I was asked by Patheos to do the following book review:
In Sex and the Single Christian Girl: Fighting for Purity in a Rom-com World, Marian Jordan Ellis takes a Christian stand for sexual purity in her delivery to other Christian women. She speaks of the importance of sexual morality as related to our personal relationship with Christ, our personal relationship with self, and our personal relationships with spouse and/or dating partners.
She offers clear reasons as to why the “law of chastity” (as we Mormons refer to it) is meant to be beneficial instead of punitive, and why a loving God would have thought to guide us in that direction. It is meant for our protection. It is meant to be a virtue in our lives; offering us loving, committed, bonded attachment leading to joy and contentment. It is meant to help us perceive our own bodies as sacred gifts and temples. It is meant to help us know how to expect to be treated, how to treat others, and how to treat ourselves while standing up for our own convictions. Ellis even provides data on how it can be “wired” in us through hormonal regulation.
Ellis explains how romance and sex can often be portrayed in unrealistic ways through different forms of media that can leave people uninformed, misled, and uneducated as to the risks, wonders, and development of skills needed for healthy relationship making. She gives positive hope when speaking of the possibilities of personal transformation; not being held captive by past regrets or mistakes. She cites many great biblical and secular quotes while also offering guidelines, lists and how-to’s some will find helpful. She is personal in her approach, sharing much of her own experience and I appreciate her willing vulnerability and openness in reaching out to others she wants to help.
At the same time, I was not comfortable with many of the messages shared which are common themes within the sexual education most conservative Christians grow up with. So in this I don’t fault Ellis – I just see much of her approach as part of a bigger cultural problem within Christianity that can have unintended and harmful consequences to the development of a sexually mature adult. The following critiques are similar to those I provide within my own church culture/setting as we speak to sexual topics:
- This approach is patriarchal – stereotyping men and women into gender roles that are not always useful in helping both sexes enter into truly equal and egalitarian partnerships. When we typecast men as “protectors” and women as sexual gatekeepers, we inadvertently ignore that men also need protection and that women are capable lead characters in their own lives. It can also exacerbate unrealistic relational expectations – similar to those Ellis criticizes the media of providing – just on another side of the spectrum.
- This approach unintentionally exacerbates the fear/shame cycle that often can be traced back to sexual behavior issues to begin with. It uses provocative language that can’t help but elicit our instinctual fear response (just a few examples from Ellis’ book: waging war, Satan and his minions, bondage, enemy’s lies, darkness, wickedness, tsunami of evil, enticement of our flesh, covert tactics, evil enemy, prisoner of war in a cell of shame and regret). When we offer sexual education against this backdrop of scare tactics, it can’t help but correlate sexuality with fear, angst, and a mistrust of our sexual response system. And it gives Satan more power than he deserves. Although I believe in adversarial forces, I don’t find it useful to be continually reminded of or focus on their presence. Even Ellis acknowledges that “all this talk of warfare” and Satan might be depressing. Unfortunately, he is a lead character in this book. I’d rather spend my energy focusing on Christ and his forgiving and positive messages (lots of great research has come out in the last 15 years on the power of positive thinking).
- This approach puts too much emphasis on the correlation between loving Christ and our behavior. Yes, incorrect behavior usually leads to negative consequences in our lives – why we are given guidelines by a loving Being to begin with. However, we can be in the midst of behavioral failure and in the midst of a “love affair with Christ” simultaneously. In fact, it is often in our most “hit-bottom” moments where we can feel His redeeming presence comforting us and reminding us of our divine ability to persevere. Putting too much emphasis on behavioral correctness ignores that sin is an unfortunate yet important part of our mortal journey, part of our learning curve, part of humility development and part of empathy building. It also ignores the life-changing acceptance of grace – needed to fill in the gaps and envelope us completely as we inevitably fail on a daily basis.
- This approach fails to acknowledge the normalcy of our “fleshy” ways. It attributes too much of our natural sexual response to Satan. There are biological feedback loops – created by God – which make our arousal responses perfectly normal. As long as we know why our bodies and brains respond in certain ways (i.e. infatuation) then we are better equipped to make healthier choices without unnecessary villainization of responses that are SUPPOSED to be happening. After all our vaginas don’t know whether or not we are married. This can often lead to what Laura Brotherson calls “Good Girl Syndrome,” where women learn in their unmarried years to not trust and even shut off their sexual response system – often coming back to haunt them when it doesn’t automatically turn back on after the “I do’s” are declared. This problem takes up a large percentage of my sex therapy practice. “Flesh loves sin” does not promote a healthy trust for our capacity to govern ourselves nor to love or understand our bodies. We are then poised to view ourselves as an inner enemy – in of itself a shaming stance.
- This approach leaves no room for inter-faith relationships – villainizing anyone not sharing one’s belief system and unrealistically putting on a pedestal those who do. The reality is that Christian marriages fail and succeed. And so do inter-faith marriages.
- This approach embraces the classic apocalyptic rhetoric of villainizing our current day and world at large – completely ignoring the huge strides we have made within the realms of sexual freedom/choice, sexual accountability (especially when it comes to sexual crime closely related to women’s and children’s rights), and the decrease in sexual violence in general. Although the “good old days” may have included less pornographic billboards and more modest dress – they were not so great when it came to many devastating sexual statistics.
Like Ellis, I love Christ. Like her, I believe in the transforming power a relationship with Him has in our lives. Like her, I believe in the Law of Chastity and its protective and loving forces. I believe that our sexual journeys are enmeshed with our spirituality and understanding of self in beautiful and intricate ways. For these reasons in particular, I believe we can do a much better job of offering healthy, Christian sexual education that does not fall into the stereotyping and shaming traps I mention above. I hope we can all better embrace this divine power we claim as part of our mortal experience in a way where we can progress in health, self-acceptance, self-trust, responsibility and when needed, self-forgiveness through the atoning powers of Jesus Christ.