When I was 11 or 12, my father asked me to promise that whomever I married would be a Christian. We had just come home from an Easter service in which the pastor referred to the Biblical characterization of the church as “the bride of Christ.” My father was very solemn, and my oath seemed very important to him, so I promised.
I did not remember this promise until the summer before freshman year, when he reminded me of it during a fight over my first real boyfriend. When my father asked me point-blank whether my boyfriend went to church, I couldn’t lie. I avoided saying he was an atheist, choosing the more palatable term agnostic. It didn’t matter. My father stopped speaking to me.
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To him, dating a non-Christian meant that I was having sex, having sex meant that I was sinning and sinning meant that I was going to hell. He did not say goodbye to me when I left for Yale, instead choosing an especially modern form of rebuttal: He sent me countless e-mails with “Purity” in the subject line. I opened one, saw a list of reasons why I needed to repent and deleted the rest. I began freshman year alienated from my religious past and confused about my romantic future. From my first moments at Yale, sex and religion have been deeply connected — placed in conflict, questioned, sometimes reconciled.
Most Yale students (fortunately) do not and will not experience such a direct conflict between sex and religion. Indeed, 71 percent of the respondents to the recent News “Sex at Yale” poll indicated that religion did not guide their sexual behavior at all, while only 10 percent of the students who responded said that religious views influence sexual behavior a lot. But it’s unlikely that most students fall into such a neat dichotomy. Many students might be more like my suitemate, who exclaimed “Oh no, why are they making me think about this?” when she reached that question in the poll. I asked her why she was so dismayed; she answered, “I never know what to think about God and sex. I can’t answer this!” For her and others, the role of religion — in relationships and in life — is confusing and complicated. While it may not affect day-to-day choices about hooking up, religion often colors our evaluations of our choices. And at least some students think that the relationship between religious belief and sexuality is worth exploring. The popularity of Kathryn Lofton’s “Sexuality and Religion” class last semester might indicate that if you put Sex or Sexuality in the title of a class, people will come (see also “History of Sexuality” and “Sex and Gender in Society”), but it also speaks to a widespread curiosity about how sex and religion can be understood, or how sexual desires and religious restrictions can be reconciled — if they can.
Easter weekends, including this one, always remind me of my father, with whom I still do not speak. For him, the only good way to reconcile sex and his particular brand of Christianity is abstinence — from sex, from relationships with non-Christians, from all the messy gray areas of the world. This may be true. Some students may reach this conclusion after personal investigation and choose this way of making faith and sexuality align. Many students, however, feel forced to abandon faith in favor of a non-religious life that includes more.
For me, reconciliation has come in pieces. Over the past few years, I have found that my religious beliefs offer conceptions of relationships and intimacy that are both simple and valuable. These might be basic, but they have a comforting certainty about them: Relationships require patience and generosity. Sex should be something given to another person and received in kind, never taken or taken for granted.
So far at Yale, I have hung on to my faith. I have also continued to date outside my religion — Muslim, Jewish, atheist. When I responded to the News’ poll, I checked “a lot” and then “a little” and then, wavering, “not at all” before I went back to “a lot.” Like my suitemate, I don’t know where to place myself. But the difference between our indecision was that I want to think about religion. I just don’t have all the answers.
Elisa Gonzalez is a junior in Pierson College.