A few weeks ago a young friend of mine wrote a guest post for me entitled “Sex as a Southern Woman: A Story of Shame.” In that piece, she explained what it’s like coming of age as a sexually active woman in the Deep South, where even the teachers of Sex Ed un-ironically refer to that class as “Abstinence class” (I kid you not, my 8th grader came home and informed me of that just a few weeks ago). Holly explains in her piece:
Despite both my mother’s and the nurse practitioner’s warnings, I had safe sex at sixteen and enjoyed it. If anything, it was the romantic scene I had dreamt of for years. We discussed our feelings and made a choice together to engage in a new physical act. Our evening ended with barbeque chicken pizza and giggling. Unknowingly, I had broken Mississippi’s cardinal rule about extramarital sex: it’s fine, as long as you’re ashamed of yourself.
A reader chafed a bit at this, expressing apprehension that a culture already primed to find fault with freethinkers would seize upon this and use it against us:
I appreciate the sentiment in this post, but things like this can also make it much harder for atheists in the south to be accepted. I keep preaching to my family that atheists are not any different from them – that we have the same values – we just don’t believe in the supernatural. But when they read things like this post, they go, “uh…yeah, you don’t share our values at all.” There are varying views on sexuality to be sure, but linking this particular southern view on sexuality with atheism/non-belief doesn’t help us.
As I told him, nobody cares more about how atheists are perceived than I do. As the state representative for the Openly Secular campaign, I am probably the most “out of the closet” atheist in what is by all accounts the most religious state in the union. The public perception of atheists is my business as much as anyone else’s. It’s something I struggle with on a daily basis.
But I’m pushing back on this. You know why? Because the church doesn’t get to make the rules about sexuality, not anymore at least. I know there was a time when the church ran the world, so to speak, but that time has passed and I am not cool with relegating these decisions to an institution that pathologically fears change even while constantly reinventing itself in order to stay alive. Their stance reminds me of an Ashleigh Brilliant quip:
My opinion may have changed, but not the fact that I am right.
They trumpet their rules as universal moral absolutes, blissfully unaware that the very rules they champion have changed many times over the centuries because sexual norms are cultural constructs. If there is such a thing as “biblical marriage,” it involves potentially multiple wives (depending on the income of the husband) and up to several concubines as well. The New Testament church did far less to change that norm than did the dominance of Roman culture during that era. They like to tell themselves these aren’t their rules, they’re God’s rules; so they can’t be questioned, and they never change. That shows a deplorable lack of reflectiveness and critical thinking on this subject.
Pushing back on this topic and taking a stand for “sex positivity” may paint a very large target on my back. I realize that. But I just don’t care. This topic cuts to the heart of one of the most egregious faults of the church, and a lot more needs to be said about it. The church has been maniacally obsessed with multiplying restrictions around the act of sex in much the same way that their Jewish predecessors once did (many of them still do) about dietary restrictions. The results are often disastrous, and it produces unhealthy people with dysfunctional attitudes towards sexuality.
Some would say the most obvious flaw in the church’s obsession with regulating sex is that they themselves cannot even follow their own rules. For example, it’s become an old joke among the non-religious how routinely the people who speak against homosexuality turn out to have same-sex leanings themselves. Perhaps these people feel the need to compensate for something and like the minister from The Scarlet Letter, their greatest weaknesses are made plain by the things they rail against the most. Even as I write this, the Christian world is still reeling from the news of the eldest Duggar son sexually abusing a number of children including his own sisters only to have his family cover his tracks for him. He had to quit his job as a lobbyist for the Family Research Council over this because it’s hard to maintain a crusade against sexual deviance after you’ve been caught being deviant yourself. This one’s really gonna hurt.
But ultimately this isn’t a highly persuasive point to make for Christians because they’ve already got a way to dismiss things like this: Since we’re all fallen, broken creations, our inability to live up to these standards only goes to show that we’re all sinners in need of a savior and isn’t God gracious to forgive us for not being what he wants us to be, yada yada yada. None of these stories will cause them to question whether or not they’ve inherited an unhealthy way of thinking about sexuality because they are certain their rules are perfect and immutable. They won’t seriously entertain the notion that their repressed way of dealing with sexuality is only making matters worse.
In order to address what’s wrong with the church’s approach to sex, I’ll start by giving three examples of things the church says are bad that aren’t, then I’m going to explain why pushing back on these things matters.
Three Forbidden Things That Aren’t Really Bad
1. Cohabitation. Christian churches generally insist that sex is out of bounds between anyone other than husbands and wives. Even engaged couples can’t do it because they haven’t “put a ring on it” (heh), or at least not enough rings, anyway. Without a lifelong contractual agreement in place, as a youth speaker once memorably said, “Nothing of his should go inside anything of hers.” That’s the kind of talk that later led to “kissing dating goodbye” and the rise of the courtship movement (again, something to which the Duggars subjected their children). True love waits, they insist.
When you’re in youth group, the rhetoric is usually about sex being less like Velcro and more like super glue because it somehow bonds souls together (no, it doesn’t). Funny how I never hear anyone say this who has actually had multiple partners. The only people I hear saying this are people who have only known one partner, so they’re speaking out of school, in a way. But grown-ups need something more persuasive than bad analogies—they need statistics. So at that stage you’ll hear people saying that living together before marriage dramatically raises the divorce rate for those who eventual do marry.
It turns out that’s not true, as an insightful study published last year in the Journal of Marriage and Family (Kuperberg, April 2014) explains. What ultimately affects the divorce rate most is what age couples are when they make either commitment—cohabitation or marriage. Couples who take either leap prior to age 23 fare much worse than those who wait longer, and those who marry younger generally come from subcultures which tell you that you have to marry before you can have sex. After controlling for income differences and other potentially relevant factors, those states where religion is the strongest (like the Bible Belt) have the highest divorce rates, even among the nonreligious. Living in a culture that says you have to put a ring on it ironically leads to more rings coming off in the end.
So frankly I don’t see any persuasive reasons left to disparage cohabitation. On the contrary, I would argue that living with someone helps you figure out whether or not this is a person with whom you fit. Living together allows you to test your compatibility in a way that remains only theoretical as long as you can’t even sleep in the same place. And how else will you ever know if you are sexually compatible unless you have some experience in that matter before committing your lives together for decades?
2. Masturbation. Self-love has received a bad rap for a long, long time within the Christian church. Body shame has long plagued Christendom, and none other than Jesus himself equated sexually fantasizing about others with actually having sex with them. So now we’re all screwed, so to speak. Given that autoeroticism virtually necessitates fantasizing about sex, there’s no escaping the connection between thinking about sex and masturbation. And according to the dominant Christian tradition, unless you’re fantasizing about your spouse (not likely), you’re doing something bad when you touch yourself.
But the church has been learning some hard lessons about this level of repression. Very few people can completely abstain from doing this, and the psychological toll of the guilt they put onto people stays with them for the duration of their lives. Even a little bit of higher education and empirical research will demonstrate that they’re making much ado about nothing here. Masturbation is a natural physical process and telling people it’s bad is only going to backfire one way or another. But the church just can’t help itself; it continues to beat this drum no matter what trouble may come from it.3. Same-sex relations. I really don’t get it, honestly. Why must the church harp on this so maniacally? Where I live, Christians have chosen opposing homosexuality as one of their central identity markers. This is the hill they’ve chosen to die on, and they are setting themselves up for failure because this is a battle they ultimately cannot win. I had lunch with a minister from a local megachurch to discuss this very thing and he admitted that he knows they will probably lose this fight, but he doesn’t care. When you follow a tradition that glorifies crucifixion, it actually makes sense to walk right into a losing battle. You learn to be okay with defeat because you feel you’re somehow called to it as a way of life. In hindsight, that’s pretty messed up.
But in the vast scheme of things, I just don’t understand why you would make a character judgement based on whether or not a person is attracted to the opposite sex or the same sex. I just don’t get it. With all the things that truly impact a person’s character (integrity, compassion, diligence, empathy, etc), why on earth would a person’s sexual preferences outrank all other factors? It’s mind-bogglingly irrational to me. But the Bible says it’s bad so it has to be bad and the Bible can’t be wrong, right? I’m going to tackle that question in one of my next couple of posts. I hope to show that even on its own terms, biblical inerrancy is an absurd supposition. But in the end this boils down to being stuck in an ancient prejudice. They’re all worked up about something that really isn’t their place to condemn, and they’re increasingly screeching about the impending doom of civilization just because of this one issue. I’m baffled.
The Church’s Obsession with Controlling Sex Causes Harm
I see several negative consequences to the church’s compulsion to multiply rules and regulations surrounding the act of sex.
1. Sexual displacement. The most obvious one slapping us in the face this weekend is that if you repress people’s sexuality enough they will find other ways to act on their urges, and more often than not those acts will be far more destructive than they would have been if you had just approached the topic in a less dysfunctional way. We’ve got priests fondling little boys and churches covering it up. We’ve got kids being raised on courtship and “kissing dating goodbye” who are then acting on their repressed urges in ways that are unhealthy, again followed by churches and families covering it up. There’s a pervasive culture of repression that has dominated the Christian church for most of its history, and its chickens are finally coming home to roost.
2. People marry too early, and that leads to a greater chance of divorce. Simply put, if you have to get married before you can get your sexual needs met, you will rush into it before you’ve really had time to find out if you are a good fit with your partner. There’s something really messed up about creating an environment that pressures 22-year-olds to make lifelong commitments to anything. At that age they hardly know themselves at all, much less anything about making big life decisions. These are people still in formation, and we are asking them to make a 50 or 60 year commitment to something they hardly could understand. Once again this is a formula for failure. We really need to take a long hard look at changing this about our culture and encouraging young people to wait a bit longer before they commit their lives to another person forever. It seems to me this will require either changing our expectations about abstaining from sex before marriage or else it will require reconsidering the nature of the marriage contract itself. More on that another time, perhaps.
3. This normalizes shame, particularly among women. The Christian message necessitates utilizing shame because unless you stand condemned for something, why else would you need a savior? And what bottomless pit of potential self-loathing could produce as much shame as telling pubescent young people that they shouldn’t be so horny all the time? It’s like the gift that keeps on giving to the church century after century. And it always seems to hit women the hardest because while men are supposed to be the leaders in every relationship, the blame for sexual deviance always seems to land on the woman.
Some friends of mine who are grads of Moody Bible Institute have recently created the Twitter handle @MBImisogyny and are beginning to compile stories about the treatment of female students at the school. The Dean of Students there was recently promoted to Vice President, prompting outrage from those former students who have been on the receiving end of his administrative wisdom. For example, one of the women in the group recounted that she went to him one day to ask for guidance regarding a boy who “forcibly kissed” her while walking her home from work one night (in accordance with a rule the dean himself had put in place). “The first thing he asked me was what I was wearing?” Another woman tells the story that:
When I got kicked out for having sex with my then boyfriend, he talked to us together and separately. When he spoke with me alone, he told me the weight of the blame fell on me, because as the woman in the relationship, I am the gatekeeper, and it my job to stop him from doing anything impure. I was astonished, and told him that as the man in the relationship, the boyfriend should also be held responsible. (Aren’t the men supposed to be in charge?) He said that in this case the woman had to protect herself and her man because men don’t have any control over their desires, but women don’t have that problem. Oh, and then he told me that I had ruined myself for any other man. No good Christian man would want me because I gave myself away.
The double standards surrounding sexuality are palpable, and refraining from talking about them only validates and reinforces them. The only way to confront these injustices is to start talking about them publicly. We’ve seen how it turns out when things are handled “in house.” Institutions handle things internally in order to protect themselves, not the victims. Enough is enough.
4. It creates an in-group/out-group exclusivism that destroys people and relationships. Every tribe has its identity markers, and those markers must be maintained in order to keep the group intact and strong. The more vulnerable the group is, the higher the cost of initiation and inclusion has to be. Just look at the invention of circumcision if you doubt that. But modern Christianity has settled upon sexual norms as their most potent weapon for in-group/out-group delineation, and the consequences of coloring outside the lines can be brutal. Families eject their own members upon the discovery of deviance on this one measure. No matter how many other things the rejected ones were doing well, this one thing outweighs all the others combined. That’s why as many as 40 percent of homeless youth in America identify as LGBT. Evidently for evangelicals the most important thing about you is what you do with your genitals. Nothing else matters as much as that.
By Their Fruits Shall You Know Them
Jesus famously directed our attention to the outcomes of people’s actions in order to determine their moral character. The church is all too eager to do that, except they rig the game by predetermining that your character should be judged by whether or not you conform to their rules about sex in the first place. They should have instead looked to see which beliefs led their own people to demonstrate the unconditional love they so often claim to emulate. What if we did that instead? What if we judged our beliefs by their fruits rather than by their adherence to ancient Mediterranean cultural norms? How might that change which rules we choose to serve as identity markers?
This week it was discovered that another teacher in my area has been living with a student for some time now. When the nature of their relationship was found out, he was arrested because, while she is above the age of consent for our state, state law prohibits such a relationship between a teacher and a student. I don’t know if or when the story will show in the news, but it occurred to me that now that I’m a “known atheist” in my area, I’m sure there are many whose personal prejudices would automatically lead them to assume it was me. Because atheists have no morals, amirite? People in highly religious places like Mississippi would be far quicker to suspect me of misconduct than they ever would of a Duggar because he belongs to the right team.
The irony is that I am one of the least likely people to be caught up in an inappropriate relationship with a student for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t live in a sexually repressed bubble like so many others I know do. Sexual deviance has many antecedents, but at least one common cause is that Christian culture has so surrounded the subject of sexuality with shame and control that people are more likely to resort to inappropriate, dysfunctional expressions of sex in order to get their needs met. Leaving that system does wonders for a person, I can assure you from both personal experience and from the experience of countless friends with whom I’ve discussed this very thing.
The time has come to tell these folks: You don’t get to make the rules about sex anymore.
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