On 16 September, BBC Three broadcast an episode of Don't Tell The Bride featuring a young religious couple, Ola and Raphael, who had never shared a kiss – their first kiss would take place on their wedding day, in front of their families and friends. The episode generated a lot of Twitter chatter, largely around the celibacy of the couple – what is it like to fancy someone enough to want to be with them (and marry them) but not act on it? How difficult was it? Who would do such a thing, and why?
Ore and Eugene, both 23, met at the University of Nottingham as freshers (Ore was studying law; Eugene was studying finance, accounting, and management). They began going out just over two years ago, and as born-again Christians, believe in abstaining from sexual acts until marriage, which means they are celibate (neither is asexual). They live in London. BuzzFeed UK spoke to them.
There are no certainties in life, and Eugene and I are very, very aware that life happens. From a religious perspective, what we've done is committed our plans to the God that we serve. We've said this is what we want to do, and we know that it's only the grace of God that will continue to sustain our relationship. And even in marriage – whenever that may come – it is the grace of God that will continue to sustain us as a couple.
I attend a Pentecostal church, but the principle – that we love God and we believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us – stands, regardless of doctrine. I haven't been a Christian all my life, and I genuinely don't believe that there are very many people who have been; you have to make a fairly conscious decision to follow Christ. That happened for me when I was 14.
The motivation for celibacy before marriage is simple: I am a Christian, and I believe our bodies belong to God. He made us, created us all in his image, and we serve him with our bodies as well as our minds and our souls. And so because of that I don't believe I should really be using the body that God gave me to be having sex with people who I am not married to and I am not "one flesh" with.
There was an initial understanding that we would be abstinent, but then as our relationship grew, we had to set boundaries. This was still very early on, maybe within the first month or two of our relationship. When you make such a decision, it doesn't just happen automatically: We don't believe that we are superheroes and you don't just not have sex with someone who you're very physically and emotionally attracted to. It is a choice. And it's hard.
I think people who are not Christians, or who don't understand why somebody would make the choice, have a lot of preconceptions; there is this idea that you're just not supposed to feel anything. The Bible is very clear that you can feel these things, but it is lust. And the problem is acting on it and keeping your mind pure. I pray about it. I'm very open with Eugene. I say, "this is how I'm feeling right now" and he'll pray with me or we'll pray separately. I can talk to people who have done this – other Christian couples who've gone through a period of waiting and not having sex 'til they were married. I ask them, "how can I deal with this situation?" In terms of how I cope, I pray, I talk to other people. I'm very honest with God. I meditate on the word of God and that will usually help.
Our boundaries are not set in stone. If there's a boundary that we haven't set properly, we talk about it and revise it. So at the beginning of our relationship we used to French kiss, but that changed later. We don't touch one another in certain places. It's about revising boundaries and praying. I honestly believe it’s the grace of God that sustains us, and that's why it's even better. It means that, God willing, we make it to our wedding day.
I would say that among committed Christian circles, abstinence of this sort is definitely the norm but some people might not necessarily choose this road. Most of my immediate family are aware and I think they believe it's the right thing to do. But I have friends who find it... [laughs] they don't understand it. I discuss it very openly when it comes up in conversation. So a lot of my friends at work actually watched that episode of Don’t Tell the Bride and came to find me the next day to talk about it. People always tend to ask me, "You don't do anything at all? You mean, you're completely...?" The next question is always, "You don't even, like...?" Sometimes people say, "Oh, wow, that's really admirable." I've had people say, "I'm a Christian, too, and I couldn't do that."
Everybody is so different. We know a couple who didn't even hold hands and for me, that's like, "whoa, that's a lot!" but it's what they can bear. We're OK with holding hands and cuddling and pecks. But even cuddling can be quite intimate – it's all about how you do it. I personally think having a goal in sight helps. Just like people with a weight loss goal, I think it helps you stick to the plan. Everybody's story is different, everybody has what they can handle. The Body of Christ (the church) is so unique and individual. This just works for us.
When I vocalised my feelings for Ore, my thing was, I want her to be the last person I'm with. So even at an early stage, my intention was for this to go on to marriage. Whether it worked out that way or not, you know... But by God's grace, I hoped it would.
I was brought up in a Catholic household, and I always say I had an understanding of God, but I didn't know God. It was almost like I grew up with a set of rules and certain things I was "supposed" to do: You do your Holy Communion, you do your confirmation. I was sort of going through the motions of Catholic teaching. The church I go to now is a Pentecostal church. I think a lot of people have certain predetermined views of Pentecostal churches. I like to characterise my faith as having a relationship with Jesus Christ. He is my lord and saviour.
The motivation for abstinence, on my end, is twofold. One is strictly about my faith and the fact that I respect what the Word says. My faith is the foundation of the choice. I think sex is something that's very powerful but it was created to be enjoyed in a certain context: to really cement the bonds of marriage and really grow in their love for one another. So when I read those stories in the Bible, in my heart, I truly believe that when you have have sex, when you share with your other half in that context, it is something that's really a blessing. Really amazing.
The other answer is a bit more personal. I'm not a virgin. And coming from a past where you sort of make decisions to sleep with this or that person, I think a lot of people don't understand the power of the act. In the past I've been in situations where the foundation of the relationship wasn't really strong because it was based on a physical thing. Physical things can change. Your faith is what you believe, what you stand on. That's who you are.
Ore and I were really good friends before we became a couple. And we're really open with one another. From the beginning, we were very intentional (I know I keep throwing around that word, but it's true!). We knew how we were going to structure our relationship; we knew the people in the Bible we were going to model our relationship on. We had the will to do what pleases God. It's difficult but we have that desire.
I'd say my "love language" is physical touch; it's how I relate to people. In past relationships, it was very much how I built a relationship, and I don’t mean that just in terms of having sex. So right now – looking at Ore and knowing that I want her to be my wife – it can be very, very difficult. Sometimes it's like, "but I know that's where I'm going, so why can't I just...do it now?" If I'm struggling, I can have a frank conversation with God. I think a lot of people get into this but they're not intentional. When it gets hard, they cave. I feel like I can go to God with anything. Just having that conversation can get my mind right, stop me from sinking. We're cultivating a relationship. It's just about being honest with myself and with God. That's how I deal with it. But it's hard, especially coming from doing that kind of stuff before.
Ore and I do kiss, on the forehead, or pecks. Ore likes to cuddle. It's not that we've abandoned touch altogether – I don't walk around with my hands in pockets not going near her – it's just trying to find something that works, that keeps up holy. I like to hold hands but Ore's not really a holding hands type. [both laugh]
Ore and I talk about it, but I'm also keen to protect her integrity as well. The Bible talks about not putting a stumbling block in a fellow believer's way. In the past, I've said something like, "You know what? I need to go" – and she'll know what I mean by that. Abstinence is definitely not uncommon in our circles. My family aren't explicitly aware, but I think it's something they assume. It wasn't an explicit conversation. I've spoken to my friends about it, and their reaction is like the brother on that episode of Don't Tell the Bride: They literally cannot believe that I'm possibly doing it.
There are a lot of people in church who aren't celibate, and that's just the decision they've made. Our personal conviction is this is right for us. We don't want to portray ourselves as these holier-than-thou people. But it's actually possible to have a functional relationship, in which you express physically that you care for someone, without having sex. There is a middle ground, and that's what we're trying to get across really, by agreeing to do something like this. I've had people ridicule me, and they get really explicit. They cannot get their heads around it.
And I think another thing that is really a motivation is that, well, the Bible says that our faith is not just for ourselves, but for other people. Ore and I are trying to be a light for others. If there's one person who sees what we're doing and thinks, "I want to do that too," then thank God for that. It's another added pressure but at the same time we're honoured to carry that burden.
I do have a kind of timetable in mind. I was always one of those "when I'm this age" and "when I have this amount of money" kind of people. It's a three-year plan. And that's not even for an overly spiritual reason: It's just a purely financial thing. I'm not after a mansion or anything but I want to get married and be in a house I can raise a family in and be comfortable. When you say you're intentional, you can't do that without having a time frame and milestones. Obviously, it's not Oh, we just need to hang in there. It's not just about the sex. But that's one of the things that we as a couple can look forward to. I'm sure we're going to have amazing sex when we get married. But it's not the be-all and end-all.
Bim Adewunmi is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York City.
Contact Bim Adewunmi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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