Two separate things have led to me writing this post. A few weeks ago I had a Twitter chat with people after pondering whether an abstinence approach to sex may in fact dishonour marriage. Then a couple of days ago I listened to THIS discussion between Dianna E Anderson and Sarah Long, facilitated by Justin Brierley on the Unbelievable show at Premier.
The debate was “Should Christians save sex for marriage?”
The debate was interesting, though I’m not sure it fully worked. Dianna has written a book reflecting on US purity culture in Conservative Christianity. Sarah is UK based and has worked with Romance Academy. There’s some massive culture differences between the UK and the US, so to some degree it became much more about acknowledging the different contexts and less about a debate based in the same cultural context. Though I think many would say the culture isn’t as different as was perhaps suggested on the show.
Sarah’s main view was that sex is a covenant and as such should be saved for marriage. Her work has generally been in a youth context and therefore the focus has been with young people. Dianna’s view was that the Bible isn’t clear at all about sex before marriage and as such she would place it within the adiaphora of Biblical stuff; basically it’s a conscience issue, not an absolute.
Mr GLW and I didn’t have sex until we got married; I’ve written a few thoughts about sex and Christianity in THIS blog post, in which I bemoan awful post marital sex that is rooted in the many unhealthy messages attached to abstinence values.
Some thoughts I have about the whole saving sex until marriage thing…
1. It may possibly work when people are in their teens and early twenties. What about people in their forties, fifties or sixties who have never had sex? Did God just decide they shouldn’t ever experience the awesome gift of sex? Not everyone is going to have a partner. The whole abstinence teaching is connected so strongly to the “everyone will get married and have babies” narrative. What does sexuality look like for people who don’t ever get married? Do they simply suppress it FOREVER? What about masturbation? Is that off limits too?
2. When abstinence teaching is intertwined so strongly with purity culture is there a baby left in the bath when you chuck out the bath water? Or is the shaming of women, blaming of women, infantilising of men, lack of understanding of consent and terrible sex so fused with “don’t have sex before marriage” that we can’t keep the latter without holding onto the former?
3. Within the Unbelievable debate, there was no mention of how abstinence teaching disables people from recognising abuse. For me this is paramount. I am confident that my young adulthood sexual experiences would have been non-abusive if I’d chosen to embrace pre-marital sex. Could that have been the case if I’d been educate in healthy ways about consent and had awareness of abuse? Perhaps. But could the messages from across Christian culture about abstinence have drowned out the voices providing that awareness? Also quite possible.
I’ve been wondering about whether Christians put a higher value on sex than on marriage. If people HAVE to get married to have sex, how many (usually young) Christians rush to the altar so they can GET IT ON? Conversely, how many Christians suppress their sexuality and their natural desire for one another for years while they wait to be able to get married. leading to a whole load of marital problems?
One of the examples on the Premier debate was a couple who’ve been together for four years, are engaged but can’t afford the wedding. Dianna suggested that having pre-marital sex in that context was a matter between the couple and God, they could pray about it and come to their own conclusions. Sarah’s view was that the couple could choose to marry in an inexpensive way in order to “save sex” for marriage.
Is that the best approach? Should people reject the whole Big Wedding thing in order to have sex? Or does that suggest less value for the whole process? Do the couple elope and get married in a registry office somewhere so that SEX? Or is the marriage ceremony and the value placed on it and the community element significant enough that pre-marital sex isn’t the main consideration that should be attached to it?
What does abstinence mean anyway? Should there be no kissing pre-marriage? No tongues? No nakedness? No oral sex? No groping? Is everything non penetration based okay? Is there a sense of legalism in the whole thing? Is this whole thing simply tithing herbs (Luke 11:42)? Are we neglecting the weightier matters of a deep and considered sexual ethic that takes into account the many ways abstinence is painful?
The Bible wasn’t written for our context. People got married REALLY young. Mary was probably 14. Women had no rights. Contraception didn’t exist. Periods were seen as impure. Singleness wasn’t an option for women. Women’s sole value was attached to their husband and sons. Rape victims were to marry the man who raped them. Then there’s Song of Solomon which is full on sexiness, seemingly between unmarried people. Marriage was a financial contract between the girl’s (it usually was a girl) husband and her father. How do we extrapolate a sexual ethic for our time, our culture from a book written in such an extremely different context?
I don’t know.
I do know that the current system isn’t working. Abstinence teaching doesn’t produce chastity. It leaves people ill equipped to recognise sexual abuse, sexually damaged, repressed and/or with a deeply unhealthy sexuality, it blames women and encourages men to avoid responsibility for their sexuality and wrongly assumes that every twenty-something Christian is going to meet a nice Christian (opposite sex) partner, marry them, have babies and live happily ever after.
I’m not sure what a positive sexual ethic looks like. I guess I veer close to Dianna’s view. What’s wrong with trusting couples to discern what is right for them? What is the risk in encouraging people to seek God’s will for their lives over and above an abstinence rule that isn’t fit for purpose (and actually isn’t in the Bible)? When the current messages are causing serious damage to individuals and couples can we risk insisting abstinence is the way forward?
Matthew 23:24 comes to mind… “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Yes abstinence may get women to their wedding night with their hymen intact, however what about the camel of shame, vaginitis, pornography use, woman blaming and/or sexual repression?
The conversation amongst young people should be a different to that with adults. One of the difficulties of the Premier debate was that Sarah’s context was young people. We can’t liken the sexual choices of two people in their mid twenties (and upwards) to how we approach 14 year olds. However, is the right approach with teenagers and young adults to focus on marriage as the means by which people access sex? Does that put unnecessary focus on marriage as the end goal for people’s lives? In a Christian culture which is deeply heteronormative and idolises the nuclear family, how do we articulate the liberating message that marriage is not the logical start of adult Christian life?
With our children, Mr GLW and I have focussed on:
- Ensuring they own they bodies, lives and choices. This is the foundation of consent.
- Nakedness and sexuality are not shameful, bodies are BRILLIANT. Puberty is fabulous and exciting, if somewhat messy and traumatic. Since they were very small we regular talked about how bodies change; hair, periods, wet dreams and the like. This stuff shouldn’t be a surprise. It is INEVITABLE.
- That sex is awesome yet SO extremely special and precious that it’s a serious matter. Babies can be made and diseases can be caught, so great thought must go into when, how and who we choose to do it with.
- Singleness is GREAT! We regularly chat about the amazing single people we know. At first the kids assumed that all the single adults we knew were married, they just hadn’t met their spouses. This stuff must be made explicit or kids won’t notice it.
- Critically examining the messages around us; women are not objects, sexism is all pervasive and it is wrong, gender stereotyping is bad, racism is everywhere and it is bad, male privilege is real, a lot of masculinity is toxic and needs to be challenged etc etc.
- There’s creepy naked stuff on the internet (pornography) and when they see it (because they will) they need to tell us so we can help them make sense of it.
Our kids may have sex before marriage. It’s not something I’m concerned about. What I am concerned about is that every sexual experience they have is one they have entered into willing (and legally), in an informed way and with deep respect and love for themselves and the other person they engage in any sexual activity with, and also deep respect and honour for the seriousness of the act they engage in.
Yes, marriage may be a way of ensuring this stuff happens. But that is not guaranteed.
Genuinely, I don’t want my kids to get married. I want them to live lives of worth. And if that includes marriage, great! But if not, that is JUST as wonderful!