BY THESSALY ERESOS
If you grew up within an evangelical Christian community, chances are you were raised to have sex on the brain.
No, I’m not maintaining that Christians bring up their children to be oversexed, but rather that sexuality is a pivotal part of discourse within the church. The relentlessness of this discussion of sexuality is disturbing in many ways. It perpetuates the notion that our identity and our relationship with God is inextricably tied to what we do with our bodies. This kind of worldview is damaging and based on a distortion of the truth.
Of course, I am not the first to notice the church’s obsession with all things sexual. Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, observed that since the 18th century, the church has contributed to the proliferation and intensification of discourse on sexuality. The church is invested in categorizing sex acts to determine whether or not they are morally acceptable. Thus, it determines that heterosexuality is acceptable while homosexuality is not; marital sexuality is acceptable while pre-marital sexuality is not; vaginal intercourse is acceptable while sodomy is not. Debates continue about how to make sense of more ambiguous sexual practices. For instance, in teen Bible studies, it is common to discuss whether or not masturbation is a sin. While these conversations about sexuality may be worthwhile in their own right, their frequency and centrality within the church’s discourse is alarming.
This fixation with sex causes Christian children to develop a sense of self and a relationship to God that is inordinately connected to their sexuality. The church devotes extensive time and money to educating its younger members about appropriate sexual behavior. From the moment that sex education is taught in schools, the church launches its own counterattack to ensure that children have an alternative approach to their sexuality. The principles taught include abstinence from all sexual activity until marriage and an approach to dating driven by the goal of heterosexual marriage. This message gets repeated regularly through late childhood, early adolescence, and young adulthood.
In 1993, the Southern Baptist denomination launched an extensive international campaign called “True Love Waits” devoted to encouraging sexual abstinence among teenagers. By signing a covenant, Christian youth promised God, their churches, and their future spouses to stay physically “pure” until marriage. The campaign provided a range of activities and paraphernalia to motivate young people to persevere in the fight to preserve their virginity. Those of us within evangelical circles will remember the ubiquitous True Love Waits rings designed to constantly remind their owners of their vow.
Teaching abstinence is not the only issue to which the church has devoted considerable resources. The evangelical movement has been the driving force behind campaigns against abortion and gay marriage – issues that relate to sex, albeit obliquely. The fight against abortion is no doubt about the sanctity of life, but it is also about controlling sexual behavior – the act that leads to procreation. Gay marriage is no doubt about the sanctity of marriage, but it is also about delegitimizing homosexual intercourse.
Christians have felt it necessary to register their opinions about sexuality through legislation. Many advocate reacting to the prevalent promiscuity and sexual deviance within American society by lobbying for the criminalization of such behaviors – or their consequences. Thus, Christians continue to battle on in the culture wars. This ongoing struggle against sexual immorality was evident in the recent presidential election. A large proportion of voters in America selected candidates based on their policies relating to sexuality: What were their views on teaching abstinence in school? Were they pro-choice or pro-life? Did they support gay rights?
It is difficult to ignore the central position that sex and sexuality have within Christian discourse. But are there consequences to this fixation? Some would argue that Christians are merely responding to a sex-crazed culture. Others would point out that an obsession with sexuality is part of the human condition, a remnant of our animal nature; therefore Christians and non-Christians are equally prone to being preoccupied with sexuality. There is perhaps some truth in these positions. However, they do not tell the whole story. While it is quite possible that everyone has sex on the brain, the relentlessness of the church’s sexual discourse can have damaging consequences on a young Christian’s identity and relationship with God.
The constant reiteration of sexual discourse has profound psychological effects on children growing up within the church. It leads them to believe that sexuality profoundly defines them. Foucault suggests that Christian ideology perpetuates the idea that our sexuality reveals truths about who we are. In other words, Christians talk about sex as a means of gaining insight into a person’s identity and perhaps more importantly, as a measure of a person’s relationship with God. Christian children develop a particular ontology that asserts that their relationship with God is inextricably tied to what they do with their bodies. Within this framework, it is very easy for children to develop misconceptions about their sexuality that will haunt them for years to come.
For example, they may mistakenly connect physical purity with spiritual purity. Throughout discussions of abstinence, preserving one’s virginity is often described euphemistically as remaining “pure.” “Pure” is a loaded term: it means to be free of contamination and pollution. Thus, to lose one’s virginity before marriage is an irreversible act that makes the body impure, unclean, and dirty; by extension, such sin pollutes the soul. The problem, of course, is that most Christians will not remain sexually pure until marriage. Statistically, 88.4% of women ages 20–24 have engaged in vaginal sex. The percentage is slightly higher for men. Polls reveal that the figures are identical among Christians and non-Christians. For the majority of Christians who will have sex before marriage, this act of sexual indiscretion will have a profound effect on their life and will likely impact their relationship with God.
If abstinence is emphasized as a way to prove your commitment to God, it makes sense that many Christians become self-flagellating or alienated from the church after a moment of sexual weakness and compromise. I have encountered many Christians who have felt that God somehow loves them less because of their transgression. After years of hearing about the repulsiveness of sexual impurity, Christians do not feel like the church is a safe place for the sexually broken. While there are many reasons a young person may turn away from the church, I do not think it is a coincidence that many abandon the church at around the same age they have their first sexual experience.
If a person’s sexuality becomes a benchmark by which to measure spiritual progress, it is easy to judge the moral and spiritual status of others. Christians are notorious for their lack of compassion towards those who do not abide by their standards of morality. Historically, Christians have asserted that the sexually immoral are also spiritually unclean, and as such, subject to God’s rancor. This kind of rhetoric has been toned down recently, but the general sentiment continues to circulate. Those of us within the church who have homosexual tendencies constantly feel judged as spiritually inferior. Whether this judgment comes from the pulpit or from a latent sense that other Christians do not accept us, the result is a feeling of estrangement that leads us to find community elsewhere.
The discourse on sexual immorality within the church is largely designed to be preventative. We receive sermons and directives about the consequences of sexual sin as if such sins hadn’t already occurred. For those of us who have already transgressed in some way (the larger percentage of the population, if we believe the statistics), these messages are not particularly helpful. For the women who have had abortions, the men currently involved in sexual relationships with other men, or the college freshmen who recently lost their virginity, the church does not seem an appropriate place to mourn, heal, or feel accepted.
The irony of this situation is mind-blowing. The truth of the gospel is that we are all equally broken, whether or not our sins are inscribed on our bodies. Jesus himself was particularly kind to the sluts and the whores of his time. He offered them an abundance of compassion that led to their healing and rehabilitation. Through his example, he demonstrated that salvation does not come through the adherence to moral codes, but by grace. An overemphasis on sexual behavior is perhaps just another way of saying that works, and not faith, will save us. But more significantly, Jesus did not spend all his time talking about sex. He spent the greater part of his ministry denouncing the wealthy and the proud. Imagine what would happen if the church actually followed his example – if Christians spent less time and money fixated on sexuality and instead devoted their resources to feeding the hungry and healing the sick? What kind of world would we live in then?