Content warning: This article contains references and examples of extreme homophobia and religious/spiritual abuse.
I’m often told I come across as very free, relaxed and confident about sex, usually in the same breath as “I wish I could be like that”. Why not? What’s so different about us that you can’t fully realize your sexual liberation in the way that I have? Some people tell me I don’t understand the way they grew up, their religious background or family history. They assume my parents must have been very permissive, freethinking hippies. The thing is, I do understand what it’s like to come from a conservative family. I really do.
It’s hard to talk about, hard to even think about – it’s only in the last year of therapy that I’ve been able to say it out loud to myself. Only in the last few months have I been able to accurately label my experiences without thinking I’m being absurd. I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out how to start writing this article, fearful of imagined backlash or some other unnameable consequence, paralyzed by the fear.
I was raised in a cult.
This is already a controversial statement. From the outside and certainly from the inside to some, it looked like any other Fundamentalist Christian belief system. There were a few odd things, like believing most illnesses were caused by literal demon possession, subsequent exorcisms/faith healings and a fixation on the rapture – but all these things show up in various forms of Christianity anyway.
To understand the framing of my family’s religion, it’s important to understand that I wasn’t just born into it myself but in fact my parents were too; and so were their parents. My paternal grandfather was originally Brethren, which my maternal grandfather also was at some point (despite being raised in an even more exclusive church, the Two-by-twos). The legalistic sensibilities of such churches came through strongly in the teachings of my Grandfathers, who were both evangelists.
My maternal grandfather did not have his own church but easily could have, given his popularity. He held regular healing meetings all over New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific. His system of belief existed outside of any formal church but also within other churches, as he was a frequent guest speaker.
“Everything I did or said was analyzed through the lens of what my grandfather would think about it when he found out.”
The power he exerted over my family was intense, he was our ultimate moral authority and spiritual leader. Everything I did or said was analyzed through the lens of what my grandfather would think about it when he found out.
I could write a book about the details of my childhood beliefs, where they came from and why I think of it as a cult, but that’s not what I’m here to share. The only relevant part of these beliefs are how they impacted my ideas of love, sex, gender and relationships, and how healing from those damaging ideas lead me to become a certified Sex Coach.
Many of the sex-negative messages I received growing up were directly from my maternal Grandfather – in one case an actual letter when I turned sixteen wherein he formally stated that having a de facto relationship would cause me to be cut off from the family. He believed held all the traditional beliefs about sex before marriage, sodomy (both anal sex and oral) being evil etc. Every now and then we got treated to a long sermon about the evils of unmarried sex at a family event.
While my maternal grandfather gave me the most direct and explicit messages about sex, the background culture of my family and church was also very sex negative. Virginity was fetishized and obsessed about (purity rings abounded), unwed mothers openly scorned, large families and sex for reproduction only being the norm.
Sexuality was communicated to me as a source of shame, sin and evil that must be constantly fought against least we burn in hell. It was part of our earthly “sinful nature”; our carnal mind and not part of the “godly nature” that we sought.
It now seems bizarre to me that anyone would get married without finding out if they’re sexually compatible with that person. However growing up, sex before marriage was so vilified in our church culture that some people even stopped dating before marriage. Yes, I’m looking at you ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’; we had multiple copies of this book in my house. When my best friend’s mother moved them in with her partner I was suddenly not allowed to spend the night at their house, presumably the mere proximity of unmarried couples was dangerous.
My mother was also a part of the quiverfull movement for a time, becoming a distributor of the magazine “Above Rubies”. Motherhood and child-rearing were tied inextricably to my identity as a woman and as a Christian woman much of my worth seemed to rely on my fertility. I saw a lot of obsession with babies at any cost, often disregarding the health or desires of the mother.
“If I fell too far outside of the allowed behaviour for women I would be labelled as a Witch or a Jezebel. If that feels a bit like Gilead, well, that’s because it is.”
Being a Mother and Wife were presented as the main job options for me as a Christian woman. The bible distinctly lacks female heroes and role models that are praised for their own merits rather than their relationships with men. Women were not supposed to teach men, so while I could have a ministry for women as my Grandmother did, I would never be allowed to be as spiritually powerful or influential as the men in my family. If I fell too far outside of the allowed behaviour for women I would be labelled as a Witch or a Jezebel. If that feels a bit like Gilead, well, that’s because it is.
The homophobia was also pretty intense, though I was unaware of it at the time. I didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t a Christian of my own denomination until my early teens, so I had no real concept of anything existing outside of a traditional heterosexual marriage.
Gay people were so outside of my knowledge that I managed to be in a lesbian relationship for over a year without realizing it, only eventually acknowledging it several years after it ended. Yeah, that time you exchanged I-love-yous and had sex with another girl was pretty gay, Teddy.
“I was so far in the closet I was practically ruling Narnia.”
I was unable to admit, even to myself, that a lesbian relationship could be a valid expression of love and desire. I was so far in the closet I was practically ruling Narnia. This is still in my top five bad things I have done list, though I know it wasn’t entirely my fault I still feel bad for being such a shitty closeted girlfriend and the things I put her through.
My father believes that most (maybe even all) gay people were molested as children and that’s why they identify as gay. When I challenged him on this last year he said that’s simply what he learned from the men who came to the conversion prayer group he facilitated. He does not know why I find this upsetting as a proudly bisexual woman.
So how could I not even know being gay was a thing for so long? I was raised with very little secular (non-christian) media. Most of the movies/TV I watched and books I read were Christian or Christian leaning. Loads of Veggie Tales, Donut Repair Club and Psalty The Singing Prayer Book (you’re welcome for the nostalgia hit my fellow fundies), plus the awesome musical stylings of MIC, DC Talk and Carmen. Oddly enough, I never did see a Veggie Tales movie with gay vegetables in it.
I never received any formal sex education. If it was available at my Christian school (now shut down due to – you guessed it – a sexual abuse scandal), my parents either opted me out or it was on one of the many days I started skipping due to “stomach aches” – how anxiety often presents in children and teens. I never got “the talk” either; I got my first period while my parents were away on holiday, managed it myself and informed my mother when she got back. I remember sitting on my bed with her, waiting to hear the big bad truth. Instead, she said “there’s nothing I can tell you that you don’t already know, right?”
“I was born a wildly sexual creature and would never fit into the tiny little box Christianity built for me.”
That might seem weird but she wasn’t wrong – by that time I had been on the internet and in chat rooms for three years and probably did know more about modern sex than my mother did. Still, I would have appreciated a pretense. She didn’t bother trying to give me a purity ring like my elder sister either. It must have been apparent to her then as it is to me now; I was born a wildly sexual creature and would never fit into the tiny little box Christianity built for me.
The internet was not in fact my first source of information on sex – the Bible takes that prize. Despite being the very definition of “family values” the good book has some raunchy shit in it. Before I deciphered the metaphors for genitals in Song of Solomon, I was feverishly rereading passages about David’s voyeuristic watching of Bathsheba on the roof.
While sometimes my illustrated or comic bibles provided hints about the sexy stuff (which seriously, wtf) they were often left out, leaving me little visual stimulation to go off. This also lead to some confusion; after reading about Onan spilling his “seed” on the ground I got the idea that semen literally had little black seeds in it, not unlike chia pudding. It would take a dial up modem and google image search to resolve a lot of the anatomical confusion that biblical metaphors generated in my mind.
“…it took me a long time to realize that stories set hundreds of years ago probably shouldn’t have the same repressive social context as my modern life.”
I was an avid reader of books as a child and most of it went unsupervised so I also gleaned a fair bit of information and masturbation material from fiction. Historical romances allowed me to dip my toes into the experience of desire, but still held to the social norms and metaphorical allusions I was used to. Ironically it took me a long time to realize that stories set hundreds of years ago probably shouldn’t have the same repressive social context as my modern life.
With the advent of home PCs and the internet my sexual freedom grew. We were early adopters, and by the time I was about 12 I had already sussed that something was up with the sex-negativity around me, so I felt brave enough to go looking for the naughty bits of the internet. These days most parents would be horrified to find out their kid was learning about sex from porn, but I really do feel it was the best (and only) avenue available to me.
It’s worth noting that I didn’t get into visual porn until I was an adult, but instead devoured written erotica, including fanfiction. Anyone familiar with fanfiction is probably aware of the phenomenon of “Slash”, where canonically straight men are paired up for the purposes of gay erotica. There’s much to be said for the ethics of slash (is this harmful fetishization? I don’t know) but I owe a debt of gratitude for how it opened my mind to a much more diverse understanding of sexuality.
“…by the time I “lost my virginity” (I prefer the term sexual debut) I didn’t even think about going to hell for it.”
As I became a teenager and interacted with more secular communities online and in real life, I gradually lost the intense fear and shame about sex that I had carried with me from childhood. I realized that having sex was much more than just a penis going into a vagina, that it would not permanently devalue me or harm my spirit. It took me many more years to sort out what it would mean for me personally, but by the time I “lost my virginity” (I prefer the term sexual debut) I didn’t even think about going to hell for it.
My sexual deprogramming and religious deprogramming dovetailed so neatly that I barely noticed it happening or was aware that it was something I was trying to do on purpose. Once I officially threw off the yoke of Christianity, I thought I was free. Unfortunately, I was wrong to an extent; I still carried the church’s ideas about what being non-christian meant.
“Having accepted I was depraved for not loving God, I set out to be as depraved as humanly possible.”
I had been told that without God, no morality could exist; humans were base, sinful, immoral, murderers, rapists etc and were only held back from absolute degeneracy by faith in God. I was constantly fed the narrative that sinners could not live a good life without Jesus.
Having accepted I was depraved for not loving God, I set out to be as depraved as humanly possible. I wanted to set records. I wanted to smash the world I grew up in for lying to me about sex, but I also kind of wanted to smash myself for not being good enough to live in that world.
Consequently, I made a lot of foolish decisions about sex and relationships. I wanted to prove that because sex didn’t mean what they told me it meant; it didn’t mean anything at all. I made the classic mistake of a freshly sex positive person – I thought being sexually liberated meant saying yes to everything. I now know that true sex positivity lies in being able to say no too; to say no to things I don’t enjoy, to situations I’m not comfortable in, to only being sexual when I want to be and not using it as a form of self-harm.
“You can have very good sex with a stranger and very bad sex with someone you love; emotional connection does not automatically mean the sex is better or more morally valid.”
I want to make it very clear here that I’m not presenting myself as some sort of reformed slut – I don’t really believe in the traditional concept of a slut or that there’s anything wrong with casual sex. Being promiscuous, that is, having sex with lots of people you don’t know very well, is not inherently a negative thing. You can have very good sex with a stranger and very bad sex with someone you love; emotional connection does not automatically mean the sex is better or more morally valid.
While I slowly put together my personal framework for sexual morality, I ended up working for D.VICE, a boutique adult store. I had first visited D.VICE shortly after my sixteenth birthday (the shop’s age limit) and bought my first vibrator thanks to a combination of internet research and the store clerks help. I made several more visits over the years, culminating in the time I took my little sister in there on a whim and ended up applying for a job.
Working for D.VICE was where I first got an inkling that my personal journey from sheltered Christian virgin to sex-positive adult might actually be a thing. A big thing, a central theme of my life type of thing. In my second year of art school my head tutor had gently suggested I try working on a theme that wasn’t genitalia. I complied, sort of, but it should have been a clue that my alignment to sexual expression could not be contained.
“Sometimes it turned out that nothing we sold would fix the problem alone, but a few minutes of specific education from me could make all the difference.”
After working there a while, it became apparent that the part of the job I enjoy most was talking to customers about more complex concerns than which colour vibrator they preferred. Sometimes it turned out that nothing we sold would fix the problem alone, but a few minutes of specific education from me could make all the difference.
How did this lead me to coaching? The universe sent me a great big billboard of sign in the form of a party booking for a group of psychotherapists in training. They wanted to get more familiar with the terminology and practical side of sex toys. The host ended up showing me her amazing collection of educational DVDs and I was instantly in love. She referred me to the program she was studying that was the source of this collection: Dr Patti Britton’s Sex Coach U.
The rest is history. I spent about 18 months studying by distance, but also completely an in-person training in Europe as part of my qualifications. Along with a more classical curriculum covering the existing sexological academic landscape, I learned to listen deeply, to ask pivotal questions and allow a client to find the answers within themselves. Subsequently I came out of this period a more whole person, able to see the areas of my life that needed work and form plans about how to accomplish that.
The final gift of studying Sex Coaching was to give me back the spirituality that my childhood had extinguished. Once burned, twice shy, I had completely shut down any part of my being that couldn’t be quantified by western science. One of the notes on my final practicum at SCU was that I wasn’t exercising as much intuition as they would like to see; I was leery of coming across too “woo-woo”.
“I recognized that my religious trauma extended to a lack of spirituality at all; I had gone scorched earth on my intuitive senses.”
In order to improve in this area and help my clients integrate their spiritual life with their sexuality, I had to first give myself permission to do so. I had to open up my mind and risk “letting my brain fall out”. With the help of an excellent therapist, I recognized that my religious trauma extended to a lack of spirituality at all; I had gone scorched earth on my intuitive senses. It felt like a phantom limb I had been ignoring for years, suddenly awake and itching.
I’ve been exploring various methods to scratch this itch, from meditation to tarot, all the things on the actual sin list from my Grandfather’s teachings. So far the best avenue, the one that feels most right has been learning about my Maori ancestry and the spiritual knowledge that goes along with it. As a child I was taught that Maori culture was full of demons, and likely those demons had been passed down to me by blood.
“If nothing else I feel I have a calling to help those struggling with sex, to alleviate the silent suffering that everyone seems to experience to some extent.”
I now can appreciate that maybe some spirituality has been passed down to me, both from my Maori ancestors and my bible bashing grandparents. Perhaps I am a powerful spiritual being, in tune with intangible things and wielding gifts I don’t yet have names for. If nothing else I feel I have a calling to help those struggling with sex, to alleviate the silent suffering that everyone seems to experience to some extent.
Healing the shame, ignorance and emotional damage caused by my fundamentalist upbringing has equipped me with the tools to help others. The process of helping people is also continuing to make me grow in unexpected but always worthwhile ways. Please, take my story and learn from it. Don’t make sex a taboo topic, live your life according to your values and don’t suppress your sexuality. Whatever one or more consenting adults do together is valid, beautiful and no one’s business but theirs.
Even if your background is only a little conservative or you aren’t sure where your sex-negative messages came from, rest assured that my story is evidence that there is no shame or sexual programming too strong to be overcome.