The Reality of Sex

It was my privilege to give a public lecture at the University of British Columbia recently on the question, “Why Are Christians Against Sexual Freedom?” I haven’t spoken on quite this subject before, so I enjoyed preparing for it partly so I could think about the question a little more clearly than I had previously. Here’s the gist of what I said, and I’ll be glad if you can clarify my thinking still further:

Some Christians Are, Indeed, Against Sex: Some Christian teachers have taught the superiority of lifelong celibacy. Some Christians have taken out their own confusions and frustrations and traumas on others by speaking of sex as a Bad Thing to be avoided if possible and endured if necessary. Yes, some Christians are against sex, so they’re certainly against sexual freedom. But that’s not all there is to say.

Christians Aren’t Against Sex: In fact, the very first chapter of the Christian Scriptures contains the very first command of God to the very first human beings, and it’s this: Have sex. Indeed, have lots of it (Genesis 1:28). The world, God says, is fresh and wild and good. It’s now yours to look after, and it’ll take more than you two (Adam and Eve) to do it. In fact, the planet will take a planet-full of human beings to bring it under cultivation (“subdue it,” “have dominion,” etc.). So (ahem) get busy.

Sexual relations are celebrated in an entire book of the Bible, The Song of Solomon, and celebrated so graphically that Jewish and Christian commentators throughout history have tried to distract us with spiritual allegories so that we won’t stare at all the eyes and hands and breasts featured therein. And, to be sure, sexual imagery sometimes is used in the Bible to depict the relationship of God and Israel.

No, Christians aren’t against sex.

Christians Aren’t Against Freedom: Indeed, the Christian religion is a religion predicated on freedom. Adam and Eve choose in the Garden of Eden, and we’ve been choosing ever since. Our decisions matter, which is why Christianity keeps telling us to make good ones, and especially the Most Important One of choosing to put God in the centre of our lives, where God belongs.

Christians Aren’t Against Sexual Freedom: Yes, often Christians have imposed their sexual preferences on everyone else when we had the political power to do so. We thought it was in everybody’s best interest to be compelled to act the way we thought everyone should.

Most Christians today, however, recognize the pluralism of our societies and the importance of letting people make free choices and sort themselves out before God. So most Christians are in favour of sexual freedom in terms of the criminal code and civil sanctions, even as we want to preserve the freedom of every individual or community to maintain its particular view as to what constitutes healthy and helpful sexuality.

So what are Christians against?

Christians Are Against Sexual Exploitation: Christians are against any exploitation, of course, so we’re against any action that victimizes someone in the sexual sphere as well. We’re against rape, but also against any other kind of coercive sexual behaviour, including sexual harassment.

We’re also against sexual exploitation of those too young to make a responsible decision regarding sexual behaviour, so we support laws limiting sexual relations involving minors. We also want to protect anyone else, such as those with mental or psychological difficulties that would keep them from making good decisions in this zone.

As for everyone else . . .

Christians Are Against Sexual Confusion: Our society is both crazy and conflicted about sex.

We’re crazy about it in the sense that we are preoccupied with it and exploit each other’s preoccupation with it. Consider your morning commute. Count the number of sexual messages you receive—from the music on your iPod or car CD player, from the radio, from billboards, from bumper stickers, from bus advertisements—between home and school or work. We don’t devote the same attention to, say, food, or politics, or anything.

But we’re deeply conflicted about sex, too. At one and the same time, our society repeats to us the contradiction that sex is no big deal and that sex is the most important thing in the world. Sex is recreational and sex is required. Sex is just another activity to round out a pleasant Saturday and sex is something without which you become pathetic and finally insane.

We ourselves become delusional about sex, and in this one crucial respect: We keep thinking that sex can be just what we want it to be, rather than what it is.

If we want it to be merely recreational, then that’s all it should be. If we want it to be romantically meaningful, then it’s now supposed to be that. If we want it to foster intimacy, then it should produce that result. If we want it to heal an otherwise shattered relationship, then it should have that magical ability.

Christian teaching, however, is more realistic than that. Indeed, it is literally “realist” in the sense that it sees sex as an actual something, a given reality that is not infinitely plastic but is instead a particular thing that we had better clearly recognize for what it is so we can deal with it properly.

We might buy a car and intend it to get us around and make us happy while it does so, without us having to fuss with it at all. But it needs gas, oil, maintenance, and other basic upkeep, and our preferring that it didn’t need those inconvenient and costly things won’t keep us from running out of gas or having the engine seize up in the middle of highway. It is what it is, and wishing otherwise don’t make it so.

Narcotics are great gifts to patients recovering from surgery and soldiers enduring battlefield wounds. But narcotics are killers if used merely recreationally. They are what they are, and preferring to believe that heroin isn’t addictive or that cocaine can be simply a “lifestyle enhancer” doesn’t change what narcotics inevitably, inexorably do.

Most basically, sex joins. Sex unifies. The second chapter of the Bible uses a pretty obvious metaphor for the first marriage: “the two become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Sex, that is, marries one person to another. Most cultures around the world recognize this fact (for fact it is). No matter how elaborate their wedding rituals, no matter the power of the vows they take and the pronouncements made over them, the couple isn’t truly married until they have sex. Sex joins.

What connects us therefore results in injury when we pull away, when the relationship ends. Couples don’t just “go their separate ways,” except in the sense of two parts of a fractured bone “going their separate ways.” Couples break up. They were joined, and now they’re not. And that’s trauma.

This principle explains why sex can hurt us even when it’s good, even when it’s really, really fun and exciting and mutual. I read of a man who testified that he and a girlfriend he was with for a number of months had terrific sex. But eventually they broke up and he later married someone else. He loved his wife then and loves her now, and they have several children together in a strong and happy marriage. And yet, he says, from time to time he is haunted by those memories—not just because the day-to-day, year-to-year life of marriage can’t be lived in the white heat of a brief fling or even extended courtship or you’d never get anything done around the house (!), but because that period of hot sex joined those two people in a way that simply couldn’t be easily walked away from and forgotten. Thrilling as it was then, it is a burden to him now.

Sex, therefore, is a particular kind of something, not whatever we prefer it to be. And the definition of mental health is dealing with reality properly as it is, not as we wish it were.

God tells us that sex is good and we are free to engage in it. God also tells us, however, that full-on, naked, total sex is reserved for the one relationship that is full-on, naked, and total: marriage. That’s the only context in which the mystical unitive power of sex can do its work without damage, namely, in the one relationship that is all about lifelong union.

Having sexual intercourse outside marriage, therefore, is like misusing Crazy Glue. You’re not supposed to pull apart what you’ve bonded together, and when you do, damage inevitably results.

The “sex only in marriage” rule isn’t, therefore, some weird, totally arbitrary rule God made up just so we’d have something to practice self-control on. No, it’s a frank statement of the way things are: the way we are and the way sex is. We ignore it or flout it in the same stupid way in which we ignore our car’s owner’s manual or flout our physician’s advice. We’re free to do it, of course, and we’re free to suffer the consequences.

Lots of questions about this important and complicated area remain, of course. I don’t pretend to have said all that needs to be said. And have I always practiced what I preach? No, alas, I’m a sinner, too.

But it seems to me that we do well to start here, at the most basic level of definition. Sex is a good thing. Amen! But it is a particular thing, not just whatever we want it to be. And we will enjoy it and benefit from it best if we both make the effort to understand it and then make the effort to use it properly.

That sounds awfully serious and adult and responsible, doesn’t it?

You got that right.