Dear Portia: I Had Sex…and then We Broke Up. Now What?

Dear Portia,

I grew up in the heart of evangelical purity culture. When I was 13, my parents took me out to dinner and gave me a promise ring. Throughout high school and college, I heard boys would ask me to compromise my sexual standards. I was ready to tell them no, but no one ever asked. I began to feel like something was wrong with me.

I stayed a virgin through three relationships and lots of dates. During this time, I began attending a mainline church. My pastor and I had a lot of conversations about sexuality. Though she thought waiting to have sex for marriage was a faithful choice, she didn’t think it was the only faithful choice. She talked with me about masturbation and how it could be a beautiful thing. I did more research and realized that she wasn’t some renegade pastor; a lot of Christians hold these views.

My next boyfriend and I had sex and it was wonderful and fun and awkward, but then we broke up. I didn’t feel totally ruined, like I was afraid I might, but I didn’t feel nothing either.

Now, I’m single and thinking about my next move. My purity culture training didn’t prepare me to break up (or to divorce) someone I’d had sex with. It seemed like the options were being ruined forever or staying married forever, but now I’m shaping a post-sex sexual ethic and I’d love some guidance. What should I be thinking about as I’m trying to figure this out?

Challenged by all the Change

Dear Challenged,

My junior year in college, I fell in love…with Elizabeth Elliott’s Passion and Purity. Her sexual ethic was so beautifully austere. She took her desires and sexuality and made origami from them: paper lilies and flightless birds. She waited on a man who put theology ahead of his feelings, too.

Their romance read like a stylized Kabuki play; everyone with a mask on, their faces never betraying their emotions.

Immediately, I tried to make my boy crush a Kabuki play, too. It did not go well. I ended up hurting the guy I liked-and-almost-dated, a sweet boy who was as earnest about Jesus and doing the right thing as I was. He didn’t get it when I told him I liked him, but not purely enough. Understandably, he thought I just didn’t like him.

Almost as soon as I distanced myself from him, I regretted it. He had been the One! I had not deserved him! Jesus was pruning my desires with hard theology!

I pined for two years over a relationship that never was. I felt sure my imperfect motives in almost-dating him had doomed what we had.

I felt ruined, and I didn’t even get to make out with him!

So the idea that ‘purity’ or ‘kissing dating goodbye’ saves anyone from regret or hurt strikes me as absurd. We are little regret factories. We can spin angst out of straw, especially when we’re horny or hormonal.

Purity culture promises that perfect actions will result in perfect emotional resilience. This is one of the most stupid fictions Christian pop culture has ever created.

All this to say: the end of a relationship is hard. It would be hard if you’d been engaged and broke up without having sex. It would be hard if a non-sexual friendship ended because of a disagreement. You broke up; it hurts.You’ll grieve this loss like you’ll grieve every loss, until your mourning period ends. Sex might add to the difficulty, but I’d guess it’s a difference in degree, not kind.

Which brings me to your question, which is really two questions. You’re asking what to think as you 1) process this breakup and 2) look to the future.

Let’s start with the first half.

Full disclosure: I think waiting for marriage was the right choice for me (despite the problems, of which there were several). I’m planning to counsel my daughters to wait, too. But I’m wary of hard-and-fast theology when it comes to sex. Purity culture made sex after marriage harder for me, even though I did everything “right.”

So I’m sympathetic to those, like you, who investigate and decide waiting isn’t the only option.

Given that this is your theology, how do you evaluate the relationship’s effect?

I wonder how the issues that led to the end of your relationship played out in the bedroom. Sex is just a microcosm of the relationship as a whole. It’s just a workshop for overarching issues of power and communication.

With sex, communication is terribly hard and terribly important. So did your decision to have sex just happen, or were you able, as a couple, to choose it intentionally? Did you discuss your sexual ethics and theology together? Were you each able to communicate likes, dislikes, hurt, and pleasure well? Did you feel heard? Did he?

In other words, did sex mostly grow out of the healthy parts and strengths of your relationship, or out of the unhealthy parts? Did it deepen your communication, or make communication harder?

Also, prayerfully, how did having sex affect your relationship with God? Did you feel more you, or did you feel more guilty? (Of course, I tend to feel guilty even when I’m not doing anything wrong. But I do think guilt should give us pause: to pray, to ask advice, to be intentional in our choices.)

Finally, given a do-over, would you have sex again? If you’re thankful you experienced it, that’s important to consider.

Basically: how did your post-purity theology work out in real life?

Good theology should lead to good practical effects. Our theology should produce joy, peace, patience, kindness, even when things don’t go as planned. Purity theology didn’t work as you hoped. Did an alternative feel different?

Your answer will likely be complicated. But it’s great data as you consider your future.

Which brings us to your second question.

I’ve changed since college. I’m clearly no longer a fan of brain origami. My faith has gotten a heck more faithful when I concentrate on daily, practical choices instead of austere theories and ignoring my desires.

So rather than worrying about whether you’ll have sex in your next relationship (that will depend on your partner, and on where God leads you) I’d concentrate on today.

That might involve masturbation.

Confession: my long “struggle” with masturbation disappeared after I got married. Turns out my ‘lust’ was mostly my natural sex drive.

So like your pastor, I think suppressing all sexual feeling isn’t God’s best for you. But pay attention to where your fantasies go, and whether they make you feel ashamed. Expressing our sexual feelings requires continuous confession and intentional choices—whether in a relationship, or out of it.

For both parts of your question, I’d heartily recommend Bromleigh McCleneghan’s Good Christian Sex as a handbook as you submit your sex life to God. McClenaghan emphasized loving, honest action over hard-and-fast rules; her book refreshed and challenged me.

Finally, I’d say that making mistakes—whether having sex too quickly, avoiding it out of prudishness, or some other faux-pas, is okay.

Sure, sex is important. It’s important to make loving, ethical, godly choices with sexual partners. It’s important to submit your actions to God.

But these choices are complicated and imperfect, for both married and unmarried people. We’re all muddling through.

Rather than using our theology to lust after Platonic ideals, let’s keep our feet on the ground. Let’s inhabit our lives whole-heartedly, prizing becoming fully alive over cold perfection.

And let’s appreciate our sexy feelings as gifts rather than fearing them, quashing them, or intellectualizing them flat.

Dear Portia,

Is fantasizing during sex okay? I imagine we are in another place, being more risky, not that he is someone else…

Hollywood

Dear Hollywood,

I think it depends on whether you’ve shared your fantasies with your husband.

When you imagine yourself elsewhere, have you invited him along? Do you trust him enough to share your embarrassing, complicated thoughts? Will you open yourself up to intimacy that makes your actual sex life more risky, and more fun?

(If you’re not sure your husband is a safe person to share those fantasies with, pay attention. Explore that lack of trust with a qualified therapist.)

But even if you trust your husband, I get why you might not have shared with him. Women, especially, aren’t socialized to express sexual feelings. So being honest about our fantasies is an important step in truly being present for our spouses—and ourselves.

Bottom line: real faithfulness comes down to whether our choices are deepening intimacy, or blocking it.

I’ll recommend Bromleigh McClenahan’s Good Christian Sex to you, too, because it addresses these lesser-discussed sexual issues. I appreciate your question, because it’s one I’ve asked myself. After reading McClenahan’s book, I felt convicted to start talking about fantasies with my husband.

It might be good news or bad news, but real intimacy will make us squirm—even as it cracks open our hearts.

Want to ask Dear Portia a question for April, on our theme “Spiritual Formation, Sacred Rhythms, Liturgy”? Fill out the form below.

Heather Caliri

Heather Caliri

Writer at A Little Yes
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
  • fiona lynne

    THIS: “did sex mostly grow out of the healthy parts and strengths of your relationship, or out of the unhealthy parts? Did it deepen your communication, or make communication harder?” Such a helpful set of questions here, I really appreciate the way you’ve approached this question, Heather!