It’s my body, and I’ll do what I want to – the myth of private sexual ethics

my body…my business

“We’re two consenting adults.  What we do behind a closed door is nobody’s business.”  There, in those two sentences, you find the prevailing, public, sexual ethic of western civilization.  By “Public Ethic” I mean to say that this is what, collectively, we believe.  There are sexual ethics to the left of this that we reject as a culture (pedophilia, rape, abuse) and to the right (“sexual practice should be confined to expression between a man and woman who are married”), but both sides are outside the cultural mainstream that’s been portrayed in sitcoms, film, and music, for the past 40 years.  The notion that your sexual ethic is customizable and that “consent and mutuality” are what matter IS the public sexual ethic of America.  “Hooking Up”, “Recreational sex”, “serial monogomy”, “polyamory”, “porn instead of women” “menage a trois” are all part of the sexual buffet line offered to propserous, highly individualized westerners. As long both parties, or both couples, or all the couples together, agree to whatever, then whatever is fine.  We hear this, see this, read this, over and over again, and as a result it becomes the prevailing value.  I can’t begin to catalog the lies, dysfunctions and brokenness that stem from this common view of things, but social dysfunction, sexual addiction, human mistrust, human trafficking, and the reduction of one another from persons to objects all come to mind.

The important thing to see, for the moment, is that every culture has a prevailing public sexual ethic.  People will subscribe to it every time because, being public in nature, it just becomes ‘common sense’.  So, while, “to each his/her own” sounds individualistic, in reality it’s our collective, public sexual ethic.   The problem, though is that lots of things that have been commonly held to be “obvious” and “just the way it is” were eventually exposed as being destructive or reprehensible (think, slavery, subjugation of woman, margarine, DDT, fracking.)  We look back on such things (or will eventually), and say “what were we thinking?”

It’s also true that in the midst of prevailing public norms there are often subcultures that “do things differently”.    When the default position in Germany was to report Jews living in your neighborhood, a subculture sheltered them instead.  When the default position in rural Ghana is to give your daughter to witchdoctor to become his sexual and material slave, a tiny subculture says “enough” and pushes in a different direction. These too are “public ethics”.  It’s just that the public subscribing to these things are always a smaller, contrarian subset of the larger community.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthian church, he was intent on clarifying that Christ followers have a sexual ethic of their own, and that it’s different than prevailing cultural norms.  Look at what he says:

Food appetites are different than sexual appetites. – You find this here.  The prevailing view of sex in Paul’s day was that our hunger for food and hunger for sex are the same thing:  appetites we should obey for own good.  This is a bit the premise as well in the popular book “Sex at Dawn” which relies heavily on the sex habits of the Bonobos as the exemplary and healthy reference point for what our own sexual ethic should be:  poly-amorous, non-monogamous, “if you’re hungry, eat”.   The picture painted by advocates of “sex is a thirst; obey your thirst” school of thought, is one of sexual bliss as all this non-monogamous copulation unfolds over the course of our lifetime.  Never mind that, even in the animal community, there are sexual winners and losers; our “Dawn” advocates, indicate that all will be well if we trust our appetites.

Paul challenges that view directly, indicating that sex isn’t an appetite that must be fed, like hunger.  He goes on to say that something profound and mysterious happens in intercourse; that it becomes the sign of a oneness, the merging of two into a single entity. Paul’s referring, in this, to the oath/oath, sign nature of covenant making, as documented in this book.   In order for a covenant to be enacted, both parties participate in the oath (the promises and declarations) and then consummate the covenant by participating in the sign.  The marriage covenant, then, is intended to exist along those same lines.  There are the oaths declared, (In sickness and health, etc.) and then, at the end of the day. the promises made are consummated with the sign of intercourse, which seals the covenant and makes it real.  Sex then, in its fullest expression at the very least, is intended to be reserved for one to whom you’ve made profound and life altering promises.  It’s in the context of a publicly declared commitment and a supportive community, that two people are released to enjoy the full vulnerability and interdependency found in sex.

The covenant provides a safe context in which we can, and should allow our sexuality to take us into depths of vulnerability, mutuality, sacrificial love, truth telling, and interdependency.  We’ll go deeper, and realize more profound transformation, if we’re convinced the other loves us, and isn’t just using us.  And what will enable me to believe that the other loves me?  The fact that the other promised to love me deeply, and made that promise in front of my friends and family, that’s what.

Paul has more to say about sexuality, as he’ll swim upstream against some other popular views that make denigrate sex as something evil, something to be avoided.  (I’ll post about the glories of sexuality next week).  For now, though, there’s one important thing to note:

Paul is challenging Christ followers to deal with the reality that they’re called to swim upstream against prevailing cultural norms.  He doesn’t just challenge the sexual ethic.  He challenges how we use our money, who we treat the poor, the old, our enemies, how we treat the earth.  In summary, he calls us to align ourselves with an entirely different kingdom because the calling of the Christ followers is to, before everything else, see to it that he/she is seeking “the kingdom of God” first, and this means seeking to embody the ethic of Christ’s reign so that it takes root visibly in the real world.  When this happens, an alternative is provided.  Women needn’t be sold into sexual slavery.  Neither need they be reduced to objects that exist for the use and pleasure of selfish men.  People needn’t be reduced to objects existing for our own, or even one another’s mutual gratification.  Marriages aren’t made to be abandoned at the first, or even twentieth sign of trouble (though there are lines to be drawn in matters of abuse, which I’ll address later).  There is, in other words, an alternative ethic.

If you want to copulate, know that you live in a culture that makes it easy to find an outlet for your loins.  If you want to shout about the evils of sex, and shame people into either towing the line or giving the church the finger, you can also find plenty of voices in that echo chamber too.  But neither of those conversations are helpful in the end, for both polarities misrepresent sex, and fail to deliver on their promises to fulfill our deepest longings.

The third way, though, includes a starting point of knowing that you’re complete and deeply loved, a cross, a high road, grace and forgiveness when we stumble along the way (as we all do), an embracing rather than denial of our sensual selves, and a commitment to stand with a community who have said for millenia that the gift of sex flourishes best when it becomes a crucible for life, vulnerability, blessing, truth telling, confession, and more with the one to whom you’re married. 

Any takers?   Happily yes






About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Denise

    I take issue with your characterization of DDT and fracking, otherwise, great article :)

  • John

    I take issue with your consideration of rape, pedophilia, and sexual abuse as ‘left wing’ rather than examples of violence.

    I also take issue with the suggestion that “a safe context in which we can, and should allow our sexuality to take us into depths of vulnerability, mutuality, sacrificial love, truth telling, and interdependency.” cannot exist between more than two people, or between two people of the same sex.

    • Richard Dahlstrom

      I don’t really care where you place rape on the political spectrum. The point was that these things were, and should be, outside the mainstream sexual ethic. A cursory reading of both “Sex at Dusk” and the Bible (consider Jacob’s 4 wives and the incessant jealousy that ensued) leads me to believe that we’re best served by one to one monogamy. This, of course, is what God has revealed as the best option, if we’re to take the Bible seriously. If we’re honest, we’ll also note that there’s a wide variety of sexual expressions, and that God doesn’t hate or reject people who don’t do it God’s way (consider David: king, murderer, adulterer, man after God’s own heart). However, if we’re looking for guidance for the Bible regarding our best odds of finding the deepest satisfaction in our sexuality, the bible points to one to one monogamy as the best option.

      • John Evans

        Richard, my point was that rape should not be forced onto the political spectrum at all. It’s not a political position, it’s an act of violence.

        Further, the federal government of the United States of America is by law a secular organization. It is forbidden from favouring the teachings of one sect in its decision making process as that would be a de facto violation of the establishment clause. So the decision of where and how much to exert influence on the romantic and sexual lives of the citizenry must draw on more sources and references than a single sect’s interpretation of a single holy book. And social science has found through observation of populations that heterosexual monogamy is not a universally applicable recipe for happiness and stability. Certainly it is very common, I won’t dispute that. But unilaterally saying heterosexual monogamy is best and therefore should be the only option allowed is akin to saying that most people like ice cream, so lactose intolerant people should either eat it and suffer or have no dessert at all. It accomplishes nothing other than making outliers unhappy for being outliers.

        Or in another phrasing – yes, they’re outside the mainstream. They’re not normal. This is obvious. But why put such laurels on normalcy, on the mainstream? Heroes are outliers. Pioneers are outliers. Olympic-class athletes and Nobel laureates are outliers. Greatness is abnormal – to be normal, to be in the middle of the bell curve, is to be merely adequate. Good enough.

  • Joe M

    Since he already compared sex to eating…

    Suppose a morbidly obese smoking diabetic with congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease told you how to live a healthy lifestyle. You’d laugh in his face and dismiss him without a second thought. Likewise, a triathalete or a 115 year-old is someone to be emulated. Living a healthy/unhealthy lifestyle is rather difficult to conceal, wouldn’t you think? Sex is a lot different. Ted Haggard fooled a lot of people and were it not for his dalliances with his masseur/pusher being exposed he may well be trying to pass himself off as the paragon of chastity to this very day all the while giving into his jones for frat boys.

    I dunno about you but every time I hear someone moralizing about sexual purity I am now programmed to think that that person is furtively dealing with his own secret journey to the dark side and is indirectly assuaging his own guilt (cf. reaction formation).

    Please, the Bible does not give you any more insight into human behavior than watching The Young and the Restless. I’ve had my fill of Catholic Priests raping altar boys, scandals and even the special forces finding hardcore porn on Osama Bin Laden’s laptop. I always hear it said the you are to love the sinner and hate the sin. I don’t believe that cliche is biblical. What *is* biblical is to love everyone and hate YOUR OWN SIN.

    The author and everyone else is on notice. Unless you voluntarily submit to invasive surveillance for an indefinite period proving to us that you are as pure as you expect others to be you should find other more productive ways to make this world a better place.

  • W. Mortman

    It’s a good point John, painting heterosexual monogamy as the only home for sexual expression leaves a lot of people out in the cold “without dessert” as it were. If you call the goal “marriage,” this additionally leaves out the vast majority of the population, the “unmarried.” So how is it we can claim most people should live without any outlet for sexual expression, perhaps for life? I think there are a few deeper questions to dismantle.

  • W. Mortman

    First, why is sexuality so central to our identity and experience? Gay/Straight/Etc., Single/Married/Etc., Male/Female/Etc. So many of our core identities are linked to our sexual status, nature or behavior. Apart from a more compelling philosophy, Freud has the corner on the market: everything is about sex. From the Christian perspective, everything is about Jesus, including sex, and identity is in Christ.

  • W. Mortman

    Second, are there other healthy expressions of sexuality outside of intercourse (or porn)? It seems like sexual urges must either find an outlet or be repressed to our increased dysfunction. However, our physiology is incredibly complex and dynamic. Perhaps there is a third way. The Christian perspective suggests facing sexual needs, rather than repressing, and wrestling with God through them to our increased intimacy with Jesus while finding other tension-relieving outlets for the body.

  • W. Mortman

    Third, what is the nature of existence? This is the crux of the every hard question. Our philosophy always determines our ethic. I can easily believe life begins and ends with emptiness and everything between is a brief dance with nature vying for survival and comfort, but not without a knowing smile and a song and a little looking out for the survival and comfort of others too. I find it difficult to believe life is about one man, Jesus, and life begins with disaster and ends into wholeness rather than emptiness, eternal life rather than brief survival, deep joy rather than comfort only. However, I do believe this Christian idea even in the midst of the disaster of my beginnings. This shifts my ethic from self-fulfillment to self-emptying. Now sexual need is not lessened, it is just repurposed. And the purpose is to personally know the actually God of it all.