Autonomy and individuality mar the communality and spirituality of sex
We’re talking about sex more these days
We’re having a lot of dialogue about good sex and healthy relationships lately. I think it’s largely because people are brave enough to speak up about their terrible, frightening, and traumatic experiences in relationships and in sex. I think values like personal liberty and individual autonomy, coupled with a decidedly unequal society, lead to a toxic cocktail that too many of us have drank. I think people are searching for answers on how to have good and healthy relationships and, to me, we’re coming up empty.
I’ve written before about why sex has meaning and why we need to have it in a communal context (in community not with community, by the way). I keep writing about this because it keeps coming up and seems very relevant to people at this juncture. Sex is mysterious, love is hard to grasp, relationships are complicated, and so coming up with an answer that isn’t formulaic or rooted in our power structures is challenging. We can’t really meme about it. We have to develop some good theology and develop some depth.
How we relate sexually is spiritual and communal
My take today is similar to what I’ve said before, but it’s based on a proverb of ours. How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced purely to a discussion of private expression or individual rights. We’ve added some new proverbs over the years regarding gender and sexuality, but I’m glad we kept this one. It really still rings true and speaks to both timeless wisdom about sex, and its contemporary juncture.
The big idea is that sex really affects the people around us. The Bible writers knew this when they wrote about sexual immorality. Good and bad sex affects the entire community, which is exactly why we can start talking about the ethics and morals of sex again. We can talk about that because brave people, largely women, are telling their stories, and we are noticing the consequence of sex.
In the United States, sex is all about privacy and individual rights. Most people generally want to be left alone with regard to their sex life (and even in that phrase, they compartmentalize their sex life from, I guess, their normal life). But we all live with the knowledge of the power and meaning of sex. Everyone knows that having “friends with benefits” usually ends up in a mess. We know that sleeping with our roommate changes the relationship. Some of us know that if we start sleeping with someone in our cell it will change the dynamic of all the relationships in the cell. There’s a reason we don’t sleep with our coworkers, for example.
To make things more complicated, we have both the mobility and the autonomy to largely leave our exes behind. What do most people I know do with their ex when they aren’t in the church? They never relate again. In our communal context, we more vividly see the consequences. And unfortunately, in our case, what often happens is that people leave the community. When we break up, especially after being sexually active in a relationship, it’s hard to be in the same place. One of us, or both of us, break up with the church.
Fearful of judgment, we isolate
I think that is the cause of making sex too much of a private individual encounter. It seems to me that dialogue about sex and boundaries around it seem to just bring up fear of being judged, ridiculed, or derided in some way. But that fear locks us from dialogue and connection. We end up just swallowing the ramifications of our unprocessed and uncalculated sex life, because liberty and individuality are the rules that guide our relationships from the outset.
But what happens after, if the relationship fails? It can range from awkwardness to actual trauma. Sometimes we feel entitled to expelling people from our community and our lives after a bad break up. Sometimes terrible things happen in relationships that require repentance, reconciliation, and forgiveness. And even that isn’t enough to maintain a covenant with a community, and so people leave or demand that others do. The consequences of a relationship are always there, no matter how hard we try to avoid them at the outset. Put another way: being left alone about the sex you’re having is not a way to free yourself of its consequence. You might still leave your community or your faith; that’s why we say sex is communal and spiritual.
Indifference isn’t tolerance, ignorance not bliss
That messy sex life results in fear of community, relationships, and commitments. Rather than opening up, we become even more private because the lesson we learn is that when we make have sex in community, it results in a huge mess.
Another possible response is just indifference. The prospect of engaging and talking about sex is met with such resistance that even if we have problems with how our friends are relating, our discomfort with them just turns into indifference. When we fail to make sex a communal matter, people become indifferent to sex in community. People stop caring and we want a community that cares, don’t we?
I have generally advised for my friends to wait to have sex; wait until marriage, even. That old idea is still good advice as far as I am concerned. But it’s not just a rule, it’s based on the idea that “biting off more intimacy” than we can chew has consequences. Those consequences aren’t just babies and STIs, either. Sex has meaning and you invest in that meaning when you have it. Some relationships are mature enough to handle it and others aren’t, especially if it takes a turn for the worse. And until we are more-or-less assured that it won’t, it pays to be chaste, in my opinion and experience.
Sex is a big commitment, and it is rooted in our desire for love
We need a lot of trust and communication to have sex, and marriage is a good container for those skills. The covenant of marriage is an appropriately epic container to hold the power and meaning of sex. Everyone agrees sex needs some "container" (that's why we do it in private). My argument is that sex needs a container like a covenant within a community. Marriage doesn’t protect you from bad or unhealthy sex. And marriage isn’t a sure-thing either. Plenty of marriages lack the trust and communication that make good, healthy sex possible.
And divorces are incredibly painful and that pain actually proves my point about the power of meaning and intimacy in sex. Not getting married doesn’t make the intimacy we have when we live together and sleep together lessened, but it does confuse its meaning. That’s why we’ve encouraged people who do live together to consider themselves married, and if they break up, divorced. It helps to add language to what we are doing, even if we lack the ceremony or tradition surrounding it.
The affection, love, and comfort we receive in a relationship certainly makes our desires strong, so I do not think we should dumb down our desire for sex or try to satiate it other ways. We want to have sex for more than just orgasms, but if that’s all you’re looking for, you can supply them in a variety of potentially destructive ways. But that intimacy we crave isn’t just found in sexual relationships. I have found it elsewhere, too.
If we aren’t ready to invest in sex, so to speak, because our relationship can’t bear it, I suggest we find other ways to meet those needs, with God and with community, before we use sex as a way to get them. It may be hard for folks to embrace because we might be entitled about having sex, we might be resistant to ideas of purity we grew up with in the church, we might be sick of being reduced into a sexual object and thus having sex on our own terms is liberating. But don’t just let those reactions motivate your decisions now. The fact that the church and the world have poorly taught about sex doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider the emotional investment we are making. And I think we need to make it with caution and trepidation. The meaning of sex is deep enough that we should respect it. It’s powerful enough to be incredibly enriching or damaging, to us and to our community. It’s not just about individual rights or private expression.
So my advice is to keep sex in community, keep talking about, keep measuring it too. It has consequences often expressed in community and in our interior life. Involve community in your decision-making before, during, and perhaps after your relationship. We want to create a safe place to relate about of the most intimate and powerful expressions in creation.