Thoughts on Christian Sexual Ethics

I enter this conversation with many questions, very few answers, and a non-traditional (but common) experience of sex and marriage. Over the past few years I have deconstructed my initial understanding of sex and sexuality and just recently started to recreate my sexual ethics. This collection of thoughts is a work in progress and, honestly, will continue to evolve as I learn more.

Human bodies are important.

It’s a common misconception that our souls or spirits are more important than our physical bodies. Flesh is given a bad reputation as something that constantly tempts or deceives. (Have you ever heard the phrase, “…die to the flesh” or something like “that’s just my flesh talking”?) And yes, while we do live this side of the garden in a fallen world, the body does not lose inherent value.

Our bodies are created in the image of the divine and therefore how we use them and share them is important to God. Our physical senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste are all means by which we receive revelation from God and may also share God’s love with others.

“In essence, my body is my relationship to the world, to others, it is my life as communion and as mutual relationship… The body is not the darkness of the soul, but rather the body is its freedom, for the body is the soul as love, the soul as communion, the soul as life, the soul as movement. And this is why, when the soul loses the body, when it is separated from the body, it loses life.”

— Alexander Schmemann

The Incarnation also draws our attention to the importance of the body. Jesus came to earth through the body of a woman and he grew from an infant to young man. He experienced all the normal fluids, indigestion, fatigue, hunger, adrenaline, pain, excitement, etc. that we do. He could touch and be touched, savor food, and hear the seagulls. He was fully God and fully human.

Christ came as human and also ascended as a human to demonstrate the body, not only the soul, has eternal value and meaning.

“We cannot fully understand our bodies outside of grace; our bodies meet their true nature only as they are taken up into grace, as they are transformed in relationship to the risen Christ whose body still bears the wounds of crucifixion. The resurrected body, available to us in Jesus Christ, begins even now to make our bodies holy.”

— Beth Felker Jones,

Even now, your body is very good and self-hatred has no place. Christ welcomes you, in your body, to commune with him.

photo: Annie Spratt

Sex is spiritual, too.

Sex, chastity, and celibacy are spiritual. Throughout church history people have abstained from sex with a goal to become closer to God, and likewise many have understood sex and marriage to also reflect divine intimacy.

And yet we are not only bodies. To believe this would inappropriately objectify humankind. What we think about sex and sexuality ultimately connects to our beliefs about gender, personhood, and God. These areas are intimately intertwined with each other. For example, if we believe women are inherently the weaker party, this will shape how we treat them and what we expect from them. Or if we believe God is male, this will have implications on how we view leadership and power. The list goes on.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus addresses many things in the Sermon on the Mount. The act of murder and hateful thoughts, as well as adultery and lust are equal in God’s eyes. The invisible things matter just as much as the visible. To disregard our souls, in my opinion, would keep us from a holistic experience of sex or abstinence. I don’t mean to say our salvation is dependent on our sex lives. Far from it, I believe both body and soul, the visible and invisible, are practically inseparable as one learns and discerns how to become closer to God.

Compassionate dialogue over legalism.

Have you ever asked questions like “where’s the line?” or “how far can I go?” and received all different answers? Me too. Different religious groups have more rules than others, but to my knowledge gray area isn’t popular.

In an attempt to be “clear” and draw a line between “pure” and “impure,” many have defined sex as penetrative sex. Translated, this means as long as the penis has not entered/penetrated the vagina, sex has not occurred. And while this does offer a boundary, it does not consider the range of sexual acts that many experts still consider sex. Simply put, sex is the stimulation of the genitals, either with other genitals or with a hand or mouth, thus you have sexual inter- and outer- course. (Did you know? Sex does not require an orgasm to occur.)

Although not everyone may have sex in their lifetime, everyone has a sexuality. Conversations on sex are not simply a pep talk for engaged or married couples. Guidance that assumes marriage is a reality or goal for everyone is sorely mistaken. Unmarried people, young people, LGBTQ+ people, those who are no longer married, differently-abled people, and those crowned with gray hair, are necessary participants in the conversation on sex and intimacy.

Sex, chastity, and celibacy are individual and communal practices.

Individual or communal? Private choice or public discourse? I struggle with the binary of either/or and would rather say sex, chastity, and celibacy are the business of both the individual and the community. They are deeply personal things, yet a community’s dialogue (or lack thereof) has significant impact on the private activity of individuals and families. The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements revealed the imbalance between the individual and community. Many churches neglect(ed) to protect the survivors of abuse and use(d) narratives of fear and condemnation to “educate” their members on sex and gender.

Individually, one’s choices on sex, chastity, and celibacy are incredibly personal. Consent, by nature, must be an individual choice. Whether consent is given or not, it must be a choice freely made by the individual. People are also entitled to privacy in this area and should not feel obligated to share things like how often they have sex or why they choose to abstain from sex. Many other details surrounding sex and sexuality, including personal preferences or healthcare choices, may be kept private as well.

Communally, we have a responsibility to protect our neighbors from sexual assault/rape, child marriage and pornography, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, sexually transmitted diseases or infections, human trafficking and exploitation, and incest. To do so requires self-restraint or the enforcement of laws created to impose restraint on behaviors considered dangerous to others. Additionally, is it very important for us to support sex in safe contexts and advocate for age-appropriate, comprehensive, sex education for all people. All of this requires prioritizing the subject amongst families, churches, and local/national groups.

In another sense, I believe the marriage relationship is a small community. Spouses commit their bodies to each other and also choose to not have sex with others. There are certain periods where abstinence is appropriate, after childbirth, during illness, perhaps in a bout of grief or traumatic experience. (This is not an exhaustive list.) If the couple choses to have children, their union increases the impact they have on their nuclear community and the broader community they live in.

Was Mary actually a virgin? And other hard questions.

Did the Levite’s concubine sin? Did God actually condemn Esau, Jacob, David, and Solomon for their sex lives? Can we be sure the couple in Song of Solomon were actually married? And does it matter?

Perhaps this deserves another post, but since researching purity culture last year, I get a lot of good questions. Especially on premarital sex. I have so many questions on this term alone. What exactly is marriage? What is marriage when women are considered property? Economic contract or covenant? How have our definitions of sex changed?

Our English translations of the Bible are historically the interpretations of white men, for the most part. Translations are always interpretations. And these interpretations have shaped our theologies and language for God and God’s people.

Food for thought, for now.

photo: Priscilla Du Preez

FAQ: Is premarital sex wrong?

Before you jump to a yes or no answer, consider these questions instead.

  • What is this situation teaching me about God?
  • What about this situation gives life to me? Where do I feel life is being drained from me?
  • Am I able to see and honor the other person as imago dei? Am I able to see and honor myself as an image bearer? What does this mean to me?
  • Am I being coerced or attempting to exert my own power over another?
  • How am I prepared to address the potential emotional and physical outcomes of my choice, whether it’s sex or abstinence?

I am not able to answer these questions for you. I trust you to answer them honestly and make your own decisions. What I can tell you is that you, body, mind, and soul, are created as good. You are loved. You may ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and reveal more of God’s love for you.

Safe sex is, in my opinion, a non-negotiable. Consent between parties, understanding of applicable contraceptive options, and comprehensive sex education are foundational elements. The more specific definition of healthy sex will differ based on who you ask, but it should not exclude the elements of safe sex.

Wherever you find yourself, I’m with you and I’m for you.

Read (or listen) more:

A New Study on Sexual Violence & Chanel Miller

(This post contains research and discussion centered on nonconsensual sex. Please read with caution and care for yourself.)

Today new research studying the impacts of forced sexual initiation was published. Read it for yourself, or at least the summary, here. Here are a few key points that stuck out to me.

  • “6.5% of respondents reported experiencing forced sexual initiation, equivalent to 3,351,733 women in this age group nationwide…” “Initiation” means a sexual debut or the first time someone has had sex. This study was focused on female survivors between 18 and 44 years old, even still it is important to remember data surrounding sexual violence may not be accurate. Experts estimate 3 out of 4 victims do not report.
  • “Age at forced sexual initiation averaged 15.6 years…The mean age of the partner/assailant at first sexual encounter was 6 years older for women with forced vs voluntary sexual initiation.” Please note the age difference between the rape victim and the assailant. It is alarming. This suggests a significant power dynamic, in social and legal status and perhaps also size and strength. RAINN reports that most perpetrators of sexual violence walk free.
  • When compared to those with voluntary sexual initiation, survivors of rape experience long term health consequences at a higher rate, such as unwanted first pregnancies, abortions, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and challenges with ovulation or menstruation.
  • In a brief conclusion the authors write, “These findings highlight the possible need for public health measures and sociocultural changes to prevent sexual violence, particularly forced sexual initiation.

I find this information both upsetting and deeply saddening. The data centers on only first-time sexual encounters that were forced — sexual debuts initiated by rape. Allow that to sink in. This study was completed just before the #MeToo movement was given a broader attention in October of 2017. This means the public conversation defining consent and sexual abuse had not quite picked up momentum and many victims had not reported or perhaps understood their experiences as rape. There are most likely many, many more victims than the 3.4 million already estimate in this study.

Image result for chanel miller
photo: ny times

Also just before the most recent #MeToo movement, “Emily Doe,” or Chanel Miller, was fighting for recognition and justice after being assaulted and raped by Brock Turner. While in court, Turner received sympathy and a lenient sentence while Miller was left the damaging, long-term consequences of Turner’s violent actions against her.

Her story is important because it puts a name to the numbers and changed California’s law regarding minimum sentencing for sexual assault.

It also highlights the societal assumptions about sexual violence and perpetrators. Do we even recognize rape (or nonconsensual sex) when we see it? If they don’t remember the assault, is it still punishable? Do the consequences or impacts of jail time outweigh the impacts of rape? What if the perpetrator is a really great swimmer? How would the sentence differ if the perpetrator were not white? Who gets to define consent?

“Someday, you can pay me back for my ambulance ride and therapy. But you cannot give me back my sleepless nights. The way I have broken down sobbing uncontrollably if I’m watching a movie and a woman is harmed, to say it lightly, this experience has expanded my empathy for other victims. I have lost weight from stress, when people would comment I told them I’ve been running a lot lately. There are times I did not want to be touched. I have to relearn that I am not fragile, I am capable, I am wholesome, not just livid and weak.”

“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”

“And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.”

Chanel Miller, Victim Witness Statement

Read her full victim witness statement here. It is moving, informative, and very well written. Miller details what she remembers as well as the medical and legal process that followed. It is well worth your time. Her book comes out later this month.

So how do we address the proposed “public health measures” and “sociocultural changes”?

These are only a few broad strokes. The solution to this requires multicultural, interfaith and bi-partisan collaboration and community engagement. There are no easy answers or formulas but there is hope. I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can make our homes, churches, and communities safe from violence.

Read more:

Impure: In Defense of the American Family

Nothing is created in a vacuum. Purity culture is quite the mix of misguided pastoral care and political concepts. The rise of a sexual purity doctrine isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in church history, nor do I believe the church is done wrestling with their attempt at counter-cultural sexual ethics. Here I want to focus on just a couple key elements in purity culture’s recent history.

Dr. James Dobson

The purity culture you may have been raised in was shaped by many different political movements and people throughout the 20th century but one figure in particular kept appearing in the research I read: Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. (Adventures in Odyssey, anyone?)

photo from latimes.com

In the 1970s through the early 2000s, Dobson’s career grew from psychology to pastoral care, and yet again to politics. His books and radio show on children and parenting became popular amongst Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals. During this time society was exploring a sexual revolution, rights to abortion and contraception, the equal status of women and those included in the LGBTQ+ community — things Dobson argues will destroy the American family.

In defense of the family unit, Dobson believes and advocates for the following:

  • Families, and associated values, should return to “the ‘Happy Days’ of the 1950s” with traditional gender roles. (Dobson and Bauer, Children at Risk, 1990.)
  • Sexual immorality is a “threat to survival” for healthy families, who are to be a reflection of the created order, (i.e. the conservative understanding of gender hierarchy as believed to be found in the Adam and Eve’s relationship.) Sexual sin has the power to “destroy the institution of the family.” (Emotions: Can You Trust Them? and The New Dare to Discipline, both published in 1992.)
  • Sexual liberation, as seen in the 1960s-1970s, was a “social, spiritual, and physiological disaster.” To save a nation, Dobson believed you must save the family. (The New Dare to Discipline, 1992)
  • Secular sex education “breaks down the natural barriers between the sexes and makes familiarity and casual sexual experimentation much more likely to occur. It also strips kids — especially girls — of their modesty to have every detail of anatomy, physiology and condom usage made explicit in co-ed situations.” (Dobson advocates against comprehensive sex education.) (The New Dare to Discipline, 1992)

Now let it be known, Dobson is not solely responsible for the sexual purity movement. There were many other authors, pastors, public figures or groups alike who echoed his concerns and carried influence. Elisabeth Elliott, Paige Patterson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, among others in groups like Promise Keepers, the Moral Majority, or Christian Coalition pushed similar messages. Dobson’s success lies in his ability to creatively articulate the perceived problem and solution from his widely known platform. Despite denying his involvement with politics, his voice captured the attention of millions, even the ear of politicians and presidents who would support conservative legislation on abstinence-only sex education.

photo from religionnews.com

The Significance of Abstinence-Only Sex Education in the US

Purity culture is founded upon the practice of abstinence before marriage. This practice is not inherently damaging, but the methodologies used to teach and sustain it have been controversial. Since the 1980s, the federal government has spent over 2 billion dollars on abstinence-only focused programs, yet even with good intentions these programs may not have been helpful to youth. Setting the theological background aside for now, here are a few (very, very brief) historical points on sex education in the states:

  • Federal government funds abstinence-only sex education in 1981 through the Adolescent Family Life Act.
  • Through the welfare reform this funding expands in 1996 and provides resources to public and faith-based programs, now known as Title V Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM) programs.
  • In 2004 it was found that 11 out of 13 AOUM programs were not teaching scientifically accurate information on reproductive health and contraception and instead emphasizing traditional gender roles and religious beliefs. (Read more.)
  • Critics have argued AOUM programs are focus on “character and morality,” while comprehensive sex education focus on “health behaviors and outcomes.” (Read more.)
  • Researchers have found the results of abstinence-only education are not necessarily different than the results of comprehensive sex education. In fact, those who participated in abstinence focused spaces had an increased risk for STIs/STDs based on decreased condom use. (Read more.)

Without accurate information, developing an informed sexual ethic is extremely challenging. Abstinence before marriage is in no way a bad thing, yet if this all-or-nothing approach is the only tool in someone’s back pocket, they will be extremely unprepared (emotionally/physically/spiritually) if/when something does happen to them or a friend.

If you are interested in more details on these programs, here are a few resources to dig into:

I found this information helpful so I hope it proves helpful to you as well. As I continue to unpack purity culture here, we’ll soon see how Dobson’s intentions to protect became weapons in the church arsenal to be used against the vulnerable and those suffering at the hands of sexual violence.

Read more in this series: