I'm happy with this post.
You read student journals in a women's studies class often enough, and teach sex ed in a church youth group for a few years, and you eventually get accustomed to hearing one familiar question over and over again:
Is it okay to do everything "but"?
We're talking about sex again, of course. And in the current climate of highly politicized public discussions of abstinence and safer sex, there's virtually no one who defends those millions of teens and young adults who are virgins, but regularly engage in other forms of sexual activity. Few Christian conservatives condone oral sex or other genital activity that doesn't involve vaginal penetration. Most of those who argue for abstinence argue for nothing more than light kissing, and some of the most enthusiastic purveyors of the purity message argue that even a peck on the lips ought to be saved for marriage.
On the other hand, the "pro-sex" crowd tends to make fun of those folks whom they scornfully call "technical" virgins. I've often heard from my secular friends that it's downright silly for a young person to do "everything but". "If they've already gone so far as to have oral sex -- or mutual masturbation -- what point is there in continuing to hold back? Aren't they just being silly and legalistic? Why not go ahead and get the whole thing over with -- it's not like you're perfectly 'pure' anyway!"
This year, a couple of the kids in youth group asked (through anonymous notes) how we (the adults) felt about doing "everything but." And this semester, as always, more than one student in my women's studies class has volunteered that he or she is a virgin, but regularly does "other things." Mind you, I don't pry; folks tend to volunteer this information. And here at PCC, the students most likely to tell me that they are doing everything but are my fellow Christians. They are often anxious to know how I feel about their choice to take a middle ground position between absolute abstinence and actual vaginal intercourse.
Let me say this loud and clear: I believe that for some young people, "everything but" is the best possible sexual choice that they can make.
It isn't just Christian kids who are in the "everything but" club. I know lots of young people in my youth group and here at PCC who have said that they are waiting to "lose" their virginity with someone they really love. Theirs is not an issue of fidelity to religious teaching, but rather a touching fidelity to romantic ideals. Instinctively, they grasp that vaginal intercourse is somehow qualitatively different from any other form of sexual expression. Of course, for young women, vaginal intercourse is loaded with the fear of pregnancy, a fear that can be alleviated by "doing other things." And while oral sex can spread sexually transmitted infections, it doesn't happen as easily as it does with actual intercourse.
Most young people are, as any youth leader knows, far more romantic and idealistic than they may at first appear. Virginal girls and boys alike, in my experience, still imbue their "first time" with great emotional importance -- time and again, even in this modern age, I hear young people talking about the prospect of intercourse with a mixture of desire and anxiety, anticipation and uncertainty, longing and worry, fear and trembling. Even if they can't always articulate why this one particular act is so special, they believe that it is. Perhaps that belief is rooted in our biology, and perhaps in a culture that elevates heterosexual vaginal intercourse to a special place in the hierarchy of sexual behavior. But regardless of where these kids get the idea, a heavy majority seem to believe that intercourse is a unique experience, and that they have an obligation to make the first time "special".
We have to learn to sit up before we can stand, stand before we can walk, and walk before we can run. In the same way, I think healthy sexual development is one that unfolds in distinct, marked phases. Young people do well to move, at their own speed and according to their own comfort level, towards greater and greater sexual intimacy. When I write this, I am not defending the oft-remarked upon practice of very young girls offering oral sex to boys as a means of gaining popularity and of "soothing" rambunctious male libidos. But this image of "blowjob culture" (where girls receive no pleasure in return) may be an exaggeration foisted upon us by a hysterical press. Recent academic studies (read this article) suggest a high degree of reciprocity among adolescents who are engaging in oral sex. That's something I find very encouraging.
Whether one is a Christian or not, it seems sensible to say that healthy sexual activity is characterized by respect, mutuality, reciprocity, and a concern both for pleasure and the emotional consequences of what is shared. Many, many young people are -- for reasons that may be psychological, spiritual, emotional, or romantic -- unready for vaginal intercourse. At the same time they are hungry for intimacy and sexual expression. Put more simply, they're horny. Doing "everything but" makes good sense for many of these young people. It allows them to learn about sex and experience intense physical closeness without the unique emotional and physical vulnerability that comes with actual intercourse. For a great many young people, "everything but" is not only undeserving of ridicule, it's a heck of a good idea.
But what about for Christians? I teach Christian teens in a youth group, and I tend to get questions regularly about the morality of "everything but" from Christian high schoolers and college students. Many of these kids feel trapped between a secular culture which often urges them to "get it over with" and a conservative religious world which sees all forms of pre-marital genital sexual activity as fundamentally sinful. Many of these young Christians are in the "everything but" club, but they are often ambivalent and guilt-ridden about being there.
The New Testament does not talk about "everything but." Oral sex, mutual masturbation, and heavy make-out sessions are not addressed in the Gospels or the Epistles -- or, for that matter, in the early writings of the church. It's safe to say that the mainstream position of Christian teaching is to say that actual virginity prior to marriage represents "God's best". But whether that "best" allows other forms of sexual activity, or only light kissing, or only hand-holding, we can't say. There are plenty of folks in the Christian world making a small fortune peddling their own theories as to what exactly constitutes "purity", but the Scripture they quote in defense of those theories is, to put it mildly, vague and unconvincing!
A wonderful student of mine and I were talking several years ago. She was in an "everything but" relationship with her boyfriend, and he wanted to have intercourse -- and she wasn't sure. A devout Christian and an enormously sensitive and compassionate person, she wanted to know whether there was any point in "waiting" once she'd already done "everything but." I said yes, there was. Speaking off the top of my head, I told her that she might think of God's plan for her this way:
God wants you to have three things inside of you over the course of your life: the Holy Spirit, your husband's body, and your child. No matter what else you do, there's something radically different -- in a theological sense -- about intercourse. I think that for you, God's best may be having just you take just those three inside of you.
Later on, I wondered if that didn't sound silly. But the young woman to whom I spoke these words is still a friend, and she reminded me quite recently of how important those words had been to her some five years ago. She's not yet married, but to the best of my knowledge, is still a virgin.
I pass no judgment on those young people, Christian or not, who choose to have sexual intercourse before marriage. (I lost my seat in judgment city decades ago, and for good reason.) I honor those young people who believe that God has called them to an especially restrictive understanding of purity. I've been to weddings and watched a couple kiss -- for the first time ever -- after they were pronounced man and wife. I celebrate that choice! But I don't think that it makes good sense to suggest that there's nothing valuable about taking the middle ground position of "everything but." For a great many young people, "doing everything but" offers a chance to explore and grow emotionally and sexually while remaining true to their spiritual and romantic commitments. Rather than ridiculing it, all of us who call ourselves older and wiser would do well to consider the possibility that "everything but" may represent not a foolish and indefensible compromise, but a healthy and spiritually mature middle ground.
As Christians, we are told over and over again, to quote someone whose name escapes me, that we "live in the tension between the Already and the Not Yet." That's a nice way of thinking about the return of our Savior King, but it also is a nice way of acknowledging what it is to live between the onset of sexual feelings and one's wedding day. "Everything but" is, I think, often a laudable response to that tension.