IN SEVENTH grade, my little Christian school announced that they would be offering a “sex education” class. This was mildly controversial. But I thought it was a great idea since at that stage I knew I definitely wanted to have sex and was eager to learn as much about the whole process as possible.
To my dismay, far from discussing technique or even defining sexual intercourse at all, the class basically consisted of our principal and our gym teacher telling us not to have sex until we were married. To me, this was not a logical starting point. There were students who didn’t even know how it was done, so how much sense was this class going to make to them? I did know how it was done and I wanted to do it pretty much more than anything. What seventh grader doesn’t? So when they passed around an “abstinence pledge” during the final week of class, I had some thinking to do.
Ultimately, I knew that in signing that pledge, I’d be making a promise I wasn’t prepared to keep.
The fact of the matter was that I really wanted to follow the First Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Have Sex Until Thou Art Married. (That is the first commandment, right?) But as much as I wanted to be a good Christian boy, I knew that with my gangly, 14-year-old, six-foot-two frame, my acne and the fuzzy beginnings of a mustache, I wasn’t exactly a hit with the ladies. If the choice came down to either having sex on the off chance that a girl would have me or dying a virgin, I would choose the former.
In the years that followed, we talked about sex in Sunday school, youth group, church services, youth retreats, etc. We watched videos on the topic and my parents gave me awkward books about the awkwardness of adolescence. The I Kissed Dating Goodbye guy was a big hit. People discussed at length whether “looking at a woman with lust” was a sin, just how far was too far, and whether masturbation was okay if you didn’t utilize porn or envision fornicating with anyone specific. (Could this strategy possibly be the ultimate extreme in the objectification of women?)
I always came down on the more lax side in these debates, and I don’t want to get too personal here, but I basically adopted the “anything but” mentality. I remember coming home from college one summer and having a woman from church ask me if I wanted to help out with a program that went around to local schools and taught kids about abstinence. I remember thinking, “Look lady, I’m abstinent but, like, just barely.” I politely declined the invitation.
Now that I’m married, I know that sex is a great thing—a “natural and zesty enterprise” as Maude Lebowski so aptly puts it in my favorite film. But I also realize that it’s not nearly as big a deal as anyone—Christians, Hollywood, Marquis de Sade—makes it out to be. We live in a sex-obsessed culture, to be sure. But the evangelical culture I grew up in was equally obsessed. The way I grew up you’d think that at least 30 percent of the Bible is about sex. Turns out it’s more like 0.3 percent. And what it does say hardly gives us a one-two-three model for relationships.
In Old Testament times a woman was a commodity, a luxury, the plasma screen television of the day. We've read into the story of Solomon that he was punished for having too many wives, but God really just seems angry about him taking wives from foreign lands. And in the old laws in Leviticus, there is the conspicuous absence of traditional, positive definitions of marriage and appropriate sexual relations. Not really until Jesus comes along, it seems, do we get some helpful information about sex: he scolds those guys who wanted to divorce their wives just because they were bored of them, denounces adultery, and expresses open frustration with the viewing of women as property. (See the “whose wife will the widow be in heaven” debate.) But as far as I can tell, he doesn’t have any words on premarital sex.
Paul throws “fornicators” in with a slew of deviants who “will not inherit the kingdom of heaven,” but he seems to be talking about people who love to sleep around, particularly with prostitutes, as a recreational activity. It’s more than a small stretch to extend that harsh imperative to over-eager teens in dating relationships.
Obviously, our contemporary monogamous marital system is far superior to the days of buying girls—girls of an age that would get you thrown in jail today—with jewels and oxen. You don’t exactly need the Bible to tell you what kind of trouble sexual promiscuity can get you in. A health book describing burning during urination and strange discharges may more effectively steer you toward abstinence.
David Sessions responded to evangelicals’ hysterical reaction to the "Sex and the City" movie. Jordan Kurtz applauded Christian pop singer Krystal Meyers for a tastefully sexy music video. Alisa Harris made a case for compromise on political issues involving sexuality. In an interview, rock artist Monarch talked about faith and sexual shame. J. Marcus Weekley explored the power of nudity in film. Carmen Magana reviewed "Call & Response," a documentary about sexual exploitation.
But let’s assume that despite Biblical vagueness, premarital sex is always a sin. Why does it seem to outweigh other sins? Unlike, say, lying or covetousness, losing your virginity is often treated as a cataclysmic, irreversible mistake. Instead of repenting and having your slate wiped clean, like with any other sin, you are forever marred by your indiscretion. If we take the Biblical notion of repentance and forgiveness seriously, then the pressure and guilt associated with the loss of virginity are clearly of our own construction.
And what good is it doing? Despite evangelical overvaluation of virginity, we recently learned that teen pregnancies are just as prevalent among evangelicals as among non-Christians, and abstinence pledges are pretty much worthless. So it seems all of the sermons, all of the youth retreats, all of the Christian books and videos just aren’t cutting it when it comes down to actually getting young people to remain abstinent. So where did we go wrong?
Well, my middle school’s sex education course is a perfect example. It succeeded only in sparking our curiosity. It set up sex as an intriguing, yet forbidden activity, like smoking or drinking or eating certain pieces of fruit you’re not supposed to. We all know how that goes. Elsewhere, evangelicals seem to be trying to counter our hyper-sexualized culture by ramping up the “sacredness” of sex, matching obsession with obsession. As Megan Fox’s breasts get bigger and barer, the supposed theological significance of hiding one's eyes seems to escalate to equally absurd proportions.
What if we begin to treat sex as the relatively mundane biological function that it is? (I would argue that the Bible treats it exactly as such). What if we admit that it’s a fun way to spend a few minutes before bed or on an idle afternoon, but you might also like to see a movie or have an ice cream cone? What if we stop trying to romanticize sex to the same degree as popular culture and start to break it down, to demystify it. What if when we talk about sex, we talk about it in detail—the importance of lubrication, how to avoid urinary tract infections, how it’s handy to keep a small towel nearby to aid the clean-up process. These realities bring anyone who has adopted the idealized notions of sexual intercourse purported by both popular culture and the church quickly back down to earth. And a little more reality might end up making it easier to wait.
Photo by/courtesy of Randy Erdman.
TagsAndrew Sullivan Apologetics Arts Atheism Barack Obama Belief Bible Book Review Books Capitalism Catholic Church Catholicism Charles Taylor Christian Christianity Christianity Today Church Conservatives Evangelicalism Evangelicals Facebook Faith God Gospel Coalition History Jesus Journalism Mark Driscoll Marriage Marvin Olasky Marxism Media New Sincerity New York Times Patheos Philosophy Politics Religion Religion and Spirituality Rob Bell Ross Douthat Same-sex marriage Secularism Theology United States
Subscribe to Patrol via Email