The Sex Blog, Part 2: Beyond Abstinence

In Part 1, I addressed a debate about pre-marital sex that sprung up on the internet, set off by a young woman who wrote about dealing with incredible guilt because of the way her church addressed the subject of sex and marriage. The many blogs by Christian woman that have been written in response do not address what I believe is the core issue: the church is horrible at talking about sex. To do this better, we're going to have to open our doors for some potentially uncomfortable conversations and be a safe space for subjects that people may be afraid to talk about.

I often don't know how to address these issues either. I can't personally relate to Pugsley's experience. But here's my shot at some key points of the conversation. This is not a complete, systematic Christian theology of human sexuality. I won't address everything, and I'm not under any illusion that I'm saying something new, so please point me to any sources that may have said any of this before me and better than me.

humanity. love. respect. from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 B.S. Wise, Flickr | CC-BY
1) We need a holistic approach to sexuality based on personhood more than abstinence. To be clear right off the bat: this does not mean that I approve of sexual activity in young people. On the contrary, I'm quite traditional when it comes to this value. There are actually a lot of good practical and emotional reasons for unmarried young people to avoid full sexual intimacy. It's not just an abstract, pretentious religious rule. But to focus on abstinence is to focus on a "don't." This is a constant problem with Christians on all social issues. We're known for what we're against, not what we're for. A full understanding of personhood extends beyond our young, pre-married life and speaks to what it means to value ourselves and another human, whether we're married, single, divorced, etc. A Christian view of personhood, that includes sexuality, is about honoring ourselves and others as a fearfully and wonderfully made creation of God (Psalm 139:14), treating each others' bodies as the temple of God's Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), and offering ourselves as a "living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God" (Romans 12:2). Instead of authoritatively telling people what to do and not do, can we instead affirm who we are? Let's teach these life-giving, value-affirming principles, and tell young people how and why we have lived this out in relation to our desires. Instead of asking questions of indulgence ("How far can/will I go?") we can ask questions like, "How will I honor myself and the other?" Such values desperately need to be promoted in our culture, which has especially been a hostile place for women and girls. The problem of sexual harassment/assault that some face every day is still largely misunderstood and even denied by many men.

We talk about first-time sexual intercourse as "losing one's virginity," but is it always a loss? In what contexts are we actually gaining something? I, for one, believe that sex is experienced in one of its most beautiful and meaningful ways when it is one part of our whole selves that we give to another person in a lifelong commitment. In marriage, we merge our lives and souls, submitting everything to the other person (Genesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:21; Matthew 19:6). It is such a serious and permanent decision that Jesus' teaching on marriage left some of the disciples saying, "It is better not to marry" (Matthew 19:10). We need to think twice before "yielding our body" (1 Corinthians 7:4) with someone to whom we haven't yielded everything else. There are similar problems with cohabitation--living together before marriage. When couples do this, they are living as a family without having made the commitment of a family. Rob Bell has a great video about the 3 major Hebrew words for love in the Old Testament and how these "3 flames" were meant to "burn together." I affirm all of that.


2) The Christian abstinence movement is falling very short. If it worked for you, I'm happy to hear that. But you're in the minority.

Any parent knows what happens when you put up a boundary for a child and say, "Don't go past this." The child will either blow right through the boundary or, at best, see how close they can get to it without going over. Adults aren't much better half the time. This is basically where religious abstinence teaching has gotten us. There are lots of youth ministers out there who can tell you about the "how far is too far" conversations. It produces questions that have no good answer. 'Does God get mad at me at 2nd base, or is it 3rd base?'

We're facing some pretty embarrassing statistics about teens who take abstinence pledges. In a study done by Janet Elise Rosenbaum, pledgers waited longer before having sex but were no more likely to abstain all the way until marriage. They were also less likely to use contraception than those who had never taken such a pledge. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping statistic was that 82% of those studied--more than 8 in 10--denied ever having taken the pledge 5 years after the fact.

3) The Christian abstinence movement can be repressive. In some circles, abstinence means "don't acknowledge or express your sexual desires in any way." This is unhealthy and harmful repression. We were created with these desires. Any time after puberty, they can become preoccupying and overwhelming for either gender (in different ways). Boys develop a particularly strong drive and often face ridicule and belittlement from females for having a primal urge which they are given little guidance for handling. Both genders reach some high levels of their respective hormones long before the average marriage age, which is now around 27. Although both women and men have a fundamental need for companionship, such emotional needs tend to have a more complex connection with physical intimacy for women, who disproportionately bear the consequences of ill-advised sex (up to and including pregnancy).

4) The Christian abstinence movement misses a lot of people. There are many groups to whom abstinence has nothing to offer. What about single adults or divorcées? It doesn't appear to me that God turns off a person's needs when there's no partner available. The problem with the call to abstinence for single people is that it tends to come from married people. Some single people feel a call to celibacy or to stay totally away from romantic relationships. That's fine...the point is that it's between them and God. I as a married man would have a lot of chutzpah to tell them, "God will get you through it." From the stance of personhood, a single person can start with the same question as the rest of us: "How do I honor myself as a fearfully and wonderfully made temple of God?" A focus on abstinence bypasses other groups of people as well, like an unmarried person who has already had sex (with or without regret) or those who are experiencing same-sex attraction or gender identity issues. And it can be a downright painful subject for those who have been the victims of sexual abuse or rape, losing part of their sexual self against their will.

In addition, a church that has no sexual teaching other than abstinence has nothing to say to married couples who face many complex and disorienting changes to their sexuality (among other things) during their life together. Not that married couples are chomping at the bit to discuss such things in church, but I've seen how it works. A church focused on abstinence has only one thing to offer married couples: "Be sure to teach your kids abstinence."

Honeymoon Couple @ Ambre Resort, Mauritius!!! from Flickr via Wylio
© 2013 Natesh Ramasamy, Flickr | CC-BY
5) The Christian abstinence movement has made irresponsible promises. Christine J. Gardner conducted a qualitative study of teen abstinence efforts, and one of her conclusions is that the movement unrealistically romanticizes that future relationship (via stereotypical gender roles) and promises that everything will be wonderful if you wait. Gardner's book includes several interviews with people who managed to wait but were blindsided by issues on the other side of the vows (remember Samantha?) or for whom it simply took months to years before sex became enjoyable. She also concludes that abstinence is primarily sold to Christian teens through...well, sex.
Organizers argue that chastity is sexier than its alternative, more ultimately alluring and more gratifying. A young person says no now so that he or she can say yes to marital satisfaction later. The formula goes: early restraint plus godly partner equals great marital sex. Organizers promise that “good sex” is worth waiting for, and that those who wait will be well rewarded by God in sexually fulfilling marriages. (religionandpolitics.org).
Books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and When God Writes Your Love Story gained a lot of traction in their day. They certainly had some good things to say about faithfulness to God and the divine purpose for marriage. But they rely on a popular Western idea that is found nowhere in the Bible: God has one person and one person only in mind for us. God never promised us a mate, but many teens take an abstinence pledge having been told otherwise. The concept of one single soulmate is a product of later Calvinism and Western romance, not anything in scripture. Matt Sturtevant, a friend and colleague, says that these fanciful expectations have set many people up for failure. "As soon as these couples start to have problems, they think it is a selection issue and not a hard work issue," he said, "so they start the selection process over again."

Although there is much to critique about the current dating scene, one of Joshua Harris' arguments against dating is the heartbreak and confusion it causes, as if we can somehow shield young people from this by telling them to "wait on God." We can say that all we want, but to a love struck young person, oxytocin feels a lot like the Holy Spirit.

6) Christian leaders and parents need to be a safe place. Teens and young adults especially have to be able to talk to us (but only when they want to). Boys are statistically very likely (more so than girls) to view sexually explicit material before high school. What is our response? Do we have something in our arsenal besides shaming or avoiding? What would empathy and understanding look like? What about the daughter who wants to be with that questionable boy? Do we just jump into protective mode, or are we able to put anxieties to rest long enough to listen to and understand the deep longing she has? Chances are, society had already handily chipped away at her self-esteem long before the boy puts her on cloud nine. (These examples are not meant to reinforce gender stereotypes but simply address what is most typical).

Somehow we have to find a way to affirm sexual thoughts and desires as normal while still addressing the poor choices to which they can lead. The same book of the Bible that warns us: "Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires" (Song of Songs 2:7) is the same book that contains lines like, "Your breasts are like two fawns" (Song of Songs 4:5). Not surprisingly, the prudes of the abstinence movement have tried to spiritualize Song of Songs and claim that it's not saying what it's clearly saying.

Of course, the problem I face with affirming the need for sexual exploration is that society doesn't really offer any healthy options for doing so. This is where brave Christian leaders need to come together for some honest, uncomfortable conversations, and realize there's a lot more to intimacy and sexual expression than whether we would check "have" or "have not."

I hope it goes without saying that Christian leaders can be part of the problem. We still haven't dealt with the sexual abuse scandals that continue to rock the church. It's interesting, though. So many of these horrifying stories have come across the airwaves, yet we still don't seem to be asking deeper questions about what repressed sexual struggles may lie at the root of these acts of abuse. Our society is very punitively oriented and has little interest in understanding the offenders. A Christianity Today survey found that nearly 40% of pastors struggle with pornography. Take the amount of shame a normal person might have about this and multiply it many times for pastors. The issues we're not addressing run wide and deep, and I'm not sure we've tapped into what offenders could teach us about helping prevent future cases.

7) While we're talking about the Bible... Let's be sure we understand that scripture is a great place to go for principles, understanding original purpose, etc., but because of cultural differences, it has limited usefulness in practical matters. In Biblical times, marriage was little more than a transfer of property between the girl's father and her new husband, and a man could have as many wives as he could afford. Women had no say in anything, including when to have sex, and their purpose was to bear children and continue the man's lineage. A woman who had sex with a man to whom she wasn't married was stoned, but a man who did the same only had to make sure he married the woman after the fact (Exodus 22:16). In the New Testament, some of Paul's practical advice on marriage was "a concession, not a command" (1 Corinthians 7:6), and within the context of expecting Christ's imminent return. He saw no point in worrying about family life, advising against marriage and telling people to stay the way they were, unless they "cannot control themselves" (1 Corinthians 7:9).

So needless to say, we need to be careful with the Bible on this issue, but it also contains the key to affirming our personhood and value to God as a guiding force for all our decisions.

8) Public policy check. I hope it comes as no surprise that we can't control others' choices (or heat-of-the-moment decisions). As with many other issues, we have to affirm policies that promote public well-being but still allow people the freedom to make their own choices. The current fight over contraception is political and all about control. Rick Santorum once (accidentally?) revealed what it's really about when he said, "[Contraception is] not OK, because it's a license to do things in the sexual realm that are counter to how things are supposed to be." In other words, you can't have contraception because you'll have sex with it. Christian schools like Wheaton College previously had no problem covering contraception, including emergency contraception, until doing so was mandated by the ACA. The root problem of abortion is unintended pregnancy, and banning abortion does nothing to address that. It's time for Christians to stop the hissy-fit and get behind comprehensive sex education that includes contraception. Research does not support the Christian claim that contraception encourages promiscuity, but it does show that people who receive comprehensive sex education are less likely to end up with an unintended pregnancy...60% less likely.


We are fearfully and wonderfully made temples of God, sexuality and all. Let's keep working to find better ways to model and teach that.

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