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I was eighteen years old and on the mission field for Christ when, for the first time, another person was able to effectively cure my “hysteria.” Ungodly boys who didn’t fear the spiritual dangers of the flesh were only interested in reaching the finish line. But Christian boys…. If you are going to plunge into the waters of Christian purity guilt, then perfecting the art of “foreplay, repent, repeat” is definitely the way to go.

The words fell out of my mouth: I told him how he had been the first to accomplish it. Without missing a beat he asked, “That was your first orgasm?” And I changed the subject immediately. We never spoke of it again.

Photo credit: Lili Vieira de Carvalho via CC BY-ND 2.0, cropped
Photo credit: Lili Vieira de Carvalho via / CC BY-ND 2.0, cropped

I once witnessed an argument between two Christian women. One woman was insisting that masturbation is always wrong because our bodies are sacred temples built for procreation; and the other believed it could be morally acceptable, but only for a married woman. And only if her fantasies are safely limited to thoughts of her husband.

Safely limited.

Limiting sexual thoughts to my husband was a lot easier than the premarital challenge of never having sex or sexual thoughts at all. About anybody. Ever. I’ve heard that single women are supposed to channel their sexual desires toward God. I didn’t do that. In the years leading up to my wedding night, I was too concerned with hiding all my sexual thoughts from God to pull off such a gesture without a hitch, but I certainly knew women who managed it.

Such women have never found themselves asking the Lord for forgiveness because they touched their boyfriend’s penis (again), but I imagine that the achievement of avoiding all sexual thought and exploration must come with more lasting baggage. In spite of the guilt I felt for not overcoming lustful thoughts during my teenage years, I found sex in marriage to be an extremely easy transition. After all, we had been practicing.

Of course, no one can ever be completely in the clear. Once a Christian woman is married, who knows where her mind might wander in the middle of (heterosexual missionary position while ovulating) sex with her husband? Or even while alone watching her favorite Kirk Cameron movie.

If the belief that someone is always reading our thoughts and keeping score doesn’t keep our fantasies dull and our hands above the covers, nothing will. But why does God care so much?

Lust is Worse than Sex

I recently asked a handful of men to answer a questionnaire about their experience with purity culture. Each man expressed guilt over masturbation and porn as being the number one challenge they faced as a Christian teenager. Surprised? Of course not. Teenage boys and masturbation go together like the Fourth of July and fireworks.

There are grown men and women who, after years of careful consideration, have chosen to take a vow of celibacy and commit their lives to God completely. And even they fail regularly when it comes to remaining sexually pure. Are Christians maybe asking too much that every young person arriving at puberty do any better?

The popular American Christian message is that sex is a beautiful, sacred gift designed by God for marriage between a man and a woman. It’s almost as if lust is an evil which manages to become godly in the correct context… which can be confusing. Some early church leaders believed that Adam and Eve’s disobedience sentenced mankind to sexual desire, and through the seed of Adam we are all born into sin.

Was Lust a Result of the Fall?

Saint Augustine was arguably one of the greatest influences on modern Christianity. He believed that before Adam and Eve disobeyed God, their sexual organs were no different from the other parts of their bodies. Innocent and obedient. In her book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Elaine Pagels writes:

Specifically, Augustine concludes, “The sexual desire [libido] of our disobedient members arose in those first human beings as a result of the sin of disobedience… and because a shameless movement [impudens motus] resisted the rule of their will, they covered their shameful members.” At first, the Adam and Eve whom God had created enjoyed mental mastery over the procreative process: the sexual members, like the other parts of the body, enacted the work of procreation by a deliberate act of will, “like a handshake” (p. 111).

A Very. Boring. Handshake.

Designed for our pleasure within the bounds of holy matrimony? Hardly. Sexual desire symbolized man’s struggle against his own rebellious nature. By this logic it only made sense that overcoming sexual urges through self-restraint would bring one closer to God. But first, we needed a Messiah who could free us from our lustful prison.

The story goes that Jesus, born of a virgin (without the tainted seed of Adam), and who lived a life free from sexual temptation— reversed the sins of Adam on the cross. If we accept Jesus as the savior, our old sinful selves have died with him, and we are born again (just as he arose on the third day). And through our faith we have been granted the ability to overcome sin just as Jesus did. Which means if we’re lucky…. sex can feel like a boring handshake for us, too!

For those “called” to do so, it was ideal to remain single and celibate. For those who were already married, it was preferable not to enjoy sex. And for everyone else not able to reign in their lust (which was the vast majority), it was still acceptable to experience those desires within the traditional laws of marriage. Because you can’t have a successful cult without members.

Sex Ed at Kellogg Elementary

“Unchastity of the mind is a violation of natural law as well as of moral law, and is visited with punishment commensurate to the transgression.” (John Harvey Kellogg, Plain Facts about Sexual Life, 1877)

Before puberty struck, the concept of sex did actually seem like a handshake that magically produced babies. And I wasn’t interested in the details. Which was good, because the first explanation of those details was given to me by a friend who had walked in on her parents the night before. And so it came to pass that on the playground of Kellogg Elementary School in 1983, I learned that sexual intercourse is the act of a man urinating in a woman’s mouth.

(That wouldn’t make sense for a few more years.)

Photo credit: Bess Georgette via / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: Bess Georgette via / CC BY-SA

My elementary school was named after a famous local philanthropist and businessman named Will Keith Kellogg. You may also be familiar with his older brother, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. If you do not know the history of these two brothers, it is fascinating and well worth your time to Google it. It is also worth your time to read John Harvey’s book, Plain Facts About Sexual Life. It was first published a year before the brothers would accidentally stumble upon the recipe for Cornflakes.

Lust-Busting Breakfast Cereal

Dr. Kellogg was a religious man who blamed the mere thought of sex on pretty much every evil known to man. He believed bland foods were necessary for avoiding sexual excitement. He also believed that excessive marital sex (meaning: any sex outside of the ovulation window) and masturbation were the source for ailments including epilepsy, poor posture, and even tuberculosis.

He offered overwhelming advice for the prevention of  “self-pollution” in children, although, thanks to a falling out between him and W.K., during school field trips to the Kellogg factory, I only ever received a box of Froot Loops.

The habit is by no means confined to boys; girls also indulge in it, though it is to be hoped, to a less fearful extent than boys, at least in this country. A Russian physician, quoted by an eminent medical professor in New York, states that the habit is universal among girls in Russia. It seems impossible that such a statement should be credible; and yet we have not seen it contradicted (Plain Facts About Sexual Life, pg. 235).

I think what he means here is that if the opportunity arrives, you should definitely have sex with a Russian girl. Especially one with small breasts—which Kellogg claims is suspicious evidence of “self-abuse.”

Six Degrees to Fornication

These days Kellogg’s ideas are just a funny thing to read over a sexually-stimulating bowl of Frosted Flakes, but what is the current Christian message about women and masturbation? For that answer I was directed to the book Every Young Woman’s Battle: Guarding Your Mind, Heart, and Body in a Sex-saturated World (Etheridge/Arterburn):

We also believe that masturbation is not healthy because it can train a person to “fly solo,” to operate independently of anyone else. When you masturbate, you train your body as well as your mind what to find pleasurable and how to orgasm. When you marry, if your husband isn’t able to please you in the exact same way, this could make your marital sex life very frustrating and disappointing (pg. 48).

Do you see the danger, ladies? If you masturbate and then marry a man who doesn’t please you sexually—you run the risk of knowing what you are missing! The authors go on to explain how a man might also be offended by advice from his wife on how to improve. So there goes that solution. (There is a young man’s version of this book, but I have yet to convince myself to read it.)

If messages like this make sense to you, I want you to write down the following words 1000 times: “Learning what we find pleasurable and how to orgasm are good things. A man who cannot please his wife sexually and who isn’t interested in figuring out how is a bad thing.”

Christians like to play the game “Six Degrees to Fornication” when it comes to convincing us of how thoughts are a slippery slope to ruin. They live by the concept that God sees all sexual thoughts and actions as not only crimes, but equal crimes. Because all of it falls under the umbrella of lust.

What is the Real Crime?

Maybe God isn’t thrilled with the amount of imaginary sex the average person is having with celebrities, fictional characters, and boy bands. But maybe we’re not thrilled that he’s watching! The real crime is that Christianity is far too limited by its specific interpretation of God. They have taken a handful of verses about lust and turned them into a culture of rules designed to set themselves up for failure.

Here we are, over 2000 years later…. and Christians and God are still in a relationship that has not evolved since the Garden of Eden.

Leave a comment! Were you taught that lust was a crime? How has it impacted your life and relationships? 


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