again. Megan explained, “I always thought men wanted sex any time they could get it, but not my husband. Brad says he is not that interested, and sees no point in wasting our time when we could be doing other, more productive things. How is this supposed to make me feel? And what am I supposed to do with my sexual needs? Just because he is not interested does not mean I can turn myself completely off.”
As an abstinence educator and author of several books, including Every Young Woman’s Battle, I am all about equipping junior high, high school, college age, and single adults to embrace a lifestyle of sexual integrity. However, something has gone awry with the whole “sexual purity … true love waits … purity ring thing” when the pendulum swings so far to the right that there is no balance in a married couple’s sex life.
Sadly, I often discover a significant common thread running through my relationship coaching clients who wind up on either side of this pendulum swing — both those who hooked up and those who held out prior to marriage. The common thread? They received little-to-no premarital counseling. “We don’t need it; we’re fine,” most couples reason. Brains scrambled, hearts ablaze, most engaged couples are absolutely intoxicated by the high of romantic love. And they have no idea what kind of hangover awaits once that high wears off. (See sidebar “Questions To Explore in Premarital Counseling.”)
Convincing young people to save sex until marriage is only half the battle. We must also help them prepare for a healthy sex life within marriage, just as God intends. How? By not being afraid to talk about sex as a pure and holy gift from God to be celebrated and savored in the marriage bed. (No, such talk will not set their loins ablaze with lust, but rather provide encouragement that marital sex is so good that it’s worth the wait.)
On the other end of the purity spectrum, it is — according to which study you read — sadly estimated that 80–95 percent of young people eventually walk down the aisle on their wedding day as nonvirgins.2 Therefore, we cannot overlook the need to minister to the sexually broken prior to marriage either, making sure they have experienced deep healing and genuine transformation rather than expecting the wedding band to cure them of all their sexual issues. (See sidebar “Drawing Boundary Lines.”)
Striking a Healthy Balance
The purpose of marriage is to reflect to the world Christ’s unwavering commitment to His Bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:22–33). Therefore we want to encourage both men and women to reflect that level of commitment to marriage, and to the intimate relationship that comes along with it.
We do not want to adhere to the traditional silence within the church that has shrouded all things sexual, fostering ignorance through religious taboos and naively labeling it as innocence. That is too often a recipe for sexual liberalism, as young people are left to construct a sexual code of conduct that will most likely not prove to live up to God’s standard of sexual purity.
Nor do we want to promote sexual legalism by elevating the concept of sexual purity to the point that “no longer being a virgin” distorts a married person’s self-image and robs him or her of his or her sexual and spiritual confidence. A Christ-reflecting marriage leaves no room for feelings of guilt and shame over our identity as sexual human beings, created in the image of God to fully experience the pleasure of intimate communion with one another.
Ecclesiastes 7:18 advises, “The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.” So let us avoid a sexual pendulum swing that sways too far to the left or to the right. Let us teach young people to strike a healthy balance — by embracing a lifestyle of sexual integrity prior to marriage, as well as a lifestyle of healthy sexual intimacy within marriage.
Questions for Self-reflection or Group Discussion:
1. As a youth leader, do I balance my discussions with teenagers to include not just all the bad things about premarital sex, but also some of the great things about sex within marriage? How might I avoid both extremes (sexual legalism and liberalism) and create a balanced, healthy understanding of God’s design for our sexuality?
2. As a pastor performing premarital counseling, do I invest enough time preparing both the husband-to-be and the wife-to-be to eventually embrace, celebrate, and enjoy an active sex life in marriage without guilt, shame, or inhibition? Or do I feel I must hold back in this area for fear of awakening their premarital sexual desires?
1. This illustration originally appeared in my book Every Woman’s Marriage, WaterBrook Press, 2006.
2. Among those reviewed:
http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2006-12-19-premarital-sex_x.htm. Accessed 10/5/2010.
http://www.beforemarriage.org/premarital-sex.php. Accessed 10/5/2010.