A few months ago, I found myself sitting in my counselor’s office talking about shame.
I have struggled a great deal with shame throughout my life, and about different things at various times. I have felt shame over the way I look, the things I’ve done with different men, the way I have spoken to my mother. I have felt shame over career changes, where I live, and how I interact with my boss.
Shame tells me that I’m not good enough exactly where I’m at, leaving me feeling there is always room for self-improvement. In my world, to be content would mean becoming complacent, never becoming better, whole, together.
“What it’s coming down to is that I just don’t feel good enough,” I told her.
She looked at me thoughtfully, like she does, and said, “You know, I can see that you struggle most when you begin to think that your life has to look like the lives of all these other people you are comparing yourself to.”
I looked at my knees.
Then she said something that I have thought about over and over again since then: “Shame only exists within relationship. We wouldn’t feel shame unless there were other people in our lives creating this shame, whether directly or indirectly.”
When we think about shame in this way, it makes so much sense: shame exists in the context of relationships and other people. And this can take a variety of forms, whether we are ashamed of our actions towards another, or someone else’s actions are causing us to feel shame.
For me, I have experienced the most shame when I compare my life to the lives of others, and few places is this more true than in the context of my sexual journey.
Growing up, I encountered a lot of talk about the “right” way to practice sexual restraint and boundaries. Adults and various books I read would talk about “how far is too far” when being physical with another person, yet no one seemed to be able to provide a concrete answer about just where this line existed. It was infuriating and confusing.
So, having little understanding of how to figure this out, I looked to the lives of other people as an example.
How “far” were other people my age going, and how did my own choices measure up?
Throughout high school and into college, I met different people with different sets of boundaries. My college roommate had decided to only ever kiss a boy on her wedding day, while my new dorm-mate from the other side of the building had made out with a boy in the laundry room within the first week of school.
I met girls who had been with the same boyfriend for years, and I met girls who had no interest in dating unless they were to marry that person. I met guys who seemed mortified by dating, and others who had already slept with someone by the time they entered college. And all of these people called themselves Christians.
And somehow, throughout this time, I got it into my head that we were all existing within two different camps: the good people who had not gone “too far,” and the bad people who had.
As time went on, I did figure out how far was too far. And I measured it by the dark, sickening feeling in my stomach after each situation I knew, deep down, I should not have been in.
And I would leave these situations, usually someone’s room late at night, and think about all the other people I imagined were way better at this than me. I imagined all the “good” people, the ones who probably had so much more wisdom, restraint, and self-respect than me, the ones who were “pure” and faithful to their sexual commitments. I saw myself as less than, weak, ashamed.
And different thoughts would run through my head about these other people:
They would look down on me if they knew all the things I’ve done.
They are better than me.
They are stronger than me.
They have healthier relationships than me.
They are a better Christian than me.
God loves them more than He loves me.
I would run into other girls who had never even had a boyfriend, let alone done more than kiss someone, and my gut would fill with shame.
I lived with this shame for many years, a shame made all the more insidious and confusing because I had not in fact ever had intercourse. On my scale of good vs. bad, I crawled back and forth, utterly baffled as to where I now stood.
It wasn’t until I became older and learned about the sexual journeys of others and dated new and different people that the shame faded away to reveal something in its place: there was no scale, no competing camps of “good” and “bad,” and for better or worse I had finally figured out that comparing my journey had completely hurt me.
There’s a pervasive idea in Christian culture that sexual restraint is equivalent to holistic spiritual health. And while I believe how we practice sexuality has a large impact on the health of our spiritual life, I also believe we have to break free from this lie that to be a virgin is to be holy.
I’ve known plenty of both male and female Christians who have done very little sexually yet are unwell in other aspects of their faith, such as being arrogant, angry, or deceitful. And I have known Christians who have had sex, maybe even with multiple partners, and yet display amazing fruits of the spirit.
None of us are without sin.
And when it comes to the question of, “How far is too far?” we cannot leave ourselves at the mercy of other people’s choices.
For some Christians, like my roommate, kissing will be considered too far. And for others like myself, I’m totally fine with kissing. But if I see her choices and instantly question my own, feeling shame over what I have chosen to do, I have done nothing good for my heart.
At the end of the day, we have to know that sex (defined as oral, anal, or vaginal) has a specific design within God. As thoughtful, faithful Christians, we need to manifest for our own selves where our sexual boundaries must be drawn before marriage. And this means taking the time to know yourself and your own ability to practice sexual restraint.
That might mean your journey looks different than someone else’s. That’s okay. Do not agonize over where you have been compared to someone else, mistakes you have made, or being so worried about “where the line is” that you miss the big picture of sex. Instead, know that the big picture of sex is understanding where sex (and everything surrounding that) is meant to be experienced, and over our lifetime choosing to seek the best path to honor that.