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Sex is mysterious and the containers we give it help us understand it
Our very existence is a mystery itself
“How strange is it to be anything at all?” The 1990s independent rock artist sang those words and uttered once again the fundamental mystery of our very beings. Our inability as human beings to ponder ourselves, to ponder our very existence, not only points us to Greater Power, but also to the mystery of the very life that we live. Our relationships are both mysterious and miraculous and the space our relationships occupy is one where we can find something more than the sum of their parts. We are made more whole by being together and that, in itself, is a mystery. Love then is a mystery, love is the evidence of the metaphysical. Love, that strange human desire and circumstance, moves us to believe that there is something more than just us.
I think we can reduce some of the mysterious longing for one another—some of the love that we share—to biological evolution. Perhaps we’ve adapted in such a way where love is the force that moves us to reproduce and preserve our species, but we know that there is more to love than sex, and much more to sex, than reproduction. We can deeply love without having sex, and sex itself is so powerful and meaningful, it is both inappropriate and offensive to reduce it to reproduction. Sex isn’t just a transaction, it’s a joyful, pleasurable experience.
Starting with the joy and pleasure of sex may be a good way to begin to understand its mystery. I am afraid that the Church has noted the power of the pleasure of sex and either condemned us for having it, named it as a necessary evil, or reduced it to reproduction in the confines of a marriage. The lack of theology around sex is truly devastating for our current moment.
The Bible showcases the power of sex but doesn’t offer us a coherent theology
In the New Testament, we seem to avoid the discussion
In the New Testament, we are led by Jesus Christ, an unmarried, celibate Rabbi who does not seem very concerned with matters of sex and rarely discusses them, and Paul, an unmarried (or widowed?) who mentions sex as something that we should only have if we cannot contain our passion. Paul warns us of sexual immorality and how it can destroy communities—which is something we can all agree with, even if we apply it differently. Paul’s admonition led to the destructive and dangerous purity culture, rapid homophobia in the church, and also may have helped us toward the recent sexist phenomenon of complementarianism.
There’s not much of a sexual theology in the apocalyptic New Testament, and understandably, since many of the writers thought Christ’s return would occur much sooner than that. They weren’t laying the groundwork for millennia of Christian ethics and society, but rather writing what they may have thought were their last words to a fleeting present, as we awaited entrance into the age to come.
Patriarchy dominates sex in the Old Testament
The Old Testament speaks a lot of sex but doesn’t offer us a very coherent theology of it. In the patriarchal Ancient Near East, sex was often a matter of power and domination more than love and intimacy. I think the story of David and Bathsheba is revealing of this dynamic. David is the King of Israel, with many wives and concubines. So immediately we see a unique sexual ethic, it is clearly permissible for men to do this in Ancient Israel. Almost no one today would suggest that that’s the case, so we are seeing how sexual ethics change and grow over time. He spots Bathsheba bathing herself and apprehends her and sleeps with her. Without a doubt this is rape. He then covers up his sin by sending Uriah the Hittite to the front lines of battle to be killed. He commits murder here.
What is the sin that Nathan rebukes David for? He says God gave him the royal seat, many wives, the house of Israel and Judah, but David wanted more. He hated what the Lord said by taking Uriah’s wife and killing him using the enemies of God. David offends the patriarchal order that is centered on God and flows through men. And as such, his own household will be disrupted as his wives will be raped by his neighbors in public sight. God says that the sword will never leave his house and God kills his first son with Bathsheba to die of an illness. In the end, David’s household ends up in shambles with another one of his sons trying to kill him.
And yet, the mystery of our love and affection is present in the Bible
This brutal story should not be romanticized or normalized. What we are seeing is a problematic patriarchal understanding of sexuality that shouldn’t be glossed over. It shows us that the Bible itself struggles with the mystery and meaning of sex and today, we share in that struggle as we relate to one another intimately through a glass darkly.
The pleasure and joy of sex aren’t totally ignored in the Bible though. In the erotic poetry of Song of Solomon, we see a much different portrayal of mutual affection and intimacy. A portion from chapter two from Robert Alter:
My lover is mine and I am his, Who grazes among the lilies. Until morning’s breeze blows and the shadows flee, Turn around, be like a deer, my love or like a gazelle on the cloven mountains.
Despite the brutal patriarchy of the Old Testament and the eschewing of sex in the New Testament, right in the middle of the Bible, we see an expression of love and intimacy. We have an entire book dedicated to love and sexual expression. It’s not violent, it’s not about power, it’s not dirty; it’s beautiful and full and rich.
And once again we encounter the mystery of love, relationships, and our sexuality. Love is such a force that, in part, expresses itself in sex, that we only see now through a glass darkly. We know that sex is full of power and meaning, joy and pleasure. And we also know that we all experience our sexuality in a variety of ways that range in our desires—we can be attracted to different people and range in how much we are attracted sexually to others at all. Sex is a beautiful part of human relationships and I do not think we’ve grasped what it fully means, though cultures throughout time have pondered it and ranged in their viewpoints.
Putting sex into a context after purity culture failed us
The best thing we can do is try to contextualize its meaning now, certain that, at least in part, we all generally believe that sex needs a container. The power of sex precedes its existence, but how we contain that power is a matter of cultural and personal context. Sex may be necessary for life and joy, but because it is so powerful and meaningful because it bonds us to one another in ways that everyone who has experienced it knows, it needs containers. In general, we agree about this. For example, we don’t sleep with strangers in public. We seek consent before having sex with anyone; and more than that, we often seek a deeper intimacy, because even if sex isn’t criminal, it can still be painful without good communication of expectations (even in a one-night stand, I might add). Regardless of the sexual encounter, consent and communication are important containers for it. Some of these norms are cultural and contextual, but nevertheless, those norms exist in most cultures and help us to understand that in human history, we have had containers for how we have and understand sex.
As Christians, I believe we should learn the lessons from purity culture—how Evangelicals have largely “contained” sex—and repent of the harm that this ill-advised movement caused. It shamed girls' and women’s bodies while simultaneously sexualizing them. It left boys and men unaccountable for their violence and objectification. The male-centered abusiveness of King David above, that patriarchal order, is, in part, what gave us purity culture. And it reduced marriage to something you shouldn't have until you’re married, and that’s it. It didn’t teach us how to have sex or about the meaning of sex; and Christians who were raised under it were left to explore sexuality on their own, with a shadow of shame looming over them. It essentially avoided the conversation, damaged us, while never interrogating the patriarchy that organized it.
It created an incredibly damaging view of sex. It repressed women and it did nothing to confront the toxicity of men who still viewed women as their possessions to dominate. It should be absolutely rejected.
The changing containers of sex, in feminism
The reaction against this purity culture was various. Michelle Goldberg, in her column last week, shares about some of the movement against it. She writes:
Sex positivity — the idea that feminism should privilege sexual pleasure and fight sexual repression — has dominated feminism for most of my life. It was a reaction to puritanical trends in feminism that ignored the reality of women’s desires.
Some second-wave feminists had treated heterosexual sex — as well as remotely kinky queer sex — as inherently degrading, if not counterrevolutionary, which naturally drove many women away from feminism. (In a 1972 Village Voice essay, Karen Durbin described dropping out of the women’s movement in part because she was “hopelessly heterosexual.”) Sex-positive feminism understood the demand for celibacy or political lesbianism as a dead end, and saw sexual fulfillment as part of political liberation.
But sex positivity now seems to be fading from fashion among younger people, failing to speak to their longings and frustrations just as anti-porn feminism failed to speak to those of an earlier generation. It’s no longer radical, or even really necessary, to proclaim that women take pleasure in sex. If anything, taking pleasure in sex seems, to some, vaguely obligatory.
Goldberg’s column was a subject of discussion for my friends last week. And while we decided these broad terms like “sex positivity” were unhelpful, we really did settle on the importance of removing shame from our dialogue around sex and allowing individuals to explore it without fear of condemnation. This isn't "laissez-faire," "libertarian" sex, it's rather one that considers how patriarchy orders us and responds to that order with a different ordering. Once again, the need for contextual containers seemed to rise.
We can’t talk about sex unless we divest from patriarchy, which has ordered our understanding for too long
In the context of a Christian community, I believe communal discernment about how to contain the mystery and power of sex is important. But it’s a lot easier to say “let’s talk about sex,” than it is to create safe places to do that.
Consent and conversation are important containers for our sex, which leads me to consider that relationships are where sex belongs. Committed relationships offer us a, hopefully, safer container for sexual expression. Because marriage itself is so often damaging, abusive, and fraught—it is not good enough to say marriage is the right container for sex and move on. We actually need to discern what healthy sex and committed relationships look like in our context, for our community. We can’t sweep it under the rug, but rather, we should publicly talk about it. So, as a church, we should create safe places where people can talk about sex and our experience with it and determine the healthiest way our communities can approach it. Those safe places must include the lived experience of LGBTQIA folks, as well, since heteronormativity has dominated our understanding of sex, especially in Christian contexts.
The first thing to build then is trust and mutuality, and remove any notions of condemnation, which kill that trust and dialogue. Our dialogue is what holds us together. But we must divest from heteropatriarchy, which sadly, has been the strongest force in ordering our sexuality. Unless we do that, we lose the chance to truly live into the mystery and wonder of love and of sex. As we explore that together, we need to build a trust system. That’s a first step toward building a communal theology and ecclesiology of sex.