The Dangers of Sex Talk

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?

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4 thoughts on “The Dangers of Sex Talk

  1. Thessaly

    There is a lot to give concern in your essay.Seems to me you are substituting the standards of present-day man-centered humanism,for the standards of the unchangeable,unchanging Word of God.

    Please note the following:

    1 If evangelicals defend the purity and sanctity of God’s Word,what is wrong with that? The Bible is unequivocal in its stand on same-sex physical liaisons,for example. We cannot presume to change the standards of God’s Word. Sex was made for Man to enjoy,to procreate etc,within the boundaries of heterosexual marital relationships.

    2 The statistics quoted simply mean that most American ypung adults engage in pre-marital sex.That does not invalidate the sanctity of God’s standards of behavior.Bot then,you may wish to check the statistics of pre-marital sex in America’s Amish communities,for example.

    3 The Church is THE place for the sexually,materially,financially,emotionally broken and disenfranchised ‘Come onto me all who are weary and heavy laden…’.

    4 It seems absolutely right to me to appraise political candidates on the basis of how their views on human sexuality stand up in the light of God’s Word.

    5 I wouldn’t refer to the evangelical concern with sexuality as an ‘obsession’. Afterall,evangelicals are also vitally concerned with prayer in public schools,the propriety oif using public funds to bail out mismanaged banks etc.We cannot be in the world without adding Scriptural flavor to it,or shining Godly light on the goings-on in the world.

    Tunji

  2. I agree completely. The church’s emphasis on sex has always bothered me. Why are we so obsessed by what goes on behind bedroom doors? Is this another example of the total control of our selves that the church wishes to enforce?

  3. Pamela

    1 I don’t think the Church aims at achieving total control,of the type that produces unthinking,unreflective zombies.But God does want to see willing agreement by believers with His Word,with faith acted out behind bedroom doors,and outside the bedroom.

    2 The Bible,and the Church,emphasise sex because human sexuality and sexual expression are a large,integral part of who and what we are in our relationships with one another,and in our relationship with God.But then the Bible also stresses other things as honesty,faith,love etc.
    Same-sex liaisons are prohibited in both the New and the Old Testaments.Paul indeed maintains that all other types of sin are outside our bodies,but sexual sins vitally involve our bodies.

  4. It’s ironic how your provided statistic should give way to conversation about the reality of people’s sexual activity within the church, instead of suppressing it and limiting it to sermons on abstinence until marriage. I agree, the very Gospel message (if even really preached in churches), should provide comfort and safety for those who seek healing and transformation (i.e. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well–Jesus recognizes her sin, but forgives her on the condition that she leave that life of sin). A church should be a haven and a place of restoration; not a place where you gather a list of things to not do and do.

    Mark Driscoll is a good resource for Christian “sex talk.” Just FYI.

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