For the fourth episode of True Love No Shame, I spoke with Tina Schermer Sellers, author of Sex, God, and the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame From Sexual Intimacy. She’s also founder of the online community Thank God for Sex and the Northwest Institute on Intimacy. I came across Tina’s 2006 article actually just very recently. I wish I had found it earlier. Christians Caught Between the Sheets: How Abstinence Only Ideology Hurts Us.
Dani: Tina, your article captured so much and so succinctly and really reflected my own experience. What was your experience growing up with abstinence-only teaching or otherwise.
Tina: Yeah, so I’ve been teaching in the graduate marriage and family therapy program at Seattle Pacific University since the early 1990s. I’ve been teaching their graduate human sexuality course for the marriage and family therapy students which is a required course for licensure. In that course, the students write their sexual autobiography which is, I’m sure, a very frightening thing for people to hear, but we have our students write aspects of their own story in many of their courses because we believe that you’re only ever as good a therapist as you know what your own story is. So, when they get to the human sexuality course, we ask them to reflect on their sexual story.
So, I give them, I don’t know, 60, 70 questions around gender and sexuality and affection and so on to think about their sexual story. So, I’ve read well over 500 of these in my career. Around the year 2000, I started to notice a dramatic increase in sexual shame. This kind of would show up in increased levels of humiliation and self disgust around their bodies and what they had done or not done growing up. What they had felt and sometimes not felt growing up. Real increases in ignorance around their bodies and sexuality. This was really dramatic. I wasn’t really sure what I was seeing at first. It took me a couple of years before I had asked enough questions. I began to realize that I was seeing the first wave of kids, many of which who were coming through the purity movement that began in the early 1990s. Kids who had hit their adolescence about that time, but we also were really growing with regard to the impact of abstinence only education across the United States as well.
So, I had students who not necessarily were from religious backgrounds, but the school that they were at were teaching basically purity culture education in their public schools. So, some of my students were not from religious backgrounds but in fact were getting the same kind of education if you will at their public schools.
Dani: Oh wow. Yeah that’s so interesting. So, it was really a new thing really in the 90s to start teaching abstinence.
Tina: We never have been a country that’s had comprehensive sex education. That’s never been the case, but we had much more sex education in the 70s and early 80s and then it really dramatically began to change in the early 80s and then that change just grew in impact. By the time we hit the early 90s, that impact had spread, was pretty widespread across the United States.
Dani: Yeah. So, I want to read a couple of lines from your article that I really loved. So, you say,
“When people are filled with shame and self loathing, their affected self esteem takes precedence in interactions with others. It dominates and eclipses a person’s ability to see and love another. In essence, sexuality encased in silence and shame keeps people from intimately knowing both God and each other and cripples our ability as a community of believers to truly love and be a healing force in a hurting world.”
So I thought that was so interesting because in my own journey, it really came back to the way that I saw Christianity and it was a faith that was really about caring for others and abstinence seemed so contrary to that. It was abstinence was really about protecting one’s self. What was your own religious journey and how did that interplay with your interest in sexuality?
Tina: So much of what prompted me to study this and ask the questions that I did really came from the impact that my students were having. My own experience was very, very different. I guess that played a part in part because my experience was so different. Not because it was so similar. I had the good fortune of growing up in a Swedish immigrant home and in my home and in my extended family, people were very comfortable in bodies and talking about sexuality and talking about bodies and it was a pretty classic northern European family. So, I remember learning all kinds of things about my body and sexuality as I was growing up. I often say I grew up in a sound byte sex family. So, I learned in very small sound bytes as I was growing up. I learned from my mom and my dad and both my grandparents and all my aunts and uncles.
So, I never got one sex talk. I just learned about it like you learn about brushing your teeth and what keeps you healthy and recipes. I knew that all of my relatives were sexual and my relatives were married and in good relationships. To me, this was just a very normal, natural part of life.
Dani: Yeah. So, tell me more about your book that just came out. Do you address some of those questions there?
Tina: Yeah I do. So, I ask the question did Christianity ever get it right with regard to developing a truly Christian sexual ethic? One that came out of the new covenant, one that came out of Jesus ministry. One that was about grace and love and mercy and what was so unique about his ministry? So, for several years, I had grad assistants. We just combed history and tried to understand how we had developed a sexual ethic that was about don’t and no and basically no real education about the body and seeing it as good and a gift and something that was intentionally given to us as an incarnational gift with which to understand God’s love through.
We followed that through history and really could never find a different message other than the body is something that will take you away from God. So, we followed that all the way through history and what we found was that you can follow that story all the way back and you’ll find that it really originates in part with the mind body split that happened in about 300 BC with the philosophers. They elevated the mind as being more important, more valuable than the body. The body was seen as beautiful and valuable, but not as valuable as the mind. That set in motion some values in culture. Of course, this was with the elite and with the men. So, that was in place for about 300 years before Jesus. So, there was patriarchy and then this idea of the mind body split. Then, that was very much a part of culture in the first two, three, four hundred years as Christianity was attempting to establish itself apart from Judaism.
In those early centuries, you had several people who were trying to establish the church in different parts of the world. Of course, there was a lot of persecution and a lot of struggle in those years. In the fourth century, Constantine who was the emperor, he became Christian. He then had the power to appoint then who would be the leaders. Who would be the bishops of this new church in Rome? So, he had the power. So what was happening then is the people, the men that were vying for this places of power, these positions of power were doing so by denying the body. Those that were denying the body the most were seen as more spiritual than anyone else.
That was how they were competing with each other, was through the denial of the body. The persecution of the body because the body was seen as that which will take you away from God. So, the mind, body split ad become more dramatic than it was earlier. The mind and the spirit were something we could trust. Something that could take us toward God. The body was really seen as something carnal, something that’s going to take us away from God and something that we need to deny all its desires, all its wants. It developed into this very patriarchal, very male competition. When men couldn’t or were unsuccessful in denying their body well enough, then they blamed it on women and women were the temptresses. This notion is still very much alive in culture now. We can see how it happens when there is an assault on a college campus and the first thing that’s asked is, “Well, was she drinking? What was she wearing?”
This line of thinking is still very much alive which is very unfortunate. So, this ethic of the body being bad, not to be trusted, had nothing to do with Jesus. It had nothing to do with Christianity really as far as Jesus’ ministry goes. It had everything to do with a particular kind of competition that was happening among men as a way to establish themselves as being more spiritual than someone else. It just happened that it happened that way and that became our established sexual ethic, but it wasn’t a Christian sexual ethic. It wasn’t one based on the new covenant. So, we never really developed a Christian sexual ethic. This is just the one that happened to develop and it has stayed with us for all of these years.
Dani: Abstinence at least is a very black and white rule. So, what are some ways people can think about what kinds of intimacy is good for them versus is there such thing as intimacy that’s destructive?
Tina: Well, this might sound too simplistic, but the way I like to think about it is that the way that we are in relationship with our sexuality with our desire, it needs to honor us. It needs to first it needs to honor us. It needs to honor God if we have a relationship with God and that’s important to us. Then, if we are in relationship with another, it needs to honor the other. If it’s not doing that, then it’s not serving love. That’s really the purpose. It to serve love. That’s where it becomes generative. That’s where it grows. If it’s self serving, it’s going to fall flat at the least and be hurtful at the most, right?
So, desire asks for us to be mindful if we want it to nourish us and bless us, then it asks for us to just be mindful. One of the stories that’s in the book that I love and adore is from 500 BC. The Jewish people had this wonderful relationship with sexual desire. They didn’t see it as a bad, dangerous thing like Christians often do. They understood it as being that it was part of the core nature of all creative force. That they were one in the same. It comes from this story that’s very, very old where the rabbis in this one village felt like people were not managing their sexual desire well. They went into the temple and into the Holy of Holies and they begged God to take sexual desire away from the people of the village because they just thought that people were not managing sexual desire way.
They begged God and God said, “No.” Then they begged God some more and God said, “No.” They begged God over and over and over again and God kept saying, “No.” Then finally, think God just got tired. God said, “Fine.” Out of the Holy of Holies jumped this lion of fire. This spirit of a lion of fire and it went over the whole village. The next day, hen stopped laying eggs. The artists stopped creating. The businessmen stopped going to work. Everything stopped in the village. Everything. The rabbis realized that at the heart of sexual desire was the heart of all creative desire. All creative desire. They were one in the same. So, they went back and they asked God, “Well, can you separate them? Can you give us the creative desire but not the sexual desire?” God said, “No. With all great gifts comes the need to manage them. That there’s always a shadow side and you need to learn to manage it.”
Dani: For people who grew up with parents who wanted to avoid the conversation completely, just kind of cross their fingers and hope their kids just kind of wait until marriage, how do they then open up that conversation with their parents? I think not being able to talk about that topic with your parents actually creates a separation where that’s something really important part of your life that you want to be able to connect with them on.
Tina: Yeah. That’s a great question. My students of course are mortified when I tell them part of the assignment is that they have to go talk to the adults in their life unless it’s going to cause some huge family riff, I ask them to go interview people in their lives. I say to them, “You’re an adult now and part of creating an adult to adult relationship with your parents is to move in to that by having adult conversations that acknowledge that you are an adult. Parents sometimes need help with that. So, asking them about their life, what was it like growing up in their home, how did they learn about sexuality. Was it silent for them? How do they feel like they did with you? Then telling them what you think about how they did with you.”
Beginning to have those conversations. It’s just a really important thing. It starts to level the playing field and most of us want to write a new sexual legacy. We don’t want to repeat the exact same one we were handed down. We want to do it a little bit different. That’s fine. I think we’re much more apt to do that if we have open conversations with our parents where we say, “What do you think your parents did well?” You ask your parents that questions and what do you think you did well? What would you wanted to have done different? Here’s what I think you did well. Here’s what I want to do different. I wonder what my kids are going to say I did well. I wonder what they’re going to want to do different. This is all part of the story and transformation of our lives is that none of us do it exactly perfectly and our kids job is to take it and do it better.
I think those conversations are really important to have but that you have them with grace and with compassion and with love and with an understanding that we all are doing the best we can. The reality is, I’ve been asking groups of people since I’ve been teaching this class for 25 years, raise your hand if you grew up in a home that was open about sexuality and you felt safe and you learned about in little small pieces all along the way. I’ll get maybe 5%, 8% of the people will have grown up in a family similar to mine, but about 90% of people grow up in a home that is silent or silent and shaming. That is what is typical. That is what is common in the United States.
That has been common for generations. So, we have just not done it well. So, most of us have a long way to go and so the more we can just look at that and go, “Okay, so here’s what went well. Here’s what didn’t. How can I heal my own shame? Because if I can heal my own shame, I’m much less likely to be reactive to my children or the children in my life. Then I have a chance to write a new legacy,” and the cool thing about sexuality is as we heal our shame, we really can write a new legacy in one generation. We can change it in one generation so it’s a really cool thing and it makes a huge difference.