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Sex without Qualifications: Christianity and the Meaning of Sex

November 29th, 2012 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Emily Esfahani Smith wants to inject a little love into the hook-up culture on college campuses, in hopes that the young liberated folks will begin to take sex seriously.

As a young woman in 2012—and as a feminist—I think that the hook-up culture has the opposite effect as that described by [Hannah] Rosin. Sexual liberation may be indispensable to female progress, but the hook-up culture is not empowering for all women. This isn’t to say that early marriage or abstinence is the solution. But these are not the only alternatives to the hook-up culture, either. There is a middle way: meaningful sex in the context of a non-marital relationship.

It’s this “meaningful sex” that she suggests is the way forward, rather than “back to 1950s-style courtship, parietal rules, and early marriage.”  Sex that’s “founded on friendship, dating, and relationships,” that is.  That’s where we’re headed rather than those backwards notions about “abstinence.”

I mean, I kind of understand the eagerness to stake out this sort of “middle of the road” position on sexual ethics.  It’s the sort of “respectable” social conservatism that allows for everything sophisticated readers of The Atlantic might want–seriousness and purpose without the backwardness of chastity.

Or at least the appearance of seriousness, anyway.  It also presupposes the sort of “make your own meaning” approach to sex that stands beneath the sexual malaise in our culture.  Consider this as a good rule of thumb:  if you have to resort to describing your sex as “meaningful,” then maybe that’s because functionally it’s not.  Meaning isn’t made:  it’s discovered, lived out, revealed to us over the course of our lives.  No writer sets out to write a “meaningful novel,” or no very good writer does anyway.  Because the meaning of things aren’t determined by fiat.  They inhere in things and we respond to them.

Of course, to say that drives one into the possibility that maybe sex has a meaning in our lives that we don’t get to decide.  What that meaning is, of course, might be in question.  The traditional Christian answer, I think, has been to tie sex to marriage, and marriage to babies.  We’re clearly losing the stomach for that one, though, both inside and outside the church.  Still, the advantage of the traditional Christian sexual ethic is that it offers us sex without qualifications:  sex in itself, the meaning given not made, in all its distinctive glory and freedom.

But I’ll let Oliver O’Donovan handle it on the way out:

“To this given connection in our nature between male-female relationship and procreation it is possible to respond in only two ways.  We may welcome it, or we may resent it.  Christian teaching has encouraged us to welcome it.  Christian thinkers have said, in the first place, that the connection is good for the man-woman relationship, which is protected from debasement and loss of mutuality by the fact that it is fruitful for procreation.  When erotic relationships between the sexes are conceived merely as relationships–with no further implications, no ‘end’ within the purposes of nature–then they lack the significance which they need if they are to be undertaken responsibly.

(Is that Oliver O’Donovan anticipating the ‘hook-up culture’ way back in 1984?  Why yes, yes I think it is.)

Update:  Included the right link and deleted an errant sentence.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.