Friday, April 03, 2015

Towards a new ethic of sexuality in the Church

I have been spending a fair amount of time lately thinking about human sexuality. It’s funny that this would be a topic about which I feel compelled to speak, because I was socialized in a way that it was extremely unacceptable to talk about sex. I am not alone in this situation either. My family did not give any particular guidance about sexuality, nor did my church. I received a really comprehensive sex education in my high school health classes, and for that I am thankful.  They didn’t skimp on the biology or the methodology of birth control. What was missing was any sort of education pertaining to LGBTQ concerns or implications of being in a relationship with another person or how sexual activity can change a relationship. I don’t fault my health class in any way, because most of these things are learned over the course of a lifetime of trial and error.

What I find particularly problematic is the church, in my case, the ELCA, isn’t entirely sure how to handle matters of sex. The most that the church generally offers is something along the lines of “don’t have sex outside of marriage.”  Except that marriage as a cultural institution has shifted so dramatically, and over the last few decades, the age of first marriage has gradually increased.  And sex has become more and more a topic for public discussion and more acceptable.

So you combine changing norms around marriage (more and more people never marrying at all, same gender marriage becoming a legal reality, etc) with a dramatic increase in the age of first marriage (according to US Census information, this is now 29 for men and 27 for women) and the church’s rhetoric of “no sex before you get married” is just not that realistic anymore. What would it take for Christians to reimagine our view of sex?

Premarital sex has been cast in the light of “sin”.  Sex as a part of intimate relationships has been unfortunately commingled with a historical understanding of women as property to be “married off” and heteronormativity.  Virginity before marriage is bound up in notions of women needing to be pure as they are “given away” to their husbands in marriage.  This purity culture implies that sex before marriage makes a woman “used goods.”  The inherent patriarchy in this understanding does not hold men to the same standards. What is most problematic in this discourse is that it is so stuck in the idea of one man + one woman =marriage understanding that it completely ignores other expressions of public commitments of love.

When we make sex before marriage something that is tied to shame, it takes on a life of its own.  It becomes something that we keep hidden.  This creates all sorts of issues.  We don’t offer space for two adults in a committed relationship to consent to sexual relations with one another. There is no magic permission giving that happens before the signing of a marriage certificate and after.  We have created a sexual ethic of shame, which causes real issues and real pain.  

When we limit the definition of marriage to one man + one woman, we implicitly buy into a history of patriarchy and oppression. There is a raging and vitriolic debate going on about what constitutes marriage. The term “Biblical marriage” has been flung around, when in actuality, there is no one definition of what this means.  My next blog post will explore this idea.

What would it take for the church to explore a new ethic of human sexuality?  To recognize that shame need not be the driving force?  That rather, an open and mutually respectful and loving ethic of human sexuality be what drives us?  That God delights in our physical expressions of love for one another because that is what we were created to do? 

What would it take for the church to recognize that marriage is a public commitment of love and fidelity between two adults, whatever their genders? That marriage equality is not a slippery slope of “anything goes” but rather a recognition that love has many faces. What would it look like if the church honored and supported all marriages?

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