“I don’t even want a boyfriend. I just want someone who wants to hang out all the time and thinks I’m the best person in the world and wants to have sex with only me.”- Hannah Horvath
My mother likes to observe to other less jaded homeschool moms that no matter how well trained a teenage male might be, if he’s alone in his room for hours at a time he’s probably not memorizing his catechism.
My adolescence was spent in the conservative evangelical subculture that had the same approach to sexuality as I did at 14: obsessed with high ideals, beset by inconsistent practices, surrounded by a larger sexually schizophrenic culture, and awkwardly enamored with its own thoughts on the subject. We are still trying to figure out exactly how to talk constructively about sexuality in public, which naturally leads to experimentation. Who’d have thought pastors would describe explicit sexual activities and liberated feminists would put content warnings on their essays? Discussing what our couplings mean and how we ought to publicly speak about them is important, yet fraught with danger of doing harm.
One of the more peculiar 2013 year-in-review articles both celebrated sexual liberation and expressed shock and surprise that capitalism had killed it. I won’t quote the article itself. I will observe that the author rejects the “sexual economics theory” that reduces people to their body parts and then merely a paragraph later decides that because body parts are sometimes all that one wants, such desires should be our guide to sexual decision-making. The people who have been taught for years that sexuality must be atomized to individual choices and pleasures now unsurprisingly love a song celebrating a sexually aggressive man doing just that, while the people who are privileged enough to have enjoyed that atomization are now upset. For so long, though, we have opened the field for businessmen to exploit the bodies of people in order to take the money of others who either pay for the privilege of depersonalizing someone else or pay for the privilege of having their own bodily anxieties exploited. This media spectacle—as well as the reciprocal outrage by traditional moralists on social media and elsewhere that feeds the celebrity machine and the self-righteousness of the ranter—can only be described as onanistic.
This broader capitalist rape culture benefits greatly from both the fantasy that sexual urges are completely uncontrollable except in the cases where someone says “no” and the vestiges of pseudo-Christian morality that assigns as much blame as possible to the victims of sexual aggression. Ross Douthat has observed that a libertarian vision of a perfectly transparent free market is as unrealistic as an libertine vision of perfectly free decision-making. Sex and the representation of hypersexualized bodies becomes a chaotic mess of people using sex for whatever power it gives them over others. Wendell Berry takes this apart quite skillfully in his essay Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community:
If you depreciate the sanctity and solemnity of marriage, not just as a bond between two people but as a bond between those two people and their forebears, their children, and their neighbors, then you have prepared the way for an epidemic of divorce, child neglect, community ruin, and loneliness. If you destroy the economies of household and community, then you destroy the bonds of mutual usefulness and practical dependence without which the other bonds will not hold.
In this sexually Darwinistic world, those not desirable or desperate enough to be exploited are, of course, free to couple with one another and quite a number do. Most armchair defenders of sexual libertinism don’t take advantage of the freedom to hook up as conservatives fear that they do (surprise: it’s a privilege of the wealthy!) and instead have the similar sort of longing that Ms. Horvath expresses above. For those who can’t find a monogamous or quasi-monogamous pairing, you can always pay to have your desires sated or lower your standards. Some steal—just like white-collar criminals, it’s the most privileged who are the most brazen with this and the least privileged who are most likely to be stolen from. With your sexual choices atomized, however, you are subject to the vagaries of beauty, class, privilege, and race. Welcome to an emotional and sexual Randian paradise.
This contrast exposes the ugly fact that sexual libertinism is class warfare. The true victims of the sexual revolution are not the middle-class evangelicals who must now guard their children’s eyes during prime-time television; they are the poor families rent asunder by the chaos of liberated sexual decision making. The example of this that struck me most poignantly of late can be found here. Poor women have less power overall, and so they tend to be more susceptible to the relational chaos, unwanted pregnancy, and disease that goes along with the relentless destructive power of hyperindividualized sexuality. The latter two are things that can be remedied somewhat by the aggressive provision of the appropriate pills and medical interventions, but until the pharmaceutical companies can put relational stability in a pill, all bets are off. Furthermore, anyone who has ever provided such medical interventions can affirm that these prescriptions are no magic bullet.
The concept of consent, which undergirds the whole enterprise, should not be ignored. We have to learn from how feminism has decoded the power plays that attempted to undermine legitimate concerns about female sexuality. However, we must not buy into the deception that consent is all we need; as the inimitable Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry observed recently, a teenage girl can consent to working 16-hour days in an exploitative garment factory. As long as these sorts of power differentials exist, emotional and sexual Randianism will run rampant; “consent” is crucial but an insufficient basis for sexual morality. Thus, when choosing your own sexual adventure benefits the privileged, the harm done to the less privileged becomes the personal injury that complements the cultural insult of depersonalizing sexuality.
However, traditional sexual morality— at least as it has been commonly practiced—is not entirely a panacea. Without a vigorous understanding of consent, we have allowed our own instances of abuse and exploitation— for example, not legally considering the category of marital rape until a few decades ago. Those of us most firmly committed to emphasizing sexual difference must be the loudest advocates for understanding the power differentials at hand, embracing Christlike self-sacrifice, and building communities that have the appropriate policies guarding us against harming others. (The work of Boz Tchividjian and G.R.A.C.E. are invaluable in this regard.) Furthermore, as we have tried to affirm the sanctity of sex and God’s institutional provisions to protect this sanctity, we have relied on shame and sexual double standards to get this done.
All sex is publicly sanctioned or shamed. Shame is a powerful human force, and it is clear from the Bible that God uses sexual shame to turn people to repentance— both publicly and privately. Indeed, the ability to take instances of sexual aggression to the court of public opinion when a criminal court falls short of its apparent duties is part of why feminism ought to be at odds with sexual atomization. This has worked well for the military but not so well for the Duke Lacrosse players.
Accordingly, the ability of a community to publicly weigh in from a more traditional sexual ethic has its own pitfalls, as the moral ecology that upholds the virtues of modesty and virginity can be poisoned by victim-blaming, as the Maryville case indicates. Public shame is a powerful force that can be used to goad people into changing course, but it should not be used lightly. When, as my sister once observed, modesty is joked about as “girls, no bikinis; guys, no speedos” and it is inferred that a woman is “at fault” when a man looks at her lustfully, we have imported worldly standards that demean women and diminish their personhood by emphasizing the power of their sexual parts. Rachel Held Evans unpacks this quite well—again, sex and clothes become a struggle when we don’t recognize the power dynamics that are necessarily at work within fallen sexuality.
If we return to the analogy of libertarianism and money (once again, I will openly admit I’m taking my cues from Wendell Berry) we see that the answers to the abuses of individual freedom are thrift and community, which correspond to the Christian values of marriage and church.
When considering the social science data, the clear correlation between poverty and the weakening of marriage does not always lend itself to easy answers about the subject. Indeed, it is clear that we run the risk of making stable marriage just as much a perk of the privileged. It is easier, perhaps, to say that we ought to address the structural inequalities in our society before we trifle with marriage. Certainly the movements within evangelicalism that are addressing structural inequalities by reconciling people across class deserve our attention just as much as their input on making marriage meaningful for the people who would benefit most from it. As powerful as our political and moral defenses of marriage in recent years have been, we must acknowledge the temptation to be subsumed by our hyperindividualistic culture and let our support of marriage be divorced from the wider local community that holds marriages accountable.
Just as sexual behavior can be publicly shamed, it can be publicly celebrated. Every adult who goes to a wedding knows that the couple saying vows in front of them will be having sex in a short matter of time; by attending the wedding they are in some way supporting the union of that couple, even as that couple is giving the community the power to judge their union. This is not to say that sex is the ultimate purpose of marriage, but it is the most (literally!) tangible sign that two people have united. The consent given in marriage is not a contract between two independent blobs of protoplasm that won’t try to prosecute the other one after the fact; it is a covenant by those who know this couple intimately. Both family (“May I have your daughter’s hand in marriage?”) and community (“If anyone objects to this union, speak now or forever hold your peace.”) are crucial to the covenant. How perverse it is that we have the opposite happening right now, with various pop stars simulating sex acts in public with tongues clucking on Facebook after salaciously watching on YouTube. The appeal of money and the strength of our sinful inclination to depersonalize others’ sexuality will always trump vague appeals to respect and consent; something stronger— and more personal—is needed.
Evangelicalism, in reaction to the “Victorian” stereotypes which were and still are often perpetuated by ignorance and shame, has now tried to counter the cultural cry for atomized sexual pleasure at any cost by encouraging Christian couples to have all sorts of great sex. The foibles of such an approach may not have been foreseen, but they are apparent nonetheless. For many Christians, there is probably still some need for liberation and a few pointers of the mechanics—but these conversations ought to be happening person-to-person, not from the pulpit.
What we should be praising from the pulpit is not multi-orgasmic gymnastics, but boring sex. For boring sex is the most important kind of sex—it is the sex that we engage in when we want more than parts colliding, sex that is not “all nerves” but involves both body and soul. People have boring sex to give things other than fluids to their partner and take things other than pleasure. It is not essential to subscribe to traditional Christian morality in order to enjoy the benefits of boring sex (although most non-Christians who do end up gently aping the contours of Christian sexuality), but Christian theology provides us with the most compelling understanding of sexuality. Monogamy, then, is the sexual thrift and savings that produces dividends capable of cementing our relationships to one another. And marriage is the contractual institution that clarifies our duties to one another and holds us accountable when we slip. The communities that we live in—most especially the church—are our witnesses and shareholders.
In this way, even the people who are faithful to Christian sexual ethics by remaining celibate both contribute to the institution of marriage and reap its benefits, in contrast to the thoroughly individualistic sexual beings described beforehand. Those who have wandered from this vision and return in repentance—single parents, for example—still find themselves in a loving community that they shape and are shaped by. For even a vision of sexual morality that embraces the ability to make public judgments on another’s sexual choices and halfheartedly embraces monogamy—as many of my non-Christian friends do—is still painfully atomized, as a close reading of Hannah Horvath’s quote above reveals. As Christians join together in churches, they learn from one another the practices of stable fidelity and enjoy its fruits. This can happen in weekly worship, serving missionally together throughout the week, and even living together. Most importantly, we study God’s precepts for community and faithfulness together and practice them among one another.
Christian sexual ethics is not about creating individual, autonomous couplings that boost singular nuclear families to the middle class but communities made up of families and singles that support one another and build the social capital that keeps us thriving. This ethic is distinctively Christian and centered on His Church, for it is in Jesus that we find the most compelling meaning of sex. He hung naked on a cross and was jeered by everyone watching so that our shame could be put to death on that cross. He never took an earthly wife in order to prepare for Himself a heavenly bride who will dine with him at a great wedding feast. He promised us a comforter, the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to deny the urges that would lead us into using sex to tear other people apart from the inside out— whether it’s verbally or otherwise. He has risen again in glory and clothed us with His righteousness, which transforms the way we look at ourselves and one another—body and soul.