As Christians, we need to develop a healthier sexual ethic. Twenty-first century Americans are surrounded by so many mixed messages and conflicting attitudes that even within the church it can be difficult to make sense of it all.
Every day, we are bombarded with sexuality. It’s on television, in the movies, on the Internet, on the radio, and in books and magazines. It’s used to sell everything from cars to food and drink. Clothing styles reflect our attitudes toward sex. Sex and sex talk are everywhere.
This is not the cause of a problem, it’s the reflection of one. Despite the ubiquitousness of sexuality, we are still a nation of people with extremely unhealthy attitudes toward intimacy. I don’t just mean the morality of sex, although I think that’s exactly what a lot of Christians would like to claim.
In both the public health sector and private religious circles, there are competing and equally damaging notions of love, sex, and intimate relationships. Public health education would have us believe that sex is great, but it’s inherently sort of dirty and leads to negative consequences—namely unwanted pregnancy and diseases. Religious conservatives of all stripes claim that sex is wonderful and fulfilling, but only in a man-woman marriage context. Anything else is dirty in a different way—it’s shameful. Meanwhile, media celebrates sex as having no more significance than what color socks you wear. These are all negative, disappointing, and unhealthy ideas.
None of it is working. We haven’t stopped people from having indiscriminate sex by scaring them about diseases and pregnancy. We haven’t helped people to make wise choices by shaming them about their experience. And we haven’t developed positive attitudes toward sex by making it visible. Instead, each of those things has served only to elevate sex to the point of becoming an idol. And yes, even the church has contributed to that.
In the church, we’ve turned sexual sin into the Big Bad. There is nothing more terrible than sex outside the confines of a marriage between one man and one woman. It doesn’t matter that the Bible has a lot more to say about how we treat the poor, for example, or the ways in which our words can hurt others. Stepping over a homeless beggar is far less important than whether or not two consenting adults slept together last night.
The proof of this is in how we use retroactive guilt. I have friends who still, even after many years, feel ashamed that they didn’t wait for sex until they were married. It’s more than just beating themselves up for past sins. These were people who had sex before they were Christians. That means that the shame laid on them happened after they came into the church. I sincerely doubt that they feel the same sense of shame and embarrassment over lies they told, people they snubbed, or their failure to give to charity.
We also use shame on our children, in hopes that they will stay away from premarital sex. Let me tell you, this works on some kids. I can tell you from personal experience just how well it works. As a youth, I was absolutely terrified of sex. In fact, I was afraid of any kind of intimacy, because all of it could lead to sex. I turned down dating some great guys because I was scared. Confusion about what was appropriate kept me from being able to recognize the very real difference between love and lust. On top of all of that, I was told that I couldn’t trust my own family to give me guidance. My parents weren’t Christians, my oldest sister was very sexually experienced, and my other sister is a lesbian. Apparently, not one of them qualified as someone I could count on to help me sort out all these feelings. After fifteen years of marriage, I am finally able to peel back the layers of shame and guilt, even though I entered married life as a virgin. We’re not doing our kids any favors by piling it on in hopes they will stay pure.
In my experience as a school nurse and my training as a health educator, I learned that the one difference between ordinary sex education and good sex education is family support. I firmly believe this to be true in church as well. We need more than just reminding people over and over that sex is only for marriage. We need to be able to bring families together to really talk about these issues. We need open communication where sex is not some silent, secret, shameful act, so dirty and so private that only a ring and a wedding make it clean.
I hope to spend the next several posts talking about sexual ethics and how we can move beyond a shame-based view of human intimacy. Stick with me, and feel free to give your input. We may not reach the same conclusions, but that’s okay. My desire is not for consensus but for dialogue. We have to do something to begin healing the brokenness that our nation’s sexuality has become.