Yolanda Jordan* remembers the moment she decided to have sex for the first time. She was 27, fresh out of grad school, in a committed relationship—and horny. She was also raised in the Baptist church and had taken a vow of abstinence. “I was curious,” says Jordan, now 34, a graphic designer in Columbus, Ohio. “My mind was telling me one thing, my body another. I was grown [and] longing to be touched. I am not perfect; I struggle with sin. I strive to live a righteous life. Just because I have a Bible on my nightstand and condoms in the drawer doesn’t mean I love God any less or that He doesn’t love me.”
Many Christian youths who signed abstinence pledges or wore purity rings reach a crossroad as young adults. They are faced with upholding Biblical principles against sex outside of marriage during an era when the average age of first marriage creeps toward 30. Celibacy may be even tougher for singles who have splashed around in the pool of fornication long before dedicating their lives to Christ. More are asking, “Am I really condemning my soul to eternal damnation by getting my freak on Saturday night and praising the Lord on Sunday morning?” As many as 80 percent of young unmarried Christians have had sex, according to Relevant, a magazine for Christians aged 18 to 30.
Even as they uphold abstinence as ideal, religious leaders can no longer ignore the elephant in the sanctuary. From a newsletter published by pastor Creflo Dollar: “There was a time when … marriage was honored and respected … and sexual relationships outside of marriage were certainly not accepted as the norm. However, times have changed … values have moved away from the standard of God’s Word because of selfishness.” Popular romcom Jumping the Broom (2011), produced by Bishop T.D. Jakes, opened with actress Paula Patton’s character in the bed of a casual sex partner and regretting “giving up the cookies” the night before. The flick portrays her finding true love, but only after deciding with her fiancé to abstain until their wedding day. It was Jakes’ decision to include the morning-after scene, Patton told The Christian Post. “We make mistakes, but the goal is to become better [people].”
But finding a Christian man who is actually willing to wait may be easier onscreen. Single father John Fitzgerald, 29, acknowledges the difficulty in putting faith before flesh and has even ended relationships because of the woman’s decision to remain abstinent. “Yes, it’s wrong, [but] I’m still doing it,” he says. “It’s something I struggle with in my personal relationship with God. People say, ‘Don’t make sex such a big deal,’ but for a lot of people, it’s a deal breaker.”
“The Bible is clear that you should not have sex outside of marriage, but that is not the reality of what’s going on,” says Sophia Nelson, award-winning author of Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama (BenBella Books). She cites the finding that more than 50 percent of single, churchgoing women admit to having sex. With U.S. Census data showing that nearly 40 percent of Black women do not marry until age 35 and more than 45 percent of African-Americans older than 14 have never been married, Black Christians face a long road of chastity.
The shoulder of that road is cluttered with breakdowns and those who have run out of gas: Almost three quarters of Black children are born out of wedlock. “It is unrealistic in the 21st century to expect celibacy until marriage. We live in a sexualized society and [during] a time [when] people marry much later,” says Nelson. She points to a double standard among Christian men—who face little judgment for indulging in pleasure and promiscuity—as a reason some sisters “pray for a husband,” but find themselves over 40, celibate and bitter.
What’s a sex-deprived saint to do? Teresa Jones, 38, leader of the Singles Ministry at New Birth Christian Ministries in Columbus, a divorcée who has been celibate since 2007, contends: “[Abstinence] is a struggle because we’re resisting our flesh. You [must] have frank conversations with your partner. You [must] know your weaknesses.”
Nelson maintains that abstinence is a personal choice. Currently in a relationship and celibate, she says Christians should not avoid intimacy for fear of breaking their vow of abstinence with God. “A lot of people take a hard-line position and won’t even allow themselves to be touched,” she says.
Ultimately, for many who are single and saved, the struggle then becomes where to draw the line when not going “all the way.” Jones cautions Christians not to pardon their actions with the mantra that all people sin. “If you are comfortable with sinning, that’s a problem. When you really love God you don’t willingly do anything that would make Him upset.”
“If a key dimension of sexuality is that of drawing us toward others so we experience the life-giving affirmation of being loved and known, then we are sexual whether or not we are having sex,” note the authors of The Theology of Sex, published by the National Association of Evangelicals. They advise singles to stay the course and be “transparent” and “accountable” to others in their faith community.
*Name has been changed.
**This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of EBONY.