Lauren Winner’s Real Sex, and the Church’s Responsibility to Single Parents

Image of the book cover of Real Sex, by Lauren Winner. The cover is black, with a white blooming flower.

If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, you’ll know I have this thing about Christian dating/marriage books. By that I mean, I did my undergraduate research capstone on rape culture in Christian dating/marriage books. I’ve published a whole series about my research that you can read on this blog called “You Are Not Your Own: Rape, Sexual Assault, and Consent in Evangelical Christian Dating Books.

When I started doing this blog series, I also started getting recommendations for less terrible Christian dating books. One book that several people recommended to me was the book Real Sex by Lauren Winner.*

Curiosity finally got the better of me, and I checked Real Sex out from my local library. I can see why people recommended it as “better than” all of those other books I’d been reading. Winner criticizes the church’s fear of bodies, the lie that women don’t enjoy sex like men do, etc.

Yet, this book still contains many of the same harmful teachings that I came across in the other books I researched. I want to talk about a few of them over a couple of blog posts.

In one section of Real Sex, Winner talks about “lies” that culture tells about sex. The first “lie” that she discusses in the “lie” that “Sex Can be Wholly Separated from Procreation.” (pg. 64)

Winner concedes that birth control is an important invention that saves and improves lives. She doesn’t suggest that everyone take the Roman Catholic approach, and refuse to use birth control completely.

Yet, she still takes an approach to birth control familiar to anyone who has spent a lot of time reading Christian dating books—she believes that birth control should not be used to completely avoid the possibility of procreation.

There are a lot of problems with this approach. For one, not all partners in sexual relationships can procreate through sex with one another. Infertile people, older people, and many people in same-sex relationships truly can separate sex from procreation, because, for them, procreation via sex with one another is not physically possible.

But even in relationships where procreation via sex is possible, this insistence that sex must be connected to procreation bothers me. I think that, often, the church uses this connection to forgo it’s responsibility to the vulnerable and the marginalized.

Winner states, “in general an unplanned pregnancy in a marriage is not quite the same fluster-busting, terror-inducing conundrum that unplanned pregnancies often are for single women.” (pg. 65) According to Winner, this is one of the reasons that we must save sex for marriage.

Let’s set aside the fact that is really, really not always true (take for instance this recent Washington Post story about a pregnancy that contributed to a well-off married couple’s decent into poverty).

Winner is right, in general. Life is often harder for single parents. But why is this?

Does life have to be harder for single parents? If we lived in a world where child-care and parental leave were readily available, where welfare was sufficient to live off of, where everyone earned a livable wage, where children were seen as a community responsibility, and and where single mothers/parents were not greeted with stigma, would life really be harder for an unmarried pregnant person?

Society has shirked it’s responsibility to care for single parents and for children, and the church is no exception. Churches so often treat single mothers deplorably. Christian high schools and colleges kick out pregnant teenagers and unmarried young adults.

Could it be that Christians are so hesitant to separate sex from procreation because it allows us to to victim blame single parents in need? Because it allows them to ignore Jesus’ call for us to care for and help out those who need it the most? 

If the church and society were taking up that responsibility, unplanned pregnancies—for single and married people alike—might still be tough (pregnancy, even when planned, can be a terrifying affair). But it might not be the “fluster-busting, terror-inducing conundrum” that Winner talks about.

If the church were fighting for more access to birth control, abortions, and health care, if the church were pushing back against welfare stigma, if it were welcoming and affirming parents and their children, if it were providing and fighting for affordable childcare, if it were supporting the fight for a livable wage and for paid parental leave for all workers…

But that’s too much work. Much easier to blame single parents for making “bad choices,” and pretend that marriage fixes everything.

Church, let’s do better.

____

*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.

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