The Strangeness of Talking About Sex in Isolation

I felt skeptical about Sex and the Single Christian Girl: Fighting for Purity in a Rom-Com World, Marian Jordan Ellis’s book on sexual orthopraxy when I saw the subtitle.  I strongly prefer the tendency to talk about sexual morality in terms of chastity rather than purity.  Purity tends to be spoken of as a binary condition which you either possess or have lost.  Chastity is a practice and applies to married people as well as to singles, and is a form of temperance.   Chastity restrains excess and enslavement to sexuality in the same way a moderate appetite restrains gluttony.

Luckily, it turns out that, within the book, Ellis is much more likely to talk about sexual ethics in terms of whether they’re compatible with cherishing and being cherished by the beloved; in other words, is any particular use of my sexual nature in line with offering agape, a Christ-like love to the beloved.  Unfortunately. since this book is pitched to a Christian audience, there is never much explanation of why premarital sex or heavy petting is counterproductive to that aim.  There is never a clear explanation of why:

Engaging in sexual immorality prior to marriage not only degrades us but robs our future marriage of intimacy.  Ladies, I will be frank.  A woman is not cherished who is engaging in oral sex with a man who is not her husband.  This is a far cry from being a treasure.

All sins damage our future relationships the people we love.  My future spouse (if one exists), will receive me and whatever habits I have trained myself in over the course of daily life and decisions.  Whether or not I’ve slipped up sexually in that time, I can guarantee that I will have still been wrathful or snide or prideful much more often than is healthful, and that my family, friends, and hypothetical children will have reason to wish I hadn’t trained those sins as habits as often as I do.

The general principle is clear with regard to sins of anger, impatience, callousness, etc, but, since many of Ellis’s readers may not see physical intimacy as remotely related to the obviously bad habits that I’ve listed, it’s worth spelling out how you or others are harmed by sexual indulgence or how we know where the bound between an eros that is still ruled by agape, and one that charges on heedlessly.

Ellis recommends not letting a pre-marriage relationship go farther than kissing (no tongues!), and to delay these chaste kisses for as long as possible, since they can be a slippery slope.  But this kind of prescription always baffles me, especially in books that don’t discuss what comes after marriage.

In my very admittedly naïve understanding, I can imagine approximating right behavior with one formula, that takes in a number of inputs about my situation (married/unmarried, particular details about the beloved, etc) and spits out a way of acting and feeling that is kind, patient, and good.  Somewhat in the spirit of Thomasina’s exclamation in Arcadia:

If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever as to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.

So, unless there’s a binary variable in front of lust that sets its value to zero, provided “Married == TRUE”, there should be a slightly more general way of explaining why not to go too beyond kissing that isn’t just slippery slope.  In fairness, Sex and the Single Girl isn’t representing itself as an apologetic work, but a practical guide for how to stick to the form of chastity that you and the author have previously concluded is correct, but, personally, I always feel most supported when I get to look again at all the moving parts of my ethics and remember, “Oh, this is why I’m not yelling/phoning person X/etc.”

But I’m still a bit skeptical of just setting yourself very conservative guardrails to keep yourself on the straight and narrow.  After all, I look askance at one other safety measure that Ellis prescribes:

[M]any women date men who are not Christians.  This is a big danger zone!  …Sexual purity is hard enough for two committed Christians, but when you willingly date someone who does not love God, you are fighting a losing battle.  This man will not honor your purity or seek to treat you as Christ would

And this is why I find it weird to talk about ‘cherishing’ solely in the context of chastity.  A girlfriend who sees no reason to abstain may still do so out of respect for her boyfriend’s wishes.  And, in my case anyway, sexual purity tends not to be the primary front I’m fighting on anyway.  I’m much worse on callousness and uncharity, and both my boyfriends, Christian or not, have supported me in that struggle.

Someone who cherishes you will respect your values and help you develop them or respect you enough to argue you out of them on the merits, whether or not you continue to date.  Any reluctance to do that would be a much bigger warning sign to me than kissing with tongues.

 

I received a free copy of Sex and the Single Christian Girl: Fighting for Purity in a Rom-Com World as part of the Patheos Book club.  You can check out other reviews and a Q&A with the author here.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."


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