A recent Dear Prudence advice column at Slate takes its title from the first question, written by a Sunday school teacher who feels no sympathy for victims of natural disasters — an interesting topic for atheist discussion in its own right. However, right now I’d rather talk about this letter which came a bit later.
Q. Two-Year-Old Marriage and Still a Virgin: I have a huge problem. I married my Mr. Absolutely Perfect two years ago, and we want to have kids in the near future. But I’m terrified of sex. It’s not that I was raped or molested as a child. I am from a conservative culture and my parents always taught me sex was disgusting and evil—but I can’t see how this is a problem, since all my five siblings were taught the same, and they have no problem changing this attitude after marriage! I feel like a horrible wife and I have tried to force myself to have sex several times, but each time I break into a sweat and begin to cry. My husband is more than patient about this and told me he will never do anything that makes me feel upset. I have tried therapy, but the therapist kept trying to discover some kind of childhood trauma that may have contributed, except there is none. My husband and I have no other marital problems, and I love kissing and cuddling. It’s just sex that terrifies me. Is there any hope for us?
Let’s see here. “The therapist kept trying to discover some kind of childhood trauma that may have contributed, except there is none.” I don’t doubt the writer when she says she wasn’t raped or molested … yet I can’t help but think that “my parents always taught me sex was disgusting and evil” should count for something in the trauma department.
Sex is a natural part of human biology, and there’s nothing inherently bad about it. There are of course some situations in which sexual acts might well be described as “disgusting” and/or “evil” — rape and molestation come to mind — but in general, it’s something that people really enjoy. When a child grows up thinking that their sexuality is a repulsive part of themselves to be repressed, they’re headed for a horrible puberty and stressful adulthood, struggling with guilt for being a typical human being. And imagine learning about “where babies come from” for the first time! To try to come to terms with the idea that you, and everyone you love, were created through this terrible, disgusting, evil act — that’s a trauma in itself.
Here’s Emily Yoffe’s reply.
A: Contact sex therapist Joyce Penner at Passionate Commitment www.passionatecommitment.com, who treats couples from a Christian perspective. One of Penner’s specialties is unconsummated marriages. Searching for a childhood trauma as the key to unlock you has gotten you to your second anniversary with your virginity intact. As a couple, you need a positive physical and psychological approach so you can fully participate in the joys of marriage. This isn’t going to be an instant fix, but that you want things to be different, and that you have a loving, patient husband means that with some work you surely will get there.
The writer doesn’t actually say that she’s a Christian — just “from a conservative culture” — but it’s not a bad guess given the context. At any rate, much of this applies just as well to other conservative religions and ideologies.
Every so often you hear those crazy stories about some religious couple that can’t figure out why they’re not getting pregnant, or something like that. That this is ever a problem isn’t so surprising to me. But here’s a Christian therapist who specializes in unconsummated marriages. You don’t specialize in a problem that comes up maybe once a decade in a “weird news” column. This isn’t exactly a common problem, but it’s still apparently a real thing.
Some atheists argue that religious indoctrination itself is a form of child abuse. I don’t know if I’m willing to go quite that far, but stories like this one certainly highlight the arguments in favor of that charge. I wish this woman all the best as she works through this issue (and I commend her husband on his patience and understanding!), and I hope all of this prompts her to consider what other misguided lessons her parents might have been teaching.