The Christian sex scene is a bit of a joke. When the topic arises in Churches and youth groups, disclaimers abound, and the word “sex” is reflexively followed by “between a husband and a wife.” It’s a world of chastity bracelets, accountability buddies, chaperones, wholesome films, and promise rings – all in place to keep young genitals at a safe distance. Reality show family, the Duggars, practice a strict rule: “side-hugs” are allowed once a young couple is granted permission to date; handholding is allowed after engagement; kissing is strictly reserved for marriage. Every evangelical has a similar handful of anecdotes on the topic. Here is one of mine:
One of my friends was spotted, by a distant acquaintance and Christian Public Servant, holding hands with his then girlfriend of months at the mall. The concerned witness dutifully reported this matter to her father who, after chiding her soundly, instructed her to avoid my friend, who was every bit as harmless (and every bit as Christian) as they come. This may not seem over-the-top, except that both my friend and his love interest were adults at the time. To co-opt an old “drinking age” argument: they were old enough to die for their country, but not old enough to responsibly cope with the intense sensuality of handholding.
Consider this post a companion to my last, Religion: A Bad Reason to Do Good, in that its purpose is to explain how religion manages to get it wrong even when it gets it right. Saving sex for marriage has its advantages, if one can pull it off. The risk of unwanted pregnancy and STDs reduces to almost nothing, as does the risk of engaging in sexual acts before one is emotionally prepared for it. It can be, all things considered, a safe and often fortuitous policy, even if it isn’t the only successful one.
Pragmatism vs. Absolutism
That is how the Christian ads read. Our product will leave you happy and STD free! This and a few cautionary tales is enough to sell the point, but they don’t stop there. In this and many other cases, Christianity takes a decent rule-of-thumb (hold off on sex until you are responsible/old enough to cope with the consequences) and renders it into a moral absolute (thou shalt abstain from sex until marriage). Moral absolutes tend not to work for two reasons: they do not hold true in all cases and, as a result, they rely on various deceptions to validate them – deceptions like the doctrine of Purity.
Christianity teaches that when an unwed man penetrates an unwed woman, each of them loses something unspeakably sacred. Quite apart from the hazards of disease and inexperience, the couple is no longer “pure.” Sex is a wonderful gift for a husband and a wife, but in any other context, it defiles us and deeply grieves/angers the Creator of the universe. Human sex, as opposed to duck and beetle sex, isn’t an evolved means of procreating in the Christian world; it’s a symbolic ritual fraught with theological significance. Concern over gay marriage is another product of this belief.
What God Wants
As an aside, scriptural mandates on sex outside of marriage are less clear than many suppose, and words like “fornication” and “adultery” are ill-defined. This is not to mention the fact that God explicitly endorses plural marriage in some passages. David, for example, had many wives which God takes credit for giving him (as one would give property) in 2 Samuel 12:8. God did not simply “overlook” David’s polygamy, as I was taught in small group, but advocated it. But no longer. It is now his will, say Christians, that young people carefully guard their virginity before selecting a single candidate of the opposite sex with whom to enter a holy marriage covenant. In the meantime, even to “lust after a woman” is equal to adultery, a crime so serious God commanded his people to hurl rocks at offenders until they were bloody and dead.
The guilt and agony of those whose sex lives have not conformed to this theological standard cannot be overstated. The consequences of premature sexual encounters are weighty enough without imparting the act with an unholy cosmic significance. Even in the event one does manage to preserve his “purity” for marriage, he is then expected to disassociate sex with shame overnight. After perhaps decades of resisting every sexual urge – including the urge to look – on pain of death, he must at once appreciate the beauty and sanctity of sex (between one husband and one wife!) absent any residual guilt or shame.
A tall order to be sure. The internet is teeming with testaments to the implausibility of this expectation. Yet I can hear the protest of every Christian in my ear. None of my criticisms apply to them, they say, but to Christians who teach it wrong. Surely there are pleasant, less coercive ways to teach faith-based sexual ethics.
There are admittedly more and less harmful ways to indoctrinate a child, but there is no moral or healthy way to teach Christian doctrine on what they call “sexual purity” without leaving much of the Bible out of it. A true Bible-believing parent must teach her child the end of the world is coming soon in a storm of war and bloody magic. Until then, everything we do carries grave eternal consequences. There is just no room for a pragmatic discussion on sex in this equation. Christian parents who keep religious nonsense about sex out of their children’s heads are simply ignoring key Christian doctrines. Homosexuals and adulterers deserve to die for their crimes against God, and parents should spare no efforts to save their children from his vengeful wrath. I’m happy for those willing to equivocate on this – as a Christian, I never could – but those who do so forfeit their right to credit faith for their sexual wellness.
I suppose my purpose here is really to withhold credit where credit is not due. Christian dogma on sex has a few selling points, but there is no need to put up with its darker side when sexual ethics can be discussed more coherently, and with fewer hazards, absent specious notions of purity, sanctity, and sex as a mystical activity.
Every discussion on sexual ethics takes place in a broader context. Secular morality will frame the issue in terms of health and wellbeing, whereas religion will inevitably view sex in terms of theological values which carry strict constraints and harsh penalties. Of course, weighing these approaches is unnecessary if a given religion is true. If Jesus will be returning to judge the living and the dead by the enlightened standards of the Bible, then we have little choice but to warn our children to repress their sexuality until marriage or, if they are homosexual, to repress it forever. Therefore, if any evidence surfaces to support scripture’s claims in this respect, I will hasten to publish a retraction. Until then, I propose we rely on good reasons to be good. If your goal is a healthy, happy sex life for you and yours, religion is yet another defective “miracle drug” with exaggerated results and side effects to rival the illness it purports to cure.