Why are evangelical singles sleeping around?
Not long ago, a minor flare lit the evangelical horizon as Lauren F. Winner, a senior editor for Christianity Today, wrote a tell-all column on “evangelical whores.” The piece appeared on the new multi-religious website, Beliefnet.com.
Miss Winner, a fairly recent convert to Christianity from Orthodox Judaism, had written a potboiler of a piece suggesting that unmarried Gen-X evangelical Christians often sleep together and that the rest of us might as well deal with it.
Married evangelicals, she wrote, aren’t willing to talk about sex to their single friends, “except to remind us that True Love Waits. This slogan,” she continued, “might work when you’re 15. Ten years later, catch-phrases don’t really do the trick.”
She went on to describe how the typical church doesn’t really get it. Well-meaning preachers use platitudes to remind their singles to stay celibate, if they say anything at all. Most don’t. Instead, pastors ignore the “thousands” of unmarried evangelicals who disobey this injunction. Why, Miss Winner asked, can’t we talk about this reality?
As someone who’s been writing on singleness issues, starting with my first book on single Christians and sexuality back in 1988, I have news for her. No one wants to talk about it.
So what happens to those who do? Well, the evangelical response to Miss Winner was pretty livid. Christianity Today quickly demoted Miss Winner to a staff writer spot when people started asking why such a recent convert in her early twenties and still in grad school had managed to attain senior writer status at such a revered publication.
World Magazine ran a highly critical article, to which CT executive editor David Neff replied by admitting Miss Winner’s ideas were “poorly expressed and therefore easily misunderstood.” Lauren herself responded to World’s piece by saying, “I do believe that there should be some place where I, and other singles, can acknowledge the desire for sexual relationships and, in the context of rich church tradition and in the company of older Christians, try to figure out what we can do about it.”
There is an elephant in the middle of the evangelical living room and Lauren pulled its tail. Six months ago, when I was lecturing on sexuality issues at a Christian college, I passed out Miss Winner’s Beliefnet essay, along with at least a dozen others on chastity, to the 18-year-olds I was teaching.
When I asked them which of the pile of reading assignments they had liked the best, they preferred Lauren’s piece. Lauren, they said, was telling it like it was. In spite of all the well-meaning adult-run abstinence campaigns, many young Christians had already chosen their paths. And virginity wasn’t it.
A few of these freshmen may have been part of a “True Love Waits” campaign or had their parents give them a “promise ring” along with the reminder not to sleep around until marriage, but the other 90 percent hadn’t heard much in the way of gripping reasons for staying chaste.
Seriously, folks, what church do you know that actually talks to teens about why not to sleep around? And then we send these kids off to college and expect them to stay chaste for four years? Even if a church provides minimal help along this line for the high school set—mainly because that is the age range where many people first have sex—church reinforcement dribbles to nothing during the college years. Unfortunately, the 20-24 age bracket has the highest abortion rates in this country.
There is no support for the early career types or the grad school students, the grouping in which Miss Winner found herself. Even if a typical evangelical girl or guy manages to stay out of bed until that point, one’s willingness to resist the internal and external pressures tends to wear down by time one reaches the mid-twenties.
Median ages for first marriages are higher than ever these days; for men it’s 27 and for women, it’s 25—up from 23/20 during the 1960s. Assuming these young adults have not married yet, how long do people expect them to tough it out?
As an August 28 Time Magazine article on single women notes, singleness has a way of going from temporary choice to enforced state. There are 46 million never-married American adults.
What’s the evangelical response? Clunky at best. Christianity Today’s July 10 issue carried a piece, “Losing Our Promiscuity,” a well-meaning multi-page effort that didn’t ring true, and a “Sex and the Single Christian” sidebar that was one cliche after another.
The latter told us how single sexuality was really “celebrating who you are as a man or a woman,” it was having “nonexclusive relationships,” and so on. Tell that to a thirtysomething someone crying herself to sleep at night. Singles are sick of being reminded that their state allows them to (A) be missionaries, (B) work in the inner city, or (C) spend more time with God, particularly when we don’t want to go to the mission field, we hate the inner city, and God is silent.
Christianity Today also asserted that singles pastors and youth leaders “agree that a strong and growing core of their flocks will commit to sexually pure lifestyles.” Really? That’s not what I discovered when I was asked to write a piece several years ago for a short-lived Christian women’s magazine.
Called Clarity, it was a refreshing switch from the typical treacly Christian women’s publication. I was assigned to explain why single evangelical women were sleeping around with no regard for biblical teaching. It was 1993 and I had two books on singleness under my belt.
I was not totally convinced that most women were out there doing it, so I started polling some of my born-again friends. Far fewer of them were virgins on their wedding nights than I had thought. One Catholic friend, who was trying to stay chaste, told me that even the priests in her life were suggesting she try mutual masturbation with her boyfriend.
My research turned up a few rough figures. In their 1991 book, Single Adult Passages: Uncharted Territories, Carolyn Koons and Michael Anthony had surveyed 1,500 single Christians. They found significant levels of sexual activity.
Of the women surveyed, 39 percent were virgins. I also got hold of two similar surveys, one a singles survey from Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and the other a survey of single Southern Baptists. Both revealed only a third of the respondents had abstained from sex.
Do pastors anywhere get this? Randy Helm, the pastor of Hope Chapel in Glendale, Arizona, told me clergy tend to think that just because the Bible condemns extramarital sex, that settles the matter. Instead, people know what the Bible says, but they don’t care. He added, “You can have all the biblical knowledge in the world and that does not cancel out the raging hormones.”
Especially if you’ve been made to wait ten or twenty years. Christian singles I talk to considered virginity as a waiting room until God produced the right mate.
When that waiting room started to look like permanent lodging, despair set in.
Some, I discovered, were—and still are—piecing together their own philosophy on sex without much consideration of the Scriptures.
They certainly do not resort to their local Christian bookstore. Why should they? One singles book I discovered was actually titled Pure Joy: The Positive Side of Single Sexuality.
The author, a man, married when he was 30. Nice guy, but I winced at the title. Believe me: The only positive side to single sexuality is not getting AIDS. The only singles I know who consider their state to be “pure joy” are those who have been through a divorce.
I found in other books that a lot of the philosophizing was being done by married people who led singles groups: people who idealized the single state but who would not have been caught dead trying it themselves, and who don’t have a clue of what it is like to have a permanently empty bed.
And it’s not just the doing without sex. Have you ever noticed how singles never get touched? It’s living in this bubble of no hugs, no physical contact whatsoever.
Small wonder so many revert to pets (I have three cuddly cats) and professional massages.
I once suggested to my small group at church that we give each other back rubs. I was looked at as though I had suggested we all get undressed.
Singles struggle through all this alone.
The childless ones get mocked at family reunions or treated as though they are still teen-agers.
Promiscuous friends who break every biblical rule in the book end up married, with healthy children. God sure didn’t punish them. But he’s not rewarding us.
And so, singles see their reasons for abstinence fading as they arrive in their mid-thirties.
Women see their fertile years creep down to the single digits.
All the old arguments about waiting for God to bring them romance— remember Ann Kiemel’s book I Gave God Time?— don’t ring true anymore.
I wish I could say help is on the way. A year ago, hoping for some encouragement, I attended a large singles fellowship sponsored by McLean Bible Church in northern Virginia.
I was dead tired from work and I arrived late, just in time for the speaker. His message: Singles need to be content. What was so awful about his speech was that he was married with three kids.
He had just finished telling us that our worth should not be wrapped up in our cars, houses, or families when he added that his children were healthy and they had just moved into a beautiful new home.
The guy sitting next to me walked out. I wish I had.
Many of us who have grown up evangelical or joined up at some point before our twenties abstained because we thought we had plenty of years to get married.
And we wanted to please God. After all, Jesus had been celibate.
But as the years turned to decades, our reasons to hold off on sex faded as it became apparent our wait would be life-long.
For post-35 never-married and divorced people, it’s not enough just to tell people to hang in there.
When positive, fresh reasons are not forthcoming, single evangelicals will be having sex.
The only surprise in all of this is that single Christians the age of Miss Winner are also starting to despair.
They’ve given in much sooner than have many baby boomers.
They, like us, see a celibate life as drab and full of suffering, like living somewhere between the Virgin Mary and Mother Teresa. Like us, they ask: What are we waiting for?
We would all like to find out.