As a reminder, I’ve been talking about a few basic guidelines that can help people form a holistic sexual ethic. I’m doing this to combat the idea that purity-culture and/or wait-til-marriage Christians have a monopoly on ethical sex, and the idea that waiting until marriage is in itself a holistic sexual ethic.
In my last post on this topic, I discussed the first two guidelines: 1. Consent, and 2. Respect and affirmation for self and others. Today, I’m going to discuss the next two: 3. Emotional and health risks/needs, and how to approach them, and 4. The meanings that you and your partner attach to sex.
3. Emotional and Health Risks/Needs
I often hear purity-culture Christians claim that pregnancy, STDs/STIs, and heartbreak are reasons enough to avoid sex until marriage. They claim that those who don’t wait until marriage just want “consequence-free” sex. This claim often comes up against those promoting access to birth control and sex ed.
I don’t really understand this claim. The people promoting birth control and sex education are the ones who are trying to have “consequence-free” sex? Not the folks who get married and assume that sex will automatically be awesome and safe because they were virgins on their wedding night?
It is important to consider the health “consequences” of sex–for yourself and your partner(s)–when forming a holistic ethic. But you can take precautions and be healthy and safe without getting married first. You can also get married and think that this means you’re safe from any health risks that might come from having sex. Marriage doesn’t mean you’ll be prepared for pregnancy if that is a biological possibility for you. It doesn’t mean you won’t get a urinary tract infection. There will always be risks for sex, but that doesn’t mean sex is a bad thing (even driving a car or eating dinner poses risks).
Also, the health risks involved in sex are different for everyone. For example, when Christians say that the possibility of pregnancy is the reason everyone should wait, they are erasing heterosexual couples who cannot have children. They are erasing same sex couples. They’re forgetting that not every married couple wants children and not every unmarried person minds having children before marriage. They’re forgetting that not everyone (not even heterosexual couples) has penis-in-vagina sex.
Purity-culture proponents also like to talk about how sex will bond you to another person for life, and if you don’t marry them first it will rip your heart out and you’ll never get over it. I mean, break-ups and disappointments can suck. Sometimes sex can make this even more complicated, especially if children are involved. But, depending on what meaning people put behind sex (see point 4), how people react emotionally to it and the expectations people have about it are going to vary from person to person.
4. The Meanings that You/Your Partner Attach to Sex
You may be reading this thinking that I’m totally against people waiting until marriage to have sex. Im’ really not. If your personal values surrounding sex or marriage have to do with waiting, then that is also a part of forming a holistic sexual ethic.
Everyone attaches some meaning to sex. Some people might see sex as a sacrament or an act of worship. Some might see it as a means of reproduction. Some might see it as an act of romance or an expression of love. Some might not even care for sex at all. We are complicated, diverse people and we are going to have complicated, diverse views of sex. Those views are important, and it’s important to consider those views and discuss them with our partner(s).
Our meanings surrounding sex might effect how we approach the other guidelines (some Catholic couples might only use Natural Family Planning when trying to prevent pregnancy, for example, because their meaning for sex involves more openness to reproduction). But as I’ve pointed out over and over, the meanings themselves are not sufficient for a holistic sexual ethic.
Neither is one specific meaning for sex the only meaning that constitutes ethical sex for everyone. I hear too often accusations that people who don’t wait until marriage don’t value sex. But different values does not mean no values. We need to remember this. Even among people who wait until marriage to have sex, the meanings people attach to sex are going to be different.
Our meanings for sex are important, and shape how we approach healthy sexual relationships. But without consent, respect for humanity, and consideration of emotional and health risks/needs, our sex lives aren’t going to be “ethical.” And with consent, respect for humanity, and consideration of emotional and health risks/needs, people with diverse meanings for sex can have ethical sex lives.
There are definitely some general, universal guidelines for what constitutes ethical sex. But a lot of the shaping of a sexual ethic involves being open and honest about your own needs, and listening to/respecting the needs of your partner(s). A lot of the details are going to look different from couple to couple.
Purity-culture Christians need to stop assuming that their way of going about it is the only way that truly values sex and the well-being of others, or that their way of going about it automatically values sex and the well-being of others at all.
Sexual ethics are for everybody.