In my previous post, I (sort of) came out about being asexual — a sexual orientation broadly defined as “someone who does not experience sexual attraction.” In that post, I said that I also wanted to state, in writing and in public, that as a Christian who has studied the Bible,1 attends church regularly, and strives to live a life pleasing and honoring to God, I don’t have a problem with engaging in sex before I’m married. I was hoping to unpack how I justify this stance in this post, but while writing it, I realized I needed to set a bit more background/context first. So the explanation will have to wait until part 3.
Sorry about that.
A bit of fair warning: I get pretty sexually explicit in this post, and it’s not just to be provocative or to titillate. On the contrary, this specificity is necessary because I believe that it’s this very lack of precision around talking about sex in the church that’s at the root of many of the problems the church has when it comes to talking/teaching about sex.
All that to say, if you choose to read on, be prepared for some pretty sexually graphic language.
The Key Question
I’ve done a lot of writing, about the problems of purity culture and how that’s affected my own life. In this post, I want to suggest that a lot of those problems (both for me and so many others) stems from one grossly neglected, yet vitally important question: how does the church define sex? To be more specific, in the common Christian phrase, “don’t have sex outside of marriage,” what exactly does that word, “sex” signify?
Two (Inadequate) Answers
I want to propose that in today’s church, there have been two ways of answering this question, both of which are inadequate at best. I’ll also try to show how this inadequacy leads to harmful effects in the lives of far too many Christians today.
The first answer is actually more of an assumption. While it’s never stated explicitly, it’s generally assumed that sex is what occurs when a woman allows man’s penis to enter her vagina. And at first, that seems like a reasonable definition for sex, but what about sexually intimate acts that don’t include vaginal penetration? For example,
- What if a man just rubs the shaft of his penis against the outer lips of a woman’s vulva?
- What about anal sex?
- What about oral sex?
- What about mutual masturbation?
- And what about lesbian/gay couples for whom either penises or vaginas are not involved at all, thus precluding the entire PIV paradigm?2
In other words, defining sex as the specific act of a penis in a vagina is incomplete and utterly inadequate. Because if that’s the church’s definition of sex, then a Christian couple engaging in all manner of sexually intimate behaviors is not violating the maxim, “don’t have sex outside of marriage,” as long as a penis doesn’t pass through the threshold of a vagina (which would probably qualify as the biggest doctrinal loophole ever). And again, this narrow definition means that Christian lesbian and gay couples will never, technically, be in sin since the church’s Venn diagram of sex never overlaps for them.
In my experience, when posed with specific questions about what Christian leaders mean when they use the word “sex,” they tend to punt to the second answer which is basically, “instead of trying to figure out where the line between sex and not-sex is, why not just stay as far away from the line as possible?” Which, again, sounds good in the abstract, but when subjected to concrete application and real-world scenarios, it just doesn’t stand up. Because if the location of the line between sex and not-sex is never defined, how can anyone know if they’re staying away from it?
- What about heavy petting?
- What about French kissing?
- What about holding hands?
- What about looking deeply into the other person’s eyes?
The logic behind the stay-away-from-the-line idea is this: because (they believe) Jesus taught that even thinking lustful thoughts is equivalent to the sin of adultery, any act that could potentially lead to one or both people in a relationship to feel lust is flirting with sin. But then where’s the line between lust and interest/attraction and what acts potentially lead to a breach of that line?
- What about cuddling?
- What about holding hands?
- What about spending extended time alone together, even if no physical touching takes place?
To resolve this ambiguity, some Christian leaders/teachers take the stay-far-away-from-the-line approach to the extreme — forbidding virtually all acts of physical intimacy outside of marriage. Joshua Harris’ infamous book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye takes this approach to its logical conclusion: If any dating scenario leads to the potential for physical intimacy, which could potentially lead to a couple approaching (if not crossing) this undefined “line,” then perhaps it’s best to simply not date at all.
Groping in the Dark
This general lack of specificity in both approaches to defining sex leads to real problems in the lives of real Christian couples, because it forces them to construct their own answers with little to no guidance from the church.3 In other words, couples are left to grope in the dark when it comes to navigating/negotiating intimacy and sex. And this is not some hypothetical scenario, it’s happening all the time in the lives of far too many Christian couples today. And to make things even worse, a lot of the rhetoric around sex in the church is laced with toxic shame, especially for those who stray (intentionally or accidentally) past sex’s fuzzy, undefined lines.
Donna Freitas, author of Sex and the Soul, interviewed students at a number of different college campuses about their sexual experiences. She tells the story of a nineteen-year-old Catholic college student who had committed herself to purity during high school (which at the time she understood to mean not dating until she met her spouse). By the time of her interview, while she had engaged in oral sex with a number of boyfriends, she still considered herself to be a virgin.4
When the only options available to people are unhelpfully vague (“don’t have sex outside marriage”) or as woefully abstract as “stay far away from the edge,” it’s no wonder that the Christian dating landscape is strewn with stories of dead ends, missed opportunities, and damaged hearts.
So what’s to be done? Is there a way of defining and talking about sex in the church that is more useful, practical, and relevant to the lives of Christian couples today? I believe there is, but it requires a rethink as radical as it is overdue.
And that will be the subject of part three. Stay tuned!
2. The church at large (at least in the West) is consistently moving towards the theological assumption that same-sex relationships/marriage are pleasing and acceptable to God. I’m writing from that assumption. If you want to know more about how I justify this position, a good place to start would be Matthew Vine’s book, God and the Gay Christian. ↩︎
3. Which, ironically, is the very place where they should be able to go for practical, real-world guidance. ↩︎
4. Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010) p. 83. ↩︎