Navigating Sexual Intimacy as Newly Married Egalitarians

by Sarah Colson | August 31, 2015

I was in the lunch room with my friends. I had just broken up with my boyfriend of seven months—a big deal for a seventeen year-old. I was consumed with all the awkwardness that comes with figuring out who to sit with at the lunch table now that the relationship has ended.

An annoying teenage boy voice interrupted my inner monologue: “He broke up with you, because you wouldn’t let him kiss you, didn’t he?”

Tears in my eyes, I picked up my lunch tray and walked away, defeated. There was no way around it. I was the know-it-all virgin who wouldn’t give boys what they wanted, and would probably die a virgin in a house full of cats. No, not cats. Dogs. I didn’t like cats.

A year later, I met the man who would eventually become my husband. His name was Jonathan and he was a Brazilian soccer player. We started dating nearly a year after he moved to town.

I was so attracted to him—more than I would have ever thought possible. I was deeply intrigued by his big dreams and trustworthy demeanor. And when we kissed, it was like an electric bolt.

This man was different. I didn't understand how at the time, but I knew something big was ahead of us.

Kissing Jonathan led to the initiation of my first physical relationship. However, we both remained adamant—no sex before marriage. I never feared that I would be pressured to do anything I didn’t want to do. It was the thought that I might lose my identity as the sweet, innocent girl who got made fun of in lunch rooms that scared me the most.

And, it wasn’t that I felt guilty because I was attracted to him. No, instead, I felt guilty for not feeling guilty. I had been taught, mostly in church, that being attracted to anyone was lust. It was always a sin.

The church had successfully silenced me from asking any awkward questions about where to draw the line in a physical relationship, or how to understand my own sexuality as a female. Sex was sex and anything that made me think of sex was probably off-limits.

When I struggled to balance my new feelings while maintaining my relationship with the church, I went to the one person I had always gone to for advice: my mom. Awkwardly, I asked her if there was any advice she’d give to someone, say a friend, who was struggling with where to draw the line when it came to physical relationships between Christians.

I knew my mom would see right through me. She would know that the girl wasn’t a friend or some other character. It was me.

Her sweet, naïve little girl wanted to know how far was too far. Just give me the rules. Tell me what’s okay, and what’s off-limits.

Instead, she told me something that I have used as a guideline for all kinds of decisions: sin is whatever distracts you from God. I took a few days away from Jonathan and did some serious praying. Once I overcame the fear of coming to my creator with all of my uncomfortable questions, I found no guilt or shame in my quiet moments with Christ. I only felt joy and peace.

I wish this had comforted me, but it left me confused—and feeling disconnected from a religion that had always taught me, or so it seemed, that this desire for intimacy was sinful. But what happens when your desire for intimacy with another person doesn’t distract you from God?

Jonathan and I wrestled with that question, together, until our wedding night three years later. That night, we were both freed from guilt or shame or questions. I was ready for a life full of simple intimacy with my husband.

But a couple days into the honeymoon, a strange thing happened. Jonathan was acting like he didn’t want to have sex. Considering we had gone years narrowly missing that line, I was a bit surprised.

All I had learned before getting married told me that Jonathan would be the one to initiate sex, and I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as him.

 So, what was happening?

Jonathan was feeling the same guilt and shame every time we had sex that I had experienced in high school over my desire for intimacy. He was so terrified that he was objectifying me that he could barely share the same bed.

My heart was filled with doubt. I thought that because I wanted to initiate sex, I was a controlling, sex-crazed, masculine spouse. And because he felt so guilty, he refused to initiate, and then felt guilty about not putting his wife first. My new husband was fighting all he the messages he had learned as a small boy: objectifying women is bad. And, truly this lesson is an excellent one.

Still, the line between objectifying and desiring intimacy had been greatly blurred with years and years of preached shame and guilt. It was a dangerous tug-of-war between who should have authority and knowing whether or not intimacy was something to ask forgiveness for.

Shame and guilt do one thing and one thing only: they keep people quiet. But we need to be talking about sex (yes, even to our high school students. In fact, especially to them)! We need to be encouraged by God’s desire for intimacy with us and among us. There’s a reason why we need to talk about it. It’s not only so we can help others, but so we learn more about ourselves.

Honestly, I am really unsure about the role intimacy plays in my life. It’s awkward for me to write about, because I really haven’t worked through this stuff, yet. Even as I write about it, I am learning secrets about myself and my sex life that I’ve never really understood. And, I’m also learning that there is great power in speaking up.

It took months for Jonathan to recover from feeling guilty for wanting to have sex with his wife. It took months for me to allow myself to feel empowered instead of like an ashamed high school girl for my own sex drive.

It will take all the years we have together to figure out how to be best friends and partners to each other. There has never been some grand epiphany about our sex life. It’s been a lot of awkward conversations and the realization by both of us have that we would have to give up control to gain trust and intimacy.

Jonathan wasn’t exactly encouraged to do that. Meanwhile, I was taught to be quiet—that perhaps I never had any control in the first place. This lesson didn’t always come in the form of complete and utter oppression. But, every preacher who beat around the bush and every sermon that only offered condemnation without hope and honesty felt a lot like a seventeen year-old being shamed in a high school lunch room.

I know I’m not the only one who heard voices of shame surrounding sex prior to (and even after) marriage. The voices that sometimes shout from Christian radio stations and other times are whispered in the disapproving glances of well-meaning Christian parents and leaders tell us:

“Be quiet about your sex life, because you should be embarrassed about it. Be quiet when you have questions about sin, because it’s all clearly there in Scripture. Be quiet about the awkwardness of sex, because it’s not for you, it’s for him.”

But now it’s time to let the truth speak. As a church, we’re not helping anyone, and rarely do, by being silent about sex.

I’m not saying sex can’t be bad. It can. Like my mom says: anything that distracts you from God is bad. But sex for intimacy, between spouses who have chosen to give up control, is good. In fact, it’s not just biblical—intimacy is at the very heart of who God is.

Why did God create? Was he lonely? I’m not sure, but I think God wanted intimacy. He wanted someone to pour out his secrets to. He wanted someone to spend eternity figuring out all the intricacies of who he is. He wanted someone to trust him enough to give up all of their authority. After all, that’s what he did on the cross. I think this concept of sacrificing control is vital to the Christian walk—because God was tortured and crucified to prove that intimacy is only possible after forfeiting control. It took a physical sacrifice on a bloody cross to prove to his creation that he not only that he wanted to be intimate with them, but that it takes loss of control to gain intimacy. The least we can do for one another is rid the church of the lie that intimacy is not what human beings were created forand that we shouldn't mutually sacrifice power and control to engage in real intimacy in marriage. And, the least we can do is start this conversation.