For my second episode on True Love No Shame, I spoke with pastor and author Bromleigh McCleneghan, who wrote Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option and Other Things the Bible Says About Sex.
Dani: I love the title, because it makes it very clear what the book is about. This was an issue I thought about for years and would read Christian books that were about sex or relationships, and it was just kind of like waiting for someone to come out and say, “It’s not that big of a deal. You can have sex before you’re married.” No one had said it in a book, and this title makes it very clear that’s what the book is about. So what I wanted to start with is you actually didn’t grow up hearing that waiting till marriage was the only way, so can you tell me a little bit more about how your denomination was different than this evangelical denomination that myself and others grew up in?
Bromleigh: I grew up in the United Methodist church, and there are certainly parts of the denomination that are more steeped in conservation social values around sexuality. For ordination candidates and folks who then go into the ministry, you vow celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage. So it was important to me to get married before I was ordained. That is sort of the line, but it’s just not the focus of a large portion of the denomination’s life. Our focus growing up was on a whole lot of other things.
If you’re a Methodist, it’s scripture tradition, reason, and experience. From very early on, there was this sense that there are other voices in addition to scripture that inform how we think about sex.
In my family life, my mom had a second edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves.
I grew up in Illinois, and the suburban high school where I went to, we had really good health class. The information was pretty accurate for straight kids. I think it was just the fact the there was no overriding voice from the church talking about this in any singular Christian sexual ethic or any singular Christian sexual behavior pattern or restriction or prohibition or whatever. The church was a defining voice for me in terms of my identity, but not necessarily around sexuality, and mostly for better, I think.The church was a defining voice for me in terms of my identity, but not necessarily around sexuality - @bromleighm Click To Tweet
Dani: I had such a different experience. My parents didn’t talk to me at all about it and, I think, just kind of crossed their fingers and hoped I would learn at church or other places. At what point did you realize that people had this diverged experience with Christianity?
Bromleigh: I first became aware of Christian purity stuff in college, but really more from a religious studies way. I wrote a journalism paper article on one of the really conservative student Bible studies. Then, I read some of Joshua Harris’ stuff when I was in grad school and did my graduate thesis on Christian sex-ed stuff. More specifically, the curriculum that was being used in various places at that point.
There’s so much fear that if you give kids a comprehensive sex education and if you talk to them about their faith giving them choices in discerning what is right and good in their lives, that they’ll immediately start banging everybody they can, but that was not the experience of my friends. When my friends and I all started being sexually active in various degrees, it was pretty intentional, and it was later.
Dani: For a long time, I read a lot of books by Christian authors about sex, and there wasn’t anyone coming on the record and saying, “It’s okay to have sex before marriage. It’s not that big of a deal.” For years, I felt that way, but I was sort of afraid to act on it. It was really interesting, the timing your book came out. I was just curious, has there been that much backlash? What’s been the reaction to it?
Bromleigh: Certainly, from certain circles, there has been backlash. I’ve gotten called lots of “nice” names on Facebook and in the comments section of the Washington Post. In some ways, the book makes a very modest claim. I didn’t want the book to be an argument. I just didn’t want to ask the question or deal with the question of whether or not people should have sex before marriage. I just wanted to start at the fact that some people do, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t ask ethical questions or think about what their faith has to say about their romantic relationships. I wasn’t so much making an argument for sex outside of marriage as just saying, “Let’s take that as a given in some cases and talk about other things.”
What does lust look like? What does fidelity look like? What does appropriate intimacy look like? I read all those books. I think it’s so interesting, because I read Lauren Winner’s book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity.
There’s so much good stuff there, but I would just get so hung up about some of the other things. I didn’t want that to be the primary question.
I do think there are also a lot of people who are having sex and would like to think about that through the lens of faith and their relationship to God. To be told that they just can’t because they’re sexually active is not all that helpful. I’m a pastor, right? I’m concerned with people’s actual lived experiences.A lot of people are having sex and would like to think about that through the lens of faith and their relationship to God - @bromleighm Click To Tweet
Dani: Yeah. Another book I read when I was pretty young, Best Friends For Life, said you’re supposed to find someone who is your best friend and the sex thing will just work. I know there’s that passage where Paul says you can serve God better if you’re single. What’s the way that you think about this — does God want us to be married, or does He want us to be happy?
Bromleigh: I would hope that God is ambivalent about whether or not we want to be married, but if we are married, wants us to be happy and wants us to be happy no matter what.
I really object to a matchmaker God. The chapter that ended up being on singleness, I rewrote, like, six times. I started it with attempting to log on to Christian Mingle.
The first question is, how tall are you, which I just think is amazing. Because that’s the first thing, because if you’re a good Christian, your husband should probably be taller than you, but whatever. Then, there’s all this stuff about where do you go to church.
I don’t necessarily believe in soulmates, like people who are predestinated to be together. Now, part of that is because I don’t necessarily believe in predestination. My understanding of God has created us to be free. Hopefully, to choose God and follow God.
Dani: One line I loved from your book, which I’ve also seen quoted a lot online, “The call of the Gospel is not to protect ourselves at all costs, but to risk ourselves in love.” I thought that was really interesting, because one piece of pushback I get about this is that sex bonds people so much, which is a really wonderful thing in a relationship. Then, I guess the question is can you bond with multiple people across your lifetime, or is that less of a bond if you have had that with more than one person?
Bromleigh: It’s funny. I have mixed feelings about the claim that sex always bonds you to someone. I mean, it’s an intimate thing, obviously, and it binds you in the moment and probably for a while, but I think humans are not just biological creatures. We’re meaning-making creatures. The way we interpret and make meaning out of the things that we do and the relationships that we have is probably ultimately more powerful than the things that we do at any one time.
I mean, where else in the Christian story are we told that love gets smaller if you give it away? That’s so counter.Where else in the Christian story are we told that love gets smaller if you give it away? - @bromleighm Click To Tweet
Dani: Right. It’s like with having kids. You don’t love the second one less than the first one.
Bromleigh: There’s a great line. Heidi Neumark is a wonderful Lutheran pastor and writer. Her first memoir, Breathing Space, is about the church she pastored for a number of years in Queens. She has this line in that book where she’s talking with her kids when they are small about love, and she says goodnight to one of them and says, “I love you with all my heart,” and she says to the other one, “I love you with all my heart.” The kids are like, “Well, how can that be?” She goes, “Well, that’s the way it is with love. It’s a miracle.”
She says it in this more beautiful kind of way, but that’s the thing with love. It’s a miracle. It’s so odd to me that, in some ways, segments of Christianity, particularly in America, treat sex as so different from the rest of human and Christian life. I guess what I’m looking for, as a pastor and someone interested in theology, is something that is consistent for people.
Dani: Last question. What do you think is the most important thing that someone should know before maybe getting into an intimate relationship for the first time?
Bromleigh: I think you should really know each other and be able to know yourself and know how to read the other person. I think go slow, too. I talk about this in the book, but it’s a continual pet peeve for me is when teen sexuality is shown on TV shows. There’s always two closed-mouth kisses and then he tentatively puts his hand on her chest outside her shirt. Then, they’re having the question of whether or not they’re going to have sex.
That’s not how this should go, right? There can be lots of time for build-up. There can be lots of time for increasing levels of intimacy. There’s no rush. Also, you should definitely have as safe sex as possible. Either make sure that everybody has a clean bill of health or use condoms and dental dams and then maybe backup birth control if you’re straight and having intercourse.
While I think we’re supposed to risk ourselves in love, I don’t think we’re supposed to risk ourselves unnecessarily. If someone is not respectful of you or isn’t caring or kind or won’t listen if you’ve reached an unanticipated boundary within yourself, then that’s not the right thing. Those are the kinds of things that I would recommend people think about. Then, also, this is supposed to be fun and life-giving. If it doesn’t feel fun and life-giving, then don’t. But if it does, then it might be worth exploring.