Once more, Tony Jones poses a provocative question that puts me in blogging mode. In this case the question is: "Is it time for Christians to celebrate pre-marital sex?"
This question comes out of a series of blog posts by evangelical and post-evangelical women over the past several weeks lamenting the damaging effects of "purity culture" on women. I highly recommend reading those articles, as they illustrate much of what's wrong with how Christians, at least relatively conservative Christians, approach human sexuality. For example, Sarah Bessey tells her story:
I was nineteen years old and crazy in love with Jesus when that preacher told an auditorium I was “damaged goods” because of my sexual past. He was making every effort to encourage this crowd of young adults to “stay pure for marriage.” He was passionate, yes, well-intentioned, and he was a good speaker, very convincing indeed.
And he stood up there and shamed me, over and over and over again.
Oh, he didn’t call me up to the front and name me. But he stood up there and talked about me with such disgust, like I couldn’t be in that real-life crowd of young people worshipping in that church. I felt spotlighted and singled out amongst the holy, surely my red face announced my guilt to every one.
He passed around a cup of water and asked us all to spit into it. Some boys horked and honked their worst into that cup while everyone laughed. Then he held up that cup of cloudy saliva from the crowd and asked, “Who wants to drink this?!”
And every one in the crowd made barfing noises, no way, gross!
“This is what you are like if you have sex before marriage,” he said seriously, “you are asking your future husband or wife to drink this cup.”
I was making barfing noises of my own reading this story, though what disgusted me was the behavior of the pastor. The message he was sending was clear, at least to Sarah: "If true love waits, I heard, then I have been disqualified from true love."
Others have also chimed in. And Joy Bennett points out the chief problem with the way that the issue of premarital sex has been handled in the evangelical (and otherwise generally conservative) Christian community: Regardless of what your pastor tells you, you probably won't marry a virgin. You can decry this or celebrate it, but you can't avoid it. The cultural tide on this point has turned fairly definitively, and trying to turn back the clock is nothing more than cultural nostalgia.
What's more, as Joy points out, this is not necessarily a bad thing:
Intimacy in marriage requires courage, vulnerability, and a healthy sense of humor, none of which are mentioned in the current Christian culture. No one talks about what happens after the wedding. No one teaches how to learn to love a spouse, in the biblical sense. No one says out loud that those first sexual encounters (whether on the honeymoon or before) are often awkward, sometimes painful, and occasionally embarrassing. Fireworks? Not unless you count the stars you see when you bump heads trying to kiss.
Here’s the inside scoop: love-making is a skill you have to learn. Even if a person and their spouse remain “pure” (however they define that) before marriage, that purity does not guarantee that they will have any idea how to make love to one another after they exchange vows.
Love-making is not one-size-fits-all. It’s always custom-fit to the couple. Learning to make love to your partner takes practice; mastery requires intense study. That’s why sex can keep getting better the longer you are married.
Sex is risky (and sometimes messy). Baring it all for a lover is about as real as you get – you can’t hide or camouflage Making love into fireworks requires patience and talking and listening. A couple must talk to each other, ask each other “Do you like this? Does this feel good? Where do you like to be touched? How do you like to be touched?” They must be willing to try something that goes poorly. They must be able to hear their partner say “That hurts” or “That didn’t do it for me” and not take it personally.
To assume that sex will be just awesome for you solely on the condition that you have no experience of it prior to marriage can far too frequently lead to disappointment.
I have to admit, I find the entire conservative evangelical conversation on this to be very alien. It was not the way that these topics were dealt with during my mainline protestant adolescence. We didn't dwell on the evil of premarital sex ... we simply ignored and avoided the topic. In itself, that's not such a great strategy, but it's a hell of a lot better than this culture of shaming (mostly of women, let's note!) that goes on within the evangelical community.
And let's be clear on this: The reasons for the cultural shift are actually quite good for women generally. The ability that effective birth control has given women to detach sex from childbearing has allowed them a degree of independence and self-determination that never existed before. The fact that women are now in control of their own reproduction has allowed women to take part in public life in a way that was mostly unprecedented in prior history. The downside, from the conservative Christian perspective, is that it has also effectively detached sex from marriage. And the question that Christianity has to face going forward is whether it will continue to insist on a sexual ethic in which sex, marriage and reproduction are inreducibly intertwined, or accept that this is simply not the way that sex is handled anymore and try to construct a new sexual ethic. And if we are going to construct a new sexual ethic, what should it be?
It occurs to me that, in the main, Christianity is right to encourage monogamous, committed, lifelong relationships. Whether those relationships take place within the strictures of marriage or not, well, that may be another matter.
I think the harder question is what to do about those who cannot, for whatever reason, stay within the boundaries of those norms. Many Christians have had multiple sexual partners before marriage. They then become happily married and those past relationships are clearly put in the past. Some Christians engage in adultery, and that clearly can damage a marriage, whether or not the infidelity is discovered.
The first case seems to me to be a non-issue: Most of us these days weren’t virgins when we got married (as Joy Bennett recently pointed out on her blog), and chances are very good that most of our children won’t be virgins when they get married, regardless of how much we try to make them think we should be.
The second case calls for healing, and in many cases, may be a sign of a deeper set of issues the best outcome of which may be divorce. Clearly that is itself a sign of a wounded and damaged set of people and relationships. But the question is how should the church relate to the people going through these experiences. If the church cannot be a welcoming home, even for those who have committed adultery, been divorced, or engaged in premarital sex, it will find itself continuing to be marginal to the wider cultural conversation about sex.
But then there are the genuinely marginal cases. Most people, even if they’ve had multiple partners, or even if they’ve strayed, would probably prefer monogamy to polyamory. But what do we say to those for whom one sort or another of polyamory is a successful way of life? One the one hand, I think it’s probably sub-optimal not to have a strong foundational relationship that grounds one’s life. On the other, it won’t do to tell these folks “well, clearly you’re not REALLY happy.” Because they’ll likely respond, “actually dude, I really am.”
I think that those kinds of test cases are the real areas where the church will have difficulties in the future. Ultimately, the church will fully accept gay and lesbian relationships. Ultimately, divorced and remarried or co-habitating couples will find a home in the church. Ultimately, the church will get over its censoriousness with regard to pre-marital sex, while still encouraging teens to delay sex till as close to marriage as possible.
But can we imagine a situation in which the church embraces polyamorous relationships? I suspect not, nor do I think it would be a particularly good idea. But what of various kinds of “monogam-ish” relationships (as Dan Savage would say).
I think a relationship of toleration for sexual outliers is probably the course of action the church needs to pursue in the future. But how far out can we tolerate the outliers to be?Whatever a future sexual ethic happens to be, it needs to be rooted in a theology of hospitality, grace, generosity, and forgiveness, which are the heart of the Gospel. For too long it has been an ethic based in denial, hostility, gnosticism, and condemnation. That has never done anyone any good, and now it is simply untenable in a world where sex, marriage, and reproduction are effectively separate subjects. Decrying that things are different won't get you very far. The question is how to respond.