415. sin, sex, and marriage (part 4) — the purpose of sex

I ended the last post in this series stating that much of the world inside and outside the church both have an inadequate understanding of the purpose of sex and because of that, a lot of confusion and harm is occurring. I also stated that if we can understand the God-given purpose of sex then we can define sex, talk about how to engage in it in a God-honoring way, and talk about how to minimize harm/abuse.

Defining Sex — Sex as Mutually Pleasurable Act

One of my favorite books about the theology of sex is Christine Gudorf’s Body, Sex, and Pleasure, and one of her key ideas is, if the purpose of sex is no longer procreation (because of the acceptance of contraceptive use), then the purpose of sex must be pleasure. I mean, why else are so many people wanting to have sex if not for the pleasure it brings? One illustration Gudorf uses to support this idea is the fact that

the female clitoris has no function save sexual pleasure — it has no reproductive, urological, or other function in the body… If the placement of the clitoris in the female body reflects the divine will, then God wills that sex is not just oriented to procreation, but is at least as, if not more, oriented to pleasure as to procreation.1

As I stated in the previous post, once you understand what something’s purpose is, you can definite it and discern how to use it properly and safely. Given that, if Gudorf is right and the purpose of sex is pleasure, then I propose defining sex as a mutually pleasurable intimate act. But is there biblical support for this definition?

Gudorf’s example of the clitoris is an argument from natural theology, but Song of Songs is an entire book of the Bible dedicated to the thrills and pleasures of partnered sex.

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Image by Herr Olsen

The language of the book is dream-like. It’s full of lush metaphors and its precise meaning and structure are notoriously difficult to pin down. But here are a few examples highlighting mutually pleasurable intimacy.

He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.
Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love.
O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me! Song of Songs 2:4–6

Although it’s transparent to modern readers, a number of contemporary biblical scholars highlight the erotic subtext here. Richard S. Hess:

The metaphors and symbols of this poetry imply that the drinking house may refer to a particular place where the lovers meet, one that is private and embodies the sensual pleasures of lovemaking already suggested by the image of wine (Song 1: 2, 4, 6).2

Tremper Longman:

She needs sustenance and calls for raisin cakes and apples. The emotion of love can overwhelm a person psychologically, and the physical rigors of lovemaking can wear a person out. The context does not make it clear whether one or the other, or perhaps more likely both, is meant. Raisin cakes and apples may provide more than physical sustenance and may have been understood stood to be aphrodisiacs.3

And take a look at this scorcher:

My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.
I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt. Song of Songs 5:4–5

Hess:

The central theme of this passage is this pleasure, or more precisely its expectation, that the female lover yearns for. The myrrh, in an olive oil compound, might well represent a physical oil that exudes from the flesh of her hands. However, it also expresses fervent love and desire.4

Leave it to a (male) biblical scholar to suck all the erotic force out of a passage like this. To really get to the core meaning, we need to hear a woman’s reading:

This sounds like a woman who is quite comfortable touching her genitals and appreciates her own sexual response as she yearns for her lover. This does not sound like a woman who kept her fingers away from her own dripping honeypot before inviting the “thrust” of another’s hand.5

That’s more like it!

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Image by Javier Enjuto

Defining Sex as Mutually Pleasurable Act – Sex on a Spectrum

The problem with the word “sex” in the phrase “it’s a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them” is that sex is understood as a line or boundary. If you cross this (never adequately defined) line, you’ve had sex and therefore sinned.

But if you’ve ever been to a Christian youth event where the topic of sex gets discussed, you’ll almost always hear the question, “where is the line? How far can I go with my partner and not sin?” At this point, the person leading the group starts to squirm and hem and haw and say something unhelpful like “instead of thinking about where the line is, maybe it’s best to stay as far away from the line as possible.”6 And that’s an answer that shuts down conversation because what else is there to say?

In contrast, if the church can talk about sex as something God gave us to bring a profound sense of mutually intimate pleasure into our lives, then instead of thinking about sex as a line that can’t be crossed, we can think of sex as a spectrum that we move along.

Because there are different kinds and levels of pleasure one can experience. Holding hands with a partner is one sort of pleasure, kissing is another, and the percussive thrill of orgasm is yet another. Each experience brings a different level of pleasure and vulnerability, and if Gudorf is correct in her assessment that God’s purpose for sex is pleasure, then the fraught, unhelpful question, “are we having (sinful) sex or not,” morphs into a number of interrelated questions that invite curiosity and conversation: “what sort of intimacy are we sharing? Are we both comfortable and enjoying what we’re doing? Is what we’re doing honoring to God and our-selves at this point in our relationship?”

And from the point of view of the church, instead of saying, “stay as far away as you can from an ill-defined sexual line that we won’t clarify for you,” defining sex as a mutually pleasurable intimate act makes room for a much broader, more vulnerable conversation — one that encourages inquisitiveness and honesty. It reframes the topic so that the church can teach people how to talk to one another about intimacy, mutuality, consent, and pleasure as relational, embodied elements related to sex.

To Be Continued.

[POSTSCRIPT]

I know I said that once a thing is defined, we can also think about how to use it properly and safely, but I’m going to address how that plays out in the context of sex and Christian ethics in the next post. Because to do that well, I want to reintegrate what I’ve previously written about sin and marriage.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

[END POSTSCRIPT]


  1. Christine Gudorf, Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1994), 65.  ↩
  2. Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), Kindle Edition.
  3. Tremper Longman, Song of Songs (NEW INTERNATIONAL COMMENTARY ON THE OLD TESTAMENT) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 114.  ↩
  4. Hess.  ↩
  5. Christine Marietta, *Turning Inward: Essays on Finding God in Female Sexuality (Self Published, 2016), 30.  ↩
  6. Which is still useless advice beause if the line isn’t defined, how can anyone know if they’re staying away from it?  ↩
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