Breaking down unhealthy and healthy fear of sexual intimacy
By Dr. Juli Slattery
A recent article in The Atlantic was titled, “People Are Terrified of Sex.” Specifically, people fear contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The article cites a study showing that people overestimate their chances of getting HIV from unprotected sex while they underestimate the chances of getting in a car accident. Why the difference?
The author of the article rightly states that sexuality is linked to moral choices. If you get in a car accident, you are a victim (unless you were drinking or driving recklessly). If you contract an STD, you presumably had some choice in having unprotected sex. The author’s solution to our fear of sex is to make sexual choices amoral, like driving a car. I suggest that the opposite is true. We will stop fearing sex when we embrace the moral implications of our sexuality rather than trying to deny them.
Sex and Morality Are Impossible to Separate
Moral and immoral behaviors are not just arbitrary lines in the sand that government or churches create. They reflect some truth that is built into the very fabric of our being. Our sexuality has moral implications for a reason. I can never separate the moral, spiritual, and relational “me” from the sexual “me.” The story of God’s love and his faithfulness to us is embedded in creation, specifically in our sexuality. Try convincing a woman whose husband cheated on her that his choice was not a moral one. The betrayal and anger we rightfully feel at sexual infidelity is just one way we understand how God feels when we rebel against him.
God wired our bodies to be blessed by sex when it is within the confines of committed love but for it to be a source of pain when we take it outside of those parameters. Even the way the neurochemicals in our brain respond to “hook-ups” is evidence that God never intended sex to be expressed in this way.
When Fear Is Rational
We typically view fear as a bad thing, as something we want to overcome. I have a good friend who has refused to get on an airplane since 9/11. This fear has kept her from good things like work opportunities and family gatherings. Is there a chance of a plane crash or a terrorist hijack? Yes, but the threat is infinitesimal.
Let’s remember that fear is also a gift, even something that keeps us alive. If my same friend had a fear of backpacking in Afghanistan, I’d say that was a healthy fear. It represents true danger and keeps her from doing something foolish. I would never want to talk someone out of a fear of smoking, driving drunk, or having casual sex because these fears keep us away from harmful behaviors.
We should be afraid of engaging sexually outside of the boundaries for which God created. In fact, the author of Proverbs tries to instill this fear in us by warning that foolish sexual choices will end in death. Research consistently shows that pornography, sleeping around, and even living together outside of marriage are not good for your mind, body, or spirit.
The sexual “freedom” we have granted ourselves has resulted in great harm, not just for individuals but also for our society. Consider the mass proliferation of pornography, leading to a rise in sexual exploitation and sexual addiction, or the fact that less than half of children in the United States live in a traditional family.
Our fear of sexual licentiousness is realistic. Instead of talking ourselves out of it, perhaps we should be honest about the fact that we were created for sexual expression within the confines of commitment and faithfulness, AKA marriage.
The Good News
My husband and I have been married for more than 21 years. I’ve shared periodically on this blog that sexual intimacy hasn’t always been easy or painless for us, but it has never been a source of fear. Over time, we have learned to embrace the freedom of trying new things and pursuing pleasure together.
God never intended for your sexuality to be a source of fear but for it to be a free expression of intimacy and love. Healthy fear comes out of our realization that sexuality is powerful and must be “handled with care.”
I know this analogy has been overused, but it’s still worth repeating. As I write this blog post, I’m sitting in my living room, enjoying the warmth of a fire. The same flames that give me peace and warmth would induce great fear if they were not contained in the fireplace.
We embrace the fear of sex outside of a marital covenant because sex is such a good thing, not because it is inherently evil.