The problem with evangelical sexual ethics is that we haven’t got any

Do we need a “new” Christian sexual ethic?

Well, yes. But not because the old one needs replacing. We need a new Christian sexual ethic because we haven’t got an old one to replace.

That’s not true for many Christians, but if “we” above is to refer to white evangelicals here in the U.S., then we desperately do need a new Christian sexual ethic because that we ain’t got one now.

What we white American evangelicals have, instead, is a blanket prohibition — a bold line between two binary categories.

Married? (Yes or No)

If Yes: Sex good.

If No: Sex bad.

That’s a rule, but it’s not an ethic. It speaks to good and bad, but cannot speak to better or worse. An ethic needs to be able to guide us about better and worse, and it needs to be able to guide us about why better is better and why worse is worse. It needs to tell us what kind of people we are to become, not just what rules we need to obey. It needs to inform our decisions, not just to demand our compliance.

The clearest indication of the current lack of a coherent sexual ethic is the response of The Enforcers whenever that reasonable and necessary question — why? — is raised. The response is simply to reassert The Rule. That doesn’t answer the question. Nor does it address the reasons for the question. Rules without why — rules without a clear ethic guiding them, explaining them, undergirding and supporting them — cannot produce ethical people, only people who are either obedient or disobedient. Such rules may produce compliance, but cannot produce virtue.

Virtue is even less likely due to the enforcement mechanism that evangelicalism has come to rely on for the single sexual rule it has adopted in lieu of sexual ethics. That enforcement mechanism is “purity culture.”

And there is nothing virtuous, or ethical, about “purity culture.” There is nothing pure about purity culture. It’s predatory. It’s vicious. It promotes and defends and elevates sin.

Evangelical purity culture and its attendant cult of “modesty” enthrones male lust, inverting what Jesus taught us. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” Jesus said. But purity culture says male eyes are inviolable, so if a man’s eye causes him to sin, then women’s bodies must be torn out and thrown away — or at least covered up and shut away. Modesty somehow always means women in burkas,* never men in blindfolds.

If evangelicals are to preserve their rule, they will need to adopt an ethic that can support it. And they will need to abandon the enforcement method that undermines it at every turn.

For a clear description of the challenge this entails, I would point to E.J. Graff’s essay last month for the American Prospect,Purity Culture Is Rape Culture.” (Note that Graff deals with India’s mass-protests following some recent horrific sexual assaults and rapes, which she discusses with disturbing candor.)

Graff is not specifically addressing evangelical purity culture here, but this describes why it is untenable, unsustainable and unworthy of being sustained:

“Rape culture,” as young feminists now call this, isn’t limited to India. It lives anywhere that has a “traditional” vision of women’s sexuality. A culture in which women are expected to remain virgins until marriage is a rape culture. In that vision, women’s bodies are for use primarily for procreation or male pleasure. They must be kept pure. While cultural conservatives would disagree, this attitude gives men license to patrol — in some cases with violence — women’s hopes for controlling their lives and bodies.

There, then, is the challenge for those who would adopt a Christian sexual ethic where now there exists none. Right now instead of ethics we’ve got a single rule, and we enforce that rule with a “purity culture” of slut-shaming that tramples the paramount commandments to love God and love our neighbor. That’s perverse and wrong and, yes, unbiblical.

We can do better. We need to do better.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* See Katie’s comment on that word. I think she’s right.

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  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    For many, it’s not “If Married, Sex good” but “If married, sex still bad but we’ll let you slide so long as the woman doesn’t enjoy it too much”

  • Tricksterson

    Or even more accuratly:  Married Sex: Good*

    *As long as it’s between a man and a woman and the man is clearly and unequivocably in charge.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I think it’s more that so-called “evangelical sexual ethics” are trying to put the human sex drive into an unmanageable box, when really it would be better to accept that a more realistic sexual ethic revolves around mutual consent and enjoyment.

  • Naomi

    I was thinking about this recently while reviewing the sex ed materials used at my kids’ school. It is actually a “comprehensive” curriculum, which means that it gives at least some information about birth control, but it also _emphasizes_ abstinence.

    And there is so much wrong with this curriculum, and one of the problems is that there is not nearly enough of a conversation about “consent.”  I’m not sure the word consent is even used. Because you’re not supposed to be seeking consent or considering whether or not to consent; you’re supposed to be abstaining, period. 

  • Foelhe

    Great post!

    And really, this is the root of pretty much all conservative problems, not just their sexual hangups. When obedience is your major virtue, you’ll do pretty much anything when you’ve got the wrong person cracking the whip.

  • Lawrence Mckechnie

    Hello… this article is pretty interesting.  I think there some things, particularly in Paul, which have been converted (casually) into laws/rules which merely constrain behavior, without a clear basis for why we accept them to be rules.  I think there is a difference between highly immoral behavior (when your love for self is paramount) than simply loving someone in a relationship.  I think there are tensions or dimensions in real life which scripture acknowledges and it helps us navigate through the mist.  God work is about what is already DONE rather than what is still to be done, I would say; it is really about the love of God and realizing who we are meant to be in His image.  I think if we live in avoidance and in hiding, avoiding mature debate and avoiding difficult questions which are so manifold that simple, clear-cut, binary answers are difficult (nonetheless, these “answers” are given, often conflating a lot of different contexts, situations and factors), then we will be left and are being left with an unstable ethical foundation.  This is why, I believe, Jesus sums up all the commands in two commandments which revolve around love.  Our love of God and others should be our starting point; it is not about living in denial of the rhythms of real life.  There is such a maligned misunderstanding of what faith and what the bible is saying that it often saddens me.  A clear case in point is that of gay relationships: here, there is no mature debate but merely extreme opposites, often more political (mostly the political right tries to dictate play and the meta-narrative), creating divisions and a disharmony which precludes understanding and acceptance as people believe they are right.  Maybe I am wrong but this is how I see things.  If we don’t accept the unavoidable rhythms of life, we are not growing organically in our faith and certainly not realizing who God is calling us to be.

  • Katie

    I know its really, really common to call any kind of religiously mandated modest dress for women a ‘burka’, but could you please try not to do that.  It unfairly stigmatizes Islam and reduces the varied and complex reasons that Muslim women have for covering (or not covering) their bodies into ‘oppression’.

    There is a conversation to be had about what modest dress means in Islam and for Muslims, and Muslims are having it.  Since you’re talking about and to the behavior of Evangelical Christians, why not say ‘women in baggy polos and denim jumpers’?

  • Water_Bear

    Because baggy polos don’t have very strong connotations with anything in particular. The Burka and veil are, for good reason, seen as clothes designed specifically to hide the woman’s body and forced on them as an act of oppression. They are more well known and more prevalent than anything else which serves that function, and don’t really have a western equivalent.

    Of course, some women want to wear Burkas for their own reasons. Islam does not mandate them, nor veils, although it does have the same poisonous concept of modesty which all Abrahamic religions share. They are culturally significant. Etc. They’re also a really potent metaphor, and one which is particularly useful against Islamophobic opponents.

  • Katie

     And I think that there are better ways of convincing people that they shouldn’t do something than to tell them that they shouldn’t be like those icky Muslims.  Even when you think it will work.  No, I’d even go so far as to say *especially* when you think it might work.

    I don’t want to derail this conversation further with a debate on modest dress in Islam, because that isn’t the issue at hand.

    I will also say that the Evangelical ‘purity culture’ makes it especially difficult to come up with a set of sexual ethics.  Increasingly, it isn’t pure enough to merely not have sex, you must never have a sexual thought before marriage.  Even about the person that you intend to marry.  This isn’t about reducing sexuality to a binary, its about reducing it to a light switch.

  • unpious

    Thank you, I was scrolling down to reply to similar effect. Using burka here makes for a snappy sentence, but there are more important things than snappy sentences.

    I really do love this post though, it gets to the heart of the issue with purity culture so well.

    And now I’m trying to come up with a snappy sentence that makes a similar point….”Modesty is somehow always about women’s attire, not men’s attitudes.” Ehh. Kinda.

  • stardreamer42

    This seems like a good place for me to mention my extreme distaste for the Evangelical phrase “modest dress” to describe clothing that leaves only the head and hands uncovered. Why? Because it seems to validate the idea that the way I dress is “immodest”, and that in turn feeds into the entire Rape Culture notion that a woman who is insufficiently “modest” is fair prey.

    I have not been able to come up with a good short alternative to “modest dress” myself, but am open to suggestions.

  • Dash1

     Thank you, thank you, thank you! I was starting to steam when I read the words “modest dress” with their implication that of course modesty involved covering parts of the body as mandated by a bunch of men in the context of a different culture. I happen to live in one in which a bathing suit can be perfectly “modest,” thank you very much.

    Do we need a short term? For those for whom a burka is “modest,” a chador will not be; for those for whom a chador is “modest,” a headscarf will not be. And there will be debates about whether a chador that allows some head hair to be seen is as “modest” as a headscarf that covers all of it.

    I think use of the term “modest” in the context of religiously mandated clothing requirements not only begs the question but keeps us from paying attention to the specific restrictions involved.

  • springaldjack

    One problem is that there is a general phenomenon of “policing of women’s dress to fit certain patriarchal ideals of sexuality as part of the larger system of patriarchal control of the bodies of those understood as women” as well as the specifics of why this community is happy with women wearing a headscarf and that one calls for a chador. 

    So it does seem there should be a general term and “policing of women’s dress to fit certain patriarchal ideals of sexuality as part of the larger system of patriarchal control of the bodies of those understood as women” is a lot of words. 

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    The word “modest” itself when applied to the way women dress and behave re: sex disgusts me. When are men ever told to dress modestly? When we hear a woman is “modest”, we think one thing, and when we hear that a man is “modest”, we think something else entirely. This duality of language pares women down to our sex organs, and says that good girls don’t “flaunt” the fact that we are women, as if women should be ashamed of the fact that we are women in the first place.

    Let’s not pretend that our entire culture doesn’t have whatever we want to call all-covering dress for women that right-wing fundamentalists have. Women are constantly judged, not only on how we dress, but on what our bodies are like. Having big boobs means you are both stupid and a “slut”. Being what is considered overweight (which is shrinking all the time) supposedly means you are uncontrolled, therefore also “slut”. Our burqas are our bodies. In a lot of ways, covering up everything in a baggy sack would be a hell of a lot easier and less soul-killing.

    The source is the same: the idea that women are for sex and that is all women are for. And that therefore our appearance is the only important thing about us. 

  • AnonymousSam

    I’ve termed it “conservatively dressed” myself. Not sure if that’s better.

  • Gwen Ayliffe

    I agree. relationship is at the heart of christianity, and in a good relationship two people look out for one another. I believe that Christian men and women BOTH have a responsibility toward one another — women taught to dress becomingly and with dignity, and men taught to treat ALL women with respect, period. The issue in my opinion is best discussed within the context of relationship, and virtue — what is beauty? what is honorable? why does it matter? The correct answer is NOT “because the Bible tells me so.” That answer may be appropriate for a 5 year old, but not an adult.

  • banancat

    Why do I have to dress becomingly? Your assertion included no reasoning. Also, how can you define “with dignity” in a way that isn’t completely arbitrary?

  • Foelhe

    Men should treat people with respect, women should treat people with respect. What a woman chooses to put on her own body shouldn’t be part of that equation, and any system that demands more from one gender than the other has some serious issues.

  • Isabel C.

    Right. And for the record, I feel that a sequined minidress is, for me, becoming and dignified in certain situations: I like how I look in it (becoming) and it’s appropriate to the dance-or-club venue (dignified).  

  • Lawrence Mckechnie

    obedience in the conservative clusters of thought reminds me very much of the overuse of logic, which is a tool to overcome limitation; if we do not admit of the complexity of things like who are are (that we may be gay, that we desire for relationship) then we are limiting our scope and truly losing sight of who God has called us to be, christians in this world.  Living in denial of how we are wired leads to unnecessary fear, denial of self; we are not growing but merely vivo-phobic (phobic/fearful) of life.  This stems from a casual reading of scripture which does not identify with the overall narrative, which is, quit simply, a revelation of God and His relationship to us.  We seek rules as we try to coceptualise God in terms of the political debate of today, as opposed to getting back to WHO He is (and not What he is).  We have a deeply personal relaitonship with God which goes beyond sets of ideas, easy either/or rules, and concepts which are blindly accepted-but the conservatives, whilst they believe they are sticking to “inerrant word of God” (the fact such a term exists says more about their presuppositions and bias than it does about God), are actually being extra-biblical.  God has been used as emblem of s many things, for example when German theologians were able to justify their anti-semitism in terms of a derived biblical model (Karl Barth could not get his head round this).  That is why Jesus says we should not judge-we are not that good at it; we should just live life in a moral fashion (whatever that means) and refocus on God and loving others.

  • Lawrence Mckechnie

    I apologize for writing so much

  • ako

    Evangelical purity culture and its attendant cult of “modesty” enthrones
    male lust, inverting what Jesus taught us. “If your right eye causes
    you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” Jesus said. But purity
    culture says male eyes are inviolable, so if a man’s eye causes him to
    sin, then women’s bodies must be torn out and thrown away — or at least
    covered up and shut away. Modesty somehow always means women in burkas,
    never men in blindfolds.

    This is one thing that sticks out for me about attempts to enforce sexual restraint.  Even when they try to have standards for both men and women, far more of the burden falls on women, even though men are generally the ones who are, by that standard, doing wrong.  There’s the occasional “guard your eyes”, but it doesn’t get gone over in the kind of microscopic and creepy detail that “don’t be a stumbling block” gets.  And you never hear of people going “Well, all men are uncontrollably weak and lust-prone, so therefore men should stay indoors, away from women who aren’t their wives, and women can just do anything!  We’ll let men go out if they have a blindfold and a female relative to monitor their behavior.”  There isn’t even the milder “Well, you can go around looking at things willy-nilly and risk falling into lust, but isn’t it better to blindfold yourself when around women you’re not related to so you don’t take a chance of sinning?  Don’t you love God enough to put up with that kind of inconvenience?” pressure.   Instead, we have women pressured into being caretakers and making the bulk of the sacrifices.

    (And before anyone misinterprets this, I don’t think that kind of behavior would be a good thing.  I just think it’s telling that we’ve only seen the opposite extreme.)

  • Lunch Meat

    Instead, we have women pressured into being caretakers and making the bulk of the sacrifices.

    This reminds me of the rage-inducing incident recently when a judge told a woman who’d been sexually assaulted “If you had stayed home, this wouldn’t have happened.” Yes, it wouldn’t have happened…to her! The man would have just chosen a different woman to victimize. Why not encourage men to stay home if they can’t control themselves?

  • Makabit

    When a curfew for women was suggested, during a spike in rapes, Golda Meir, back when she was Prime Minister of Israel, is said to have responded: “But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home.”

  • stardreamer42

    There’s a story about Golda Meir…

    When Israel was experiencing an epidemic of violent rapes and someone at
    a cabinet meeting suggested women be put under curfew until the rapists
    were caught, Meir shot back, “Men are committing the rapes. Let them be put under curfew.” To no one’s surprise, no curfew was implemented.

  • Daughter

     I think it was Libby Anne at “Love, Joy, Feminism,” who made the point that in evangelical patriarchal cultures, children are expected to resist temptation. You don’t childproof your house; you expect the child to obey when you tell hir “don’t touch.”

    Yet grown men aren’t expected to have the same degree of self-control and obedience that they expect of children.

  • Carstonio

     

    And you never hear of people going “Well, all men are uncontrollably
    weak and lust-prone, so therefore men should stay indoors, away from
    women who aren’t their wives, and women can just do anything!  We’ll let
    men go out if they have a blindfold and a female relative to monitor
    their behavior.”

    I wish I had thought of that.  The arguments used by advocates of woman control often imply or state outright that men become mindless at the sight of female flesh. Imagine some of us actually confronting such an advocate and challenging him to explain the contradiction.

  • ako

     Thanks.  It’s kind of interesting, as an intellectual exercise, to try to picture a world where people had the straightforward and logical response to their “Men are uncontrollable lust-beasts when they see women!” beliefs.  (While “impose massive restrictions on an entire gender” strikes me as a staggeringly stupid approach, it’s obviously something human society is willing to resort to, and if one did seriously buy into the lust-beast idea, it’d make far more sense to restrict the lust-beast gender than the one that was consistently capable of civilized behavior.)

  • Carstonio

    Gayle Trotter’s arguments against gun control imply that male violence against women is simply an unavoidable fact of life. When men use the lust-beast argument to defend female restrictions, it’s easy to dismiss this as an attempt at protecting privilege. But there may be women who use the same argument with an attitude of resignation, almost like an abused person who has internalized “You made me do it.”

  • springaldjack

    But the “men as lust-monsters” belief is a post-hoc rationalization of the patriarchal control of bodies of women, rather than a cause of that control. Because the actions precede the belief, the belief has limited ability to control the actions. 

    Previous Christian cultures have often instead believed that women are the lust-monsters who must therefore be controlled (which also once justified the fact that women were who was “discovered” to be witches).

    It’s not just that patriarchal society is more fond of restricting those it understands as “women” than those it understands as “men,” it’s that the restrictions produce the belief rather than the other way around.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    I think saying “but ‘burkas’ is a useful term, in that it has a common connotation of female oppression for the Western mind” is just using the existence of a wrong to justify perpetuating that wrong: which is to say, people who don’t know a hell of a lot about Islam and aren’t well disposed toward it tend to portray the religion in a negative light and use its terms and trappings as blanket negatives, thus perpetuating the culture of Islamophobia in this community. It’s a vicious cycle, and one I doubt Fred would be proud of perpetuating. Kudos to the person above who pointed it out.

  • Makabit

    The burqa is not a general garment of Islam, however. ‘Hijab’ would be general; the burqa is worn in a specific region. It was also revived and forced on women who hadn’t worn such coverings in some cases for generations, for political and religious extremist reasons. it causes health problems in the women who wear it, and limits their vision and their physical safety. I’d say its reputation is well deserved. It’s not just another variant of modest Muslim dress.

    This is not to say that ‘prairie dress’, wouldn’t be a better term when talking about evangelical women, but the burqa is a very problematic garment.

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    The association I have for ‘prairie dress’ is the illustrated Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and those aren’t anything like the shapeless things modern fundegelicals wear.

    A quick google doesn’t back me up, but does anyone else remember “gunny sack” as being synonymous with shapeless clothing?

  • Marian L Shatto

     Yes, I am familiar with the term in that context.  When I hear it, I picture small farm girls wearing shapeless dresses made by cutting neck and arm holes in a gunny sack and slipping it on the child.  A gunny sack, in turn, was a sack made of rough fabric like burlap, in which produce could be shipped.

    Then in the late 1970s and into the ’80s a fashion designer created a whole line of elegant, intricate dresses based on a fanciful idea of 19th and early 20th century dress, and called the company Gunny Sax.  I made several dresses for myself and my nieces out of Gunny Sax patterns.  They were anything but shapeless, though most of them did feature long skirts ~ often multi-layered and ruffled ~ and long or three-quarter length sleeves.  So the whole image of what a gunny sack dress should look like was changed in the public eye.

  • P J Evans

    Actually, prairie dresses are something like a muumuu, with sleeves. I have a copy of a photo of my great-grandfather with his older sister, and she’s wearing one. Tie a sash around your waist, and it wouldn’t be too conspicuously non-fitting.

  • nanbush

    One type of gunny sack would be burlap, but back during the Depression and into WW II, flour sacks–at least the larger ones–were made of a sturdy muslin in floral prints that could be made into dresses. 

  • http://twitter.com/Jenk3 Jen K

    There are differing types of “modest” as well. Some simply mean high necklines, others want to fully cover arms or legs. 

    http://www.koshercasual.com/
    http://www.catholichomeandgarden.com/catholic_modesty.htm
    http://www.achristianhome.org/ModestFeminine/Modest_Clothing_for_you.htm

  • MaryKaye

    I think the poster that’s been showing up on various walls in Seattle lately says it very well:

    It shows a woman, dressed like one of my college students, holding up a sign that says:  “Don’t tell me what to wear.  Tell men not to rape.”

  • Fusina

     “Don’t tell me what to wear.  Tell men not to rape.”

    This. This is exactly the point. And nothing can convince me that even if the only reason for rape was sexual (I think it is a power thing that has become sexualized–twisted minds, perhaps?) it is out of the man’s self control–eg, they are usually planned, by which I mean, such that the rapist won’t get caught in the act. I can’t believe that it is a matter of a person being out of control. Therefore, that excuse needs to be off the table. We also need to remove from the table the clothing issue, as a result of men not truly being out of control. Unless the man was so inflamed with lust that he just raped her in the street like an animal, he was not out of control. I do not recall reading in the paper about any rapes that happened like that.

  • Paul

    “Married? (Yes or No)
    If Yes: Sex good.
    If No: Sex bad.”

    I can’t believe I hadn’t realised before, but if you are an evangelical Christian operating on the above rule, and with culturally reinforced preconceptions about gay sex, then *of course* you have to oppose gay marriage – otherwise your rules won’t compute.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     Yes. Actually, many marriage-equality opponents make this argument quite explicitly… allowing same-sex couples to marry is a way for society to say that sexually active same-sex couples are a Good Thing, which on their view we aren’t, and therefore on their view such marriages should be prohibited.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    “Married? (Yes or No)
    If Yes: Sex good.
    If No: Sex bad.”

    Sounds a lot like
    “BEER GOOD!
    NAPSTER BAAD!”

  • ohiolibrarian

    I remember it, but I’m not sure what a “gunny sack” is.

  • Carstonio

     You carry your guitar in it, when you’re headed to the railroad track to strum in the shade.

  • Cathy W

    I’m not sure what the derivation of the term is, but essentially, the kind of cloth sack a bulk quantity of potatoes or flour might have come in prior to the modern supermarket – essentially a big cloth rectangle.

  • http://twitter.com/amyunchained Amy Mitchell

    So what do we do with the fact that many mainline (and even some evangelical) Christians are trying out the sex/marriage equivalent of “love the sinner, hate the sin”?  I’m now hearing the old standard purity culture revised to mean that the most “loving” thing to do is to still wait until marriage, but not because sex is bad–just because it’s somehow “better” if the couple have a piece of state-issue paper.  In my opinion, we need to start the conversation in a different place than just a discussion about *why* we hold to the married yes/no question.  We need to start with respect, commitment, and consent before we even get to the whole issue of marriage.  We should also have a conversation about the ways in which even the married/not married line is hetero- and cis-normative and that the “rules” are irrelevant in many situations.

  • Stressfactor

    I’ve known of several couples who had moved in together before marriage for various reasons — love, testing the waters for living together, finances, etc.  When the couples made their wedding plans one of two things happened — either they lied to their pastors and priests about their living situation or else the pastor refused to marry them unless one of the two moved out and stayed moved out for at least six months.  And the reasons the ones who lied did so was exactly that reason — the pastor or priest would refuse to marry them.

    I just don’t *get* this mode of thinking.  If the goal of these religions is to have a relationship be “right with God” then why wouldn’t they marry them ASAP so that they were no longer “living in sin”?

    Also, it ignores the fact that these couples then don’t *have* to have a church wedding and can just go get married by a Justice of the Peace in a quick, 15 minute ceremony.  If the idea is to “punish” or force some kind of “repentance” on them it doesn’t work.  Also, with the exception of the Catholic Church I believe, most Protestant denominations accept civil marriage as marriage so…. yeah, they’re married.  And the only thing the pastor did was piss off the bride and groom.  Or else they went to a different, more liberal, church and had the ceremony and, again, in the eyes of the law they are married and there pretty much isn’t anything their pastor can really say about it anymore.  It’s not like their pastor can now push them into having *another* ceremony….

    This sort of black and white thinking is just baffling to me because it is so much like ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face”.  Either the couple lies in order to be married in a church they want to be married in or else they go elsewhere and they’re still married and the pastor has had NO impact on the situation whatsoever because the outcome is still the same.

  • Twebb2

     Stressfactor, the pastor at my church responds exactly as you suggest – if they are already living together, he gives them two options: (1) get married on the spot, and have a ‘ceremony’ later if they want, or (2) stop living together until they have the ceremony that they want.

  • Mark Z.

    Evangelical Christian culture treats unmarried adults like children. 

    Mostly-white evangelical churches are designed for a particular story: Children grow up in the church, they go to Sunday School and learn that whenever an adult asks the question the answer is “Jesus”, they go to youth group and learn that God hates masturbation, etc. Then at some point they will go away to college. (Or they won’t, in which case skip ahead a bit.) Hopefully, they’ll join some kind of “college church” at that point, but not, you know, a real church. Like a youth group, it’s still a program being run by adults for their benefit, and we expect that most of them will lose interest after a year or two. The only ones that we really care about during this time are the few who are being trained for professional ministry. The rest of them, meh.

    What will eventually bring them back is having kids. And when they do, the evangelical church has a place for them.

    So in the middle of that is a plot hole. We’re not sure what to do with working adults who don’t have children. And for various socioeconomic reasons, a huge number of people live in that plot hole. Many of these people have romantic relationships, and many of them have sex, because they’re adults and that’s something adults do. But according to the story, they’re not adults yet, because what authenticates you as an adult is having children. There’s no place for them. There might be a “singles ministry” whose primary function is helping you find someone to marry and have children with–again, a program being run by adults for their benefit. But if that’s not what you want, the evangelical church expects you to go away and come back when you’re serious.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     

    I just don’t *get* this mode of thinking.  If the goal of these
    religions is to have a relationship be “right with God” then why
    wouldn’t they marry them ASAP so that they were no longer “living in
    sin”?

    For the Catholics, at least, it’s because “We felt pressured into getting married before we were ready in order to not be living-in-sin” can be grounds for an annulment.

    (On the interview questions to get married Catholic, if you answer that you’re already living with the person you’re going to marry, the next question is “Are you sure you’re not just doing this because you think it’s better than living in sin?” All that said, most priests are perfectly happy with a couple living together “as brother and sister” for logistical reasons for a short period after the decision to get married has been made, and if that’s not the case, most (a slightly smaller “most” than the last one) priests are also okay if you just answer the second question, “No, we really want to get married”)

  • Stressfactor

    P.S., I think the whole “sexual ethics” idea follows the same pattern.  It’s binary thinking and attempts to coerce/force/punish/force repentance into one set way of being.  In the end it doesn’t work because human beings rarely respond well to being coerced, forced, or wheedled into something they don’t believe.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Besides which, any man who claims a woman’s clothing “assisted” him in the matter of losing control is invited to justify why it is that attractive women wear flattering clothes generally and the vast majority of men manage to somehow keep their wangs in their pants and their hands to themselves.

    To rape someone is a deliberate choice (I am excepting the rather small number of cases where the accused fits the case of legal diminished capacity) as it involves deciding to disregard a person’s bodily autonomy.

    I don’t see how it becomes murky or complicated, like rape apologists would like to have us all believe with legions of false accusations of rape supposedly waiting in the wings.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jessica-Eng/100000151981340 Jessica Eng

    Lol. Read through the comments, seeing what others would consider a sexual ethic. Saw more complaining about conservative ethics. I am a conservative and i do have an evangelical background- though i am not one. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what a new sexual ethic would look like. I’m sitting here, thinking about my daughter and she is a teenager. She got the sex talk from school because even though i offered she was too embarrassed to hear it from me. Knowing my daughter, she is going to be a late bloomer when it comes to sex. Overall, I think whatever changes in our culture should be respect. Respect for those who are not going to respond to youthful hormones and respect for those who are.

  • banancat

    If you’ve spent any time on other threads in this blog, you would know that the sexual ethic most important to most of us is consent.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m not sure what a new sexual ethic would look like.

    Anne is a legal adult. Bob is a legal adult. Anne wants sex with Bob. Bob wants sex with Anne. Neither Anne nor Bob has sworn to have sex only with someone who’s neither Anne nor Bob. Anne/Bob sex can be a thing!

    Anne is a legal adult. Cathy is a legal adult. Anne wants sex with Cathy. Cathy wants sex with Anne. Neither Anne nor Cathy has sworn to have sex only with someone who’s neither Anne nor Cathy. Anne/Cathy sex can be a thing!

    Anne, Bob, and Cathy are legal adults. Anne and Bob have sworn to have sex only with each other. Anne or Bob wants sex with Cathy. Neither Anne/Cathy sex nor Bob/Cathy sex can be a thing, regardless of what Cathy wants, because Anne and Bob would both be breaking an oath to do so.

    Anne, Bob, and Cathy are legal adults. Anne and Bob have sworn to have sex only with each other’s permission. Anne (or Bob) wants sex with Cathy. Cathy wants sex with Anne (or Bob). Bob (or Anne) gives Anne (or Bob) permission to have sex with Cathy. Anne/Cathy (or Bob/Cathy) sex can be a thing!

    Anne, Bob, and Cathy are legal adults. Anne, Bob, and Cathy want to have sex with each other, in a threesome or various pairs. Nobody has sworn anything about sex, or Anne and Bob and Cathy have all sworn to each other. Anne/Bob/Cathy sex can be a thing!

    Anne is not a legal adult. Bob (or Cathy) is a legal adult. Anne/Bob (or Anne/Cathy) sex cannot be a thing, because Anne is not a legal adult. Exceptions for if Anne/Bob (or Anne/Cathy) sex could have been a thing under next paragraph.

    Anne is not a legal adult. Bob (or Cathy) is not a legal adult. Anne and Bob (or Cathy) are within the https://xkcd.com/314/ equation of each other’s age; that is, the younger one’s age is at least seven more than half of the older one’s age. (Exact equation may vary, and that’s okay.) Anne wants sex with Bob (or Cathy), and Bob (or Cathy) wants sex with Anne. Anne/Bob (or Anne/Cathy) sex can be a thing! I am of the opinion that it shouldn’t be a thing, but I’m not stupid enough to say it can’t be–that just encourages them, and better to make sure they know that it’s okay for it to be a thing and that they need to use barrier protection, and hormonal contraception if applicable, every time. Which is true of nearly all sex actually, but it’s particularly crucial that teenagers know it.

    Anne does not want sex with Bob. Anne/Bob sex cannot be a thing. Whether Anne/Bob sex has previously been a thing or will later be a thing, whether Anne/Cathy or Anne/David sex has previously been a thing or will later be a thing, what Anne is doing, how she is dressed, anything at all other than Anne does not want sex with Bob, those are all irrelevant. Anne/Bob sex cannot be a thing.

    Anne is a legal adult who wants sex with Cathy. Cathy is a legal adult who wants sex with Anne. There is a particular sex act Anne and Cathy both want. (Could be anything from oral sex to letting a third party watch to anything under the heading of bondage & discipline or domination & submission or sadism & masochism. Doesn’t matter what they are.) Anne/Cathy doing that sex act can be a thing!

    Anne is a legal adult who wants sex with Cathy. Cathy is a legal adult who wants sex with Anne. There is a particular sex act Anne wants and Cathy does not. (Same parenthetical as above paragraph.) There are two options here: either Anne/Cathy doing that sex act cannot be a thing, or it can be a thing and so can a sex act Cathy wants and Anne does not. Anne and Cathy are grown-ass adults and can negotiate that their own selves.

    Anything described above as ‘cannot be a thing’, if it involves an adult and a minor outside the xkcd 314 equation, or if it involves someone who has not agreed to that sex act at that time with that person and who was involved in such a sex act anyway, it needs to be other people’s business conditional on whether the minor or nonconsenting person wants it to be anybody’s business and whose business they want it to be. Everything else is nobody’s business but the involved parties.

    Did I miss anything important?

  • Isabel C.

    TW: Gendered insults.

    I agree with all the above.

    I would also add, although it’s largely under the same “nobody else’s business” category:

    Even when sex can be a thing, Anne, Bob, and Cathy should all put in a reasonable effort to make sure everyone’s on the same page and nobody gets hurt.  For instance:

    * If Anne is in a non-exclusive relationship with Bob (poly or casual dating) and wants to take it exclusive,  Anne should say so. If Bob is in an exclusive relationship with Anne and wants to make it non-exclusive, Bob should say so. Neither Anne nor Bob should try to make the other feel bad for what they want, or for not providing it.

    * If Anne and Cathy are friends and sleep together, they should treat each other like friends afterwards barring any discussion. If Cathy wants to be more than friends, she should say so before expecting Relationship Stuff. If Anne is freaked out and needs to talk things over, she should say so rather than going all hi-do-I-know-you next time the two meet at a party.

    * If Cathy picks Bob up at a bar, she should let him know whether she wants him to stay the night, and should say a civil goodbye when he does leave, rather than turning over all “yeah, find your own way out” post-sex.

    * If Anne breaks up with Bob, or Bob turns Cathy down at the bar,  Bob and Cathy should take it like adults and move on. That means no pestering the other party for reasons, no long speeches about how “nice guys finish last” or “men are so shallow”, no hanging around making calf eyes, and absolutely no name calling or abusive language.** This is sort of covered by “if Anne doesn’t want sex with Bob,” but it’s worth noting the nuances, I think.

    **Getting trashed with David or Edwina and venting is okay *if* Danielle or Edwin is up for it, but even there, Bob and Cathy should probably avoid condemning Anne or Bob’s choice of other sexual partners, talking like they’re entitled to sex with Anne or Bob, or using gendered insults. This is particularly true when Cathy is talking to David or Bob is talking to Edwina.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yes to all of that! And I should probably note that ‘can be a thing!’ != ‘has to be a thing’.

  • Dash1

    In not unrelated news, Ralph Reed is going after the National Cathedral because apparently they’re exercising their First Amendment rights to religious freedom.

    Which, strangely enough, Ralph and his buddies are all in favor of when it’s their side doing it.  [Stop the presses! Anti-marriage-equality forces are inconsistent!] 

  • Nancy

    I just want to say that I´m new and I enjoy this blog.

  • spinetingler

     Welcome Nancy. Please don’t kill us with sheep.

  • Tricksterson

    Here’s a sheep, use t wisely and safely.  Also feel free to sample from our variety of cookies, macaroons and tarts.

  • lowtechcyclist

    “What we white American evangelicals have, instead, is a blanket prohibition — a bold line between two binary categories.
    Married? (Yes or No)
    If Yes: Sex good.
    If No: Sex bad.”

    I think it’s more like:

    “Married to someone of the opposite sex?” (Yes or No)
    If No: Sex bad.
    If Yes: genital, non-kinky sex good. 

    Seriously, good luck in getting an evangelical pastor to publicly state that oral sex is OK for a married couple to engage in, let alone less tame stuff.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    Sorry, but American evangelicals do have a sexual ethic, though it’s not often voiced aloud. The problem isn’t that Evangelicals lack an ethic, it’s that like the Catholic prohibition against contraception, that ethic has been overwhelmingly rejected by the lay people.

    The American evangelical sexual ethic is pretty simple:1. The purpose of sex is to potentially produce children, if that is God’s will.
    2. Sex within marriage is sanctioned, but only for the reason given above. All other sexual activity is immoral.

    From there, the rest follows. 
    Homosexuality? See #1, no reproduction happening. 
    Contraception? Again, #1. 
    Abortion? #1 once again, because pregnancies are God’s will. 
    Having lustful thoughts from looking at a member of the opposite sex? #1
    Rape? It doesn’t technically violate #1, just #2. 

    Again, it’s not that they lack an ethic, it’s that most Americans reject it. 

  • Foelhe

    That’s definitely a place to start, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of it. If a single woman wanted to get pregnant and raise a kid, conservatives would still be difficult about it. And that doesn’t explain why women are criticized more than men are for breaking the rules.

    I also wonder how many evangelicals would criticize a straight married couple for having sex after the woman goes through menopause, or while she’s already pregnant, or during any other situation when they won’t get pregnant. I’m guessing not many.

  • Lori

    The American evangelical sexual ethic is pretty simple:1. The purpose of
    sex is to potentially produce children, if that is God’s will.
    2. Sex within marriage is sanctioned, but only for the reason given above. All other sexual activity is immoral.  

    To the extent that this is true it’s really new. It’s certainly not what was taught when I was growing up. We considered the whole “sex is only for procreation” bit to be a strictly Catholic thing and in fact one of the things that set us apart from Catholics. The fact that in the last couple decades so many Evangelicals have taken up a doctrine no longer followed by most Catholics is the product of politics, not theology. As such I think calling it a sexual ethic gives it more dignity that it deserves.

  • WeWantPie

    And thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster that they do!

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    This reminds me of something I was thinking about while reading the MLK/Margaret Sanger thread (though I felt it was far too late to contribute).  S.L. Whitesell had popped up on that thread and said something about “the social harm caused by divorcing sex from procreation”.

    (Never mind that if human sexuality were only for baby-making, we’d have an estrus cycle…)It occurred to me that such people can’t understand that sex can be a good thing in and of itself.  That’s very saddening, but it’s something that appears in some form or another in a lot of our society:  from Whitesell’s “sex can only be good if it’s a means to this end” to purity culture’s “a marriage certificate magically transforms sex from a sinful act into a blessing” to the mainstream notion that it’s not enough for sexual partners to show each other the same respect and consideration that’s necessary for any humans to work well together, they ought to be In Love.

    People who think this way probably don’t consider themselves to have anti-sex views, but why else would they believe that sex is only a good thing if it’s serving some other purpose?

  • Carstonio

    (Never mind that if human sexuality were only for baby-making, we’d have an estrus cycle…)

    Sounds like a storytelling premise that Kit Whitfield could use to great effect.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    “Women in sackcloth” might be a better shorthand than “women in burqas”.  It’s short, it’s easy to understand, and it’s associated with the phrase “sackcloth and ashes”.

  • Donalbain

    “Women in sackcloth” might be a better shorthand than “women in burqas”.  It’s short, it’s easy to understand, and it’s associated with the phrase “sackcloth and ashes”.
    No, it wouldn’t. Sackcloth and ashes is something that someone imposes on themselves because of something they have done wrong. A Burqa is not. Stop pussyfooting around this. A burqa is the single best symbol we have in the world today of the oppression of women because of the sexual habits of men. Just because it is a Muslim example, doesn’t mean it is not the best example.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    Just because it is a Muslim example, doesn’t mean it is not the best example.

    But it also focuses attention on one particular culture that has this problem, while the problem is endemic in nearly all cultures, so a more general term is more useful. Many people happy to condemn burkas are simultaneously happy to blame the victims of sexual assaults and abuse based on their clothing. Getting them to see that all practices of male control via clothing are ethically equivalent isn’t helped by picking on a specific example.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    Sackcloth and ashes is something that someone imposes on themselves because of something they have done wrong.

    Irrelevant.  That it’s already associated with another phrase just makes “sackcloth” more memorable, is all.  I’m not saying we should actually say “…and ashes” in this context, because it would obviously not be correct.

    And see BringTheNoise’s comment.

  • Donalbain

    Sackcloth is not an actual thing that is actually happening in the actual world. Women being forced into Burqas IS. I will prefer to use a real example than an imaginary example. And an imaginary example that you seem to have just made up on the spot at that.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    The problem with using burqas as an example has already been explained, in detail, several times in this thread.  Our Host has even agreed that the usage is problematic.  If you’re not going to help out with coming up with a general term that doesn’t focus blame on one particular subculture and let everyone else pretend that it’s not really their problem, you’re not contributing anything useful to the conversation.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     How about “nuns’ habits”?  Hazmat suits?  Beekeeper’s suits?

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    Hmm… both Hazmat suits and beekeeper suits have a practical purpose, though.  And although nuns have as problematic a history as any of the Catholic clergy, so many modern-day nuns have been doing good things (and getting slammed by the cardinals because of it) that I don’t want to sound like I’m nun-hating.

    “Burlap sacks”, maybe?  Does the general populace know what “burlap” is in this day and age?

  • Caite

    I like the word “veil”, because it is pretty common “modest” dress in many cultures (my aunt and her daughters all wear veils and gloves to their very traditional catholic church). And while it is more common in muslim cultures, it’s not their specific term (“hijab”).

  • Madhabmatics

    I’m always tempted to ask the “but what if the men are tempted” if they are really tempted to assault women they think are pretty, and if so, why should I not chase them off whenever they are around women period

  • Foelhe

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure if I was the lust-crazed rape monster most conservatives seem to think I am, I’d lock myself away for the good of all involved.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jessica-Eng/100000151981340 Jessica Eng

    I am new here, so you are right I am unaware of consent being an important ethic in sexual activity. I’ll agree to an extent, but how do we ensure that consent is given freely and not coerced. Granted, I didn’t have many sexual encounters as a teen, but the one I remember i was pushed into. But I did it because i wanted to be liked. Sadly, there are other teens who do so for the same reason. That is why i think we need to start with respect.
    Now as for small background with evangelism, I learned about respect. My body is temple and I should treat it with respect.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    I am new here, so you are right I am unaware of consent being an important ethic in sexual activity. I’ll agree to an extent, but how do we ensure that consent is given freely and not coerced.

    It’s not just “consent”, but meaningful, informed consent. A person under duress cannot give meaningful consent, just as an intoxicated person cannot give meaningful consent. 

    I didn’t have many sexual encounters as a teen, but the one I remember i was pushed into. But I did it because i wanted to be liked. 

    That’s not coercion in any meaningful sense. That’s just the kind of spectacular decision making that everyone’s teenage years are filled with. 

    That is why i think we need to start with respect. 

    Flag on the play! False Dilemma, 5 yards, repeat the down.

    Teaching respect isn’t mutually exclusive of teaching about consent. In fact, they’re quite complimentary concepts. Teaching people the importance of consent carries with it a lesson about respecting other’s consent. Teaching people about the power of consent, about their own ability to set boundaries, declare those boundaries, and have those boundaries be honored, is a lesson in self-respect.

  • Isabel C.

    Right. I’m all for creating an environment where everyone can say yes or no to sex freely, and where we don’t have stereotypes about who has sex when and under what circumstances.

    That said? Not even the best and most supportive environment is going to keep people from making mistakes. People will pretty much always do things because their friends are doing them, because they’re curious, because they want to get over XYZ, and so forth: sometimes this will turn out to be a good idea*, sometimes it won’t. Growing up is sometimes about collecting a bruise or five and moving on. 

    *Hey, I got into LARPing and ballroom dancing because all my friends were doing it. 

  • banancat

     I think your points are important too.  And even if sex turns out to be not such a good idea, that doesn’t mean we have to regret it or feel disrespected.  Even if someone has sex for the “wrong” reason, it can be a learning experience.  It’s not always some big horrible deal to have less than ideal sex, especially if it was safe and didn’t result in any harm.

  • Isabel C.

    Absofuckinglutely, pun not intended.

    I’ve had some great sex. I’ve had some craptacular sex. (For the record: incidents of both have happened in relationships and during one-night stands.) I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never had bad sex of the scary/nonconsensual kind, absolutely, and I do think we should all be working to reduce the frequency of *that*. But sex where I realized halfway through that this wasn’t working for me, sex with that guy who thought the good old jackhammer was the way to go and would not listen, sex where the guy turned out to be one variety of jerk or other…yep, absolutely, and more. I can’t say I regret any of it either. If nothing else, in the same way as missed trains or setting the oven on fire, it makes a good story afterwards. 

    “Many things in life fail, on occasion, to live up to your hopes,” is not a bad lesson to learn. Neither is the corollary, “And yet, life goes on.”

  • Tricksterson

    “Hey I got into LARPing and ballroom dancing because all my friends were doing it”

    If only there was a way to combine the two.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    You know, if one cosplays Mistborn… X-D

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     You could write a Strictly Ballroom LARP if you were sufficiently motivated.

  • Foelhe

    Coryphee: the Dipping

  • Cathy W

    I’ve heard of a group that stages period-authentic balls… not quite the same thing, but not quite not, either…

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    That’s not coercion in any meaningful sense. That’s just the kind of spectacular decision making that everyone’s teenage years are filled with.

    Social pressure can be a kind of coercion.  It may (or may not — I don’t know the details of Jessica Eng’s experience) be a milder form of coercion, but I wouldn’t say “It doesn’t count”.

  • banancat

    Disrespecting people who have sex, even teenagers, does not further the goal of respecting people who don’t have sex. We need to teach kids (and adults) that there are a variety of good choices when it comes to sex and that the most important factor is enthusiastic informed consent.

    By respecting your body, it doesn’t logically follow that that means you should not have sex. Framing it that way isn’t helpful.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    I am new here, so you are right I am unaware of consent being an important ethic in sexual activity. I’ll agree to an extent, but how do we ensure that consent is given freely and not coerced.

    I don’t mind explaining this.  As some other commentors have noted, it’s not just “consent” — it’s informed and enthusiastic consent.

    The “informed” part means that all parties must be able to understand what sex is and what it would mean.  Children and animals are unable to give informed consent.

    The “enthusiastic” part doesn’t necessarily mean, “Yes yes YES want sex NOW *pant pant*” — although it can be pretty awesome when it does.  Some people are less sexual than others, after all.  What it does mean is that all parties feel good about their consent.  In other words, not “I’m scared but I’ll go along until it stops” or “If I don’t do this I’ll be bullied for being unmasculine”.

    Scarleteen has an excellent in-depth piece about enthusiastic consent: http://www.scarleteen.com/article/boyfriend/drivers_ed_for_the_sexual_superhighway_navigating_consent

    Granted, I didn’t have many sexual encounters as a teen, but the one I remember i was pushed into. But I did it because i wanted to be liked.

    I’m sorry that you experienced this.  And yes, I agree that a lot of people, especially young ones, have, or are coerced into, sex that they don’t feel good about.  This is one of the things that those of us championing an ethic of informed, enthusiastic consent would like to fix.

    Now as for small background with evangelism, I learned about respect. My body is temple and I should treat it with respect.

    I hope that what this means is something along the lines of, “My body and its desires are sacred; it is both my right and my responsibility to determine how best to care for it.”

  • EllieMurasaki

    My body is temple and I should treat it with respect.

    Yes, absolutely, and you should treat others’ bodies with respect as well. But that doesn’t mean ‘don’t have sex with someone you’re not married to’. Not unless that’s what you want it to mean for you. And respect for others’ bodies includes respect for (if not necessarily agreement with) what they do with their bodies.

    Coerced consent, for the record, is not consent.

  • Rebecca

    I was forced to think beyond the standard lines we give kids by some of my students who looked at me so cynically when I just regurgitated what I had been taught; I am so thankful that they didn’t stop questioning me until I began to get real, and that’s when productive discussion happened, and I learned as much from them as they hopefully did from me. It has to begin with respect.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Please have all the applause, EllieMurasaki and Izzy. :)

  • Salmon Stuart

    Let us all get naked – the forbidden and hidden fruit attraction of a covered / partially covered body will eventually be lessened with greater and daily visual familiarity…

  • Isabel C.

    You don’t live in New England, do you?

  • Carstonio

    I think that’s a good anthropological and sociological challenge, the question of how nudity went from being impractical to being taboo. Or whether other species like chimpanzees and dolphins have taboos.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    Clearly he doesn’t live in Canada, either.  At the end of January it was close to -30 C.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Strictly, Ontario or thereabouts. In Vancouver, BC, it rarely gets below freezing even in winter.

  • rizzo

    I’m pretty sure you’re not getting this.  The binary choice here is completely a tool to hold power over others…you’ve made the wrong choice, you’re shunned, you’ve made the right choice, you’re accepted into the group.  Making it a sliding scale with greyspace completely defeats the purpose.  

  • Samuel Jew

    A woman’s virtue boils down to her number. Male homosexuals should be killed with fire.


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