Asking better questions about sex

I want to come back to the post about intuitive sexuality from a week or so ago. For me, the questions about sexuality and bodies are truly questions. I’m in progress. I have some hunches, some leanings, and a few things I think I can say with confidence about where I stand. But much of this is still in the working-out stages.

Tonight I stumbled across the writing of another author who is making the argument that pre-marital sex isn’t sin.

Usually this isn’t a question I would gravitate toward for a number of reasons. I want to be careful about communicating any kind of shame. I also have history here that makes me maybe not the most authoritative voice.

But I know it’s a question that will come up again in time, especially as I dive more deeply into thinking through what an intuitive sexuality could look like, and especially because most of my thinking here on the blog is at least tinged with theology, if not just blatantly theological.

Here’s my sense: I appreciate the deconstructing that Fankhauser does, the ways she takes seriously the biblical text, and just goes for the jugular of purity culture. We need that boldness in the church.

By the same token, I wonder if ultimately I land in a different place than her post does (though admittedly I haven’t read her book) – one that will probably look less “progressive”.

Maybe this is semantics, maybe not, but I don’t like the question she implies – namely, “Is pre-marital sex a sin?”

It’s the wrong question. It’s also arguably not the most important question. And it’s a question looking for a black and white answer, without nuance, where a range of answers is possible, all of which need story as supporting evidence.

In some ways that question in the way it’s being asked and answered is indicative of the ways the church has been destructive around the topics of sexuality and bodies. And to be clear (and you know this already, but let’s name it), when I say “topics” what I really mean is that human beings have hurt and been hurt.

Here’s part of why it’s not the right question: To ask it this way risks reducing sexuality to a set of mostly genital acts, at least in our ethical reasonings, and sexuality is far more robust than this.

Further, to answer the question in the traditionally Christian way sets a hard and fast, black and white boundary, a law about the relationship of genitals to one another in relation to one singular point in time – namely, the wedding.

The law used to be that sex before marriage is sin. This question makes the most important thing about sex its timing.

But arguments to the contrary, refuting the traditional view, only answer the same old question: While the law used to be sex before marriage is sin, the law now is that there is no law.

In fairness to the author, I read a handful of posts on her site, and she offers a great deal more, which I hope to return to soon – because I think she offers one particular new way Christians have been talking about sexuality, and I want to be conversant in these questions.

But what I want is other questions.

Here are the questions I want:

What is sex?

What is Christian sex?

What is sex for?

What does sex do?

Why do we have sex, and also why don’t we?

I don’t think we have a good grasp on these answers. And until we work some of this out, I’m not certain we can make ethical claims.

Fankhauser is right that the Bible isn’t clear if you’re looking for crystal clear directives about pre-marital sex, and that the traditional consideration of it as sin it is in large part a function of interpretation through the lenses of particular cultures across time. Our culture now is different in important ways – namely our understanding of women, slaves, and non-heterosexual human beings as subjects deserving of justice, flourishing, and agency, and not objects to be sold, exchanged, or discriminated against.

But a lack of ethical clarity in the Biblical texts is true of so many questions we could take to them. The Bible isn’t an owner’s manual for the human body or even human relationships. The clearest ethical directives we have are things like the ten commandments or the Sermon on the Mount or the end of Romans. And even then, questions of ethics are culturally bound and interpretation for our time and culture is a crucial task in reading the Bible responsibly.

Yet if an appeal to the Bible is in order about this particular question of pre-marital sex and moral judgment about it, the place I want to go first is Paul’s sense about the Law, where he says, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” (1 Cor. 10:23-24)

This touches back on earlier questions, but say Fankhauser is right  and pre-marital sex is now Biblically and culturally permissible, the question remains as to how and when it is beneficial.

But more importantly, and on a grander scale, what is beneficial sexually – period? Do we have an answer to this? What things build up? And what does it mean to seek the good of my neighbor and not my own good?

And if we’re looking toward the most clear ethical directives in the Bible, what does sex have to do with the Sermon on the Mount, or read through the lens of Romans 12? Or if we take our ethics to the Christian Community, what does the liturgy have to do with sex, and what could our worship say about this part of our lives?

I feel like these are the ethical questions which are rarely asked about Christianity and sex. I have seen arguments like the aforementioned about the timing of sex, arguments about what is permissable/taboo sexually act by act, and a ton of talk about consent (and this is so important, a thing I want to come back to soon).

But in the midst of the arguments I’ve encountered so far, I keep wondering if we have any good idea what good sex could possibly be, or what beautiful sex could be, or true sex (sex with integrity).

Do we know why we’re doing what we’re doing? And if we’re not doing, is that okay? Can I be progressive as a Christian and still choose a life of celibacy or even temporary abstinence based on convictions about faithfulness or holiness?

Or further, is a commitment to celibacy a certain kind of progressive act against the backdrop of an arguably pornographic culture, one in which beloved people are often reduced to parts, acts, and points of contact, whether in media or advertising or otherwise? (And here, I do mean pornography in the way you’re thinking, but also the ways pornographic is metaphorical for the over-sexualizing of most everything and the under-valuing of human dignity across a swath of culture.)

And is there something we can say that is a bit more theologically universal than personal opinions about what’s okay for each individual?

My hunch is that this is in part what is missing from traditional conversations about Christianity and sex – namely that we get hung up on law and prohibition, and don’t often get around to saying what allows sexuality to be vibrant, or beyond merely genital expressions, or contribute to the flourishing of the other, or how sexuality has the potential to let us transcend ourselves and truly be for and with another.

And until we can answer those kinds of questions, whether pre-marital sex is a sin or not is a hard question to answer with substance – because as it turns out, there’s sex before marriage which is sin and sex before marriage which isn’t sin, and sex within marriage which isn’t sin, and sex within marriage which definitely is. (But we don’t hear that last part often, do we?)

It’s the bigger questions, the deeper ones about flourishing and loving my neighbor that I’m wondering about, and I suspect they’re the ones you sometimes wonder about too.

Let’s keep talking about this in days to come. I’ll talk, if you’ll read. Deal?



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