There is a rift between the sexes and genders; we see it all around us. We struggle against each other for power, long for significance, carefully conceal our most vulnerable parts, and weep for naked connection in the deepest corners of our psyches and souls. We feel afraid, we feel so alone, but we want to connect. What drives this dissonance and disconnection? Why does it matter?
Jeremy came to me weeping. He caught his wife using pornography again. The months of her recovery they worked through together crumbled. His heart is broken. His wife had made such progress in her recovery from porn use in their marriage. As a step of trust, Jeremy made a promise two months ago that he’d stop looking into her e-mail, social media, and Internet history. But, while on his lunch at work this last week, insecurity seeped into Jeremy. He knew looking at the outlets was breaching trust. But, their last weekend together was so sweet and wonderful, and his vulnerability and anxiety in that quiet moment at lunch just wanted to make sure. And his worst fear came true.
Naked and No Shame?
Many of us know this pain—both the pain Jeremy felt in being betrayed, and the despair and shame his wife felt in her deepest struggle overcoming her once again. We feel when intimacy is hijacked; when our ears start ringing and time stops because fear and abandonment swells over us.
“Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.” We are made for intimacy. The Author of the tale describes a relationship between two sexual beings (and their Maker) who are fully exposed, fully loved, and unafraid. Can you even imagine that?
This naked, unashamed love is the kind of intimacy we all long for, at the core, but so often fail to experience. Adam and Eve had it, but they lost it. While the bulk of the Bible tells a story of hope for the joyful restoration of our identities and our relationships, we lack intimacy. The expectations of gender and sexuality, colliding with personal failures inhibit our enjoyment of intimacy. We feel shame. We look at our phones and keep earphones on—anything to avoid our shame.
Female Sexuality and Our Image-Driven Culture
Our sexuality plays itself out in every aspect of our lives. Biology and social experience often dance together. According to certain social norms, traditions, and some research, men tend to have a more fixed sexual identity. They are the “pursuers” in sexual relationships, and they are the “givers of life.” Women are chaste, nurturers, the “weaker vessels,” and receivers. Some of these norms make sense biologically, and certain spiritual and cultural circles encourage them.
But sometimes these simpler, somewhat static, descriptions of male and female sexuality do not align with our personal experiences—or with scientific research. Believe it or not, many therapists are beginning to believe that the female brain is shifting from a more relation-based approach to sexuality toward a more image-driven bent, in light of our image-saturated culture.
As an artist and a female, I (Heather) personally relate to this—I have an image-driven brain. In most social circles I felt like an anomaly growing up. I was told to be modest and pray for my male friends bombarded with temptations to lust and use porn. What about me? I didn’t understand why boys in the church youth group could wear Speedos to swim events and we girls had to wear one-piece swimsuits with a wrap. This innocent but important dynamic, along with other social situations, led to many years of confusion and shame about my sexuality and my femininity.
Shame Reminds Us of Our Origins
Not fitting into social norms creates shame. Just last week, I grabbed coffee with a friend so embarrassed because he’s age 31 with no prospects of dating anyone. “How am I supposed to keep showing up to work events?” Or, “I am tired of dating sites, and candid smiles from friends trying to set me up.” Then, “I don’t want to try anymore! This pain isn’t worth it.” Underneath his pain, I gleaned that he was asking: Will I always be alone? What am I doing wrong? Will I always feel rejected and disconnected? Soon, we can even begin to believe we are fundamentally bad or unworthy of connection.
This shame, and the deafening fear of vulnerability that so often accompanies it, remind us we are far from the Garden. We feel like we’re in a desert, preventing our experience of holistic intimacy. We hide behind the withered bushes well, just like Adam and Eve. Maybe we don’t fashion the latest banana leaves, but we cover our personal failures and insecurities. We learn to hide from people when we instead long for intimacy, because we’re afraid of being let down again, just like my friend.
We try to sever emotions from sex, or even give up on relationships with flesh-and-blood people altogether. We often develop habits or addictions in the heart-breaking pursuit of intimacy that is tainted by our fears and insecurities. We tend to behave in ways that are likely to elicit the same hurtful responses we expect from others—over and over again.
Hope Outside the Garden
Lucky for Adam and Eve, they didn’t have the mess of sin and shame in the Garden. But, we have hope, even in the desert. The idea of intimacy with another person can almost feel impossible because of our fear and shame. Still, we can change how we think about ourselves and how we pursue intimacy through new experiences with safe people, including in therapy. We can unlearn some of our shame. In fact, Paul, the apostle, taught that it was precisely within an intentional, relational context that followers of Christ were slowly “built up” and restored to holiness (Ephesians 4).
Wherever we are along this road, we find ourselves resting within or pushing against the norms that have guided us. We feel the tension of life outside the Garden. And we are faced with difficult considerations about how our own sexualities and behaviors influence the world around us.
This is only the beginning of a very large, deep conversation. While we all live this side of Heaven, a perfect union with another beckons us. We want love. We want abiding intimacy. Let’s pursue the other side of Heaven in our sexuality and our relationships; I’ve heard great things about the Garden.
Heather Lundy is a Licensed Professional Counselor Candidate, and a National Certified Counselor. Jason Bell is a National Certified Counselor and a Licensed Professional Counselor Candidate. Both Heather and Jason have their Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Denver Seminary.
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