There are two illusions when it comes to sex: one that rests on faith, and one that relies on fabrication. The first leads to something that is real, the second does not.
When I was “sweet 16” and “never been kissed, ” my experience was with the former. I interned at a non-profit ministry that provided abstinence presentations in the public school systems, which meant that several times a week, I stood up in front of a classroom full of my peers to talk about sex. And looking out at the faces of teens who made out, hooked up, and messed around, I felt the need to cloud over the fact that my own dating scene was sparse. I was firm in my convictions, but I was afraid my lack of experience would be perceived as lack of credibility to speak on the subject.
I was taking God’s design for sex and relationships by faith, holding to what Hebrews 11:1 calls certainty in what is yet unseen. Five years later when I married my husband, the same convictions I held dear were realized in our relationship. As a teen, some considered my sexual standards naive, but in retrospect, I now see how my decision for abstinence then set the stage for the rich relationship we have in our marriage today.
The second illusion may be oddly but accurately illustrated by the grayling butterfly. Nikolaas Tinbergen was a Dutch ethologist (specializing in the study of animal behavior) who discovered that if male butterflies were presented with “dummy” butterflies with exaggerated defining markers, the males would choose the dummy butterfly as his mating partner over the real female right in front of him.[i] The artificial females were cardboard and wingless, yet magnetized the males with the prime attraction factor of excessively defined stripes. Nikolaas Tinbergen called this phenomenon “supernormal stimuli,” and with his associates won a Nobel Prize for it in the 1970s.
As absurd as this may seem to us, insects aren’t the only ones susceptible to this kind of trickery. The romantic ideal perpetuated in media today is just as artificial as a cardboard lover, and just as lifeless. Love stories and sexual escapades in entertainment are constructed with artificial lighting, sound checks, and special effects. The result is larger than life, and the fact that we know the romance is scripted and created in a Hollywood studio does not keep us from shaping our own relationship expectations around this elaborate fantasy.
We all have expectations, whether we are single, dating, or married, that we often unknowingly carry into our relationships. So how do we cultivate realistic and biblically rooted expectations? How can we tell the difference between expectations formed by faith and expectations formed by exposure to hyper-sexualized entertainment?
Here are a few truths to keep your perspective grounded in God’s design for sex and relationships, rather than getting swept up in the smoke and mirrors. Because at some point, the cracks begin to show through the special effects, and we find the illusion is lacking.
Sex Cannot Be a God and a Fling
Hollywood sometimes takes on a split personality when it comes to sex. Either sex is a casual hook-up with no strings attached, or it’s the main event of a relationship with everything attached. Sex is either the pinnacle of the plotline, or just a subplot fling. But common sense, confirmed by Scripture, tells us that it can’t be this way.
American culture may appear to worship sex, but I’d say we don’t revere it near as much as we should. Sex is too important to be blown out of proportion apart from its divine purpose, which begins with the astounding mystery of two people becoming one as an expression of their marriage commitment. From the beginning, God created Adam and Eve as gifts for each other, and when He brought them together, He saw that it was good.
If we set up sex as a god, we will be disappointed. If we degrade sex to something casual, we will become jaded. But when we understand sex as a gift God created for us, we can prepare to be blessed!
Sex Is Not Merely Physical
Pop culture gives the impression that sex is primarily an experience of the body: it begins with physical attraction and ends with physical satisfaction. But I believe this is selling ourselves short. God created men and women in His image (Genesis 1:27), giving us the capacity to function with our mind, body, heart, and soul. The Bible cites all of these as part of who we are as human beings, so to suggest that sex is purely physical is to fragment the human experience when God has created us to be whole. This misperception desensitizes and detracts from the full experience.
Science also confirms that the connection that occurs during sex transcends the physical. Girls Uncovered, written by two Christian obstetricians, reports that sex shapes the brain for good or bad.[ii] The authors explain how chemicals such as oxytocin, a hormone of emotional attachment, and dopamine, the “reward hormone,” are triggered to release in high doses during sexual encounters, and this chemical surge signals the brain to bond person to person. When we engage in sexual activity, there will always been some type of bonding that takes place because of brain hormones. This bonding is wired into our brains and it becomes a part of our very being.[iii]
Sex Is Not About Performance
Movies are in the performance business, so sexual content relies heavily on shock factor and theatrics. The way that sex is portrayed in media today, you’d think that everyone is a walking time bomb about to explode into electric, delirious lovemaking. Ask any married couple, and they’ll likely tell you differently. That’s because there’s far more to sex in marriage than one-dimensional physical pleasure. In the context of love and commitment, performance doesn’t have to take center stage, and the couple is free to mutually provide for the multi-dimensional enjoyment of each other’s body, mind, heart, and soul.
Sexual intimacy is actually a reenactment of something even more beautiful and powerful than we could possibly know. In the Old and New Testament, God used the metaphor of marriage to communicate His covenant love to His people, a sacred truth we are privileged to reflect in our daily lives with our spouse.
Ephesians 5 connects the dots between our marriages and this cosmic romance by instructing husbands and wives to love and serve each other as Christ cares for His church. Paul referred to the Edenic image of two becoming one in marriage, calling it a profound “mystery,” and then followed by saying that marriage is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32).
Sex Beyond Expectation
For all the hype the entertainment industry stirs up about sex, God’s design offers even more. Forget airbrushed intimacy that rarely delivers. Reset your perspective and expectations of sex as an incredible gift from God, a whole act for whole people, and a profound reenactment of gospel love.