Let’s talk about sex (all the good things, all the bad things)

saltnpepa

Let’s talk about sex for now to the people at home or in the crowd

It keeps coming up anyhow

Don’t decoy, avoid, or make void the topic
Cuz that ain’t gonna stop it
Now we talk about sex on the radio and video shows
Many will know anything goes
Let’s tell it how it is, and how it could be
How it was, and of course, how it should be

I voiced my dissatisfaction with Christian talk and writing about sex again the other day (on Twitter/Facebook) and found myself embroiled in some further (to me) unsatisfactory discussion of sex with other Christians. Once again I heard the familiar contemporary celebration of the great gift of sex and marriage and was left feeling profoundly disappointed with it. I’ve had a few days to reflect so I just want to record some of the ways in which I think most of what we say and write on this topic fails (to be useful, true, relevant, and so on)

1) It does not face, as the writing on sex that I do like (mostly feminist, mostly psycho-analytic) that ALL our sexual relationships are fraught with difficulty and danger and are bound up with the deeply troubled and (as I see it) sinful state of humanity, especially as it concerns the ways men and women engage with one another.

2) It does not, on the whole, engage with what I see as the core of Jesus’ message, that the world is to be transformed utterly by the action of God as God’s direct rule (the Kingdom of God or of Heaven) is realised. This complete transformation must, it seems to me, extend to intimate (sexual) human relations. Sex as we know it, marriage as we know it, are not part of the Kingdom (any more than anything we know is)

3) As (it seems to me) a consequence of these two linked failures (to see that everything we now are and do is blighted by sin and that the promised Kingdom will transform everything we now are and do) our writing and speaking about sex is, on the whole, deeply conservative, albeit in one of two different ways. It either ignores the sinfulness of sex as we know it and seeks to adapt to the contemporary celebration of “healthy” sex (however that’s defined, most usually by reference to some idea of mutuality) or by a nostalgic assertion of the forms of sexual life established in early modernity (essentially within legally regulated monogamous lifetime marriage) and which have increasingly disintegrated since the 1960s.

Of these I have a little more sympathy with the first. I think that the older forms of marriage were oppressive and unhealthy and that their passing is not something to be greatly mourned. The “stability” of marriage as it existed before the 1960s rested on a radical imbalance of power. The greater freedom enjoyed by, especially, women in our society is a good thing, even if some of its consequence are less positive than others, or even to some degree negative.

However we should be clear eyed and realistic about what the liberated sexuality of today is and what it tells us about ourselves and our relations to one another and to ourselves. A feature of some of the most interesting writing about sex from within feminist theory is its serious engagement with pornography as symptomatic. I quite like Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women which I found deeply shocking and enlightening when I read it in the early ’80s but it is nothing like as good as Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love. Benjamins’ book is superior because of its brave engagement with the ways in which feminine sexuality is complicit and complementary to the violent and sadistic elements in male sexuality (I remember being very disturbed by similar material in Lynne Segal’s psycho-analytic feminism when I took courses taught by her as an undergraduate).

The “wonderful gift of sexual love” schools of Christian thinking are, in my view, guilty of ignoring the realities of what sexual desire is really like, as demonstrated by the content of pornography and erotica (the 50 Shades phenomenon has again demonstrated the centrality of power and violence, this time primarily among a female audience).

One of the many things I admire about more marginal writers (I’m thinking especially about Mark D Jordan but also to some degree about Marcella Althaus-Reid and others working in and around “queer theology”) is that they do at least acknowledge this dark reality. Where I part company from them is that they, on the whole, go on to adopt a more “radical” version of the “celebrate a wonderful gift” school. (This too is the approach of the rather more orthodox feminist theology of someone like Sarah Coakley who has suggested that we re-instate a Platonic erotic mysticism and make respectable those who think we can experience the divine in erotic longing or sexual union).

I don’t think all this is completely wrong. Our sexuality, as part of the created order, should be seen as God-given. What is wrong is to ignore the reality of sin in all parts of our lives and its pervasiveness. Our sexuality as we experience it IS sinful (as indeed is our religion and every other part of our existence).

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4 comments
  1. Dennis said:

    Nick,

    I’m a little confused about your post. While I agree that too often especially among progressives, we don’t talk about how sex has been corrupted by sin. But your post gives the impression that all around is just bad and not really part of the kingdom. Can sex be used for good even in a fallen world?

  2. I guess what I think is that (almost) everything is simultaneously fallen (bad) and redeemed (under the kingdom). What I don’t like about a lot of talk about sex is that this twofold nature of our experience isn’t properly acknowledged. That’s to say that the kind of sex one approves of (all monogamous sex for liberals, marital hetero-sex for conservatives) is held to be good and the kind of sex one disapproves of (all other sex) to be bad. My argument is that even the sex one approves of is distorted and spoiled by our sinfulness, including the most Church approved marital and faithful sex. (Part of) the difference this makes is to lead one to a properly repentant attitude towards ones own sexual life (by which I mean an attitude that is not complacent about it but which invites the Spirit to lead one towards the way of the Kingdom) while adopting an attitude towards other’s sexual life which does not seek to judge it by external legal standards but to engage in a common struggle to find the disciple’s way.

    In this sex is no different from any other aspect of our engagement with our simultaneously redeemed and fallen natures.

  3. Dennis said:

    Ah. That cleared things up. I would agree that even the “good” sex is still imperfect and fallen. As a fellow pastor noted, no matter if you’re straight or gay, our sexuality is broken.

  4. Interesting post again Nick. I think sex (and sexuality) is an incredibly complex issue and would agree it is often over-simplified into good/bad or perhaps better put as good/sinful. I remember talking with a Christian friend many years ago, and we were discussing swear words. I was fascinated that he had no objection to any words that were linked to excrement (you can work them out!), but he had a real objection to any that were in any way sexual.

    It was as if sexuality were in some kind of isolated spiritual container. I did not (and still don’t really) understand why this is the case for some people.

    There is interesting reading around typology (e.g. MBTI) and how sexual activity represents different things to different people. I read this the other night and found it incredibly helpful to see that my wife’s personality style suggested sexual intimacy was something quite different to my own, and the meanings for us both were not necessarily incompatible, but certainly different. In case you are interested, the book is Please Understand Me II (by Keirsey).

    I don’t know if I’m really contributing anything here, or just musing (as is my wont!)

    I think that in everything we can easily sin, and this includes sexually within a covenant marriage relationship. But then, I think we can sin by holding someone’s hand when we shouldn’t, or not holding someone’s hand when we should.

    Perhaps I’m just confused!

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