Sex and Christianity Make Strange Bedfellows

20111011-sex-religion-hangupsIn case you haven’t noticed, Christianity becomes exceedingly awkward around the subject of sex. For much of its history, the subject was taboo, to be avoided whenever possible. There was even a vague sense that the purest people shouldn’t have sex at all (see priests, nuns, monks, and Mary). This doesn’t sell well in a consumer-driven culture, so today Christianity is trying to get into the action, so to speak, and the results are alternately suffocating and cringeworthy. Church leaders vacillate between obsessing over the myriad ways you shouldn’t have sex and humblebragging about how “smokin’ hot” their wives are and how awesome sex is when you “do it God’s way.” It almost seems as if they’re out to prove something, like those cigarette ads displaying male models with glowing white teeth, surrounded by adoring women. Perhaps it is precisely because sex makes churches so uncomfortable that they feel compelled to focus so much energy trying to control the circumstances under which it happens. They spend a great deal of time and effort fighting gay marriage, comprehensive sex ed, birth control, premarital sex, and sometimes even the concept of dating itself (ever hear of “kissing dating goodbye?”). But why does this freak them out so much? And why is regulating this one thing maniacally important to them?

Most who answer this question say it’s because if you can control what people do with their genitals, you can control everything else. That certainly would explain why the Jews chose circumcision, of all things, as their national identity marker. I’ve said before that among all the ancient gods, no one more than Yahweh was so critically concerned with the shape of your penis. Earlier this week a pastor friend tweeted, “You can’t shepherd hearts without shepherding pocketbooks.” He was thinking about tithing but I think what he said about pocketbooks could also be said about “privates.” Jesus was quite radical when it came to other things like dietary restrictions. He went so far as to argue that what you put into your body doesn’t make you unclean because it comes right back out again. Apparently, though, this doesn’t apply to the genitals. Like the rudder of a ship, if you can control that, you can steer the whole vessel. Sociologists and anthropologists tell us that the higher the initial investment for entry into a group, the greater the loyalty. That’s why fraternities keep hazing their inductees. If you can make people give up something valuable (like their dignity or their sexual urges) you’ve got their undivided commitment.

Still others will answer that the church’s obsession over sex stems from their need to control women in particular. I think they bring up an important point, and the inherent misogyny of the biblical writers needs to be addressed. I think that the shape of Christian sexual prohibitions and the ways in which churches often approach the matter (e.g. speaking to young women as if it’s always their fault) point to the residual effects of ancient sexism. But when you compare the Christian religion to its predecessor, Judaism, you find that the early Christians took a step or two forward in their treatment of women, giving them a more important role in the propagation of that faith than most other religions of their day. Christianity’s treatment of the subject of sex, on the other hand, seemed to almost lurch backwards into a more prohibitive stance than of any which had come before. Before Jesus, adultery was already bad. After Jesus, however, you can’t even look very long before you’ve sinned in your heart. For Jesus, even thinking too much about sex has become a crime. This is pretty over the top, and it is about controlling men as much as it is about controlling women. So what gives?

I believe sex terrifies the church because its founders (particularly Paul, but perhaps Jesus as well) were incurably dualistic. They saw the world as divided between “spiritual” and “earthly,” and as valiantly as interpreters today try to unite these opposing worlds, the duality still remains.* They are fighting against their own holy book, they just don’t want to admit it. “Oh, but the Hebrew worldview was more unified than that!” they will insist. “You must be confusing early Christians with the Greeks. Just look over here at these Old Testament verses…” Suddenly the Christian hermeneutic shifts into reverse and now we’re supposed to interpret the New in light of the Old instead of vice versa. Funny how the concept of “progressive revelation” is so popular whenever people accuse the Christian God of being violent and territorial, but then it disappears at moments like this. I cry foul, here. The New Testament writers (particularly Paul, who I believe was the true founder of the Christian religion) were quite dualistic and were very uncomfortable with the mundane, earthy, physical realities of daily life. Just listen to the kinds of things the founders of Christianity had to say:

Jesus (whose dualism was perhaps the subtler of the two):

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are spirit and they are life.

There are some who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it. (lolwut)

Paul (whose dualism was more pronounced):

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands….For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

As we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…I would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

I discipline (lit. “bruise”) my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided.

For Jesus and Paul, physical things are always distracting us from the things that really matter—the eternal things. You cannot adopt the New Testament as your guidebook without internalizing this bifurcation of life. I’ve written before how both Jesus and Paul discouraged any kind of focusing on the family because for both of them, the needs of a family were seen as a potential rival to one’s loyalty to the kingdom of God. Both seemed to concede that family entanglements can’t be avoided altogether, but each had strong words warning about the necessity of prioritizing spiritual things over earthly things. Paul went so far as to encourage his followers to forego starting families in the first place.

And what physical activity holds our attention more intensely than sex? It’s innately fascinating. You don’t have to convince any typical person to care about it—for most, it’s inherent. No topic can demand attention more efficiently, which is precisely why sex will always be the church’s greatest rival for our attention and devotion. Christianity and sex will always be in a kind of “cold war” (I say cold war because it cannot completely condemn something upon which we depend for life). Consider why Americans were taught to hate communism above all other ideologies: It was because communism fundamentally undercuts the basis for America’s economic system, the free market. Communism and capitalism are natural enemies, even if the complexities of life necessitate cooperation and trade between countries on opposing sides. In a similar way, Christianity and sex will always be awkward bedfellows because while sex unites us with our own bodies, beckoning us to feel at home here and now, the Christian faith urges us to see ourselves as aliens, not at home in this world, longing to be “clothed with eternity” at last. See? Even in its metaphors, nakedness is bad.

You eventually need to choose one or the other. Will you be at home in this world or will you seek escape? Christian music positively oozes with escapism. Building 429 has a song that was Billboard’s Christian Song of the Year for this year, and its chorus says:

All I know is I’m not home yet
This is not where I belong
Take this world and give me Jesus
This is not where I belong

Quite the opposite, popular music embraces everything about this life—especially the parts typically condemned by the religious guardians of morality. Church leaders instinctively understand that “sex positivity” is associated with a loss of power for the church. The more people fall in love with sex, the less interesting piety becomes. The two will always war with one another for your attention.

And yes, I know this is deeply offensive to those who have labored long and hard (sorry, can’t resist) to claim sexuality for the Christian faith. I have listened to their pleas and their sales pitches and I just don’t buy it. It always comes across as awkward at best and creepy at worst. Somehow piety and eroticism just don’t mix. They each point your attention in opposite directions, and churches know which force is stronger, so they fight it with all the’ve got. They hit teens hard with the fear of sex, convincing them that nothing is more central to being a Christian youth than not having it. This is their identity marker. References to sex must be absent from your music, your movies, your Twitter account, and your dating life (unless you’ve hopped onto the “courtship” bandwagon to ensure you don’t sin). It’s the main thing, the watershed issue. And don’t you even think about following same-sex attractions to their logical conclusions (*shudder*). That will never be okay even after you grow up. Churches work together to get amendments to state constitutions passed just to ensure that whole category of sex never becomes okay. This, to them, has become a matter of life and death, a matter of loyalty to the gospel itself. Evidently the “good news” is that there are tons of wrong ways to have sex, and only a few right ways…and fortunately for them, those happen to be the very ways in which they prefer it!

One last word for the more erudite readers who feel I’ve unfairly stereotyped their faith with the charge of dualism. First let me say, I feel your pain. Truly, I do. I’ve been in that very spot myself, defending the integrated, holistic goodness of my preferred version of the Christian faith. Perhaps you’ve read N.T. Wright brilliantly teasing out a more nuanced Christian theology in his voluminous works (the man is brilliant, what can I say?), and you have thoroughly rejected the dualistic escapism of popular Christianity today. My response is simply this: You may disapprove of both their approach and my response to it, but I am looking at this phenomenologically, taking the faith as it occurs today, not as you or your favorite theologian envision it once upon a time. I, too, once idealized my faith and strove to return the church to its pristine theological beginnings. But it finally dawned on me that no such thing ever existed. It’s a myth. It’s a dream. A beautiful one, yes, and who doesn’t want to chase a beautiful dream? But even the source documents themselves are more disjointed and diverse than you would like to believe. There never was a True Christianity™. There were always competing sects and communities and confessions, so forgive me for dismissing any righteous indignation you feel about me misrepresenting the true Christian teaching about, well, almost anything. It’s a chimera. What I choose to address is what we have today: A church so frightened by the lure and power of sex that it must control it at all costs. If they ever let up, they will lose what little power they have left. What a desperate place to be.


* I’ve had enough theological education to be fully aware that many will protest the charge of dualism, arguing that we should see metonymy here, inaugurated eschatology there, and highly complex nuance all around. But the biblical authors themselves are nowhere near as semantically consistent with their categories as we modern readers would like. In fact, the internal contradictions within the writings of Paul alone are so numerous and irreconcilable that more scholars than not doubt he really wrote all the letters attributed to him.

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28 Responses to Sex and Christianity Make Strange Bedfellows

  1. Midori Skies says:

    Hey, great post. I love your writing. One small nitpick, though.

    “You don’t have to convince any normal person to care about [sex]—for most, it’s inherent.”

    Your word choice here kind of implies that asexuals* are abnormal. Asexuals aren’t any less normal than gay, straight, or bi people are.

    * Asexuality is a sexual orientation involving a lack of sexual attraction towards anyone.

    • Would it be more accurate to choose a different word, such as “typical” instead of “normal”? Does that change the meaning to fit what you are suggesting?

      • Jim Jones says:

        We should expect that the various aspects of human sexuality would fall along a series of “normal curves”, just like height and weight and the rest. Observation seems to confirm this.

        • Martin Phipps says:

          Observation suggests no such thing. The fact is that most people are heterosexual, either male or female. Then you have homosexual males and bisexual women. Then you have bisexual men and women. Then, as Midori suggests, we need to also consider asexual men and women. Human sexuality doesn’t fit a normal curve at all. Studies have shown that the vast majority of men, including some men who describe themselves as bisexual, are either attracted to other men or they are attracted to women. It seems quite cut and dried.

          With women, the picture is less clear: for both men and women there is a stigma against same sex relationships. It is, however, more socially acceptable for a woman to be a lesbian than for a man to be gay, probably because we live in a patriarchal society and straight men are more offended by the notion of gay sex as opposed to lesbian sex. It is conceivable that some women may choose to be lesbian even though women may naturally be either straight or bi.

          It seems inconceivable that a man would choose to be gay, however, when society in general is so set against male homosexuality in general. If a man says he is gay then he probably is genuinely gay and not just living a gay lifestyle by choice. There is very little evidence that men are typically bisexual. I say “very little” because you could conceivably dress a man up as a woman and straight men could become aroused by him if he is convincing enough. I don’t know if such a reaction would count as “bisexuality” however because it would be a question of a straight male responding to female visual cues.

    • >Your word choice here kind of implies that asexuals* are abnormal.

      They are. “Abnormal” means “different from what is normal or average”. Asexuality is not the norm.

      It’s not a value judgment; geniuses are abnormal, as are the incredibly beautiful, the sainted, and so forth.

      • Midori Skies says:

        Actually, the words ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ do have connotations different from words like ‘typical’, ‘average’, or ‘usual’. Normality implies not only averageness but also health. Abnormal implies unusualness as well as freakishness, undesirability, or unhealthiness.

        In arguing over definitions of words, I’d usually talk about how the way words are used is more important than how they are defined in dictionaries. Dictionaries lag behind changes in the language they describe, after all, and they tend towards formal usage of a language rather than informal. In this case, however, I don’t even have to look beyond dictionary definitions to make my point.

        Just from, we see that abnormal is defined as “deviating from what is normal or usual, typically in a way that is undesirable or worrying”, and the definition of normal includes “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected” and “informal a person who is conventional or healthy”.

        I have absolutely no problem with people saying that asexuals are unusual or uncommon. It’s the truth after all. It’s people saying that asexuals are undesirable, unhealthy, freakish, or ‘broken’ that I have a problem with (especially since rather a lot of annoying people actually do say these things outright). Given godlessindixie’s response to my originial comment, it seems highly unlikely that he was trying to say any of these things, and it somewhat confuses me that anyone is trying to have a debate about it after he already modified the post.

        • I really appreciate that you took the time to write this reply. I don’t know much about aces and it was good to learn a little so I don’t make similar mistakes. Intention (in this case the intention to be inoffensive) is not a magic shield, as Shakespeare’s Sister has said. The results are what matter.

          And yes, the term “abnormal” has some distinct connotations that make being asexual seem unhealthy or disordered. We have to deal with language as it is used.

  2. Gra*ma Banana says:

    Doesn’t it all boil down to economics? The more one thinks about or engages in sexual pursuits the less they focus on the Church and its coffers. The Church wants ‘power over’ and ‘commitment from’ all its members so if it controls one of the most basic and pleasurable urges a human can have (SEX) then it controls the human and his/her time and money. The Catholic Church decided that its priests should not be married or have families because, if they had families when they died, they would leave any monies they had accrued during their time as a priest to their wives and offspring instead of to the Catholic Church thus depriving Rome of those priests monies. It would seem that everything in life appears to revolve around the acquisition of money and power.

    • Jim Jones says:

      For animals, certain things represent danger. Eating, drinking, urinating, defecating, sex and childbirth are all activities which make them more susceptible to predators.

      These instincts still exist in humans. For various reasons, the only one which is ‘safe’ for the religious to exploit is sex since it is the least ‘necessary’ although they do variously touch on some of the others.

      • bonnie says:

        Mormonism dictates what you can drink – no alcohol or caffeinated beverages and wear – clothes must cover garments. But yea sex is a favorite of all churches. I’m not sure it’s because it’s the least necessary, I think it might be because it’s the most pleasurable. Interesting how a lot of bible belt Christians have an eating problem though, eh?

  3. bonnie says:

    Church leaders vacillate between obsessing over the myriad ways you shouldn’t have sex and humblebragging about how “smokin’ hot” their wives are and how awesome sex is when you “do it God’s way.”

    LOL. So true. This brought back a lot of memories.

  4. MD Kid says:

    I remember when someone first told me that ‘religious couples had better sex’. Oh the chuckle I had.

    This is an amazing post, you are right on point as always. The Christian religion cannot figure out what message it wants in regard to sex, they just know that in a world of LGBT rights and sex positive, they can’t stay with the stance they have now.

  5. Oh, don’t I remember those awful days when my Christian spouse and I humblebragged about how AWESOME Christian sex was. We of course had a horrible sex life. He had been my only partner, and despite his crowing about his prowess (which he did at any opportunity), he was absolutely inept at sex. I was too ignorant to know better. All I knew was that sex hurt and I hated it and did everything I could to avoid it. But he said I was, er, “getting there,” and surely he knew better than I did, so I took his word for it and just spent almost ten years convinced that I was just one of those people who wasn’t into sex. You just can’t tell people that sex is horrible and awful and painful and evil and Satanic and worldly and undesirable… until you’re married, at which point it is AWESOME and you should want it all the time–in the very carefully-limited ways the church insists it should be had, of course. Any other way was disrespectful to the woman. Men were ravening beasts who couldn’t control themselves, and their job was to ask for it. All the time. Women were sweet humble little angels, and our job was to dole sex out and receive. None of this was happening till after the wedding, though. You’ve hit the nail on the head by determining that sexual “purity” really is the linchpin of the “young person” experience in church.

    As you might guess, I was not able to make that emotional leap from “pure little virgin” to “freak in the sheets” after my wedding day, and I know many other women have had similar trouble. As you’ve pointed out, this stigmatization of sex hurts both genders in various ways, but I’m female, so I know more, maybe, about that end of it.

    I think you have a good point here about directing the body and mind by strangling the privates. You grab most people by their genitals, you’re going to be able to direct them any which way you want.

  6. Homekeeper says:

    Secular humanists restrict their sex life by not ‘going at it’ in public, or participating in rape, incest, pedophilia, etc. You claim the church is trying to control people by setting sexual limits. Who set your sexual limits? Why are your limits good and right, and Christian limits wrong?

    • It’s a question of degrees. My criticism is not that limits are set, as if none are needed. My criticism is that the Christian faith goes too far, multiplying restrictions beyond what is healthy.

      For example: Evangelical churches generally condemn cohabitation among consenting adults, but experience suggests that it may be a better way of testing compatibility than, say, courting. The churches who oppose this have to hype up the perceived dangers of “giving it away” as if some part of your soul is lost in the process. This seems clearly reactionary and unnecessary to me.

    • bonnie says:

      I guess for me the issue is that ‘I’ set my own limits, no one else. I decide what I’m comfortable with and what turns me on (whether that’s going at it in public or not :p). The problem with an outside source setting limits (Chritianity or whoever) is that it limits your natural sexuality. One doesn’t seek to find out what one enjoys and embrace ones own sexuality for fear of ‘crossing lines’. They end up having a sex in the way they believe they are ‘supposed’ to and guilt almost always end up linked sexual feelings.

    • mikespeir says:

      I wasn’t going to comment on this thread because my gut response was something like yours, and I suspected it would be difficult to articulate it in a way that didn’t stir the pot unnecessarily. The fact is, sex is a very volatile thing. It can cause so much hurt. It does have to be controlled. If people won’t do it voluntarily, then control has to be imposed from without.

      But I think that can be said without contradicting the object of this post. Here’s the bottom line for me: Yes, restrictions have to be placed on sex, but it’s incumbent on you to support and defend any restrictions you want placed on it. And “Thus saith the Lord” doesn’t qualify as support or a defense. Neither does the odd anecdote about something going badly wrong. (People have died drinking too much water. Perhaps we should regulate water drinking?) Pointing out consequences that might have been incurred 1000 or even 100 years ago won’t do. The truth is, sex has been profoundly affected by recent technological advances. What used to be desperately risky need not be anymore.

      If you want to insist on traditional Christian sexual morality (which has never been successfully imposed on any large scale anyway), then you’re going to need to lay a foundation that nobody, in my opinion, has been able to successfully lay. At the very least, you’ll need to show that there is a god, that this god is the Christian God, that there’s any way to reliably know this God’s expectations, that these expectations ought to be respected rather than defied, and so on. Good luck with that.

  7. Courtney says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve been following your blog for a little while now, and really enjoy reading your insights (I always learn something!) I was raised in an evangelical church, and had to laugh at the humblebragging line because I remember hearing those kinds of statements over and over again. I was also told things like “Lots of people regret having sex before marriage, but you never hear anyone say they regret waiting.” Well, a quick search online shows that just isn’t the case. People are speaking out about how harmful this ideology has been in their lives, including some of the comments on this very post.

    The church is so focused on the issue of “sexual sins” that everything else seems to pale in comparison (perhaps with the exception of divorce, which is also tied to sex). I absolutely agree that “not having sex” becomes the identity marker for Christian teens; the thing that sets them apart from their peers and marks them as “not of this world.” I recognize the truth of what you’re saying, while shuddering at how sinister it appears in retrospect. Thanks for speaking out.

  8. Brendan Reid says:

    A related point is the historic Christian/Catholic specific antagonisms towards masturbation, contraception and of course gay sex & abortion. None of these activities make babies.

    It seems to me all of these could be simply attributed to an Old Testament need to constantly increase the vulnerable tribe’s population of warriors & workers. Fear of the neighboring marauders. Desire for more priestly power and gold. I can imagine a priest lazing around, popping grapes into his mouth, saying: “Oh well, if you insist on doing it instead of praying to Yahweh, at least make me some cannon fodder, field slaves and tithers while you’re at it …”

    The religious tribal population preservation instincts seem to be just as strong today especially with acceptance of gays and the Internet causing their indoctrinated youth to leave the tribe – so the edicts continue.


    • Don’t forget Richard Dawkins argument that religion spreads as a meme. He was making the analogy with genes. Natural selection applies to religion: if the religion encourages people to make babies then more babies will be born and more people will be indoctrinated into the religion. By contrast, a religion that would require everyone to be “chaste and pure” for their entire lives and never get married or have babies would die out in a single generation.

  9. Adrienne says:

    All my Christian friends are having sex outside of marriage without any guilt. The general rule is not to talk about it in church. It’s don’t ask don’t tell. And it seems to work just fine.

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