I have a friend who gave her daughters vibrators when they turned 15. That age seems about right. I when was 15 I caved to my boyfriend’s relentless pressure to have sex with him. If I’d had a vibrator at that age, maybe I’d have understood that my pleasure owed nothing to a man’s desires.
That’s not what Christianity taught me. Its scriptures taught me that daughters and their virginity were given in marriage by men to other men, that the holiest amongst us was a virgin vessel, and that in the endtimes it would be a whore who made the biggest mess. I came of age with purity culture in the ether, convinced that sex before marriage was the quickest sin to hell, a point I took very seriously, a point that took my gullibility and made it my shame. What it didn’t do, thankfully, is get me pregnant. I had terrible acne so I was on Acutane and that meant I was also on birth control. I may have been weak to the wiles of the tempter, but my face was clear and I avoided the consequences of a young man’s efforts to take me from my very first kiss to my very first sexual experience.
I’d like to spare my daughter the repetition of my story and in light of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, I am holding tight to this idea about a vibrator as a gift. I have known since before I had children that their sexual education would need to be different than my own. Sex, sexuality, the body: these were not discussed openly in my home. My middle school health class required me to fill out a worksheet with my parent about sex, which I did, and that was the end of that. The religious communities that shaped me were likewise tight-lipped which left me holding I Kissed Dating Goodbye in one hand and Mademoiselle in the other.
It was in college that I was given a coherent, if partial, Christian teaching on sex and sexuality. As a woman, I was told my body was powerful (it could cause my brothers in Christ to stumble) and it was suspect (its urges were not to be trusted). Any sexual activity before marriage was sinful and in need of confession. It was suggested that Father God withheld truly great sex from us until they were joined in the covenant of heterosexual marriage at which point (we were promised) it would be mind-blowing.
This theological story argued that being human meant being untrustworthy, even to yourself. Only God was good. I walked out of those years spiritually wrecked, incapable of trusting myself, and inarticulate about what I needed or enjoyed. My husband and I experienced what I now know to be common among Christian couples who wait to have sex until marriage. It turns out your wedding ceremony is not some miracle off-switch on years of shame and guilt about what happens in the bedroom. That baggage comes right with you on the honeymoon and sticks around until you unpack it. That satisfying sex life I was promised, the kind I want for my own children, only came through therapy, not the church.
Which brings me back to the vibrator and to St. Irenaeus of Lyon.
In a world in which my daughter’s bodily autonomy will be determined by state lines while the potential for sexual violence against her will respect no border, the safest way to navigate her sexual path will be to avoid sexual encounters with men altogether, to be independent of their ability to determine her choices for her. My faith taught me that I was deeply dependent, and while I’m pretty sure they meant I was to be dependent on God, what I heard was that I was incomplete — a point which set me to looking for a man to fill me up.
What I aim to teach my daughter is that she was fearfully and wonderfully made, knit in my womb by powers we can witness but cannot legislate, and she is enough all on her own. Her belovedness is assured by her very existence, attested to in the stories of God calling everything very good and being all well pleased, and evidenced by how very necessary she is in this world. At this point, her necessity shows up in how she makes her dad and me laugh, how she lobbies for God’s creatures, and how she protects her little brother. I remind her often that she is responsible to others as part of the way that Love moves among and through us, but increasingly I will remind her that her responsibility to others does not make her anyone’s object to control, coerce, or strip of her choices. I will also teach her that if she wants sexual pleasure, the only thing necessary is herself. And that a vibrator might help.
St. Irenaeus’ most famous quote is “the glory of God is man fully alive.” We’ll overlook his androcentrism and assume that the glory of God is also for my girl child. If I amend his words then maybe she can know that she, fully alive, is God’s delight. To help her learn that though, I can’t use much of the Christianity I was given and I cannot offer her much of the Christianity on display today — and that’s the real kicker for this former church kid. The public face of Christianity today is one of restrictions and bans. To tell my child that I truly believe the writer of John when they write that Jesus came to bring her life and life abundant, I find myself having to constantly revise Christianity because, at this point, Jesus’ name is often on the lips of folks hell-bent on sowing hardship for others.
I do keep revising though because I keep stumbling into God’s goodness along the way. Y’all, I had life-affirming conversations about genitalia and orientation in a sexuality workshop with some Presbyterian Church (USA) folks. At Wild Goose, I was taught by a sex therapist to have a thousand small conversations with my kids that affirm their God-given goodness. It’s possible and it’s essential in a post-Roe world.
I keep talking about God and Jesus in our house because in the scriptures and teachings there’s still some good stuff about how to be responsible to others without losing yourself and how to be fully alive while also loving the hell out of people. I point our kids to stories of Jesus’ compassion for people and his anger at folks who propped up unjust systems. I also talk about sex and Supreme Court cases. One day soon I’ll talk about vibrators.
Lauren Graeber writes a little and teaches a lot. She loves to help folks discover the sacred surprises waiting for you when you pick up a pen. She navigates faith, parenting, and questions that delightfully refuse to be answered on IG @definitelysometimes.