by Lindsey Abston Painter | 27 April 2023 |
From the beginning, Adventists have had a troubled relationship with sex. Perhaps people expecting Jesus to return at any moment instinctively felt that pleasure of any kind was suspect. Even today, some Adventists insist that the delay while waiting for Jesus to return should be regarded as a period of mourning and sadness. (What if Jesus appeared in the heavens while you were “doing it”? How unspiritual!)
Although Ellen White gave permission for couples to enjoy “every privilege of the marriage relation,”(1) her advice was always overshadowed by a fear that married sex would take on a licentious cast and escape the boundaries Christian society set for it.
Under the heading of “Demoralizing Practices in Marriage,” she wrote, “Sensuality and base practices in a marriage relation are educating the mind and moral taste for demoralizing practices outside the marriage relation.”(2) She doesn’t name these base and demoralizing practices, but clearly great spiritual danger lurked, even in the marriage bed.
Nowhere is her fear of sex as clear as in her advice about masturbation. One of Ellen White’s early books was An Appeal to Mothers, which addressed what she called “solitary vice.” Her descriptions of the harm to those who practiced self-pleasure included “imbecility, dwarfed forms, crippled limbs, misshapen heads, and deformity of every description.”(3)
For females she saw “catarrh, dropsy, headache, loss of memory and sight, great weakness in the back and loins, affections of the spine, [and] the head often decays inwardly. Cancerous humor, which would lay dormant in the system in their life-time, is inflamed, and commences its eating, destructive work. The mind is often utterly ruined, and insanity takes place.”(4)
If Ellen White’s warnings were true, there would be almost no sane person anywhere, much less one without a misshapen head or body, or one not saturated with “cancerous humor.” The fact that no evidence backs any of these preposterous claims didn’t stop the sex-fearful physician John Harvey Kellogg, a close friend and protégé of the Whites, from employing torturous measures to curb “self-abuse.”
For boys, Kellogg promoted circumcision without anesthetic, advising that the ensuing pain would curb the habit. For the especially troubled, he recommended sewing the foreskin shut with silver wires, causing pain with any erection. For girls he recommended the application of carbolic acid to the clitoris as “an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement.”(5)
Added to his list of horrific treatments were electroshock therapy, bandaging of children’s hands, and locking a boy’s genitalia in a chastity-belt-style cage.
Former Loma Linda University School of Medicine dean Harold Shryock, MD, noted in his book On Becoming a Woman:
“There are teenage girls who, impelled by an unwholesome curiosity or by the example of unscrupulous girl friends, have fallen into the habit of manipulating these sensitive tissues as a means of excitement. This habit is spoken of as masturbation. …There is an anatomical factor that sometimes causes irritation about the clitoris and thus encourages a manipulation of the delicate reproductive organs. … Oftentimes the remedy for this situation consists of a minor surgical operation spoken of as circumcision. This operation is not hazardous and is much to be preferred to allowing the condition of irritation to continue.”(6)
The exaggerated effects and sadistic methodologies described above, though we don’t hear much about them now, deserve an apology of their own. Sadly, the church’s teaching with regard to masturbation is only the start of untruths the church has told—and believed—about sex.
“If you are a virgin when you get married, God will bless your marriage bed and you’ll have the most amazing sex ever!”
When I was young and unmarried, I heard this message during youth rallies, campus events, Bible classes. Everywhere the topic of sex was brought up, I was assured of it. I am a rule follower to my core, so I believed it.
But boy howdy, were they wrong!
I sometimes wonder: did those pastors and Bible teachers really believe that? Since only men said it, they probably did. I wonder what their wives would’ve said.
This isn’t just a church problem. Women throughout history have been taught that they must endure sex—“close your eyes and think of England”—which doesn’t sound very fun or satisfying. But the church has taken this sexist concept and solidified it into theology. Men are the head of the household. Women should submit to them. Women should be sexually available to them at all times, no matter the circumstances.
No matter how you slice it, this is an unhealthy dynamic. It sets young couples up for trauma, heartbreak, and divorce.
Call me a heretic, but I think it’s foolish to make young people feel guilty if they don’t wait until marriage to engage in sexual relations. So many young people get married because they don’t want to “burn with lust.” What a terrible reason to get married! Sexual compatibility matters; it’s the number two reason for divorce, right after money at number one. Wouldn’t we be setting up our young people for more success by allowing them to choose to bond for life with someone for better reasons than that? A lifetime is a long time.
Headship is the notion that men exist to rule women. It is why women can’t become ordained pastors. It is why church officials, by policy, must be men. It is why women have a difficult time reporting the abuses they’ve suffered at the hands of clergy and teachers; thousands of young women have been abused by authority figures and could find no one to listen to them.(7)
Headship is why I was taught that godly women should never say no to their husbands—even to sex. But taking away someone’s ability to say no is a recipe for abuse and trauma. If a man believes that his wife owes him sex whenever he wants, and that she is violating the will of God by denying him, then he can coerce her, or guilt her, or in extreme cases, even rape her. There can never be a healthy sexual dynamic when one of the two people involved no longer gets to choose.
Marriage should be an equal partnership. Both parties should be more or less satisfied, on balance. This applies not only to sex, but also to lots of other decisions, including chores, children, and church. It takes time, and work, and many discussions over a lifetime. When done right, marriage can be beautiful, fun, even sacred.
The LGBTQ+ Problem
I have personally seen the heartbreak that results when a gay, lesbian, or trans person realizes, after years of marriage and raising children, that it’s impossible to feel intimacy within the heterosexual relationship. I’m not sure the church realizes how hard some of these individuals have tried to be something they are not before finally quitting their marriage and breaking their spouse’s heart. Doesn’t it make more sense to accept queer people openly and honestly from the beginning to prevent this sad ending?
In this issue of Adventist Today, we tell the story of one of the most hurtful things that the denomination has ever done: sending LGBTQ+ Adventists to an unproven, unsupervised counseling program run by Colin Cook, a gay former pastor who had no professional training or credentials in counseling. While he claimed that he could remake the men he counseled into heterosexuals, Cook instead used his in-depth sessions with them to satisfy his own sexual cravings. The church has never apologized for this, nor for recommending his “ministry” even after he admitted to having abused his counselees.
Yet some church leaders still advocate for gay change therapies,(8) with the “liberal” option limited to acceptance of LGBTQ+ members only if they are completely celibate.(9) If our church follows a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding the sex lives of its unmarried straight members, then why does it demand complete celibacy from its gay members?
I believe that thousands of LGBTQ+ people would be in our church today, active members in committed long-term relationships, if our church had taught compassion and acceptance rather than exclusion.
Telling the Truth About Sex
The church should tell the truth about sex: that it is complicated and cannot be controlled merely with stern rules, headship authority, guilt, or ridiculous descriptions of what might happen to you if you touch yourself “down there.”
It appears that Christian young people learn about sex from two primary non-peer sources: (1) sex-fearful preachers and teachers who try to suppress sexual activity using guilt, or (2) pornography.
What if we instead taught young people to be safe with sex? Not just physically safe from sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy or unwanted advances by authority figures, but also emotionally safe. Sex complicates things, but it also illuminates things. Partners who don’t respect another person’s boundaries or “no” in a sexual setting are showing a red flag that they won’t respect boundaries or “no” in other settings, too.
Teaching the emotional and physical components of sex is the healthier option. It allows young people to marry when they find the person they want to truly spend their lives with—however long that takes—instead of rushing into marriage to satisfy their lust.
Rampant Hypocrisy Regarding Sex
The notion of purity is such a sacred cow in modern Christian culture. Some might think that in advocating for more generous and compassionate attitudes about sexuality, I am, in fact, advocating for “adultery.” (It should be noted that biblically, adultery is specifically sexually breaking one’s marriage vows. The current Christian definition of adultery would indict the Old Testament patriarchs and kings, because of their polygamy.)
No, I’m asking for simple honesty about sex. We have substituted a set of harsh judgments and rampant hypocrisy for speaking truthfully and acting with integrity in this matter.
We must apologize for Ellen White’s tragic wrongness about masturbation. We must apologize for the corporate silence that has let so many male abusers operate among us unchecked—and, in some cases, allowed them to continue their ministries and abuses elsewhere. We must explain why LGBTQ+ people who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior have been made unwelcome in churches. Above all, we must apologize for diminishing women in so many ways under the banner of Christianity.
I’m not saying this merely to stir the pot. I am saying it because the church’s attitudes and teachings about sex have ruined so many lives. We have chased away from church the very people Christ died to save, rather than redeeming them for happy—or at least happier—relationships.
It is time to rethink our approach to sex and sexuality, on matters ranging from masturbation to single people to homosexuality to headship. I and millions of my brothers and sisters, single and married, gay and straight, are owed an apology for the church’s historical and current unkindness about sex.
1 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (1905), p. 380.
2 White, Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and Divorce (1989), p. 87.
3 White, An Appeal to Mothers (1864), p. 17.
4 ibid., p. 27.
5 John Harvey Kellogg, Treatment for Self-Abuse and Its Effects (1888), p. 296.
6 Harold Shryock, On Becoming a Woman (1951, 1968), p. 38.
7 The Hope of Survivors is an organization that advocates on behalf of individuals abused by authority figures.
8 Beginning around 2015, Wayne Blakely and others from Coming Out Ministries made several presentations at General Conference Executive Committee meetings.
9 “North American Division Statement on Human Sexuality” (Nov. 2, 2015).
Lindsey Abston Painter is a mental health training supervisor living in Northern California. She is also a member of the Adventist Today editorial team. She is passionate about feminism, social justice, and sci-fi. She is a proud parent and has too many cats and one goofy dog.