In part 3 of this series, I argued that once we understand the purpose of something, we can properly define it and also think about how to use it properly, safely, and in a way that minimizes the chances of abuse or harm. In part 4, I argued (via Gudorf) that the purpose of sex was pleasure and from there, I defined sex as a mutually pleasurable intimate act. In this post, I’ll get to the bits I missed — how this new way of understanding sex can help the church talk about how to have sex properly, safely, and in a way that minimizes harm.
And I want to start by going back to part 1 where I proposed that sin might best be understood as a violation of the two Greatest Commandments — as a failure to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:34–40). With that in mind, I believe the proper, safe, harm-minimizing way for the church to think and talk about sex can be summed up in one word: consent.1
In her book, Just Love, Christian ethicist, Margaret Farley argues that the idea of consent is important “because it directly safeguards the autonomy of persons as embodied and inspirited, as transcendent and free.”2 And that’s kind of a mouthful but basically what Farley is saying is that consent is important because it respects the God-given rights of one’s partner, which, I would add, is a way of loving God and neighbor as self.
But let’s take a look at what consent actually is — how it works. To that end, I’ve never seen a simpler, more concise explanation than the metaphor used in this video:
The video talks about how if you offer someone a cup of tea, and they don’t want it, then don’t force it down their throat. It goes on to explain that the desire to have a cup of tea can be withdrawn even if that’s convenient for the person making the tea. And unconscious people do not want tea even if they said they wanted tea before falling asleep. And the point of it all is:
If you can understand how completely ludicrous is to force people to have tea when they don’t want tea and you are able to understand when people don’t want tea and how hard is to understand when it comes to sex. Whether tea or sex, consent is everything.
Of course asking for/obtaining consent can be awkward, but when seen in relation to loving your neighbor (or partner, in this case) as yourself, respecting consent becomes a way of obeying the second greatest commandment. In other words, there’s a Christian mandate to push past the awkwardness and do the work of ensuring consent.3
And while cultural/historical considerations must be taken into account, there is a kind of principle of sexual consent modeled in the Bible:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! (Song of Solomon 1:1a)
Here, we see a woman who is very clear about what she desires from her partner,4 and yet, she does not impose her desire on him. “Let him kiss me” implies an invitation, not a demand.
Why Consent is a Better Approach
One of the problems of the abstinence-only, purity-based approach is that it disconnects people from their embodied desires and boundaries. The purity approach really only has one key teaching: “don’t.”5 This leads to the situation where couples who have saved themselves for marriage find themselves grossly unaware of how to have mutually pleasurable sex.
And this can lead to disasterous effects even (maybe especially) for couples who live up to purity’s stringent standards.
”My husband and I both came from good Christian homes and were virgins when we married at 21 years old,” she said. “Both of our families hadn’t talked about sexual matters when we were growing up. For most of the first 30 years of our marriage, I had low sexual desire and my husband was the constant initiator. It set up a bad dynamic between us. All I knew was what I ‘should’ do and nothing about what I really wanted as a wife or a sexual person.”6
Contrary to the abstinence-only, purity-based approach, one of the benefits of the consent-based approach to sex is that it requires a level of embodied sexual self-awareness. But loving your partner as yourself presupposes that you know how you want to be loved. It also presupposes that your partner knows how they want to be loved.7
Unfortunately, as we see in the quote above, the church’s emphasis on the purity message can undercut these presuppositions, leading to the situation where someone may not know how they want to be loved in relation to their sexual self.
Let’s get real here. I don’t like to paint with a broad brush, but I think it’s warranted here. In general (meaning there are always exceptions), males tend to know a lot about how to pleasure themselves because they’ve likely done a lot of masturbating. In one of his podcast episodes, sex columnist Dan Savage said something like, “if a man needs a goat and a canoe in a room in order to have an orgasm, he will make sure there is a goat and a canoe in the room whenever he has sex.” The point is, men tend to have a good idea of what they need in order to get off and aren’t afraid to ask for it.
In contrast, generally (meaning there are always exceptions), women tend to know less about what they want in an intimate encounter and/or are less able to ask for what they want.8 And while this isn’t entirely the fault of the church, the church certainly hasn’t done much to remedy this situation. Which is one of the reasons why my friend Christine Marietta wrote:
There’s only one way for the Church to repair all the damage She has done to generations of her daughters. And that is to instigate an ecumenical, global-church-wide, female masturbation program.9
Thing is, in church and in society10 the contours of women’s desire have often been defined by men. In the Ancient Near East, rabbis who wrote/compiled the Talmud (circa 3–6th century) believed that women’s libido was so high, they had to dictate how often they could ask for sex.11 Fast forward a few thousand years and the situation flips and then flips again:
In the mid-nineteenth century, wives may have been anxious when they experienced intense desire because society told them they were not supposed to have any. A century later, wives were made to feel anxious if they did not experience sexual desire and satisfaction…12
Given this frenetic back and forth regarding women’s desire, perhaps it’s no wonder that many (especially young) women today are caught up in the impossible virgin/whore dichotomy where if they express too little desire they’re seen as a prude but if they express too much they’re seen as a whore.13 And again, some parts of the church have done little to combat this situation while others have exacerbated it.
All that to say, I think Christine is right, that perhaps the church should be encouraging masturbation, especially for women. And I realize that, taken out of context (and maybe even in context) that sentence will make some people’s heads explode, but given that the church has tacitly redefined sex as a mutually pleasurable intimate act (by accepting the use of contraception) then encouraging people to know their God-gifted, unique, embodied sexuality in a (literally) hands-on way seems to follow.
And I genuinely don’t mean to be provocative or crass, but I don’t see a better way for the church to teach her people how to know both their own desires and boundaries — a prerequisite for loving their partner in the same way they love themselves. Which is another way of saying I don’t know of helping couples to obey the second of Jesus’ greatest commandments.
- Sex positive educators often add other words to “consent,” things like “mutual consent” or “enthusiastic consent” or “explicit verbal consent.” I think there are really good reasons for all of those additions but I want to pare things down for the sake of space and coherence. ↩
- The full quote is: “The requirement articulated in [consent] is all the more grave because it directly safeguards the autonomy of persons as embodied and inspirited, as transcendent and free. I refer here to the particular obligation to respect the right of human persons to determine their own actions and their relationships in the sexual sphere of their lives. This right or this obligation to respect individual autonomy sets a minimum but absolute requirement for the free consent of sexual partners.” Margaret A. Farley, *[Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics](Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics) (New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group), 219. ↩
- And there are different ideas about what constitues consent. Some argue for explicit verbal consent and while I agree that’s the safest way to think about consent, depending on the situation, I think nonverbal consent is a viable option for couples who know how to read one another’s cues. That said, if there is any ambiguity or uncertainti, the initiating partner should use their words and ask. ↩
- And she is unashamed about her desire (note the exclamation point at the end of the verse) ↩
- Or if I’m going to be more generous, the word might be, “wait,” but the effect is the same. And as I’ve argued before, the purity approach is seldom clear about what specific actions they’re supposed to not do. ↩
- Tina Schermer Sellers, Sex, God, and the Conservative Church (New York, NY: Routledge), 4. ↩
- And this same dynamic applies to the other partner as well. ↩
- Because patriarchy, among other things. ↩
- Christine Marietta, *Turning Inward: Essays on Finding God in Female Sexuality (Self Published, 2016), 27. ↩
- And in many eras of history, they were one and the same. ↩
- ”Women’s sexual needs were such an uncontested reality to Jewish thought that the rabbis of the Talmud protected women’s sexual interests by delineating the frequency with which wives had the legal right to demand sexual satisfaction from their husbands.” Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (New York, NY: Bloomsbury), 122
[Yalom1]:Marilyn Yalom, A History of the Wife (New York, NY: HarperCollins), 310. ↩
- Yalom1 ↩
- Peggy Orenstein, *[New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2016), 125 ↩