Again, I’m a week late in getting this post up. I was struggling to get all of my ideas across in one post and it was becoming way too long. So I finally decided to split the topic of sex into multiple bits.
Here, I talk about the problematic aspects of how the church talks about sex. In the next post, I’ll talk about the possibilities for how then church can talk about sex.
Note: click here to see all the posts in this series.
Defining Sex — Do We Really Need to Define Sex?
Sex is everywhere. Sex sells. Freud might say that everything is ultimately about sex. With all the attention it gets, does sex really have to be defined?
Take a look at this account from an Evangelical college student talking about an experience between him and his girlfriend:
We are both devoted Christians who are devoted to virginity until marriage. We fell to temptation and for ten minutes we lay together, me inside of her. We did not move or create physical pleasure for it hurt her too much to move. We stopped before we had sex but we did engage in intercourse, at least this is how we have come to see it (emphasis mine).1
Here’s the thing. If a Christian man can claim that being in bed with his girlfriend, with his dick in her vagina, is not sex then yeah. I think it’s abundantly clear that the church needs to be more specific about her definition of sex.
Thing is, for most of history, there was a time when the church had a very specific definition of sex.
Defining Sex — Sex as Procreative Act
Up until the early to mid 1900s, the church did have an understanding of what the purpose sex was: it was to make babies. Thus, in almost all church contexts, the accepted definition of sex was intimately tied to procreation. In fact, even today, there’s a part of the church that holds this definition.
While I disagree on many aspects of Catholic theology around sex, they do have this going for them: they’re consistent. Because they still believe that God’s primary purpose for sex is procreation, anything that gets in the way of that God-mandated link between sex and procreation — things like contraception, abortion, same-sex partnerships, to name just a few examples — is sin.2
Again, I take great issue with all of those stances but I have to admit that their theology is consistent with their prohibitions.
But on the protestant side of the church, things are far less clear.
Defining Sex — The Purpose Problem
In the early to mid 1900s, safe, reliable forms of birth control entered the scene3 and while the Catholic church held firm on their theology of sex, protestants put up next to no criticism or condemnation regarding the use of modern forms of contraception in married relationships.4
But that creates a huge, throbbing, unresolved theological problem: if the primary purpose of sex is no longer procreation, then what is its purpose?
I think the fact that the church has never adequately addressed this question lies at the root of why so many (especially young adult) Christians see the church as irrelevant to how they think about sex. But that’s just one part of the problem.
Defining Sex — The, uh, Defining Problem
Take a look at this thing.
In trying to determine what it is, a good first move would be to figure out what it’s for, what it’s purpose is. Because once you know that, it’s pretty easy to define it, to use correctly, and to know how to use it safely.
The point I’m trying to make is that because the church hasn’t addressed God’s purpose for sex (post-contraception), it can’t really define what sex is, how to use it correctly, or how to engage in it safely. And that’s left Christians to grope in the dark when it comes to navigating their sexuality.
In interview after interview, students [at Christian religious colleges/universities] laughed out loud when asked what their faith tradition might have to say about this. They laughed at the idea that their faith had anything to say about sex — especially to gays — other than not to have it. They laughed because they see religious views about sexuality (at least what they know of them, which is typically not very much) as outdated and irrelevant. And they laughed because they were confused about the prospect of their faith having anything useful to say about these things.5
Defining Sex – The Possibilities
I’m at a bar while writing/editing this and on one of the TV screens, they’re showing the documentary, The Clinton Affair, about the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal. And one of the infamous lines from that whole affair was Clinton’s claim that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Thing is, it’s not just the church that’s unclear about the purpose and definition of sex. The world outside the church is just as unclear about sexuality and here’s a radical notion: what if the church could be a defining voice in the conversation about healthy human sexuality? What if, embedded in Judeo-Christian tradition/theology, there are clues that God has left us that reveal the purpose of sex, it’s definition, how to engage in it properly and safely?
More on that in the next post.
As always, questions and critique welcome in the comments below. That said, don’t be an asshole. I reserve the right to delete comments that are overly rude or dismissive.
You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (no really, that’s an email address I own and use. Thank you, Google!)
- Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 120. ↩
- Thing is, if you look closely enough, you’ll find that even this seemingly hardline stance has its nuances. While they claim that the God-ordained purpose of sex is procreation, they still bless sex between infertile couples. ↩
- In his book, *The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, Jonathan Eig points out that while use of a condom to prevent pregnancy can be traced to the 16th century, it required a man’s initiave. The modern birth control pill put control of reproduction into the hands of women and that was the innovation that revolutionized the way we think about sex. ↩
- In chapter 12 of his book, God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction, Adrian Thatcher lays out the flacid response the protestant church made regarding the use of contraception. They claimed that proper contraceptive use was confined to the context of marriage, but did not adequately explain, theologically, why. ↩
- Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 196. ↩