Rachel Held Evans: Missing the Mark on Sexual Ethics

Rachel Held Evans: Missing the Mark on Sexual Ethics June 17, 2013

Rachel Held Evans has been a big critic of what I call the “purity culture”—and I think that’s great!—but today she’s written a post on why people should still wait for marriage to have sex.

The problem with the evangelical purity culture, as I see it, isn’t that it teaches saving sex for marriage, but that it equates virginity with sexual wholeness and therefore as something that can be lost or given or taken away in a single moment. 

Perhaps instead of virginity…or even purity (which carries something of an either/or connotation, I think)…we ought to talk about the path of holiness.  Holiness, to me, means committing every area of my life— from sex, to food, to time, to work—to the lordship of Jesus. It means asking how I might love God and love my neighbors in those areas so that the Spirit can grow love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in the sacred soil of everyday life.

I agree with Rachel that the obsession with virginity is a huge problem, and I appreciate the focus on one’s whole life rather than on individual acts, but I have to say, what she’s saying here really isn’t that different from the purity culture rhetoric I got growing up. It was all about committing every area of your life—including your food, time, and work in addition to sex—to God. And my parents never got hung up in the specific act either, but rather argued that all of our sexuality ought to be saved for marriage.

The thing is, Rachel is still saying that sex should be saved for marriage, just like I was taught growing up. And so I have to ask—why? Why should sex be saved for marriage? I don’t personally see any conflict between premarital sex and things Rachel describes above—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and loving one’s neighbors. Rachel’s piece is quite long and I’m going to quote from it selectively, but nowhere in it is she really clear about why sex should be saved for marriage. And maybe that’s because she is still in process and still figuring that out, but for someone still in process she definitely seems to have firmly latched onto the idea that, whatever the exact reason, sex should be saved for marriage.

If Rachel determines that sex before marriage is okay, evangelicals will stop listening to her. Whether this guides what she writes here I don’t know, but the problem progressive Christians often have with this issue has been addressed in the past by blogger Sarah Moon. In this post, Rachel declares that, as a part of the “path of holiness,” Christians should not have premarital sex, but she can’t invoke the reasons evangelicals usually invoke, because those things are shame-based. She could just say “because God says so,” and maybe that’s really what she’s doing, but that’s also not usually her style.

Early on in her post, Rachel quotes approvingly from a blogger she admires:

Why wait? Um. Because you need to learn some freaking self-control. That’s why.

No kidding, the person who is a slave to their sexual desires will have a difficult row to hoe…But the man or woman who has a sense of mastery over their own sexual appetite will be far less likely to fall into the easy traps of addiction and infidelity that plague marriages today. I don’t mean to imply that postponing sex guarantees fidelity – it certainly doesn’t. And I don’t think this is a fail safe for a long and happy marriage, but I think delaying sex is a pretty solid beginning.

So, interesting story. I knew a married couple growing up whose relationship had been forever damaged as a result of their having premarital sex. How did this happen? Quite simply, they both felt that their impulsive decision to have premarital sex even though, as evangelical Christians, they believed sex should be saved for marriage demonstrated a lack of self control, and because of that moment neither of them could truly trust the other. That’s right, viewing sex as a “self control” issue caused them long term marital problems. In their case, the approach to sexuality recommended here didn’t give them a “pretty solid beginning” at all. It rather gave them the opposite.

But what’s really mindboggling here is that this argument is tapping into just what it claims to reject. The author is suggesting that people who have self control will wait for marriage and those who don’t have self control will have premarital sex. Can she not already hear the women asking their fiances with dismay, “why couldn’t you have had self control and waited for me?” Or the men asking their girlfriends, “if you had so little control over your sexual desires before you met me, how do I know you’ll be faithful to me?” Because I can. In fact, the self control argument is one I grew up hearing—it’s one that is threaded through purity culture.

And what is this about how you either wait until marriage or you have no self control—no “sense of mastery” over your own “sexual appetite”? That’s ridiculous. You can have self control, and control of your sexual desire, without waiting until marriage for sex. Whatever happened to teaching young people to respect their partners, value consent, and make informed decisions? While I delayed sexual activity for a long, long time because of purity teachings, I didn’t quite wait for marriage. And you know what? I’m not some sort of sexual monster who can’t control my sexual urges. And it’s not just Rachel’s quote from this blogger that demonstrates this lack of understanding, it’s Rachel herself:

But I want folks to know that abandoning the painful and destructive narrative that a single sexual encounter can “ruin” a person or make her unworthy of love doesn’t mean swinging to the opposite extreme to endorse an anything-goes sexual ethic. 

Rachel is setting up a dichotomy here, arguing that on the one extreme is shame-based virginity obsession and on the other extreme is “anything goes.” But does Rachel really think that the only alternative to Christian sexual ethics that the world has to offer is “an anything-goes sexual ethic”? What about a sexual ethic built on consent and respect for oneself and one’s partner? Consensual sexual ethics by definition involve self control—but self control that is dictated by one’s respect for his or her partner(s), not by . . . the belief that sex before marriage demonstrates a lack of self control? Consensual sexual ethics is also by definition not “anything-goes”—and it is not bereft of self control, either. By painting this dichotomy, Rachel is throwing consensual sexual ethics under the bus in favor of a God-mandated prohibition of premarital sex, which is a really odd thing for someone who finds evangelicalism’s obsession with virginity so appalling.

And then there’s this:

I’ve been reading the monastics recently, and it strikes me that while much of modern evangelicalism echoes their teachings on self-control and self-denial when it comes to sexuality, we tend to gloss over a lot what this great cloud of monastic witnesses has to say about self-control and self-denial in other areas of life—like materialism, food, relationships, and hospitality. Ours is indeed a consumeristic culture, the kind that too often turns people into commodities, and I believe Christians can speak into that culture in a unique, life-giving way—not only as it concerns sex-on-demand, but also as it concerns food-on-demand, celebrity-on-demand, stuff-on-demand, cheap-goods-on-demand, pornography-on-demand, entertainment-on-demand, comfort-on-demand, distraction-on-demand, information-on-demand, power-on-demand, energy-on-demand, and all those habits that tend to thrive at the expense of the dignity and value of our fellow human beings or our planet.  

Is Rachel saying we should exercise self control because our consumeristic culture thrives “at the expense of the dignity and value of our fellow human beings or our planet”? If so, I agree, but I’m profoundly confused about what this has to do with sex. Consensual, safe sex does not operate at anyone’s expense or cause anyone harm. If she’s saying we should exercise self control just because . . . something . . . I’m not sure I agree.

I’m not saying we should never practice self-control or self-denial, but I generally think we should have an actual reason for practicing these things. I don’t eat chocolate cake with every meal because I know it’s not healthy and I like my current weight, not because I think that depriving myself of something I want is in and of itself a good thing. I don’t buy the latest electronic devise the moment it comes out because I just want to deprive myself but rather because I have a limited budget and have to prioritize. I consider others even when it means not getting something I want because I’d like to hope that if I’m a good relative or a good friend they’ll be good relatives or good friends in return—and because I believe it’s the right thing to do—not because I think not getting something I want is something good in and of itself.

Perhaps Rachel simply hasn’t reached a point of complete clarity on this subject yet, but her post left me with more questions than it answered. Why would a “path of holiness” require not having sex? I don’t think it’s possible to answer that question can be answered without invoking at least some of the shame-based purity teachings Rachel so adamantly rejects. And so Rachel’s trying to get around that by invoking self control and even monasticism. But why tie self control to premarital sex? If self control is good before marriage, wouldn’t it be good after marriage too? And why not simply develop a sexual ethic that involves consent and respecting your partner(s) both before marriage and after marriage? Finally, Rachel doesn’t present an argument for why avoiding premarital sex in and of itself betters society, others, or the individual, so within this framework how does avoiding sex before marriage amount to anything more than deprivation for deprivation’s sake? Perhaps Rachel will work on answering these questions in a future post, but until then, what she’s saying still sounds too close to the purity teachings I heard growing up for comfort.


I wanted to add a quick exchange from the comments that I thought might further elucidate my position here, specifically regarding Rachel’s focus on holiness. 

Tyler Francke

I read both of these articles and I think you make some excellent points, but I would respectfully suggest that I’m not sure that you fully responded to RHE’s underlying point on holiness. I think holiness means attaining the perfection of God, and it’s a good thing because I believe it was the way we were meant to live, in constant communion with our maker. And I think the path does involve some self-denial along the way, because our innate inclinations are often inherently self-focused and not God- or other-focused.

You cite some ways you practice self-denial already (eating healthfully, being a good steward of your money, etc.), and I agree those are very good things. But, with respect, you are not perfect, and neither am I. I don’t in any way believe our pursuit of holiness should be shame-based, but I also don’t think it should ever be perceived (in this life) to have ended.

That being said, if you are — out of devotion to the lord and a personal decision to show gratitude to him — honestly seeking his holiness, and believe a committed, consensual and respectful relationship with another person does not impede that, I say more power to you.

My Response:

While I grew up in an evangelical church, I’m an atheist today, but I’ll answer this anyway. The problem, as I see it, is that premarital sex gets packaged differently. It seems to me that holiness ought to be about showing others love and respect and balancing our own needs and desires with the needs and desires of others. So what I don’t understand is how a prohibition of premarital sex gets mixed up in this. There is nothing about premarital sex that is disrespectful to the individual, or unloving, but there is lots about coerced sex, whether it’s rape or simple manipulation, that is unloving and disrespectful. So why not focus on building a consent-based sexual ethics that focuses on showing each other love and respect, whether within marriage or outside of marriage? Why instead turn it into a “have self control and abstain before marriage” and then “you’re married now you get sex” dichotomy? I don’t see anything about that dichotomy that represents either holiness or working toward perfection or coming closer to God, but I see lots about a consent-based, respect-based sexual ethic that does represent those things. I would love to see Rachel take the conversation in that direction.

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