“Add an ‘I’ to it,” Kevin said to me, Jim and Dan. We looked at him with confusion. We were in the upper youth room at Westside Baptist Church surrounded by all the other teenaged boys in our high school youth group. The girls were in a separate room that day. It was day one of the “Love, Sex and Dating” Sunday School series, which we’d been looking to with great anticipation for weeks in the winter of 1999. Each of us had a stapled packet of information with the series name on the cover page.
“What are you talking about?” said Jim.
“In front of the title on the cover page, add an ‘I’ to it!” Kevin said.
The three of us looked back down at our packets and within seconds figured it out. Love, Sex and Dating became “I Love Sex and Dating” if we made that subtle change, and we laughed our asses off, each of us taking our pens and adding the ‘I’ as Kevin had instructed.
The four of us were what you’d call the ‘bad boys’ of youth group. We wore the cool clothes of our day, which often included American Eagle cargo pants, Abercrombie & Fitch hoodies and fresh, white sneakers. We fit in at school. And to boot, we flirted with girls. But we had a heart for God and church too, and as such, we were regulars at church, Wednesday night bible study and Sunday school.
These guys were and are my best friends.
That year, we were freshmen in high school. It had been one full year since I’d first started going to church with Dan, a friend of mine from middle school who had invited me to a teen night event with the promise of fun, games, girls and snacks. I was intrigued by the faith and doing right by God – I was a good kid and my values always seemed to fit naturally with what I understood to be the requirements for Christianity – believe in God, pray to him, be a good person and don’t kill anyone.
Plus, this youth group had cute girls and snacks on top of it. I was a regular at church thereafter.
While I started going to church, the teens and pre-teens there were taking written vows of sexual purity; an agreement to save sex for marriage. Many of them hadn’t had many chances to have sex (me included) – or even wanted to – but the ritual ceremony went on nevertheless.
There were 20 to 30 teenagers taking the purity vow in our church alone.
At the direction of church Pastor Barry Lawrence, each child, side by side with their parents, signed the purity document. When that was done, and as part of the tradition, each signee received a piece of jewelry from their parents as a gift to symbolize their commitment. Girls mostly received purity rings and guys mostly received a necklace of some sort.
One of my close friends recalls only one teenager not signing the purity vow that day. Or two, rather. I was the other, partly because I was brand new to the church. But the significance wasn’t lost on me. Silently, I took the same vow they did that day. At 13 years old, I was going to be a virgin until I was married. Because sex was a gift from God, but you were only allowed to receive that gift once you said “I do.”
And I felt immense fulfillment in the decision I’d made. I was proud. God was proud. The youth leaders around us were proud.
The hit book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” came out in 1997 at the height of the mostly-Evangelical Christian “purity movement” and sold 1.2 million copies. Our purity vow ceremony would come a year later, but that book cemented the “true love waits” slogan, and ushered in a re-energized era of pubescents who were willfully strapping on virtual chastity belts in the name of honoring God.
It was introduced to us as an almost biblical add-on guide; our pastors and youth leaders swore by the principles it espoused, and since the bible is mostly thin on long-form content about dating, relationships and sex, several us took that book as if it were the fifth, most-relevant gospel.
The book’s title was explained inside, and the author reasoned that dating implied a lack of sincerity or intention. Instead, Christians should court one another, which meant dating with the sole intent of getting married to that person.
And its biggest call to arms for its youthful readers was to keep it in our pants (I’m summarizing, of course).
But, if you’ve never been a 13-year-old boy, let me tell you what’s going on over there – it’s basically just boner after unexplained boner. You’re like a heroin addict for anything sex related – conversations, old porno mags, the scrambled signal of the Spice channel in your parents’ bedroom, and yes, even the act itself.
In short, the purity vows we took at age 13 were immediately threatened by a fiery hormonal rage that put our purity-seeking brains at perpetual odds with our pleasure-seeking loins.
On that first day of “I Love Sex and Dating,” the teenaged boys I shared a room with were taught some of the basics that the Bible offers its readers about sex. Some of it we’d already heard, but of course, it needed to be reinforced. First, God designed woman for man. Genesis 2:18 NIV: “The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (And boom, he made Eve).
We were taught that man would leave his family to be with a woman – one woman – and to build a family with her, and that that model of family is the underpinning of the Christian community. (Genesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:31 NIV: “…a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”)
Sex was to be saved for marriage with that one woman.
But at that point, we’d noticed that the Bible never came out and said you shouldn’t have sex with anyone else before marriage; it may have been implied, yet we probed at the discovery, or rather the loophole. We asked for clarity. (Hebrews 13:4 ESV: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”)
God makes it clear that the institution of marriage is where sex belongs, we were told. Not because he explicitly says otherwise, but because it’s the only context in which sex is described as honorable. Sodom and Gomorrah was a story of immorality with vague sexual elements, which showed that sex outside of a man-and-woman marriage was dishonorable. Laying with (sexing) another man’s wife was dishonorable. (Proverbs 6:29 (NIV) So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished.) And so on.
Sure, the Bible wasn’t coming out and saying not to have premarital sex, but it wasn’t giving you another model for enjoying it outside of the confines of marriage, either.
That, we were told, was our answer.
We weren’t old enough to consider another nuance at the time – that, in Biblical times, by the time people started having sexual urges (14, 15 years old), they were already getting married. Research seems to indicate that the Bible’s Mary, when she was engaged to marry Joseph, was likely 15 or 16 years old. And we all know what happened next – she became pregnant and gave birth as a virgin to the Son of God, Jesus.
Sex was supposed to be pleasurable, and the book Songs of Solomon was introduced to us as evidence of that — Solomon in particular seemed like a real poetic, romantic sex fiend. My kind of guy.
I mean, just get a whiff of this softcore porn! Songs of Solomon 4:5: “Thy two breasts are like two young does that are twins.” Nice! And then he also wrote in Proverbs 5:18, 19: “Let your water source prove to be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of your youth, a lovable hind and a charming mountain goat. Let her own breasts intoxicate you at all times. With her love may you be in an ecstasy constantly.”
Maybe we were just hormonal drunks. Or maybe it’s just human nature. But the notion that sex was exclusively for marriage wasn’t something we accepted at face value with open hearts. It wasn’t an opportunity to honor God, hard as we tried to agree with that notion. Instead, it was an obstacle. We didn’t want to sit on the top of the hill of sexual purity, looking down at ways to defend its honor, to protect it from incoming attacks.
No, we looked at it from the opposite side. On the ground level, looking up to the hill with raging boners and a single-minded obsession with finding a way to topple every obstacle in our path on the way to the top of that hill – without dishonoring what sat at the top. Purity. Marriage. God.
Instead, we had to flee temptation. We were told that teenaged girls in short skirts could be “stumbling blocks” on our path to purity. We later learned that those same girls, who’d been separated into their own room, were taught that they were essentially walking vaginas with arms, legs and a brain attached, and that the greatest gift they could give to their future husband was an uncompromised vulva.
I’m summarizing, of course, and despite my making light of those scenarios, the veracity of those lessons would be substantiated by anyone else who shared the space with me in those years. Sometimes, they used metaphors as illustrations to help us explain why our purity vow was so critical. If you take a piece of tape and stick it to a shirt, it sticks. It holds firm. But each time you pull that tape off, and attach it to another shirt, it loses its stickiness. The same could be said for us if we used our bodies for physical gratification with anyone other than our future husband or wife. Sure, that made sense.
But not all the lessons were as cut and dry. There seemed to be unanimous agreement on holding off on sex until marriage, but we of course had questions that weren’t as easily answered.
“So how far is too far?” I asked in front of the group.
“Well, if you get to a point that you have to ask, do you think that might be too far?” my youth leader responded.
Who was I kidding? I was 13 and I hadn’t even kissed a girl yet. I didn’t know what was too far and I hadn’t had any experience that would even be considered a step toward finding out. And the truth is, I was more intrigued by talking about sex in the only place that it seemed appropriate to do so, since the church had sanctioned the dialogue.
In hindsight, I think I was asking for permission to do…well, anything. Partly because I was curious. And partly because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. In fact, despite learning more in each passing year, I still felt clueless. But to understand the full scope of my naïveté, we must start sooner in the story. In 6th grade.