There’s a strange phenomenon that happens when you’re a Christian couple who gets engaged. You spend years as a teenager being told not to have sex. You find a partner and then become surrounded with friends who seek to help you with accountability in this hormone-raging time. You spend months, years even, being told that sex is something special and private to be shared between a married couple. But then you get engaged and, apparently, everything changes.
Suddenly, it’s OK to talk about sex (and in the fun, Sex and the City way rather than the less fun, “Thou shalt not” kind of way). Soon you’ll be married, and then you get to have all the sex you want. Understandably, your church family are very happy about this on your behalf, and so want to share in this joy. Suddenly you hear your fair share of dirty jokes and innuendos. Nice ladies in the congregation buy you lacy underwear for a hen do present. There’s a whole week dedicated to it on the pre-marriage course, although you spend most of that session cringing. Most of all you’re told just how good it’s going to be, and how you’re going to be at it all the time. It’s all in good fun, it’s all well-meant, but I’m beginning to wonder: are we missing something important out of the conversation?
Imagine you’re a girl in her 20s (this is, I believe, equally applicable to guys too but, as this is a women’s magazine and all, we’ll go with a female protagonist). You’re a young adult in your 20s. You’ve grown up being told that sex is wrong and you shouldn’t do it – hopefully in nicer and more nuanced terms than that, but this is what you’ve internalised. Apart from being told the biological logistics and morality of the whole thing, no one has ever really sat you down and told you about sex. No one has really communicated to you what a healthy sexual relationship looks like. No one has affirmed the values of communicating with your partner, of knowing what you like, of being able to say “no” when you don’t feel like it.
And so you’ve turned to your friends and the media for knowledge, because you’ll have to know something about sex once you’re on your honeymoon. You try and glean what you can from your mates chatting about it at school, only to get the wrong end of the stick and make a fool of yourself when you attempt joining in the conversation (this happened to me, and it was mega embarrassing). You read books and watch movies depicting sex scenes, and develop unrealistic expectations of what it’s going to be like (great lighting, no mess and mutual fulfilment every time). You Google it because you’re too scared to ask anyone in real life. And then you get engaged, and everyone compounds your knowledge with more jokes that you try to work out, and more expectations that are never going to be met.
When I got married, more than anything I remember thinking, “Why did no one ever tell me it would be like this?” Years of internalising how “wrong” sex was had seeped its way into my brain and made it difficult for me to feel comfortable with it. Years of hearing horror stories from my mates about guys and what they were “into” – and how you just had to shut up and get on with it – made me terrified of what I might be asked to do (by, you know, my husband and best friend who would never, ever make me do anything I didn’t want to do). Years of watching romantic movies made me think there was something wrong with me, because those sex scenes were perfect first time, every time, and we just weren’t getting there. No one had ever told me it would be like this, and so I believed that there was something wrong with me – and the Christian comments did not help.
In the run up to the wedding, I’d heard my fair share of lewd jokes about the wedding night – which is not fun when you haven’t even had sex yet and people are already commenting on your sex life. And then I came home from my honeymoon to a host of “nudge, nudges” and “So…how was it?” One friend – who had even had sex and therefore knew what your first time is like – asked, “Seriously, was it amazing?” Amazing? On the first try? Or even after a week of trying? I was still getting over the fact that someone else was allowed to see me naked, and yet I was expected to have already made the switch from Pure Virgin to Sex Goddess.
And, as I said before, it’s understandable why, when a couple gets engaged, Christians like to join in the conversation in this way. It’s OK to talk about it now, and so we go overboard – and I say “we” because I definitely do it too. But sometimes we need to draw a line. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves if we know these people well enough to be making these kinds of jokes. Sometimes we need to remember that these are two people who have never done it before, and maybe want to keep this experience between themselves – at least until they get used to it. And sometimes, if we’re the appropriate person for the job, we need to take that newly-engaged person out for a coffee and say, “You probably have all kinds of questions and expectations about this. I’m happy to share my experience with you. What do you want to know?”
We need to be able to talk honestly about sex, and those conversations need to start before that couple joins the “You’re getting married so now it’s OK” club. We tell teenagers not to watch porn, but we also need to explain that this is because porn shows unrealistic depictions of male and female bodies and sexual prowess, and that isn’t how it is in real life. We tell them that sex before marriage is wrong, but do we explain what sex within marriage should be? We tell them sex within marriage is God’s best, but do we describe what that “best” is?
Young people need to know that it won’t be great at first, it can take a little while to get it right, but that’s normal. They need to be taught that you get better at it by communicating and laughing when it goes wrong (because it will go wrong at times and it’s good to giggle at these things). They need to be taught that it’s OK to take it slow, even after you’ve walked down the aisle, because saying “I do” doesn’t necessarily mean that your brain has caught up and what happens in the first few months of your marriage is nobody’s business but yours and your spouse’s. It means we may need to make ourselves vulnerable, and open up about our experiences with UTIs, or vaginismus, or painful intercourse.
I’m not saying that we should start sharing our bedroom horror stories with every young person or engaged couple we know (frankly, we might not always be the appropriate person for that conversation) but if we don’t talk about sex honestly, if we don’t share the good, the bad and the ugly, then we risk generations of young couples thinking they’re the only ones this is happening to. We risk them feeling isolated and alone. Conversations about sex aren’t easy or comfortable – especially if you’re having those conversations with your own teenagers – but if we can stop someone feeling embarrassed, lonely or ashamed about sex, surely it’s worth a little awkwardness?
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti