Knowledge of Sexual Self: A Missing Piece in the Abstinence Discussion

A few years ago a young man who was abstaining from sex asked me how one navigates abstinence when they are looking to get married. He wondered what most Christians who are abstinent or celibate wonder, “How will I know if the sex will be good with my spouse if I don’t get to have it before marriage?” He asked me because I was outspoken about abstinence and saving myself until marriage and, in my mind, I also hoped he asked because he was thinking about saving himself for me. Given this I told him what was becoming a routine response for me to this question, “The God who created us knows all of our wants and needs, including our sexual desires. God knows we want good sex and so, if we are obedient to God in waiting for the one God has for us, God will ensure that our partner will be the perfect sexual fit”–no pun intended and pun intended all at the same damn time. I honestly believed what I told him, though I had no evidence it being true. It was something passed down to me from various sermons, Bible studies, and books I read about being a young, single Christian. I think the young man bought my spiel for a little while, after all it is kind of convincing when you package it up and leave sexual satisfaction to God. How can you  argue with that? God will supply all my sexual needs according to his riches in glory, right? Lately I’ve been thinking, wrong.

My conversation with that young man happened about four years ago and since then, many young Christian men and women–or men and women from Christian backgrounds–have spoken up about their experience of living under such teachings. A Salon article entitled “My Virginity Mistake” was such an account.  shared her story of “marrying Jesus” as a teenager under the banner of a purity campaign held by her Baptist Church. Henriquez would go from marrying Jesus to marrying her college sweetheart only to discover that she wasn’t sexually attracted to him and possibly not interested in sex at all. The marriage ended in divorce and Henriquez ended up discovering, well after the fact, that she was into sex after all. She discovered that she could have good sex with a variety of different people and especially within marriage, but this discovery was due to the realization that she just couldn’t wait to have sex until marriage. In her conclusion she said, “I learned that sex is important enough not to wait.” Now I’m not here to argue for or against premarital sex, though I do have some particular views about it that I will share at another time. I want to argue for something else that I believe is missing from the abstinence education/discussions.

Of Henriquez’s sexual experience with her first husband she says, “I admit that I was no willing student but he was no teacher either.” She commented on zoning out and making lists during sex and on having a very active kissing life before marriage because that is all they had. Henriquez’s situation seems like that of someone who is waiting for things to happen, of having an expectation of how things should be without the proper education of how they actually are and the role that we play in making things better. No one or no institution is more at fault for this than the church which tends to reduce sex to that which you don’t do before marriage yet once you get married you are supposed to go from 0-60 and discover your inner sex god or goddess. The church which teaches its members, particularly the young and single, that the flesh should be beat into subjection, masturbation is sin, and all sexual feeling must be dampened. The church which ignores full-bodied discussions on sexuality because its view of sexuality is so tied up in sin that they can’t recover it. Given this insistence on displacing sex and sexuality within the church, it is no wonder that people get married and get into trouble. Granted this is not everyone’s story but this is enough people’s story.

Relevant magazine tried to touch on this issue through an article entitled “Christians Are Not Called to Have Great Sex.” The writer, Rachel Pietka, went through some of the more recent stories of Christians who vowed abstinence until marriage only to get married and have disappointing sexual experiences. Pietka’s argument is, as the titles states, Christians aren’t called to have great sex because we are supposed to have a different view of sex. She says, “Although sex is indeed God’s gift to us, Christians are not directly commanded by God to have great sex.” She says this because sexual compatibility doesn’t–or shouldn’t–matter to Christians it means that sex is not–or shouldn’t be–our God. And as she concludes the article she claims that “bad sex is an opportunity to rejoice in suffering (1 Peter 4:13) and to be further conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).” Now I am not even going to touch her strange proof texting work–even though I have touched it by calling it strange. I will say that I disagree with her about God not directly calling Christians to have good sex. There may not be a commandment in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt have good, great or mind-blowing sex,” but along the lines of what I told that young man years ago, I do believe God wants people to have great sex. I believe it is a part of the sacred covenant of marriage, that the two who come together under God as one do so in pleasure and acknowledge that the capacity for pleasure produced between them is great. If two people are joined together under God in love, great sex is a part of the equation, but it also necessary to understand what makes sex great between two people. More Christians than not are consumed by the dominant culture’s definition of what great sex is, a definition that is sometimes unrealistic for the culture that created it. Great sex may be closer than most people think, but because they have some unrealistic expectation about what sex is supposed to be like, they totally miss the point. So how do abstinent and the celibate get to great sex in marriage? I believe that part of that greatness happens well before the wedding night.

You see, what a lot of these discussions of abstinence before marriage are missing a reflection on knowledge of the sexual self. So much time is spent ensuring that young men and women remain chaste by any means necessary that little to no time is spent discussing whom they are as sexual beings. Rarely does anyone trust adolescents, teenagers, or even adults with their sexuality and instead they rely on fear-mongering that says “No” to anything related to sex. no1This creates men and women who know nothing about themselves as sexual beings aside from knowing they must deny anything related to sex. When a person is not trusted with handling their own  sexual desires, how can they then trust those desires with another? If they are repeatedly told not to touch themselves how will they know their capacity for experiencing pleasure? If they experience sexual attraction to someone but they immediately categorize it as bad and wrong, how will they de-program those years of learning and associate sexual attraction with that which is positive? What is at the root of all of this, for me, is a move toward educating people on how to function with knowledge of sexual self in way that acknowledges sexuality. Complicated, sometimes inconvenient, but always beautiful sexuality. Acknowledges sex and sexuality as healthy and integral parts of the human experience that should be understood on an individual basis before it understood as part of a relationship. (This is where I think so much failure lies, in making people’s only understanding of sex and sexuality in relation to another person in marriage. And I won’t even get into what I think is the patriarchal undertone of it all–that’s another post for another day. And I digress…)  And, of course, to do all of this under God whom, I believe, is less restrictive than the Christian tradition makes God out to be. I believe–or at the very least hope–that God is concerned about the holistic health of people and that God’s primary tool of educating is not “No” but “Yes,” “no,” “maybe,” and “let’s talk about it.” It is an open discussion on sex and sexuality that doesn’t depend on fear-mongering, negligence, and ignorance but thrives on trust and transparency.

Given this, there has to be a way for the church to teach young people about themselves as sexual beings in ways that promote sexual health and, that almost cliché term, “sexual positivity.” I’d love to see the church move beyond “no” and begin to break ground in “knowing.” That knowing requires open, honest, and candid discussions about sexuality. The type of conversations that might make people uncomfortable but  because they are held within a church context, they provide a safe space which breaks down discomfort. I know what I envision may seem too ideal, but it is time for this to move into the realm of the real, particularly because the church wants to have so much control over sexuality in the first place, why not actually participate in the discussion, in a real way? There can be no more silence on the topic of sexuality and there can be no more reliance on sexual negativity as a teaching tool. No one learns from “no” alone. And even though “no” has its place in this discourse it can’t be the primary answer when you are aiming to raise sexually healthy people. Sexually healthy individuals who might go on to be sexually healthy and satisfied in marriage or a committed relationship because they were taught to embrace, not negate, their sexuality.

Long story short, I believe an abstinent or celibate man or woman’s possibility of having great sex in marriage will only be increased when they understand who they are both under God and as sexual beings. Knowledge of God is integral and believing that God desires those whom God brings together to have a great sexual relationship is a part of that knowledge. Knowledge of self–sexual and otherwise–is pivotal in making great sex a reality. And I believe that in abstinence, one can move toward great sex if they begin to know and own who they are sexually now. Think of it as a sexual spin on “Be the wife or husband you want now.”

At this point I know you’ve read a lot but I just couldn’t resist posting this interesting little illustration that is sadly a pretty realistic depiction of abstinence education in the Christian context.

bp070426_abstinence

So what do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Developing a Kierkegaardian Sexual Ethic

I wrote this post a month ago while I was in the throes of passion with the Danish philosophical theologian, Soren Kierkegaard and his book Works of Love. I’ve been hesitant to post this because the implications and implementation scare me. But before I scare you with all the disclaimers, let’s just get into it.

The God-relationship is the mark by which the love for people is recognized as genuine. As soon as a love-relationship does not lead me to God, and as soon as I in the love-relationship do not lead the other to God, then the love, even if it were the highest bliss and delight of affection, even if it were the supreme good of the lovers’ earthly life, is still not true love. Kierkegaard, Works of Love

One of the claims that Kierkegaard makes throughout Works of Love is that God must be in the midst of our love lest it not be true love. In our works of love, we must always consider God because it is God who helps us know how to rightly love and order our love. Considering this, a lifetime of “love” flashed before my eyes and I thought about every person whom I ever thought I loved and, measuring that against Kierkegaard’s words above, wondered if I have ever truly loved. I also began to think about what the sexual-relationship would look like using Kierkegaard’s framework. What would happen if I took Kierkegaard’s Works of Love and applied them to sex, making it Works of Sex or Works of Sexual Love? Take this interpretation for instance,

The God-relationship is the mark by which the love for people is recognized as genuine. As soon as a sexual-relationship does not lead me to God, as soon as I in the sexual-relationship do not lead the other to God, then the sexual-relationship, even if it were the highest bliss and delight of affection, even if it were the supreme good of the lovers’ earthly life, is still not true sex.

Now bear with me. I know it may seem extreme to replace love with sex–although people do it every day–but I also think doing so is challenging. Many of us want love and, before that love, some of us want sex. This is not altogether a bad thing, for as people have so tirelessly said, “we are sexual creatures.” But, being creatures who are sexual and have desires doesn’t preclude us from thinking about how to rightly order our sexual relationships particularly so that we are leading ourselves and our partners to God, so that it is beneficial to our partner’s life and soul, and to ourselves.

In regards to the love-relationship, Kierkegaard talks about God being the middle term. As the middle term God is the mediator between the two persons and God is the being who the two should be fully aware of in all of their actions. Their actions apart from reflection on God is a detriment to each other, but the interaction with God informs their interaction with each other. Their actions should lead them to God, thus in the sexual relationship, each participant should lead the other to God. It would seem that one’s first thought would be, “Is engaging in this type of relationship going to help or harm the other’s and my relationship with God?” This requires reflection before the act  that takes into consideration what Kierkegaard would consider the highest love–love of God. He suggests that this is the most important relationship that we have and the primacy an individual gives it overflows into other relationships for the benefit of both parties. Furthermore, the idea of including God in the sexual relationship seems to require sex be about more than self-pleasure which requires a move away from self-love and a move toward a higher regard for the other, another concept that Kierkegaard addresses in Works of Love.

Kierkegaard states that self-love must be directed out and that “out” is toward God so that God may lead us to knowing how to rightly love the neighbor. In terms of the sexual relationship, this means that moving past self-pleasure, out of the realm of self-love, one is better able to discern the needs of the other. But this move is not to discern how much one thinks the other person needs to experience erotic pleasure from them because they believe they are so good at what they do, but to discern whether the other persons even needs to experience erotic pleasure in the moment at all.  This makes one’s desire to have sex not first based on desire for temporal pleasure but desire to know whether this would be beneficial for the other on, dare I say it, an eternity-seeking level.

In Works of Love, Kierkegaard also draws attention to the necessity of knowing about the condition of one’s soul. He says,

You who speak so beautifully about how much the beloved means to you or you to the beloved, remember that if a pure heart is to be given away in erotic love the first consideration must be for your soul as well as for your beloved’s! This consideration is the first and the last; from this consideration there is no separation without guilt and sin. Works of Love

Re-interpreted for the sake of this discourse, one might suggest that being concerned about the soul of the intended sexual partner becomes the first and the last question. This, by far, is one of the most challenging dimensions of this Kierkegaardian sexual ethic. How does one even begin to consider an individual’s soul? All I can think of at this moment is an old church song sung as funerals, “It is Well with My Soul.” This is not meant to conjure up images of death but it is meant to provide a baseline by which one might start their consideration of their partner’s soul. Would it be well with their soul for your two souls to become one in the sexual event? Would it be well with their soul should their sexual relationship die shortly after penetration? Is their soul well enough to handle the seriousness of that sexual relationship you are about to participate in? These aren’t just questions for the intended sexual partner but for the individual as well. The individual comes in last in this Kierkegaardian sexual ethic.

The claim that carries Works of Love is Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to keep the second and greatest commandment, “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Given this Kierkegaard believes that the person of faith must not have preferential love for anyone, including himself/herself. Of course this seems confusing in terms of the subject at hand, but what one can pull out from that concept is the fact that the individual, in Kierkegaard’s love ethic, takes a back seat to the neighbor. The person outside of the individual and nearest to the individual is the neighbor who takes precedence. Kierkegaard scholars might notice that I’ve taken a slight liberty because Kierkegaard wouldn’t advocate for giving an erotic partner neighborly consideration, but I am suggesting here that the erotic partner becomes the individual’s primary concern before themselves. At the heart of this developing Kierkegaardian sexual ethic is the individual’s ability to allow God to be the middle term of the sexual relationship and to be primarily concerned about the other before themselves. This ethic requires reflection on the rationale for wanting to participate in a sexual relationship with another that goes beyond one’s personal experience of pleasure and considers it and the other in light of God. It takes into consideration long-term possibilities over short-term pleasure, the eternal consequence over the temporal award.

So I know I just said a whole lot, but what do you think of this Kierkegaardian sexual ethic? Do you buy it? Does it even make sense? Do you feel weird about making God a part of your sexual decision? Is it possible to consider someone’s soul or is this something only God can rightly discern? Does this seems to idealistic? Does this scare you? What might you add or subtract? Let’s talk about it.

The Prologue

I sat there watching him speak about things one should never speak of in church. Attraction, sensuality, sexuality, passion, love of both the agape and eros kind. I clenched my nonexistent pearls with every word, hoping that he would stop soon. I was in the middle of “Killing Me Softly”, feeling “all flushed with fever and embarrassed by the crowd.” I scanned the room to see if anyone felt as uncomfortable as I did. Was anyone else squirming in their chair or in the pews that ascended to the top of the room? Was anyone wondering whether his words about attraction of all kinds were appropriate to speak in the same space that where we worship God? Who green lit this poem that allowed a man to speak of his feelings toward a woman in any other way but a holy way? I was at odds with myself, wanting to fully embrace his language of love and attraction in this sacred space but also being acutely aware of the fact that this space was sacred. But then I thought: What better place is there for one to deal with all of their natures, both the spiritual and the carnal, but in a sacred space? What safer space is there to take refuge in than in this space? What purer space could there be to talk about these things and not enter into judgment? It is supposed to be in the sanctuary that we can lay our burdens down, right?

There’s a song from the son of a prominent pastor that says, “Why can’t we talk about love?” This was his sentiment after dealing with critiques on why he made a career of singing about “secular” love instead of sacred love–translation R&B over gospel music. Here at “Sex and the Sanctuary” I am going to riff off his question and ask, “Why can’t we talk about sex?” Why can’t we, as the body of Christ, talk about sex?

Let us now talk about sex and…the sanctuary. All are welcome.