This blog is a work in progress. Careful readers might note that in this post, I said that communicating about sexual intimacy must be verbal. You’ll see in this post that I’ve softened on this point.
In the previous two posts, I argued that in place of the dramatically unhelpful purity culture, the church would do well to move towards a culture of communication and consent. The two go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other because they work in tandem. But in this post, I want to recap my thoughts on…
Everyone knows that communication is key to good relationships.
Funny thing though, when it comes to physical intimacy, some people have the notion that things should just happen, or that it isn’t romantic to talk about intimate acts before (or as) they happen.
Let me return to this quote by the philosopher Lois Pineau who wrote (emphasis mine):
…in intimate situations, we have an obligation to take the [pleasure-based, sexual] ends of others as our own and to promote those ends in a nonmanipulative and nonpaternalistic manner… the obligation to promote the sexual ends of one’s partner implies the obligation to know what those ends are… Thus, the problem comes down to a problem of epistemic responsibility, the responsibility to know. The solution, in my view, lies in the practice of a communicative sexuality, one which combines the appropriate knowledge of the other with respect for the dialectics of desire.1
Pineau’s notion of “communicative sexuality” is core to the ideas that I’m trying to convey. One of the things that makes sexual intimacy so great is the pleasure that it brings. But because pleasure is a highly subjective, individual feeling/emotion, the only way to know if the other person is experiencing pleasure is to communicate.
The ability to communicate assumes that there is something to say. Unfortunately, one of the tragic elements of purity culture is, at best, it never teaches people to approach their sexual desires with a curious eye towards what brings them pleasure. At worst, it separates people from their inherent, God-given sexual desires by shaming and encouraging people to deny them. Either way, this produces a situation where people (even in marriage2) become intimate without a way to communicate what they want/don’t want to the other because they’re disconnected from the sexual aspect of themselves.
This is why I spent time talking about James Nelson’s idea of sexual salvation – the idea that we need to embrace (even celebrate) the fact that God created us as sexual beings. Regardless of how vanilla or kinky our individual sexual desires may be, we need to acknowledge them as God-given and thus worthy of thoughtful, prayerful curiosity.3 Because if we can’t be welcoming and curious about our own sexuality, then how are we ever going to be able to communicate what we do/don’t want to our partners?
And this notion can be summed up in this simple sexual, ethical guideline:
If you’re not ready, willing, and able to communicate about engaging in a newer, deeper form of sexual intimacy with another person, you’re not ready to engage in that activity yet.
For example, let’s say Phil is in his first relationship and he’s curious about what it might be like to kiss or be kissed. But he’s not sure if he wants to go there yet because this is his first relationship and there are some concerns about whether this other person is a good fit for him. This uncertainty inhibits his ability to communicate his thoughts around kissing and that suggests that he’s not ready to kiss yet.4 He might want to spend more time evaluating how he feels about the relationship and how that might relate to how he feels about kissing.5
In contrast to purity culture, the approach that I’m proposing re-centers Christian sexual ethics within6 the individuals in relationship7. If our sexuality is a gift from God, we shouldn’t be shaming and denying it. Instead, we should be prayerfully and thoughtfully curious about it – paying attention to the contours of our sexual selves (what brings us pleasure and what doesn’t). This communication half of communication and consent focuses on the self in the midst of the relationship. It encourages people to be aware of themselves and curious about how God has uniquely created them so that they can be ready to communicate this to the person they’re with.
Of course once that communication happens, it’s then on the other person to respond, and that puts us squarely in the realm of consent – something I’ll address in the next post.
1 Lois Pineau, “Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis,” in Date Rape: Feminism, Philosophy, and the Law, ed. Leslie Francis (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 18.
2 For example, here’s one woman who remained abstinent until her wedding night and now regrets it. “Sex hurt. I knew it would. Everyone told me it would be uncomfortable the first time. What they didn’t tell me is that I would be back in the bathroom afterward, crying quietly for reasons I didn’t yet comprehend. They didn’t tell me that I’d be on my honeymoon, crying again, because sex felt dirty and wrong and sinful even though I was married and it was supposed to be okay now.” Samantha Pugsley, “It Happened To Me: I Waited Until My Wedding Night to Lose My Virginity and I Wish I Hadn’t,” xoJane, http://www.xojane.com/sex/true-love-waits-pledge (Accessed 10/05/2014).
3 This isn’t to say that all desires are good. The desire to harm another against their will violates God’s command to love your neighbor as your self.
4 One way for Phil to work through this inhibition would be for him to actually bring up his thoughts (even his uncertainty) with the person he’s in relationship with.
5 Or on the other end of the intimacy spectrum, let’s say that Lisa and her partner are already having sex but she’s interested in introducing a new sexual activity into the mix (say, anal play, for example). But she feels uncomfortable bringing this up with her partner. There could be any number of reasons for this hesitation, but until she’s able to come to the point where she can communicate this desire to her partner, freely and openly (including her fears and reservations and where they might be coming from), she’s not ready to engage in that activity.
6 In contrast, purity culture focuses on an external set of rules around behaviors that are permitted or prohibited. But because there is no clear biblical mandate for where on the sexual intimacy spectrum to draw the line between permitted and prohibited, they draw often place this line WAY over on the not-sexually-intimate side of the spectrum. This explains why Joshua Harris’ book was titled, I Kissed Dating Goodbye – that’s how far removed he thought Christians should be when it comes to sexual intimacy.
The problem is that an external, purity-based sexual ethic keeps people from getting to know their own, unique sexual selves. It teaches people that their sexuality is something to be feared, shamed, ignored, denied, at least until they are married. Even worse, it gives very little guidance on how to navigate the vast emotional/relational distance between singleness and marriage (other than encouraging couples to move as quickly as possible from one to the other which brings with it a whole host of huge problems). It doesn’t teach self-awareness which means that it can’t teach sexual communication skills (other than the practice of saying “no” to everything) since people can’t communicate what they don’t know.
7 This doesn’t render the church irrelevant, but it does change the role of the church. Rather than being a place where rules and behaviors are proscribed from the pulpit, the church becomes a place of formation – helping individuals in the church to know their unique, God-given selves. The task of the church is also to help individuals to discern for themselves how God is calling them to steward their lives through prayer, reading scripture, and by discussing their thoughts in the community of faith.
And when we’re new to relationships, there will be many aspects of our sexual selves that we won’t know (having never experienced them) and in this case, the best, safest way to learn is to communicate with the other person before, during, and after the act.
In the previous post, I talked about the importance of communicating one’s own sexual needs/desires/boundaries – the idea of “communicative sexuality.”1 The flip side of this is listening for the needs/desires/boundaries of the other person and that entails seeking their consent.
I’ll readily acknowledge that communicating one’s sexual desires is already awkward and hard, but there’s even more to it than that. Based on Farley’s notions of a justice based sexual ethic, (especially her ideas around mutuality and equality), there is one more thing that needs to be taken into account: power.
Communication rarely (if ever) takes place on a level playing field. Based on a variety of different factors (class, race, gender, etc.), in any given conversation (especially around a charged topic like sexual intimacy), there will be differing levels of privilege and power at play and that fact needs to be attended to if the talk is to truly be mutual. For example, in a heterosexual relationship, “while more women need to speak up about their sexual desires, men also need to proactively ask their female lovers what they want… and recognize that it may not be easy for women to talk about.”2 Thus, a truly just notion of consent is one where explicit verbal consent is given freely and more abstract ideas like mutuality and equality have been attended to.
And that leads to a second simple, sexual guideline: if you sense that the other person is not ready and/or able to talk about engaging in a level of sexual intimacy with you, then they’re not ready to do it at all.
I spent an entire section of this project critiquing purity culture and it’s one message, “don’t.” I’ve tried to make a case for an approach centered around communication and consent, but many single people in a relationship still just want to know: “can or can’t we do X, Y, or Z?” Another way of asking this is, “in this Christian sexual ethical framework that I’m proposing, can one still speak of boundaries?”
Or to name the elephant in the room, “is sex outside of marriage okay or not?”
Let me say up front that some might accuse me of evading the question by not answering it directly, but here’s the thing. Questions only make sense in a given context. For example, it makes no sense to ask someone who drives an all-electric car how many miles per gallon their car gets. In a similar way, the question of premarital sex misses the whole point of the framework that I’m proposing.4
However, if pressed for an answer, this is what I would say. If two people are in a committed, loving relationship with one another; and if both individuals have a healthy understanding and acceptance of their God-given, embodied sexuality; and if they are both ready, willing, and able to talk about their sexual needs and desires with one another, while attending to any power differentials that may be at play – if all of this is in place and that couple decides that they want to explore the full range of their sexuality (translation: “have sex”) with one another before they’re married, then I think the church should respect that decision.
Notice that I didn’t say that the church has to celebrate or even condone the decision, but I do believe that the church should respect the fact that the couple has wrestled with the issue and not arrived at their conclusion lightly.5 At the same time, if the situation warrants it, I think it is right and appropriate for someone in church leadership to question this couple about their decision in a way that respects their autonomy and relationality.
2 Rachel Kramer Bussel, “Beyond Yes or No: Consent as Sexual Process,” in Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, ed. Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008), 49.
3 Of course sexual intimacy exists on a spectrum. Couples move across this spectrum as their relationship progresses and so this consensual, communicative sexuality is an open-ended one. Ideally, as a couple moves from hand holding to kissing and beyond, there should ideally be open communication and consent at every one of these stages.
4 In fact, the question puts us right back into the problem with the more common behavioral approach – it puts the focus not on individuals and their relationships, but on abstract, external factors. It gets people off the hook of having to examine, understand, and accept their own sexuality, and it offers them no tools with which to talk about their sexuality with the person they are in relationship with.
5 The question of how to manage differing ideas about sexual boundaries is a difficult and important one I hope to take up in a future post.
In my critique of purity culture, I pointed out that the basic message coming out of this culture is “don’t.” Don’t kiss, don’t touch anything, don’t feel sexual feelings, etc. The problem with this approach is 1) it doesn’t work and 2) it leads to feelings of alienation and shame. At the same time, a sexual ethic based on inaction (“don’t”) leaves people paralyzed – it offers little to no practical guidance on what single people can do with their sexuality.
I want to suggest that the overarching problem with purity culture is that it approaches the topic of sexuality from a strictly behavioral standpoint – that is to say, it only focuses on what people can or can’t do in terms of their sexuality (with a inordinate emphasis on the “can’t” bit). Based on the work of James Nelson and Jessica Farley that I outlined in the previous sections, I want to suggest that in place of the behavioral approach of purity culture, what the church should be teaching is an approach that focuses on communication and consent.
Let me begin by saying a bit about the concept of consent.
In the realm of sexuality, the word has most often been used as a way of combating the problem of rape culture – the idea that societal norms foster an environment where sexual assault is normalized and/or subtly encouraged.1 Unfortunately, because the topic of rape is such an uncomfortable one (for both victims and non-victims), the idea of consent has remained on the periphery.
I think it’s high time that we talk about the idea of consent on its own terms, not just in contrast to rape culture. In other words, I think we should talk about the idea of consent not just as a solution to the problem of sexual assault, but as a solution to the more general problem of how society as a whole (especially the church) thinks and talks about singleness and sexuality.2
Many trace the origins of the consent-based approach to sex to the philosopher Lois Pineau who wrote,
…in intimate situations, we have an obligation to take the [pleasure-based, sexual] ends of others as our own and to promote those ends in a nonmanipulative and nonpaternalistic manner… the obligation to promote the sexual ends of one’s partner implies the obligation to know what those ends are… Thus, the problem comes down to a problem of epistemic responsibility, the responsibility to know. The solution, in my view, lies in the practice of a communicative sexuality, one which combines the appropriate knowledge of the other with respect for the dialectics of desire.3
The basic idea there is that sexual intimacy is about seeking to fulfill the pleasure-seeking desires of one’s self and those of the other, but the only way one can truly know what the other person wants is to talk about it. – what Pineau calls “the practice of communicative sexuality.”
Any communication begins with knowing what I want to communicate to another. Nelson’s work on a self-accepting, embodied sexuality gets us to that first step – acknowledging and accepting what I want out of a relationship as a sexual being. It’s only when I have an understanding of who I am and what I want that I’m able to communicate those desires to the person I am in relationship with.
Now let me be clear here. When I advocate for communicating one’s sexual desires, I mean verbal communication. Rachel Kramer Bussel writes,
Neither partner can afford to be passive and just wait to see how far the other person will go. That dynamic puts everyone in an awkward position; for traditional heterosexuals, it means the man is always trying to see “how far he can go,” while the woman is stuck in the uncomfortable position of trying to enjoy herself while not having a voice in the proceedings…4
And while I understand that this may go against some people’s romantic notions, I never said that these best practices would be easy. Anyway, Bussel goes on to say, “It’s a huge red flag if you never wind up feeling comfortable enough to speak up about sex with the one person you should be able to talk about it.”
That leads to a first simple, sexual guideline: if you’re not ready and/or able to talk about engaging in a level of sexual intimacy with your partner, you’re not ready to do it at all.
There’s a flip side to this guideline. For Christian singles tending towards sexual asceticism, the question can be reframed this way: if you’re not engaging in any level of sexual activity, are you able to talk about why?5 Asked another way, do you know what your sexual desires are and are you able to articulate why you’re choosing not to act on them?
In the next post, I’ll say a bit more about the topic of consent in my next post and answer the elephant that enters the room whenever we talk about sex and the church: sex outside of marriage.
1 To name just one way that rape culture works: “When society equates maleness with a constant desire for sex, men are socialized out of genuine sexual decision making, and are less likely to be able to now how to say no or to be comfortable refusing sex when they don’t want it.” Jill Filipovic, “Offensive Feminism: The Conservative Gender Norms That Perpetuate Rape Culture, and How Feminists Can Fight Back,” in Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, ed. Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008), 18.
2 To be fair, this is the work that feminists have been trying to do all along.
3 Lois Pineau, “Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis,” in Date Rape: Feminism, Philosophy, and the Law, ed. Leslie Francis (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 18.
4 Rachel Kramer Bussel, “Beyond Yes or No: Consent as Sexual Process,” in Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, ed. Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008), 45.
5 The answer, “because that’s what my church taught me” is an inadequate (and self-denying) answer. Thing is, if someone chooses celibacy, that’s great. I have no issue with that at all. However, just as with the choice to actively engage one’s sexuality should be thought through carefully and prayerfully, so too the choice to not engage should also be thought through. Also, this choice does not negate the need to know and understand what one desires sexually – this knowledge cannot wait until one is already in a relationship.
I admit that the previous two posts about a justice-based approach to Christian sexual ethics were pretty boring and academic. In this post, I’ll try to recap some of those ideas in a more friendly, accessible way.
As always, questions, comments, criticisms are always welcome in the comments.
In a way, everything in the previous two posts have been about the idea of respect – respect for the other as well as respect for one’s self – and while that seems like a simple idea in theory, in practice it can be tremendously difficult to live out. And nowhere is this disconnect more apparent than in the realm of sexuality, because sexuality1 is not just about the act of sexual intercourse, it’s also about what we desire sexually and why/how we choose to (or choose not to) act on what we desire. And while there are exceptions, for the most part, our sexuality is always, in some way, engaged in relation to someone else2 and that other person will have their own unique set of wants/desires/boundaries related to their sexuality.
Margaret Farley believes that rather than the shallow moralism of purity culture, the idea of justice can form the basis of a healthier, more practical Christian sexual ethic for today. This justice-based sexual ethic is rooted in the idea that both people in a relationship “ought to be affirmed according to their concrete reality, actual and potential.”3 In other words, the wholeness of each person (who they are, what they want, what they long to be) in a relationship should be affirmed (respected).
Think about the movie, 500 Days of Summer. Tom meets Summer and right at the outset of their relationship, Summer says that at this point in her life, she doesn’t believe in love and doesn’t want a boyfriend. Here, Summer is clearly abiding by many of Farley’s principles that I outlined in the last couple posts.
Tom, on the other hand, seems to fail on a few points. Near the mid-point of the movie, it becomes clear that where Summer still sees their relationship as a friendship situation, Tom sees (or at least wants) something more. Here, we see that he hasn’t attended to Summer’s concrete reality – the reality that she just wants to be friends. Likewise, by trying to impose his desire for a romantic partnership on Summer, he is trying to impinge on her autonomy.5
Stated simply, the basic idea is that people in a relationship need to be communicating their needs, wants, and desires to the person they’re with. And that brings, finally, to an alternative to the shortcomings of purity culture – something I’m going to refer to as consent culture.
More on this in the next series of posts!
1James B. Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburh Publishing House, 1978), 17 – 18.
2 Even in the case of a person alone with their fantasies, they are usually fantasizing about another.
3 Margaret A. Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), 209.
4 It might have been nice to hear explicit verbal consent “I’m not looking for a relationship right now but if you’re cool with that, I’m willing to engage in this relationship on a friends with benefits basis,” but by being up front about her expectations around relationships, she’s obtaining implicit (as opposed to explicit) consent.
5 I’m not saying that it’s wrong for Tom to have developed feelings for Summer. Of course that happens. However, he should have communicated this shift in his feelings towards her when he became aware of them as a way of making sure that Summer was aware of the shift in his own concrete reality.
In the previous post, I laid out the groundwork for Margaret Farley’s justice-based sexual ethic which culminate in what she calls “norms for just [justice-based] sex.”1 In this post, I’ll outline four of these norms.
Also, I know the language in this post and the previous one has been rather dry and academic. In the next post, I’ll try to restate Farley’s ideas in a more accessible way. Just as I did with the posts on sexual salvation. Stay tuned.
I’ll have much more to say about consent (and the way that the other three norms below help us more fully understand the concept of consent) in the next section, but for now, I do want to highlight the way that consent is not just about asking permission. For Farley, it also has to do with “truth-telling and promise-keeping” because violating these values “limits and hence hinders the freedom of choice of the other person.”3
As an example of this, if I lie and promise a level of commitment that I have no intention of keeping [“Oh, baby, you know I love you and will love you forever…”] for the sole purpose of obtaining consent from someone [“so how about we make out tonight?”], that person is giving consent to something they might not otherwise if I had been completely truthful [“I’m really horny and you’re hot so how about we just suck face for a while?”4]. My lie is a misrepresentation of my own concrete reality and thus, I am not obtaining free consent, I am coercing it.5
And coerced consent is not free consent is not consent at all.
Mutuality is a word that’s, unfortunately, not in common use today. In describing mutuality, Farley begins with a counterexample – what mutuality doesn’t look like: the view of the sexes that is largely (though sadly not entirely) archaic today – “images of the male as active and the female passive…” Such a perspective will never lead to mutuality in a heterosexual relationship because a passive person (especially one who is taught/told to be that way) can’t have the sort of autonomy (freedom) I wrote about in the previous post.
In contrast, “The key for us has become not activity/passivity but active receptivity and receptive activity – each partner active, each one receptive.”6 (Note that Farley replaces the word “passive’ with “receptive” and that this is an “active receptivity.”) Stated another way, mutuality “entails some form of activity and receptivity, giving and receiving — two sides of one shared reality on the part of and within both persons.”7
Closely related to the idea of mutuality is that of equality. And the difference between mutuality and equality is not one of kind but of focus. In other words, whereas mutuality focuses on the relational dynamics at play between couples, equality focus on power dynamics.
Major inequalities in social and economic status, age and maturity, professional identity, interpretations of gender roles, and so forth, can render sexual relations inappropriate and unethical primarily because they entail power inequalities…8
This is not to say that power has to be perfectly equal in order for a relationship to be just, that would be an impossible ideal to achieve, but it is to say that a part of maintaining the just aspect of a relationship is attending to power differentials and how they might be limiting or affecting the felt autonomy of the person with less power.
One might note that the previous norms have nothing distinctly Christian about them – they are norms that come out of more universal notions of justice and apply to people regardless of faith affiliation (or lack thereof). The requirement for commitment as a part of a sexual ethical framework, however, can be seen as a distinctly Christian position.
At the heart of the Christian community’s understanding of sexuality in human and Christian life has been the notion that some form of commitment, some form of covenant or at least contract, must characterize relations that include a sexual dimension.9
Thus, where there are many books on sex and sexuality from a secular perspective that would affirm, along with the church, the four previous norms, it is on the issue of commitment where they begin to diverge. Of course there are many books from a secular point of view that also celebrate and encourage commitment as a part of sexual relationships, but there are also a growing number that make the case that the human animal is not (and has never been) a sexually monogamous one and thus, traditional notions of lifetime commitment to one partner is archaic and anthropologically irrelevant.10
The Christian biblical witness, on the other hand, stands squarely for a position that holds sex and commitment together, not just as an ideal, but as a norm.
It’s important to note that all of these norms are not behavioral rules. They don’t focus on what individuals or couples can or can’t do because, as I stated before, the problem with rules is that they are rigid while people are malleable and ever changing. In contrast, Farley’s norms are relational. More importantly, they allow for variety and thus make room for the particular uniqueness of couples and the individuals in relationship.
Again, I apologize for the academic tone of this post. I’ll provide a more accessible summary in the next post.
As always I’d love to hear any questions, or concerns in the comments section below. Anonymous comments accepted.
In the previous series of posts, I spoke about how a full embrace of one’s sexuality ideally leads to a gracious sort self-acceptance and awareness of one’s sexuality. As this self-aware person moves out into the world to encounter other sexually self-aware people (aka going out on dates), they will inevitably find that they have different sets of sexual needs, desires, and boundaries. Once this happens, there needs to be some guiding principles that couples can use to help negotiate these differences. Margaret Farley suggests that looking at the issue of love and sex through the lens of justice leads to a set of guiding ethical norms that can help couples navigate the sexual aspect of their relationship in a way that respects and honors the values, desires, and boundaries of both partners.
Similar to Nelson, in the previous posts, Farley rejects any dualistic notions of a mind/body split, and although she uses the word “spirit” in place of mind, she basically means the same thing when she writes that “our bodies and our sprits are one – distinguishable as aspects of our personhood, but unified in a way that they are neither mere parts of one whole nor reducible one to the other.”1 In place of this dualistic understanding, Farley proposes what she calls “the concrete reality of the beloved.”2
Farley roots her notion of justice around the principle that both people in a relationship “ought to be affirmed according to their concrete reality, actual and potential.”3 In speaking of the concrete reality of the beloved, Farley is talking about an understanding of the wholeness (the concrete reality) of the person loved. And by this, she means loving another person as they actually are – not an idealized or imagined or projected version of them. Folded into this concrete reality are all of the many features of what make a person a person, including their free will, their thoughts and feelings, their need for relationship, their socio-economic, cultural context. In addition to who they are today, it also includes their “positive potentiality for development, for human and individual flourishing; as well as their vulnerability to diminishment” (which is a fancy way of saying we need to respect the future potential of the other person). For Farley, “A just love of persons will take all of these aspects of persons into account, though some will be more important than others, depending on the context and the nature of a relationship.”4
In short, whereas the posts on sexual salvation, made a case for knowing one’s self (specifically one’s sexuality), here Farley states that in loving the concrete reality of another, we must love the totality (the reality) of who that person actually (concretely) is. And, of course, that includes loving and respecting the totality of the other person’s sexuality – their sexual needs, desires, and boundaries.
But people are complex and irreducible, so Farley focuses on two aspects of a person’s concrete reality that are especially relevant to the development of a sexual ethic: autonomy and relationality. For Farley, these are important because “they ground an obligation to respect persons as ends in themselves and forbid, therefore, the use of persons as mere means.”5
The word autonomy basically means freedom – the freedom to make one’s own decisions and/or to define one’s self. This is closely related to the idea of embodiment that I spoke of in the previous sections. It is only with a self-aware sense of autonomy (or freedom) that one can come to understand and embrace their embodied sexuality. Farley emphasizes that one person’s ability to define themselves autonomously cannot infringe on another’s freedom to define themself.
…to treat another human person as a mere means is to violate her insofar as she is autonomous; it is to attempt to absorb her completely into my agenda, rather than respecting the one that is her own.6
In other words, I am not free to use another person for my own needs or desires because that violates their freedom and thus, their concrete reality.
But at the same time, an integral part of who we are has to do with our relationality. Across various fields of psychology, neurology, and anthropology, attachment theory suggests that humans are only fully human in relationship to others.7 As Farley puts it,
We are who we are not only because we can to some degree determine ourselves to be so by our freedom but because we are transcendent of ourselves through our capacities to know and to love.8
In other words, it’s not enough to merely define ourselves in our embodied autonomy, independent of others, because an integral part of what it is to be human is to be in relationship with other autonomous persons.
Now what does all this talk about autonomy and relationality have to do with sex? For Farley, these form the basis for what she calls “norms for just sex”9 – her term for what I’m referring to as best practices. She has seven norms, but in the next post, I’ll cover the four that are especially relevant to the topic of singleness and sexuality.10
I know this post is probably the most academic sounding one yet. The next one will be pretty similar in tone. However, just as I did with the posts on sexual salvation, I’ll include a more accessible summary after part two is up.
One of the things I wrote in my introduction is that I wanted to take the work of more academically minded writers (whose work I found helpful in reframing the conversation around sexuality and the church) and make them more accessible to a general audience.
Full disclosure: much of the last few posts here have come directly out of the final paper I wrote for grad school and as such, it’s not quite as conversational as I’d like (hey, when you gotta graduate, you gotta do what you gotta do, you know?).
And so the goal of this post is to try to restate those posts in a way that is more accessible and conversational. In other words, to restate those ideas in my own voice.
Let me begin by saying a bit more about the idea of dualism. Stated simply, the idea that James Nelson is trying to critique is the idea that the mind and the body are two separate things (I’ll get to why this critique is important soon).
Think of it this way. If it were possible to put a human brain in a jar and keep it “alive,” could we really consider that to be a living human being? Without a spinal cord and a peripheral nervous system to allow it to sense and interact with the world, can a human brain in a jar be considered a human being in any meaningful way?
Without eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and fingers, Brainjar wouldn’t be able to sense anything outside of itself. You could tap on its jar with your finger but because the brain itself has no nerve endings, Brainjar would never be able to know/feel/sense that tapping. So without anyway for the outside world to make it into Brainjar, can it be considered human?
Or seen the other way around, without a way for Brainjar to communicate its own internal thoughts to the outside world, how is that in any way a living, human person? I mean, even the idea of personhood becomes problematic without the idea of personality – something that really only shows up through interactions, something Brainjar can’t do.
Of course one might say, “well why not give Brainjar robotic arms and legs, and a voice synthesizer? But that question just proves the point that James Nelson is trying to get across – that the brain and the body cannot be thought of as separate and distinct. – they are inseparable and must be though of as a unit.
This critique of dualism is important because Nelson argues that when those in the purity movement tell people to deny their sexuality (their sexual thoughts/feelings/desires), they’re telling them to see the body and brain as separate and distinct. Sexuality is just as much a part of a person’s being as their arms, legs, and kidneys are. And so when someone like Joshua Harris writes, “To fight lust in our lives, we have to detest it with the same intensity God does… We should seek to completely remove lust from our minds,”1 in effect, he’s asking us to lop off a part of our body, our selves.
You can see the mind/body dualism underlying Harris’ work in the phrase, “remove lust from our minds.” He assumes there that lust is something that only exists in the mind, not the body. But sexual arousal2 isn’t something that only exists in the mind, it’s a whole bodied experience.
Medically, psychologically, and anthropologically, humans are wired for sex.
No animal spends more of its allotted time on Earth fussing over sex than Homo sapiens — not even the famously libidinous bonobo… For these two species (and apparently only these two species), nonproductive sex is “natural,” a defining characteristic.3
Thus, advice, like Harris’, to deny sexual desire is about as useful as telling a fasting person to not feel hungry. Sexual arousal, like the hunger for food, is a physiological given and just as a person will die if they don’t eat, so too, bad things start to happen when people try to deny their sexual feelings. Speaking from my own life, I’ve been in a relationship for about three months now and we’ve both been finding that after years of me doing my best to deny my sexual desires, it sometimes seems as if they’ve disappeared altogether. I described it this way:
…sometimes, she asks me what I want and when I stop to think about it, there’s just nothing there. It’s like I don’t know how to want, how to need, how to desire anything for myself and so I don’t know how to answer her.4
Basically, the message I’m trying to get across is that desire isn’t a switch that can be turned on or off at will. Feeling sexual desire is a part of what it is to be a human being and we need to accept that. This feeling of sexual self-acceptance is basically what James Nelson is talking about when he refers to sexual salvation.5
Now let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that all desires are good. There are some sexual desires that may be harmful to one’s self or to the person you’re in a relationship with. However, rather than simply denying or suppressing these desires, Nelson argues that we should acknowledge and accept them even as we make the wise decision to not act on them. In addition, as we acknowledge these thoughts, we rob them of their power.
…whatever our desires, they do not embarrass us in such a way that we need to push them out of consciousness, for to do that is to make them demonic. Instead, we can recognize them for what they are; we can name them and thus take the compelling power out of them.”6
I’ve been reading lately about mindfulness meditation. The point of meditation is to clear one’s mind of clutter so that it can focus intently on one small thing (breathing, for example). As I’m learning to focus in this way, a lot of other thoughts creep in and try to disturb this focus. When this intrusion happens, my first thought is to banish it. But do you see the problem? Now I’m focusing on getting rid of the distraction instead of my breathing.
Mindfulness teachers say that when this happens, the best way through is to simply acknowledge what’s going on – that I’m distracted – and then recenter my thoughts on my breathing. If I keep trying to fight the distraction, it’ll never go away (because I’m fighting it) but if I can just admit and accept that I’m distracted, I can finally set it aside.
Sexual desire works the same way. If there are sexual thoughts or desires that are harmful, simply denying them only makes them worse but if we can acknowledge them (admit that we’re having them without shaming ourselves), we take a bit of their power away and then choose not to act on them.
Once we’re able to accept the sexual side of ourselves, we can begin to know and appreciate it. We can begin to be curious about our sexuality – what makes our body feel alive, what turns us on, what is the shape of our sexual selves? In other words, we can ask the question, what sort of sexual person has God uniquely created me to be?
This sexual self-awareness is of utmost importance because I’m going to argue in a later post that until one is aware of the sexual aspect of themselves, they’re really not ready to engage in sexual acts with another person – at least not in a responsible, respectful way.7
I ended last week’s post with the idea that in place of the mind/body separation (dualism) that is at the root of both “the sexual ascetic (those who deny their sexuality) and the sexual libertine (those who freely indulge in theirs).” In place of this dualistic notion, James Nelson suggests what he calls sexual salvation. In this post, I spell out what Nelson means by this tantalizing, provocative phrase.
(Click here for part 1.)
Before getting into what we mean by sexual salvation, let’s reacquaint ourselves with what sexuality is.
Sexuality is a sign, a symbol, and a means of our call to communication and communion… The mystery of our sexuality is the mystery of our need to reach out to embrace others both physically and spiritually. Sexuality thus expresses God’s intention that we find our authentic humanness in relationship.1
When he refers to sexual salvation, Nelson is speaking of reclaiming the entirety of our self, including (especially) our sexuality – a reconciliation made necessary because of the body alienation that plagues so many. But how do we justify this reconciliation? Is there a model we can turn to?
And here, let me give you fair warning that Nelson is going to say something that seems overly provocative at first, but the shocking nature of it actually makes his point.
That we experience God’s gracious justification or acceptance in and through Jesus Christ has profound sexual implications. “The Word became flesh.” Jesus was a sexual being. And here is God’s affirmation of our own sexuality.
And again, Nelson is not just trying to be provocative or shocking. He has a real point.
If we try to take Jesus with utter seriousness and yet uneasily retreat from thoughts of his sexuality, or even recoil with repugnance, it is also likely that we shall either deny much of our own sexuality or else find considerable difficulty integrating our Christological beliefs into the reality of our lives as body-selves.2
Basically, what Nelson challenging us to ask a question: If we recoil from the thought of Jesus’ sexuality, we should ask ourselves why. What is it about the thought of the sexual aspects of Jesus’ humanity that gives us pause? And what does this pause say about how we view our own sexuality?
The point Nelson is trying to make is that many people have been conditioned to think in dualistic, alienating ways about our sexuality – it is either something shameful or it is a mere avenue to bodily pleasure. If we hold either of these disembodied views about sexuality, perhaps it is no wonder we hesitate to apply them to the incarnate Christ.
Now despite the provocative language, Nelson is really trying to say something very simple.
When he speaks of sexual salvation, he is talking about “our discovery of what we really are.”3 We are sexual beings. Our sexuality is a part of our humanity just as it was a part of Jesus’ and when we are able to be comfortable with the thought of Jesus’ sexuality, we are able to embrace our own. That, for Nelson, is sexual salvation.
The first fruits of this sexual salvation are self-acceptance and self-awareness. And in direct contrast to purity culture, this includes a full embrace of our sexual desires. Now that does not mean that all desires are good and should be acted upon – of course there are some desires that lead to self harm or harm of the one desired – but “whatever our desires, they do not embarrass us in such a way that we need to push them out of consciousness, for to do that is to make them demonic. Instead, we can recognize them for what they are; we can name them and thus take the compelling power out of them.”4
Once we are able to face and embrace (rather than deny and shame) our sexual desire, we begin to know and accept this aspect of ourselves – what we want to do with our bodies, what we want done to us, what brings us pleasure, and what makes us uncomfortable. In short, we are able to find a kind of self-awareness in regards to our sexuality – we begin to know the unique shape of our sexual selves. We are able to be honest about what sorts of sexual behaviors we like and want and what sorts we don’t.
It’s really hard to overstate the importance of this sexual self-awareness. I will argue in a later post that unless one is aware of their sexual desires and boundaries, and is willing to discuss them with their partner, then they are not ready to engage their sexuality with them. And the only way to know one’s desires and boundaries is through sexual self-acceptance and self-awareness.
Once this acceptance and awareness is established within one’s self, it moves out into the world and encounters other selves who (ideally) also have a sense of sexual self-acceptance and awareness. In this encounter, the two will likely have different sorts of sexual desires and boundaries and when that happens, another framework needs to come into play – one that allows for a negotiation of these differences and here we turn to the idea of justice and love.
Stay tuned, more on this idea in the next post!
Although I spent the two previous posts (part 1, part 2) critiquing purity culture and their view that any sexual feelings or actions outside of marriage are wrong and need to be eliminated, there are other Christians who take the opposite view – that there’s nothing wrong with sex outside of marriage.1
James Nelson, in his book, Embodiment, makes the startling claim that the sexual ascetic (those who deny their sexuality) and the sexual libertine (those who freely indulge in theirs) both share the same underlying problem. They both see the body as a machine.
The ascetic experiences the body as a dangerous, alien force to be sternly controlled, even crushed into submission… For the libertine, the body becomes the instrument of sensuality. It is driven in a restless pursuit of pleasure. It is detached from the ego’s vulnerability and capacity for self-surrender.2
According to Nelson, the root problem behind both the ascetic and the libertine is dualism – “the sense of two different elements which may live together in an uneasy truce but are frequently in conflict. They are essentially foreign to each other.”3 More specifically, he is referring to mind/body dualism – the idea that an individual’s mind and body are separate, distinct entities at odds with one another.
The question of how the mind and the body are related is as old as philosophy itself and is still being debated today. To vastly oversimplify the issue, there are basically two options. One says that our body (our arms, legs, organs, etc.) is just a transport mechanism for our brain. Our arms and legs are just there to move our brain from place to place and help it do things like eat. In addition, things like our personality, our thoughts and feelings (one might say, our sense of self), are things that reside solely in our heads. In this view, the flesh and blood parts of us (our bodies) are irrelevant. The totality of who we are resides in the grey matter inside our skull.
The other option says that brain and body are inseparable and have to be thought of together as a unit. From this viewpoint, a disembodied brain is something other than human. The brain affects the body and the body affects the brain. They work in concert and one can’t prioritize one over the other.
As I stated at the top of this post, for Nelson, the dualistic view (that sees the mind and body as separate entities) tends to lead to either a denial of or overenthusiastic indulgence in one’s sexuality4 because the body is either something inherently sinful that needs to be controlled by the mind or the body is simply a vehicle for bringing pleasure to the mind. Nelson refers to the sexual component of this dualism as body alienation.
The alienated body produces a mind detached from the depth of feelings. It becomes narrow and controlling, machine-like in observation and calculation… If the mind is alienated from the body, so also is the body from the mind. The depersonalization of one’s sexuality, in some form or degree, inevitably follows. The body becomes a physical object possessed and used by the self.5
In other words, a person alienated from their body thinks that through the force of sheer mental will, they can make the body do its bidding, whether that be denying its desires or freely fulfilling them. But regardless of which way they go, they don’t view their choice as being a wholly bodily-integrated experience. For Nelson, persons like this are, at best, missing out on the depths of what a fully embodied interaction with the world can bring. At worst, this body alienation can lead to lives infused with shame, guilt, and denial for the ascetic and shallow, meaningless indulgence for the libertine.
As a remedy for this body alienation, Nelson proposes what he calls “sexual salvation,”6 something I’ll discuss in depth in my next post.
I realize that I’m leaving you all hanging with that tantalizing phrase, “sexual salvation,” but in today’s frenetic world, anticipation is unfortunately underrated (and a part of practicing desire).
Last week I wrote a post about how a lack of a positive definition of purity (and even virginity) has led to a situation where people preaching purity culture move as far away from anything that could even possibly lead to a loss of purity. This helps explain why some in this culture teach single people to “kiss dating goodbye.”
That’s all highly problematic already, but in this post, I’ll go a bit further and highlight their um… interesting scriptural alternatives. I finish off this two-part critique by saying a bit about the psychological damage that purity culture leaves in its wake.
(Click here for part one.)
In place of dating, authors like Dr. Don Raunikar and Joshua Harris suggest something they call biblical1 or God-honoring2 courtship. Unfortunately, these writers make a fundamental mistake in what they speak of as godly courtship. They appeal to scripture to find principles that can apply to the dating/courting life of today, but the problem is that scripture was written to a world that did not date, where marriages were arranged by family members for the purposes of perpetuating property rights, and where love and attraction often had little to nothing to do with who got paired with whom.3
The difference between how relationships led to marriage in the world of the Bible and today’s world is not an apples and oranges comparison, it’s more like apples and airplanes, and so for them to call their approach “biblical” is disingenuous at best.
See, translation work isn’t just about turning Greek and Hebrew words into English ones, cultural and historical translation needs to take place as well. While it is true that in the ancient world, couples did not find one another, pair up, and then break up as they learned about who they were and what they wanted out of relationships the way we do today, it’s also untrue to say that the “principles of dating are man-centered and culturally determined; courtship principles are God-centered and biblically based.”4
Sexuality isn’t a switch. It’s not something you can simply turn on and off. In fact, our desire towards the sexual aspects of relationship is an innate part of who we are as human beings – it’s literally a part of how our brains are wired.
No animal spends more of its allotted time on Earth fussing over sex than Homo sapiens — not even the famously libidinous bonobo… For these two species (and apparently only these two species), nonproductive sex is “natural,” a defining characteristic.5
Even more damning, studies suggest that “bodily pleasure and violence seem to have an either/or relationship — the presence of one inhibits development of the other.”6 In other words, even if one can somehow deny one’s sexual desire for the sake of purity, it will likely end up causing more harm than good. The negative consequences may not show up in outbursts of physical violence, but it will show up somewhere, somehow.
And here’s the dirty little secret about purity culture. Despite its lofty claims,
A 2005 survey of 12,000 adolescents found that those who had pledged to remain abstinent until marriage were more likely have oral and anal sex than other teens, less likely to use condoms, and just as likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases as their unapologetically non-abstinent peers. The study found that 88 percent of those who pledged abstinence admitted to failing to keep their pledge.7
And while pledges do little to change behavior, people within purity culture who do wind up having sex often feel tremendous amounts of guilt and shame whereas their peers outside of this cultural bubble feel remorse or regret. Certainly, those outside the bubble may feel negative feelings about what they’ve done, but it’s nowhere near as traumatic as what’s felt by those raised in purity culture. Based on her years of campus research, Freitas states that “The depth and intensity of this stress and anxiety around sex, sin, and shame among [purity culture, college] students are hard to overstate.”8
In short, while purity culture does little to change behavior, it does drastically change how people feel about their behaviors. “If you have sex outside of marriage, you are, in a word, ruined.”9
I’ll admit that as I read books popular in this culture, I often found myself surprised at how much I agreed with their goals. They do ultimately want to help people find loving, committed relationships that glorify God. Unfortunately, the way they go about it is causing far more damage than good. I could spend this entire series talking about the damage that purity culture has left in its wake, sharing more of my own story as well as stories of others. But I don’t just want to critique. I want to find a new way forward – one that leads away from denial and ruin, into the abundant life.
|Communication Cultur… on Communication Culture|
|Communication Cultur… on A Culture of Consent (Part 2)…|
|Communication Cultur… on A Culture of Consent (Part 1)…|
|A Culture of Consent… on A Culture of Consent (Part 2)…|
|A Justice-Based Sexu… on 1. An Introduction|