Notes on “How Should Christians Have Sex?”
Katelyn Beaty wrote this opinion piece in the New York Times last month. Read it before continuing here.
A majority of adults who came of age in evangelical churches in the 1990s and 2000s were exposed to “purity culture,” a term for teachings that stressed sexual abstinence before marriage. We had our own rituals, such as “purity balls,” and our own merchandise, such as “purity rings.” I had a “Wait for Me Journal” that I kept as a college freshman; created by a prominent Christian pop singer, the journal was designed to hold letters to my future husband. It held out the promise that if I remained pure, then God would reward good behavior with a husband — surely before I turned 30 so that we could have lots of children.
Somehow God and I got our wires crossed, because the husband hasn’t arrived. Twenty years later, I no longer subscribe to purity culture, largely because it never had anything to say to Christians past the age of 23. Yet lately, I also find myself mourning the loss of the coherent sexual ethic that purity culture tried to offer. Is consent culture the best that we have in its place?
Since this topic will be my Senior Thesis next year (sexuality education and discipleship in the local church) I am very invested in the same questions as Beaty. She wants to navigate between two failed paradigms. On the right, we have the 1990’s Purity Culture with its shame-based, gender-imbalanced, legalistic tendencies. On the left, a teaching “that simply baptizes casual sex in the name of self-expression and divorces sex from covenant faithfulness and self-sacrificial love.” However, there is a massive gulf between these paradigms. Where, exactly, we land between them will depend on the types of constructive theology we use to think about sex.
Beaty gives a few constructive ideas.
- Spiritual Covenant. The proponents of purity culture “were trying to offer us the gift of sex within marriage. As Christianity teaches that marriage is not simply a legal bind but a spiritual covenant, so married sex is a bodily expression that two people will be for each other, through all seasons.”
- Sacrament. “[T]he Christian teaching on sacramentality is helpful. All creation, including human bodies, by grace reveals deeper spiritual truth. In other words, matter matters. So when a person engages another person sexually, Christians would say, it’s not “just” bodies enacting natural evolutionary urges but also an encounter with another soul.”
- More than Consent. “two people can consent to something that’s nonetheless damaging or selfish. Consent crucially protects against sexual assault and other forms of coercion. But it doesn’t necessarily protect against people using one another in quieter ways. I long for more robust categories of right and wrong besides consent — a baseline, but only that — and more than a general reminder not to be a jerk.”
I love these ideas. I think they are all good and they belong in every new constructive proposal of Christian sexuality. I also have some notes of my own. Please take these as tentative, debatable, and yet-to-be-systematized, and feel free to reply with your own ideas. This work is done better together.
First, the teaching, “don’t have sex before marriage” has nothing positive to say about singleness. I get what not to do, but what do I do? Does the church have any remaining advice for me as someone intentionally not seeking marriage? Or have I exhausted the church’s teaching on sexuality? Purity Culture implied that singleness does not actually exist on its own, but rather singleness is only the absence of marriage, like cold does not exist but is the absence of heat. This is profoundly mistaken. There really is a positive content to what singleness can be, but by only “enumerating the sins we’re called to renounce,” the Purity Culture church failed to “pose the deeper question: To which forms of love and friendship and service are we called to say yes?” The only accepted form of non-marital relationships in our churches are dating relationships which are aimed at eventual marriage. Until we can talk about non-dating (and therefore non-eventually-marrying) relationships in a Christian way, we will not have any real alternatives to the Get Married Quick / Sin Sin Sin dichotomy that surrounds us. If we had any positive vision for what singleness could consist in, we could implicitly — almost accidentally — solve most of these problems.
Second, the proscription against sex before marriage does not help anyone navigate the bounds of sex within marriage. Once you get married, does ‘anything go’? Beaty makes this point by saying that consent does not stop “people using one another in quieter ways.” We need some type of framework for Christian sex within marriage, not just a prohibition on sex outside of marriage. One of my favorite films at the Chicago Critics film festival last month was Pink Wall. The movie follows a couple over six scenes, each in a different year of their six-year relationship. Things are bad, and they only get worse. Interestingly, though there was no sex shown in the film, at the Q&A afterwords director Tom Cullen commented that Pink Wall is about ‘the ways that sex, even consensual sex in a committed relationship, can be used as a weapon against another person.’ I think this is incredibly telling. Can’t the same be said about “don’t have sex before marriage”? Like “don’t rape,” that basic ethic is necessary, but not sufficient. One example in the film (that Paul also comments on) is sexual deprivation. Sexual deprivation is a major topic within the sex life of a married couple, but what guidance does the church have on it? While (1) a spouse is not “owed” sex on any given occasion, and (2) the other spouse certainly does not have a “right” to sex simply because they are married, and (3) yes marital rape does exist and is evil, and (4) this goes both ways, not just deprivation of the man but also of the woman… there still can be ways to weaponize sexual deprivation with the intent to emotionally scar the spouse. This would be wrong and un-loving, and therefore un-Christian, but does Purity Culture have anything to say about it?
Third, Purity Culture placed a major emphasis on virginity. I argue that virginity is not a “grace concept” because it does not have the possibility of forgiveness and it defies restoration. Rather, we should talk about ‘everyday purity,’ or ‘faithful Christian sexuality,’ or some other term that can continue to exist after it has been broken. When the Christian teaching gets over-simplified even further from “don’t have sex until marriage” to “remain a virgin until marriage,” we lose any hope for someone who loses their virginity and therefore is categorically “unclean” for the rest of their singleness. (Not to mention victims of rape). If a Christian loses their virginity before marriage, and their only ethic is “don’t lose your virginity before marriage,” there is a certain “well whatever, might as well keep having sex” attitude that naturally emerges. This licentiousness is the result of our biblically unnecessary emphasis on virginity.
Fourth, the emphasis on virginity has a simple work-around: oral sex, anal sex, mutual or solo masturbation, and use of pornography are all ways to avoid technically losing virginity. Mark Regnerus in his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (2007, pp. 163-182) makes the point, with qualifications. He found that non-vaginal “technical virginity” practices exist. They are more common in Mainline Protestant and Jewish youth than in more conservative groups. But he also found in the same chapter that more conservative youth were highly reluctant to talk about these practices, often opting to skip the question (especially on pornography use). I suspect, given this silence and the 12 years passed since Regnerus’s study, that this practice is significantly more common now than before, especially among conservative religious youth. I have a shocking story about some comments a few students of mine made in this vein, but that deserves its own entire blog post. My point here is that teaching on virginity and against pregnancy and STD’s as the main issue with pre-marital sex does not cover all or even half the practices condemned in Christian sexual ethics. Instead we need a way to understand these other practices as sex, which I would say is that they are embodied. My friend Matt uses the language of “doing what is fitting” and “fittingness.” There are many other views as well. Much more thinking to do here.
Fifth, one real proposal I have for one piece of a Christian sexual ethic is kenosis. Kenosis is the original word for “emptying yourself,” as Paul writes about Jesus in Philippians 2:7. Christians are called in all aspects of life to imitate Jesus’s humility. He emptied himself in the incarnation and made himself nothing in order to serve others. This is the call to unconditional love, altruism, and self-sacrifice. How often do you think of self-sacrifice when you think of sex? Literally never. The cultural conception of sex we have inherited is defined only by receiving pleasure, never sacrificing it. But Christian sex which imitates the sacrificial attitude of Jesus would never be centered on our own pleasure, only on that of the spouse. I had a professor at Trinity who said (and it was very TMI as a college freshman) that the goal of married Christian sex is to bring the other person to orgasm, not per se yourself. Figure out what they like, and do that, at the expense of your preferences. (This only works if both spouses do so equally). Kenosis in sex is radically different from American hook-up culture, with all its self-gratification, lazy sensuality, and casual disregard for the other person. Again, kenosis would be only one aspect of a broader Christian sexual ethic that needs to be built in the wake of Purity Culture.
Sixth, we cannot have discussions about Christian sexuality as long as the topic remains brutally taboo in Christian spaces. I lament the discipleship that happens in youth ministry because I know it ignores 90% if not 100% of the real struggles going on in students’ lives. As much as we don’t want to overplay sexual ethics to the detriment of our students’ young faith… we do more harm when we leave them without resources to understand the Christian teaching on sexuality and without contexts where they can process these things with other students. I worked with Jr. High students the past two years at church, and both years we talked about sexual purity for 90 minutes each year. God have mercy on us on judgement day when we stand accountable for our failure to shepherd these confused and helpless students. We know — we absolutely KNOW — that parents are not doing this either. But those same parents will claim “parents are the primary disciplers of their children,” which is the almighty trump card in youth ministry in 2019. The students are then left without Christian access to sexual information, and the internet fills the void. What an embarrassment. The problem extends beyond youth ministry, where parents censor the conversations their kids have. In adult-aged ministry, everyone censors their own conversations, because of unhealthy norms around “keeping it rated G” and “having no unwholesome talk.” As a result, sexuality in the church remains one of the only topic/context combinations in America that resembles an honor/shame culture. For the sake of our santification as individuals and corporately, this cannot be so.
Seventh, Beaty is absolutely correct when she writes that “Young women, who were expected to manage men’s lust as well as their own, fared the worst.” The gender imbalance in Purity Culture was no mystery to me as a middle school student. Girls were told not to wear skimpy clothes or they might lead the boys astray. More challenging, but more helpful for my discipleship (I am gay and never cared what the girls wore), would have been the teaching that everyone is responsible for repentance of their own lust. Or consider the words of Jesus, that “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” (No, this is not out of context, because in verses 22-23 he includes several sexual sins as well). I cannot imagine the additional weight of constantly self-monitoring to make sure that you don’t trigger others. I have never had to do that, thankfully, and in a new model of Christian sexuality discipleship, girls would not face the total brunt of that weight. Anyways, non-Christians will continue to dress immodestly (by Christian standards), no matter what the Church teaches its people. So it is necessary, inside Christian spaces as well as outside, to begin to condition ourselves to hold ourselves accountable for our sin rather than blaming it on others. Maybe the other person does have some culpability for “causing me to stumble,” but my primary concern should always be to eliminate my own sin, not theirs.
Eighth, any teaching on Christian sexual ethics that functions as Law will be subject to the same critique of the law that Paul gives generally. Paul’s general critique is that the law actually is good, but it produces death in us because we are sinful by nature. Maybe in some hypothetical universe where humans don’t have a sinful nature, the law could have worked out well. But instead, in our fallenness, the “gift” of the law is actually a curse that leaves us worse off than before we received it. Now consider the main purity teaching. Being told, “Don’t have sex before marriage” does not actually help a person to not desire having sex, and in fact tells them exactly what to do in order to break the rule, so you can guess what will happen next. Instead of understanding Christian sexual ethics as regulatory law, we need to reframe the entire discussion in other terms, hopefully terms closer to the NT virtue ethics of life in the Spirit.
Ninth, Christian sex should be totally decentered from the meaning of the marriage relationship and the meaning of any person’s life. I’m afraid that Purity Culture was so emphasized in my church upbringing (while simultaneously not being talked about, almost ever!) that I began to understand myself, consciously or not, as a “sexual being” whose main goal in Christian sanctification was to avoid sexual sin. But we will have no such focus on sex in the eschatological kingdom, where we will be like the angels, neither married nor given in marriage, Jesus says. Our eschatological sexlessness should be great encouragement to those pursuing celibacy that sex is not essential to a meaningful life anyways. It should remind married people that their sex serves the greater purpose of uniting them in relational intimacy, rather than being an end in itself. It should warn unmarried but sexually active Christians that they are needlessly conditioning their earthly bodies against the reality of their heavenly body. The sexless eschatological state also serves as a powerful rebuke of our cultural moment and its relentlessly sexual outlook. In each of these cases what needs to be eliminated is not sex but the total and final significance we place on sex.
Tenth, (and I’m tempted to just dump the entire transcript of this talk by Matthew Lee Anderson here), we need to understand sexual desire in more particular categories than those delivered to us by Freudian or evolutionary psychology. In his talk Anderson comments at length about non-sexual attraction and argues that we need an “inadvertant, sidways point of view” on what constitutes sexual attraction, a view that is “deflationary.” He has in mind a view that sees “the formation of our aesthetic vision as the presupposition and context of our sexual desire.” He and Nate Collins have made this point, that sexual attraction is primarily about seeing, noticing, and observing things about the other person. This maneuver breaks down “sexual attraction” into two parts, a non-sexual “attraction” to what is true, good, and beautiful in others, and then in a second part, a sexualization of that attraction. Thinking this way has been fruitful in my own life the past year as I have considered my friendships and what draws me towards certain people. It decouples the parts of those relationships that must be mortified (because they are sinful) from those parts that must be sanctified (because they are not sinful). This means that, in my case, I can be friends with other men! And in the case of straight Christians, men and women can be friends, given certain prudent boundaries, without the friendship being morally suspect. I think the tension in male-female friendships prevents so much good that could be done in the Church. Like our sexuality itself, this tension will not be found on the Mountain of God.
THESE have been my thoughts, with links to other resources that can help continue the conversation. I have very definite opinions about points #1, 2, 3, 6, and 7, but less definite opinions about #4, 5, 8, 9, and 10. In other words, some of my arguments above are loose, speculative, and in need of further reflection. (If you point out flaws in them, I will back down immediately and disown them). Anyways, I still need to elaborate these points into particular applications, naming exactly what I would change and exactly how. That will be my Senior Thesis.
What do you think? How should the evangelical church continue to think about sex, while avoiding the deficiencies of progressive Christian sexuality and the excesses of Purity Culture?