• Ava Hoffman

A Recovering Sex Ethic

CW: church trauma, spiritual abuse, sex TW: sexual assault

This is my recovery story. It’s far from complete – I am a work in progress. I’m not an expert or an authority – I’m just a girl with a story, and a God who says it matters. It’s the messy and bumpy story of a bruised and scarred girl who didn’t understand God’s beautiful design.

Definitions are helpful, so here’s our foundation. Sexual Ethic: a combination of moral and ethical considerations relating to human sexuality. Biblical Sexual Ethic: the above as defined by God and His Word, the Bible.

Here’s what this means. Sexual ethics is an umbrella term for all things relating to human sexuality. It includes attitudes and values related to gender identification, sexual orientation, consent, homosexuality, pornography, masturbation, premarital sex, marriage, singleness, adultery, lust, extramarital sex, divorce, prostitution, gender roles, masculinity, femininity, and so much more.

Friends, it’s a HUGE topic. I’m overwhelmed, too!

My Foundation

My first memory of being taught sex ethics was in junior high school. My youth pastor cut out a heart from pink construction paper and passed it around the room, instructing us to tear a piece from it or crumple it when we touched it. He told us that when we had sex outside of marriage, that’s what happened to our souls. It made us less desirable – we weren’t going to be pretty for our future spouse.

In high school, I proudly wore a purity ring, determined to not have sex until I was married. I believed it was my job, as a girl, to protect boys from sexual temptation. I changed how I walked so my hips swayed less. I arrogantly refused to date because I wasn’t ready to get married. My high school ex-boyfriend (bless his heart) persuaded me with persistence. I broke up with him when I found out he watched pornography.

My college ministry taught me to view all men as a potential spouse and gave me a checklist to compare them to. I was coached to idolize marriage. They encouraged men to be providers and women to be good helpers. I was held responsible for my assault, asked what I did to encourage it. We didn’t really talk about pornography, and on the rare occasion we did, it was for men. Dating was for marriage and was best done in groups of friends. Don’t have sex outside of marriage. If we were struggling sexually, it wasn’t something we should talk about, especially if we were a student leader.

For 22 years of my life, this was my sex ethic.

Sex is bad and sinful. It is meant for marriage. Date only when ready for that commitment. Sexual purity refers to anatomical intercourse only. My duty as a gatekeeper for men is to be modest. My anatomy and my skin need to be hidden to protect men. I am responsible for any abuse or assault I experience. Virginity is the best gift for my future husband. Lust exists because of singleness. Singleness is punishment for being impure. Good men don’t struggle with pornography. Divorce is evidence of failure. Sexual sin, thoughts, and struggles are to be kept secret and never discussed. There are two genders – male and female. Christianity and homosexuality do not co-exist. Women are responsible for protecting men’s sexual purity. Men do not have to be accountable for anything except being a “spiritual leader.” Sexuality is sinful, especially as a woman. Men like sex; women do not. Wives are best suited for housework, being a wallflower, and raising kids. I should support the decisions of my future husband and follow his lead without question. As a Christian girl, I need to be married. Marriage is the goal and purpose of my life. If I have sex before I’m married, I will be disqualified from Godly marriage. Women are to be helpers inside marriage, and a Godly marriage doesn’t consider divorce. Married sex is going to be GREAT. As a wife, it is my job to ensure my husband is sexually satisfied. Marriage is the solution to lust, and consent does not apply in marriage – the ring on my finger is continual consent. My worth is defined by my virginity, and every man could be the elusive “one.” Having a checklist to compare potential significant others to is vital. Those working in the sex industry are beyond redemption. Survivors of abuse and assault played a part in their trauma and should be held accountable for their sins. In order to be treated with respect by men, I must make sure they know I am precious.

For 22 years, that was how I viewed sex. This was the foundation for how I saw myself and how I treated other people. I fell in love and got married believing these things. I viewed them as truth – infallible and righteous. I viewed myself as less than while trying to be equal. I worked hard and strove to earn love, but it was never enough. I was not enough. There was an emptiness, and even I did not know it’s depth.

Friend, I want to pause here. I need you to know you’re in good company. It is okay if you have had the same or similar thoughts, feelings, and beliefs! Let me extend an invitation here. If any of this stirs deep in your soul, will you join me? If something here resonates with you, would you consider unlearning with me? If you recognize any of these beliefs in your own life, will you commit to sex ethic rehab, too?

The Desolation

Four months into marriage, and my foundation that was touted as solid, Biblical, and trustworthy cracked. Split wiiide open. The dark murky waters began rushing in and quickly crushed me.

I was sick. I was lonely. I was isolated, and I was absolutely despondent. I was holding myself to expectations I was unable to meet. I was comparing myself to standards that have no business being normalized. I couldn’t be the “good wife” I believed I had a duty to be.

The consequences were utterly devastating.

I saw myself as a failure. I looked in the mirror and saw an unattractive, overweight disappointment. This thing called marriage had utterly defeated me. It broke me and left me in ruins. I remember not knowing how I could do this for the next 50 years. It was wretched. This was not what I had been promised marriage would be.

I spent so much mental and emotional energy trying to convince my new husband and family that I was precious and valuable. I was continually trying to prove that I was deserving of love and respect. It was exhausting. And I couldn’t do it…I gave in.

I accepted false definitions of my character and wrongly labeled myself. I lowered my head and let words like “opinionated, arrogant, over-sensitive, [and] critical” form my self-view. I decided it was easier to let others define me as “selfish, dogmatic, self-righteous, and manipulative.” I had nothing left to fight with.

I struggled to express my desire for intimacy, partially due to mistrust and partially because I believed sex was not for me. I believed it was wrong for me to desire my husband, sinful for me to long for his touch. I thought marriage was my purpose, and now that I was married…what was my purpose? Was this all I was meant for? Did my identity really change when my last name did?

I was so lost, friends. As my physical self ached and hurt, my mind swirled and my heart broke. My soul became a desert. There was no life. Each time I said something or did something that “good wives” shouldn’t do, the barren wasteland spread. Every time I felt compelled to share a challenging thought. Every time I questioned TR’s decisions. Every time I insisted on being a part of conversation involving a scheduling or life decision.

And my sex life…it was miserable. I usually walked away hurting and endured uncomfortable days following. I didn’t know how to offer myself sexually to my husband while being modest; I felt like I was tempting him sexually, and that was wrong. Modesty in engagement didn’t prevent pornography use; modesty in marriage didn’t exist.

I was at TR’s beck and call. It emotionally and physically hurt. The longing to look for sexual satisfaction outside of God’s design continued to be a struggle for TR. We thought marriage would remove lust, and it did not. I wrestled with his struggle, wondering why I wasn’t good enough. Was I not pretty enough? How could I satisfy him into faithfulness? I was wracked with guilt.

I was ridiculed and objectified by the man who promised to love and cherish me. My personhood as defined by Jesus was dishonored as I was expected to absorb all the pent-up sexual desire of my husband. I didn’t feel like I could refuse him when I felt well. I saw my illness’s impact on our sex life as my deficiency, and I believed I was responsible for the distance between us.

Parts of my sexual assault and church trauma began resurfacing, and my all-encompassing struggle intensified. Despite growing up in church and being “churched” in college, no one had ever talked about those of us whose virginity was stolen, whose innocence was disregarded and taken advantage of.

I think my soul fractured completely then. It was desolate. Empty. I was a shell. Chained to the false sexpectations of the Church and bound by the damaging misuse of spiritual authority. I was dying inside, shriveled into a me I was never supposed to be.

I kept wondering where God was. I didn’t understand how He fit into this ugly mess. Was this really how God intended for sex to look? For me to look? Was this really the picture of marriage the Bible depicted?

Desperately, I began to search. The Bible speaks of water that quenches thirst eternally. I needed that. Oh, I wanted that. My soul needed to be drenched in the life-giving blood and grace promised in the pages of the Book I clutched.

My weak and futile cry wailing from the depths of my being was all the invitation God needed.

Refining + Redefining

I was browsing a Barnes & Noble when a title was thrust under my eye…it had “sex,” “Jesus,” and “church” written in bold letters on its spine. On the cover, in an audacious, awe-inspiring, all-caps font was written:


I bought it immediately.

Friends, I wish I could share every word and phrase that revealed God’s heart to me. I wish I could sit with you and explain how the inspired humility of Mo Isom showed me that flinging my shame into the depths of hell was possible. I long for the same enveloping compassion I felt amidst her story to touch your life. All I can do is share the bits and add a few of my own.

The bits that rocked my world and reshaped my worldview. The collection of words that allowed me to see a broken self-perception in need of repair and the thought process that reawakened my soul to His vision of me and for me. I’m going to share the patchwork of verbiage that showed a testimony of wreckage redeemed, and I want you to know this: learning what God has to say about all things sex-related has been like finding the blueprint for myself and the game plan for a Godly marriage.

It started with learning about actual sex. The holy and sacrificial kind. An act of worship designed by God to unite a husband and wife under a covenantal commitment. It started with understanding that sex carries the baggage of two human beings, and there is power in tangling souls before the Creator of it all. It’s comfort-bringing, fear-dispelling, and soul-sanctifying. It’s learning that God-pleasing sex is worth waiting for and celebrating, worth reserving for His designated design. True sex is an all-inclusive physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual surrender, and friends, I didn’t know anything about that kind of sex.

With each page, guided by Mo’s words, God revealed my soul fractured piece after broken scrap after damaged part. I was confronted with my longing for purpose, my strivings for identity, and my self-exploitation in hopes for a label to define me. I realized I was missing, overlooking, and dismissing how God Himself saw me, described me, and loved me. I dove into this book determined to find answers and fix both myself and my new marriage.

Instead, I found a God who longs for me to abide in His definitions. A Creator determined to identify me as His, and the One who will fight to the death for me to live as He designed.

He stared right at my sexual raggedness, impurity, and desecrated body. He touched my scars, raked up my smut, and bagged my sewage. He sat down next to me in the muck, in my foulness and in my garbage. And then He picked me up, pressed me to His heart, and called me His.

I began to realize the importance of understanding the root of my struggles. Treating the symptoms was not working…my parched soul, visibly crumbling, was proof. Page by page, it became clear. I had no idea who I was. I was in a full-blown, to the core of my being, identity crisis.

I had long believed heart education leads to heart transformation. Mo expounded my theory by linking education to revelation, and when God’s definitions become truth, revelation becomes transformation. Each link cannot help but give rise to the next.

I learned that I do not believe in what my Savior longs for my life. He powerfully and decisively utilizes us – me – for eternity-shifting purposes. I needed to believe that. I continued to encounter truths about my worth, value, identity, voice, and security, though I still struggled to trust them. Despite feeling wildly inadequate, God continued to equip me with strength, focus, wisdom, and clarity.

I began to embrace that I am responsible for reflecting God’s truth, love, and light; authorized to display His instructions and design. I didn’t know what that looked like. I began to see my temptation to define my own identity, and I began to notice that it only led to my degradation. My proclivity to label myself brought nothing but guilt. I wasn’t sure what to do with this information. I learned that my sexual identity and my worth as a created child of God are unified and intertwined. Unwinding these two truths had resulted in the soul-cracking, life-compromising desolation I found myself inhabiting.

I found myself at a seminar hosted by my church entitled "Gender Redemption." We covered everything from being gendered creations, gender dysphoria, gender roles, authority and autonomy, unmet needs, relational hurt, sexuality preferences, misogyny (hatred of women), misandry (hatred of men), marital gender roles, submission, and more.

In six hours, I learned more about myself, my Creator, my purpose, my gifts, and my womanhood than the previous 23 years combined.

God showed up boldly, radically, and abruptly. He came crashing into my darkness, pain, circumstances, and insecurities, colliding with my guilt and flinging anything He deemed “unfit” back into the pit. He came into my shame, my questions, and my suffering. He found me in that room, and He wrecked me. I left this seminar more Biblically literate in sex ethics and with a deep hunger for more.

I had read that God’s first instruction to humanity involved identity, sex, and a commissioning of purpose, and I wanted an understanding of this written on my heart. How was sex related to my identity and what did that have to do with my purpose? I learned that I was sexual before I was sinful; sexual desires are deep, instructed, and placed in my being by the hand of God. I began to see my sex ethic for what it was, and I was tired of my sexual decision-making being rooted in manmade righteousness and rule-following. I longed for the freedom of a God-designed unshakable foundation.

As God called me to harder and deeper holy work, I realized He was inviting me into my own healing. He yearned for me to participate in my own sanctification. He was not content leaving me ill-equipped, ill-armored, and ill-willed. I had not been prepared or fortified to stand toe-to-toe with the enemy in this specific realm, and He was going to change that.

I was ready to declare war on my sin. Sitting in the rubble of my issues was not an option. I was no longer content allowing my marriage to stew with bitterness, miscommunication, and misunderstanding. Forcing it to feel like enough, insisting that everything was okay…I was bone-weary.

I was sick and tired of feeling defeated.

TR + I enrolled in a class, dedicating the Fall 2021 semester to healing and finding God’s glory in the sexual and relational messes we are. We were determined to settle the past, restore the present, and rejuvenate the future. We knew that our childhood experiences, ingrained coping mechanisms, and messages we interpreted as children were formative to how we operate as adults. We needed help examining those histories wisely, gleaning helpful information without calling up unnecessary memories and hurt.

We needed assistance learning how to place responsibility justly, take accountability personally, and forgive those who treat us poorly. Our sex life needed to be resuscitated, our marriage rescued. We knew that our sex ethics – born out of our own heart conditions – were partly at fault, and we were at a loss of how to permanently fix it.

It was a long process…unlearning unhealthy habits and building a new foundation is arduous. The groundwork is important, though. It is what the relational structure of my life would be built upon going forward. I was already familiar with the effects of a compromised base, and I was not willing to set up another one.

As I learned to acknowledge my needs, I began to see that a full picture of the Cross is what compels a genuine response to God. Grasping what Jesus’s death meant holistically for me would allow me to regain control of my desires in a holy capacity.

Truthfully, that is the summary of what my journey through this class was – understanding the Cross and genuinely responding to my Jesus. It was seeing Him as the culmination of all gender roles, learning to confess my failings more readily. It was putting aside myself, my perceptions, and the things I hold dear and nailing them to the Cross. It was writing down the hurtful things I’ve been called and the ways I’ve been treated and physically nailing them to a cross. It was accepting that wounds make me whole, and brokenness is beautiful. I learned that boundaries are holy and needing them in my life is both right and good. I learned to forgive, and I pinned a ribbon to the cross for the people I left there.

I spent 20 weeks looking at my weakness, my failing, my hurt; I spent 20 weeks watching God unclog my spirit. I began to believe with my whole heart that I am a good gift, and that I am a good gift to other people. I began to believe His love and grace and mercy was for me, and I started to show that more readily to others. I saw my heart being purified, and I saw my increased capacity to take my thoughts captive, recognize my temptations, and surrender it all to God.

I began to trust my husband with my heart and with my body. I saw the change God was writing in TR’s heart, and the way he was becoming a more integrated person was beautiful. I rejoiced in the stories of once-desperate sexually and relationally broken women in the Bible and in my community, and I began to believe in God’s promise of using my life for His glory.

The Recovery

Healing is not linear, though. Like any rehabilitation journey, there are stops and starts. Things that specifically need more work. Plateaus are natural and to be expected. Nevertheless, when Jesus is directing that process, He is not content to leave His chosen ones as broken reflections.

Slowly, I saw myself as damaged, not destroyed. I was more whole. More thoughtful, sensitive, less afraid of intimacy in all its forms. I was consistently refusing counterfeit expressions of my own self and calling them out in others.

I was still holding back, though. I wasn’t willing to be all-in.

One night, while praying in class, I saw myself twirling like a child on a big rock. And I was screaming into the wind, noise inaudible. Thundering over me, moving the trees and stirring up waves, came His voice. “You are MINE. YOU ARE MINE. I claim you.” He was insistent. Imposing. Nature responded to His power, and so did I. As the tears rolled off my face, I believed that I was a chosen child of God, saved by Grace and held tightly in His hand for all eternity. I had never really believed this before.

It was a turning point. And there have been many.

As the months went by, I learned to claim my voice. I realized that by doing absolutely nothing, I live up to who He has named me to be. My identity exists without me doing a thing.

Friends. I don’t have to do anything to be worthy, valuable, and loved! And neither do you❤

I am choosing to believe that I am a good gift. God delights in me. I am deciding to believe I am also a good gift to other people. I am learning to let go of seeking security and significance in my created brothers and sisters, and instead, letting my Creator fill those gaps.

I spent hours weeping over the ways I have dishonored my brothers. Believing they were nothing more than lustful, out of control, sex machines. I have disrespected them by treating them as infants, incapable of choosing self-denial and self-discipline. I treated them as less-than when I refused to see them as friends and siblings, preferring to look for a potential mate.

I have fallen on my knees, releasing the shame and guilt over how I have treated my sisters. Acting as if they were a threat to me, somehow making me less. Competing. Judging. Hiding. I did not delight in their gifts and passions. I did not love them well, and I did not pursue authentic relationships. I chose to ask “what is wrong with me?” instead of letting the women in my life make me better.

And don’t get me wrong! I still do all those things. I still have those thoughts. I still choose to believe these truths. But those lies have less authority over my life.

My heart is different now. And so is my sex ethic.

Sex is best when inside God’s design. It is an act of holy worship, a tangling of souls, and the ultimate middle finger to evil. There are multiple ways to righteously date – do it with intentionality and leave the other person better at the end of the relationship. God calls me to purity in all aspects of my life – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and sexual. I am responsible for my sin only. I am called to confess and forgive others. Sexual sin effects all of us and in diverse ways. It does not disqualify, and it does not damage the nature of being an image-bearer. Singleness is a gift – it is important to me, to God, and should be viewed as a season to flourish in. Divorce exists in a broken world, and while Christians should strive to avoid this, sometimes, it is best. There are two genders – male and female. They each reflect a different part of God’s nature and both are needed to reflect Him well. Same-sex attraction is a sin like all others – it does not disqualify and those struggling with SSA should not be ostracized by Christianity. Men bear a heavy burden of Biblical responsibility. They should be held accountable for acting benevolently, leading from behind in a servant-hearted nature, and protecting in their strength, among many things. Sexuality is a beautiful gift! Both men and women have been created to enjoy sex. Husbands and wives are best suited for following God’s calling on their lives and operating and serving out of their unique giftings. I am called to respect my husband while being an active part of decisions involving our family. Husbands are called to lead their family closer to Christ, protecting their earthly well-being, and encouraging the unique identity of their wife and any potential children. As a Christian girl, I need to pursue the heart of God relentlessly. Marriage is a blessing and not a guarantee. Premarital sex, whether by choice or by force, does not disqualify me from the love of God or His plans and purposes for my life. Spouses are to be helpmates for one another, pointing each other to Christ. Married sex will take awhile to figure out – it requires communication, commitment, and sacrifice. Marriage changes nothing about our individual sin tendencies and will exacerbate those sin natures. Sexual satisfaction is more about emotional and spiritual intimacy than it is about physical pleasure. Consent applies in marriage. My worth is defined as an image-bearer of Christ and is unchangeable. Every man is a brother in Christ and should be treated and thought about as such. Every woman is a sister in Christ and should be treated and thought about as such. Those working in the sex industry are precious children of God, fellow image-bearers, and have a story. Survivors of abuse and assault are beloved and held close to the heart of God – their abusers will be held accountable by a just God’s righteous wrath.

It isn’t complete. I’m positive it will get longer the more I learn and the more I see God’s vision. I am proud of where it is currently. I believe every word. It lines up with what I know of God and who He has revealed Himself to be, both communally and to me personally. This sex ethic matches what I find in the pages of the Bible. This is the foundation for what I want to teach my future sons and daughters.

Some things heal more slowly, though. My sex life being one of them. In this healing process, TR and I made a few discoveries, and not all of them were beautiful. In fact, one such discovery felt like it broke me. A piece of my nature vanished in light of his confession. We made a long-term decision for our marriage and family based on it. Certain situations were infinitely harder for me. And sex was not an option period.

A month went by, and I began to notice what I had avoided. The joy of those situations was slowly returning. I still couldn’t bring myself to be sexually intimate with my husband…but I began climbing on his lap again. Dancing with him. Physically connecting with him in my sleep again.

He began expressing his desire for my heart more. So I gave him more of it, risking the hurt of betrayal. We’re focusing on the little things – snuggling, long hugs, big kisses. I’m opting to reveal my depths and my emotions. He’s working on listening; seeing my soul first instead of my body. Denying his own desires to initiate raw relationship with me.

I’m recovering, and so is he. We’re works in progress, and so is our marriage. And friends, it is more beautiful because of it.

Ultimately, this is a tale of redemption – holy rain drenching an inhospitable desert, liberated and freed. I thought my story disqualified me from speaking. I was paralyzed by the shame and guilt of what I’d chosen and what I’d endured. I forgot that God’s Word and Voice are the final defining authority over my life. I was afraid to boast in my brokenness, unsure how to point to the power of the Cross, and so I stayed silent.

God has sweetly and firmly reminded me over and over that He has given me a voice. I reflect Him in this. He has restored it to me more than once. And He has called forth that voice. I can no longer leave hurting hearts feeling like their sexual brokenness defines, disqualifies, and describes. You are not the only one affected by this – our God’s designs have been subverted and perverted. It is not just you.

So if you are the teen confused by budding sexual desires. The girlfriend being pressured to go further. The one held captive by pornography. The college coed tangled in inescapable temptation. The newlywed who cannot figure out why their sex life is such a struggle. The couple feeling like strangers in their own marriage bed. The one who casually watches sex on screens and cannot figure out why they are displeased with reality (13). The divorced or widowed one lonely with aching desires. Or the single one struggling to remain chaste and abstinent, wondering what the purpose of any of this is. And for each one of you somewhere between. I’ll speak up.

God willing, I’ll speak up. I’ll see you. I will unashamedly contradict the narrative, and I will steadfastly refuse to bend to the corrupt and life-stealing “truths” swirling around our culture and Christian subcultures. By His grace, I will share my God-built foundation with you. His unchanging Truth will be our anchor.

Friend, I want you to hear this. I want you here.

Every version of the Bible I’ve studied has openly and freely discussed sex. It isn’t the shameful and taboo thing it has been made to be. I am personally on a mission to reclaim all things sex for God’s glory, for my soul and sanctification, but also for the edification of others. It is part of my gift-giving to those in my spheres. This is for you, too.

I am in recovery. Regaining something lost, taken away, and ruined. I am in the process of being restored. I’m reclaiming my strength, composure, and balance. I’m claiming my inheritance in His power, and friend, I desperately want the same for you.

If my story can be redeemed, so can yours❤

***all italicized phrases from Sex, Jesus, and Conversations the Church Forgot by Mo Isom

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