Saturday, March 01, 2008

More thoughts on sexual ethics...

Hello everyone, Danny here. Sorry I missed this episode, I enjoyed listening to it. I thought I'd give my two cents here.

I'm in a fairly unique position here as an atheist. I'm probably more "sexually pure" than many other Christians. The only person I've ever slept with is my wife and we didn't sleep together until after marriage. Now, I'd never be one to say that what we did was wrong, but I no longer think it's necessarily the "right way" either.

I think Kevin explained very well that fact the Christianity is not against sex or sexuality the way it's often perceived. When my former church talked about purity, they talked about how awesome and beautiful it is to express your love sexually for the one person that God picked out for you , and no one else. It's very romantic. If it's done right, it can be very cool.

However, life isn't always perfect romance, is it? I think one of the reasons we got married so young is that we didn't want to put anymore time in front of our need for sexual contact. That's not the reason we were married... at least, that wasn't the only thing. Of course, we were in love and we still are deeply in love. But if we could do it over again knowing what we know now, would we do it the same way? Probably not.

There were some good things about it. It was a character building challenge. It made some very good changes in our relationship. When we were alone together, we were forced to talk and talk and talk. What else is there to do? But all in all, the whole thing was done for slightly silly reasons. If you believe all the religious stuff behind the theory, it is it's own reward. But as freethinkers, it feels like we just denied ourselves some great pleasure.

I guess what I learned from all this, is that if you are ingrained in a Christian paradigm and you have a problem with "giving yourself" to someone other than your one, true soul-mate; you're going to be in a very tough position. You'll either bite the bullet, resist the temptation and devote yourself to building a strong relationship outside of sex and save it until you're ready for marriage. Or you'll give up, give in and have to deal with a whole world of un-necessary guilt for your actions.

I like what Dan said about the difference between sexual stupidness and sexual immorality. You shouldn't feel guilty for sexual stupidness, it's just a mistake like any other. Learn from it, and move on. The problem is when someone equates mistakes with actual immorality. It may be hard for someone to get out of their head the idea that they've been "violated" or "used" once they've had a sexual experience. Of course, I'm talking only about consensual sex between two adults.... There are of course sexual crimes that are devastating. That's neither here nor there.

So, doing it the Christian way is hard. And it's risky. It's a very high bar to live up to, and if you fail it could be a world of hurt and guilt. If you do it right, you'll probably be all the better for it.

That's all I got to say about that.


Blogger Dan Sawyer said...

I'd second a lot of what Danny said. My partner and I also waited until we were married, though looking back it's quite certain that neither of us would do that again.

Ironically, the real genesis of my antipathy towards Christian sexual morality came just after I was married, when I was in a Christian grad school training for my MFCC (now called an MFT) degree. Naturally, one of the big issues in marital and family therapy is sex. Imagine my shock when Barna's findings pop up, revealing that *both* sexual dysfunction *and* sexual abuse are more common among the most sexually conservative of believers than they are amongst the general populace. Incest, impotence, vaginismus, pornography "addiction," sexlessness, shame, adultery, and divorce - the list goes on. Of course, we spent a long time talking about how to help people through these things and learning how to do the differential on a particular presenting dysfunction to figure out whether it was at least partly physical or purely psychosomatic/psychological. Again, no big surprise in retrospect, psychosexual dysfunction is far more common than physiological dysfunction (though both happen).

This is a roundabout way of getting to my two main problems with Christian sexual morality, and why I see it as destructive rather than as just kind of silly.

1) "Christian" sexual morality has no categories for minority sexuality. I'm not talking just about homosexuality or bisexuality here. Think instead about transsexuality, ambiguous genitalia, duplicated sex chromosomes, androgen insensitivity syndrome, and other biological sexual disorders. Even if you slide homosexuality and bisexuality to the side, the fact of the matter is that more than one in every thousand people has one of the disorders I mentioned above. They all have sexual desires, bonding impulses, etc. like the rest of us, however their biological development was sabotaged at an early state. Transsexuals are often the result of improper chemical bathing in utero, leading to the development of a feminine brain in a masculine body or vice versa. Ambiguous genitalia results from incomplete sexual development, again because of hormonal or genetic problems - and in the past it was normal practice to assign gender at birth to children with ambiguous genitals, a decision made at the whim of a doctor and often a decision that did not effect the neurological gender characteristics of the baby. Androgen insensitivity syndrome happens when an XY baby has a mutation that makes him insensitive to testosterone, so he develops as a girl (often as a hyperfeminine girl). And then there are the plethora of genetic disorders - some deadly, some not - which lead to ambiguous sexing (XXY, XXXY, XYY, etc.). Christian morality has no place for people like this, it has no categories by which to advance an ethical theory for them that will simultaneously preserve its special status for heterosexual marital monogamy.

2) This leads me to my second problem with Christian sexual morality (note that I say "Christian" and not "biblical" - the two have very little to do with one another). Christian sexual morality is not based upon love, or harm reduction, or good maximization, although it can use these things as justification so long as you look only at best case scenarios.
Christian sexual morality instead bases its notion of sexual ethics on a purity code, and a notion that sex is sacred. Because conservative Christians believe that sex is made for a garden of Eden bonding scenario, it is removed from the normal realm of ethical discussion. It is something sacred and other, it is literally fetishized out of normal human experience (the original meaning of "fetish" is "idol").

The Christian fetishization of marital sex necessarily pathologizes all other forms of sexual expression, including individual sexual fantasy and masturbation. It singlehandedly makes sinners out of everyone, and encourages dishonesty and hypocrisy about sexual desires and actions, it creates an inhospitable environment for sexual communication, and generally screws things up. In no other environment than one in which sex is fetishized could the following views be considered axiomatic:
masturbation is sinful
fantasy is adulterous
fantasy about particular people you're not married to is adulterous and exploitative
pornography and erotica are an addiction
simple mixed-gender social nudity (say, at a nude beach, or in a sauna on a film set) is sinful
playful sex between unmarried partners is exploitation or "using" one another

Making sex into a god (with a lower-case "g") as conservative Christianity does (and always has) is the thing that sets Christian morality firmly in the camp of the destructive.

There's nothing inherently wrong, destructive, or immoral about waiting until marriage for sex. Depending on the couple, it can be a healthy and appropriate decision that is good for their relationship. It can also be grade-A stupid - and not just because it pushes people to get married when they are not ready in other ways. I've worked with couples who didn't know about serious dysfunctions their partner had - such as vaginismus, impotence, choking fixations, etc. - until after they were married.

There IS, however, something I can only label as "deeply immoral" about sanctifying heterosexual married monogamy and pathologizing all other forms of sexual expression, identity, desire, and experience to a greater or lesser degree. Making sex into something "other" that is not a normal bodily function and a normal part of life diminishes the humanity of people, it cuts them off from one of the foundational joys of biological embodiment, and it is capricious and cruel.

3/1/08, 1:43 PM  
Blogger Zachary Moore said...

I'll add my name to the 'waited until marriage' pile, although it wasn't exactly intentional. Growing up Christian made sex frightening, and as a result I was emotionally unprepared for it much longer than I should have been. Once I came out of the Christian paradigm, I was able to mature, and soon thereafter I met Andrea.

Is Dan's criticism of Christianity limited just to sex, or is it addressing the whole "family values" aspect of Christianity? The "nuclear family" concept seems to be a fundamental part of the Christian worldview, but this really isn't Biblical, either. Did any of the patriarchs fit into this concept?

Also, we haven't touched on the origins of this perception of sex- St. Augustine is the bugbear at the root of it, I believe. Is there any way to dissect his influence from Christianity, and if so, what would it look like?

3/1/08, 6:54 PM  
Blogger Dan Sawyer said...

I certainly do have criticisms of Christianity when it comes to the family values paradigm as well, thought that criticism is a lot more narrowly focused at American Christianity in most of its forms, rather than a global criticism. The problems Christianity has with sex go back at least to Augustine, and a lot of them have their roots in Platonism, which I'll get to in a minute...

The "family values" formulation as promulgated by Promise Keepers and other high profile advocates put forth looks something like this:
The man is the head of the house and everything in it. He's the boss and the primary breadwinner.
The woman is primarily responsible for keeping the house, rearing the children, and managing the family's social contacts.
Children are innocents who need careful protection and shielding from the world. Their innocense is a special gift, and care should be taken that they do not grow up too fast through exposure to sexual knowledge, knowledge of power and violence, or other knowledge of the world that might shatter or dampen their wide-eyed wonder. (This notion, btw, is inhereted from the Victorians. The historian Hughes Lebailly has done some interesting work on this issue, it's worth checking out).
The family is a closed unit, circumscribed by high walls of privacy and largely unnacountable to the wider community.
This particular formulation of the family is, in some sense, God's ideal and/or historically or biologically normative.

The problem is that it's not normative. History - even the Bible, tells a tale of the family that is polymorphus and multifaceted. At different times and places, clan life is the norm, at others slavery and concubinage, at others polygamy of various sorts, at others group parenting, and at others extended families. The family IS the basic social unit, but the shape the family takes is one that acts in service to the needs of the people in that family and the realities of the societies and economies that family exists in. This has always been the case, and it always will be the case. Conservative Christians, unnerved by the sexual and cultural revolution brought on by the emancipation of women and the ubiquity of birth control have established a fiction about "the way God intended things" that has nothing to do with history and nothing to do with the Bible. To riff on a phrase that Christians have held dear for millenia: "Marriage were made for humans, not humans for marriage." Ditto for lifelong heterosexual monogamy. Like the Christian view of sex, the "family values" construct is an ultimately unhealthy and damaging attempt to convince others that God to endorses their particular view of sexual and social politics.

As far as Augustine - yeah, he didn't help much on the topic, beginning his career as a theologian by abandoning his common-law wife and child so that he could serve God in perfect purity. Augustine, like Paul before him, subscribed far too seriously to Platonism, which held that all things have an ultimate spiritual ideal form, and that the less spiritual and more fleshly a thing got, the more corrupt and evil it became. Sex is about as fleshly as one can get, and it was a convenient way for Christians to stand out against the more fertility-oriented mystery cults that proliferated in the early and middle empire periods throughout the Roman world.

As far as how to disentangle him from Christianity? I honestly don't think it's possible. Augustine's theological and philosophical program are the bedrock of post-Nicene Athenaisian Christianity, so much so that it's difficult to imagine Christianity having a definable shape without him. Of course, I could be wrong. John, you're currently going for a theology degree, what's your take on all this stuff?

3/2/08, 5:44 PM  
Blogger Butch said...

I grew up and was raised totally differently. I don't feel guilt by the fact that my wife was the last of a slew: Christianity (not to be distinguished from anything Biblical--I don't jump on the 'orthodoxy as fiction' bandwagon, however popular it is right now) does not teach guilt. It teaches proper conviction for sinning but so the person can turn to Christ in true repentance (meta-noia-a change of mind), not to wallow. Indeed, anyone who reads Scripture can see that a great stress and emphasis is placed on the consistent reception and reminder that Christ has paid for those sins and we need not dwell on them any longer.

Christianity never purports to explain particular situations outside of a norm. It never places that norm in a higher position in order to provide some kind of ideal; rather, the ethics concerning that norm are there because it's the norm. The problems addressed are according to that norm because that's what was going on. People wonder about Jesus and homosexuality but He was constantly talking to and addressing a bunch of religiously zealous Jews. While I'm sure there were homosexuals in that crowd, the likelihood was considerably less that someone would be homosexual in that environment (same goes for the 'virgin'/'young woman' debate about Mary--would a teenage Jewish girl at the time be a good candidate for virginity? Survey says: yes. I do recognise that this does not close the door on that subject but it helps my other point some).

Whatever some folks deal with as regards their sexual makeup is a silent issue in Scripture but I think there is a bad identification being made here on a couple of levels:
1. Scripture doesn't provide all of its ethical regulations for people who don't intend to follow them. That is to say, the expectancy to obey is not made of non-Jews or non-Christians (the law came later).
2. Putting people in the 'sinners' column for sexual activity alone completely misses the point: we're all sinners anyway. Scripture teaches we're dead in sin from birth, not that the things we do make a cumulative case for us being sinners later on.

I know there isn't a whole lot here. All of this kind of thing has been wearing down on me a lot lately because there's a lot of stupidity on both sides and it's just annoying and frustrating. You will all have some counter-argument and I could counter that and that crap can go on forever. I am beginning to see less and less of a point to all of this. I might go on sabbatical from everything soon.

3/3/08, 5:28 PM  
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