A few years back I lost my job, in a traumatic burn-out on the level that caused me to retire permanently from teaching and shake with anxiety and fear every time I even tried to explain the struggles of my career to anyone. (Actually, I had to quit my job, but the reasons were so compelling that unemployment found in my favor and started paying me for job loss.) Even though I was on unemployment, I could no longer afford my apartment and in a perfect storm of weird dynamics within a church I had been in that was crumbling, and abusive family dynamics, I found myself faced with two choices: live in a homeless shelter or live with my boyfriend. My boyfriend and I chose the latter.
Evangelical and others’ viewpoints on the matter:
Among charismatic evangelical Christians (which is my spiritual background) this was absolutely a no-no. In the Pentecostal world there is a name for this: it’s called, “shacking up.” Shacking up is denounced loudly in sermons without so much as a Bible verse mentioned as to why it is deemed absolutely hideously unacceptable, but the assumption is that you’re having sex. And even if you’re not, by living together you’re violating another one of the great, immoral, evangelical rules: “Having the appearance of evil.” Merely “appearing” evil is as great of an evil to Christians as doing the evil itself.
Except to those outside the evangelical community, it doesn’t come across as evil. Non-Christians, at least the average Western nonbelievers, absolutely don’t care or find anything at all questionable, immoral, or indecent about two unmarried people living with one another, nor even with them having sex. To them it is not only normal, but wholesome. So it is not nonbelievers that find the appearance of two people living together to be potentially evil. It is exclusively Christians for whom the appearances thing is an issue.
The fact is, the Bible verse that Christians often use to say that Christians need to be careful to not “look” like they are doing anything immoral really shouldn’t begin to be understood that way. That Bible verse isn’t saying, “avoid looking sinful.” It’s saying, “wherever evil appears, avoid it.” Click here for a better explanation.
But beyond considerations of what the verse says or doesn’t say, the concern ultimately is a concern about sexual purity between unmarried persons. Religious cultures however have a long-standing fear of men and women being alone in a home or room together. Orthodox Judaism has a rule called Yichud which means that any time a man and a woman are alone in a space together, it can be assumed that sex has occurred. Billy Graham (and now, by extension, Vice President Mike Pence) had a rule that he would never be alone with a woman in any setting, not in his office or out at lunch. The irony is that religious culture, in its quest to prevent sex, often ends up looking like it is obsessed with sex, albeit preventing it. And often law triumphs over mercy.
So…I moved in with my boyfriend. Was it a great idea? No.
If I had any other option that I could have emotionally handled at the time (moving in with strangers or living in a homeless shelter were not things that I could have handled in the midst of the upheaval of job loss and other things going on. Call me emotionally weak if you want, because I was…) I would have done so. If there were friends who would have allowed me to move in with them while I had no money left from my measily unemployment check to pay them for rent, I would have. Do I recommend after reading this blog post that others go home and move in with their fiance’s or boyfriend/girlfriends? No.
The choice carries with it all sorts of emotional complications, not to mention bearing total shame in front of one’s faith community, that stigmatizes people who “shack up.” As our relationship hit the rocks that other couples living together (read, newly married people) would hit, we were without the help and resources of counseling that others trying to share a household in the context of an intimate (emotionally intimate) would have had in our context – because we were not yet married. It strained us to the point of calling off our wedding plans because we both became unsure of our future together.
But aside from our faith communities, there are others that instantly have the wrong idea when you tell them you are living with a domestic partner, in ways that sometimes make me wonder what century I live in. As we sat in the secular counselor’s office (since we couldn’t go to faith-based counseling, although some well-intentioned friends were helpful) she asked us about our sex life. We told her that while we had a very sweet time cuddling, that we did not as yet have a “sex” life as we were both committed to waiting until marriage for sex. But I learned most people think:
Men’s sex drives are an issue, women’s are considered a non-issue.
She then asked my boyfriend, who had previously told her moments earlier that this was his conviction as well, “How are you handling going without sex?” She never posed the same question to me. In instance after instance, my boyfriend was asked by various people how he is holding up in a relationship without sex.
I have never been asked the same question – never – neither by men nor by women. It is assumed somehow that a woman has no desire for sex? In Judaism, it is interesting that sex is considered a woman’s right, not a man’s. It is her right to have children, or at least to attempt to have children.
While everyone was busy asking my boyfriend how he was enduring the supposedly awful ordeal – assumably imposed by me – of not having sex, no one was asking me about the tears cried into my pillow regularly about forced infertility being a relationship that was not coming to completion in marriage. Not to mention the fact that shouldn’t have to be mentioned: women have a sex drive too. The assumption that male pleasure and temptation was somehow always an issue and female pleasure and temptation somehow just doesn’t exist was something I found passively insulting, to say the least.
Not that I wanted to break our mutually-enforced rule of chastity either – despite my libido, my convictions about sex before marriage are still stronger than my sex drive. But, there is something in both secular society and religious culture that acts as though self-control doesn’t exist as a thing. That the only way to explain abstinence is by absence of desire.
While no one ever asked me if I minded going without sex, there were several who asked me if I thought my boyfriend might be gay. Again, not having sex is all about the male party….but this question is one that betrays the assumption that not having sex is only possible if one doesn’t want it. There does not seem to be a narrative in either the church or the world in which two people can very much want it, but for one reason or another decide not to do it – while being alone in a room together.
Is it possible? Definitely yes. Is it ideal? No. I wholeheartedly affirm that ideally – two people have a marriage covenant together and can let their wildest sexual pleasures and fantasies with each other find a whole range of beautiful expression, while having babies and providing emotional security with one another, in the context of the joyous partnership of sharing a home.
But we live in a world that is not always ideal,
where sometimes the only person who loves and cares enough for you to keep you off the street or help you find your way is someone of the opposite sex whom you are not yet married to. I’m grateful for the love shown during our confusing relationship of non-marital cohabitation, and for the commitment to abstinence that both of us held on to. And I sincerely hope that as I go on from here, I can be open about this part of my past – even though it hardly counts as a “past” – without being seen as not-really-a-serious-Christian because of it. Although doubtlessly, that will be the case for some.
(I should add that we eventually found a faith community to be part of that was non-charismatic but accepted our situation without misjudging our situation, and yet offered us pastoral counseling in the midst of it.)