Navigating Faith And Sex
0 / 0 / February 6 2019

If only this site had existed when I was in my 20s. I’ll be 33 years old in March, and though I am a vastly different person than I was in grade school, the residue of theologically induced guilt has clung to my adult years in ways I hadn’t expected. As a bullied kid with glasses in junior high, my local Catholic church was a sanctuary where I could find companionship free of judgment, or so I thought. I took the congregation’s refrain of “all are welcome” deeply to heart, and our pastor was a man of true benevolence and uncommonly progressive values.

But when it came to the topic of sex, the sole message preached from the pulpit was to avoid it until marriage. I’ll never forget the homily delivered by a guest pastor, who had all the lights in the church dimmed as he recited a list of sins that would place us further and further from God’s light. When he arrived at “masturbation,” the room had become completely dark.

My faith remained intact until I agreed to return home and perform in a Passion Play during my freshman year in college. The guy assigned to pen the production that year clearly modeled himself after Mel Gibson, and the script he wrote was so monstrously offensive that it bordered on self-parody. During Jesus’ agony in the garden, a screen projected a montage of the alleged sins for which he would give his life. Amidst all the images of war and genocide, there were two men holding hands. Contraception and abortion were also decried as unforgivable. As soon as the first nail was driven into Jesus’ flesh, signaling the lights to be switched off, I threw my costume on the ground and fled the building, never to return.

Though I was no longer bound by the church’s puritanical culture, I still couldn’t make the first move when it came to exploring my sexuality, even after moving into a studio apartment prior to my junior year. I never considered the thought of masturbating until my girlfriend offered to give me a handjob in the shower. It was the first time I ejaculated while fully conscious, and the experience was life-altering, to say the least. Suddenly I had found a release for the tension that had been building up within me throughout my adolescence, and it didn’t feel at all shameful.

When my girlfriend and I allowed ourselves to be unclothed in front of another, there was a sense of mutual exhilaration and validation transpiring between us that felt unmistakably spiritual. The only time I felt any sort of divine presence in church was when I’d lock eyes with a fellow parishioner, and we’d wordlessly share a warmth and understanding not unlike the intimacy one experiences with a partner.

With my sex drive having literally been jump-started by my girlfriend, I would become aroused by her mere presence. Yet I never agreed to go all the way with her, and I’m certain that at least part of my decision was due to the nagging belief instilled in me by scripture, that intercourse had to be delayed until we were married. Her struggles with bipolar disorder also frightened me away from doing anything that could potentially bring new life into the world, considering how unequipped we were to care for it. Our break-up was inevitable long before it occurred the summer after our graduation, and it sent me spiraling into a deep depression.

Several months passed before I finally took my routine urges into my own hands, quite literally, and gave myself permission to masturbate. Whenever a film would portray a young man’s sexual awakening that was similar to my own, I found the scenes so erotic that I started to wonder whether I was, in fact, gay. Over the period of a few weeks, I dated a guy just long enough for me to realize that my sexuality does indeed exist on a spectrum, though it only affirmed my physical attraction to women.

The heartache and bewilderment of my early 20s would continue to haunt me until I fell head over heels for someone who quite nearly was the great love of my life.

Neither of us had been in a serious relationship for years — five, to be exact — and we found a degree of comfort with each other that was rare and rejuvenating. She loved learning about other cultures, knew multiple languages, and despite her father’s steady diet of Fox News, was a champion of immigrant rights, often volunteering to teach English to various people in her community. I could’ve easily seen myself spending the rest of my life with her, but there was a catch in the form of her evangelical Christianity.

All the brilliance and empathy she naturally possessed would become clouded as soon as religion dominated the conversation. It wasn’t enough to simply be a good person, one had to accept Jesus Christ as humanity’s sole Lord and Savior, or else be banished to the island of misfit heathens. How could I have possibly erected a wall around my own reasoning in order to give this sort of fanaticism a fair shot? Perhaps the simplicity of her worldview provided a refreshing escape from the complexities of our modern world, while enabling us to remain in an arrested state of not-quite-adulthood. She made no secret of her purity ring, though there still were nights when we’d caress each other’s clothed bodies, daring to explore terrain existing far beyond the godly region.

Without question, the most romantic moment of my life remains the one where I first said aloud that I loved her. We were lying together in bed, and I actually made the first move, leaning in to plant a kiss on her mouth. My lips were closed, but I felt her tongue, and what followed was a night of glorious, albeit PG-13-rated foreplay. The next morning, however, she was overcome with pangs of guilt, and asked me to join her in praying for forgiveness. This would occur every subsequent time we became physical during the year-and-a-half of our time together.

As we grew closer, she opened up to me about how her stepfather had sexually harassed her for years, often when they were in the same room as her seemingly oblivious mother. He’d fondle himself in front of her or whisper suggestive things to her, as if to demonstrate that he could get away with anything, even in the presence of his wife. Once my ex courageously began telling her family about the abuse, her mother did the unspeakable. Rather than file for divorce, she shamed her daughter into forgiving her husband, silencing the victim’s words through the guise of religious clemency. Now prioritizing evangelism above all else, my girlfriend broke up with me the instant I was able to admit to her — and to myself — that I could never be part of a belief system that chooses to cloak itself in denial while imposing its prejudices on others. We permanently parted ways, I tore my Bible to shreds and haven’t prayed since.

Memories of the trauma endured by my ex came flooding back to me last January, when over 260 survivors of the abuse administered by convicted child molester and former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar amplified their voices at his trial, many of them making on-camera testimonials. Among the youngest was Emily Morales, a profoundly eloquent 18-year-old who addressed Nassar directly, locking eyes with him in an attempt at achieving closure. “I want to forgive you, but I also want to hear you tell me that you regret all the hurting you’ve caused,” she replied, fighting back tears. Morales was one of numerous “sister survivors” who demonstrated during the trial how a person of faith can offer grace and forgiveness without burying truths or failing to hold abusers accountable.

If the #MeToo era has taught us anything, it’s that our stories matter more than we may ever have believed. Removing the stigma from our sexuality may be our greatest method for combating the flagrant misogyny and misinformation championed by our disgrace of a president. Only by embracing the full extent of ourselves can we become capable, at long last, of seeing the light.


Photos by Maddy Pease.