A Justice-Based Sexual Ethic – Recap (AKA Ethics Through the Lens of 500 Days of Summer)
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).
But what does all of that mean?
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.
- She presents her concrete reality by clearly stating her beliefs about relationships at this point in her life (she doesn’t believe in love and isn’t looking for a romantic partner)
- In being up front about that, she also respects her own as well as Tom’s autonomy and relationality (he is free to enter into this relationship or not)
- All of this basically means that she is obtaining free consent from Tom4 (by not misrepresenting herself or what she wants and doesn’t want)
- Although it’s hard to point to any specific examples of this, their relationship does play out in a way that respects the mutuality and equality of both parties
- It’s on the issue of commitment where she falls short of embracing all of Farley’s norms, but this isn’t necessarily a failure since Summer made it clear from the outset that she wasn’t looking for commitment
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.