Let’s use the opportunity of #GivingTuesday to remember that it is more blessed to give than to receive – be it today or at any other time of the year.
Silvia Pérez is a sexologist and a Christian. In this interview, she responds to a few questions about a topic that continues to be taboo in many evangelical churches.
Silvia Pérez is a Christian. And a sexologist. And yes, these two things can go together. For a long time she has worked in Madrid (Spain), offering couples therapy, sexual education workshops and counselling from a healthy, fresh, and biblical perspective on sexuality.
I got in contact with her a few weeks back to talk about the similarties between romantic literature and pornography, but in the end we realized that we had so much to talk about that it would be much more interesting to share this interview/conversation as a dialogue, so that each person can freely take from all of the ideas and concepts that we discussed.
Question. First of all, I want to ask you a bit about yourself, how you got interested in this topic coming from a Christian background, and what your job entails.
Answer. I am a social educator, and through many different issues, jobs, and ministries… I began to see that the church only attends to couples’ conflicts on the topics of communication, coexistence, etc. and that it does so in a way that is rarely fair to both parties and is a bit sexist. For example: women are one way, men are another. On occasions, if you get out of this mentality, others can even condemn you. It is looked down upon… even the person being counselled can look down on themselves, because if they don’t fit in the “box” that everyone tells them they should fit in as a man or woman, they stop asking for help. On the other hand, if the couple finds a problem on a sexual level, that doesn’t have to do with communication or their relationship per say but in a lack of passion or with erectile dysfunction… they can’t find help. And it has happened that many Christians haven’t dared to seek professional help on the topic of sexuality from unbelievers because, logically, they don’t share their same vision. Because of this, it seemed necessary for me to train myself in this area.
On the other hand, having worked with youth and adolescents as well (and in my own experience as an adolescent), I realized that the topic of sexuality has always been very misunderstood in the church. The perspective is often this: Sex is equal to sin, thus it should be banned, and that’s that. This creates a lot of rejection and confusion for adolescents on the topic, instead of talking about it to them from a positive perspective, explaining it and giving options. Before prohibiting the topic, it is better to educate on it.
Q. That is a great perspective. Why in many churches is the topic of sexuality so delicate, with very little access to education about it, while outside of the church the topic is ever-present?
A. It is complex, above all because there is a brutal silence about it. I believe that in the church the topic is so rigidly controlled because of fear. It is an intimate area of life, so with both good and bad intentions, it is silenced as a means of control. It has also been an area that is often hidden, and because we live in this fallen world it has been corrupted, even though sex is one of the best things that God has created: it even gives life, to show just how important it is. God could have made us reproduce in any way; however, He chose sex. And because we live in this fallen world, marvellous things tend to get perverted. The same thing happens with music, which is another marvellous thing that at times is also used to destroy. And that leads us to the topic of reggaeton. (Laughs).
Q. You are absolutely right.
A. We also drag with us a tradition that understands the body to be something sinful, even though the Bible doesn’t say that. It is very hard to change that mindset quickly. Throughout the generations, this has been thought and understood. Little by little this is changing, but it is a process. Traditions are complicated to change.
Q. And outside the church?
A. Outside the church, the topic is so popular for several reasons. On one hand, because it is important to be cool. (Laughs) Sometimes people have sex just to be able to talk about it, to be able to have a part in what is hip and cool. On the other hand, it is because we are beings that want to be connected, and at times we don’t know how to handle ourselves with others in spiritual or emotional terms, so we link ourselves sexually to be able to feel a greater connection with another human being.
Q. One of the things that has most interested me was what I heard you say about the idea that sexuality hasn’t changed, even if we think it has. In other words, that the rules put in place by God don’t change even though we change our social concept. What is the biblical vision of sexuality?
A. God has made us to be sexual beings. Sexuality goes with us from the time we are born until we die. What the Worldwide Health Organization says is this: sexuality is a central aspect of being a human being. What happens is that we think that there is only sexuality once our hormones start kicking in, in adolescence and puberty, but that isn’t the case: little boys, girls and the elderly also have their sexuality. What happens is that it is different in each stage of life. It depends on how you are physically, how you relate with others, the stage you are in with other areas of life, etc. It is our way of relating to other human beings. One look, one touch can be part of your sexuality, and that is what makes us different from other animals, and this to me is marvellous. I believe that sexuality is so spiritual that it is like a spotlight that God has put in us to make us a special creation. Instead of seeing sexuality like this, we have crushed it, hiding and condemning it. We confuse sexuality with sex.
Q. This confusion often starts in adolescence, and the topic doesn’t get cleared up until marriage.
A. Actually, not even then. Even though it isn’t put this way, there continues to be a very rigid idea of sexuality in marriage: at night, mainly to have kids, and don’t make it too complicated because it isn’t that important. But then there is Song of Songs, that speaks of different ways of enjoying sexuality, and the message that God gives is to enjoy a healthy sexuality, inside of the parameters that He gives us. It isn’t to prohibit it, because it is good for us. And it highlights the fact that we are going to enjoy sexuality much more inside the covenant of marriage, because the level of commitment should be comparable to the level of intimacy. Marriage is the greatest level of commitment between two people, and the sexual relationship is the greatest level of intimacy. This greatest a very good balance: we are going to enjoy sex at more spiritual and emotional levels, and therefore greater levels.
Q. You say that sexuality is better when it is understood that it has been created within the parameters of marriage. When you lead workshops and you explain this to adolescents and young people, primarily Christians, do they understand?
A. Yes, and I love it. Because I don’t give them the typical workshop on dating, a topic which they know more about than I do. Rather I ask them questions so that they themselves end up seeing the sense in all of this. The Bible doesn’t explicitly say what you should and shouldn’t do, like people always ask you: “How far is too far? What is sin?”. I always tell them that the Bible talks about how to treat others, how to relate with one another, and that sex goes further than a crossing of bodies. It says that the body is good and that sexuality is made to be enjoyed, and that sexual relations are for marriage, as we earlier stated to balance the levels of intimacy and commitment. There is a time for everything. I ask them these types of questions: “In Bible times, when they had sexual relations, they got married. Why did they do this? What implications does this have?”. They end up understanding perfectly, because they understand that we have changed the focus from prohibition to comprehension.
I have had conversations with girls that have told me: “They have always told me that I have to be a virgin when I get married, but no one has told me why.” And I myself have lived this. I always have been a person that hasn’t always accepted impositions, the “this is this way because it is”; I wanted to know the arguments. I remember going to my youth leader at one point and asking him the question, “Why do I have to be a virgin when I get married? If I have a boyfriend that I love, what is the problem?”. Now I have a great relationship with him (laughs), and he is a great person, but at the time when I asked him that, he threw his hands over his head and told me that it was prohibited and that was that. He gave me no further explanations. At the moment that I asked him the question I didn’t have a boyfriend, but if I had had one, that answer wouldn’t have helped me at all. Later on, my husband and I did decide to stay virgins until we were married, but that was because we ended up understanding the reasons why. Today I find myself meeting a lot of boys and girls that say the same thing, that no one has ever explained anything to them.
Q. Many times it comes down to a simple problem of a lack of information.
A. Yes, human beings are discoverers by nature. We like to know things. If information doesn’t get to us in one manner, we will go to look for it in another. If adolescents get silence in the church, in their homes, and in their high schools (even though at times they do get information there, but it isn’t what we believe it to be), where will they get it from? From the Internet, from their classmates, and from sources that aren’t good. Churches should be blazing the trail with this topic, as sexuality is something so complex that it defines human beings, and we should be the ones explaining it.
Q. There are many people that have tried to try to understand it within the church.
A. Yes, and in fact the church has done a lot for the topic of sexual education. But I believe that it could be taken even deeper.
Q. I remember having read Christian books about this topic that said things like “you shouldn’t do anything in private with your boyfriend or girlfriend that you wouldn’t do in public.” The type of comments that provoke a bit of laughter and don’t make sense. But I know a lot of couples that had a sexual education class before getting married that ended up getting divorced, or, in other cases, having marriages full of problems. Do you believe that has anything to do with no having understood this biblical concept of sexuality?
A. Keep in mind that the message that has traditionally been received from the church is like a line of separation: here is the dating relationship, here is marriage. In the dating relationship, you can’t do anything; when you get married, you can do everything. So, you short-circuit. It’s normal. I have a lot of couples with problems of sexual desire that, precisely, are because of that. They constantly cut themselves short, reprimanding themselves all their lives until they are married. I’m not saying that you should have sex before marriage, don’t misunderstand me, but rather that there needs to be a general education from the time you begin. It is a process. And then, the night of the wedding, the same applies: it seems to be the most important thing, but then at times, you pin yourself to a wall. Because you are coming from a place of prohibition and self-consciousness, and we are not robots. You don’t have to give everything the night of your wedding, you can go calmly, because you have the rest of your lives to try things. There is also the topic of inhibitions. All of this has a lot to do with self-esteem, loving the other person as yourself, and in this way you won’t confuse sex with love, and won’t receive sex in the place of love either.
Q. The topics of love and sex are so separated in many marriages, even amongst Christians, that the topic gets confused to the point that is makes them doubt the relationship if there is a change in their feelings or sexual desires. If one person in the couple starts to feel attracted to another person, he or she comes to the conclusion that it is a reason to end the marriage.
A. Yes, sexual attraction can be worked on, and it should be. The problem is when there is an ugly dichotomy: on one hand we condemn everything that has to do with sex, and then later we are surprised when there is adultery. It isn’t about justifying it, but it is just that if you don’t nourish all of the areas of your relationship with your partner, the equation isn’t going to balance out. You have to look at Song of Songs, which talks about eroticism with an unusual freedom for the very demure time period in which it was written.
Q. Do you believe that some have at times used arguments that are supposedly “biblical” to suppress healthy sexuality?
A. I have heard many arguments of all kinds, arguments taken totally out of context. The Bible says that God’s will is pleasing and perfect, and so I think marriage should be a place to be safe, a place of refuge. God put in place the covenant of marriage because this life is very hard in many aspects; the person that is sharing life with you shouldn’t be an additional burden, but should be a support for you in the battle. There are people that give sermons titled “Marriage is very hard,” but to me, marriage doesn’t seem hard: life seems hard. Paying the bills is hard, unemployment, etc. But marriage, the person that I have at my side… that is what helps me to keep going. If that wasn’t the case, it wouldn’t make sense. That vision doesn’t coincide with God’s character that we see in the Scriptures; getting married wouldn’t make any sense if marriage wasn’t good. There are many couples that stay married because they feel that their covenant of marriage shouldn’t be broken unless someone is unfaithful or something along those lines, and they stay married and suffering. And that, in my opinion, also is sin, because you are not trying to treat the situation as well as God wants you to. I’m not talking about divorce, I’m talking about everything that you could fix, and to do that there are many resources. The Bible doesn’t put everything as clearly as we would like it to because it is a Book of principles, not methods. If we are talking about how God is love, and through the Bible we understand that marriage reflects a bit of God’s character, how are we going to conform with a marriage in which we are suffering? It doesn’t make sense. Because of that I am doing this, to help couples like that.
Q. From this point of view it is much easier to understand a text like 1 Corinthians 6:18, that is so often misinterpreted.
A. This is a very interesting verse. Paul, when he talks about the body, talks about it as a holy place; you can see how you can also live spiritually through your sexuality. In that period of time the body was understood as something sinful, something ugly, bad, negative. Nonetheless, God is saying through Paul how important our physical body is. But in every sense, including nutrition and health. Our body is not bad, it is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and that is very powerful (Laughs). Having sexual relations with another person that you aren’t supposed to be with is to disrespect something so marvellous. To understand this greatly changes the way you relate to others and to yourself.
Q. I understand that God tells us that we should have good thoughts, to treat others well, to have good habits, etc. Because of that I am totally opposed to pornography, because behind it there are people suffering. That’s why the topic of Christian porn surprises me so much.
A. Yes, that is terrible, that should be a joke (Laughs).
Q. I saw a Facebook page a while ago that started talking about barbarities such as that… and effectively it was a joke. It was a satire, and it wasn’t true, luckily!
A. I know that the concept exists, and that there are people that defend it.
When I searched in Google, I saw it written just like that… and at times it’s as if we take it all like it were just a joke… it said that it was what a married couple could do, so that they wouldn’t sin, and so it was treated as if it were normal. I couldn’t believe it.
Q. However much you try to justify that, and however Christian it may be, how can you look that couple in the face every Sunday?
It’s that you are putting more people in your marriage. It doesn’t matter to me if you do it loving each other or not, it doesn’t make sense. With the incredible imagination that we have, what need is there for us to see explicit images?
Q. I understand that instead of trying to confront the problem of an addiction to pornography, we try to cover it up. Are there many Christians that are addicted to pornography?
A. Yes, a very high percentage. I don’t even want to tell you the number. I collaborate with a Christian webpage where you can ask anything, spiritual or whatever. They have given me the sexuality section, and people ask for prayer, help with a certain topic, things like that. The grand majority is very divided about the topics of homosexuality in the church and addiction to pornography. The double moral code is ridiculous in the way that it condemns everything but talks about nothing. There are many people that are addicted to porn, and something is being handled poorly. In part I believe it is because people make a big deal of it in their minds and don't stop thinking about it. Sometimes guys tell me that they are walking down the street, see a pretty girl, and feel guilty because they believe that just by looking at her they have sinned. They started playing their own “movie” in their heads. I tell them that if a pretty girl passes by them to say: “Very good, Lord, thank you very much for your wonders,” and to keep walking. And that’s it. No big deal. But at times they make such a big deal out of it that the cycle keeps repeating itself. To prevent this in other generations, we have to look at it in another way. For example, by teaching young boys to look at women with eyes of respect, they will start to see porn in a different way. When I explain to them what is behind pornography they are surprised.
Q. It is what we talked about before, that there isn’t any healthy information. The information that you do receive is from the industry that tries to convince you that it’s okay, that it is just another product on the market.
A. You see, they sell it to you as if it is the most marvellous thing, that being a porn star is the most marvellous thing in life. But in reality what is behind it is mistreatment, drugs, minors, real rape… There are testimonies about every one of those things… And you are helping all of that continue each time that you click on the website. I’m not saying this to condemn, but rather to have critical minds. If you just prohibit it without explaining it further, it does nothing. It falls on deaf ears.
Q. Are there women addicted to pornography?
A. Yes, yes there are. There are less because of an educational matter. Sexuality has always been treated as a topic just for men, and in the case of porn, its “positive” side is that women in general are not attracted to it. The negative part is that later there are many more women than men that struggle with a lack of sexual desire. Women, throughout many generations, have always been told to guard themselves and to be demure. Men have been encouraged and cheered on sexually since childhood. Typical commentary for boys when you have one is, “he’s going to get so many girls,” and when you have a girl “her father already has his shotgun loaded.” The connotations are that boys are more sexual than girls, when that is totally just an issue of education.
Q. With respect to that, is there literature that is both erotic and romantic?
A. Have you read Twilight?
Q. No, the truth is I haven’t.
A. I only read the first book so that I didn’t lose a friendship, and in the end it helped me understand this topic, because it is erotic adolescent literature. You spend the entire book saying: “But girl, kiss him already!” (Laughs). It is such a subtle thing… so idealized… This sexism doesn’t sit well with women nor with men. A lot of people come to therapy with problems of erectile dysfunction. People have always told them that men are always in the mood; they can’t have one bad day or a headache. They are always thinking about sex, and if there isn’t an erection there isn’t a sexual relationship. These are messages that don’t allow you to confront any problem. And for women, if this happens, begins to guilt themselves and think that it is their fault, that something is wrong with them… What are we talking about, have we gotten off topic?
Q. (Laughs) Yes… I wanted to ask you about romantic movies, if their portrayal of relationships portrays sex in a certain way that is as distorted as pornography.
A. Totally. Porn is the wrong idea of a sexual relationship and romantic movies are the wrong idea of a sentimental relationship. Just like that. You are implying very rigid gender stereotypes; men are tall, handsome, and strong and with a bit of wickedness. Look at Mario Casas en “Three Meters Above the Sky”, that protagonist from Twilight that sneaks into the girl’s bedroom to watch her sleep without any type of permission. She tells him a thousand times to laeve, but he doesn’t. We say that it’s just a vampire, but later we copy those same things. What I am saying is that it can lead to mistreatment… they don’t call it “abuse,” but it leads to a bit of domination, i.e. controlling Facebook, WhatsApp; when you talk with adolescents you see this and it hurts your soul. Spiderman, for example, is a nerd until he is bitten by a spider, and through that bite he becomes a bit of “bad guy,” then he becomes strong and cool, and that makes the girls notice him, but not until then. The girls are all tall, beautiful, skinny, amazing, and eat donuts without it ever affecting them (laughs) and they need a boy in their lives. I.e., they sell you the false idea that everyone needs someone in their life or if not, we are not complete. This comes from Disney movies. Sleeping Beauty gets married at 16 years old to a guy that she has only seen once in her life, and Belle, in Beauty and the Beast, falls in love with her kidnapper. You could analyze the Disney classics and you would see the same pattern. Now it seems that this is changing a bit [in movies like Brave or Frozen, where there isn’t a single Prince Charming]. They always sell us the idea of having to have a man save you, rescue you. It’s like a friend of mine says: “To me the only man that has saved me is Jesus, so cut the crap” (Laughs). They always show idealized relationships, without the boring afternoons or awkward silences. And with respect to sexuality they show absolute complicity from the first minute.
Q. Yes, in romantic novels this happens a lot also.
A. It is an incredible thing, they end up in the bed with simultaneous orgasms, without any type of protection, but never any consequences.
Q. It’s true! They never remember protection, in spite of how much they talked to us about the topic in adolescence. Have they forgetten that much?
A. Because they sell you the idea that love is something so perfect, so marvellous, that nothing bad is ever going to happen to you, that there won’t sexually transmitted diseases or unplanned pregnancies, because love makes sure that everything is stupendous. If we let ourselves fall for this, to the guys they sell the idea of girls with impossible body types, at least on average in reality, and put less (if any) importance on whether or not the girls are intelligent or not. Girls end up believing that if their boy doesn’t shut down a two-story jewellery store to let them choose the ring of their choice it means that he doesn’t love them. They also believe many other ideas, like “If he loved me, he’d know what I like, I don’t have to tell him,” when neither he nor she is a psychic, and shouldn’t have to be one either. Or “Love doesn’t require effort, because it is perfect.” And I tell them: “Love is perfect, but people aren’t.” We need to work on our relationships, and that doesn’t get rid of romanticism, nor passion, nor anything else. That work gives it the fertilizer, the vitamins to make it flourish. They also believe that love is unalterable, that it doesn’t change, that just as I love you today I will love you tomorrow. In fact, many people think that it is very romantic to meet someone and get married.
Q. Do you believe it has come to be believed and taught, both inside and outside of the church, the vision portrayed by tales of princesses that marriage is the culmination of love, a kind of end point?
A. Yes, it is clearly understood that way. And what’s more, it has come to be understood that everyone wants to get married. That is also said a lot inside of the church and it is almost a heresy, because the Bible says that we are complete in Christ. That platonic idea that we have of finding our soul mate, that there is a person that God has reserved for you and that is waiting for you to appear, that is also believed. We have to be complete “mates” in Christ and to look for someone else who is also complete, and that is how we are going to be happiest. I am not going to complete anyone, I am just made to complement and make someone else’s life happier. That is biblical.
To adolescents and to youth, it is often said “Oh, when you get married…”, as if it were a fact. And because of that there are many frustrations, many rushed marriages, in which we still don’t know our own selves and yet are already living with another person. Be careful with that. The message that we have to give is that each person should be complete in Christ and should look for someone else who is the same way. Your cake should be God, and your partner should be the cherry on top. If not, we fall into idolatry.
Also, with respect to that ideal partner, something that is often said outside the church, but also inside it, at least it was until a bit ago and there wasn’t much of an effort to debunk it, was that you and your partner should be sexually compatible to be able to maintain the relationship. In the movies, in series, in TV programs… no one doubts this idea, most of the time inadvertently so. But in the end, how do you suppose that you are going to find your partner sexually compatible if you stay a virgin until you are married?
Sexual relations are something that you learn with the other person, and what’s more, that’s the idea. It is not about if there is or there isn’t a connection, because for that reason couples therapy exists, and because of that they function, because it sexual compatibility be learned. When you fit with another person on all levels of the relationship, emotionally, intellectually (which is very important), sexuality feeds from all of those parameters to function. At times it is simply a question of technique, of ignorance. Everything can be learned when we are in a safe environment, and marriage is one of the safest of all. People exaggerate a lot, and that is something that I am discovering through the passing of years. People sell the idea for more than it is worth, and then later don’t have relationships as extraordinary and marvellous because the reality is that it is difficult to have extraordinary relationships with people you don’t truly know. It isn’t because of any other reason.
Q. I was going to ask you, to finish, for a book or material that you could recommend to those who are curious or those who want to learn more about the topic of sexuality from a healthy viewpoint… But from what I know, it is difficult to find a good Christian book about the topic.
A. Yes, I would recommend the book Sex God by Rob Bell, although there is a lot of controversy about the pastor and it could be that it isn’t the most recommendable. But it is one of the few books that focuses the topic of sexuality in its entirety, and not just how it should or shouldn’t be done, and how men are this way, and women another, you know. But later don’t put this in the interview because people won’t invite me to speak anywhere…
Q. (Laughs) No, woman…
A. Yes, and a bit more about what I like about couples therapy is that you truly see lives and marriages restored, people that are freed from things that they didn’t dare tell to anyone, and you see God using it to help people. This is an area of life that is private, and that’s okay, but we are here to help each other and to carry one another’s burdens. I hope that all of this can be a tool for healing.
Silvia Pérez regularly participates in the program ”Buenas Noticias” (“Good News”) on the Spanish Public Television.