Note: I should not have to do this, but I will because I need to stem the inevitable tide of people coming over here to argue with me (the person) rather than what I’ve said. So here goes: I am not picking on Pete Rollins here. I’m actually not even picking on what he says in the video clip I’ve linked, because I believe this is (possibly) taken out of context and edited so that it sounds the way the editor wants it to sound. I am troubled, however, by the idea that it represents, so I’m going to address that.
A friend messaged me to ask my thoughts on this video. I’ve already replied directly, but I thought about it some more and I wanted to post it here. (I didn’t ask permission to quote those private messages, but the video is on YouTube and I’m sharing only my own thoughts here.)
At first, I couldn’t quite place what bothered me. I think it’s perfectly fair for Pete Rollins to have made peace with this particular teaching of the church–his journey is his own, after all, and I don’t think these words were meant for other people to take to heart and apply it to their lives somehow. That’s an expectation many churches have about things, but this isn’t a pastor preaching to a congregation. The problem is that the idea expressed herein is not all that far from the way pastors like Mark Driscoll talk about sex: It’s “dirty,” but within marriage, one can enjoy that dirtiness. (That’s why I have some issues with the way this was edited; I don’t think it’s a fair representation of what Pete’s trying to say, actually, and that kind of pisses me off.)
I’m uncomfortable with the idea that because the church considers sex–or some forms/situations of sex–“dirty,” it is therefore “fun.” There are several important things that occurred to me about that as I watched the clip:
1. It’s not true for many women in the church.
In many ways, church has taught women to entwine their sexual purity and their value so tightly that it’s not possible to unravel one without the other. It isn’t sex that’s dirty, it’s we who are dirty for having had it. That doesn’t go away just because we get married, either. It’s not really about the specialness of sex; it’s about the specialness of having a Star Trek-worthy vagina (where no man has gone before). I don’t recall being told that sex was “dirty” before marriage or that some forms were dirty afterward; I recall being told that my future husband wouldn’t want me or respect me unless I was pure. That’s not the same thing.
2. It’s not true for many men in the church.
Although men may not be taught that they are worthless if they’ve had sex, there’s plenty of shaming for them, too. I remember applying for a job back in college and talking to one of my potential employers about the application because I thought some of the questions were invasive. She told me that a former employee in the same organization had been sexually active and therefore the people doing the hiring wanted to know that information because we were working with children. (I believe that was my very first “WTF?” moment in the church.) It occurred to me even then that there was something wrong with the idea that any sexually active man was a potential predator. I’m not convinced that men who have been damaged and shamed by these teachings can so easily decide that dirty = fun.
3. It’s not true for many people in the church who aren’t gender-conforming or who aren’t straight.
I don’t have experience being a person who was taught that my gender identity or sexual orientation are inherently sinful. I do, however, know what those teachings sound like. They don’t sound anything like sex being holy or sacred or blessed within marriage. They sound like condemnation. Pastors who promote the idea of dirty sex being redeemed by marriage are the same people who believe that the only healthy option is to either remain celibate and alone or to conform to the “correct” kind of relationship and/or identity (being the one assigned at birth, of course). The layers of shame in those teachings won’t be remedied by viewing sex as fun rather than sacred.
4. It’s not true for many people who have been abused, assaulted, or raped.
Conservative Christianity likes to blame victims. It also likes to tell people they’re going to be healed by having a right relationship with God and a good marriage. A view of sex as dirty but fun isn’t any more helpful than a view that says it’s sacred and beautiful. For some, it’s not really about what the church has or hasn’t forbidden but about drawing a clear line between “sex practices the church doesn’t like” and “things no one should ever do to another person against that person’s will.” Neither of those extremes about sex–the sacred and the dirty–speak to issues of consent.
5. The meaning ascribed to sex is not an ethic.
Whether sex is holy or filthy is not the real issue anyway. The church–liberal and conservative arms alike–is having a hard time developing a healthy ethic around sexuality. Purity rules, metaphors about Jesus and the Church, and the realness of actual sex are not ethics. It doesn’t matter whether sex is one thing or another when there are so many other facets to explore. We’re badly in need of some conversations about consent, gender norms, communication, respect, health and safety, and so on. Whether we view sex as sacred and mystical or down and dirty isn’t the biggest question on the table, and answering it won’t speak to the deeper problems.
6. Holy vs. Dirty is a false dichotomy anyway.
Who cares if some people want to view sex as some sacred, beautiful experience? No, really. If that’s part of some people’s relationships, what’s wrong with that? There might be a problem with that being the only view of sex, but as one of many, it’s not a problem. Also, why can’t sex be both holy (isn’t love itself holy?) and messy, complicated, and enjoyable? Those aren’t truly opposites. For example, one can view the actual moments and acts as naughty, yet still see the underlying connection created as special. In fact, separating those from each other is exactly the problem with Mark Driscoll’s view of “biblical” sex. It’s fixated on the acts themselves and deciding which ones are okay and which are not. That’s obsessive and controlling, not empowering and freeing.
I’m going to emphasize again the desperate need for the church to have this conversation. We need to stop creating lists of rules. As I said before, the problem here is not Pete’s words in the video I linked, nor is it whether I personally find them meaningful. The problem is that we don’t have a better way to talk about these things because we’re busy grinding our gears on what rules to apply. We’ve so convinced ourselves that we can somehow use out-of-context Bible verses to solve our every problem that we’ve effectively shut down communication on the topic.
Obviously, I don’t believe the words in the video are an end point. They can’t be. I do hope, though, that they are another place to start talking. If what Pete Rollins says isn’t strictly true or useful, then what else can we come up with that could be? Where can we take this conversation that we haven’t tried before?