A young adult friend spoke with me last week about her struggle to embody her sexuality. In her late 20’s and single, she’s part of the fall-out from the “purity culture” that advocates virginity and emotional purity before marriage. She’s also part of a movement to find a better way to support healthy sexual development in church communities.  After our conversation she referred me to a blog that gives voice to the inner dissonance I hear from many women and men raised in purity culture.

That interaction was on my mind when an op-ed response to the FDA’s recent approval of “pink Viagra” appeared on Sunday. In spite of significant controversy surrounding its’ safety and efficacy, flibanserin is the first drug approved to treat low desire disorders in pre-menopausal women. The author Emily Nagoski holds a doctorate in health behavior and describes herself as a “science-driven sex educator.” She calls the science behind the drug outdated and invalid. Distinguishing between spontaneous desire (which is not essential for sexual satisfaction or well-being) and responsive desire which emerges in anticipation of pleasure, she notes that “responsive desire isn’t worse than spontaneous desire, it’s just different.”

As a post-menopausal women with history of fairly robust spontaneous desire, I get the difference! Most often I operate on responsive desire these days. But just because my libido isn’t as strong as it used to be doesn’t mean I’m disordered or that I am any less in love with my husband than I used to be. It’s biology. It’s life circumstances. It’s 26 years of doing life together with freedom to have sex anytime we want. And, many other factors that come into play over the normal life cycle of those of us whose abundance of resources allow us to worry about having less sex or less dramatic orgasms than we used too!

Yet the pharmaceutical model doesn’t take those psycho-social-spiritual factors into consideration when looking for an answer to our multi-layered sexual, mental and emotional “problems.” Like the anxiety and depression that the drug industry would have us rush to diagnose and treat with medications, so-called problems of “low” desire may be manifestations of disordered lifestyles and distorted values about sexuality and intimacy. We live in a culture where we use excessive amounts of caffeine and sugar to compensate for sleep deprivation and then over-the-counter products and alcohol to help us wind back down. Much commercially produced food is nutritionally deficient. We over-work and over-spend. Is it any wonder we get to bed at night and lack spontaneous desire?

Moreover, the fact that hoards of middle-aged women helped make Fifty Shades of Grey a bestseller and box office hit is clear evidence to me that our cultural values about sexuality and intimacy have landed in the trash heap! If sadism and masochism are what it takes to get us turned on, we’ve certainly lost our way as to how to be sexually vibrant and loving human beings.

Ironically, the very teachings meant to “safeguard” the virginity of young people in purity culture can contribute to later problems with desire. As another young woman told me, “Sexual desire was just as bad as sexual activities. You were supposed to suppress it until you married. Then, it would somehow spontaneously emerge again.”

Rachel (who tells it like it is in her blog) is trying to ‘rid herself’ of purity culture thinking, but she hasn’t found anything concrete to replace it. Here’s how she describes her struggle:

Evangelical Christianity made it really easy to know what was right and wrong. It was easy to know when I was supposed to feel guilty (most of the time). I never really had to think about what I wanted in regards to sex because all that mattered was what the Bible said. And now I have to constantly question, “How do I feel about this? Will I regret this? Does it matter that I don’t know him that well, don’t like him that much, don’t think this will lead anywhere? If he does this, should I do that? Because I want to? Because he wants me to? Because it’s expected? Because I’m drunk? Should I do anything when I’m drunk? What is this saying about me? Does this say anything? Am I saying yes because I am horny or because I want to be nice? Will this change our relationship? Do I care? When is it okay to leave?”

And those questions are exhausting.

Yet those are the very kind of questions we ought to be helping our children consider from the first time they fondle their genitals in public or ask questions about sexuality that make parents uncomfortable. Not these exact questions, but similar ones that are appropriate for the challenges of their developmental stage.

Children and teens need to be empowered with discernment skills to access inner guidance. Not just about sexuality, but about all the moral challenges of life that if they choose to live with open hearts and minds, they will inevitably face. They need to sense, feel and think about their sexuality throughout the developmental cycle and make choices each day about what to do with sexual pleasure they’ll naturally feel if not repressed.  They need to be equipped to discern the difference between healthy self-exploration and release of sexual energy via masturbation and self-pleasuring that is compensatory or otherwise unhealthy. They need us to help them consider the potential consequences of getting emotionally or physically intimate before their psychologically or otherwise ready to commit. And so much more.

They need us to help them learn to think and discern God’s path for them in a complex world where black and white answers are insufficient for many of the challenges they’ll face.

Ironically, the best book I ever came across for working with teen sexuality went out of print because the Christian publishers didn’t want to acknowledge teens might be sexually active! Thankfully, you can still pick up a copy of Judy and Jack Balsick’s Raging Hormones: what to do when you suspect your teen might be sexually active on Amazon.

Thanks be to God for my young friend, Rachelwhotellsitlikeitis, and others like them. May God’s grace show them a better way to pass on to the next generations.