Recently (at the request of many blog readers who read my series on Christian dating books: “You Are Not Your Own”), I borrowed Real Sex, by Lauren Winner* from my local library and read it. As I’ve stated in a previous blog post, I was not a fan. It failed to live up to the promise of being “one of the good Christian dating books,” like those who recommended it said it would.
I’d like to talk about one interesting concept found therein: the idea that sex cannot and should not be separated from procreation. I’ve already talked about how this concept allows us to blame single parents for the problems they face, taking the blame off of the utter failure of our society to care for their most vulnerable people.
Today, I want to talk specifically about this idea (prominent in both evangelical and post/liberal evangelical circles, as well as many mainline denominations) that sex must be saved for marriage and attached to procreation in order to be sacramental.
I’ve heard several writers attempt to move beyond purity culture, by arguing for sex as sacrament. This argument states that no, you aren’t “damaged goods” if you have premarital sex: there just is no such thing as premarital sex.
Following the time-tested Christian tradition of simply ignoring things you don’t like, some of these writers–Winner included–claim that premarital sex isn’t “real” sex. Others (such as Preston Yancey and, believe it or not, Rob Bell) cite Deuteronomy 22 (yes, that is the passage where if you rape a woman you have to marry her), and claim that the act of intercourse is marriage, therefore, all intercourse is “sacramentally” marital.
I’m not a fan of this argument. In fact, I think I prefer purity culture. I’d rather be “damaged goods” than be sacramentally united in marriage to my rapist. Fuck that noise.
Winner not only believes that premarital sex doesn’t exist. She believes it cannot be sacramental.
Winner argues that only marital sex open to procreation can “direct the lover’s attention beyond the spouse, beyond the marriage bed,” just as the Eucharist directs us beyond the table and out into the world.
My question is, why must sex be marital and procreative to go beyond itself and out into the world? Is marital union and marital procreation the only way that sex offers something more than itself to the world? That’s a pretty limiting, naive view of sex.
A couple of glaring problems lie in this view of sex:
1. Obviously sex doesn’t have to be marital in order to be procreative. Are the children who are born to unmarried parents not a gift that blesses the world? And if those children are gifts to the world that go beyond their parents’ fun time in bed, then wouldn’t that mean their parents’ fun time in bed was, indeed, sacramental?
Either children born “out of wedlock” are not a blessing to the world, or the premarital sex that created those children is sacramental. I’m not down with the former option, and I’m guessing you aren’t either.
2. Procreation is not the only way sex can bless the world. Winner even admits this, saying that a married couple that cannot procreate can have sacramental sex as well, even if they must be more intentional about it, going out of their way to be hospitable to others.
So, if a married couple who cannot procreate can still have sacramental sex, why not an unmarried couple who cannot procreate, or who do not wish to?
There are many ways besides procreation through which sex can bless the world, therefore becoming a sacramental act.
Patrick Cheng’s book Radical Love contains thoughts from many different queer theologians on the ways relationships outside of the monogamous, heterosexual, nuclear family can be a blessing to the world.
Cheng quotes Nancy Wilson describing casual or “promiscuous” sex as “bodily hospitality.” He also cites Kathy Rudy who believes that “nonmonogamous sex acts–including anonymous and communal sex–can be viewed in terms of a progressive ethic of hospitality.” (pg 13)
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hebrews 13:2, KJV
We can also go to an art museum or turn on the radio and see/hear great art that was, at least in part, inspired by sex and sexuality. Sex of any sort can be inspiring and can lead us to create. We all don’t have to create babies. We can create art, music, literature, poetry, or even just a nice breakfast for our partner(s).
Healthy sex can be stress-relieving. It can be empowering. It can inspiring in a way that leads us to creativity that is expressed even beyond the bedroom.
It isn’t always, of course, not even in marital relationships.
But it can be.
Like the bread and wine of communion, sex becomes sacramental–not when we sign a marriage license–but when it feeds us and nourishes us, giving us the energy to go out and bless the world.
*Winner published Real Sex in 2005, and, from what I have heard, her faith has evolved quite a bit since then. I have no idea what kind of relationship book she would write today. We are all learning and changing and growing. Please do not take this post as a criticism of Winner personally. Her book, however, is still being read, recommended, and taken to heart by many Christians today. This is the reason I criticize the teachings found in it.