Here’s a strange sentence from a recent Christianity Today article: “The CCCU advocates a sexual ethic of marriage between a man and a woman.”
The CT writer and readers didn’t find that sentence extremely confusing because it aligns with their prior confusion. They’re accustomed to using the phrase “sexual ethic” to mean … whatever it might mean in that weird little sentence, where it can’t possibly refer to either ethics or to sex.
“Advocating … marriage between a man and a woman” does not present us with “a sexual ethic,” or even with a component of such an ethic. It has more to do with marriage licenses.
The folks at Christianity Today and at the evangelical universities of the CCCU think (and “advocate”) that a marriage license should only be made available to “a man and a woman.” And they think stating as much means they have said something about “a sexual ethic” because they think that marriage licenses ethical sex. If you have a marriage, you have license.
Here, again, we see white evangelical “sexual ethics” replaced by a useless binary. If “Married?” = “Yes” then ethical. If “Married?” = “No” then sinful.
This is what Libby Anne called the “Tale of Two Boxes,” and it provides no ethical guidance to anyone. The entire point of “advocating” this approach is to avoid having to think or to behave ethically. Married couples won’t have to worry about treating one another ethically because whatever they do is, by definition, declared to be “ethical.” And anything that anyone else does is, by definition, un-ethical, so they’ll need to abstain from … well, apparently, from everything and everyone and everywhere.
For an illustration of how this confusion begets further confusion, consider the recent news from Dave Ramsey’s sanctimoniously anti-Jubilee media empire.
If believers seeking ethical guidance are denied that, and given only two-box binaries instead, then they’re bound to start coming up with their own rules and folkways. The elastic “righteous living” standard Ramsey imposes on his employees makes formal a longstanding, informal ethical tradition shared by most white evangelicals and Catholics here in America — particularly among teenagers. This is the supposedly “biblical” doctrine that Oral Sex Doesn’t Count.
Extramarital sex will get you fired from Ramsey Solutions, but only if it’s P-in-V. Blow jobs are cool, though — or at least not grounds for termination. It seems Ramsey’s HR department has adopted a “technical adultery” standard based on the “technical virginity” folklore widely adopted by horny teenagers in white evangelical youth groups. As Garfunkel & Oates put it, they’re thinking outside the box.
The company does not consider all sex acts outside of marriage to be unrighteous. While intercourse outside of marriage is cause for dismissal, oral sex is not, said Ramsey and other leaders in the depositions.
“Our operating board chose sexual intercourse outside of marriage as the line at which a person must leave and the assumption is termination at that point,” longtime Ramsey board member and Human Resources Committee Chair Jack Galloway said at an August 2021 deposition. “Things short of that are more case by case and more at least open for discussion.”
Ramsey Solutions leaders admitted in a deposition that the company’s “righteous living” rules did not bar premarital sex in writing. While the rules are sometimes described as drawn from biblical standards, several company leaders were not able to cite any Bible verses to support their views on marriage and sex.
To be fair, there are not a large number of Bible verses that directly address the subject of oral sex. The practice is enthusiastically celebrated in several places in the Song of Solomon, but that book is a tricky thing to cite if you’re also intent on blanket condemnations of all extramarital sex.
I do think that the Bible offers some clearly applicable guidance on this subject, but none of that supports the Dave Ramsey/Newt Gingrich/Horny Evangelical Teen claim for an Oral Doesn’t Count loophole.
This ethical — and practical — guidance, alas, tends to fall into the category of biblical morality that wholly eludes Ramsey, a guy whose whole shtick is re-writing the Gospel as “All Debts Must Be Paid in Full.” (Theories of atonement are a mug’s game, but here I’ll just note that it’s possible — contra Ramsey — to believe in penal substitutionary atonement and still recognize that All Debts Have Been Paid in Full. But that’s a tangential matter to our discussion here of penile substitutionary at-one-ment.)
If you’re looking to the Bible for help with “righteous living” when it comes to oral sex, then you have to start where every biblical discussion of “righteous living” has to start: the Golden Rule. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is why the Song of Solomon includes both fruit-tasting and lotus-grazing. “Freely ye have received; freely give.”
Reciprocity, gratitude, magnanimity. Not that confusing, yet utterly confounding to someone like Dave Ramsey. This is why Ramsey Solutions also cites it’s “righteous living” standard as the basis for terminating employees who incur consumer debt. (Like Ramsey’s employees, I can’t be sure what else this oddly selective “standard” forbids, but I’m guessing it includes anyone praying the Lord’s Prayer who says “forgive us our debts” instead of “forgive us our trespasses.”)
Whenever I argue that “sexual ethics” ought to start with the Golden Rule, someone will inevitably argue that reciprocity/justice, gratitude, and magnanimity are not the only ethical principles involved. And, of course, that’s true.
For example, the ancient ethical framework of “virtue ethics” has much to teach us here. This roughly Aristotelian approach is quite popular among my conservative Christian neighbors who developed an enthusiasm for it when they read (or read about) Alasdair McIntyre back in the ’90s. It’s a helpful and clarifying form of ethical thinking for anyone concerned about “righteous living” and how it relates, specifically, to the matter of oral sex.
“Virtue ethics” emphasizes that morality is, among other things, a craft — something that needs to be learned and practiced and refined. It teaches that every craft involves an intrinsically moral component. The painstaking practice and application of care involved in learning any craft exemplifies the practice and process by which we learn to become moral people. Becoming a good person, in other words, is much like becoming a master bricklayer or woodworker. It takes practice, practice, practice to learn to do it well, and doing it well is a moral obligation.
I submit that this is as true for fruit-tasting and lotus-grazing as it is for bricklaying or woodworking.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of Ramsey’s technical-virginity application of the Oral Doesn’t Count rule is the way that it appeals to this weird, separate category of “Sexual Ethics” that exists wholly apart from every other discussion or understanding of just-plain-non-sex-related ethics. That’s what allows them to reduce “sexual ethics” down to two binary questions: 1) Are you married? and 2) Did the P go in the V? Apart from those yes/no questions, every other ethical concern goes out the window — the Golden Rule, doing no harm, keeping promises, avoiding betrayal, and rejecting violent, emotional, or financial coercion. The theory, I suppose, is that all of those other ethical concerns are somehow covered by the categories of married/unmarried, even though this is not obviously — or obviously not — the case.
So please don’t mistake anything I’m saying here as agreement with this daft scheme of a separate, smaller, wholly distinct realm of “sexual ethics.” Sex is not a separate universe with a separate set of rules. If anything, all of those other rules become even more vitally important when we’re naked and at our most physically and emotionally vulnerable: Don’t be a jerk, don’t be mean, don’t treat people as things, love does no harm to a neighbor, etc.
The lawyerly constructs of “technical virginity” or of Ramsey’s technical adultery are efforts to escape those basic ethical obligations. If you’re forced to argue that you’re not technically being a jerk, or not technically treating people as things, or not technically harming your neighbor then we all know you’re probably doing the very thing that you’re claiming to be “technically” avoiding.