I Hate Writing About Sex

I hate writing about sex; I want to be over the whole sex conversation in general. Honestly, as interesting a subject as it might be, there is nothing easy, simple, or straightforward about it; it’s not the sort of subject I get up and think, “Wow, that would be a great angle for an article to write!” Honestly, I get a pit in my stomach. Culturally-speaking it’s a minefield. The amount of shame, hurt, obsession, money, and political-vitriol attached to discussions of sex makes it nearly impossible not to trigger some negative experience for someone. Our media is over-saturated with issues either directly or indirectly tied to it (gender, family, homosexuality, etc.) making it nearly impossible to say something on one topic without somehow involving another, making the whole thing exhausting and daunting.

The problem is that the conversation about sex isn’t going away. In fact, it just keeps getting louder.

Recently The Atlantic ran a piece entitled “Why Some Evangelicals Are Trying to Stop Obsessing Over Pre-Marital Sex.”  Opening with Elizabeth Smart’s painful remarks about the deep sense of guilt and shame she endured following her ordeal linked to teachings about female sexual purity, the article highlights some of the recent “purity culture” debates and dialogues going on in the Evangelical blogosphere. In particular, it notes voices “from within” conservative Christian communities are increasingly critical of the way teaching on virginity and premarital sex is often presented in more popular church setting.

As Alastair Roberts has noted, a good many of these criticisms are warranted and welcome. For far too long many have been taught a conscience-destroying, un-biblical notion of purity, rife with double-standards, divorced from a Savior who truly wipes clean the deepest of stains, giving us confidence, whoever we are, to approach the throne of grace. So amen to those who go about lifting loads off of people that are too great to bear, laid on by false teachers unwilling to help.

And yet, while much is helpful and good, Roberts also notes that some significant voices in this conversation are correcting not with biblical categories, but by uncritically appropriating liberal or feminist lines of critique, some of which flow from theologically-incompatible presuppositions. Culturally-acceptable buzzwords and categories like “holism” or “mutual consent” are used, instead of righteousness and holiness. The drift of the Atlantic article, of course, was “Thank God, some of these benighted Evangelicals were coming around to more mainstream, less conservative, views on sexuality.”

My point here isn’t to go into the purity culture debate. It is rather to point out that as much as I, or many others, might want to just drop these conversations and move on to more pleasant things like “building the Kingdom”, in whichever way we take that phrase, we simply can’t.

Because in a culture where…
…pornography affects everything, even the kind of phone you can buy your 10-year old…
…Victoria’s Secret pitches lingerie to junior highers…
…there are websites dedicated to arranging extra-marital affairs…
…objectification of the human form is the norm in film, TV, magazines, and advertising…
…there are these horrifying rates of sexual assault rates…
…that includes the church too…
…you have to talk about sex.

I could go on, but C.S. Lewis sums up the point in one of his lectures, possibly “Learning in Wartime,” writing: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” There’s a lot of bad philosophy and theology about sex out there having real-world consequences. We need good preaching, teaching, and writing about sex to deal with it. There’s just too much at stake.

So how can we keep engaging on this issue in a Christ-honoring fashion? While that deserves, and probably has received, book-length treatments, I would put forward three attitudes that should characterize our efforts:

1. Courage - It takes courage to write about sex nowadays, especially if you’re presenting anything like a traditional Christian sex-ethic. The culture has shifted and the basic cosmological and moral framework within which Christian ethics makes sense, is no longer the one that animates our cultural imagination. You have to be willing to risk misunderstanding, scorn, nasty words, and rejection. Evangelicals, especially younger ones, dislike being disliked. Take heart in the Savior that maintaining his word for the sake of the world is worth the risk. God has you.

2. Self-Denial - Christians, this can’t be about you on a number of levels. Self-denial goes hand in hand with courage. We must put our fears, our frantic need to be affirmed, and comfort aside in order to have the awkward discussions we’ve been called to. Beyond that, I can’t help but sense that one of the spirits animating responses from conservative believers is not that of Christ, but rather pride or a fragile identity. When we make the mistake of identifying ourselves by our sexual ethics, any challenge to them is an assault on our personal or group identity. Our calls to holiness cannot be animated by insecurity, but rather the confidence we have in the beautiful harmony of God’s creative will for sexuality. Our counter-cultural existence is not to be self-serving, but self-sacrificing;  we are called to be set apart for the sake of the world and God’s glory.

3. Grace - Of course, it’s almost cliche to note the need for grace when it comes to sexuality–that doesn’t make the point any less worth making. The grace given to us in the Cross of Jesus is the indispensable foundation to all of our efforts here. It reminds us that God’s vision for sexuality makes a claim that all of us have fallen short in one way or another; none of us can think of sex as somebody else’s issue. Pride in this area is deadly. We have been shown grace upon grace, and so we give grace upon grace to others, whether they be the broken and hurting, or the rebellious who violently oppose, our call is to show them the grace of Christ. It is not a grace divorced from truth, but on the contrary, grounded in the truth of the Gospel. It is also the grace the forgives the missteps and failures we are sure to encounter on the way.

About Derek Rishmawy

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, serving college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition, Mere Orthodoxy, and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog. You can connect on Facebook and can also follow him on Twitter at @DZRishmawy.

  • Faith Newport

    I think you say some great stuff here, but can we avoid referring to mutual consent as a “culturally acceptable buzzword”? While I don’t think it’s the -only- guideline for godly sex, it should always be on the list! “Love… is not selfish (1 Cor. 13)” — is it selfless, godly love if you only take what you want without regard for the other person’s feelings, desires, or pleasure–much less their consent? The NIV renders Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 7 as commanding husbands & wives to “yield” their bodies to one another. He doesn’t say, “Husbands, take your wife. Wives, make your husband yield.” He empowers both spouses to give consent, while strongly encouraging them to do so. I think that mutual consent is a healthy, positive concept and an important part of a healthy, God-honoring marriage.

    I can’t imagine Jesus ever saying, “Yes, it is right and loving to have sex with a person that might not want to have it with you just because you happen to be married.”

    I know this is a small thing, but I think it’s important in light of what some Christian leaders (*cough* Doug Wilson & co. *cough*) have said about sexuality and consent.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Oh, sure, I hope I didn’t give the impression that I’m against mutual consent. It’s just that love is a much fuller concept that includes mutual consent within it. The reason I mentioned the term is that so often it is associated with the kind of a lowest-common denominator morality we see in platitudes like, “As long as you don’t hurt anybody.” I mean, it’s good to not hurt people, but Christian morality is so much richer than that.

    But yes, I’m all for mutual consent as a bare minimum, of course.

  • Faith Newport

    “…love is a much fuller concept that includes mutual consent within it.” THIS.

  • MorganGuyton

    Well said.

  • John Wilder

    I actually love writing about sex. We live in a very puritannical society and preach shame and guilt teaching little girls that sex is bad, dirty and wrong and that good girls don’t do it. By the time a woman is ready to embrace her sexuality she is often ruined for life by such teaching from fully embracing her sexuality.

    We wrongly teach that even masturbation is a sin where there is clearly no prohibition for it in scripture.

    We have also changed God’s plan for sex. He made it for young teens to get married early and live with parents until they can afford to move out on their own. Today we teach no marriage until you are finished with college and have a good job, this during the time that the sex drive is at its actual peak.

  • allyn211

    “We have also changed God’s plan for sex. He made it for young teens to get married early and live with parents until they can afford to move out on their own. Today we teach no marriage until you are finished with college and have a good job, this during the time that the sex drive is at its actual peak.”

    While I agree with your first two statements, I’m a little puzzled at this last one. Where in the Bible did God say that His plan was for young teens to get married and live at home until they could afford to move out on their own?

  • http://www.blackcoffeereflections.com/ Tim Ghali

    Excellent post Derek – well thought out. As you implied, so much can only be said in such a space but I’d like to add the embracing of who we are on the other half of self-denial. There seems to be a misunderstanding among some that self-denial is about not being who you really are or repressing your feelings but it’s more about denying our selfishness, our pride, etc. and in doing so, we are able to embrace who God made us to be.
    Anyway, great post – see you around.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Thanks, Tim. Good caveat. Self-denial is the denial of the sinful flesh, so that we might better be renewed in the Image of Christ and become whom he truly intended us to be–die to truly live.

  • John Wilder

    it is in the old testament, there are other scriptures that describe youth like in Proverbs 5 where it says to always rejoice with the wife of your youth. The word in hebrew is nurah which is translated juvenility, young people, childhood

  • http://sexwithinmarriage.com/ sexwithinmarriage

    I gotta say, I love writing about sex from a Christian viewpoint. I like the discussion, I like the different perspectives from people, and most of all, I like being a voice talking about what I think is one of the major taboo issues in our Christian culture while simultaneously being one of the most important issues in our churches.

    I would say the easiest way to get over self-denial is to be transparent, and that’s hard for a lot of people to do when discussing sex, but transparency seems to beget transparency, and I’m amazed at the discussions that are happening on a daily basis within the community, all with the intent of helping each other out (instead of the intent of titillation).

  • John Hutchinson

    1 Corinthians 7 does not merely encourage spouses to yield their bodies. It states that by not doing so, one is committing sin. This does not mean that the other is to force against the one’s will. What would be the point? (Over the long term, it would hardly be satisfying.) The onus is on the one commanded to consent, to consent enthusiastically (just as Paul’s call for funds for Jerusalem was to give willingly).

    The reasons are manifold. The one that is not stated directly Biblically but can be deduced by comparing Scriptures with Scriptures, and which is the most important, is that physical intimacy, except unless one is mated up with a completely insensitive rube, will lend to long-term psychologically binding. True Christian marriage really intends for the spouse to think of themselves as one entity, in a practicable sense.

    Secondly, sex only with mutual consent will, in the long-term, invariably lends to less of it with much resentment and anxiety.

    Why is it that a mother will not think twice about breast-feeding their child, whether she feels like it or not; or the husband go to work to provide, whether he feels like it or not; but sex has not that sense of eager obligation? It demonstrates a denigration of the gift of God for many “religious” or selfish reasons. It suggests that one or the other spouse thinks of sex as some optional icing on the cake, instead of fundamentally essential and integral to the ‘cake proper’ of marriage.

  • Susan Gerard

    Might this not have a historical and cultural setting which has changed? Can you give us more Scripture to contemplate?

  • Susan Gerard

    Sex has not that sense of eager anticipation because it’s not about sex. It’s about power (at worst) and emotion (at best). The sharing of feelings, the trust and love that comes with taking the risk of being truthful with one another… where love goes, sex follows. Love brings mutual consent.

  • Andrew Cardy

    Great article! I enjoy your basic points and the expounding you did on them. I think it’s a very dangerous thing for the Christian church to stop talking about sex. Everyone else is. The information being spread, honestly even on your comments, are mostly being informed from either a personal bias or a spiritual perception of what is right or wrong. Truth of the matter is, there is a right or wrong. if we deny that, then we can no longer really adhere to any form of moral standard or truthfully our own personal opinion. I’m getting real sick of people being afraid or being punished for standing what is TRUE. . And though I am a Christian, I’ve worked for 5 years with a nonprofit, nonreligious organization that mentors teenagers in middle and high schools. We aim to help them set goals for themselves and build a vision for their future (mostly focused on academic and life success), but what I encounter more than not is that they want to talk about relationships. They want information about sex, because our culture tells them their sole identity is in sex. You’re a man if you have sex, you’re an attractive girl if you have sex. He will love you if you sex, she will love you if you have sex. It’s currency in social life and with very little thought to immediate or distant impact. And there’s a huge impact. Without belaboring the point, I would encourage everyone to look up the science of the brain. The chemicals that are released when teenagers OR adults of ANY age engage in sexual activity. I would encourage you to look at the statistics (funded and from the government of the USA for that matter) that supports ONLY heterosexual marriage. And while our media will deny that, and while our government will deny it, and while sometimes our personal misplaced feelings of guilt or being afraid of making a stand will deny it, the fact is that sexual activity is BEST in a faithful committed monogamous relationship. It’s not only best for those engaged in it, it’s best for those impacted by it, be it children or even the workplace and thus our economy. Why you don’t hear about it is because STD medicine literally is a billion dollar industry. Abortion is a billion dollar industry. Contraceptive sales put them in the highest funded and grossing industries in the world. Of course they don’t want people to think twice. It’s the same wonderful marketing and messaging of cigarrettes, and people STILL start smoking though we know it’s impact.

    It’s easy to have strong opinions and to find verses in the bible that you can twist to suit your own desires or personal ideology, certainly we are all very good at this with any number of issues. But this one, sex, this one is a battle, a war zone that we the church and we as professed Christ followers simply cannot ignore. Have grace, please yes, have mercy of course yes, don’t push people out of the Church because they fall short (it’s sort of why the Church exists), but honestly people, let’s stop this BS and call darkness darkness and what is light light. We’ve lost ground on so many other issues, if you decide to concede this one, or even assume it’ll “work itself out” or that it doesn’t impact every aspect of your bubble, then you and we are in very serious trouble. My apologies on the rant, it simply is amazing to me how we’ve blinded ourselves to truth at times.