Sexual guilt, and how to do it better.

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Sexual guilt. If there’s one thing young, evangelical Christians know how to do really well, it’s surely that. 

From the first time your Saturday night teenage fumble is followed by an earnest youth group Bible study on “not even a hint”, you become ever so familiar with that sinking feeling in your gut. And next time, it won’t take ’til Sunday morning to feel it.

You learn the reason for the guilt. It’s very simple. You feel guilty, you’re told, not because sex is bad. It’s because sex (and anything that ‘hints’ at it) outside of marriage is bad. It’s a catch-all explanation for the years of guilt and shame that your average evangelical teenager will feel, right the way through to  young adulthood.

It’s dangerous. Really dangerous.

The result is this stupidly one-dimensional ethic that divides all sex in to two categories – within marriage, and outside marriage. One good, one bad. One helps intimacy and love, the other creates pain and shame.

Imagine how that belief plays out in real life:

As an evangelical teenager, still working things out, discovering relationships, testing boundaries, making mistakes, you find yourself in a situation which you sense is not quite right. You get caught up in the heat of the moment, and realise you’ve been too pushy, pressuring another person to go further than they were comfortable with. When realising you’ve done something wrong and hurt another person, you feel that familiar guilt.

Instead of associating this with the pressure you inflicted, and learning a valuable lesson about consent, you simply assume the guilt you feel is because you did something sexual before marriage. 

The same goes for other poor decision-making, whether messing around with a friend’s ex, or leading someone on in order to boost your own ego, or breaking the trust of a sexual partner. As soon as you realise it was a bad move, and feel a sinking, guilty feeling, you assume you know the reason. Sex outside marriage is bad, so of course you’re going to feel guilty for it.

You never learn to consider what else might have been wrong there.

You never learn that there’s much more to having a good sex life than whether you’ve got a ring on your finger when you do it.

I discovered recently, thanks to a sermon I was expecting to hate but turned out to find really useful, a little phrase I’d overlooked in 1 Thessalonians 4. One of those “avoid sexual immorality” passages. As ever, we’re left to work out what sexual immorality actually means, and marriage, it turns out, isn’t mentioned at all. What it does say is this:

“…in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.” 

What if that was the starting point for interpreting sexual guilt? What if immoral sex wasn’t defined by the legal status of your relationship, but by wronging and taking advantage of other people? How much more would evangelical teenagers be thinking about consent, about being considerate to friends, about empathy and kindness?

How many mistakes would I have avoided repeating? 

If we teach young people that sexual immorality is simply sex outside of marriage, we leave them totally ill-equipped to negotiate the dilemmas and decisions they’ll need to make with understanding, consideration, and common decency.

Perhaps it’s right that evangelicals should be well aware of our sexual failures and mistakes. Perhaps a bit of guilt is a good reminder to make better choices next time. But if the dividing line between good sex and bad sex is marriage, that guilt is going to be dangerously misinterpreted.

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About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
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9 Responses to Sexual guilt, and how to do it better.

  1. Hi Claire, I was reading A New Kind of Christian, by Brian Mclaren today, and I came across a bit which seems very pertinent to your blog:
    Discussing a dangerous attitude to sin, and the example of Jesus and the woman condemned of adultery, ‘How much energy do we modern Christians put into condemning sexual sins compared to avoiding the judgemental, Pharisaical attitude of those with rocks in their hands? Who killed Jesus, adulterers or Pharisees? I’m not trying to minimize adultery… I’m just saying that our modern preoccupations don’t seem very informed by the gospel.’ (p.99)
    Oh and for the record, I loved your post, it’s something I’ve been coming to terms with over the last year, and I’m glad you’ve been brave enough to talk about it. Keep writing!

  2. Fishywishy says:

    Hmm, I think there’s also a dangerous side to talking like this… of course consideration and empathy and all of those things are important, but the world around us has left itself with nothing BUT that to define right and wrong- since it has made marriage pretty much irrelevant.

    And about consent- did you know that Biblically, consent cannot make sex right or wrong? Outside of marriage, it’s wrong regardless of consent or the lack thereof. Within marriage, there’s a Biblical obligation to take care of one’s spouse’s sexual desires. Paul goes so far as to tell me that I have no authority over my own body, it’s Samuel’s- just as his body is mine, he has no authority over it. Within a Biblical marriage, NOT having sex is the decision which requires mutual consent :p An interesting one to chew on 🙂

    • Claire says:

      So… where does the reality of marital rape fit in to that?

    • Joshua says:

      “…did you know that Biblically, consent cannot make sex right or wrong? Outside of marriage, it’s wrong regardless of consent or the lack thereof.” I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently…

      It is often claimed that the Bible is “clearly” condemning of sex outside/before marriage, and yet I wonder if we can be so bold in claiming this.

      Expositors generally state as a matter of fact that the Bible is against adultery, fair enough, but then contrively define it as sex with the person you are not married to. Is this a ‘plain reading of the text’?

      Or that Paul warns us to “flee from sexual immorality”, but surely it begs the question to take from this that we should flee from premarital sex. As Claire mentions above, how do we determine what is immoral? Do we fall back on ‘biblical’ principles of justice and neighbourly love (use our consciences and think for ourselves), or do we take as gospel from the preacher that this necessarily includes sex outside of marriage?

      And then the coup de grâce, that the bible lists ‘fornication’ in its lists of sins and kingdom-excluders. But to simply define fornication as ‘sex outside marriage’ seems a leap of faith considering the history of its Greek cognate’s (porneia) translation. Perhaps it is better associated with prostitution, and the more historic translation of ‘whoredom’..?

      Even if we do arrive at the conclusion that the bible is against all forms of sexual expression outside of marriage, I don’t think we are justified in stating it so matter-of-factly – “did you know…” I think instead we need to be honest with ourselves and the bible – rather than giving us a list of sexual norms to live by two millennia after it’s compilation, it is quite unclear on specifics/imperatives. Although if you disagree, I’d be interested to hear your reasoning.

    • Claire says:

      Yeah the more I’ve come back to this comment, the more this line “did you know that Biblically, consent cannot make sex right or wrong?” really bugs me. I just totally disagree.

      You’re throwing around ‘Biblical’ to describe your interpretation of the Bible, when I don’t think it’s nearly as clear cut as that – you know as well as I do that there is no verse in the Bible which says “the definition of right sex is….” or “what I meant by the phrase ‘sexual immorality’ is…” or even “sex outside of marriage is wrong”.

      That means we’re ALL interpreting what we think the Bible writers mean when they talk about sexual immorality, and marriage features in some passages .and not in others.

      I think it’s horribly flippant to imply that according to the Bible, lack of consent doesn’t make sex wrong.

    • Fishywishy says:

      OK…

      I’ll admit that marital rape isn’t something I know a huge amount about, but my initial thought is that it shouldn’t exist. If both partners are taking the Bible seriously, then the husband will be loving his wife as Christ loves the church. That probably means that he won’t be particularly selfish with her, since love doesn’t do that and Jesus’ love definitely doesn’t. He won’t insist on his own needs or rights, sexual or otherwise, above hers and won’t use his strength (or anything else) against her. Neither will he neglect or ignore her, sexually or otherwise. Jesus’ love for us was not indifferent, it didn’t leave us alone, and he didn’t wait for our consent to show his love. As for the wife, she won’t particularly be in the position to be raped by her husband if she takes that passage about body ownership seriously- because surely rape involves one party being against the idea? I heard some people in college flippantly redefining rape as ‘surprise sex’, but one is clearly wrong and the other I see no inherent problem with. I’m not sure where the debate on whether a woman can rape a man is up to, but since wives are told to submit to their husbands that probably covers not raping him. Basically, if both partners treat each other the way the Bible says they should, then rape should not be an issue. Where that breaks down, of course, is the fact that both husband and wife are sinners. That makes everything very complicated in every area of life, but I suspect that in most cases, there is fault on both sides. How much fault is not for me to say, how hard another person’s situation is is not for me to say, but I think I can confidently say that conditional love is not love at all. Unconditional love is not easy, but it is required of us.

      Now, just for an experiment, answer the following questions about the section above:
      1. How well did you understand my position?
      2. How many words did I use without bothering to first define?
      3. To what extent did that affect your understanding of the section above?
      4. Did you even think about whether I was going to define my terms?

      You see, it’s fairly normal to use words and assume that people who speak the same language will be able to figure out what we mean. You might get very used to definitions in academia, but in everyday use you just use words and expect people to understand you. Note, you expect people to understand what you mean, not to make up their own interpretation of what you said. Of course, communication doesn’t always work perfectly but I think that we can approach the Bible with the assumption that it’s meant to be understood. It talks about sexual immorality expecting us (or at the very least, the original audience) to know what that is. It contrasts marriage, which is to be honoured, with adultery and fornication, which will be judged and punished. Isn’t it a bit scary to talk as though there were no set definition for whichever words were originally used in Heb 13:4, as though the writer said that marriage is honourable, but those engaging in “a particular category of sexual practices which I will not define here or elsewhere, figure it out for yourselves” will be judged. It kind of makes you wonder why the writer wasted the ink on writing a warning and a condemnation without making it clear.

      Proverbs 5:15-23 and Leviticus 20:10 both speak fairly clearly of adultery, and the rest of Leviticus 20 talks about some kinds of sexual immorality. You could argue that God was stricter on the Israelites than on other peoples, he gave them the ceremonial law in addition to the moral and judicial law, but v22-23 suggests that maybe this stuff is not just to teach them about separation, distinction and cleanliness. Maybe God always hates incest, homosexuality and bestiality. Leviticus 21 makes a big deal about priests marrying only virgins- yes, the word can mean “young woman”, but doesn’t the discrepancy itself speak? Virgins are contrasted with widows, divorced women, prostitutes and defiled women. If sex outside of marriage were ever right, surely there would be an extra category there? The undefiled non-virgins who had respectful, loving pre-marital sex are not mentioned for some reason.

      Deuteronomy 22:13 onwards is another interesting passage. If pre-marital sex were actually OK, what do you make of v13-21? If the young woman hadn’t taken payment for sex, or had only had sex with one person (as respectfully, lovingly and fully consenting as you like), would that make it OK since she didn’t fit the modern definition of a whore? If the man in v28 hadn’t forced the young woman, would she still be defiled?

      Deuteronomy 21:10-14 describes how to go about starting a sexual relationship with a captured slave. She must be given time to mourn for her family, and be purified. Then when the sexual relationship starts, she is to become a wife- not just a sexual partner- and she cannot be sold or treated like a slave because she has been humbled. If there’s no provision for sex without marriage, what does that suggest about what marriage is, and what sexual immorality is?

      It seems to me, though I often forget it and am not sure how to interpret it culturally, that in the OT marriage began with sex and included a lifelong commitment on both sides (I’m hungry so I’m not gonna go into divorce right now). However, marriage was binding from the point of betrothal and unfaithfulness was taken very seriously. Sexual activity outside of marriage seemed to begin a marriage in some cases, where there was no betrothal or marriage to be unfaithful to- and there were heavier obligations on the husband in some of these cases. I think the idea of people living together without being married just didn’t happen in Hebrew society. If they lived together, they were married and everyone knew it. If they were married, they had certain duties towards each other- faithfulness, conjugal love, food and clothing are all mentioned in the Pentateuch.

      I think the gray areas are as follows:
      1. Should we talk about pre-marital sex, or about getting married sooner than expected? (My attitude- if you wait for the wedding, you don’t have to worry.)
      2. In God’s sight, are a committed couple who live together faithfully actually married? (My attitude- why on earth would they not get married legally/in church and make it official? Perhaps their answer would be more revealing than the fact that they aren’t legally married.)

      I do stand by the position that sex and marriage go together, and you shouldn’t try to have one without the other. If having sex starts a marriage (we aren’t talking UK law here) then it isn’t sex outside marriage.

      This post might sound a lot more uncertain than I actually feel. In all honesty, I’m kind of suspicious of this kind of discussion. It seems like trying to wiggle around what the Bible says pretty clearly (even if you do have to figure out how words and concepts are defined elsewhere) so that its obligations seem like they’re no longer binding on you or those you love. It might be inconvenient to talk about sexual immorality as being broader than adultery, prostitution and rape. By all means talk about respect and love in the context of sexual morality, but don’t make it sound like there are no more specific guidelines.

    • Fishywishy says:

      P.S. It just occurred to me… in the example about taking a battle captive as a wife, is there any mention of asking her if she’s OK with marrying you? Not exactly an exemplary relationship in terms of mutual love and respect, but it seems that at least in that case, a lack of consent on her part couldn’t make the marriage wrong.

  3. Pingback: Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned… | The Art of Uncertainty

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