This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Friday, November 13, 2020

No Shame

Before proceeding, a word to any young people who are being told that their sexuality is 'wrong,' especially by your church. You are not wrong for being you. Your feelings are natural and only become wrong if you act on them without a person's consent. As for safe sex, which is vital, have a look at this page on the Planned Parenthood website. Your family and/or church may have made Planned Parenthood seem like the devil. Maybe you really don't agree with their position on abortion. But the information about sex and sexuality is accurate and useful. 

Now that we have that out of the way, I'm going to select parts of the article, indicated by bold italics, for comment. 

One of the reasons there’s a widespread definitional dating in our day is because recreational dating doesn’t deliver what it promises. 

What the hell does this sentence even mean? I looked up 'definitional dating' and as of November 13, 2020 nothing came up. Is this a term he coined? If so, he's responsible for explaining it. The editorial staff at RELEVANT let it pass, so I wonder if it means something to them.

And you know what they say about the definition of insanity — it’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. 

That is not a definition of insanity. Salon refers to that as 'the most overused cliché of all time.' While I disagree, as 'perfect storm' has to be the most overused, it certainly ranks up there. This is low quality, unprofessional writing. Worse, it's disparaging towards people with mental health issues. Using an ugly and completely false stereotype is no way to begin an article about love and sex.

How about trying a different approach to dating?

This isn't a 'different approach.' Back in the 90s, when I was in my late teens and early 20s, Joshua Harris made waves with his book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye." It promotes formal courtship and the ideal of waiting even to kiss until the wedding day. Harris was only around 21 or 22 when the book was published, and his naivety shows in the book. I'm only a year younger than him, and when I read the book in college I couldn't stop rolling my eyes. And yet, many of my ministry professors spoke very highly of it.

In recent years Harris has retracted his entire position and ceased publication of his book. If you're interested you can read his mea culpa here. Perhaps it's also worth noting that he's also said that he no longer considers himself a Christian. 

Countless young women of my generation suffered from the imposition of purity culture within evangelicalism, as did those of the lgbtq+ community. Anything other than heterosexual sexual relations after marriage were acceptable, and anyone who 'deviated' from this norm were being misled by Satan and 'the world.' Girls were told that if they had sex with someone before marriage, no one would want them after, because they'd be like chewed gum. As though her entire value as a human being was hanging on whether or not she'd ever experienced vaginal penetration. Worsening matters, consent was never mentioned in all of this, leaving girls and women who had been sexually abused feeling terrible about themselves as well. 

Take 90 days to get to know each other without pressure. Gasp! “90 days?!” Hey, it’s just three months, less than the length of a football season. That’s not such a long time to spend forming an intentional friendship, which might lead to intentional dating, which might lead to marriage, now is it?

Remember that so far in this article the writer seems to be trying to be all hip and cool. He hasn't mentioned abstinence by name, and of course he won't because a lot of people would stop reading. This 90 days isn't about waiting that time before sexual intimacy. He means 90 days of no kissing and maybe no hand holding.

If you can, go through this process with advisers in the form of a trusted married couple who are wise in the ways of the Lord. The first time you meet with them, it’s like an on-ramp to a relationship. The last time you meet with them, at the end of 90 days, it’s like an off-ramp to get out of the relationship easily if it hasn’t worked out. Or else it’s like a green light to continue the journey and see where it goes.

Now he's describing the literally romanticized belief in 'courtship' that purity culture advocates. It infantalizes young adults and adds a layer of bureaucracy to the relationship. Once older people are involved it makes the matter all the more serious. This is immediately no longer anywhere near light-hearted dating, sex or no sex. It's a courtship. The stakes are raised psychologically, and this can have the effect of locking in a bad relationship. 

One of our innate and counterproductive biases is referred to as 'previous investment' or the 'sunk cost fallacy.' In terms of human behavior, it refers to the idea that having dedicated time and energy to something, it's best to stick with it even though the results, if you were clear headed and realistic about it, are no longer what you want. In other words, by adding formality to the relationship and dedicating a prolonged period of time to analyzing it, an emotional investment is being made. That and the time spent can lead a person to conclude that they should stick with it. 

There are other biases that work against us as well in this sort of situation. Choice-supportive bias, for example, is that which leads us to amplify the good about a decision we've made, downplaying the bad. Conversely, we amplify the bad of the other options we had. It might have been better not to date that person, but since you're in it already you're automatically looking for ways that it's good, and how not dating them would have been bad.

No matter how old or how experienced you are, if you want to have a pure relationship and not create too strong of a physical tie before marriage, then you need to agree from the outset about what you will or will not do. You may be thinking, I don’t need boundaries. I’m grown. Well, so are your pain, disappointments and frustrations. Boundaries aren’t bad; they’re actually a blessing. 

There we have it. He finally said 'pure.' What is a 'pure relationship'? While he's not as explicit about what he means as he should be, he means 'sexually pure.' It's weird to me that people often just automatically accept this language. It's the exact same as saying that any sexual relationship outside of marriage is 'impure.' But where is the impurity? Only in the sex, which really doesn't stand up to reason.

If Todd wanted to talk about boundaries, it would have been great if he'd discussed consent. Evangelicals do not discuss consent, by and large. Just as safe sex isn't necessary if you're abstinent, consent is seen as unnecessary because that happens at the wedding ceremony.  This fantasy doesn't really help. Young unmarried people have sex. It's a simple fact. However much parents want to prevent it, and the church preaches against it, more often than not they'll be having sex.

When I was attending a small Bible college in Missouri in my late teens I heard a story told to a class by a professor about some students who had been expelled several years before. He said that one day he was in his office when someone in the neighborhood called to inform him that two of the students were having sex in a car on her street. He asked how she knew they weren't from the local community college, and she replied, 'because of the Bible college bumper sticker on the car.' He and a couple of others were waiting for them when they returned. After some discussion they were expelled. That professor wanted to make clear to the freshman class that there was nowhere they could go to get away from their obligation to remain abstinent until marriage.

Most of my classmates were married before they graduated Bible college. Because who can wait?

Set a curfew. Every date needs an ending time. Decide that one of you is always going to go home at midnight or whatever other time you agree on. 

In other words, set a time for the date to end so there won't be a sleepover situation.

What’s a no go for touch? Maybe it’s hugs that last longer than thirty seconds. Or French kissing. Or whatever. Know the triggers that could take you all the way to sex. 

Here's where he really shows his hand. Premarital sex is bad and therefore must be avoided. Don't go "all the way." It sounds juvenile because it is.

What else would help? Maybe you’ll agree not to watch movies with sex scenes in them. Or not to send each other notes or texts that are too suggestive. A lot of couples agree to never chill in a horizontal position (lying down on a couch or bed), only in a vertical position.

The Pharisees have a bad reputation through the anti-semitic exaggerations of the canonical Gospels, but this is what we'd call 'phariseeism." Evangelicals talk up grace and freedom, when in actuality they spend a hell of a lot of time making rules about this and that.

“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. — Colossians 2:21-23 (NIV)

These kinds of boundaries may seem petty, and they’re not meant to be legalistic.... 

And yet they are both.

....but they have a way of helping people keep from succumbing to natural temptations. They create a safe place for you to learn about each other. They encourage less touching and more talking.

If they're natural temptations and not unnatural, then why demonize it? Oh right. Purity culture.

If somebody loves quality time and the other one loves physical touch, you’d better set strong physical boundaries because one is going to want to sit on the couch all the time and the other one is going to want to be touched — and that’s a recipe for a baby.

No discussion of safe sex. The assumption is that since premarital sex is bad, then preparing for it in any way is also sinful. Therefore evangelical teens aren't usually educated about premarital sex, and young evangelicals have unprotected sex. They just do. Why pretend that evangelical youth aren't actually having sex behind everyone's back?

After ninety days, have a conversation to see where you stand. Are you attracted to each other? Green light or red flag? 

Oh the sexy formality!

I always encourage people to pay attention to patterns, not potential. All of us have the potential to do better in our weak areas, but can we live with each other’s patterns? For instance, she may seem flirtatious to you, but she says it’s just her personality — she’s bubbly and likes talking to everybody. Can you live with that? Transformation in this area may come eventually, but even if so, there’s no timetable on it.

Note that this all relates only to cisgender people in a heterosexual relationship. Sex between other types of people, and recognition of the range of genders and sexualities, are both off the table. Also, in the example the woman is 'the problem' without necessarily meaning to be. Therefore as always men are warned to be careful. Women are portrayed in purity culture as not being terribly interested in sex itself, and at the same time as potential whores. It's incredible. 

You may want to go ahead with more dating together, hopefully leading to engagement and marriage, or you may decide to call it quits. If you do decide to end it here, hopefully the breakup will happen without all the painful ripping apart that can happen when a dating couple is too tightly bonded. 

Here's what he's actually talking about:

In romantic love, when two people have sex, oxytocin is released, which helps bond the relationship. According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, the hormone oxytocin has been shown to be "associated with the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships and healthy psychological boundaries with other people." When it is released during orgasm, it begins creating an emotional bond -- the more sex, the greater the bond. Oxytocin is also associated with mother/infant bonding, uterine contractions during labor in childbirth and the "let down" reflex necessary for breastfeeding. (Obringer, 2005)

Your relationship goal of marriage is still alive and healthy.

Marriage is the goal. No discussion of other ways of relating, and there's no discussion of singleness. If you want to have sex, you have to be married, and the goal in any case is to get married. I've heard adult singles in churches over the years comment that they feel like second class citizens at times in their own congregations. People will often ask very personal questions about a single person's love, such as 'when are you going to get married' or 'are you seeing anyone yet?' Individuals aren't 'half-people.' They are full human beings. The talk of becoming 'one flesh' through marriage is misapplied here.

In a blog post last year I wrote about how you can't trust (most) churches on sex, and in that piece I discussed the sex education curriculum called Our Whole Lives (OWL). Created through a partnership of the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association, this material provides age-appropriate material for guiding discussions around sexuality. While there are parts for children, teens, and adults, the section that seems to get the most attention is the one directed at teens. This curriculum provides accurate information about sexual health, guidance for sexual ethics, and opportunities for candid conversations about sex itself. Despite its origins in two religious groups, the material is entirely non-religious, suitable for any sex ed course. Rather than produce something only for their own people, these denominations opted to create something to benefit everyone. 

You can learn more about OWL at either of these sites: 
The following are some titles that I strongly recommend around this topic. 
  • Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, by Tina Schermer Sellers [This one could be particularly useful for psychotherapists and clinicians working with evangelicals or exvangelicals, and also for clergy providing pastoral care to former evangelicals.]
In close, a blessing:

If you've been bound by purity culture, may you find freedom. 

If you've been hurt by purity culture, may you find healing. 

May we all experience the joy of being our full, human selves.

Let there be no shame in being who we are, whoever we are.


Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Obringer, L. (2005, February 12). How Love Works. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from

Todd, M. (2020, November 10). Mike Todd: Three Ways to Transform Your Dating Life. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from