I’m terrified of sex.
One of my youth pastors in junior high had a shirt that said, “I practice safe sex. Instead of crossing my fingers I cross my legs.”
My legs have been crossed so tight for the past twenty-six years I’m pretty sure my sperm are crying.
I always figured a theology of sex would be unlocked when I was married, that all I needed to do was wait like a good soldier, crossing my legs and whistling, pretending like I didn’t think about sex. So that’s what I did. I let the “Wait for marriage” mantra pulsate around my sex drive like the Good Morning America banner in Times Square.
But now I’m twenty-six and not married, looking back on a lifetime of piling up my fear and sex drive like dirty clothes—shoving them in the closet of my brain and fighting hard to close the door and not let them out.
But the fear-sex-and-wait-for-marriage-and-figure-it-out-later concept isn’t working.
I’m terrified of sex.
Last year I decided to finally face it and went almost as far back in time as possible: I read a commentary of Song of Songs. (To be exact, Tremper Longman III’s commentary Song of Songs.)
Yes, that Song of Songs, the one with lines like, “Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing” (4:2a ESV). The book is a compilation of love poems and boasts just three major characters: the man, the woman, and the chorus of single women. It also has tons and tons and tons of sexual innuendoes.
Learning about it has been revolutionary for me. It dispelled so many of my fears and misconceptions, and I wish every Christian fearing sex and confused by it took the time to read it.
Yes, Everyone Can Want It
Two verses stand out. The first is 4:5 and is from the man: “Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that graze among the lilies” (ESV). Early church theologians argued that this was referring to the New and Old Testaments, separate but united (would our Bible cases then be the bra?). They tried to spiritualize it, afraid of making it physical.
The second verse is from the woman describing the man: “His body is polished ivory, bedecked with sapphires” (5:14b ESV). Longman, in his commentary, translates the verse differently. Instead, he writes, “His member is an ivory tusk” and suggests she’s talking about the man’s dangling participle, if you know what I mean (Tremper, 164).
Sho Baraka, a Christian rapper, had his album banned by a Christian bookstore for using the term “penis.” Maybe he should have used “ivory tusk.”
This feels so obvious to so many people, but for me it is still a crazy idea: sexual desire is a good thing. It is God-created and God-ordained, and Song of Songs absolutely revels in the beauty of it. Not the spiritualized beauty of it either; it revels in the beauty of the rubber-meets-the-road, bodies-meet-the-bed part.
Yes, That Means Women Can Want It Too
Growing up, I never actually thought women wanted to have sex. I always heard they were all about the emotional stuff and only did it because men were obsessed with it. Emotions and sex were always in tension, bound together by manipulation—men using emotions to get sex; women using sex to get emotions.
Song of Songs says this dichotomy isn’t true. Out of the 117 verses, the woman speaks sixty-one of them (that’s page seven in the commentary—right smack in the beginning). She says things like, “Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me!” (2:5-6).
That woman wants sex. Period.
Whoever got the idea that Christian women don’t have sexual desire was wrong. Whoever made women feel shame for sexual desire was wrong. Whoever suggested that women focus only on emotions like some libido-less creatures was wrong.
Not only does the woman in Song of Songs enjoy sex, she also initiates and pursues sex. She isn’t just submissive putty for the man’s inclinations. No; she is autonomous and practices initiative. Any submission is mutual submission.
Women and men both can want sex. Period.
Yes, Even Single People Can Want It
If you’re like me, it’s easy to read this and think “That’s great, but they’re in an Old Testament marriage-type-thing so they can want all the sex in the world. I’m single and should feel ashamed for wanting anything looking like sex.” Nope, nope, nope. You, my dear single friend, can want sex too.
The third “character” in the Song is the chorus of single women. They spend the entire song celebrating the sexual union of the woman and the man. One of my favorite moments of this happens in 4:16 when they sing to the couple: “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!”
I feel shameful for wanting to be “tipsy with love,” much less “drunk with love.” But the Song never seems shame-inducing. The single women are active and aware that sex is real and celebrate the woman and the man’s ability to do it.
I’m single. I can want sex.
So Why Am I Waiting?
This past year was difficult for me. I wanted to give it all up and get it over with multiple times. I couldn’t just sit with my legs crossed and the mantra “Wait for Marriage” any longer. I either needed to give it up or learn why I was waiting.
Eugene Peterson writes in As Kingfishers Catch Fire that some unknown Jewish priest ordered that the Song of Songs be read aloud after the Passover meal each year. The Passover—the central act of God saving the Israelites in the Old Testament—would be joined together and commemorated with the most vulnerable and open of human acts.
Phyllis Trible, in her book God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, proposes that, for Jewish audiences, the Song of Songs acts as the completion of the Garden of Eden narrative in the Old Testament. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they immediately became ashamed of their nakedness—their sexuality was broken by pride. Trible argues that Song of Songs is the happy ending: humans back doing what they were designed to do, free from the shame of their nakedness.
In the book itself, the woman responds to the single women and their desire for sex often by saying something like, “Do not awaken love until it’s time.” She doesn’t shame them for desiring it, but she advises them to practice self-control.
All three of these examples have helped me figure out why I’m still waiting. They point to the deeper reality of sex. They say that sex is the ultimate act of commitment you can do on this earth, and it signifies a depth of beauty and vulnerability unknown this side of heaven. To put it in Harry Potter terms, it is the unbreakable vow for us muggles.
Sex is bringing all of my physical and emotional and relational strengths and flaws into congruence with all of her physical and emotional and relational strengths and flaws. This reaches its apex under the banner of commitment; it is safest in the overarching knowledge of covenant.
So, before I’m married and ready, I’m learning that self-control is the opposite of repression. Repression lives in shame, making sexual desire outside of marriage evil. Self-control lives in freedom, recognizing the worth of sex and waiting until it can happen most beautifully.