Sex and the Single Christian

Moving From Don't to Do

by Rick Stedman

Let me start with a game like the TV game show Jeopardy! I list the answers and you supply the questions. The category is Singles and Sex.

  • He wrote, “The more women with whom a man has intercourse, the greater will be the benefit he derives from the act.”
  • He wrote, “If in one night [a man] can have intercourse with more than 10 women, it is best.”

I will give you a clue — the answer is the same for both questions. Some singles have guessed: “Who is Hugh Hefner?” “Who is Tiger Woods?” and “Who is Wilt Chamberlain?”

Sorry, all are wrong. The right response is: “Who was Lao-tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher and author of the Tao?”

Those two quotes are from Tao-Te-Ching — the bible of Taoism — the predominant religion of modern China and Taiwan. Although these statements sound contemporary, they are more than 2,300 years old.

Lao-tzu considered sex an important part of the healthy life; he considered anyone who avoided sex as unhealthy. The ancient Hebrews held a similar attitude. The Mishnah recommended the frequency of sex for a healthy marriage: “Twice a week for laborers, once a week for donkey drivers, and every day for the unemployed.” (Maybe this helped them deal with recessions better than we do.) Clearly, they believed an active sex life was the healthy way to live, and abstinence was considered unhealthy and unnatural. This almost forced singles in ancient Israel to marry. Some rabbis taught that to be over 25 years of age and still single was a sin against God.

How modern this sounds. Today’s contemporary culture sees an active sex life as the norm and considers celibacy abnormal. This puts tremendous pressure on singles to either get married, cohabitate, or be sexually active. Many singles are embarrassed to admit they are virgins.

Movies, talk shows, magazines, and books all portray sex as normal and virginity as weird for singles. A few years ago a friend wrote Oprah Winfrey to counter Oprah’s implication that all singles were sexually active. Oprah thought my friend was so unique she invited her to be a guest on her show. Oprah could not believe virginity was anything to be proud of, or there was a positive side to celibacy.

To make matters even more confusing, many church leaders are telling single adults that sex before marriage is okay. The results of a questionnaire distributed in 1989 to national leaders of several denominations showed that only 40 percent of denominational leaders believed it was wrong for a man and woman to have sexual relations before marriage. This shows there is wide diversity among church leaders as to whether sexual activity before marriage is wrong or not. No wonder many Christian single adults feel frustrated and confused about sexual issues.1

As a result, both in the secular world and in Christian circles, people view single sexuality from an almost completely negative perspective. The world tells singles that abstinence is bad; and, the church tells singles the reasons why sex before marriage is wrong, how it is harmful, and how God has said no.

The Bible clearly teaches that sexual intercourse outside marriage is wrong (Exodus 20:14; Romans 1:21–27; Ephesians 5:3). But single adults need more than negativism — they need to know the positive side of single sexuality and abstinence, the positive things God wants them to work on and do during this stage of life. We need to change the way we look at sexuality — we need a complete paradigm shift to a positive view of single sexuality.2

Singles Need To Hear More Than Don’t

In working with single adults, I find they need to hear more than just the negative side. They want to hear why God gives certain guidelines and why sexual activity outside of marriage is harmful. They long to hear what they could concentrate on in a positive way.

In fact, everyone needs to know there is a positive side to each of God’s instructions. God is not only all-wise and all-powerful; He is also loving. And, like a loving parent, He instructs His children in ways designed to benefit us.

God does not give rules without reasons. For instance, the dietary laws He gave the Israelites in the Old Testament were for their benefit. Nutritionists today are seeing the value and reasonableness in those instructions (see Leviticus 11, for example). Another example is the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). These are not arbitrary rules; they are still sociologically valuable today as positive functional guidelines for relationships.

As parents, we also have reasons behind our rules. When my daughter was young, I would say, “Honey, don’t touch the stove.” This was not because the stove was holy to me or because I was the only one privileged to touch the stove. I did not want her to get burned. In the same way, God gives instructions about sexuality, and His instructions are not arbitrary. He has positive reasons for them that singles can learn and appreciate.

The Problem With Don’ts

Unfortunately, if singles are only told don’t when it comes to their sexuality, lots of problems can ensue.

For instance, many Christian singles decide sexuality is an area of God’s instructions they can choose not to obey. One lovely, compassionate Christian woman who had everything going for her kept thinking she would marry in a few years. But when she turned 25 and it was just not happening, she decided she did not want to miss out sexually any longer — even though she had been raised in a conservative Christian home, had attended church every week, had a deep and sincere love for God, and had been on the mission field for a time. She consciously decided to become sexually active. She first became involved with a man in her office, followed by a couple of married men who treated her poorly. After a few years she decided the swinging single life was not what it was cracked up to be. She learned that the real result of being sexually free was a cheapening of her sense of personal value.

Many singles feel cheap as a result of their negative view of single sexuality. Many who have gone this route (even non-Christians) conclude that sexual freedom is damaging to the soul. Carolyn See, in her article in Cosmopolitan magazine entitled “The New Chastity,” graphically describes how sexual promiscuity affected her: “What does all this mean in a discussion of the new chastity? What it means, I think, is that despite the Pill, legalized abortion, and economic freedom, our own bodies are trying to tell us something: They don’t necessarily want to be tossed around like lost luggage on a round-the-world plane trip. That’s why, maybe, after a long night of good times … with a Nick Nolte look-alike, when you get up and weigh yourself and find you’ve even lost two pounds from the exertion, and he left at 5 in the morning, but he did say he’d call, and you even work in the same office with him, so. … But you go out for coffee in the kitchen, and something, someplace in your body feels like if it could cry, it would cry. It’s not your … ‘heart.’ It’s in the vicinity of your lungs, your solar plexus, where some … religions suggest your soul resides. In other words, recreational sex is not soul food. Yet, however difficult the choice, after close to two decades of sexual permissiveness (what a tiresome phrase; one gets ‘permission’ to go to the cloakroom in grade school, not to go to bed with darling men!), more and more young women are opting for the new chastity. … ‘What’s all this stuff about the new chastity?’ asks a beautiful showgirl who was once married to a famous tap dancer. ‘I’m still working on the old kind! Save yourself for a man you love or at least one who makes your heart flutter. Otherwise it’s meatloaf, under brand-X catsup.’ ”3

She has described what many singles feel as the result of indiscriminate sex: overused and run-down like a worn-out suitcase, battered and torn from too many miles logged. They feel cheap and depreciated because sexual experiences do not reinforce a person’s ultimate value.

A negative view of single sexuality may also lead to problems such as obsessive and problematic behaviors. One such problem many singles face is masturbation. During seminars on single sexuality, by far the most common question asked by singles when organizers allow them to ask anonymously is, “Is masturbation okay?” Kinsey reported that 97 percent of males and 83 percent of females masturbate. Of senior citizens over 80 years of age, 72 percent of males and 40 percent of females masturbate. These numbers represent the percentages of all adults who masturbate, so it would follow that the percentages of single adults would be significantly higher. In a study done among Christian adults, 92 percent admitted to having masturbated at some point in their lives, 88 percent had masturbated in the last year, 75 percent within the last month, and 52 percent within the last week.4

Although the practice is widespread, masturbation is such a forbidden topic in the church that it takes a major act of courage to bring it up, even in private counseling sessions. Very few books on Christian sexuality deal with masturbation — even though the perspective is very diverse as to what God’s will is on the issue. Opinion ranges from, “It is always a sin and contrary to the will of God” to “It is a necessary part of the single experience and a gift from God.” This confuses singles, and they do not know who to listen to or trust on this topic. I think getting a positive perspective on sexuality will help with this dilemma as well.

Single celibacy is becoming more and more of an issue for older adults who find themselves alone due to divorce or bereavement. What’s a 50-ish or 60-ish person to do when they hate being alone but also, for a variety of reasons, do not want to get remarried? (Sometimes remarriage will cause them to lose their deceased spouse’s retirement benefits.) Cohabitation among senior adults is sharply on the rise, and the don’t approach does not seem to be working.

Finally, singles that lack a positive rationale for celibacy can also get caught up in the more serious and dangerous world of pornography, prostitution, homosexuality, and molestation. If someone descends into this level of behavior, there is no easy way out. A positive view of single sexuality, however, will help a person — even in these extreme situations — take appropriate steps toward recovery.

The Positive Side of Single Sexuality

The most helpful tool for me in teaching single adults about a positive view of single sexuality has been to tell the true story of a woman who, when offered $300 for her antique table that was on sale for $400, changed the price to $600. The man bartered for a cheap price, but, in the end, paid $600. Here is the clincher: When he got the table home, how did he treat it? Like a $300 or $600 table? He treated it like a $600 table because he paid that much. But if he had only paid $300, he would have treated it poorly.5

The point of the story: In God’s eyes, each individual is a person of incredible worth and value. But if we sell ourselves cheaply, people will treat us cheaply. It is the same in relationships. The kind of treatment we receive is directly related to how cheaply we sell ourselves. So we are the ones who select the type of treatment we receive from others.

This has tremendous implications in the sexual arena for singles. If others are to treat singles as being valuable sexually, singles will first need to believe they are valuable — valuable enough to hold out for someone who will treat them the way they deserve to be treated. Then, whether or not they ever marry, they will have a sense of personal and physical self-worth that no one can deny.

The Biblical Basis for a Positive Single Sexuality

The biblical basis for this positive concept is found in the Hebrew words for “virgin” — almah and bethulah. The respective root meanings are “to hide” and “to separate.” God instructed the Hebrews to hide and separate young women as a way of protecting and enhancing their worth — as a public declaration of their great value.

Sexuality is related to personal value. This is the revolutionary thought we must place in singles’ minds to help them understand the purpose behind the practice of temporary celibacy — separating oneself from sexual activity to establish and enhance personal worth. This is the core of the positive approach to single sexuality.6

God created sexuality as a way for us to learn how to value ourselves, and, as a way of expressing that value to others. Value becomes the dominant and determining perspective concerning sexuality. The way in which I allow others to treat me sexually, and the way in which I treat others sexually, either asserts and protects my value as a person or has the opposite effect and diminishes my value. Thus, temporary celibacy is a positive way of asserting and enhancing personal value. Conversely, promiscuity cheapens and diminishes my sense of personal and physical worth.

This is not simply another way of saying, “Wait until you are married.” The idea of temporary celibacy is like having a savings account. Consider the case of a single woman who saves money to buy a house. She may need to give up driving a fancy car or having expensive clothes to save $100 a week for a down payment. At the end of 5 years, whether she bought a house or not, she would have a sizable savings. She would feel a sense of security, stability, and worth due to her savings account. She has built a foundation for her future. Similarly, a person’s sexual behavior should be that which most promotes and protects a sense of value — which for a single adult is temporary abstinence. Singles save themselves sexually to contribute to a sense of self-worth. Whether they marry or not, they end up with a sense of value.

When talking with engaged couples, I have found this positive approach to be helpful. Rather than trying to convince couples they must obey, what some view as an illogical rule from the Bible, I teach them God’s reason for creating the idea of temporary abstinence. I stress the idea that being patient and remaining pure until their wedding day will make a statement of mutual worthiness, and it will also set the stage for a much more meaningful sexual relationship in marriage — with no guilt and shame to cast a shadow on the relationship.

Engaged couples are often excited when they understand this concept and really want to save themselves for each other. They do not see it as denial, but as a deposit into the other person’s self-worth account. They are saying, “I not only love you, but I will prove how much I love and value you by not treating you cheaply and by separating myself sexually from you until the wedding.”

When talking with senior adults, they clearly understand economics and will not let others negatively affect their finances. For instance, they would not dream of letting someone treat their home or car cheaply. But should they allow someone to treat their own bodies and souls cheaply? Of course not. And if they do, what kind of future treatment will they most likely get? Cheap, of course.

Or consider another example: One single man who was obsessed with masturbating discovered through a discussion of his sexual autobiography that he had been molested as a young boy by an uncle. As he understood the positive aspects of his sexuality, he came to see for himself the connection between the past devaluing experience and the current obsession with masturbation. In a way he was punishing himself because he felt worthless. He was also using masturbation as a type of compensation because he felt he would never be worthy enough for a sexual relationship. Through this discovery, he was able to experience forgiveness, gain control, and release the feelings of guilt. We talked about how he could begin to assert his value as a person. He drew the conclusion that masturbation was not helping him do that but instead was causing him to make unhealthy “withdrawals” from his moral bank account. As a result, he was finally able to conquer his masturbation problem, and he began, through positive abstinence, to build up his moral bank account.

Fortunately, life is not a game show like Jeopardy! God is not a cosmic judge who only hits the no button for singles and sexuality. When singles begin to learn to value themselves as God values them, they can learn there are ways to both obey God and live the abundant life. One woman — 62 years old — broke up with both of her boyfriends who had been pressuring her sexually. She said, “I told them: ‘I am a million-dollar table, and you are not scratching my surface any more.’ And you know what? I feel happier and healthier without them in my life. I want a man to value me like God does, and I’m not settling for less any more.”

Questions for Self-reflection or Group Discussion

  1. Brainstorm all the don’ts you have heard about single sexuality. (Such as “Don’t wear tight fighting sweaters.”; “Don’t go on unchaperoned dates.”; “Don’t think about sex.”). What are the positive and negative results of these don’ts? How can church leaders adapt or change their teaching emphasis to a do approach?
  2. Are you a spender or a saver financially? Singles who are savers end up with solid net worth, regardless of whether they ever choose to marry or not. How does this analogy relate to single sexuality and abstinence?
  3. The Bible says that God forgives our sins and makes us as “white as snow” (Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 1:18), but many Christian singles feel soiled or cheap due to past sexual mistakes. Why? What do the following verses say about God’s view of us, in light of our sexual past: Psalm 51:1–19; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Philippians 3:12–14; 1 John 1:8,9.
  4. Do you think it is okay for older singles to cohabit to keep their Social Security benefits or retirement income from their deceased spouse? Why or why not? What Scriptures support your position? How can church leaders effectively minister to older singles in this area?

This article is adapted from “Sexual Struggles” that appeared in Counseling Single Adults, D. Fagerstrom, ed.; Baker Books, 1996, 243–59. Used with permission.


1. “Sexual Struggles” by Rick Stedman in Counseling Single Adults, Doug Fagerstrom, ed., Baker, 1996, 244.

2. By using the phrase “Single Sexuality,” I am stressing that singles, though unmarried, still remain sexual beings and must discover and obey God’s will in that aspect of their lives. The phrase does not refer to one’s sexual orientation, gender, or drive.

3. Carolyn See, “The New Chastity,” Cosmopolitan (November, 1985), 382–83.

4. Harold Ivan Smith, quoted in Stedman, “Sexual Struggles,” 250.

5. For the whole story, see Rick Stedman, Your Single Treasure, (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 27–31.

6. Ibid., 55–58.