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