In USAmerica today, everyone is talking about sex. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that throughout history everyone has been talking about sex, and USAmerica is in the midst of the present manifestation of an ancient issue. Today, sexual behavior for women is often presented as a choice between two extremes: purity or promiscuity; prude or liberated. However, neither stance is helpful for a fully human life: firm answers applied to everybody lacks compassion and imagination, as Paul can help Christians understand.
Sex-positive feminists believe sex to be natural and beneficial. Sex between consenting adults is encouraged as sexual desire is understood as a natural part of human experience that should not be denied or repressed. Indeed, desire cannot be repressed without negative consequences on the individual; sexual repression and anything that promotes repression are treated as the primary enemies. This view of sex is often criticized as being irreverent, but that is an oversimplification. Many sex-positive individuals have a high view of sex and use language of intimate connection.
The sex-positive way of life can be problematic for women. If sex becomes a high priority, then a woman’s value can become tied up in her sexual accomplishment or ability to find a partner. Also problematic is when attention shifts from equal abilities and equal rights into a desire to prove that women can behave as men in ways men have been criticized, such as deception with regards to the intention of the relationship beyond sex or libertine “Don Juan” behavior. One woman notes that “the feminist sex-positive cultural attitude boiled down to … ‘I’m more sex-positive than you.’” For women who adopt this competitive mentality and find it unfulfilling, “the failure of this approach in their own lives became, in their minds, the failure of postmodern feminist philosophy as a whole.” In a reactionary move against the lifestyle, such women sometimes jump to the opposite extreme: chastity and submission in the name of Christianity.
Presently, the Christian stance on sexuality emphasizes abstinence, chastity, or purity outside of marriage. The primary enemies here are promiscuity and premarital sex. Tim Stafford speaks for many when he asserts that “Christians can tell young people when it is right to have sex for the first time: on the day you marry.” Stafford characterizes sex outside marriage as “a compulsive need,” an abuse of self and others, and depersonalized “biological stimulation.” Without debating the truth of such statements, it is enough to say that such language does not match many individuals’ felt experience of sex. Many find an outsider labeling consensual sex enjoyed by both partners as ‘abuse’ to be offensive, as is the notion that sex is depersonalized based only on the evidence of not having a marriage certificate.
The emphasis on virginity is problematic for, as Julia Duin emphasizes, “we only give away our purity once.” What is told to widows, those who come to Christianity later in life, and—perhaps most distressingly—rape victims? The downside of the purity narrative is one of damaged goods, defeat, and despair. Also problematic are the solutions to denying desire recommended to celibate Christians, which carry tones of avoidance and repression that set up bad habits for marriage. Julia Duin suggests Christians “find something to care about more than sex,” exercise, and “figure out what stimulates wrong desires and avoid that.” The language of avoidance simultaneously makes sex more desirable—the ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’ of morality—and creates problematic expectations for sex in marriage after a lifetime of denying desire to be felt. “Wrong desires” aren’t instantly renamed “right” when a marriage license is signed.
Helpful in mediating such extremes in the conversation are Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” Whatever the problem the Corinthians brought to Paul, they justify it by saying they have the right to do anything. What’s notable is that Paul doesn’t disagree. As a community who lives post-resurrection, they know that sin has no ultimate power, and thus all things are lawful. It is on this point that much of Christian language around sex fails to convince, for by focusing on sin, the good news of the forgiveness of sins is denied. There is no question of lawfulness: because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Crucified, “all things are lawful.” It is on this same point that sex-positive feminists are correct: they have the right and the ability to do anything.
However, Paul adds some nuance to the argument by pointing out that not everything is beneficial and can become enslaving. He draws attention the large gap between what is permitted and what is best for living a life of wholeness. We are free to do anything, but that doesn’t mean we should; true freedom is the ability to go without whatever is craved. Again, many Christians have missed this nuance. The Driscolls dedicate an entire chapter of their recent book to addressing various sexual issues, answering if they are (a) lawful, (b) helpful, and (c) enslaving, as though the evaluation of three separate issues can lead to a clear answer of what is permissible.
But what Paul writes here is not a clear answer. He doesn’t respond to the Corinthians’ concern by explaining that it is unlawful, why it’s unhelpful, and how it’s enslaving. Instead, he opens up readers to a stance of evaluation and discernment. Creating a new law is not only unhelpful, it is detrimental to when it becomes a barrier to entering the church community. The difference between permissible and beneficial has been forgotten by many feminists as well, both sex-positive and anti-pornography. Paul reminds us all that what is beneficial for one person may be enslaving for another: a nightly glass of wine might mean heart health for one and an awakening of alcoholism for another. Paul’s response honors the fact that in the breadth of human experience, there are no tidy answers.
Paul’s openness to the complexity of human life highlights an underlying problem of both sides: they lead to either/or, black-or-white thinking. From the Christian side, a woman is either labeled pure or damaged; more crudely, virgin or whore. From the sexual liberation side, women are either free or oppressed, slut (used with a reclaimed positive sense) or prude. Neither lens allows for a wide variety of human experience. For example, where is there room for widows—are they ‘ruined’ for a second marriage? Or are they prude because they enjoyed sex only within the confines of marriage?
Another underlying problem with both sex-positive feminism and chastity-focused Christianity is that the focus on sex is unimaginative. Oftentimes, both sexual behavior and the debate around sex emerges as a symptom of much larger issues. For example, Duin states that “People are looking for something big enough to die for. Not finding that, they’ll settle for comfort and pleasure.” However, she herself becomes sidetracked into believing that the root problem is the sexual impulse when the real issue is boredom and safety. Rather than asking “How can we help Christians not have sex?” she would do better to be asking “How can we help others find and commit to something big enough to die for?”
Stafford is equally unimaginative. He emphasizes legal marriage even as he acknowledges that ancient Israel had no such customs because of the closeness of community. Rather than advocate involved community—a genuine problem for many in USAmerica today—he relies on the legal system to guarantee that a couple will fulfill obligations to one another post-sex, a solution that relies on a gentile system in order to discourage a gentile way of life. Why not advocate for improved, involved community, the real lack from which our culture is suffering?
There are no easy answers in the realm of human sexuality. Rather than becoming entrenched in arguments, may the conversation shift to an imaginative exploration of the root problems and discuss them compassionately with space made for one another’s experiences.