Read on to learn more about drawing healthy boundaries for sexual intimacy.
I sat with about 20 other girls in the too-small room, filled end-to-end with bunk beds. I was 18 years old and was dating my best-ever boyfriend, the new one, Steve. A young, married woman stood at one end of the room, talking to us about relationships. I was excited to be there. It was my favorite topic. All day long I only ever wanted to talk about Steve, while my friends rolled their eyes and wondered if I’d ever get back to normal again. (I’m not sure I ever did.)
I had the general concepts about Christian dating down pat. I figured I was pro. I even thought that maybe one day I could be a marriage counselor.
Can we just think about that for a second? I was 18 years old. I was a couple of months into dating my now-husband. And I thought I could be a marriage counselor. (So much aplomb is wasted on the young.)
But one question nagged at me as that mentor taught us that day. I mean, I generally followed the gist of what she was saying…
Walk with God. OK!
Equally yoked.* Absolutely!
Sexually Pure. You got it!
But…hold on…how far is too far?
They never answered that question. I really did want to know. But they always shrugged and said something like, “If you have to ask, then it’s too far,” which left me with more questions than I’d started with, and then they finished by saying something about a friend who waited until their wedding day to kiss.
Can’t somebody just show me the line?
Drawing the Line
Twenty years later, Steve and I sat in his office, across from two giddy, fresh-faced young people who were madly in love. This was the first day of their pre-marital counseling. We had known them for years. We watched with conspiratorial winks as they shyly glanced at one another, then as he oh-so-casually asked her out to coffee. We were all smiles when he started giving her rides to our house for Bible study. And it was no surprise when we got the text announcing that they were engaged.
With all this history between us, we dispensed with that small talk even at the very first meeting and asked the most awkward question of all: “How are you doing with sexual purity?”
They both took a deep breath, avoided each others’ eyes, and said they were doing well, but it was a struggle and they would like to do better.
We’ve asked this question dozens – maybe even hundreds – of times. And the answer is almost always the same.
It’s a struggle.
We want to do better.
One day it occured to us that although everyone said the same thing, they didn’t mean the same thing.
Every couple had their own lines drawn on their own sexual purity map. And we wouldn’t be able to communicate clearly about sexual purity unless we were looking at the same map.
That was the day we set out to draw the map, to clearly communicate God’s standards for sexual wellness, to finally answer the question “How far is too far?”
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The Intimacy Map
During the years that Steve and I were dating, I cracked open every dating and marriage book I could find. One of the books I found particularly interesting was Love for a Lifetime by James Dobson. It was an easy and entertaining read. (Feel free to track it down and give it a read. Take it with a grain of salt, though, because it was written in 1993, and some of the phrasing might be rather dated.)
As I began to think about creating this intimacy map to clearly communicate sexual intimacy, I immediately though of the Twelve Steps of Intimacy, from the work of Desmond Morris,** which were quoted in Love for a Lifetime. I decided to take that great information, and adapt it to our purposes.
The Proper Progression of Intimacy: From First Glance to One Flesh
💚 The Friend Zone
1. Eye to Body. This is the first glance. There may be a physical attraction at this moment, or there may not be.
2. Eye to Eye. Eye contact. Usually we look away. Sometimes we don’t look away immediately and sometimes that’s when the magic of attraction begins.
3. Voice to Voice. The first conversation. “What’s your name?” “What do you study?” This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, or maybe even more.
4. Hand to Hand. You may think I made a mistake here. Isn’t hand-holding a thing couples do? But think about it a moment and you will realize that it isn’t an unusual thing to touch a near stranger’s hands. A gentleman may reach out a hand as you walk tricky terrain. A girl may take your hand when you ask her to dance, and possibly keep holding your hand if you dance a waltz. (Do we still dance waltzes? I hope so.) At its most fundamental point, holding hands is chivalry, not courtship. As Dobson says, “At this point either of the individuals can withdraw from the relationship without rejecting the other. However, if continued, hand-to-hand contact will eventually become an evidence of the couple’s romantic attachment to each other.”
5. Hand to Arm/Shoulder. Touching someone’s arm or shoulder is usually a sign of affection. But is often platonic. According to Dobson, “It is a “buddy” type position in which the man and woman are side by side. They are more concerned with the world in front of them than they are with each other.” Though be aware that it may also be a sign of flirtation, the desire for more than friendship.
💛More Than Friends
6. Hand to Waist. Apart from dancing, touching the waist is usually quite intimate. In most cases it is reserved for couples who are attracted to each other.
7. Hand to Head / Hand to Face. In our culture, touching another’s face or head is most often a romantic gesture, and only rarely (and very carefully) done with someone who is just a friend. (An exception to this is children or family members.)
🧡The Dating Zone
8. Face to Face / Body to Body. Hugging, pressing faces and bodies together (clothed). This step refers to romantic hugging, the kind where bodies are pressed together and faces touch. Of course, friends may hug, but those hugs may often be more of a connection between arms, leaving some space between bodies. Any prolonged hugs between male and female friends that include body to body contact are likely to muddy the friendship waters.
9. Mouth to Mouth. Kissing. Kissing on the lips heightens sexual desire. It should be approached carefully and should be reserved for a committed romantic partner.
Note: Some people, especially those who have made mistakes in the past and want to protect themselves from temptation, choose to leave steps 8 and 9 for engagement or marriage. I encourage you to prayerfully make the decision that you feel is best for you, after seeking wise counsel.
❤Wise To Wait Zone
These steps move the intimacy along in a way that could give the couple of false sense of “feeling married.” Although they aren’t entirely sexually intimate, it is in the best interests of the couple to save these activities for marriage for the sake of their temptation and for their witness to others as believers.
10. Kissing below the neck (shoulders, waist, stomach)
11. Sleeping together (literally)
💍The Marriage Zone: Sexual Intimacy
The last four levels of involvement are distinctly sexual and private, to be shared within marriage only. They are:
12. Eye to Undressed Body (including virtual, photos. Including pictures of strangers.)
13. Hand to Private Parts (Swimsuit Parts)
14. Mouth to Private Parts (Swimsuit Parts)
15. Sexual Intercourse
So, How Far Is Too Far?
Look at the above list. Where would you draw the line before marriage? Remember, you goal is to walk through your relationship in line with God’s direction in Scripture, and to stop your physical/sexual intimacy from rushing ahead before your relationship has the corresponding (public, legal, binding) commitment. (See this article for more on that.)
Some people draw the line after number seven. Some people have their first kiss on their wedding day. God doesn’t say that we shouldn’t kiss our boyfriends or girlfriends. But this is a decision designed to protect them from the quick shift from a light peck to deeper kissing and awakening sexual desires.
Others draw the line somewhere within number 9, making the decision not to kiss while lying down, or not to kiss after 10pm.
Still others draw the line after number 9.
Numbers 10 and 11 are your choice. Remember, as always, to pursue God’s will in your relationship, to honor him and your boyfriend or girlfriend, and to flee areas of temptation.
Finally, to be clear, numbers 12-15 fall outside of God’s will for unmarried relationship. Each of those steps are explicitly sexually immoral for any couple that isn’t married, and yet part of his beautiful plan of sexual wellness for married couples.
So What Now?
It is so much easier to just do what feels right. Make the decisions as you go, based on how you feel in the moment.
But you’ve gotten this far! I’m so impressed. I think that you want to do what’s right. I think that you believe that God’s way isn’t the easiest way, but it is the best, because you know that he loves you and wants the best for you.
You may have made mistakes in the past. You may have regrets. But God’s love for you never faltered.
Tell him today that you’re sorry about your sins from the past (even if the past was last night). “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgives us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) He will forgive you! You don’t need to grovel, or prove you can do better. That’s not how God works. He will forgive you!
Next, have a talk with your partner. Show them the Progression of Intimacy Steps and agree together where your line will be.
As you decide where you will draw the line:
- pray and consider how you may honor God with your decision.
- consider your (or your partner’s) previous sexual relationships, which may have a heavy influence over your self-control.
- consider the possibility that you will cross your line one day, when your resistance is low. Therefore, you should place your line more conservatively than you would consider absolutely necessary.
- between you and your partner, let the most conservative perspective set the line.
May God be with you both as you seek him together!
*equally yoked. This popular Christian phrase is taken from 2 Corinthians 6:14, which expresses that Christians (believers) should not be close partners with non-believers. The idea is that without the ability to connect in spiritual unity, a couple cannot have complete unity the way God designed it. You can read more about this general concept here.