So I want to explain why, as a Christian, “sex-positive” is my new least favorite word, even though I am myself a very sex-positive guy, and I believe that Christianity is also very sex-positive. But I’m going to need to back up a bit to get there.
Christianity is essentially a form of humanism. That is, at its core it is concerned with the dignity of the individual human being and the flourishing of humanity as a whole. However, unlike secular versions of humanism, Christianity recognizes humans as beings in relation to the transcendent, to something—and, specifically, Someone—beyond the material realm.
A truly humanistic humanism must begin with an account of humans that is accurate. And humans are not merely physical/material beings. We have, to use traditional language, souls. We are indwelt by the eternal and we yearn for the eternal. We have a destiny, a telos, that includes, but is not limited to the physical. And so our highest and greatest good, our flourishing both as individuals and as a human community cannot be reduced merely to physical health, material prosperity, and just power relations, however important those things might be.
And yet, in post-Christian, pluralistic Western society, the secular worldview has now set the rules of engagement in the public square. And one of those rules is that moral claims—any “should” or “ought”—must be made without reference to the transcendent. Moral claims must be grounded in empirical evidence and be commonly agreed upon by all (or at least a voting majority). Thus, Christians, who are essentially humanists and have a desire to see human flourishing for all people and not just Christians, are now put in the awkward position of having to make a case for their account of human flourishing in secular terms.
It turns out this is impossible. (Go figure: you can’t explain a vision of human flourishing that is rooted in the transcendent without reference to the transcendent.) But Christians have still been doing their darnedest for the past century or so. At first, it worked…at least some of the time. Because enough of the fumes of transcendence still lingered in the air our culture breathed that even if we didn’t talk directly about God or the bible or the afterlife, we could still sort of pantomime enough in their direction that people picked up on it. But the thinner those fumes got, the harder it got. (Mixed metaphor, I know).
As it has gotten harder, some Christians have respond by just retreating from the public square, but others have just pushed harder at this impossible task of making a compelling case for the “oughts” of the Christian vision without making reference to the transcendent. And the result has been, well, less than compelling. (Again, big surprise). And in the sphere of sexuality, this has been particularly difficult as the mindset of consumer choice and libertarian freedom has come to exert increasingly influence on our views of sex.
See, a Christian with one hand tied behind her back (the hand that would be pointing up to the transcendent/God) is forced to work with just one hand (the hand that only points around to the material/empirical realm). So she is forced to make the case that the Christian sexual ethic will result in more human flourishing than alternative ethics by pointing to “consequences” and “rewards” on the material/plane plane. I.e., to make the case that this ethic of reserving all sexual activity for marriage and maintaining life-long monogamy will avoid more consequences (unwanted pregnancy, STD’s, emotional trauma, etc.) and net more rewards (fulfilling sex life, fewer abortions, stronger marriage, etc.).
Now, I happen to think that this is true. And I think a fairly persuasive case can be made for it. See for example, Wendell Berry’s classic essay, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” (which is not entirely without reference to the transcendent, but puts most of the emphasis on how we have lost sight of the inherently communal nature of sex and its “consequences”). However, if someone as skilled and winsome as Mr. Berry can make a case for it, it’s also true that most of the time, the Christian, laboring away one-handed, ends up looking like a fool or a maniac.
More often than not, this one-handed approach comes off as what has recently come to be called “sex-negative.” Having agreed ahead of time not to use her transcendence hand, she hacks and slashes with her “immanent” hand, hammering on the “consequences” of extra-marital sex and the “rewards” that fornicators, masturbators, and pornography-users will miss out on. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. If you do X, Y will be the consequence. She appears to be (and maybe often is) using fear and shame, rather than being, well, sex-positive. The non-Christian observing all this feverish pointing at consequences interprets the Christian as saying—to use the words of one recent sex-positive blogger—SEX IS BAD! DON’T DO IT!
Meanwhile, the secularist, whose core moral convictions (self-expression is a moral good, personal autonomy trumps almost all other considerations, liberty is increased by maximizing choices, etc.) are not only allowed but do not even have to be argued for because they are just part of the Enlightenment air we all breath (i.e., she’s playing with two hands) can talk about sex in the context of these moral goods and calmly make some suggestions about “moderation” and “safety” and come off looking like a sane, common-sensical person who is just really, you know, sex-positive and has my flourishing at heart.
This so-called sex-positive approach has so much traction in our post-Christian cultural milieu, that even a lot of Christians seem to be jumping on board. Turns out mom and dad were overstating the consequences of premarital sex. Turns out our virginal wedding nights weren’t the awesome experience they built them up to be. Turns out we’ve got all kinds of lingering body-shame and sex-guilt from all the scare tactics of our youth pastors. Maybe this level-headed, be-safe-and-responsible-and-do-what-works-for-you approach is a better ethic than the crazy, ol’ fashioned Christian one.
But here’s the thing: I think that many of us (certainly the Christians, I would hope!) believe that humans are spiritual beings, that we do have a soul. And something as powerful and emotional and holistic as sex must involve that part of us. And so we need to untie that other hand if we’re going to really talk about sex. We need to talk about the transcendent if we’re going to make sense of it.
In particular, I think we need to introduce the word “sacred” to the conversation. See, the real reason the Christian sexual ethic puts such serious boundaries around sex is not because its afraid of the “consequences” of illicit sex. It is because it understands sex to be sacred. Sex is one of the rare and special things God has given us that is sacramental, it is a “thin place,” a portal between the material and the transcendent. Or maybe a better way to say that is: a place where God has promised to take up the material into the transcendent.
And even more than that, Christians believe that marital sex is a kind of “icon of redemption.” That the mutual giving and receiving of the spouses in conjugal love is a kind of lived picture of the love of God in Christ for us, the Bride, the Redeemed. And so a way of participating in the mystery of Redemption.
If any of that is even half true, then sex is holy ground. It’s a place where we take off our sandals to acknowledge we are in the presence of something beyond us, something mysterious and powerful and not of our own making. Something sacred.
This is hardly being sex-negative. Sacred things have lots of boundaries around them and strict rules for how they are used not because they are dirty or because using them is shameful. Just the opposite: because they are holy and wonderful and good. To say the fine china is only for special occasions is not a negative view of the china. To say only the priest can enter the sanctuary is not a negative view of the sanctuary. To say that children should be protected and kept safe is not a negative view of children.
In short, if Christians can talk about sex on both the material and the transcendent planes, then I think we have the most sex-positive account going. (What other tradition recognizes all the aspects of sex—self-expression and bodily pleasure and human love and procreative power—and ties them all to a coherent vision of the world as created and redeemed and sustained by a loving God?) So as a pastor, I’m going to keep telling my people not to use porn or prostitutes, not to have sex before our outside of marriage. Not because I’m afraid of sex or squeamish about it or think its dirty. But because I’m sex-positive. Because sex is sacred. And I want to help them keep it that way.