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How Spiritual Abuse Causes Complex Sexual Trauma

“I was taught that sexual sin was more grievous than any other sin,” wrote one of my students in her sexual autobiography. “We were constantly told stories of how people’s marriages were permanently scarred because they had been sexual before marriage. We were told how sexual desire was so powerful and how it could screw up your life if you didn’t do all you could to keep yourself from feeling it. Boys were warned not to masturbate, and girls were warned to dress modestly so we didn’t make the boys feel sexual desire. Honestly, I think I was taught to be afraid of anything having to do with sex!”

“But the reality was, I did sometimes feel sexual desire and curiosity. And I did discover how to give myself pleasure. But because I couldn’t keep from getting aroused sometimes, I was sure I was the pervert God couldn’t possibly love. For so many years I was disgusted by myself. I know it made receiving love almost impossible and caused me years of not being comfortable enough in my own body to allow myself to orgasm.”

According to the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, people who experience harm to their developing sexuality growing up, either from incest, molestation or, in this case, extreme fear, misinformation, shame, and silence, can typically exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety, fear, shame, humiliation, self-blame, distorted self-perceptions, a belief that they caused their harm, low sexual desire, arousal disorders, orgasmic disorders and may be less skilled at self-protection.

As a sex therapist and emerita professor of Marriage and Family Therapy, I have been all too familiar with how childhood sexual abuse plays out in adult sexuality. What I did not expect was to meet clients and students who had been taught in church, at camp, large-scale Christian conferences or “purity rallies”, or in abstinence education courses that their desire was sinful, dangerous, and could harm them and others. Or that this type of teaching could result in symptoms of sexual abuse and complex trauma.

“I was taught that female sexuality was equated with the ‘spirit of Jezebel’ from the Bible,” another young woman wrote in a paper. “The spirit of Jezebel was described as the sexual, manipulative, and controlling part of women that could draw godly men away from their calling by their seductive and enticing nature. We couldn’t hang out alone with a person of the opposite sex and obviously dating was illegal. Hearing sermons and talks about this made me feel dirty and bad, in the very fact that I was a woman with those sorts of powers to pervert men. So I had to deny everything about my sexuality and body.”

The “Christian” Purity Movement is a focus on virginity prior to marriage. It is also a focus on “purity” - on not doing sexual behaviors and not having sexual thoughts or feelings prior to marriage. It promises if you do this that you will have a blissful marriage with an ecstatic sex life - at least this is what kids who grow up in this movement believe. The opposite is believed as well: if you screw up in any way, your marriage and sex life will be doomed.

The purity movement was popular among conservative, usually Evangelical, LDS, and Catholic, churches from the late 1980s long into the 2000s. Instead of protecting youth, the purity movement actually guarantees people will enter marriages naïve, ignorant, filled with assumptions about gender, their bodies, their partner’s body, and their sexuality. They are informed about sex and gender by media in ways that objectify women, and diminish men. They are fearful and confused about pleasure, ashamed about what they have done and not done, filled with secrets about what they have done, not done, thought and not thought, without knowledge, vocabulary or practice to discuss sex, sexuality, or intimacy, and judgmental about self and others. In short, with emotional, relational, sexual, and spiritual baggage to last well into their fourth decades.

Unaware that this movement existed, I was shocked to have clients come to me with symptoms I had previously only seen in people who had experienced childhood sexual abuse. But as the children and adolescents of the purity movement came of age and began having sexual relationships (and running up against their sexual dysfunction) I had individuals and couples sitting in my office wondering what was wrong with them, why they couldn’t access the pleasure that “God had promised”.

Their stories got me started on a decade-long journey that led me to write the book, Sex, God, and the Conservative Church - Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy. My hope is that both clients, and the therapists and physicians who care for them will be able to better understand what happened and begin the journey of healing religious sexual shame and trauma. We were all created with the capacity for a varied, dynamic eroticism rooted in a sexuality and spirituality that is deeply connected and pleasurable, that is meant to enhance our self-worth, and increases our desire to connect with more love and grace with others.

Sex, God & the Conservative Church guides psychotherapy and sexology clinicians on how to treat clients who grew up in a conservative faith—mired in sexual shame and dysfunction—and who desire to both heal and hold on to their faith orientation. The author first walks clinicians and readers through a critique of Western culture and the conservative Christian Church, and their effects on intimate partnerships and sexual lives. The book provides clinicians a way to understand the faulty sexual ethic of the early church, while revealing the hidden mystical sex and body positive understanding of sexuality of the Hebrew people. The book also includes chapters on strategies for a new sexual ethic, on clinical steps to heal religious sexual shame, and on specific sex therapy interventions clinicians can use directly in their practice. Finally, it offers a four-step model for healing religious sexual shame along with actual touch and non-touch exercises to bring healing and intimacy into a person's life.

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Married to a woman deeply scarred by the message of "sexual purity" I need to correct the timeline. The purity movement was not born in the late-80s. It was alive and strong, in its worst-possible form, during the 70s, spearheaded by IBYC (institute in basic youth conflict), Bill Gothard's organization. My wife's church organized a busload of young women (she had just turned 17) to hear the message about how important it was to save yourself for marriage, but worse, by far, was that there was no redemption for women who had sinned by having sex prior to marriage. No mention of your personal relationship with Christ. If you wanted to mitigate your sin, you had to go before your…

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