The Sex Question

Even though online dating is widespread and fairly socially acceptable these days, there is something a little humiliating to me about having succumbed to it.  I still haven’t gotten used to the idea of putting myself out there in this, “Hey, look at me, don’t you want to date me?” way.  Every time I log in, a little burst of shame rushes through me as I wonder, does this qualify me for the adjective “desperate?”  Then there is the ever-present fear that one of my parishioners will come across my profile.  It’s one thing for them to think of me as someone who dates, and yet another to find me being advertised on the internet meat market.  None of these irritations, however, are the real reason I am seriously considering pulling the plug on my online dating life.  The real reason is that I have come to a conclusion about internet dating for ministers (or at least for this minister).

It is impossible to let a relationship develop in a way that even vaguely resembles natural if you are clergy, because of one factor: sex.

If the indignity of the whole enterprise isn’t enough for you, when your profile lists your occupation as “Minister,” you tend to be subjected to a whole other line of questioning.  Allow me to give a recent example from my own experience.  I received a first inquiry from a fairly promising candidate.  A quick perusal of his profile told me that he was able to construct a grammatically correct sentence, which automatically boosts him to the top 5% of online daters.  His first message included topics of substance and reasonably successful attempts at humor, which easily raises him into the top 2% range.  But there it was, mid-message, my favorite question: “What are your practices/guidelines for sex and sexual relations?”  

Let me clarify, it’s not that this is an entirely unreasonable question.  Sex is important, and I understand the desire not to get involved with someone who is going to turn out to be a nun.  But did you maybe want to know my real name before you ask if I’d be willing to jump into bed with you?  Even the infamous song asks if you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain before it gets around to making love at midnight on the dunes of the Cape.

This is the question that comes up every time, without fail, usually in the first communication, always by the second.  Always before we’ve actually met, or even talked on the phone.  Because they don’t know me yet, because the conversation is still an exchange of data at this stage, there is no opportunity for nuance in my answer.  I can play coy or I can be evasive, both of which turn my stomach, or I can try to give the complete answer that is overly complicated for initial communication and makes it seem like I’m being evasive anyway.

Behind all of this lurks the additional truth that I’m not even sure I know what the answer is.  The S.S. Premarital Abstinence sailed long ago, and it is not returning to port.  I don’t believe sex that doesn’t happen in the context of marriage is necessarily sinful (nor do I believe that sex that happens within a marriage is inherently right).  At the same time, I don’t share the predominant sexual values expressed by my generation: the almost predatory search to get it where you can, as often as you can; the assumption that “good sex” is about your repertoire of sexual positions; the incessant message to women that the only way to keep a guy is to have sex, a lot of sex, and really exciting sex with him.  How do I say all of that to some guy online who is looking for a quick yes or no?

So I think about what I would say to the young women with whom I work, who struggle to have healthy relationships in a world that expects them to be sexually promiscuous, and labels them as repressed prudes if they put off sex beyond the third date – or sometimes the first.  I think about the young men who want a meaningful, long-term partnership, but can’t respect the women they date because they jumped into bed before they even knew each other – which is what he said he wanted at the time.  I wonder where they are to look for guidance in a Church that doesn’t seem to have realized yet that most of us don’t get married by age twenty anymore, that women are no longer property whose virginity needs to be protected so paternity can be determined, or that the old message we’ve given our teenagers of “Don’t have sex and don’t put yourself in a situation where you might want to” barely works when you’re a teenager, let alone when you’re twenty-five, or thirty-five, or seventy.  How are they supposed to develop a sexual ethic that helps them on the path toward being whole and balanced individuals with a variety of healthy relationships?  And once they have it, how are they supposed to communicate that to others who will likely assume that they’re either going to get it on at the first available opportunity or lock themselves up in a cloister?

I’m still pulling my online dating profile, but on second thought, maybe I don’t have it so bad.  At least people ask me what I think about sex.  At least being clergy gives me an “excuse” to have a set of values that wouldn’t fit into the pages of Cosmo.  At least I get to talk about it before I’m being dumped because I won’t put out the second time we meet.  Listing my occupation as “Minister” doesn’t make things easy or comfortable, but it gives me the opportunity to make a decision.  I suspect most of the people behind those profiles are never even asked.             

11 replies
  1. Elsa
    Elsa says:

    Sigh. Name Withheld, I’m envious that the first question isn’t about religion in online dating. I constantly get the inarticulate atheist perspective or the holier than thou Christian who condemns me (basically) for embracing a queer church family. Still, the question of sex is there and you’re so right. We get to have our values and answer that question when so many others don’t.

  2. beth
    beth says:

    What a great post. It is definitely extremely difficult to navigate issues of sex as a young, single pastor. I, too, don’t believe that all sex outside of marriage is wrong, or vise versa, and there isn’t a lot of room for that nuanced view in our church, much less in the dating life of a pastor.

  3. name withheld
    name withheld says:

    Elsa, I also get the religion question. Many attempts at this ago, I tried eharmony, which insisted on matching me with fundamentalists because I said my religious beliefs were important to me – which of course doesn’t work well when they think I’m a huge sinner for having the vocation that I do. Or I get agnostics who are searching spiritually by trying to get close to someone who has some sort of faith. Or atheists who really just want to fight it out. All around, being clergy just makes the process extra weird.

  4. Should we start a club?
    Should we start a club? says:

    Oh, name withheld, I’m so glad to hear that it really was eharmony’s fault I kept getting matched to fundamentalists who think I shouldn’t be allowed to be a minister!
    Two years ago I performed a wedding for a couple that met on craigslist and they’re both quite normal and happy. This fall I have another one coming up for a childhood friend who found a normal guy on craigslist. So, I admit I’ve started looking there too since it is free and I feel more in control since I initiate conversation instead of just waiting people to like my profile…
    I’ve yet to have a really good response to the “job” question and in my area “who you work for” determines social status so it is always one of the first questions asked.
    Besides finding a way to join another church and meet some great person there how in the world are we supposed to find dates beyond the utterly frustrating online options?

  5. Blossom
    Blossom says:

    Great article! At least you have got past them knowing you are a minister. I love your blog! Why can’t we be normal?

  6. aboy
    aboy says:

    I am a boy, so maybe this is different. And I’m gay, so maybe that is different too, but even as an openly gay, male minister, I have met a whole group of really interesting, articulate guys through various dating websites. True, I too have gone out on a date with an antagonistic atheist. I even met a really angry, anti-christian Buddhist once. And most Catholic gay men are angry, ANGRY, not to mention Southern Baptists, etc! And certainly, living in New York, people value more anonymity than I tend to enjoy. In short, as ministers and people of faith trying to date, we got issues! HOWEVER, I have had luck by describing my profession in this way:
    When asked my profession on websites, I say, “I organize communities, hopefully, for the betterment of the world. It might seem strange, but I actually get paid to do just that. If you want to know more, ask me.” And under faith, I list Christianity and my particular denomination.
    True, it is not full disclosure, but nothing on those sites is. It is a conversation opener! PLUS, if I’m going to have the whole, “I’m a minister” conversation with someone I am potentially dating, I want to be able to respond faithfully and honestly to what that means for me… because let’s be honest, most people, including many parishioners, have no idea what I really do with my time and energy (aside from Sunday services) and what my life is like. And I’m guessing that lawyers, doctors, and other professionals could say the same thing. So, I err toward describing what my ministry is like, and how I see that, because it invites a real conversation, whereas, it seems like “minister” only invites projection and confusion.
    And actually, I originally shared your embarrassment about having parishioners (or worse youth group members) see my profile, but this is modern living, and if we really do lead lives that model healthy, faithful living, this might be part of it. When I adopted that stance, I found that it has been a bond with many parishioners who have the same experiences and struggles with online dating. I have even preached about it. I know that in at least two cases, other parishioners have found the courage to put themselves “out there” whether online or not because I did. I realize that might be different for women (or at least I imagine that it could), but that is one possible reframing which I think could happen.
    BUT THANK YOU, THANK YOU for the conversation starter! I think that the most difficult part of online dating is the isolating feelings which it can often produce. Thank you for helping to end that isolation!

  7. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I found my husband, my car, and my house on the Internet. So glad I did! I was an associate minister at the time. I listed my occupation as “helping people” so as to be treated equally. We emailed for a month before we met in person. We loved (and still do) talking together. Now we have a beautiful baby boy. Never would have met him otherwise. God brought us together using the Internet.

  8. Sara
    Sara says:

    I’ve just pondered recently about the whole online dating thing – and within the pondering wrote to some of my seminary girl friends of what my own online survey would look like. Thought I’d share! Thanks for your words – they will help me continue my own thought process!
    Do you love the Lord, or can at least fake it pretty well?
    When was your birthday? If you are old enough to be my grandfather or father please stop now.
    How do you feel about moving?
    What’s your perfect idea of a date night? If you answer a great church potluck there’s a super bonus!
    How do you feel about a bunch of women invading your personal space every Sunday during passing of the peace time?
    Can you have a meal ready for me when I come home from work?
    You sure you’re okay with that whole moving thing?
    Do albs turn you on?
    Do you get Fridays off?
    All applicants born between 1975 and 1984 will be accepted with gratitude. Thank you for taking time to complete this survey and God bless!

  9. grace
    grace says:

    I found my husband and my cat on the internet, although not on the same website.
    I was still in seminary, so on the dating profile I put “working on a masters in theology.” It was around the time of the second email that I told people what an M.Div. was.

  10. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I also met my husband on the internet, on eharmony. I too was matched with many fundamentalists, primarily because there is no way for a logarithm to distinguish “faith is important to me” from what brand of faith we have. on my profile under “what are you looking for?” I wrote “someone interested in being a pastor’s husband.” Rather than being frustrated that it narrowed the playing field significantly, I was thrilled that it immediately weeded out the wierdos and left me with the very few who were worth my time. Prayers for all of you searching for someone to share your life, faith, and sex views with…sometime after the first email.


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