Boys were forbidden to Adila when she was growing up.
“Don’t talk to boys, don’t touch them, don’t look at them, don’t do anything,” the now 26-year-old says she was taught.
“If you do, you’re going to hell.”
So when she was married at 18 to a man she barely knew and found repulsive, the thought that she would have to have sex with him was traumatizing.
“You’ve never really interacted with men and then now you’re just … married. I can’t explain how many steps we’re missing in the middle,” she says.
“It’s like trying to talk to a giraffe or something.”
Void of sexual knowledge
Adila was raised Muslim in a Pakistani community in Calgary. She was taught not to worry about sex — that once she was married, it would just happen, and it would be great.
She had masturbated before she was married and felt guilty about it. She now believes it’s something everyone should do, but that knowledge of her own body didn’t help much when it came to having intercourse for the first time.
Adila had no idea how to kiss someone, touch or pleasure them, let alone enjoy sex herself. This void of knowledge, the shock of her marriage, and the lack of emotional connection between her and her husband made her forget what little she did know about her own body.
You’ve never really interacted with men and then now you’re just … married. I can’t explain how many steps we’re missing in the middle.Adila, who was married at 18
The first time her husband initiated sex, she gave in, accepting that she was a “bad wife” for making him wait two weeks after their wedding.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Adila says. “So he was taking my hand and putting it places, and he was like, ‘OK, rub this up and down,’ and I’m like ‘OK.’ And I just froze and I started crying right in the middle of it.
“But I remember when I started crying, he had already climaxed. To this day, I have no idea how that happens. There’s a woman under you, she’s crying, she has no idea what you’re doing, and how the f*ck do you climax?”
She says her husband grew frustrated when he realized that she was not only clueless about sex, but also not in love with him either. She discovered emails and phone messages from a brother-in-law, advising her husband to “show her who’s boss.” Her husband then became forceful.
“He was never evil about it,” she says. “Except for two or three times that I remember that I would definitely qualify as rape.”
After experiencing panic attacks, deep depression, and a hospital stay, Adila summoned up the courage to leave her marriage after four months.
Religion can add extra roadblocks to enjoying sex
In many conservative religious communities, waiting to have sex until marriage is still an important value, and faith leaders hold up sex — and even enjoyable sex — as a key part of a successful union between a man and a woman.
It’s hard to know exactly how many followers of Christianity and Islam, the world’s two largest religions, believe in waiting until marriage. The Catholic church, which most of the world’s Christians are part of, preaches it, and most Baptist and evangelical churches, which count millions of believers in their ranks, do too.
The belief is also widespread in Muslim communities.
But enjoying sex means experiencing pleasure, something that so many heterosexual women, religious or not, have trouble with.
In a recent U.S. study, only 65 per cent of women said they orgasmed usually or always during sex, compared with 95 per cent of heterosexual men. Women in that study were more likely to orgasm if they had oral sex, manual stimulation of their genitals, or deep kissing.
But some women who grow up in religious households don’t even know what any of those sexual components are, and face some unique roadblocks to experiencing pleasure.
They’re often told to hold off on sexual experimentation until marriage and to never masturbate, because their faith states God designed sex to happen exclusively within a marriage between a man and a woman.
That restriction on premarital sex can also create a sense of shame and even disgust that persists after sex is allowed.
Christian marriage expert Joe Beam thinks it’s a big problem that Christians not only don’t talk openly about sex, but cloak it in a layer of shame.
“It’s hard to make the transition from ‘Sex is bad’ when you are young and single to ‘Sex is good’ when you are married,” he said in a seminar many years ago. “Sex is the most wonderful gift God ever gave Christians.”
Cultural and religious messages about a man’s greater need for pleasure also creep in, so a woman may believe that the purpose for sex is to make her husband feel good.
And women immersed in religious communities may miss out on basic sexual education.
“… Sex ed was never discussed, especially going to a Christian school and it wasn’t broached at my house,” says Meghan*, a 28-year-old realtor and mom who lives in Austin, Texas.
Premarital sex forbidden in Islam
In Islam, sex within marriage is a key aspect of being a Muslim — in fact, the Qur’an uses the same word, nikah, to refer to both marriage and sex.
But premarital sex is unlawful, a form of zina. Believers must protect their sexual organs from everyone except their spouses. This edict has also been interpreted as a ban on masturbation.
Any act that might lead to premarital sex is also forbidden, which some believe includes even looking at someone with sexual interest.
In the Bible, a number of passages reference sex and marriage.
“To the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry,” Paul the Apostle writes in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9.
Hebrews 13:4 reads, “Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”
These and other texts have been interpreted by many Christians to mean that sex is meant only for the marriage bed.
Meghan grew up going to a non-denominational Christian church and spent several years attending a Christian school. She was taught that sex was a gift meant only for the man she planned to marry, with Bible verses to back the teaching up.
“I can remember this Song of Solomon verse just being beaten into us, of ‘Daughters guard your hearts, lest they be awakened early,’ or whatever it is,” she says.
When she was in eighth grade, Meghan and her mom went to a weekend workshop called “Passport to Purity,” where she was given a purity ring and decided she would kiss her imagined husband for the first time at the altar.
“Very much we were told that essentially the only thing we had to barter with, the only thing that determined our worth, was what we had to bring into our marriage bed,” she says about virginity.
I just felt so dirty, and so broken, like I had completely failed God and I completely failed my parents, and I’d completely failed my [theoretical] future husband, and so now I was going to have to marry this guy.Meghan
At church, she and her peers studied the book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” whose central message was that even dating someone was dangerous if you didn’t plan to marry them.
But she didn’t live up that standard of purity and went further sexually with men to get their approval, and she felt incredibly ashamed.
By the time she had sex for the first time — with her now ex-husband while they were dating — she had already “messed around with clothes on,” kissed someone, and given a handjob.
“I just felt so dirty, and so broken, like I had completely failed God and I completely failed my parents, and I’d completely failed my [theoretical] future husband, and so now I was going to have to marry this guy,” she says.
Meghan didn’t really enjoy the sex they had, because she didn’t know how to make it feel good for herself.
It was years before she even realized what a clitoris was.
She had never been taught about her body or explored it, because she grew up learning that masturbation was “from the devil.”
Self-pleasure in perspective
Masturbation is not mentioned in the Bible, but some argue that a passage in which Jesus compares looking at someone with lust to “adultery of the heart” also denounces self-pleasure, because masturbation usually involves sexual fantasy.
Jesus then talks about gouging out one’s eye or cutting off a right hand if either cause you to “stumble,” which could be seen as an indirect reference to masturbating. It’s notable that this section begins with a specific commandment to not commit adultery.
Others, like the influential conservative Christian organization, Focus on the Family, say self-pleasure falls short of God’s design for sexuality as spelled out in the Bible — that it’s meant specifically to be lived out in a marital relationship — and can become addictive, hampering marital sexual and emotional intimacy.
There are, of course, many perspectives within the faith.
For most of the relationship with her ex, Meghan just wanted to get sex over with, believing that the sole point was to give him pleasure.
She would sometimes get close to orgasm during intercourse, but because she didn’t know what was happening, she would think she just had to pee.
Meghan and her husband went to marriage conferences, but she says she felt disgusted by a scripture passage that was meant to emphasize the importance of oral sex for both partners.
“But that’s because we were taught that these things are all such bad things to try and scare us away from doing them before we get married, and then you get married, and you’re like, ‘Well, I have no idea what to do with any of this, and all I’ve been taught [is] that it’s disgusting.'”
… we were told that essentially the only thing we had to barter with, the only thing that determined our worth, was what we had to bring into our marriage bed.Meghan
Meghan describes herself as deeply empathetic person who needs to feel safe and connected with someone for her body to co-operate sexually. So, she had to shut her brain off in order to orgasm.
“Then I was able to figure out the things that felt good so that I could do those, get it over and done with, and then take care of him.”
The feeling of being outside your body, of watching yourself have sex while your brain talks at you, is called spectatoring. It’s the number one sexual problem women deal with, says Jen Martin, a Seattle, Wash.-based sex therapist and psychotherapist with an interest in how religion and sexuality intersect.
The number one trigger of spectatoring that Martin has observed is trauma, but “number two is the guilt and shame that comes with our culture, and more specifically with a conservative religious upbringing, that separates you from your body during the experience.”
Martin dealt with both issues, growing up Christian in a family where many people had been sexually abused, including her.
Martin was a virgin when she got married, and being disconnected from her body during sex was also a big problem for her, even with therapy.
“I loved my husband, I fell in love with him, and I didn’t want a sexual relationship with him because I didn’t want a sexual relationship with anyone,” she says.
The messaging that men receive in faith communities also contributes to women’s negative experiences.
Meghan says that while her church placed most of the responsibility on women to avoid temptation, young men weren’t exempt.
Guys in her high-school youth group wore rubber bands that they would snap when they felt lustful urges, a practice she had a “massive issue with.”
I do not think that’s what God wants for me, to martyr myself for someone else’s sexual pleasure.Adila
Adila says she doesn’t know if her husband received any sexual education, but she was taught that marriage is for men, because they have sexual needs and can’t have sex unless they’re married.
“Your primary job is to make sure that he’s sexually satisfied, at your own expense, and that makes you a good wife, and that makes you beloved to God,” she says.
For Adila, she feels that message came from her Pakistani community, not Islam, as well as her controlling, conservative father and his “f*cked-up ideas” about women, sex and God.
“I do not think that’s what God wants for me, to martyr myself for someone else’s sexual pleasure. I’m totally entitled to that myself.”
Shahina Siddiqui counsels Muslim couples before and after marriage as part of her work running the Islamic Social Services Association in Winnipeg. She says she assesses what her premarital clients know about a healthy sexual relationship and tries to educate them.
“Especially if you are working with two people who have never had any experiences, that’s the idea that we would take, an assumption that they are both needing to learn,” she says.
She tells her clients that sex between a husband and wife is a beautiful act, to be appreciated and nurtured. She teaches them to respect each other, talk about what brings each of them pleasure and never to force their partner to do anything they don’t want to do. Foreplay and compliments are encouraged.
Women sometimes take longer to reach “their satisfaction” than men, she tells them. And though most women need clitoral stimulation, she doesn’t discuss anatomy due to modesty and shyness. Instead, she sends her clients home with educational resources and will hold sessions so they can freely ask questions — since they’re not married yet, they have to stay modest.
Siddiqui is a big proponent of sexual education, and says feedback from her sessions has always been positive. Muslim couples are discouraged from talking about their sex lives with friends or family, but she invites premarital clients to come back after marriage if they’re still having trouble.
The Biblical book of Song of Songs confirms that pleasurable sex is equally as important for both sexes within a marriage, and Islamic teachings also stress the importance of foreplay for women.
Beam takes couples through the whys and hows of sex on his site, and there are sex resources on large sites like Focus on the Family, and from bloggers like Julie Sibert. On her blog, she speaks openly about orgasms, the clitoris and emotional intimacy.
Carly, a 28-year-old teacher and mom who lives in Barrie, Ont. had a more positive experience. She and her husband are both Christian, and decided to wait until they were married when she was 19 to have sex. They took a premarital course in which they were encouraged to communicate openly in the bedroom and not hold expectations over one another.
Making her chastity vow was hard because they were very attracted to each other, she says. They kissed, “hugged deeply,” had some “intimate” conversations over the phone and maybe even touched each other with clothes on, but would remind each other of their promise.
After marriage, they figured out how to make sex pleasurable for both of them, even though neither had any experience, which, in retrospect, she says, wasn’t all bad.
“It was very freeing to not have to worry about being compared [to another partner].”
Carly has since learned more about what her evangelical church teaches — that sex is a beautiful and good connection between a couple, not something dirty or to avoid out of guilt.
“Waiting until marriage, in a fully committed relationship, allows you to be most vulnerable and therefore the most close and intimate with each other,” she says.
Couples are encouraged to wait, but not doing so “doesn’t mean God loves you any less,” she adds. The point is to avoid potential emotional pain, she says.
A ‘learning process’
But for women who have already suffered pain, the outcome is more complicated.
Meghan is still a Christian, but is upset about what she was taught by her church.
“There is a reason why the Bible says not to sleep with someone before you get married, and I recognize that fact, and I can see the wisdom in that,” she says. “Unfortunately, the church over-corrects to try and counterbalance the culture, which under-corrects.”
I’ve just kind of come to terms with the fact that that’s probably just going to be one of those scars that I will always carry …Meghan
She’s been dating another guy since last fall, but both have scars and habits from their previous marriages that they’re trying to overcome. She struggles to be open about what she wants sexually and not to try to fix problems in the relationship by giving him sex.
She still can’t masturbate, because of the shame she internalized from the church.
“I’ve just kind of come to terms with the fact that that’s probably just going to be one of those scars that I will always carry, that I can’t take care of that on my own.”
Adila is still a Muslim, but doesn’t plan to wait until she’s married to have sex again.
She has come close to having it, she says, but just hasn’t met the right person. She is also discovering more about her own pleasure and how to pleasure others, calling it a “learning process.”
She doesn’t think her new world view contradicts her faith.
“… That might be against what the Qur’an says, but in my relationship with God, I don’t think that’s necessarily what God wants for me.”
*Names have been changed upon request to protect privacy