My survey of early Christian teachings about sexuality (in preparation for next week’s online workshop), largely through the eyes of the historian Peter Brown, leaves me overwhelmed with how much our ancestors struggled over the place and power of virginity in the life of faith. It is as if the call for chastity before marriage in our own day—the abstinence before marriage movement, or saving yourself before marriage—came alive two thousand years ago. But of course, it is the other way around.
The ancient world of early Christianity was very different from our own. For one thing, life expectancy was shockingly low—2nd Century citizens of the Roman Empire were born into a world where life expectancy was less than 25 years of age. Jewish teaching responded to this fact by emphasizing reproduction to maintain Israel and keep it strong.
But Christian writers and spiritual teachers in the first several centuries after Jesus talked about sexuality differently, and were far from one voice about it. Some felt that people did not have time to be just pleasuring their bodies; they needed to deepen their souls, connect with their spirits, and get ready for death. Others understood that young people might want or need to be sexually active with a spouse in order to reproduce, but they could at a later age opt for what was often called continence within their marriage. Another, Clement of Alexandria, accepted that people would be sexually active but wanted it done, echoing earlier upper-class Roman attitudes, with dignity; and he was clear sex was only for procreation.
Still others, often associated with the gnostic teacher Valentinus, believed that their spiritual well-being, indeed their being in and of itself, depended on being part of small communities of students (we might say seekers today) centered around a single spiritual teacher. These communities were, surprisingly in an era so clear about gender hierarchies, composed of both women and men, and required sexual abstinence for their successful and long-lived functioning.
As I write about these strands of our religious history, and prepare for next week’s online workshop—“Roots of Sex Negativity in Western Christianity, Part 2” at 3 pm ET here —I keep thinking about conservative Christian struggles to govern sexual behavior today. How much have things changed?
On the one hand, things have changed a lot. Pre-marital sex is not only the norm, but it is openly acknowledged (in my childhood, even adolescence—back in the social unenlightened times—it existed of course, but was talked about only in hush-hush tones, if at all, and always with shame attached). Any negative judgment seems muted.
Nudity used to be rather modest, with the showing of some skin considered as much as was allowed. Now, films display bodies, mostly female but more and more male, in all their glory, and some of the more respectable tabloid press (New York Post, e.g.) run stories about celebrities at nude beaches and elsewhere with pictures. True, women’s breasts and all genitals are covered with bar,, stars or headlines, but a quick online search reveals the full picture.
Generally, I think all of this is healthy. In my own pastoring, most of the couples who came to me for spiritual conversations before commitment or marriage were already living together, or at least being sexually active together. I did not discourage this, or certainly judge it—and not only because most of these couples were same-gender-loving people who lacked widespread support for their love. I had come to the conclusion that practice helps, and not just in bed. In addition, way too much has traditionally been made about a woman’s intact hymen, creating an easy double standard—and I also believe that Christian theology which depends on the virginity of Mary is oppressive to women, and all the rest of us.
As for nudity, my only misgiving is how much of the exposure feeds on sensationalism and titillation. I devoutly pray we will someday as a culture get over our shame about our own bodies so we can validate all bodies. For a website promoting this from a sex-positive perspective—albeit only heterosexual and partnered sex within marriage but a positive view of masturbation—visit “Christians Enjoying Nudity and Erotica” at http://www.genesis2twenty5.com/index.html .
There is of course another view, in particular as regards pre-marital sex. The movement for abstinence before marriage got a major impetus from the HIV/AIDS epidemic and from the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STD). One way to avoid even the possibility of one of those serious outcomes is to abstain from all sexual relations.
In addition, proponents claim that better marriages result. I offer a caveat on their behalf: this is really only aimed at heterosexual couples, because the movement promoting abstinence does not actually believe non-heterosexual people should marry, and in reality cares little, if anything, about the quality of lives of gay and lesbian people.
Proponents even claim psychological studies support the desirability of abstinence, but many psychologists and others say they are misusing data, and that some of the studies, including a heavily publicized one conducted by a scholar at Brigham Young University, are deeply flawed (see an example here).
In addition, those promoting abstinence rely on the general view of biblical texts which is that sex is limited to married persons. However, some scholars, point to texts that are not so clear. For example, American Baptist biblical scholar Jennifer Knust points to the Book of Ruth as showing premarital sex as a blessing. This is, however, a minority view among church leaders despite many public surveys of younger church members in most denominations that record widespread premarital intercourse and oral sex.
I detect differences, perhaps subtle but nonetheless important, between the spiritual teachers and leaders of the first several centuries and those of today promoting abstinence. Those long ago were trying to grasp the difference Jesus and his ministry made in their lives and the lives of those who came to the faith. They felt a new spirituality and believed it impacted their sexual and social lives, requiring them to dissent from existing social patterns.
Today, Focus on the Family and others, often well-meaning I am sure, are trying to stop the shift of cultural influences that challenge established sexual practices. This is so, even though most of those who engage in pre-marital sex do not aim so much to challenge religious beliefs—which they often view as either outdated or irrelevant—as to simply live open lives in concert with others around them.
In addition, those of long ago did not expect to change the rules of society—they were trying to build and sustain a movement, but had little, if any, idea they would change Roman society. Too many of them were being martyred to think that way. They did, however, believe that ultimately God would change everything.
The conservative leaders today really are engaged in cultural wars, and despite what appears to be an uphill climb, they seek to win. They want control of sex again, something that religion in the United States seems to have had prior to the 1960s. Thankfully, however, they do not seek to make us all virgins!
Next week, Robin and I will be holding the monthly Sex, Bodies, Spirit educational webinar. In light of this, we decided to discuss a modern version of an ancient debate: the morality of sex outside of marriage. In particular, we wanted to look at Abstinence Only Sex Education (AOSE) and recognize the ways in which this discussion is much, much older than we often think.
I remember my first sex education class. Specifically, it was called “Family Life,” and it began in the fourth grade. The boys in the class were taken to another room to do something fun with science, and the girls from another class were brought in and we learn about menstruation, puberty, and the beginning discussions of sex (which were, in essence, don’t do it). If the boys asked what we were doing, we were instructed to tell them that it was a “woman’s conversation.”
So many things about this initial conversation were problematic, but I am
grateful they were contrasted with the lessons I learned at home. Since I grew up in a lesbian household before gay marriage was legal and my biological mother conceived me with my biological father out of wedlock, they were hardly in a position to enforce the “no sex without marriage” line. I was told instead that “if I couldn’t talk about it, I shouldn’t be doing it,” which seemed a much more mature, practical approach to sex education.
The conversation about sex outside of marriage- particularly from a Christian perspective- is an old one, and something that is full of misogyny and anti-woman sentiment. For example, many have heard the adage that “prostitution is the oldest profession”… and plenty of religious writing has broached the subject of prostitution, but the indictment always seems to come down on those offering the services, rather than those partaking (and traditionally, more women than men have engaged in prostitution out of economic necessity…when a husband died or was incapable of working, women needed to find a way to provide for their families even when no jobs were available to them).
The birth of Christianity is a synthesis of different cultures: on one hand, Jewish culture, which celebrated the family, and needed to procreate in order to flourish; and Greco-Roman cultures, from which much of modern philosophy was born. Christianity effectively synthesized the thoughts of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates that valued spirit over flesh and viewed women as second-class citizens, useful only as incubators for life given to them by male seed with Judaism, creating a hierarchy that celibacy was better than marriage, but marriage was much better than sex outside of commitment, for only through marriage could the sexual union between a man and a woman be holy.
In fact, most of the discussions about sex in Christianity assume a gold standard of sexual relationship, and discuss all other actions as abominable. If you’re going to be sexual, then you must get married, and the only acceptable configuration of that is a male/female partnership; any deviation (homosexuality, masturbation, female pleasure, prostitution and later, contraception and abortion) were unquestionably sinful.
We can easily see the traces of this line of thinking in modern day AOSE programs. One of the largest criticisms of a study supporting AOSE is that this particular study did not have the same moralistic slant that most AOSE programs (e.g. people were not characterized as bad or immoral people if they engaged in sex before marriage).
Historically, as well as in the present-day, we see the largest push-back against comprehensive sex education (CSE) from Christian communities. But framed within the context of the larger discussions of sexual morality inside of Christian communities, this is one of many fights that stem from the same basic root.
The point is, the discussion about sex outside of marriage is a much older
conversation than simply sex education. It is important to note that Jesus made little comment about sexual practices- the overarching message and teaching of Jesus encouraged people to make informed, educated choices, rather than accept a force-fed theology of the status quo. The point was not to tell people what to believe or how to manifest those beliefs, but to provide as much information as possible.
In fact, I feel very strongly that Jesus would have advocated for CSE (which covers abstinence as well as contraception and STI prevention). We think of interaction with God as a miracle, complete with trumpets blowing and a light ray coming down, but I am reminded of the familiar parable of the man and the flood: a man hears that his town is going to flood and, despite multiple rescue attempts, insists that he is a religious man, God loves him, and God will save him. When we ultimately drowns, he demands an answer from God. God replies that he sent a radio report, a rowboat, and a helicopter, and asks the man, “What the heck are you here?”.
Sometimes, miracles do not look like what we expect them to look. And in a day of HIV and antibiotic-resistant STI infections, we need a miracle. But I’m not sure the answer is simply, “Don’t have sex.” I think the miracle we need is a different approach: encouraging people to talk openly about sex, providing education to people starting to explore their sexual identities, and encouraging a more mature approach to sexuality. God has sent us education, opportunity, and empowerment to speak. Like my moms always taught me, if we can’t talk about it, we shouldn’t be doing it.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think about sexual abstinence before marriage? Did you practice that before you were married? Do you support sex education in public schools? Should it be required in all schools (including schools run by religious bodies which oppose discussion of birth control and abortion and homosexuality? Did you receive sex education in school? What was it like? Did it give you information you did not already have? What are the roles of religion and religious institutions in people’s sex lives? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please feel free to join us THURSDAY, September 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 2, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 2” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond Judaism and Jesus to early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.