Good communication, respect, and access to information are key for mutual, pleasurable sex

Written by Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach

I grew up during the mid-2000s purity culture. My experiences included some awkward demonstrations from youth pastors about how to perform a side hug so girls’ breasts didn’t accidentally touch boys, as well as pretty poorly thought-through object lessons with items such as dirty glasses of water or half-eaten chocolate bars that were supposed to teach us that if we had sex before marriage, we were tainted and would have less to offer our future spouses.

Purity culture was an evangelical movement that attempted to encourage sexual purity by focusing on sexual abstinence. We talked about sex all the time. But I don’t remember ever being told about consent.

Sex was what you weren’t supposed to do—so why would youth groups spend time teaching kids how to tell if someone wanted to do it? That felt like a license to sin, so that conversation just didn’t happen. 

For the last five years, I’ve been a part of a research team studying the effects of evangelical teachings on sex on women’s later marital and sexual satisfaction, as well as their self-esteem in high school and today. Unfortunately, we found that one of the big differentiating factors between Christian kids and their secular peers was that the highly religious kids had less of an understanding of consent.

Why did this happen? Our research suggests that instead of learning that “no means no,” evangelical teenagers were mainly taught fear tactics to scare them off from sex. They were taught gender roles around sex such as that it’s the girl’s job to stop sex from happening because boys are the gas, girls are the brakes.

As a result, many girls in evangelical spaces who were assaulted or raped didn’t understand that what had happened to them was not the same as “going too far.”

I do not believe there is any biblical, logical, or ethical reason that Christianity should leave us less informed and at more risk. So let’s talk about what we should know about sex and consent in order to build healthy relationships.

1. Consent is mutual agreement 

The first thing we need to know is the definition of consent. Consent is an enthusiastic yes; anything less is not consent. “I guess” is not consent. “If you insist” is not consent. Wearing someone down until they finally say “OK, just get it over with” is not consent. Consent can also be withdrawn at anytime, no matter what. 

That means that if you’ve had sex and you did not give an enthusiastic yes, if you were asking them to stop until you gave in because you gave up protesting, if you only had sex because you were afraid of what would happen if you didn’t—that was not consensual. And you didn’t do anything to “make” it happen. 

2. More information is better

In the 1990s and 2000s, evangelical churches founded many organizations that were dedicated to abstinence-only sex education for teenagers as a response to rising teen pregnancy rates in the 1980s and early ’90s. Abstinence-only sex education became popular in schools, and kids were no longer taught comprehensively about sex, contraception, preventing sexually transmitted infections, or consent.

Interestingly, studies have found that abstinence-only education didn’t have any impact on whether or not kids had sex. In other words, holding back information did not stop kids from engaging in sexual activity, it just increased rates of risky sex.

In contrast, providing a safe, loving environment where kids can learn about sexuality, admit mistakes, and mature in sexual integrity can help mitigate harms. God created sexuality and called it good. As Christians, we shouldn’t be afraid to fully educate our kids—more information is always better.

3. There is no “point of no return”

Often, in an attempt to stop teens from having sex, Christian resources warn girls that it’s just “too hard” for boys to stop once they get aroused. 

But this isn’t actually true. At any point, both partners having sex have the responsibility and ability to stop sex if their partner says no. Just because it might feel difficult if you’re aroused doesn’t mean you can’t stop. 

Additionally, this isn’t harder for boys than it is for girls. Everyone can stop at a moment’s notice, regardless of arousal levels. 

If someone pushes your boundaries, claims that they can’t stop once they’re past a certain point or tries to convince you to do things sexually that you are not interested in doing, that’s a sign that this is not a healthy relationship and that this person isn’t safe. 

4. Being assaulted, coerced, or groomed does not make you impure

When we discuss purity in terms of virginity status or abstinence without an understanding of consent, we can inadvertently make victims of sexual assault feel that they have sinned because they’ve “had sex.”

But being assaulted is not the same as having sex. Being coerced and groomed so that you do things you don’t want to do is not the same as choosing to have sex. We need to be careful to not lump all sexual activity into the same category. 

5. No one is “owed” your body, even after you are married 

In our research, we found dating couples were often told some version of, “Just wait for sex until you’re married, then you’ll never have to wait again!” Additionally, many Christian women report believing that they are obligated to give their husbands sex when they want it, or that women must have sex frequently to keep husbands from cheating on them or watching porn. 

Threats and obligations are terrible reasons to have sex. They also sound coercive

Marriage is a commitment to fidelity and a healthy expectation of intimacy, of course. But a wedding ring is not a carte blanche for consent. Sex is meant to be a mutual, pleasurable, and intimate experience that flows naturally from the love a couple shares. Saying “you owe me” is the opposite of that.

Sex is meant to be a mutual, pleasurable, and intimate experience that flows naturally from the love a couple shares.

Because of fear surrounding what will happen if she doesn’t have sex, though, many women feel pressured to have sex because of what they’ve heard from Christian resources.

Many times, when the husband finds out that his wife has only been having sex out of obligation for years, he’s horrified and happy to help fix things. For these couples, the treatment is often to reintroduce consent into the marriage. She simply stops having sex she doesn’t want to have while they figure out how to make their sex life work for her, too. 

6. Purity isn’t about what we did, but about what Jesus did

We believe in a God of new birth, right? Too often our discussions about sex have been warnings that if we lose our virginity, we’ve lost our most precious gift. That doesn’t sound like redemption and grace, that sounds like condemnation! 

Our research team interviewed many women who felt that since they agreed to have sex once, they lost their right to say no. They didn’t see their sexual boundaries as being about protecting them, but about protecting their virginity. Sexual purity was diminished to rule-following instead of being about protecting their dignity and the dignity of others.

Sexual purity was diminished to rule-following instead of being about protecting their dignity and the dignity of others.

Scripture tells us our bodies are dwelling places of the Holy Spirit. We are each bearers of God’s image and worthy of protection. Our value isn’t based on our virginity status, or on what we’ve done or not done—it is based on what Jesus did and how much He loves us.

Consent is not a threat to the Christian sexual ethic, it’s an essential part of it. Much like how God chooses not to control us, but has given us free will, we should also trust each other to be able to make informed decisions about sex with all the information. (This includes good role models, theological guidance, and sex ed.) There is no need for fear tactics and half-truths. Rather, we can just be honest, and honour each other’s bodily autonomy as we continue to learn how to love our neighbours as ourselves. 

Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach is a co-author of The Great Sex Rescue and She Deserves Better. She also co-hosts The Bare Marriage Podcast, helping bring evidence-based, healthy, and biblical advice to the Church.