A Rose Every Friday

“Our society is filled with people for whom the sexual relationship is one where body meets body but where person fails to meet person… The result is that [relationships] lead not to fulfillment but to a half-conscious sense of incompleteness, of inner loneliness, which is so much the sickness of our time”. Frederick Buechner

Carol gathers her clothes off the floor, tiptoeing silently around the bedroom in the early dawn, hoping not to wake this man. Snoring in quiet, even rhythm, it will be hours before he gets up. When he can, he likes to sleep until noon, and she has a ton of stuff to do today. Besides, it’s easier to slip back into her place before her roommates awaken — fewer raised eyebrows and sly smiles to contend with that way.

Driving back to her apartment, Carol muses over how their relationship began. Who ever would have thought that cochairing a political committee would lead to this? They began as good friends, challenging each other’s opinions with an occasional lighthearted jab. But one thing led to another, and after a few months, she began to stay over at his place. It made for less hassle. How or when or where the relationship turned sexual, she isn’t sure. She just knows that she is starting to have feelings for this guy, and that this could be a problem.

There are no guarantees in relationships now. How many times have her friends drilled that into her? “You just have to go with the flow” is the mantra she hears. “Don’t say much; don’t ask for anything. Just play it cool and see where the relationship goes.”

The problem is that Carol has already done this twice before.

Something cataclysmic is happening in the sexual lives of women today. A breathtaking amount of change in the way men and women relate to each other has taken place in one short generation. The great mating dance that was repeated for centuries has been shortened dramatically. A man and a woman fall into bed now with no promises made and no expectations to which they can hold each other. Love and romance take a backseat to the more immediate pleasures of sex, which, in its many forms, can be experienced with no immediately apparent effect on the invisible world of soul and spirit. I doubt that even Aldous Huxley would recognize the brave new sexual world we inhabit.

As a counselor invited into the inner sanctum of one woman’s life after another, I have the privilege of entering women’s lives and hearing their stories. It is a unique perch from which to observe the monumental changes taking place. Women from every background — in college and in emerging careers — talk about the challenges they face in a world where the vintage road maps between men and women seem as though they were drawn in fading ink.

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In many ways, of course, regardless of age or background, we all are telling the same story — of losses that are difficult to absorb, fears that keep us awake at night, and dreams that have been incubating in us since we were quite small. But a new common denominator exists now — in the lives of younger women especially — a different narrative thread repeated in endless variation. Women’s lives are being shaped by a culture with a sexuality gone mad. Women are paying a tremendous price for the loosening of sexual boundaries — in broken hearts, in lost time, in confused sense of self. Perhaps these voices are recognizable:

Shannon is desperate for something that will curb the panic attacks that descend on her unannounced. Her job as a news reporter is being threatened by these sweaty emotional monsters. Shannon has just broken up with a man named Ben — a great guy she met last year in college and followed to the city, where they both landed their first jobs. She feels bad about beginning to sleep with Ben a few years ago. It violated her convictions as a Christian, but she developed her own way of justifying their sexual relationship. At least it was better than so many women around her. This was no one-night fling — she and Ben were planning a future together.

Two things caught Shannon by surprise. She hadn’t anticipated that her growing attachment to Ben would be met with a reaction of his own — she was slowly caricatured as this woman “with too much of a hold on him.” The more attached she became, the more detached he got — until she finally wanted out altogether. And Shannon had no idea that leaving Ben after this investment of herself would feel like a miniature divorce.

Donna says she has always been sexually curious. Movies she saw in middle school, stories of her older siblings’ late-night capers, and easy access to soft porn left her primed for her own sexual adventures. When a boy showed interest in her, it was she who upped the ante, moving things to the next level of sexual intimacy. By the time she left high school, she had been with a good number of guys.

Now, in her second year of college, Donna finally has begun to wonder where her sexual activity is headed. What is the point? she asks. Why does she feel numb inside — as though her body is disconnected from the rest of her? Donna watches other couples and wonders if she will ever know what it feels like to have a man love her — just for her. A vague sense of regret and loss she cannot name follows her around. She longs to retrace her steps and find the innocence of soul she once knew.

Emily’s introduction to her own sexuality came from the most injurious of all possible routes. Her favorite brother used to slip into her room at night, just as she was turning twelve, where he held her in his arms and fondled her changing body. The bittersweet experience of hating yourself while you enjoyed intimacy never meant to be was profoundly ingrained in Emily’s psyche. Being dateraped in high school just seemed like one more act in a bad play. With the sexual walls in her life broken down, Emily accepted the terms of the inevitable: a relationship with a man comes with a sexual price tag.

From Sex and the Soul of a Woman, Copyright © 2004 by Paula Rinehart and published by Zondervan. Used with permission.

Paula Rinehart is the author of Choices and Strong Women, Soft Hearts. As a professional Christian counselor, she divides her time between counseling, writing and speaking to women’s groups nationally and internationally. She and her husband, Stacy, have two grown children and live in Raleigh, North Carolina.