For ex-Christian blogger Ruby Claire and those who've opened up to her, breaking free from a sexually repressive Church community was not liberating – it was awkward at best and traumatic at worst.
When I was 18, I was in a committed Christian relationship, destined for marriage, pure in my virginity and commitment to serving the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Growing up, I went to Bible Study on Tuesdays, Youth Group on Fridays and on Sundays, I sang about my love of Jesus at Eagle Vale Anglican Church in Campbelltown, Sydney.
At youth group, boys and girls were separated for “special talks”. Girls were spoken to about modesty, about wearing shirts over bikinis lest their bodies “cause men to stumble”. No spaghetti straps. No short shorts. If we knew our brother in Christ liked perfume, we were told not to wear it in case it “causes him to fall into sin”. Sex, we were taught, was sacred. It must be reserved for the man you marry. I lived by these rules, and when I eventually became a leader at youth group, I enforced them.
But when I was 21, I lost the virginity I had desperately clutched to during my hormone-fuelled teenage years. No, I didn’t submit to temptation. I was raped.
After the rape, I used sex to regain control of my body. I had a lot of sex attempting to suppress the experience where I was not in control. This was difficult to justify as a young Christian. All sex before marriage was punishable by death (Romans 6:23), regardless of whether you were doing it for fun or to heal.
After the rape, I used sex to regain control of my body.
When I was 22, I left the church. I started blogging about my frustrations with sex, and the site quickly gained the attention of other lapsed Christians. I learned that for some, leaving the faith meant throwing themselves headlong into a world where sex toys and video cameras and fetishes reigned. But for most, liberation was awkward at best and traumatic at worst.
Jess*, a 24-year-old woman who once belonged to the Sydney Anglican dioceses, emailed me in response to a callout seeking experiences of sex post-religion for this article:
I can’t orgasm because I can’t relax. I’m literally thinking about hell. It’s been three years since I left Christianity but I can’t shake the thought that a guy who isn’t a Christian just wants me for my body… and I project that insecurity onto him … This is ultimately what ended my only two relationships.
I made him pretend he was religious and didn’t want to have sex.
When I asked her what she has done to regain control of sex, she told me about a recent sexual partner:
I made him pretend he was religious and didn’t want to have sex … I had to convince him it was a good idea. I made him pray at the end of the bed. Through that role play I was able to be the other person and that power allowed me not to freak out.
Alice, a passionate, sex-positive Christian commented on a Facebook post of mine:
If porn was ever discussed it was only for the boys and men. There was complete and utter silence when it came to women using porn, or getting addicted to it. So, when I stumbled across porn when I was 12, and continued using it compulsively until I was 22, I felt I had nowhere safe to turn. I truly believed I was the only woman struggling with it, I was a freak. I wondered if I had too much testosterone, if something was biologically wrong with me for liking porn. I lived in shame and secrecy. Which only made my addiction worse, and bred an intense self-hatred… If someone had just stood up from the front and said that women also use porn, and can get addicted to it, and there's help for them...my life would have looked different.
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Aurora*, now 23, turned her back on the Catholic Church in her late teens. She told me:
…I was molested at a young age. Whenever I heard the minister talk about how it is a sin to not be ‘pure’ before marriage I would feel incredibly guilty and dirty, and this has distorted my views on myself and sex even to this day. I felt trapped, I felt as if I was going to hell or something even though it wasn’t my fault, and I find that I am still overcoming these feelings.
Dr. Josie McSkimming, Clinical Social Worker and author of Leaving Christian Fundamentalism and the Reconstruction of Identity told me that the enforcement of no sex before marriage can “lead to people marrying in haste, often experiencing enormous confusion and self-hate about their sexual feelings. When this is combined with God-given assumptions of male leadership and female submission, the possibility of abuse and violence increases.”
Tim*, a former Sydney Anglican who received a year of formal Biblical training with his Christian wife, tells me that while he didn’t feel “especially unprepared” entering marriage, his wife did.
It was hard for her to transition from viewing sexual desire and action as deviant, to viewing it as healthy… She hadn't explored to find what gave her pleasure, so she couldn't give me much guidance, and she felt guilty about exploring herself… It has mostly only caused tension for me, as I've never really been able to get what I wanted - because my desire in sex is to be with someone who's also seeking their own physical pleasure, and who knows what they want, so I've always kind of felt unsatisfied. Since stepping away from faith, this has led me to bring up the idea of a more open marriage arrangement (just sexually, not romantically). But that's very much incompatible with my wife's religious views (and just her personal desires as well) so it's pretty unlikely to happen any time soon.
If someone had said women also use porn, and can get addicted to it... my life would have looked different.
Mon*, a Sydney non-denominational Christian who married at 21 told me:
During the first few years of my marriage I definitely felt like a disappointment, or like there was something wrong with me, because I didn’t know how to make myself orgasm and I couldn’t give my husband any guidance either… I felt like it was directly related to the church.
Mon didn’t sleep naked for at least eight months after getting married. "I felt uncomfortable with my bare body. How are you supposed to navigate sex when you don’t even like being naked? If my cleavage can cause sin, how much more my entire naked body?”
After sex, I just want to distance myself from that person as much as I can.
For many who are not married and no longer religiously affiliated, this confusion and self-hate maintains a foothold on their sex life. Jake*, the gay son of an Anglican Minister in Sydney, told me that he struggles with sex:
I get nervous a lot of the time, sometimes I start shaking. But it's normally after [sex], I just want to distance myself from that person as much as I can. Sometimes I'll be a bit cold and distant because of the guilt I'm wrestling with internally.
Via Instagram, former Sydney Anglican, Claire*, told me:
I never felt guilty before or during. Only after. And if things weren’t going great, I felt like it was the karma. I know it’s irrational, but we’ve been drilled into believing it’s for marriage only. I love [sex], but I feel like it makes me a bad person. Or a lesser person.
Most of the people I spoke to didn’t have an issue with the belief that sex should be saved for marriage. The primary concern was with the way this was communicated by their church, predominantly during childhood. As a result, a number of Sydney Christians are stepping up within traditionally conservative structures, such as the Ministry of Sex, to challenge the way that sex and purity are discussed.
I still grapple with bouts of guilt and, like Jake and Claire, this often arrives after a sexual experience, when my partner has fallen asleep and I’m lying there bleary-eyed, overwhelmed by the uninvited Bible verses and sermons filtering through the bed sheets.
However, I have spent considerable time unpicking learned beliefs with therapists, vibrator-gifting friends and understanding partners. Consequently, I have built a new code of sexual ethics separate from faith and I can proudly say that I feel in control and empowered through sex, in all its passionate glory.
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Ruby Claire is a freelance contributor. She blogs at The Gravity of Guilt.
*Names have been changed for privacy.