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Slept-in-beds and purity culture kids
We honeymooned for two weeks in Spain in 2002, staying for a few nights in a B+B on a vineyard outside of Ronda. The staff served dinners on the patio, next to rolling fields where the sun traced itself down rocks in the distance. I avoided the pool, lined daily with Euro-cool, rail-thin people.
On the third night, we watched the sunset while eating a creme brulee-sized mold of buttery leaks topped with caviar shaped like a cascading grapevine. A song came on the speakers from Portishead, the 90s trip-hop band. “Give me a reason to love you,” the front woman sang over a deep and slow rhythm. I glanced inside the hotel and saw the owner, a round British woman in her 50s, by herself in the room off the patio where we’d been served continental breakfast. Her arms were raised, she twisted and turned, eyes closed, and sang along. “Give me a reason to be a woman.”
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We went to our room after dinner, stopping at the small gratis bar. Pouring rum, whiskey, me barely knowing the difference. “Look at them, they’re babies,” someone said. It was a British man who I’d seen sleeping on a cot next to the pool, with a much younger woman by his side. My face flushed with color. I turned around, gave him a dirty look, and walked upstairs, well-aware that we were so inexperienced we wore it on our faces. Opening the door, the staff had laid rose petals over the bed. They embarrassed me.
We talk a lot in culture about aging gracefully. Now in my mid-40s, I have lines on my chin, my neck is softening. In the moment when I was watching the hotel owner dance by herself to Portishead, moving her full hips and belly with complete confidence, I felt sheepish on her behalf. But I was also fascinated. Like how could sex, something I was just beginning to understand, and most importantly sexuality after menopause, be so visceral, expressive, and fleshy? She had no shame. She wasn’t raised in it, or if she was she dropped that heavy sweater and booked it to Andalusia a long time ago. The British guy at the bar was right. We were kids, and I was looking at a woman.
The bed we sleep in now, two decades later, is thick with toppers, duvets and body-length pillows.
Last night, in the uncertainty of life, you press into his back, scratching it. Downstairs, you hear your kid get up to pee. The dog shifts on the rug.
You tell him something that makes more sense in half-sleep about wishing you could unzip his skin and crawl in like a sleeping bag. After all that has happened in your life together, you still want to be closer.
A secular sexual ethic holds that the highest good is knowing what we desire, moving past shame and trauma towards sexual freedom, and asking for what we want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. In contrast, a Christian sexual ethic layers up to acknowledge desire and hold it with patience. Because the mere existence of desire does not mean it is good. We’re called to ask, what desire brings health?
In Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition & the Life of Faith, Jen Pollock Michel writes that “holy desire can be learned.”Sex is desire, and like any other appetite, there are sacred and profound expressions. The large sea of gray areas within desire bring their own layers of complication, especially if we seek certainty. And when we’re young and formed by friends and culture and hormones, making in-the-moment decisions in gray areas happens all the time.
I was a good kid. I never made any trouble. I didn’t know anything about the kind of trouble that is required in the Christian life. High school was awkward, innocent magic.
Before dating my first boyfriend senior year, I thought I’d never date. I’d wonder perfectly reasonable things like, what if my crush likes me back? In my young mind, we are at a coffee shop, sitting down and chatting. If he likes me back, will the whole wooden cafe table burst into flames? Is that what happens in those stories of spontaneous combustion—the revelation that attraction is really an act of war?
I overcorrected in dress from what I’d see on MTV as crazy-sexy-cool to the baggy, thrifted, and weird world of vintage clothes that hid my body. I turned away from the mirror after the shower. If I would have looked, I would have seen soft skin a general glow from the steam. I smelled like soap. I wanted to be clean. I did not know if a Christian should be attractive or anything about the right order of desire. I knew she should be wife-pretty, and that I was probably never going to get married.
I kept a list of slept-in-beds beginning in my twenties. This list was not long or illicit, but the idea of bed held some allure. The exponential potential of bed. My mind scrolled through the small twin in the Victorian on Haight Street the summer when I had held the hand of a fellow intern weaving through the Mission before it totally gentrified, a decade before Tartine Bakery became famous.
I was in one small earthquake in San Francisco that summer, my first time away from home. Asleep in the Victorian, I woke to the bed rolling in large, wide waves. Plates moved far beneath, pushing the top of the bed up, my head rising, then falling as my feet rose. Twice the sensation fell through me, bigger than my own adrenaline rushes.
On a summer trip to San Francisco in my 30s, I went to Tartine for dessert. I was eating bread pudding with my husband when a woman my age practically fell through the doors, laughing.
She was wearing shorts that looked like black bloomers from a vintage cheer uniform. Her thighs were strong, she was buzzing with life, like radiant. Everybody turned her way, our heads on a string. I understood at that moment that my own view of my body had been swaddled and pinned in a blanket for the past three decades. A mix of 80s diet culture residue and purity culture. I still am not sure if I was repressed or wise.
The slept-in-beds list moved from San Francisco to the next year in New York City. I shared a NYU dorm room with a friend from Indiana and her boyfriend, also in town for a summer program. I woke up early to find them sandwiched together in a dead sleep on the twin across from mine. I lay awake scanning over the day before.
There is a rite of passage when you are young and in the city: walking all night. Stopping at the Waverly for toast and coffee. Then, the East Village diner playing “London Calling” for borscht. The song, it seems, is following you around. Walking for an hour, then Angelika Kitchen for hummus. At that point, neither of you are hungry.
Walking until it is dead night. All of the lights are on. Do you want to have coffee he asks you. It’s late, we just had coffee at the Waverly. Then wine. What about red wine? You sit across from Tompkins Square near closing, a single glass of wine. Somehow, you are sitting in a doorway in Chinatown. Then, you are circling the locked gates of Gramercy Park after two. You are pressed against the gate. It is July and still hot. Someone walks by with their dog, eating an ice cream cone. A cockroach looks militant in its city armor outside the gated park. They march everywhere in the city, even in the fancy neighborhood. It slowly moves across the pavement. You should not have worn flip flops.
The earth moved through me in San Francisco when I was twenty, and adrenaline rolled through me when I was 25. Contractions rolled through me at 31 when I was in labor with my son, asleep for five minutes on the balance ball until the next rush of pain would jerk me awake. And here at 44, with the baby twelve, far from summers in cities and slept-in-beds, a pillow-top queen.
The roots of our obsession
As evangelicals, we were often taught to not trust our body, because the body is the keeper of false desire. Our intuition is clouded by our appetite. Sex before marriage became a fast way to cross an imaginary line in the culture wars. But where did the evangelical obsession with purity begin?
Augustine had a dualistic and flawed theology of sex, holding that sin was passed down, through the act of sex, to other generations. He had been licentious at a young age and overcorrected. Augustine “needed to understand the peculiar intensity of arousal, compulsive urgency, pleasure, and pain that characterizes the human fulfillment of desire ... what a married man and woman who intend to beget a child do together is not evil, Augustine insisted; it is good. But the action is not performed without evil.”The old stereotype about an uptight nun snapping hands on rulers in class holds a trace back to Augustine putting that DNA in the Catholic church. And surely, this same suspicious posture of sex as functional but, even in pleasure, marred, is threaded through Christianity and bloomed in evangelical purity culture.
As one New York Times feature on purity culture puts it, “Part of the problem for some critics of the movement is its emphasis on virginity as the greatest gift a man and a woman can bestow on each other. To them, other aspects of a healthy relationship seem to take a back seat, including core human elements like emotional attachment, intellectual compatibility or the simple virtues of kindness and understanding.”
Evangelical purity pledges of the 90s were a response to broader culture, “when fear of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases bolstered the evangelical movement’s gospel of teen abstinence. It was a view put forth as God-commanded and had the support of like-minded political leaders, from the White House of Ronald Reagan to that of Mr. Trump.”Shame for those of us who broke sexual promises is thick and long-lasting, often impacting our sex lives into adulthood.
But being set apart in sex, in marriage, is a sweet and good gift. It’s one that evangelicalism and broader culture have skewed and twisted — with one side demanding an idea of pious purity no one can, or wants to, uphold and are often shamed trying to keep. And the other granting agency for unbridled pleasure with little afterthought for the relational brokenness and shame that can come when we know, are known, and move on.
There are some contexts where our desires, sexual or otherwise, are evidence of brokenness. Simply uncovering and moving towards desire is not a way to find the good. But desire is an arrow towards God. As the arrow travels closer to the holy and good, there is a move towards acting in your body, speaking with your mouth, and pacing your life towards what is shameless, pure and true.
Here & There
Dark Chocolate at Midnight. I wrote something about my old house and new grief for Ekstasis.
Jess Ray and I talked about our shared sense of political and cultural homelessness on her Born Again podcast.
“As American Christianity changes, and as we change along with it, we need guides to remind us who we are and who we’re not. Sara has been one such guide for me. She’s brutally honest and hilarious, and her heart is wide open to the radical possibility that belonging to Jesus is identity enough for Christians. I couldn’t be more grateful for her.”
—Jon Guerra, singer-songwriter and producer
For a generation raised in the throes of the '80s and '90s evangelical culture wars, church was a battleground many left behind. If you came up in those years, I wrote Orphaned Believers for you. Preording a copy is the best way to support my work ahead of the book’s January release. It’s a signal to booksellers to stock the shelves, and I’m grateful for each copy ordered. Choose your favorite bookseller here.