THE [SURPRISING] NEW SCIENCE BEHIND SEX, ATTACHMENT & WAITING

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

For many of us, the mere mention of “waiting” evokes memories of our creepy high school sex-ed teacher and the Bible-thumping priest from Sunday school. By just about every measure socially, waiting to have sex sounds at best incredibly outdated and at worst offensive and restricting. As a society, our view of sexuality has shifted, putting the power in the hands of the individual, unlocking the freedom to do as we please without being judged. We get to define what’s true and what’s best for our sex life. Despite how liberating this might appear at first glance, the conversation isn’t as black or white as it seems. By our estimation, there are three different narratives crafting a story about what will lead to our authentic sexual well-being:  There is a cultural narrative, a spiritual narrative and finally, a groundbreaking new scientific narrative.  Two of these narratives are in agreement, which collectively form a beautiful picture of the sexual fulfillment & joy that’s available for the taking. But one of these narratives is subliminally destructive, actively seeking to undo all the beautiful work of it’s two counterparts.   In our journey, we found these revelations to be both terrifying and eye-opening, yet unexpectedly hopeful in the most fantastic of ways.  So if you’re willing, we invite you to explore these findings with the hope that it helps create freedom and wholeness in your own personal narrative.

THE SCIENTIFIC NARRATIVE

Over the last several hundred years, mankind has made major breakthroughs in the areas of biology, physics and social science, among other things. These discoveries have radically altered the way we go about life, so this is a natural place to start the conversation. How does what we believe match up to what science has revealed about sex? Let’s explore the worlds of social psychology and sex science together. You might be familiar with the sentiment that if done right, sex can be an emotionless no-strings-attached physical act of pleasure. In fact, this is actually the predominant thinking on college campuses across America. In her book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, sociologist Lisa Wade talks about these assumptions that often fuel hookup culture. “Hookup culture, tells students.. that they can be logical about sex and control their feelings if they choose to. Not just the pleasures and pangs of love, but all of the feelings that sex can spark: insecurity and fear; ambivalence, regret, and confusion; happiness, transcendence, sadness and misery; loathing and awe. Hooking up, they claim, can and should be emotionless.” If this is something you’ve thought or said before, hop on over. We’re sitting right next to you. Casual hookups or a friend with benefits appear harmless. One of Wade’s students echoed this sentiment, “It’s almost like the free zone where nothing a person does has a real impact on their life.” “It’s always nice to have a clean, emotionless hookup,” another added. Yet surprisingly, it’s simply not true. Wade, commenting on this theory says, “it does sound nice, in a floating-in-a-vacuum kind of way, but it’s nonsense, of course. Saying we can have sex without emotions is like saying we can have sex without bodies. There simply is no such thing as an emotion-free human state.” Renowned sex educator Dr. Emily Nagoski, who has taught at Harvard on human sexuality, sheds more light on this in her book Come As You Are. “The problem here is that we’ve been taught to think about sex in terms of behavior, rather than in terms of the biological, psychological and social processes underlying the behavior.” In other words, the reasons for how we interact with sex and relationships are far more complicated than they seem on the surface.

Rather than being a simple urge to satisfy, the way we express our sexual desires are often connected to how we feel about ourselves and how our environment has shaped us.

In the 1950s, John Bowlby’s breakthrough research on attachment theory completely changed the world of social psychology and our understanding of human sexuality.  Upon observing the relationship between mothers and their children, John Bowlby discovered that humans have a hardwired need to form attachment with their caregiver.  This process starts from birth and has profound implications on the trajectory of the rest of our life. Depending on the quality of the child-parent relationship growing up, this ultimately shapes the way we perceive ourselves and yes, what turns us on. Did you experience an abundance or lack of love? Did your parents make you feel secure or abandoned? Were they reliable? Were you prioritized? Crazy enough, this is all impacting how we express our sexuality.  Dr. Nagoski says profoundly, “we can’t understand sexual wellbeing without understanding attachment, and we can’t maximize our own sexual well being without learning how to manage attachment in our relationships.”  This has major implications on every sexual relationship you engage in as an adult.  “Whom we attach to as adults and how we attach -- our attachment “style” -- is shaped by the way we were parented,” Nagoski adds. As we grow older, our primary desire for attachment shifts from our caregiver often to romantic partners. Bowlby ultimately defined attachment as the, “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Our childhood and early adulthood cause us to develop attachment styles, which can be categorized as either secure or insecure. “We attach securely when our adult caregivers (usually our parents) are pretty reliably there for us when we need them… kids who are securely attached to their adult caregivers will, as adults, most likely attach securely to their romantic partners,” says Nagoski. Don’t feel discouraged if this was not your experience. In fact, statistically for most of us, we experienced the opposite.  “When our adult caregivers are less reliable, we attach insecurely… and kids who are insecurely attached to their adult caregivers will, as adults, most likely attach insecurely to their romantic partners” In the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth made even more breakthroughs with attachment theory, finding that how we attach to others comes through three different styles -- secure attachment, avoidant attachment and anxious attachment. This is essential for our own personal narrative on sexuality. It helps reveal why we’re choosing to engage with sex the way we do. It also gives us a starting point on our journey towards becoming healthy emotional and sexual beings.  As you can guess, secure attachment is the healthiest attachment style. Those with secure attachment styles are comfortable giving and receiving love, openly communicating and sharing their feelings with their partner.  This style is most often correlated to synchrony sex, which Dr. Sue Johnson boldly says “is the way sex was supposed to be,” adding “This is when emotional openness and responsiveness, tender touch and erotic exploration all come together. This is the sex that fulfills, satisfies and connects.”  Synchrony sex is ultimately linked to how safe and open we feel emotionally with our partner. “The key prerequisite here is not wild sexual techniques but a safe emotional bond. The safer we feel emotionally, the more we can communicate, express our needs, play and explore our responses and relax into sexual feelings,” Dr. Johnson concluded.

If you take nothing else from the scientific narrative, this is the part that’s important to internalize for your own sexual well-being. Science is pretty clear that synchrony sex within a safe emotional bond and a secure attachment is the healthiest way to express our sexuality.

“A 2012 review of the research on the relationship between sex and attachment found that secure attachment was associated with every domain of sexual wellbeing you can imagine. Secure attachers have more positive emotions during sex, more frequent sex, higher levels of arousal and orgasm, and better communication about sex,” Nagoski says. She adds, “They enjoy sex more, are more attentive to their partners’ needs, feel a link between sex and love, are more likely to have sex in the context of a committed relationship, and are more sexually self-confident. Secure attachers have the healthiest, most pleasurable sex lives.” Don’t let shame or hopelessness overcome you if you’ve never experienced this. The majority of us have not. Forming secure attachments can often feel impossible with the culture that surrounds us, in addition to how childhood wounds shaped our attachment styles.  Much of what we’ve been led to believe actually goes against what we’ve learned from science. We’re taught emotions are bad and the most erotic forms of sex actually come apart from these types of emotional bonds. However, avoidant attachment is most commonly associated with the narratives that we’ve been taught about great sex Avoidants split into two categories -- avoidant-dismissive and fearful-avoidant. Dismissives tend to portray themselves as strong, self-sufficient and feelingless, while fearful people avoid strong attachments due to fear of getting hurt. Both subcategories are linked with a suppression and numbing of emotions, where the person prefers not to tell their partner how they feel deep down. It’s difficult to let people in and easier to keep others at a distance. Dr. Johnson says that avoidants tend to pursue what she calls sealed-off sex. “This is all about reducing sexual tension, achieving the big O and feeling good about your sexual prowess. The name of the game is sensation, the more the better and performance, or the "God I am hot" quotient.” Much of the behavior happening on college campuses in America falls into this category. Students openly talked about suppressing their emotions in the pursuit of socially-accepted sexual behavior, as told in Wade’s book, American Hookup. Nagoski says avoidant attachment styles, “have more positive attitudes towards sex outside committed relationships, have more one-night stands and are more likely to have sex just to fit into a social expectation rather than because they really want to.” Many of us can relate to this. Oftentimes, we fear getting hurt so we craft a convincing image to others that appears like we’re carefree. Yet even if this fear doesn’t exist and we do find ourselves numb, it’s likely due to continual suppression of emotions and compartmentalizing behavior. But maybe you find yourself more anxious than avoidant, which leads us to the last attachment style.  Anxious attachment is typically associated with a fear of losing their partner’s love. We often believe that our partner is better than us and this causes us to be consumed with thoughts that our partner will eventually leave us and/or doesn’t care as much as we do.  Dr. Johnson links anxious attachments to solace sex “People with anxious attachment styles are the most likely to engage in anxiety-driven “solace sex” -- that is, using sex as an attachment behavior. Anxious attachers worry more about sex and yet they equate the quality of sex with the quality of a relationship. Anxious attachers experience more pain, anxiety & health risks,” adds Nagoski. A misplaced identity and fear of abandonment are wrapped up in these beliefs, causing us to act out in often irrational ways, leveraging sex as collateral for presumed security in the relationship. Millions of people across the world are experiencing this very same attachment style and fear being labeled as “clingy” or “needy”. In this sense, we are normal, we didn’t choose to attach like this -- we were conditioned to be so. In fact, the stuff that “happens to us” extends far beyond our attachments and into the cultural environment around us.  Many of us have considered the idea that engaging in hookup culture is simply a fun and exciting carefree experience. Nothing more, nothing less. We look at sexual desire in isolation, thinking of it as a need that is healthy to express in any fashion we so choose.  But have you ever considered where your sexual desires have originated from? Your particular fetishes and the intricacies of what turns you on? In his book Science of Trust, the world's top relationship expert Dr. John Gottman tells the stories of women who have been in abusive relationships, in which they told him that some of the best sex they’ve had came immediately after acts of violence. On one hand, we might think, “how could this be -- that violence would actually accelerate our sexual desire?” Yet on another, we can personally relate to this experience. Even if we haven’t experienced physical violence, we’ve had situations of our own in which we’re drawn sexually to partners who don’t treat us well, while feeling nothing sexually in other relationships that are loving and compassionate. The answer to why this happens is found in identifying what is actually driving our sexual response. Developed by Dr. John Bancroft and Dr. Erick Jannssen in the late 1990s, the Dual-Control Model explains that sexual response is a delicate balance between excitatory and inhibitory processes. Or in other words, we have a “turn-on” system, where a gas pedal is being pushed that accelerates our sexual desire, while also having a “turn-off” system, which is slamming on the brakes to turn us away from sexual desire. The “turn on” system (SIS) and the “turn off” system (SES) are in part genetically determined, meaning we all are born with a baseline of sexual sensitivity. Most of us fall in the middle, but some of us are more sensitive to arousal and others more sensitive to the brakes. In layman's terms, this means that we are all plotted across the spectrum in terms of the baseline of horniness we feel on a daily basis. It’s important to note that all sexual sensitivities are normal, there is no “right” or “wrong”.  But what’s fascinating about these systems is that we don’t come out of the womb with predetermined sexual responses. Our cultural environment taught us to fantasize about the “MILF” or to sensationalize sex with the bad boy.  “The process of learning what is sexually relevant and what is a threat works sort of like learning a language. We’re all born with the innate capacity to learn any human language, but we don’t learn a random language, right?,” Nagoski says. She equates this to learning English, “If you grow up surrounded by people who speak only English, there is no way you’ll get to kindergarten speaking French. You learn the language you are surrounded by.”

If we constantly hear with our ears and see with our eyes that having sex with a friend’s mom is the ultimate fantasy, that starts affecting our arousal structure. 

We may come out of the womb with a baseline of sexuality sensitivity, yet there is nothing innate about what turns us on.  “Similarly you learn the sexual language you’re surrounded by. Just as there are no innate words, there appear to be almost no innate sexual stimuli. What turns us on (or off) is learned from culture,” Nagoski concludes. All it takes is to do a quick search of the most heavily-trafficked categories on porn websites to see how this rings true across the world. In 2019, “lesbian” ranked as the top category in the US, “hentai” was no. 1 in Russia and “anal” was at the top of the list in Morocco. How could these be so different? Different cultures, different influences, different fetishes. No innate stimuli.  Even the mere idea that sex-as-a-need is something that also comes from our surroundings, not science. Nagoski explains that, “We can starve to death, die of dehydration, even die of sleep deprivation. But nobody ever died because of not being able to get laid.” A scientific “sex drive” does not exist. In reality, sex is like the piece of chocolate cake you really want to have, rather than the food and water we need to survive. Nagoski actually points to the danger in thinking of sex-as-a-need: “If you think of sex as a drive, like hunger or thirst… then you can invent justifications for any strategy a man might use to relieve himself. Because if sex is a drive, like hunger, then potential partners are like food. Or like animals to be hunted for food. And that’s both factually incorrect and just wrong.” So where does this all leave us? Here is a recap of what science has taught us:
    1. Sex always involves emotions; there is no such thing as an emotion-free state.
    2. Human beings innately need and desire attachment. Love and connection are hardwired into us.
    3. Our primary caregivers and romantic partners shape the attachment style that we take on, be it secure, anxious or avoidant.
    4. Our environment has shaped what turns us on and off -- our “sex language” -- as evidenced by the dual-control model.
    5. Sex is not a need and it can be dangerous to think so.
 Depending on your life experience and what you’ve learned, this may be shocking to you. Or it may not be. But science is pretty clear and straightforward in the truth that has been revealed to us, which is this:  The healthiest and most fulfilling sex we should pursue is synchrony sex, which is what Dr. Sue Johnson boldly calls, “the way sex is supposed to be.”  Science says that our ideal sexual environment is one that is a safe space with a committed, loving partner who we can openly communicate and express our feelings with and which we feel secure with. This type of sexual environment is made up of people that Dr. Nagoski says have the “healthiest and most pleasurable sex lives.”  This is important to keep in mind as we consider the other two narratives at play and what story they’re telling us about our sexuality.

THE CULTURAL NARRATIVE

When we say cultural narrative, it’s important to define what that means.  Journalist and critic Robert Fulford defined a cultural narrative as, “stories that members of a culture measure their identities against, consciously or not. These stories partly control our options, but our choices and actions can also change these stories.” If the narrative is what we measure our identity against, then the means in which this narrative is communicated comes collectively from advertising, film, TV, music, the news, apps and social media. So we must ask, does the narrative of sex within all these mediums echo the same truths that we’ve learned from the science above?  To answer that question, we must go back to the 1940s and locate a man named Edward Bernays. You probably have never heard of him, but he is hailed as the father of the advertising world. At the time, Bernays was fascinated by the way Hitler and the Nazi regime were able to manipulate people during wartime. He thought the same strategies would work to manipulate people within American politics and the business world. Bernays himself even told us so in his now-famous book Propaganda: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country... We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… in almost every act of our daily lives… we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… who pull the wires which control the public mind.” His comments show us the terrifying outcomes of mass manipulation, but like a fish in the open sea, how do you hook people onto those ideologies? Quite simply, make people believe that your ideology and message will lead to the greatest sense of fulfillment, joy and happiness in their lives.  Author John Mark Comer explains, “we’re educated to believe we’re rational, autonomous selves, [so] it’s easy to forget that most advertising is a form of propaganda, one that plays not to our prefrontal cortex, but to a deeper, less logical part of us… [advertising] is a multibillion dollar industry that is intentionally designed to lie to you -- to get you to believe that if you will only buy this or that product, then you will be happy. Or at least happier. In 2023, this surrounds us at every turn.  All the mediums we mentioned above form a collective story that makes you feel like you’re not enough, while simultaneously supplying you the solution for what will make you enough. Our culture has essentially become one giant contradiction. On one hand, we celebrate autonomy. On the other, these mediums paint a picture of the perfect sexuality, making us think we’re in control of how we feel, but really they’re molding our minds and forming our tastes, to use Bernays’ language. The cultural narrative is not built off the discoveries in modern science, rather the minds of a few, who have in turn influenced the minds of many. They catch our attention through seductive visuals and persuasive words, giving us the perfect picture of beauty, sex and relationships on a silver platter. It makes us think, if ONLY I could achieve them I'll finally be enough. We invite you to explore how this plays out across each medium, as we break down their collective effect on our perception of sexuality.

Advertising

When it comes to sexuality, Bernays’ philosophy was largely first executed by a man named Hugh Hefner. You may have heard of him. With content that feels commonplace today, Hefner’s launch of Playboy in 1953 radically altered American society at the time. From our estimation, he architected three highly influential cultural narratives of modern sexuality: 
    1. The lifestyle (and women) that every man should desire
    2. The look that women should aspire to have
    3. The status that comes with the look and the lifestyle
 Hailed as the “original sex symbol”, Marilyn Monroe graced the original cover of Playboy, in addition to many of the first sex-driven ad campaigns. Her look became the standard for beauty: plum lips, a curvy figure, big features and yes, whiteness. Sixty-five years later, the trickle-down effects are felt everywhere. Body-image issues and self-hatred are a regular staple of women’s lives across the world. In Come As You Are, Dr. Nagoski observes:  “[The world] could have taught you to live with confidence and joy inside your body. It could have taught you that your body and your sexuality are beautiful gifts. But instead, the world taught you to feel critical of and dissatisfied with your sexuality and your body.”  The standard is largely still the same. Swap in Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner (or whomever you please) for Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson. The worst part may be that for women, the pursuit of this look can become addicting and identity-shaping, making it hard to let go even with the science at hand.  For men, the lifestyle is glorified. Look no further than social media influencer Dan Bilzerian. Surrounded by half-naked women, he promotes the same type of status-building lifestyle that Hefner made popular in the 1950s. At 32.6 million followers, his Instagram account ranks among the top 130 in the world. In no way does any of this correlate with the science of sex, but brands everywhere, armed with the philosophy of Bernays, have learned that sex sells. Advertisements with images of the perfect body surround us everywhere -- from billboards to display ads to social media. The repetitiveness in seeing these inevitably shapes our sexual fantasies and stimuli.  And this isn’t just limited to the ideal for women anymore, either. Decades after Playboy began, personas such as the Old Spice Guy and Marky Mark tell a story to men that they have to have washboard abs and big arms while also being sophisticated, funny and intelligent. Again, none of this correlates with what we learned from science yet it’s the narrative we live by every day. In reality, there is no actual standard for beauty. We are all normal, we just come in different shapes and sizes. Just as easily, we could have lived in a world where a different type of figure was marketed to us, perhaps one that is considered undesirable today and the repetitiveness would have stoked the flames of our sexual stimuli. Dr. Nagoski puts it this way, “When people ask me, “Am i normal?” they’re asking, “Do I belong?” The answer is yes. You belong in your body… you don’t have to earn it by conforming to some externally imposed standard.”  Despite this the small whisper keeping follows us in our ear everyday, faintly saying you’re not enough.  

Film & TV

If advertising helped architect the standard of beauty, then film and TV injected it with steroids. Hollywood honchos consistently selected women for leading roles that more-or-less fit this standard of beauty. This helped instill the cultural ideal in the minds of millions over the decades. Yet Hollywood’s greatest contribution might just be in shaping the cultural narrative of how we should go about sex. Look no further than American Pie, The Hangover, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Sex & The City, Superbad and Fifty Shades of Grey. For men, one of the resounding messages coming out of these films is that if you haven’t lost your virginity by the time high school’s over, there’s something wrong with you. This has put an intense pressure on teenage boys everywhere, who often feel less-than if they’re not the proverbial Hefner amongst the ladies. In fact, much of the plot of American Pie and Superbad centers upon this very narrative, while 40-Year Old Virgin paints a less-than-glowing picture of who you’ll potentially become the longer you hold off. Some would also say that films like these have further exasperated what has been labeled toxic masculinity, in addition to the phenomenon known as “sh*t talk”.  “Sh*t talk, through a strange admixture of fraternity and antagonism, conveys both affection and belonging. It is a secret handshake, a hug and a wink, and it functions as a means of passage,” says Matthew Desmond, professor of sociology at Princeton.  Women are often a focal point of these conversations, in which hooking up with a woman who doesn’t meet the Kylie-level of hotness could earn you some serious sh*t talk from the boys.  Wade reveals, “The denigration of women was primary foder for sh*t talk. Insulting men’s masculinity with feminizing slurs and making crude claims about what they did to each other’s moms or girlfriends was par for the course.” If a guy “gets the girls all the guys are after he’s the man” one student added. This not only “proves” his masculinity, but also helps earn him social cachet amongst the boys. The social cachet, the lighthearted-banner and the perception of “the man” dude are narratives interwoven into American Pie and Superbad. The scenes play out with a playful sense of humor that almost makes you feel like one of the boys. Peggy Orenstein’s Boys & Sex echoes many of the same sentiments. Here are two responses from young men when asked to describe the ideal guy: “If you want to get girls, you’ve got to be mean. You’ve gotta be an a**shole.” - James, sixteen, San Jose “Athletic. You’re at every party, but not partying too much. You’re hooking up with multiple girls, but not every girl. You’re smooth. You’re social. You’ve got game.” - Connor, twenty-one, Philadelphia This culture has produced a social ranking system that rates women 1-10 based on their hotness. Group text message threads are filled with banter about this. Reality shows have emerged like Battle of the Bods and Hot or Not that put women on display.  One little known fact is that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg’s first endeavor was the FaceMash app, which allowed men to do this very same thing online -- rank women based on their hotness. These ideologies are not slowing down. In fact, they’re speeding up. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, full of contestants that fit the cultural standard of beauty, are two of the MOST popular TV shows on television. All it takes is turning them on for a few minutes and they might leave you hooked.  The stars of these shows gain some serious social notoriety from participating. On average, contestants start out at the beginning of the season with an average of 4,400 Instagram followers. By end season? Many have over 1 million Netflix’s hit TV show Too Hot To Handle, in which “hot people” had to be around each other for an extended period of time without having sex, had a similar effect on the contestant’s followings. Many went from virtual unknowns to having 500,000 followers nearly overnight. What does this teach us? Look like this = more follows, more likes, more fame and more approval. In fact, much of the content put out by the contestants fill up our homefeeds and explore tabs are indistinguishable from the pages of Playboy. This is intentional. As the erotic images stoke the fires of our sexual stimuli, we as the users become addicted and the Instagram algorithm doubles-down on our engagement by showing us more.

In a world like this, it creates two parties. Hot or not. In or out. Desirable and undesirable. And it shapes the way we look at people.

Wade warns of these dangers, “[men] might learn to do more than talk sh*t; [they] might learn to treat some women like sh*t, and [they] feel justified in doing so if [they] decide the woman [they’re] with is worthless.”  But perhaps the most alarming cultural narrative developed out of film and TV is where we should go for the hottest sex. Lisa Wade comments in her book American Hookup, “in pop culture, the hottest sex is between two people who hate each other. Dozens of TV shows and movies each year include a plotline involving a conceited (but fantastically beautiful) woman and an obnoxious (but painfully attractive) man who detest each other but end up having sex, usually thanks to a particularly heated arugment.  They rip off each other’s clothes, throw each other against the wall, and knock over lamps. Turned on to the point of violence, they go straight to intercourse. They are “fight f**cking”: a Hollywood phenomenon in which two people who hate each other are also inexplicably attracted to one another, causing them to transition from fighting to f**cking in an instant.” This is having a remarkable influence over young people, with Wade adding “students argue that sex with people they actively and intensely dislike is ideal because it all but ensures that they won’t catch feelings.” In fact, culture is actually teaching us the polar opposite here of what science says. If synchrony sex and safe emotional bonds represent sexual health, then we’re actively being encouraged into self-destructive behaviors as we’re convinced that sex with those we hate is the most erotic and fulfilling.  

Music

The cultural narratives flying at us don’t just come by sight, but also by sound. First identified in a study done by Villanova University in 1977, the illusory truth effect describes how when we hear the same false information repeated again and again, we often come to believe it is true. At first mention, many of you might immediately start thinking about the 2016 and 2020 elections, to which you’d be right. But let’s stay on track with how this influences how we perceive sex A 2015 study discovered that familiarity will actually overpower rationality in the human brain if we hear something enough times. Why does this matter? Because the most popular songs in history only serve to reinforce the cultural narratives about sex and beauty that we’ve been discussing.  Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” is Spotify’s no. 1 streamed song of all-time, with over 2 billion listens. Here’s part of the hook: I'm in love with your bodyEvery day discovering something brand newI'm in love with the shape of you Writer Amanda Brooks said of the song: Young girls are taught that they will only be worthy if their looks match the extremely high and specific standards portrayed in [the] media. It is an insidious process, but it becomes so ingrained in girls’ heads that when they grow up, they don’t realize why they feel the need to look pretty and have a toned body; it becomes the norm.” Much of the top 100, all with over 1 billion listens, is just more of the same. Studies of rap music in the 1990s and 2000s estimated that anywhere from 22 to 37% of rap lyrics involved some sort of objectification of women.  Look no further than 50 Cent’s 2006 hit "Candy Shop": I'll take you to the candy shopI'll let you lick the lollypopGo 'head girl don't you stopKeep going 'til you hit the spot, whoa The vulgarity of the lyrics are considered elementary in the male rap world, which further complicates the problems around the cultural narrative of sex.  The feminist movement has admirably made major progress in advancing the rights of women across America. Just a 100 years ago women made up just 21% of the workforce. They couldn’t vote or open up a bank account in their name. In Canada, they actually weren’t even recognized as “persons” until 1929.  But despite the progress, in recent years there has been a split in ideologies within the movement. Unity might have been more straightforward in the realms of voting and the workplace, but what about sexuality? How do we fight against the decades-long objectification of women by men? Along comes Cardi B’s W.A.P., which topped the charts in 2020, creating chaos. Here are just a few of the lyrics: Beat it up, n***a, catch a chargeExtra large and extra hardPut this p***y right in your faceSwipe your nose like a credit card Erringly similar in nature to 50’s Grammy-Award nominated “Candy Shop”, no?  The LA Times called the track a “sex-positive triumph” while the NY Times added that, “Men rap and sing about sex in preposterous and sometimes awkward detail all the time, and rarely does anyone blink. It’s beyond time that the same courtesy is extended to women.” Here-in lies the problem and why this is so relevant for our own personal sexual narratives. Is sexual liberation and fulfillment for women found in merely mirroring the behavior and antics of male counterparts? Prominent gynecologist Jen Gunter praises WAP for letting “women express themselves in the same way men have been expressing themselves — I think that’s a great step forward.” We must consider if positive body-images, safe emotional bonds, secure attachments and synchronous sex can be found in a WAP-centric world.

Social media & the digital age

In what began with Hefner, everything has come to a head in the digital age.  Why? Because social media is pouring gasoline on the fire by:
    1. Teaching men to objectify women even more
    2. Intensifying women’s insecurities around body-image
    3. Making both sexes feel even more like they’re not enough
    4. Paving the way for status to be associated with beauty
 Social media has made it easy for anyone to become an influencer. Influencers in turn influence people. And thus, many women who do fit into the cultural standard of beauty have built substantial followings largely by posting racy images of themselves.   Men click and follow these accounts, which floods their feed with more sexually explicit content (see: IG algorithm) and stokes the flames of their sexual stimuli. The more repetitive images they see of half-naked women, the more they learn to objectify them. For women who see these images it further creates what Nagoski calls, “an unconscious goal to confirm to the expected ideal.” It increases insecurity and self-criticism, fueling the never ending pursuit of the gold standard of beauty.  There are thousands of sexually-explicit accounts on Instagram that have upwards of a million followers. This is of course, is not by any means a judgment on the women behind these accounts. They too are products of their environment. Like us, they are simply playing into a system that teaches them how to leverage their looks to increase social status. Look no further than Kylie Jenner, whose look has undergone a substantial evolution over the past seven years. It’s impossible to tell how much of this has to do with simply growing up, but cosmetic surgeons and specialists have speculated it’s likely she’s had work done on her nose, breasts and butt to accentuate the Monroe-like hourglass shape. In fact, Kylie herself opened up on her insecurity about her lips on Keeping Up With The Kardashians, “I have temporary lip filler, it's just an insecurity of mine and it's what I wanted to do. I want to admit to the lips, but people are so quick to judge me on everything." Her lips have now become one of her iconic features and her following is up to 380 million people, more than the entire United States population. Again, this is no judgment on Kylie. She has grown up with the same cultural narrative of beauty & sex that we all have, so she made some changes.

In American Hookup, Wade observes, “Being a sexual object can feel quite good. There really is nothing quite like knowing that someone wants us. We are told to love ourselves, to love our bodies, but this is no substitute. The pleasure of being desired has to come from the desire of someone else. And there’s no doubt that it can feel amazing.” 

Scroll through the comments on one of these accounts and you’ll see tens of thousands of comments from men who desire them and women who want to be like them. This is an intoxicating amount of approval and affirmation, so it encourages them to post more.  So where does this leave us? If it isn’t obvious by now, the subliminal destructive force we mentioned in the opening paragraph is the cultural narrative. It’s shocking how deep it runs and it can feel disheartening at times. For all the beauty that science brings to the table, culture is the loudest voice in the room, overpowering any truth that’s trying to make its way towards us. In the early days of Playboy, sex-driven ads and racy images were limited to the pages of a magazine. But because of smartphones, apps and social media, this is now happening 24/7, and access is more widespread than ever. These narratives are growing stronger and at a faster pace. If it took five years for culture to shift before, now technology makes it happen seemingly overnight.  They’re telling us how we should look, who we should be, who we should be with, how we should pursue sex and what the best sex is like. None of this is good for our relational, emotional or sexual health. So where is our hope? How can we leverage what we’ve learned from science without getting sucked into the destructive force that is the cultural narrative?  Liberation is found when we pair what we learned from science with what we’ll discover in the spiritual narrative.

THE SPIRITUAL NARRATIVE

When you hear the phrase spiritual narrative, what comes to mind? For those of you who may have grown up in the church, you might be cringing. Memories of grade school are resurfacing, where religious leaders called you to repent for perceived sexual sin. Or maybe you recall church members who told you that sex was bad or that you would go to hell if you had sex before marriage. Horrifying indeed. In fact, many of us actually see the church as one of the primary vehicles that fueled oppression of women leading up to the Playboy era. We think it represents an institution that is limiting, anti-women and sex-negative. And if that’s what comes to mind, it’s all valid. People have had these experiences. People have experienced oppression at the hands of the church. People have been taught wacky theology on the topic of sex.  Yet none of this represents the actual perspective from Jesus and his original followers about sex. Nowhere in the Bible do we find an endorsement or recommendation of these narratives. A quick read of the book of Acts shows that the modern church is simply a bad caricature of the original church in almost every way. Like countless movements in history, distorted perspectives and narratives became proliferated through the centuries, which badly infected the church in recent memory. Surprisingly, the name “Christianity” actually wasn’t even a thing until after the first century. In Acts, you’ll find time and time again the earliest Christians subscribed to what was simply known as the way of Jesus. Now what will come as even more of a shock to you is that Jesus’s spiritual narrative of sex is nearly identical to what we learned from science. This begins with attachment theory Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says in his book Social, “Love and belonging might seem like a convenience we can live without, but our biology is built to thirst for connection because it is linked to our most basic survival needs.” How does this apply to Jesus? Well, he said that all of God’s commandments could be summed up in two things: love God and love others (Matthew 22:36-40). In fact, the Bible mentions the word love 745 times in the ESV translation. Love is the point of it all. It’s why we’re on the Earth. In the earliest pages of Genesis, it says that God made humans in his own image. In other words, to mirror him and to look like him. And how does God describe himself? “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6) In Hebrew, steadfast (hesed) means “firmly fixed in place.”  Social psychologists have discovered that a love that is secure and consistent is precisely what fulfills humanity’s survival needs. In her book Love Sense, clinical psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson says that, “Love is vital to our existence.... Our need to depend on one precious other -- to know that when we “call,” he or she will be there for us --- never dissolves.” In our individualistic Western society, the harmonic symphony that the scientific and spiritual play together can feel offensive. But this is likely because the cultural narrative is the loudest voice in the room and unreliable figures in our own life have taught us otherwise.  “It challenges a cherished belief about ourselves as adults; specifically that we are self-sufficient entities,” says Dr. Johnson, before adding, “to be human is to need others, and this is no flaw or weakness.”  To neglect this need created ripple effects through nearly every area of our lives. Pepperdine University psychologist Louis Cozolino observes, “Without stimulating interactions, neurons and people wither and die. In neurons, this process is called apoptosis, while in humans, it is called anaclitic depression.” Amazingly, secure love and attachment is vital to our brain development right from birth.  “Infant monkeys who are isolated from their mother show gross deficits in multiple areas of the brain, including those involved in the processing of emotion, such as the hippocampus.. Isolated babies, such as those reared in institutions, show similar effects. Many sicken and die at an early age. Survivors often mature with attention problems and cognitive and language deficits,” adds Dr. Johnson. When we use the words love and security, it’s important to clarify what we're actually talking about. Since we use these words so freely in our culture, they often lack depth and lose their potency. Jesus calls us to “love one another just as I have loved you” adding “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 13:34, 15:13).  His ultimate definition of love can be summed up in one phrase: self-sacrifice. The parallels to the scientific narrative are striking. New York Times best-selling author Dr. Tim Keller comments in his book The Meaning of Marriage: “If you have a child, you will find that the Biblical pattern of love is forced on you. Your new child is the neediest human being you have ever met. She needs your care every second of the day, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.” This can be overwhelming for new parents, as suddenly their worlds are turned upside down and their freedom is limited. “You make enormous sacrifices in your life, and yet the child, for a very long time, gives you nothing in return. And, while later the child can give you love and respect, never does she give you anything like what you have given to her.” In fact, the self-sacrificial love that we must extend to our children continues long after their infancy. Dr. Keller comments: “Often older children go through long stretches during which they rebel and fall apart and need enormous investment from you and again give you nothing in return. But at every turn, whether or not they are giving to you, you give to them.” This shows us that like the laws of nature, self-sacrificial love is actually built into the rhythm of our existence.  If we choose as parents that we don’t want to pour out self-sacrificial love on our children, it produces a world of anxious and avoidant people. We are bound for self-destruction, because society by default becomes cognitively deficient, dysfunctional, lonely and emotionally unhealthy.  At some level, we all recognize this deep down. It’s why when we’re watching a movie and see someone make a self-sacrificial act to save another, we stand back in awe and tears. It’s an admirable, inspiring and convicting way to love. So how does this apply to sex and relationships?  It’s simple: the self-sacrificial love that Jesus puts on display and the one we see within the parent-child relationship is the foundation that our romantic relationships must be built upon. They won’t survive otherwise.  Not healthily, at least. Dr. Keller describes this by saying we can treat the relationship with our lover as either a “consumer relationship” or a “covenant relationship”.

“Such a relationship lasts only as long as the vendor meets your needs at a cost acceptable to you. If another vendor delivers better services or the same services at a better cost, you have no obligation to stay in a relationship with the original vendor,” says Dr. Keller.

By nature, consumer relationships are the foundation hookup culture is built upon, spreading anxious and avoidant attachment styles like wildfire. Covenant relationships on the other hand are binding. In these relationships, Keller explains that, “we can be vulnerable, no longer having to keep up facades. We don’t have to keep selling ourselves. We can lay the last layer of our defenses down and be completely naked, both physically and in every other way.” Dr. Johnson adds, “The foundational contented, sustained relationships is the faith that your partner is there for you… a multitude of studies show that a positive, close relationship is one of the best predictors of longevity and physical and mental health.” For Jesus, the culmination of a healthy, loving, secure, supportive and close relationship comes through a monogamous marital commitment. Science agrees.  “The significance of getting married has emerged… marriage allows full emotional commitment in two ways. It formally transfers attachment from one’s parents to one’s partner,” says Dr. Johnson in Love Sense. Pause.  Before we go on, we must acknowledge all the stigma that comes along with a statement like this. It may provoke anger or bring back traumatic memories from the past. We mourn this with you.  In the eyes of culture, the marriage-as-norm and the monogamy-as-norm philosophies are seen as oppressive and limiting.  It’s not difficult to see how this has become the thinking for so many of us. For millennials in particular, the marriages we’ve observed were in fact somewhat oppressive and limiting.  But the marriage that comes to mind for us is not the type of marriage that Jesus, Dr. Keller or Dr. Johnson are advocating for.  It is not patriarchal, restrictive, apathetic, selfish or inevitably unsatisfying.  Rather through intimate friendship and mutual sacrifice, marriage is a liberating union that helps us become our most authentic selves.  “Romance, sex, laughter and plain fun are the byproducts of this process,” comments Dr. Keller.  “Many studies now attest to the fact that because secure partners feel safely connected to their lovers, they can access the full richness of their sexuality… Think about it. If you trust that your partner is there for you, then you can relax and let go without the fear of embarrassment or rejection,” adds Dr. Johnson.  Dr. Keller, thirty-plus years into his own marriage, remarkably says “the best sex makes you want to weep tears of joy, not basking in the glow of a good performance”.  We read these statements and they can often come across as idealistic. Is it even possible to find someone we could share such a bond with? This is at the root of our culture’s relational issues. Our world teaches us that consumer relationships are the norm and that a covenantal relationship with someone who is committed to loving us for who we really are is unrealistic In fact, The Atlantic’s Kate Julian observed this in her 2018 piece uncovering the sex recession amongst millennials. During her research, she interviewed two students who were tasked with observing long-term committed couples as part of their Marriage 101 class at Northwestern University. “To see a relationship where two people are utterly content and committed,” one woman said, with real conviction, “it’s kind of an aha moment for me.”  Another student spoke disbelievingly of her couple’s pre-smartphone courtship. “I couldn’t necessarily relate to it,” she said. “They met, they got each other’s email addresses, they emailed one another, they went on a first date, they knew that they were going to be together.  They never had a ‘define the relationship’ moment, because both were on the same page. I was just like, "Damn, is that what it's supposed to be like?" That last line is what struck us most personally in our journeys.

In a world dominated by dating apps, people have become commodities and the secure attachment we crave feels out of reach. We’re given alternatives that on the surface appear intoxicating and make sense, but in their core lack substance. 

Hookup culture, porn and living together before marriage are considered three viable, healthy options for expressing your sexuality.  Science already outlined the harmful effects of hookup culture above, but we must address porn and living together before marriage. Living a “married life” without actually making the formal commitment naturally produces anxious attachment styles.  Even if the commitment conversation is suppressed, not talked about or acknowledged, it’s likely ringing through one (or more) of the parties’ heads. It is also reflective of the consumer relationship that Dr. Keller described. We have sex with our partner and we receive all the benefits of the married life, without making the promise for the future. “Someone who says, “I love you, but we don’t need to be married” may be saying, “I don’t love you enough to curtail my freedom for you,” remarks Keller. This is a hard truth, but science backs it up.  “Data show that couples that have lived together [before getting married] are more likely to be dissatisfied with marriage and divorce,” comments Dr. Johnson. She adds, “One consistent research finding is that the more insecurely attached people are, the shorter their significant relationships tend to be and the more likely they are to divorce.” We must acknowledge that many of you who are reading this might be currently living with a partner right now. Hearing this is uncomfortable and it’s personal, because you might feel like it’s working out quite well. We have been there. As a team, we know what it is like to live with a partner before marriage in the past. To decide NOT to “test the waters” seems limiting and reckless. It’s going against the cultural grain of where our society is moving. Ultimately the objective of presenting these findings is the long game. Don’t we do this in every other area of life? We assess what will be the best long-term path in school, our career or even making progress in the gym. So why don’t we do this with our relationships? We want to collectively explore this journey together with you and consider the long-term implications of the decisions we are currently making. We must look at the evidence to what will most successfully lead to secure attachment, authentic sexual well-being, and covenantal relationship.   Which brings us to the observation that cohabitation by its very nature produces a sometimes slow and methodical insecure attachment style. Why? Because it’s escapable. Dr. Keller explains, “Marriage is a more inescapable relationship than cohabitation. When unmarried people live together, they certainly see one another “up close,” but each party knows that the other one does not have the same claims on him or her that would be true if they were married.” “They don’t merge their whole lives -- socially, economically, legally -- and so either one can walk away with relatively few complications if they don’t like what they are being told,” Keller adds.  This is antithetical with how we’re wired and what we ultimately need from another person to be securely attached. Dr. Johnson explains, “Many romantic partners break apart when one person starts to ask, “Are you there for me?” and cannot get a clear answer. It is one thing to accept you’re having a casual amorous adventure and another to face up to another person having a hold on your heart.” “Then you question how much you can really depend on that person, how strong is the devotion on his or her end,” she concludes.  Dr. Keller observes that relationships that drag on for years without any movement to the next step may indicate “one person has found a level of relationship (short of marriage) in which he or she is receiving all that is wanted and feels no need to take the final stage of commitment.” “Living together may fully acquaint you with someone’s everyday habits and likes and dislikes -- but it often stops shorts of complete emotional linkage. It’s like bouncing on the diving board but not plunging in,” adds Dr. Johnson. Yet it’s not just the “married but not married” lifestyle that is complicating things for our generation, but also the promotion of porn. “[Porn] completely divorces sex from emotional attachment, the springboard for optimal sex, which requires mutual engagement, attunement, and responsiveness. Porn reduced sex to sensation -- intercourse and orgasm -- and eliminates any connection to or respect for the user’s partner,” Dr. Johnson says. The scientific discoveries in the field of porn are startling. “Over the past five years, more and more distressed couples have been coming in with pornography as a central issue in their relationship. Women complain of being deceived, betrayed and humiliated; men protest that their actions are harmless and criticize their partners for being too uptight and less “sexy” than the women online,” adds Dr. Johnson. The cultural narrative is so convincing that we’ve bought into the lie that porn is a harmless occupant in the confines of our relationships.  But in culture’s effort to draw a line on what faithfulness means, Dr. Johnson says “we are creating masses of avoidant men and anxious women... It’s a fantasy life that takes [men] farther and farther away from a secure connection with [their wives.].”

The numbers don’t lie. Last year, there were 42 billion visits to one of the world’s most popular porn sites. And it’s not just men anymore either. Women are being encouraged to explore their sexuality in the contents of porn, producing more detached and avoidant styles across both sexes. 

Yet again, the spiritual is an agreement with the science on both these fronts. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Mt. 5:28-30) If you didn’t catch it, this is an obvious play on words from Jesus, emphasizing the importance of going to extreme measures to be emotionally faithful to our present or future mate. This is part of what it means to love. Jesus knew that far before we ever enter the waters of being physically unfaithful, our emotional commitment to our spouse starts wandering. This is why we must be vigilant about what we allow to enter our atmosphere. However, some have reasoned that this is evidence that humans are not intrinsically wired to be monogamous.  In her book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel says that non-monogamists are “not rebelling against commitment per se; they are looking for more realistic ways to make their vows last, and have concluded that quest involves other lovers.” This new age of thought, Perel says, primarily centers around these questions: “Can love be plural? Is possessiveness intrinsic to love or is it merely a vestige of patriarchy? Can jealousy be transcended? Can commitment and freedom coexist?”   These ideologies are valid constructs that attempt to reconcile our tendencies to stray. They assume that secure attachment can happen within other arrangements, thus they must be dealt with. Can secure attachment exist within open and/or polygamous relationships?  What about couples who happily invite a third partner into their arrangement?  How about the couples whose sex lives are seemingly enhanced by the playing out of third partner erotic fantasies?  Perel followed around one couple who modeled their arrangement after this new school of thought. Kyle & Lucy, parents of two, thoroughly communicated the parameters of a consensual non-monogamous relationship.  Kyle “had always fantasized about inviting a third into his relationship -- specifically a man to have sex with his wife while he watched,” adding:  “I know that it’s difficult to be faithful and stay interested in one person for a lifetime. But there has to be a better way than the typical ‘betrayal.’”  Two practical examples of consensual non-monogamy for them included: 
    • Lucy attending an opera with a stranger she met on the train, while Kyle sat behind them incognito “excited to see if he would touch her.”
    • Lucy booking a hotel room to have sex with a younger man, while Kyle booked the room next door so he could listen. 
 “Kyle and Lucy relish the buzz of transgression -- not against each other, but together, against cultural norms. Ninety-five percent of the time, they are exclusive; occasionally, they open the door,” Perel says. She adds, “The triangular gaze is highly erotic, which is why stories like Kyle and Lucy’s are much less unusual than you may expect… the fantasy of inviting in a third comes in many variations -- imagining, enacting, watching, joining in, waiting at home, listening behind a door, enjoying the detailed report.” Western culture is a big fan of these arrangements, seeing them as healthy alternatives that put the power in the hands of the individual, as we mentioned in the opening paragraphs. Secure attachment is a must, but new-age thinking reasons that this can happen in many forms. Whether through traditional monogamous commitments or lifelong non monogamous marital commitments, it’s up to the couple to decide what’s best for them. It seems settled then, right?  Not quite yet. We must consider that there are many complicated, multi-faceted layers to this conversation as we seek our most healthy sex life. First, as we learned from Dr. Nagoski, we do not possess innate sexual stimuli, meaning that we do not come out of the womb with erotic fantasies.  These are formed by the culture and environment around us, pushing the gas on our sexual accelerators. So whether there is an awareness of this or not, Kyle’s desire to watch Lucy have sex with another man is linked to something he was exposed to in his past.  As we also learned from Dr. John Gottman, our sexual fantasies are most definitely not always good for us -- like the women who get turned on after being physically abused by their partner.  So just as these fantasies have been learned, we can also unlearn them and rewire our brains to think differently. Google neuroplasticity Second, science shows we are wired for monogamy Dr. Johnson, who may be the top expert on this subject, says, “the fact we can occasionally get turned on by someone other than our partner does not mean that we are not suited for monogamy.” She adds, “All of us may not be destined for a single, lifelong relationship, but we are naturally monogamous. Yes, that’s right. Naturally monogamous. I hear gasps from an audience whenever I say this, but the evidence is solid; we are wired to prefer mating and bonding with one partner for the long term. Polyamory and short-term mating are not the strategies of choice for most humans, male or female.” In primitive cultures, Dr. Johnson explains that, “polygamy [existed] because men are few and because lack of education, equality and opportunity prevents women from supporting themselves and their children on their own.” But even as this was done in primitive cultures because of need, it’s not natural. Science has revealed that sexual encounters release oxytocin, which scientists call “the molecule of monogamy.” Oxytocin is a “neurotransmitter and hormone that promotes bonding, both parent to child and partner to partner. In humans, oxytocin surges through our brains at moments of heightened emotional connection, such as at breastfeeding and orgasm.”  Recent empirical studies have shown that, “even lust, the slightest simple sexual arousal, automatically triggers attachment or bonding responses,” says Johnson, before adding, “This fact, along with oxytocin, explains why adulterous one-night stands, swinging, and polygamy ultimately don’t work so well.” This research is groundbreaking, completely flipping the highly popular cultural narratives on their head.  So even for Lucy, there was some level of emotional bonding happening with the two men she was having sex with, whether she was aware of it or not. When this happens, this naturally breaks the foundation of the secure attachment she is trying to achieve with Kyle. Although we certainly do not know them, a plausible explanation for why this arrangement might be working is because they have been blinded due to the presence of third partner erotic fantasies.  If Kyle and Lucy leveraged the power of neuroplasticity, they would be able to rewire their brains in such a way that would lead to erotic monogamy, create a healthier secure attachment and family structure. So what’s the issue then? If erotic fantasies can be reconciled and reshaped, why are we drawn to others sexually? Why do we stray?  “The truth is that we stray and have affairs not because we are all naturally inclined to have multiple mates but because our bond with our partner is either inherently weak or has deteriorated so far that we are unbearably lonely,” says Dr. Johnson. Perel seems to agree.  “Many affairs are less about sex than about desire: the desire to feel desired, to feel special, to be seen and connected, to compel attention.” Even as she considers polyamory in State of Affairs, she admits this does not prevent us from the devastation of betrayal and actually may add more complication in our pursuit of secure attachment. Perel quotes philosopher Pascal Buckner, saying: “Freedom does not release us from responsibilities but instead increases them. It does not lighten our burden but weighs us down further. It resolves problems less than it multiplies paradoxes. If this world sometimes seems brutal, that is because it is ‘emancipated’ and each individual’s autonomy collides with that of others and is injured by them: never have people had to bear on their shoulders so many constraints.” She adds, “The collision of autonomies threatens every modern romance, but in polyamory it can become a multi-vehicle pileup.” In the end, these new types of arrangements are attempting to create a solution that does not ultimately get to the root of our relational and sexual issues.  We must rebuild from our metaphorical ground zero by driving all our attention to this one word: identity.  Who am I? What am I worth? What was I put here for? What is my purpose? This is what we will address in this next section.

OUR MODERN DAY IDENTITY CRISIS

While the spiritual and scientific may come together to present us a beautiful symphony of human sexuality, they are not the loudest voice in the room.  Not in the slightest. The cultural narrative knows how to suffocate us from every angle. It entices us with subliminal answers to life’s biggest existential questions, armed with the ammunition of Edward Bernays' Propaganda strategy. We are told the following by society: There’s a formula for what will make us complete in every area of life and we’re given a strategy of how to get there. We’re even told that operating in this way will liberate us and propel us forward into our most authentic selves. Embrace hookup culture, YOLO.  Sex can and in some instances, must be emotionless. Just put on a front and act like you don’t care. Take a journey through your erotic fantasies and indulge in porn. Pick out what you like from a menu with endless choices. Have sex with whomever you like. Live together before even considering permanent commitment. How do you know if you’re compatible? How else would you know how they are in bed?  Buy the latest lipstick, dress, suit or handbag to feel beautiful and powerful. Do a little touch up on your stomach, move up a breast size and alter the bridge of your nose, then you’ll really be sexually desirable.  Yet stopping and thoughtfully considering the debris from these narratives shows that these pursuits are more like a hamster wheel than a car traveling towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

Our pursuit of the cultural standard of beauty, the allure of status and the most exotic sex life are unquenchable conquests. The thing is they DO satisfy for a moment. They give us an intoxicating high but it’s only momentary. It’s not long before you’re thirsty again.

Conversely, the long-term burdens that their pursuits cause are crushing. Even those that have fit the perfect picture of the cultural ideal are not immune, such as Kylie Jenner and her 380 million Instagram followers. Millions of men want her and millions of women want to be like her, yet in 2019 she opened up about her battle with anxiety throughout her entire adult life and that what we see on social media is “just the surface”.  So then why do we keep pursuing these narratives around beauty, relationships and sexuality? Why, if even when we get there it doesn’t satisfy? Because our identity is wrapped up in it. Being beautiful, sexy, successful, in-love, a ladies man or high status defines who we are. Without those things, culture tells us that we are not worthy. We are not enough. All of these pursuits are the means in which we validate our existence or our affirmed by our peers, giving us a sense of worthiness. If we lose the pursuit, no matter how burdensome it might be, then who are we? Dr. Nagoski calls these pursuits “goal states”. Alternatively, we’d call them identity factors. She says that, “the hard part is liking your sexuality as it is, when for multiple decades the world has been trying to convince you you’re broken.” “Letting go of… “I wish my sexuality were different”... requires that [you] move through the pit of despair, recognizing that your previous goal state was unattainable -- or at least unattainable in the way you expected to attain it.” “Our [internal] scripts or maps include clear ideas about what the goal, effort and timelines of our sexuality should be…. We think that if we let go, we’re giving up hope; it feels like we are a failure… This is as true for sex-related goals… as it is for goals in the rest of life --- ending a relationship, deciding not to complete a degree or go to grad school, accepting that your healthy body shape doesn’t match the (unhealthy) cultural ideal.” “Sometimes letting go of a particular goal feels like you have to let go of your entire identity,” concludes Dr. Nagoski. Dr. Nagoski is right, but this doesn’t have to be a painful process. It can actually be the most liberating thing we’ve ever experienced. But this only can happen if we replace these culturally distorted “goal states” with something else. And it comes down to this one question: do you believe in a universal creator?  Do you believe we were made by a higher being or not? We could get into the compelling rationale surrounding the existence of God, but that’s a conversation for another day.  Let’s just say for argument’s sake that he does exist. And if he does, that means we must go vertical to get our sense of identity and self-worth, not horizontal.

Why? Because like a human inventor, only our designer can determine our worth. Tesla puts the price tag on their cars. Watchmakers on their watches. Bakers on their decadent and drool-worthy desserts.

And thus, human beings, if created by God, have a price-tag stamped on them. Deep-down, we all realize this. For some reason, we all inherently know that a human life is worth something. That’s why injustice like genocide, racism and sexism is so painful.  So who does God say we are?  An incredible work of art (Eph 2:10), beautifully & wonderfully made (Ps 139:14), greatly loved (Romans 5:8), a friend (Jn 15:15) and his child (Gal 3:28). This liberating list is constantly repeated all throughout scripture. Deep down, it’s rest for our souls and has obvious parallels to attachment theory We don’t have to work for our worth. We can actually choose not to buy into flawed cultural narratives, because our designer already determined our worth at birth. That can’t be undone. EVERY single human being that walks on this Earth is included in this (Gen 1:26). There are no exceptions. We are all invited to be part of this beautiful reality.  It gets better. Not only were we created by our designer with an inherent sense of worth, but we were also created to run ON our designer. C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, puts it this way:  God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on.” As a phone is to its energy source – a power outlet, when we plug into our creator we too become spiritually and emotionally recharged.  If we don’t embrace this, our alternative will simply be to jump back on the exhausting hamster wheel, recharging on the validation of others and basing our identity on our performance against cultural standards. Jesus, who claimed to be God, says as much. “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:14) No longer do we have to try to conform to relational and sexual ideologies that are burdensome, because we are confident in who we are.  We enter our romantic relationships from a place of surplus and eager to give love self-sacrificially, rather than from a deficit and desperate for validation. With Jesus at the center of our world, we are given the fuel we need to live out the beautiful symphony harmonized by the spiritual and scientific narratives. This is because the key to an intimate long-term secure attachment (and great sex) ultimately comes down to our ability to see ourselves, our partner and the relationship in the correct lens. Since our identity is secure, we enter the relationship from a healthy place. We do not need it to complete us (anxious attachment), we’re not afraid of whether it will hurt us (anxious & avoidant) and we are not emotionally numb/unavailable (avoidant) to what an intimate relationship will require. We are also okay with the fact that both ourselves and our partner are flawed human beings. We all fall short of perfection, but Jesus makes up for that.  If we don’t recognize this, we usually carry an inflated or deflated view of self into our relationship. This usually isn’t revealed to be a major issue until the relationship is six to eighteen months in.  To this point, we’ve ridden the euphoria of a new relationship and we already have so much skin in the game. We’ve experienced intoxicating emotions related to this person and oftentimes are driven into dopamine-fueled sexual encounters.

Everything is usually based on feelings. And thus while we’re in the feels our partner can do no wrong, but only for a time. 

We are infatuated and obsessed in what Dr. Johnson calls the “spellbound” stage.  In this stage, Keller explains “not only do you not know the other person, but the other person does not really know you… when you first fall in love, you think you love the person, but you don’t really. You can’t know who the person really is right away. That takes years. You actually love your idea of the person -- and that is always, at first, one-dimensional and somewhat mistaken.” So over time, the euphoric feeling starts to wear off and our flaws get revealed, in addition to our unrealistic view of our partner and the relationship.  This is not so with our creator at the center.  We expect that we’ll drop off the high, but that’s okay. We are not looking for it to fulfill us. We recognize that the self-sacrificial love that is foundational to attachment theory and the parent-child relationship is actually NOT based on feelings, but a choice. We know the relationship will require work, but this is precisely what makes long-term marital arrangements so beautiful. “Marriage by its very nature has the… power to show you the truth about who you are. It doesn’t create your weaknesses (though you may blame your spouse for your blow-ups -- it reveals them… marriage does not so much bring you into confrontation with your spouse as confront you with yourself… this is not a bad thing, though… it really is the road to liberation,” Dr. Keller says. In this is the ultimate beauty and liberation. To have another person still choose us, to help us work through our flaws and past, but also to be deeply committed to loving us for life monogamously without any strings attached.  Science has shown that this type of unwavering commitment allows us to strive through all seasons of life -- in the “spellbound” stage, dating, marriage, parenthood, becoming empty nesters, retirement and in our elderly years. The findings that Dr. Johnson presents in Love Sense are remarkable. Strong bonds between spouses reduces the likelihood of postpartum depression, makes for better parenting, projects physical and mental health and it also buffers us when illness strikes, especially in the elderly.  Strong bonds don’t happen out of thin air. It requires a consistent state of humility, forgiveness and repentance. Since we are flawed, we will hurt each other. But the mission of marriage is to help us become our most authentic selves. Dr. Keller says, “it is to look at another person and get a glimpse of the person God is creating and to say, “I see who God is making you and it excites me!”  It is to embrace that we are all a work-in-progress, but yet still stay “committed to his or her beauty… committed to his greatness and perfection,” says Keller. The ultimate goal of life then is about who we’re becoming. It’s about looking more and more like God everyday. To be more loving, patient, kind, sacrificial, joyful and humble. People like this are infectious. They make a genuine impact on the world and they inspire us. And this is who we can mutually encourage each other to be. To step into who we were always made to be, to reflect the image of God. At the end of the day, people with this depth of connection have great sex.  The spiritual and the scientific say so.  In fact, when we remove the distorted biblical narratives passed down through church history and in our society, we find that the Bible itself might just be the most sex-positive text of all-time. It celebrates erotic sexual love between two committed lovers (Song of Songs), encourages us to have lots of sex with our spouse (1 Cor 7:5) and to delight in each other’s body (Prov 5:19). This of course is not consistent and linear through time.  We should expect there will be ups and downs in our relationships. We will have to navigate the most difficult moments of life together and we have to collectively work through each other’s flaws in a graceful, loving manner. But at the end of the day, a strong bond like this will bring us back to a place where we are securely attached, intimately and erotically experiencing the joys of synchrony sex, within the security of a lifelong marital commitment. Underneath all the influences that have shaped our sexual stimuli, all the attachment wounds and the seductive noise from culture, this is the type of relationship our soul is crying out for This is the deepest and healthiest form of sex we’ll ever have.

CONCLUSION

Where do we go from here? For us, the fact that the scientific and the spiritual narratives sang such a harmonious tune was very surprising indeed. Not what we expected. But at second thought, it actually made perfect sense. If there is a universal creator, if God does in fact exist, that means he created not only the laws of nature but also the design for how humans would function best in their sexuality. Sex in all it’s goodness was ultimately God's brilliant idea. You’ve probably heard the sentiment that science and faith cannot coexist. That they are contradictory. But this notion is simply a product of the illusion-of-truth effect that we discussed above. We’ve heard it so many times that it’s become true to us, yet there is no actual data to backup that claim.  From our estimation, the groundbreaking research in the fields of social science and psychology are more signs that point to God’s goodness and hands in creating the world. They go together. Yet how we use these findings is an incredibly personal decision. Choosing to hold out for a secure attachment in a marital commitment feels like a huge risk today. It feels unlikely and unrealistic. It goes against the cultural tidal wave. But it is also liberating. It is a stand against having a low view of sex, a low view of self and a rebellion against the cancerous ideas that the cultural narrative tries to plant in our head on a daily basis. We stand confident, knowing our identity and worthiness, stamped on us at birth by our designer. This doesn’t mean temptation to give in won’t exist. Holding out and waiting is hard. We may falter and stumble on this journey, yet we get back up with the needed grace to pursue a beautiful end-goal. Your best and most erotic sex life is in front of you. The secure attachment your soul deeply desires is there for the taking. You simply have to choose.

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