By Mahalia Gaff
When I was in middle school, I first touched myself. It scared me, how I felt in that moment. But ultimately, the fear won out and I didn’t do it again, at least not for many, many more years. At the time though, I couldn’t explain why. What had instigated it? What had led me to lie with myself in my room? Now, I am able to explain it as simply physiology, biological makeup, my humanity. At thirteen, it was confusing, but all I knew was that it felt good.
Fast forward nearly five years to when I first touched a boy. It was inexplicable to me why we were so attracted to one another, how we connected so quickly. Why him? Why not another one of my friends? Even now I can’t answer that question. Perhaps it was simply meant to be; perhaps it needed to happen so I could finally understand who the true god of my life is. Because it has not always been the God of the Bible that I now confidently profess it to be.
In between those two distinct moments in my life, the world was quiet and small and familiar. I didn’t interact with boys like the girls in the movies; maybe I wasn’t interested or maybe the opportunities weren’t there. But when I got to college, the world, on my small private campus, got so much bigger.
A best friend turned into a man I loved but couldn’t have, and yet I told myself that I could. I paved a way, through the risk of safety, friendships, family, and academic priorities, to ensure that the way was made. The pleasure I felt as a thirteen-year-old when I touched myself was no longer enough. Now, I wanted the pleasure of being touched by a man that I loved—and I felt desperate for that touch.
I am not a biology major. I know the basics of all high school graduates, but I cannot explain in detail all that is happening when I am turned on, or when I experience an orgasm. However, I do know this: it is natural, it is good, and it is something that my body was created to experience.
The trouble comes with this: when I decided that it felt good and that it was good for me, I laid aside every hindrance, I ignored every blockade, and the tears of frustration and confusion were wiped away in an instance all for the sake of that good feeling. And when I made that decision, I began to rule my life and my sexuality: it became my decision, and I was entirely entitled to how I could make myself feel, and in the process, how I could use another person to make me feel how I wanted to feel. Here you can begin to see the entitlement that our humanity tries to tell us we possess, but it is just not that simple…
The two of us fooled around for a while. We made each other feel good all through the painfully cold months of winter, and then all of a sudden the snow dried up, the blossoms turned to flowers, the school year ended, and those good feelings abruptly stopped—at least for him—as we both made our way home for the summer. Just as suddenly as the weather, what he had felt for me seemed to evaporate like the snow, changing and leaving, and whatever beauty came after for me did not come quickly, unlike the sunshine, unlike the flowers…
I was frustrated and sexually driven, with a strength that was found over that year when I discovered how good I could feel, and how much my body craved the indulgence of the physical; a pleasure that was found not just within myself, but within another. I resorted to something I had never thought I would. Something I was sure I could never be capable of doing. Something so frowned upon today within the church and within society. Something looked upon with disgust. Masturbation. I began to try to fulfill this newly found drive all on my own, and for a while, I was entirely wrapped up in that one identity.
I didn’t need anyone. I would give myself what I wanted; what I couldn’t help myself from thinking that I needed. I entered a cycle of temporary and exceptionally good feelings; days filled with regret and shame. And it was constant, this cycle. I felt stuck. I felt ashamed. And I could not tell anyone, because that is not what a woman does, not what a Christian does, and especially, not what a female Christian does. Yet here lies the entanglement of that shame and desire: entitlement. If no one else was going to give it to me, I was going to be my own fulfillment.
But somewhere in this cycle, through exhausted and shame-filled nights alone, I met someone who gave me the courage to speak these things into existence. Sitting in a worn-down booth at lunch one day, just the two of us, he asked me what the hardest thing I’ve ever struggled with was. I considered lying, or choosing something that was genuinely difficult, but that wouldn’t have been the entire truth—what wouldn’t have been the truly vulnerable answer. I stared hard at my food for a moment, mumbling that I needed a minute to think. But the only think I had to think about was whether or not I was going to verbally declare this painful experience as a part of my life or not. Was I going to look up, look him in the eyes, and actually say the words out loud?
“I am a Christian woman and I struggle with masturbation and sexual purity.”
At first, I only felt so much shame, but with time I also began to feel the power of that vulnerability that I didn’t even realize I had practiced in that moment until much later. As someone who does not exhibit vulnerability, I do not state that lightly. I had read before that the light illuminates and exposes the darkness, but for so long I lived under the weight and the fears of what people might think of me, or how the church might view me, if they knew. If they knew that I didn’t have it all together, and that I sinned, and could even be stuck in sin.
It’s hard when you grow up knowing better. And in a lot of ways, I think our culture fosters shame, especially within the church. The only things I heard when I was younger, from the church, regarding sex, in the midst of purity balls and modesty talks, was how I had to be sure I wasn’t a stumbling block for men because their minds are wired differently. But what about my mind? What about how I stumble sometimes too? What about when I lust? The church failed to tell me that it wasn’t wrong to be a sexual being; the church failed to tell me that all of humanity—men and women—struggle with these things; the church failed to tell me that we can strive to be above reproach, to build one another up, and to encourage one another, together.
But now, though I am still so afraid, of what these words could mean to my family, my friends, my community, my church—how they might look at me now, even without being aware that they look differently. I am afraid of the eyes that will look at me after looking at these words that I have written that tell a story, my story, of deep vulnerability—a moment of me relinquishing control.
I have to remind myself that I am not defined by the feelings of disgust that I have towards myself, or the shame that has resulted from my past, and even, partly, my present. But because I am also so confident in the character of my God, and thus, now, many months since this all began, still somewhere in the midst of shame and a paradoxical cycle of seeing both the good and the bad in existing in this world as a sexual being, I have begun to realize three things:
One, sex is good. Sex, in the context that it was created—for marriage between a man and a woman, for the deepest form of intimacy, for the closest glimpse of vulnerability and unity between two human beings—should not and will not produce pain, confusion, or shame. That is not what it was made to do.
Two, humanity—I, in my brokenness, have made a beautiful and good thing a paradox by inviting in the pain, shame, and ugly, because…
Three, humanity, we—I—have made myself the god of my life. I have declared that I know what is best for myself. I have taken matters of pleasure into my own hands, deciding, without any consultation, human or divine, that I know what I need and when I need it, and I have flipped the tables of my life to try to make that the end of the discussion.
But the thing is, this discussion cannot end, because part of me still feels shame and regret and confusion. And the other part still wonders how my good God can ask me to not experience a good thing that He innately instilled within me. Thus, here enters the absolutely critical question: were the purposes of creation, the universe, joy, pleasure, sex, fill-in-the-blank with the good thing in your life, created for me? Or were they all, was it all, created for something—someone—else?
If I believe in the God of the Bible being the God over my life, that this entire universe was created for the purpose of glorifying Him, that He is utterly holy, righteous, and good, and thus worthy of following in complete obedience, and that I am entirely the opposite of those things and that there is nothing good in and of myself, then these things must fall away:
First, I am not, and cannot, be the god of my own life—I am simply not enough: my mind is too finite, my being is too self-centered, and my heart is too distracted by sin.
Second, I am not entitled to any gift, pleasure, or joy, because this world was not created for me, and it is certainly not centered around me; therefore, I do not get to use, particularly abuse, any created part of it—innately good or bad—for myself.
Third, if He is holy and I am not, then what He has asked of me is good for me, even if it does not feel good to me. That the restraint, the denial of this pleasure, which can so often be at the expense of myself and others, can show me more of what it means to be more fully human, and this is where I must land—amidst a life filled with broken cycles that are infused with both confusion and shame; amidst a world littered with chaos and damage that elicit inexpressible pain and questioning. Here I land, in the midst of reaching a conclusion that life, the entire premise of it, is not for or about me, and I’m finding somewhere on this ground, that that is okay.
I do not get to decide what is best for me. I do not get to choose the number of sunrises that I will experience, the number of times that my toes will feel the ocean water cover them, or the number of lovers that I will have, because my days are carefully numbered. And if I count, if I decide, if I suffer under the illusion of complete control, I will be wrong, because I am minute and limited and not capable of being good enough to decide what is good, what is enough, and what is good enough for my life and that is exactly why I need my God. Because He is the good and the beautiful laced throughout the paradoxes of life and humanity that each glance at the world reveals. He is the constant and the control that keeps my world spinning, and I need that. I need the grounding that He provides, the guidance He offers, and the strength He dispels, to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Him.
Here lies the beauty in the paradox of the good and bad of sexuality, and of life: because this God that I have chosen to believe in is not solely holy, omniscient, and omnipotent, but also loving, three things happen:
One, He is now also worthy of trusting, not just because He is bigger than me and better than me, but also because His character enables Him to be kind to me, and because He chooses to instill that kindness upon me.
Two, I can rest knowing that the Words and commands that He has provided for me in the Bible are worthy of being trusted as good for me, even when they don’t feel good to me, because He has looked far and wide, to the ends of the earth, before the existence of the universe, to know the depths of my soul, in all of its cyclical brokenness, and has still decided to want me, and has asked these things of me because He knows that they are what is best for me, just as a loving Father would.
And three, I can rest in knowing that I am not in control of my life; that I am not powerful enough to mess my life up; that the pain, confusion, and shame are products of my own volition and the brokenness surrounding this place that I stand, and that the God that I get to choose to rest in, is an endless giver of life and love and peace, and today, I choose to rest in that peace.
There is a part of me that wishes for some sort of resolution more attainable than the abstraction of peace. Today, there are so many unknowns and fears amidst this journey of trust and giving up control daily to a God worthy of possessing all of it. Most days, at least it feels like most, my flesh wins out, my heart reaches out to myself and to the world, to fulfill its own desires, and I’m left with tearstains on my pillowcase. Comfort and peace, though not foreign, can often feel so terribly far away, and yet it is with the gentle touch of the light each morning that I find myself reaching for a confidence, and a peace, that though I cannot, He can, and He will, and so, still I reach.