During my junior year of high school, my Southern Baptist church mounted a True Love Waits campaign. I vividly remember well-meaning but embarrassed adults reciting talking points in a room still half-darkened after an overwrought video viewing. Afterward each youth was handed a TLW pledge card and a pen, with the clear expectation that we would sign away any pre-marital possibilities of fornication on the spot. I scrawled my name enthusiastically. When asked, I proudly marched to the front of the worship space to declare my chaste intentions before the whole congregation. I hung my turquoise pledge card above the switchplate in my bedroom as a reminder of my promises to God, myself, and my future husband. I was girded up for battle with my hormones and any potential suitor’s ill intentions.
And then I went to a sleepover at my Sunday School teacher’s house. There girls who were younger than me and who had committed to virginity alongside me shared about their sexual encounters, mostly with older boys who had applied at least a modicum of pressure. An unmarried woman in her twenties, my teacher answered our questions about sex from personal experience. I was confused, to say the least.
My confusion, which followed me into my adult years, didn’t just impact my romantic relationships. It also hamstrung my ministry to youth. I have had primary ministerial responsibility for youth on and off over the last fourteen years. In that time I’ve often felt convicted to discuss sexuality in the context of theology and discipleship. And I’ve not had a clue how to do it. While I don’t think abstinence-only sex ed does anyone any favors – there are plenty of studies that show this approach generally does not reduce risky behaviors but instead leaves young people more vulnerable to poor choices – I couldn’t sort my own heart and mind out enough to make sex an approachable, healthy, or faithful topic in the congregational setting. The best I could do was to let my kids know that I loved them and that I was available to discuss difficult things with them.
If I’d had Bromleigh McCleneghan’s new book Good Christian Sex sooner, I’d have been much better prepared to deal with my own mess of thoughts and feelings and to help others sort through theirs. Bromleigh, a United Methodist minister, gives us a book that is well-researched and well-rounded. It draws from scripture as well as from the writings of theologians, psychologists, and philosophers. It’s located, meaning it takes biblical and contemporary sociopolitical contexts into account. It parses out terms that have often been lumped together, like “celibacy” and “chastity.” It’s readable, with a narrative touch and phrases that transport me back to key relational moments. It’s clear and convicted in its premise – that sexual intimacy can be a means of knowing and channeling the Source of all love. It offers a perspective that pushes back against a sometimes abusive purity culture.
But perhaps my biggest takeaways from reading Good Christian Sex were the self-discoveries the book prompted. I thought I’d been carrying one heavy piece of baggage all these years – the message that girls/women who have sex before marriage are damaged goods. But it turns out that in addition to the TLW sentiments that were seared into my brain, the burden was actually distributed among several pieces of luggage: my deep ambivalence (until a God-given vision five years ago) about becoming pregnant. The fact that physical touch is decidedly not my love language of choice. The mixed messages of chastity and self-determination ingrained in me by six years of single-sex education. My concerns about raising a boy in a culture that promotes violence against women.
The gifts of reading this book aren’t all about identifying what has weighed me down, though. I had a sudden, somewhat shocking clarification that while I am progressive on many issues, I am decidedly conservative on this one. I made/renewed my commitment not to judge or shame others – equally loved and valued by God – for making different choices than me. I owned that I am happy with the decisions I have made around sex, even when they weren’t always made for the most healthy reasons.
I believe this is what a good book does. It informs. It gives readers something to push back on. It forges new connections and encourages new understandings. So while I don’t agree with every point in Good Christian Sex, I am very grateful to Bromleigh for writing it, and I highly recommend it to ministers, youth workers, and parents as a means of preparing for hard but essential conversations.