My now husband and I were engaged at the summer camp at which we formally met the year prior. At this point, we were both counselors and in our early twenties. I was about to start my junior year in college on the East Coast, and he was barely midway through his PhD program in the Midwest. We knew when we started dating at the beginning of my sophomore year that our relationship would primarily be long-distance, interjected with short weekends and school breaks together. But we also knew that at some point, I would study abroad some place much farther away than the distance from Chicago to Washington, DC: Russia.
The second semester of my junior year, I departed on an overnight flight en route to the tsar’s city, St. Petersburg. I didn’t sleep a wink in that quarter-of-a-day-long flight. I just started at the little screen in the seatback in front of me that showed the path of our plane inching further and further away from the little dot on Lake Michigan. To this day, I cannot replay the memory of the all-too-real sense of longing and emptiness I felt as my then fiance and I hugged goodbye at the airport. Even seeing other couples at the airport say their final goodbyes, I choke up, the memories of our agonizing moments surfacing as our eyes glaze over with wet empathy.
But we had hope that we’d see each other in a couple months’ time, midway through my study abroad experience. Since Mike is a chemist and the Russian visa process is woefully complicated for anyone minimally “suspicious,” we decided to meet somewhere in the middle: first in London, and then onto the Netherlands, the origin of my husband’s ancestors. My parents’ longtime friends graciously hosted us in London during the first couple of days together as we explored the city and tourist attractions. We then departed to Amsterdam together, double-checking with the hotel that there were two separate beds in the room.
One of the camp committee’s stipulations for traveling together was that we take the necessary precautions against “falling into sexual sin.” As we prepared to be counselors again at the summer camp at which we met, the camp committee interrogated us about why we felt this “vacation” together was necessary and how our trip had the “illusion of sinfulness” and how we wouldn’t be “above reproach” as leaders for the campers. While we had prepared them months in advance for this potential trip, explained the necessity of meeting in the middle due to my one-week time constraint, and verified that both sets of our parents were on board (even going so far as to pay for the hotel and plane tickets), the committee refused to believe that we could be on such a trip together and not sin--sexually, of course.
Finally, they acquiesced from their hardline position and gave us “permission” to take the trip together, even though we had planned on it regardless of their final decision. Yet, we had to take some additional precautions to prove that we weren’t using this as an opportunity to hide our sin. My then fiance had to be in near daily contact with one of the committee members. We had to promise to not post any pictures on Facebook from our trip, and to this day, they are private albums that only Mike and I can see. They seemed like ridiculous sanctions, but we agreed to it out of principle and because they were our supposed authorities at camp.
A week later when we returned to our separate continents, Mike was notified that we were potentially barred from serving at camp that summer because we had taken the trip together. They aligned it with taking a “honeymoon” as an engaged couple, something they obviously don’t condone. We explained, calmly and confidently again, that this was an extenuating circumstance and that we wouldn’t have taken a trip like this if we were, you know, not living 4,600 miles away from each other.
Inside, we were furious. Besides them being completely unprofessional and non-transparent about their decision-making process, they refused to believe us (and our parents by extension) because it didn’t line up with their own experiences. But we kept trying, asking to meet to talk in person. In the meantime, the conflict had died down and they allowed us to serve at camp, giving us the third degree when we were “spending too much time together.”
As I wrote in this post on having our boundaries and my salvation questioned, in our face-to-face meeting, we had to circle around the same concepts of boundaries and mutual respect for them to accept that this was not an area in which we struggled while dating.
Eventually we sat down with the camp leaders in what became a heated discussion about boundaries, modesty, and sexual sin. They basically told us, “We don’t believe you,” while we continued to stress that no, we do not struggle with sexual boundaries before marriage in the ways that many couples – both Christian and not – do in their dating relationships. While we are far from perfect (or what the church would posit as perfect), this thankfully was not an area in which we had to be constantly worried about.
They didn’t believe us because they had never talked to a young Christian couple with whom this wasn’t a major issue. “So you can sleep overnight in the same place without going too far?” We answered affirmatively. For all of our three-year dating/engaged relationship, we were long distance. When Mike came to visit me at school, he would sleep in my bed and I my roommate’s bed while she slept on the couch or (much more likely) at her own boyfriend’s. But somehow being abroad was different, more reproachable.
“No, we are able to control ourselves and respect one another enough to not cross boundaries. Our bodies are not each other’s yet because we are not married. Please believe us when we say that this is not an issue.” After what seemed like every no-sex-before-marriage question under the sun, the camp leaders sat back in their chairs, stunned. “I guess it’s not an issue then.”
...That’s what we had been saying all along.
One of the reasons they found it so hard to believe us is because in their own experience, it was incredibly difficult to not transgress physical boundaries before marriage. They shared how when they were engaged, they went as far as they could before sinning (basically insinuating that they took anything they could get until intercourse). They therefore didn’t--couldn’t--believe how we could spend time alone in a hotel room (even with separate beds!) far away and not fall into sexual sin. We didn’t understand how they honestly couldn’t believe our honest responses.
What angers me most about this entire debacle is the underlying, contrasting paradigms of sexual ethics. Reflecting on this now after several years have passed, I realized that we were literally speaking two different languages: theirs being of an insatiable drive to transgress boundaries due to sexual urges, and ours being of mutual respect and care for physical boundaries despite sexual urges.
As Libby Anne brilliantly outlined in this post, the foundation of evangelical sexual ethics is whether the sexual acts/relationship are prohibited or allowed under God’s laws. For some of these Christians, they lump together prohibited acts such as homosexuality, pedophelia, premarital sex, polyamory, and rape/sexual assault. These Christians then also believe that God allows only one kind of sexual relationship: between a husband and wife in marriage. In contrast, the foundation of progressive sexual ethics is whether or not the sexual relationship is consensual or nonconsensual. In this way, pedophilia is only in the same box as premarital sex if the premarital sex was nonconsensual.
As I and several others mentioned, the progressive sexual ethics box of “consensual” can be further subdivded between what is permitted and not permitted based on religious beliefs. For instance, it would have been consensual had my now husband and I had sex when we were dating or engaged, but we abstained until we were married due to our faith convictions.
But for the authorities at our evangelical camp, a paradigm of sexual ethics that even acknowledges consent is seen as “watered down” or “less biblical” since it’s diverging from the typical Protestant stance on sexual relationships: no sex before marriage. Period. End of conversation.
It was if consent didn’t matter in this conversation. All that mattered was whether we had the scarlet letter of the “illusion of sinfulness.” Our repetitious explanations about boundaries and mutual respect and self control fell on deaf ears.
Years later, I see that this isn’t an isolated experience. The church at large, especially many Protestant communities, do not speak the language of consent in their conversations on sexual ethics. It is black and white, God forbids and God allows. True, people are beginning to connect the dots between purity/modesty culture and rape culture. They are beginning to understand the language of power and privilege and patriarchy, as well as consent and mutual respect and equality.
But there is so much more work to be done. And days like this, I don’t even know where to start.