Safe Sex: Is there such a thing?

Michael Hidalgo says No. (Follow his twitter feed here: @michaelhidalgo) Here is his post:

We have to stop talking about “Safe Sex,” and instead talk about the beauty of risky sex. No, this is not some dark, twisted fantasy. It’s just a more honest way of speaking about sexuality, because all sex is risky.

The term “Safe Sex” refers to using protection so that you don’t contract a sexually transmitted disease from your partner. It’s encourages people to use contraception to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. “Safe sex” promises that you can sleep with someone with the proper things in their proper place, and walk away from the encounter without having contracted a disease or conceived a child.

But what “Safe Sex” ignores is that sex is far more than a physical transaction. It only considers the physical dimension of a human being. It reduces us to copulating animals, for it ignores the spiritual and emotional connection that is forged in sex.

You may be able to protect yourself physically while having sex, but the reality is “Safe Sex” is a myth. What protection is there to prevent to intertwining of minds, hearts, and souls that happens when two people are joined together sexually?

Sex, by its very nature is not safe. It is the ultimate act in giving your whole self away to another person. It requires vulnerability that no other relationship asks for. It is to be fully exposed to another human being. It’s putting your full naked self out there as a gift – that’s risky.

When one offers himself or herself to another there are always the questions they ask, “Does he really want me?” “Does she really love me?” “Will he accept me?” “Will she be here when I wake up in the morning?” “Does he think I’m beautiful?”  These and a million other questions are hanging out there between the two who are fully exposed to the other – what’s safe about that?

We have been fooled into believing that sex isn’t all about the emotional and spiritual stuff. We tell ourselves there is such a thing as “casual sex,” and think we can have sex with “no strings attached.” Perhaps, we should recognize a person can go through the motions of sex … but it’s not really sexual at all.

This is why so many people have sex with so many people, and feel more and more alone. Somewhere, deep inside their heart, something is being ripped apart and taken from them, and nothing can protect that. What they mistake as a physical act, can cause emotional and spiritual heartache.

Make no mistake, sex is risky – and what it at risk is our hearts and souls. They are just as much a part of the act of sex as any body part is. That’s not only the risk – it’s also the beauty of sex.

It allows for us to give ourselves over to another and be accepted and received and embraced for exactly who we are. After all, that’s what everyone really, truly wants, isn’t it? Just to find someone who will look at us standing in front of them, stark naked – with the lights on – and love what they see?

That desire inside all of us isn’t just physical. It points to an emotional longing and a spiritual hunger. Sex offers this to all of us, but to stand naked in front of anyone is to take a huge risk – there is nothing safe about it.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • phil_style

    Given the spam filter, I have to replace the word “sex” with “S”

    “What protection is there to prevent to intertwining of minds, hearts, and souls that happens when two people are joined together S-ually?”

    One is going to have a hard time convincing the secular population that such “intertwining” (whatever that means) actually exists.
    Why do S-ual acts result in such “intertwining”? I grew up with the evangelical mantra that having S with someone resulted in a part of your spirit joining with theirs.. this rather bizarre concept obvious meant something different than what I was being told – because the mathematics of “spirit splitting” just don’t add up. So what ARE we talking about here with all this soul-tying, mind-melding stuff?

    There’s a lot of talk about “hearts” and “souls” in this discussion.. but little substance for me. Yes, sexual interaction is more than just physically risky – because it requires, and results in mental vulnerability. But there are ways of lowering the vulnerability. Without getting into details, S does not necessarily require that two persons “stand naked before each other”.

    I’m a bit confused by this: We have been fooled into believing that S isn’t all about the emotional and spiritual stuff. We tell ourselves there is such a thing as “casual S,” and think we can have S with “no strings attached.” Perhaps, we should recognize a person can go through the motions of S … but it’s not really sexual at all. This is why so many people have S with so many people, and feel more and more alone. This seems to define some instances of S as “not really S” and then go back to doing the opposite.

    There’s no doubt that S-ual interaction is a path to a level of relationship that demands high amounts of trust – given the potential vulnerabilities involved. But isn’t that partly what “casual S” is about? i.e. trying to minimise the amount of vulnerability (and thus, trust) involved? Let’s not forget, S can be exhilarating and is driven by some very strong physical and mental instincts. Not everyone has S for emotional fulfillment – many people have sex because its fun…..

  • Jeremy

    Phil basically reflects my thoughts on the matter. Lately I’ve been rethinking a lot of what I was taught (e.g. the youth group tropes that “every time you sleep with someone you give a piece of your heart away that you can’t get back” or “sleeping with someone creates ‘soul ties’ with that person”). I really don’t see any biblical basis for any of this. There seems to be a lot of hyperbole aimed at scaring kids away from it and I think that has profoundly affected those in my generation who were raised in it.

    It seems to me that this all comes from the idea of “one flesh” and it’s supposed implications. But the language used to describe the effects of “S” sound a lot more like “one spirit” to me. So what does “one flesh” really mean? Is it an abstract concept or is it something more tangible?

  • matthew

    As a former Atheist, who had premarital sex with two women (one, in retrospect, probably okay, one not) and who decided against future premarital sex before coming back to God, I agree with the message but disagree with the presentation.

    In my experience, the problem with sex before it is time is that it tricks our brains into feeling an emotional closeness that doesn’t yet exist. This leads to hurt — why does he say that when he should know better; why doesn’t she appreciate this when I think we’re close.

    However, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach. For me, being a Myers-Briggs personality type of NF, feelings and emotions are very important. For my sister-in-law, as an SJ, sex really doesn’t seem to be a big deal. Not having walked in her shoes I would not presume to know what is right for her.

  • Josh Hetrick

    As a youth pastor, I have to say I love where you are going with this. I agree with most everything that was said.

    I have often times asked the question that Phil_style asked…where does this “intertwining” come from? I could be wrong and forgetting something, but I don’t know that I have seen that Scripturally. Please correct me if you can tell me where the Bible states that – I have been wrong before. But to me, marriage is the union of two people’s flesh into one, not S – S just confirms it if you will. But S-ual immorality is also the only sin against ones body (1 Cor 6:18), so there are other physical consequences as well.

    Anyways, those are some of my own thoughts..I hesitate to tell my students what my youth pastors told me about the uniting effects of S between two people who aren’t married, but I do tell my students there are physical and spiritual and emotional consequences you will have to face if you engage in S outside of marriage. I tell them that the best case scenario is to go into marriage never having had S with anyone else.

    All in all, our kids need to hear this stuff and not in a way that is threatening and judgmental. That didn’t work when I was in youth group and it isn’t working today. When truth is presented in love it has a much greater affect. And the truth is that God gave us clear boundaries for S, and when you break those you will face consequences in numerous areas.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I have a natural aversion toward being cutesy with words to make a point and this certainly strikes me that way. Do kids actually respond and say “oh, that is really meaningful, it is not safe from the other perspective, how deep!”.

    I don’t think there is a kid alive (in the US) who does not understand that safe sex refers to either VD or pregnancy or both.

    A less cutesy but equally or more effective approach would be on the “casual sex” approach. That is a legitimate use of the terms and you can say that there is nothing casual about sex, ever.

  • http://thinklaughweepworship.blogspot.com Emily Hunter McGowin

    What seems to be unacknowledged here is that the reason many people (not just young people!) are attracted to “unsafe” “risky” or “casual” sex is precisely *because* it is unsafe, risky, and casual. What is thrilling about it for many–men *and* women, mind you–is the danger involved. So talking about “risky sex” is fine, but I don’t think it changes the fact that many people are attracted to the risk itself. (And, this isn’t a new thing, by the way.)

  • Joe Canner

    I’ve also been pondering this topic lately (as my kids get to the age where it matters), along the same lines as Phil and Jeremy. I was taught (thanks to Bill Gothard, James Dobson, the pastor that married us, etc.) that even a single sexual encounter is like a “glue” that sticks two people together in a way that makes separation painful, and that there are manifold psychological effects on married couples who didn’t wait until marriage. Looking at my kids and their peers those notions seem outdated and I wonder if the research (if any) underpinning these ideas has ever been updated.

  • Elizabeth

    I like the way Josh words it: “There are physical and spiritual and emotional consequences you will have to face if you engage in S outside of marriage. I tell them that the best case scenario is to go into marriage never having had S with anyone else.” True, realistic, not overstating the case to make a point.

    For several years I taught HIV/AIDS prevention in a developing world context. In some cultures all kinds of S outside of marriage is so common – so accepted – that teaching things along the lines of what Hidalgo writes is fresh, eye-opening, revolutionary and even liberating. Of course, it is hard to accept and put into practice but I do think there is a place for this approach and there are audiences ready to hear it.

  • Jethrowe

    At the risk of sounding contrary, I would not marry anyone whom I had not had sex with, and I would give the same advice to my daughter. Aside from the increases in teenage pregnancy and early divorce associated with abstinence education and marrying too young because of the drive to reproduce, good sex is too important to a good marriage to be left unexplored until after the vows are taken. Sexual incompatibility locked into a marriage is a recipe for divorce at best.

    And marrying someone who would withhold that intimacy from someone he or she plans to spend the rest of their life is risky.. it would make me wonder what else they are withholding, and why? If God told them not to have sex, what else might God be telling them? Not to use birth control? To have a hierarchical marriage?

    From experience, God isn’t going to come down from the clouds and save a bad marriage just because you waited until the wedding night. You need to go into marriage with both eyes open and in total intimacy with your partner.

  • http://penciledinexistence.wordpress.com/ Carlynn Jurica

    I agree with Phil and Jeremy. I think there’s a difference between S-ual intimacy with emotional intimacy. While the two often go together, it is quite possible to have one without the other.

    You’re absolutely right; we DO need to talk about “the beauty of risky S,” of loving and holistically intimate S. But I don’t think that means we need to neglect talking about safe S. When the majority of young people (including Christian young people) are having S outside of legal marriage, we cannot talk exclusively about abstinence and marital S. We do need to talk about the ideal, but we also need to be more realistic and honest (and graceful) about what actually happens.

  • Tom F.

    On the psychological “bonding” that happens: its real, though, like most things, it can be overspiritualized and oversold.

    Oxytocin is a hormone that is strongly linked with both sexual behavior and pair-bonding, both within humans and within animals that mate exclusively for a season or for life.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxytocin

    Now, we need to be very careful not to reduce human bonding down to a chemical, as there is much, much more involved, but there is enough there to suggest that it isn’t all simply cultural or other factors that lead sex to be associated with bonding.

    Hormonally driven pair-bonding is real; the question is open as to whether it is a “glue”, or maybe more like a strong “adhesive” that needs support from other factors (a sense of a future with a person, cognitive appraisal that they would be good to have kids with, ect.) in order to really “cement” the relationship.

    By the way, a great summary of the work on pair-bonding and oxytocin is found in LeDoux’s “Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are”. Don’t get thrown by the title, I didn’t find the book aggressively reductionistic, but your mileage may vary. Most of the original work was done with prairie voles, which are fascinating little creatures.

  • http://Leadme.org Cal

    Here’s a thought:

    So first off, Sacrament comes from the Latin Sacramentum which had the implied meaning of an oath. It was a symbolic statement/procession (typically military) where an oath was given of loyalty.

    Now while not quite a sacrament, I think that sex may act as the seal of marriage. To have sex outside of marriage is dishonoring the “covenant” (or contract, union whatever) of marriage, something that the Lord instituted.

    This way, there is no strange dabbling into the psychology of emotional attachment or the shame-culture of having a poorer marriage because someone didn’t “wait”.

    A lot of the Christians/”christians” (aka. those in the cultural fog of christendom but heathen at heart) who are stuck in kulturkampf mentality try and justify the Scriptures with all sorts of science; regardless if it is bunk, fluffy, or pop (which a good chunk is). I don’t see any of the emotional lament of David about “losing” part of himself to Bathsheba or Samson regretting “giving a part of himself away” to all his girls. They sinned because they dishonored what God created and all such things were atoned on the Cross and forgiven. We don’t need to say more than that.

    Any thoughts?

  • Adam

    I think the point is, if you are missing the emotional and relational aspects then it’s not “sex”. Our sexuality is about our ability to connect with people and it doesn’t have to be physical.

    Does this distinction prevent the physical act from happening? Probably not; but I see it beneficial to explain to people their sex drive is pushing them towards a connection with another human and not physical experience.

  • Tom F.

    Cal, I agree, building a theology of S entirely off of the psychology of attachment is a bad idea, and I tried in my comment to emphasize that emotional attachment is just one thing that goes into pair bonding (which is just one part of a marriage relationship and so on.)

    However, I very much disagree that “we don’t need to say more” than “casual S dishonors what God has created”. If all we give adolescents/young adults is “This is wrong, don’t do this”, than we make God very confusing. It makes God’s rules regarding S arbitrary. (And rules they will be: if it is simply presented as forbidden, than the only sort of ethical reasoning left will be divine command: you can’t fit it into a virtue ethic, nor can you explain it in terms of harm or fairness. Bad news in my opinion.)

    The best antidote to bunk/fluffy/pop science is better scientific engagement, not complete disengagement. Furthermore, the reasons why David (or even Sampson) does not lament these things is embarrassing to evangelical S ethics anyway: the truth is that polygamy was entirely acceptable and allowed in ancient Israel. So multiple S engagements would not lead to lament, only extra-marital engagement leads to lament. And David married Bathsheba. Furthermore, apparently a woman who was raped (outside the city) was forced to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22) (I understand that there is a good economic reason for this, but it does suggest that we need to be careful in using OT S ethics). The fact that so much of S ethics in the OT revolves around economic considerations would seem to suggest that our ethics might be very different than ours. Therefore, we shouldn’t need David to express emotional lament in order to find emotional lament a useful ethical guide today.

    More broadly, the fact that OT S ethics are demonstrably different from even NT ethics is a big problem for sexual ethics grounded in divine-command, as one has to explain why God changed his mind, or why something like changing social circumstances is okay to apply to something like polygamy, but not other social issues that are of issue to us, like homosexuality or pre-marital sex.

  • MikeW

    I think sex without love only hardens our hearts. Sex is by nature meant to unite a man and woman. That’s not attachment psychology, it’s plainly scriptural. That People can have sex without any emotional attachment is not surprising. People can depersonalize all kinds of things, but of course, the person Engaging sexuality that way is further depersonalized.

  • Patrick

    Tom,

    In the Torah “sex ethics” appears different from a punishment view with the NT, not a morality or efficacy for the human view. To me, that doesn’t demonstrate inconsistency.

    All the harsher “sex immorality” punishments of the OT are done away with in the NT for great reason, they aren’t needed anymore. They were at least partially to keep the Jews alive so Christ could come forth, not needed after His era.

  • Tom F.

    Mike W.- (Sigh.) Why can’t it be both psychology AND scripture? And once you go making claims about what “sex is by nature meant to do”, you open yourself up to empirical investigation in psychology. That’s (possibly) why Cal is making the move he did even in a case where I would say the psychology lines up with a pretty conservative view re: casual sex. Such a move protects you in other controversial cases, as you can’t prove a statement like “that’s just how God intended it” wrong.

    It’s just sad to me that even when science (psychology) and scripture harmonize up in this conversation about what to do about sex, we still have to disdain the science, in case we aren’t being “scriptural” enough.

    Okay, I know I’ve been posting a lot on this topic. I promise to wait awhile before posting again. :)

  • Simon V

    Out of curiosity, is anyone a millenial here? Because it seems that I have something of a different perspective, being the age group that you’re discussing. It sounds like many of the comments are about prescribing down some form of teaching rather than seeking out a personal truth.

    I would have to say that God’s view of sex is the one hardest thing to reconcile with what I have learned through science and psychology about how the human organism works. Most early cultures did not adopt the model of marriage until later on, once groups had settled and land ownership had developed. Many non European cultures had very very different views about sex when they were first approached, and their societies were stable, they were happy as any other group.

    It is so very hard to believe that God’s command to marry is the best for us in our current society. Sex is a commodity, and is entered into casually, without any obvious negative consequences (beyond the odd STI, but that’s what safe sex is for). It is too much to ask that we believe that it is best to marry and be monogamous simply because scripture says so. I wish that that were not the case (unfortunately, my desires are not quite so easy to train); but there must be some evidence that people are better off for choosing this way of life. As far as I’m aware, people are just as happy, well off, long lived inside marriages as outside. Without any further justification, God is simply arbitrary, perhaps asking us to model his relationship with us (Christ/groom and church/bride imagery), but that’s even more unsatisfying an answer, particularly if it does not fit with what we are as humans.

    I don’t know if I’ve made my point here clearly, but this has been something I’ve been struggling with as I grapple with my faith. I have no answer, and I desperately want one.

  • CGC

    Hi Simon,
    May those who seek, find. May the desperate find peace. I am a father to several millenials. I have seen millenials find comfort and encouragement from Rob Bell’s book “Sex God: The endless connections between sexuality and spirituality.”

    You can also buy a used copy from amazon very cheaply.

  • Richard C

    Having worked in the arena of s-ual health for 12 years I agree with much of what Michael is saying. Those who propose “safe s-” often struggle to find a narrative that is truly holistic. Besides being “happy” and “ready” there is very little else being offered. This, of course, does not exclude the importance of a message which clearly communicates the positive difference that correct and consistent use of condoms can make.

    I agree that there needs to be a new narrative that seeks to embrace risk when it comes to one of the orthodox Christian choices in relation to s-. However the problem here is that the church has very little of a theology of risk in any sphere. Michael is looking for us to embrace risk when it comes to s-ual relationships but where is the theology of risk in general and where is it in relation to money (i.e. giving it away) and power (i.e. politics). As Hauerwas put it “you can’t have marriage and capitalism.” It makes little sense to young people today to see the church pleading for them to be counter cultural in relation to their sexual behaviour while also being satisfied that the comforts of middle-class-Western-consumerist living receive little challenge. The choice of waiting to be married before having s- (IF you choose to marry but that is a whole other discussion on how the Protestant Western church does not know what to do with celibacy) should seem strange and obscure and it is, but so should the choice to give up our material treasures to address the poverty and social exclusion which dominates our cities and countries. Hauerwas takes a similar line on settling for the “safe” choice of war over peace.

    The challenge for the church is to offer and live out a narrative which declares that we have been bought at a price. Our s-uality, economics, possessions and political security are now in the service of the Risen Christ who died on behalf of those who were killing him. This is real risk.

    Also, just a short note on terminology. Most of those working on best-practice principles in the world of sexual health now use the term “safer s-” as opposed to “safe s-.” The role of safer s- is to play a role in preventing pregnancy and the transmission of s-ually transmitted infections (STI’s – not STD’s. Many of the infections do not leave you feeling very dis-eased but do impact your body). “VD” is from the Stone Age.

  • Jeremy

    Simon – All I can really say is that I feel your pain. I’ve been in a process of re-examining so much of what I believed that I just took for granted and I have many of the same questions. The result is that I feel like a bit of a doctrinal Frankenstein. I’m a Preterist eschatalogically, with a Reformed soteriology (though I appreciate and incorporate much of what I read from people like Scot and J.R. Daniel Kirk), and I’m currently somewhere in between Complementarianism and Egalitarianism. In all of this, sexuality has probably been the most difficult for me to find peace on. I have 3 young kids, one of which I’ve begun talking with about “S”, and it wasn’t until I began preparing for that that I realized just how much cognitive dissonance I have with this topic. With all the other topics I was able to read and study and feel like I was on a trajectory toward something (with a possible exception for the gender roles issue). But when it comes to S’uality, I’m still not sure of much of anything. Depending on the day you ask me I could probably make a pretty good case for very opposing viewpoints. So which one do I teach my kids? Unfortunately, feeling divided on this particular topic has a very real-world impact on my kids and even my wife.

  • Marcus C

    “Furthermore, the reasons why David (or even Sampson) does not lament these things is embarrassing to evangelical S ethics anyway: the truth is that polygamy was entirely acceptable and allowed in ancient Israel. So multiple S engagements would not lead to lament, only extra-marital engagement leads to lament. And David married Bathsheba. Furthermore, apparently a woman who was raped (outside the city) was forced to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22) (I understand that there is a good economic reason for this, but it does suggest that we need to be careful in using OT S ethics). The fact that so much of S ethics in the OT revolves around economic considerations would seem to suggest that our ethics might be very different than ours. Therefore, we shouldn’t need David to express emotional lament in order to find emotional lament a useful ethical guide today.

    More broadly, the fact that OT S ethics are demonstrably different from even NT ethics is a big problem for sexual ethics grounded in divine-command, as one has to explain why God changed his mind, or why something like changing social circumstances is okay to apply to something like polygamy, but not other social issues that are of issue to us, like homosexuality or pre-marital S.”
    Great points Tom F.

  • MikeW

    Tom F. – I’m in agreement. I said that polemicaly, in frustration. I should have said, we don’t need to rely on psychology to tell us sex is meant to unite. However, I disagree that my statement needs to be read as an evasion from rational investigation. The claim What God intended or What something is by nature is as open to empirical investigation as any other theoretical paradigm.


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