The first myth I pointed out in my Relevant article was this idea that “Any and all physical contact is a like a gateway drug to sex.”
Growing up, I frequently heard metaphors like, “Don’t start the engine if you aren’t ready to drive the car” used to warn teenagers that any physical contact (including holding hands and kissing) was a slippery slope straight into the jaws of fornication.
Let me be clear. There is some truth to the fact that physical contact leads to more physical contact. Our bodies are designed to respond to certain signals and stimuli in ways that prepare us for sex. That’s just anatomy. What isn’t as true and certainly isn’t as helpful is this idea that you should be scared of physical contact because if you hold your significant other’s hand, sex will magically or accidentally happen against your will.
I have three major problems with this way of talking about boundaries in a physical relationship. The first two have to do with negative consequences of carrying these ideas over into marriage
On this side of things, I can honestly say that there are SO many conscious decisions you have to make between kissing and having sex. Despite what Hollywood says, clothes do not take themselves off and bodies do not magically and effortlessly fit together. And after years of hearing things like, “I got carried away and it just happened,” we feel broken and inept when we discover that in fact, sex doesn’t “just happen,” but takes a significant amount of communication and maneuvering that isn’t what we think of as “sexy.” In that way, this whole slippery slope idea is more Hollywood than it is Scripture.
The second way this idea can negatively affect sex in marriage is that these kinds of metaphors and language reduce human sexuality to a mechanical operation. Before marriage it looks like this; “Don’t press this button or flip that switch or you’ll cause sex to happen.” After marriage it can look like this: “I pressed all the buttons and flipped all the right switches – I am expecting sex to happen.” And if it doesn’t happen, “What did I do wrong?” or worse, “What’s wrong with my partner that they aren’t responding the way they are supposed to?”
Human sexuality is complex and it can’t be (and shouldn’t be) separated from our emotional, mental, spiritual, or otherwise physical state. This kind of language and thinking enforces the idea that our sex drive is the thing that controls us, rather than teaching a biblical, holistic view of the person where all the aspects of our humanity are equally valued.
Speaking from personal experience, this kind of thinking can lead us to expect physical affection to always lead to sex. It had been so ingrained in me that men wanted sex always that I went into marriage believing that any time we kissed or touched or anytime my husband saw my body, we were going to have sex. Not only is that not reality, but it would be unhealthy in a marriage for a couple to only be physically affectionate with the end goal of sex in mind.
My third major problem with this concept deals specifically with how we are talking to teenagers about sex, purity, and abstinence. I have seen and heard many Christian leaders try to produce “purity” in teenagers by building fear. The message is often something along the lines of “If you take one step down this road, you will lose control and not be able to stop yourself.”
I have to wonder if this isn’t a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy with teenagers. If you are constantly being told (directly or indirectly) that you are incapable of making good decisions, eventually you will start to believe it.
I return to my earlier point that this view is damaging because it fails to look at the person (specifically the teenager) as a holistic being. This attitude ASSUMES that you must be controlled by your sex drive above all else. You set strong boundaries out of fear that your sex drive will take over and you will lose control.
If you are committed to waiting until you’re married to have sex, then it is NECESSARY to set boundaries on your physical relationships, but the fear of accidentally having sex shouldn’t be the reason for that. In fact, I don’t believe that fear is a good motivation for doing anything.
I wonder if instead of teaching teenagers that they need to set these boundaries because they CAN’T make good decisions, we honored them as whole human beings who possess a sex drive, but also will and intellect and emotions and, for Christians, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Teenagers (and adults!) are still growing in their ability to balance all of these things. Even as adults we need healthy boundaries around any activities that we may go overboard with and that would cause one aspect of our humanity to be out of balance with the others. Setting boundaries is a way that we help ourselves to grow in wholeness.
So instead of looking at it through the lens of “These are the things I’m not going to do because I am afraid I’ll lose control” I think it would be far more powerful to choose what you ARE going to do and why you are going to do it. “I’m going to set boundaries that help me make wise choices so that I can grow as a WHOLE and complete person.”
With this kind of attitude, the boundaries you set are not just about controlling or suppressing your sexuality. They are about engaging your mind and your will, creating opportunities to listen to the Holy Spirit and to grow in your ability to consistently make good decisions. Boundaries are not about restricting you because you are out of control. Boundaries are about creating opportunity for you to make the good decisions that you ARE capable of making.
[Lily Dunn is an ice cream connoisseur, a Disney fanatic, and a fellow raiSIN hater trying to live an authentic, grace-filled life. She lives and teaches with her husband in Daegu, South Korea and blogs at https://lilyellyn.wordpress.com. Follow her on Twitter @LilyEllyn]