Some of you who read my blog may, whether I know it or not, be the very people I'm talking about here. To those of you I count as friends, I want you to know that I do love and care about you, and not just in a pitiable sinner kind of way, and while a lot of what I've been writing lately may sound preachy and judgmental, or just plain archaic and naive, please understand that I am trying to process everything verbally so I can get feedback and help in sorting everything out. If you feel like I'm talking about you, or you "used to" feel the same things I'm describing but have found constructive ways to be bothered less or more "open", you're welcome to share your thoughts with me to help me better understand where you're coming from: my purpose is not to lambaste a whole subset of my friends publicly but to sort out what the @#$% I'm going through personally.
To all readers: if you can't handle some pointed questioning and blunt or somewhat explicit language, or if you will just roll your eyes, stop here and go do something more useful with your time.
One of my biggest current emotional/paradigm crises is this whole chastity/morality/sexual expression thing. It's just been a very, very long time since I've watched friends actually choose to become "sexually active". Many of my friends are celibate. A few "slip up" here and there, but they claim, at least, to believe those were mistakes and try to do "better" in the future. And some friends were already sexually active when I met them. But some are shifting, crossing over that line, and watching friends go from "celibate" to "sexually active" has always, for some reason, been really hard on me, and I'm wondering why.
Since junior high and high school, I've not really run into the phenomenon of friends choosing to go from celibate to unabashedly sexually active, usually with multiple partners, whether serially or concurrently...until I moved to Utah (go fig, I guess the whole "late bloomers" thing applies more here). Maybe I should clarify what I mean by "sexually active": I mean deciding that genital stimulation to climax by various means is acceptable and desirable regardless of the commitment level of the relationship.
It's not just the fact that people open up to having sex that bothers me as much as the fact that when they do, it's most often with a careless flippancy, a self-serving arrogance, or reckless abandon. The problem I see is that isn't really about relationships and intimacy but about "fun" and self-gratification. It's that they decide to fool around often as a result of already having crossed a line they hadn't intended to and not as a deliberate, premeditated choice and most often start exploring sex without any real relationship. I guess that's the norm in most of society, but it doesn't feel right to me, it just doesn't sit well.
I think what most bothers me is that as my friends let go of their moral standards, I often see changes that are hard to watch. The way they approach relationships becomes baser, more shallow and pleasure-seeking. I see many of them losing sensitivity to others and becoming more callous and self-absorbed, which seems the opposite of what should happen if you've experienced something that truly makes you happy and enriches your life. I see them becoming absorbed into their self-serving world and looking condescendingly, almost with laughing eyes, though some try to hide it, when someone expresses a hint of concern. I see their eyes go cold and their general warmth diminish. They start speaking in more nonchalant tones and arrogantly shrugging off what they now regard as prudish notions. They change, unless it's just my view of them that changes. I can't be sure, I guess.
Whatever is really going on with them in the process, and whatever is just my perceptions and paradigms, it's hard for me to watch. I understand, to some extent, the process and what people go through on their way to sexual exploration.
Slippery Slope or Natural Progression
It usually starts with grinding and "heavy petting" during making out, which I don't count as "sexually active" but is definitely going through some of the key motions. Sometimes, I've known people to make out naked, and that's not regarded as sex, just naked kissing. Then, people often decide it's OK to "dry hump", because it's not really sex, and pants, at least, stay on, and nobody is "touching" anyone's privates, so even though a guy may reach orgasm in the process, it's just a byproduct of making out, not "sex" per se, right? Then they decide genital stimulation with the hands is OK, because it's not really sex, it's just...well, when you've had your hands on every other part of the body while making out, what's the big deal touching that additional, small area of flesh? It's just a tiny step, and it's not penetration or anything. Then they often decide oral sex is OK; it's just another way of making out with some extra benefits. Then they admit they just don't believe sex is something worth "saving for marriage" (often because they don't think they'll ever be married anyway, so they're entitled to a little enjoyment in life too), and it is just a recreational thing you do with someone you're attracted to, as long as you're "responsible" about not spreading diseases, making babies, or hurting other people.
I know at least some of what goes on in the process that leads up to this. I know that you make out with someone, and it's hot and heavy and maybe lusty, and you don't feel the least bit guilty for your passionate interaction. You really like and appreciate your make-out partner, and you both were "in the moment". You both might have said previously that you "shouldn't" do this or that, but when the moment arrived, and you were both "in the mood", things happened, and it takes two to tango, so it's not like anyone was being coerced. You may think, "well, I hadn't expected to do it and wouldn't have chosen to in advance, but I just got caught up in the moment," but you don't feel "bad" or "guilty" for having gotten "carried away" because it wasn't a conscious choice, it just happened. The next time, you go farther, and you're again surprised that you feel like you could've gone "all the way" and probably not felt guilty about that either. Weird. Isn't this supposed to be "sinful"? If it's so wrong, why don't I feel bad about it? So the next time...
I'll be honest, quite possibly the only thing stopping me, at one point, was the fact that I had made a decision ahead of time that I would only cross certain specific boundaries if I had previously, in emotional/mental soberness, decided I was ready to make that call the next time the opportunity presented itself. I knew that "in the moment", I am not thinking totally clearly, and rather than determine my decisions based on circumstance, I wanted to be my own agent and determine where I'd express sexuality, not become guided by or slave to my (sometimes very strong) sexual appetite. I realize not everyone sees this as a valid way of doing things. I'm just saying that I do understand that, in the moment, things don't seem at all wrong that you previously thought were taboo. I also know that, in the moment, you're generally not thinking about much of anything outside of that one experience. I also could see that, once you've been naked with someone, or let's say you've groped each other everywhere but "there", or you've "dry humped", the line is so blurred that I imagine it'd be really easy to just say, "Who are we kidding? If we've done this and that, it's hardly different to just go ahead with the full thing. Let's stop being so childish playing these games and just do what 'normal people' do when they're into each other like we are." The blurring of the lines...I get that.
Factors Other Than "We Got Hot and Heavy One Time"
I know what it's like to feel totally unsure whether you'll ever get married, which is rough for those from a background with certain moral codes. Until you find someone to marry and start a family with, the law of chastity as taught by the LDS Church (and many other churches) declares that you are to practice abstinence your entire life, if necessary. So until marriage, you're left trying to figure out exactly how strict you're supposed to be with each relationship and at what point your affection and physical intimacy has crossed over to "inappropriate" territory. It's especially hard when you aren't sure where the relationship is going but you feel really close to each other and, let's be honest, intensely attracted to each other.
I imagine it's especially hard when dating someone who doesn't come from the same background and for whom sex is just a part of every romantic relationship, and there's the pressure of knowing that if you don't "put out", someone else will. I think sometimes people stay in relationships and compromise their own values for fear of losing the relationship if they don't.
There's also a kind of double whammy for gay (or same-sex attracted) LDS folks because even if you find someone you want a romantic relationship with, if you're trying to live by church standards, you're not allowed a "committed" relationship of the kind that feels most fulfilling and natural anyway (meaning one with someone of the same sex). This creates a couple of difficulties. First, there's nobody to be "faithful" to, since you're not allowed to be, which lends an inherent tendency to regard random fooling around or "slipping up" as actually less "immoral" than having a committed relationship. Second, for many with little or no hope of a "proper" mixed-gender relationship, there's an understandable (regardless of correctness) sense of entitlement or abandon: "Everyone else gets to have a little fun while dating...and everyone else gets to get married and experience sexual intimacy...and I'm supposed to not only be single by choice and celibate but not even kiss the people I'm attracted to? And I'm never allowed to have a civil union or marriage other people are allowed because same-sex relationships aren't condoned by the church, so I am never allowed a relationship in which sex is OK unless I either miraculously feel for someone of the opposite sex the way I've felt for people of my own or I lie to fit the mold? If I don't fit into the 'plan of happiness' anyway, then I need to chart my own rules for my anomaly of a life." I imagine single people in various places in life struggle with whether they'll ever be married or "fit the mold".
Yet I Struggle To Accept It: Why?
Knowing what I've described above about the natural process people often go through, why am I so shaken when another friend jumps off of the "chastity" train and decides to abandon sexual restraint and just have fun? Why don't I "understand" and just get over the fact that most people my age and in my situation are doing things differently than I am and get over it?
Is it because I rarely see anyone return from it? It seems like once that dam is broken, there's no going back most of the time until someone catches an STD or falls in love with someone who forces them to wait, and they re-assess the value or role of sexuality as a result.
Does my inability to shrug it off go back to my LDS upbringing in which chastity seems to be one of the highest, most sacred laws of mortality? Is it because I am somehow, even in my agnosticism regarding certain principles, concerned that people are jeopardizing their eternal welfare and derailing their spiritual direction for nothing but repeated, momentary self-gratification? Do I actually have a conviction I'm not in touch with and can't stand to see people "giving up" on chastity so impatiently in their mid-to-late-twenties as if they've "done their part" to live it and are nonchalantly throwing in the towel in a way they might deeply regret in 5, 10, or 20 years?
Is it simply because I see their behavior as foolishly self-centered and childish unless it's an intimately bonding experience between two adults in a committed relationship?
Is it because I need to believe others are doing what I'm doing to validate my own restraint? Is it my own insecurity? Do I want to shake people and slap them because I, personally, don't know what I believe and am looking for someone to prove that chastity does, in fact, lead to happiness, and I'm devastated when another friend fails to provide evidence of it?
Is it because there really is something inherently dangerous or reckless about the way they're going about it and I have very good reason to be concerned?
Is it because it's so far outside of my own limited paradigm that I can't handle my friends leaving my narrow scope of perspective?
Is it because I am, at heart, judgmental and unforgiving?
I've had so much trouble when I've heard friends shift their story from "I really don't want things to go in X direction," or "I really, really don't want X to happen with so-and-so. I'm not ready to go there, and we're not even officially dating." Then, a few days later, they put themselves in a highly tempting situation which they insisted wouldn't be "a problem" (though any objective observer knew it would be), stuff happens, they cross the line they said they didn't want to cross, and the next day, their song has changed to, "I'm just comfortable doing things you're not. You need to accept that I have different boundaries." I'm left thinking, "Your boundaries only changed after you'd crossed them anyway! Or you were lying to me about your true intentions, and maybe to yourself. What kind of half-assed decisions are you making with things you've been so careful about for your whole life until now, anyway?"
But I know that's not how it seems or feels to them most of the time, and they may have other reasons for doing what they're doing, and maybe they're OK to explore and, if needed, repent later and be that much stronger and sure in their course for it. And if they don't "come back" to celibacy, maybe that's OK too and I'm just an old-fashioned prude who needs to get over it. Maybe I'm totally off base and will change my mind next week. Or maybe...I just need to let it go somehow.
My Tentative Conclusion
I generally approach things from a calm, moderated perspective. Why do I flip out over this issue? Maybe it's because of a mix of all of the above reasons. I'm not sure, but I'm inclined to think it's especially because:
a) I'm questioning my own boundaries to some extent and whether I really am excessively prudish and would get over all of this if I just went ahead and experienced some things for myself.
b) I've seen a lot of people "fall into" patterns of behavior they didn't "mean to" adopt, and they most often never fully get out of them because they become slave to their appetites and have given up on boundaries because they are, in fact, hard to maintain, particularly for those who have never learned to avoid situations in which temptation to do what they intended not to do ends up right in their face.
c) Sexual expression often interferes with real emotional, intellectual, and spiritual bonding and intimacy rather than enhancing it as I think it should and fools people into thinking they're "in love" when they don't show the maturity, selflessness, or dedication of lasting, active "love", which they would recognize if they weren't thinking with their lusty bits. Maybe that's all some people are capable of, but when I've seen a glimpse of more, of their potential for real love and intimacy among their friends, family, and their past boyfriends/girlfriends, it worries me when they go chasing after what appears to be a cheap imitation, particularly when I really love the person and want to see them happy and fulfilled.
d) I really would like to experience sex as a special, intimate experience with someone special to me, and I'm less and less convinced that there are more than a handful of people in the world who would consider it as "special" as I would, so I get bent out of shape when another one drops off.
What To Do About It?
So in short...it's me. I've just got to deal with it and learn to cope. I've got to learn to not worry about other people's consequences. I've got to learn to let people self-destruct a little when there's nothing I can do to stop it. I've got to learn that when someone seems to choose sexual gratification over sexual intimacy, there's not much I can do to convince them otherwise, and I probably shouldn't even try, especially when I'm not sure they share my values or beliefs, regardless of religious affiliation or whatever lip service they've given in the past. I've got to learn that when someone seems to have chosen a shallow relationship over a deep one, I can't always see what qualities the relationship has that aren't obvious to me or what the person is really looking for in a relationship, despite what they may say. I've got to let people seek out frivolous or fun-based sexuality because that's what they want even when it pains me to think they're settling for a shell of what they could easily have and deserve, and besides, I've done some of that myself. I've got to learn not to be jealous that others are experiencing what I want to but am saving until it means something more, since I'm the one making that decision. And I've got to hold out some hope that maybe, just maybe, there's someone else in the world like me with whom I match up, and our paths may cross someday, and we'll both be glad we didn't let sex become just another form of recreation when we experience it (for the first time or not) as a soaring, intimate, special, unique-between-us (not to mention really fun and completely free and passionate) expression of deep, heartfelt, selfless love, appreciation, and simple hotness.
Or, more simply, I could use the more scientific method: experiment the next time I feel inclined to do so with whoever I have a budding romance with, with whom it wouldn't just be a trashy one-night-stand, and see where it takes me. Or decide to fool around with a friend where there's a mutual attraction--friends with benefits. If there's a real friendship, and we're both aware it's just for fun, maybe there's really nothing wrong with that. How do you know until you try, right? Just let go and let the consequences fall as they may. After all, you build your principles on experience, and if you've never had an experience to "prove" a principle, you try the alternatives to see what the results are, right? Maybe this whole clinging to principles because someone said so and it just seems logical and right isn't enough, and at some point, we all have to venture outside of the bounds to know if the bounds are where they even should be. Maybe it's OK to risk being a "bad example" for the sake of "learning for yourself".
I'm just not sure I'm interested in doing something that doesn't ring true just because the alternative has lost its luster or seems hard. So for now, until I decide to further loosen up my sexual strictures, if I ever do, I've just got to cope and hold on to a shred of hope that there's a meaningful reason for not loosening up those strictures and that there are others out there, however bleakly rare they seem, to whom I could be attracted and who see it as I do and won't run off to more sexually casual candidates when they discover just how much I mean it when I say I want to wait. Is that what it amounts to? Maybe so. I'm glad we had this talk.
Note: follow-up thoughts in Afterthoughts: Some Insecurities