The U.S. may be a secular country, but 78% of Americans identified as Christian as of 2009. Our religiosity is far from static: Some 28% of American adults have abandoned the faith of their upbringing, either to follow a different one or none at all. Uncounted others have renegotiated their relationships with that faith rather than leave it altogether. And, spirituality in flux often translates to sexuality in flux — in terms of whom and how we love. While Christianity is commonly considered (and can certainly manifest as) sex-negative, faith can either support or destroy healthy sexuality. For Grace Kim, the tension between religion and sexuality nearly led to death. I first heard Kim's tale through the "Live Through This" project, which tells the stories of suicide attempt survivors. Kim had been suicidal since she was eight-years-old — four years after she realized she was queer. The daughter of Korean immigrants, Kim grew up attending both a Protestant church, where she was the only queer person she knew, and a Catholic school, where she was both the only queer kid and the only Protestant. "I would always question God — why would he give me such a hard life like this? If it’s so wrong [to be queer], why can’t I help myself?" she told me. "I genuinely believed I was going to hell for most of my life," she stated in her "Live Through This" testimony. Kim coped with her environment by speaking as little as possible; her mother wondered if Kim had some sort of learning disability or mental disorder. "I was just so scared of letting my secret out," she explains. At 24 years old, Kim resolved to kill herself, but decided that she would take one last day to wander around San Francisco, her hometown, and say goodbye. That day, Kim rode a cable car, visited three different bookstores, and talked to strangers for the first time — and enjoyed it. "It really was the best day ever," she shares. She decided to wake up for one more day; her mini-experiment in socializing led to another, and another. A few months later, she sent a message to the Facebook group of a lesbian community website to invite its members to her house for a hot-tub party. "At that party, I just pretended to be this person that I always wanted to be, this really outgoing, social, nice person," Kim shares. "It was easy to pretend around strangers. Once I started hanging out with them more and more often, it just became who I was." As Kim began to create a personality and a life that she loved, her doubts about religion turned into conviction that she herself was the only authority she needed to answer to. In February of 2014, Kim met her future wife at a mixer she had organized — at a church, of all places. "I set up the meet-up at an abandoned church in the Haight... I saw this angelic face, and I was just smitten," she recalls. Though she had dabbled in dating after her "best day" in San Francisco the year before, her relationship with her wife was her first long-term sexual or romantic relationship. Kim says she realizes now that her parents were never as religious as she assumed: When Kim came out to them, they responded with acceptance and support. Kim's mother even calls Kim's wife her "favorite daughter." Last month, Kim quit her job to focus on her nonprofit, "Best Day Project," an LGBTQIA youth suicide prevention organization. As for Christianity, she has abandoned it altogether.
Shannon Moore's relationship with sex, meanwhile, shifted in the opposite direction, as her commitment to religion intensified. Moore, a born-again virgin, has not had sex in "10 or 11 years," she explains — since shortly after she moved to New York City from North Carolina to become an actress. “My faith is a huge part of my life; it has ironically gotten stronger living in New York,” she remarks. Growing up, Moore attended church every so often, but wasn’t hyper-religious. "It didn’t happen until my early 20s, until I surrendered and said, Okay, Jesus, I think I need you — I think I need you now." Moore, the child of divorced parents, was coming off of years of sex that had left her feeling empty. "For me, it was just relationship after relationship, because I would always try to get my justification and my worth and who I am and my purpose from men," she explains. "I never had a man figure in my life, so I would always get that from guys.” She sees her decision to remain abstinent until marriage as part of recognizing the similarity between her and the men she had tried to please: If she has the love of Jesus Christ, she asks, "Then why do I need justification from a man, that’s a human, and no different from me in reality?" Though Moore enjoyed sex as she was having it ("All sin is great when you’re doing it," she laughs), "the minute it was done, the minute I left his apartment...there was emptiness...there was vacancy...there was fear." Moore met her current boyfriend eight months ago, and she’s grateful for his support of her choice. She insists that she’s not sex-negative, only that sex “needs to be done in the right concept." For her, that means in the context of "uniting a marriage, uniting a union between two people — a man and a woman." Asked whether she recommends abstinence until marriage for even non-Christians, she responds that she "110%" does. Subtracting the sexual component from a relationship, Moore believes, will lead to a stronger, more honest bond. Moore believes that kissing is acceptable but resists other sexual activities, even as she holds that how others interpret "abstinence" is between them and God: "Some people would say oral sex is okay," she points out. "I can't really be the judge of that." She does admit that it's hard to resist temptation. "No matter how spiritual and how faith-based and God-fearing I may be, I’m still human," she says. "And, because I’ve had sex before, it’s not easy to stop. I think it would be much better for someone who’s never had sex to make the decision not to have sex... It’s 10 times harder in that sense."
There is a middle way between evangelism and abandoning faith altogether — one that 29-year-old Emily Maynard knows well. Raised in an evangelical community in Portland, Oregon, "I grew up with the message that sex was not something that I had any ownership of; it was something that would be bad for me to even consider until I was married," she shares. She remembers the broad influence of the "True Love Waits" movement of the '90s, which galvanized the spread of abstinence-only education. Abstinence was the only option Maynard had ever known. While Maynard views the Christian emphasis on waiting for marriage as well-intentioned, as a child, she developed deep shame around her body and sexuality — especially after her family began attending a fundamentalist church when Maynard was 13 years old. "It was very difficult for me to form any sort of meaningful interaction with guys, because I was so scared of them,” she recalls. "I was told guys were animals and they were always thinking about sex — even the really good ones." From a young age, Maynard felt exhausted by the burden of remaining "modest" in her appearance and demeanor. Still, Maynard’s parents were more liberal than most in her community. She never underwent the traditional process of "courtship," in which a Christian man and woman in their late teens are matched and develop a chaste relationship meant to lead to marriage. She went off to college (she was one of the few young women in her circle to do so) and resolved to start dating: She was determined to recoup the experiences she felt she had missed. She found solace in connecting online with others who had been raised in similar traditions and were also challenging their teachings (she cites the No Shame Movement and Dianna E. Anderson as two of her favorite sources on faith and sexuality). Eventually, she began writing about her experiences on her blog, "Emily Is Speaking Up." Still, for years, nearly every sexual interaction Maynard had came with its own mental struggle: I can’t believe I slept over at that guy’s house! We didn’t have sex, so it’s fine, right? Did that somehow damage my worth?. "For a long time, I was having sexual experiences with partners that I was either in relationships with or just casually dating, but I wouldn’t have called it sex, because 'sex' in the Christian world, means intercourse," she says. "Now, I would say 'Oh yeah, I had sex,' but I didn’t at the time." Maynard is now married, and as for whether she had sex with her husband before their wedding, that’s a question she’ll never answer. "I’m always going to bounce that back and say, 'Well, what do you mean when you say sex?'... Christianity often frames sex as yes or no; you did or you didn’t." Kim, Moore, and Maynard — a queer ex-Christian, a born-again virgin, and a formerly fundamentalist but still-practicing Christian — have more in common than it might appear: Each has renegotiated her approach to sexuality alongside her relationship with faith. Moore's belief system, of course, extends beyond how she lives her life to how others do; it is attached to a prescription and an attitude toward the role of sex that many could see as limited or even bigoted. Kim and Maynard, meanwhile, fall more into the "Live and let live" camp: "How you live your life only matters to you," Kim comments. "You have every right to exist the way you are, and the people who truly love you will support you anyway." Maynard stresses the freedom she felt when she realized, "I get to be my own person. Nobody can take away my faith from me, the same way that nobody can take away my sexual autonomy, or my ability to choose if and when and who I date and how." It's this ability to choose that these three women share — an ability all women should possess, regardless of their religion or lack thereof.