Words by Natelegé Whaley.
If you grew up going to a Christian church, you’re likely familiar with purity culture, which teaches that a person should remain a virgin until God sends them a partner to marry. But for those who don’t find the love of their lives by 30, 40, or even 50, or realize they don’t want to marry at all, that means abstaining from sex a long time and maybe never having it.
Candice Benbow, writer and Black feminist theologian, knows this all too well and is here to challenge the notion that sex before marriage is sinful. Through social media, writing (she created the popular Beyoncé Lemonade syllabus) and a forthcoming book, the 37-year-old wants to give Black Christian women new guidelines on sex and love that removes the guilt from desiring pleasure. Instead, Benbow instills that intimacy is an essential part of one’s health and God wants you to have it.
Benbow learned she could be bold about her experiences while growing up in a “Black feminist Christian” house and witnessing her mom watch Juanita Bynum sermons and read authors Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara. She’s also deeply inspired by theologian Delores S. Williams’ book Sisters in the Wilderness. “It gave me a lens for how to articulate black women’s experiences,” she said.
ILY chatted with Benbow about being a Christian woman who openly speaks on the topic of sex, debunking myths around masturbation and “soul ties,” and making safe spaces outside the church to support Black spiritual women exploring their sexual identity and needs.
I’ve heard very few Christian leaders speak openly and positively about having sex before marriage. Why is it important for you to use social media to share these messages?
I call social media the black women’s pulpit. Routinely black women have been shut out of having room to share our faith experiences and our faith messages from the pulpit. We’re still trying to get equity there. There are women like me, whose faith ideology is much more progressive and left-leaning than the church itself and so the last people they would give a pulpit space to is often us.
We hear all of these messages about our bodies that aren’t necessarily loving and freeing. We hear it at church, in our families. We can even see some of it on social media. What does it mean for you to scroll through your timeline and see something else? That matters.
Last November, you wrote an essay on Madame Noire called “I’m A Single Christian Woman And I Like Sex.” That’s not something you read every day. What led you to be open enough to write this?
I’m always hearing from women who have conflicted notions around sex and their bodies. ‘You’ve got to wait until you’re married in order to have sex. You can’t have any kind of pleasure because that’s sinful.’ God is not this petty grandma or granddad that’s looking over your shoulder saying ‘Oh My God, she had sex so she can’t be in a lasting loving relationship.’
So many of us were trying to use not having sex as a bargaining chip with God. Like okay, ‘I haven’t had sex now send me a good man,’ and that’s not how life works. So many people who are married and have life partners, their relationships came together in a myriad of ways. That leaves room for us to challenge how we understand faith as it relates to our own sexual lives.
If we’re out here telling women ‘you need to go to the doctor, you need to walk every day, you need to drink water to be well,’ why are we not saying the same things about intimacy, relationships, and touch?
You also touched on the importance of intimacy in our lives.
I read medical studies that talked about the relationship between the lack of intimacy in one’s life and other physical, emotional, and health challenges. For me, that’s a health crisis. If we’re out here telling women ‘you need to go to the doctor, you need to walk every day, you need to drink water to be well,’ why are we not saying the same things about intimacy, relationships, and touch?
You began hearing these teachings while being raised in the Black Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. What was the first thing you learned about God, sex, and relationships?
That if you had sex outside of marriage and that if you got pregnant that that was a sin, and the children of parents who did not wait until they were married wouldn’t be here if their parents loved or obeyed God more. My mother and father weren’t married and my mother refused to stand in front of the congregation and repent for being pregnant with me.
I grew up with a mom who was very clear that I was a gift from God, that she always wanted me, and that I was beloved. But I spent years feeling deeply insecure about it and trying to overcome all of that and thinking somehow I was insufficient because my parents weren’t married.
I also [learned] anyone that was same-gender loving you couldn’t reference them in the same way that you would reference human beings. But I went to church with people who were clearly same-gender loving. They were family. At 9 and 10, I knew that your roommate was not your roommate. On funeral obituaries, we tried to find these creative ways to acknowledge them as a “special friend” or “adopted niece or nephew.” These mental gymnastics just perpetuated lies about sexuality.
You construct your divinity to be.
How does someone who has always been taught that “pre-marital sex is bad,” but wants to move past this ideology, decide when it is healthy to have sex or choose celibacy?
When you can make the decision from a healed space that empowers you, empowers your body, and your choices — whether it is celibacy or intimacy. When you can make that decision from a loving space.
I believe in intimacy, but there are seasons when I need to spend time with myself because I need time to think through other things. I have that right and that freedom. Part of that is having a relationship with yourself and God, the Divine — however, you construct your divinity to be.
There’s having sex with a partner, but there’s also self-pleasuring. Recently gospel singer Erica Campbell implied that masturbation is not part of living a “pure life,” which you responded to on Twitter.
It’s not anybody else’s business what other people do in their intimate life. That’s first. We have a lot of misconceptions that this act is impure and nasty. That knowing your own body and enjoying your own body is vile and disgusting.
But if I’m going to be intimate with somebody, then I should know what I enjoy and what makes me happy pleasurably. Me pleasuring myself has nothing to do with how I treat people in the world. There are people who are Christian who claim they don’t masturbate, but they are judgemental. Some are racist, classist, and homophobic.
Campbell also talked about soul ties. For those who don’t know what she’s talking about, could you explain?
There is a prevailing belief in faith communities that a soul tie is between you and that person that you have sex with and all the people they had sex with. Since you’re going to form a soul tie, you should only have sex with one person because if you have any sex with others who aren’t your spouse, you’re going to end up with ties to people who aren’t your husband.
Did you believe in soul ties at one time?
I recently found my book on soul ties and threw it out. I was somebody who believed in it until it started not to make sense. I once asked how do soul ties work in relation to people who are victims of sexual violence and assault? I got two different answers: One was that if you’re a victim of sexual assault, God will keep you from getting a soul tie. Then I asked another Bible study group and pastor and I got that a victim will get a soul tie.
So I thought, ‘God is kind enough to prevent me from getting a soul tie, but not kind enough to prevent me from experiencing rape and sexual violence?’ Who wants to serve a God like that? And then you’re telling me that a person who had no control over what happened to them would still have a soul tie and go through the trauma of sexual assault and violence? Who would want to serve a God like that? If these concepts about who God is don’t make sense for people in reality, then we have to go back to the drawing board and say something about it.
The church, as amazing as it is, will never be the seat of black women’s liberation.
What will it take for Christian leaders to teach about sex and relationships in the modern world and the future?
I used to be one of those people who said, ‘This is what the church needs to do…’ I walked away from expecting the church to hear women as it relates to this. It took me a while.
They know that you won’t ever question, ‘Why is it that all of the focus is on us and we’ve been spending years in these churches and haven’t really seen a mass emphasis on creating healthier men?’ The church, as amazing as it is, will never be the seat of black women’s liberation. And some of us have moved on and are doing work in different places.
Do you feel this movement has always existed or is it more visible today because of social media?
We’re standing on the shoulders [of] women who were doing this work before us and we have the ability to do it at a different level then they did and social media helps. I grew up being told that there are three things that you should never talk about publicly: sex, religion, and politics, and that’s all that I love to talk about. I think that’s one of the things that church and religious spaces wrestle with — that women like me aren’t going anywhere.