Traditionalists in the United States have seen their influence over sexual norms wane greatly in the postwar decades. If you believe that birth-control pills represent a historic advance to be celebrated, or that neither homosexuality nor premarital sex nor masturbation should be stigmatized, much of this change is salutary. Observers who support modern social norms surrounding sex should nevertheless ask themselves if any wisdom is being lost as mores shift rapidly and more people react against, dismiss, malign, or simply ignore traditionalist perspectives.
For all my disagreements with Christian norms–the most influential and widely held traditionalist perspective in America—I'm convinced that the religion offers some core truths that would improve America's sexual culture if we only applied them. But you'd never know about what I consider Christianity's most valuable insights from the way prominent Christians in the public square talk about sex, or the ways that Christians are portrayed by nonbelievers in media, politics, and popular culture. When talking about sex, even to general audiences, many prominent Christians emphasize arguments and faith-based frameworks that couldn't possibly resonate with nonbelievers. Meanwhile, critics of traditionalist Christians, including some from within the religion, tend to object to their priorities, arguing that unlike Jesus Christ, they focus too much on sex and too little on social justice. That critique treats the substance of their beliefs on sex as immaterial.
There is, I think, a better way.
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Damon Linker recently observed that while Christianity's outlook on sex has changed some over two millennia, "from the fourth century, down to roughly my grandparents' generation, the vast majority of people in the Western world believed without question that masturbation, pre-marital sex, and promiscuity were wrong, that out-of-wedlock pregnancy was shameful, that adultery was a serious sin, that divorce should either be banned or allowed only in the rarest of situations, and that homosexual desires were gravely disordered and worthy of severe punishment."
Today, sex before marriage is the norm; promiscuity is much less stigmatized; masturbation is a matter of moral indifference; birth control is everywhere; out-of-wedlock pregnancy is increasingly common; divorces are frequent and accepted; abortion is legal; homosexuality is mainstream; and porn is ubiquitous. There are websites that facilitate adultery. Moral judgments and expectations "have been almost completely dissolved, replaced by a single moral judgment or consideration: individual consent," Linker says. As he sees it, "all of our so-called cultural conflicts flow from this monumental shift," which terrifies traditionalists. And while Linker usually feels at home in sexual modernity, he sees wisdom in the traditionalists' view and argues that their terror at abandoning old norms may make sense. Here's how he puts it in a passage that understates the gains of sexual modernity and somewhat overstates the likely costs:
We broke from them in the blink of an eye, figuratively speaking. The gains are pretty clear—It's fun! It feels good!—but the losses are murkier and probably won't be tallied for a very long time. Is the ethic of individual consent sufficient to keep people (mostly men) from acting violently on their sexual desires? What will become of childhood if our culture continues down the road of pervasive sexualization? Do children do best with two parents of opposite genders? Or are two parents of the same gender just as good? Or better? How about one parent of either gender? What about three, four, five, or more people in a constantly evolving polyamorous arrangement? Can the institution of marriage survive without the ideals of fidelity and monogamy? What kind of sexual temptations and experiences will technology present us with a year—or a decade, or a century—from now? Will people be able to think of reasons or conjure up the will to resist those temptations? Will they even try? Does it even matter?
I have no idea how to answer these questions.
Various Christian bloggers and commenters nodded along to these temperamentally conservative concerns. But several don't seem particularly concerning to me.
Is the ethic of consent sufficient to stop rape? Well, no, rape is still with us, as it has been under every sexual ethos in human history, but as Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, has put it, "The rate of forcible rape as reported on victimization surveys peaked in 1979 at about 2.8 per 1000 population. In 2009 the rate fell to 0.5... The theory that pornography causes sex crime would seem to have a hard time surviving comparison with the data." Recent sexual modernity and the rise of ubiquitous porn are correlated with less rape, not more.
What will pervasive sexualization do to childhood? Like rape, this is a subject of legitimate concern, but it's strange to just assume that kids are more sexualized in modern times. The University of Sydney's Stephen Robertson compiled age-of-consent statutes from various American states in 1880. In California, New York, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and most other states, the age of consent was 10. For millennia, the vast majority of children, who lived in close quarters with their parents, were far more exposed to actual sex than today's kids. There is a far stronger stigma against pederasty now than at many times in history. And surveying America and the globe, communities where children lose their sexual innocence at the youngest ages are often bastions of religious traditionalism.
There are, of course, ways in which a kid with an unsupervised Internet connection can see sexual acts that most adults had never seen for most of human history. I don't think concern at the unknown implications of that fact is unreasonable. But the sphere of childhood is arguably better protected and preserved in modern secular America than in all sorts of more traditional settings.
"Do children do best with two parents of opposite genders? Or are two parents of the same gender just as good?" However one reads the available evidence, it seems clear to me that the question is dramatically less important than traditionalists think. If being parented by opposite-gender couples allows the average kid to "do best"—which isn't my read on the evidence at all, but let's say it's true for the sake of argument—so what? Compare kids raised in poor areas of Appalachia or the Deep South with kids raised in Portland, Oregon, or Cambridge, Massachusetts. One could conclude that the latter "do best," on average, by all sorts of metrics. Should those in poor areas stop having kids? Traditionalists certainly don't think so. When a 14-year-old from a family on welfare is raped and decides to keep and raise the baby, traditionalists celebrate this decision, fully aware that the circumstances of the kid's upbringing won't be "the best."
Yet a lovingly married lesbian couple with a house in a safe neighborhood, stable careers, and ample free time for parenting prompt traditionalists to start complaining that hypothetical opposite-sex parents would do better (though they know many particular opposite-sex couples do worse). Alarm at gay parents seems totally irrational. They'll never be more than a tiny minority of all parents in the United States, and there's good reason to think the biggest hurdle they face is anti-gay prejudice.
What if there are far more urgent questions and perspectives for traditionalists to be raising?
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The gay Catholic blogger Andrew Sullivan recently responded to the centrality of sex in the culture war between traditionalist Christians and other groups, arguing that "the actual dividing line between modern and traditional Christians in the public square is that I do not regard sexual matters to be that important in the context of what Christianity teaches about our obligations as human beings in the polity and the world. The difference between moderns and trads is that the trads see sex as the critical issue, and we moderns see a whole host of other issues." He goes on:
My mum once told me as a kid that “sex outside marriage is a sin, but not that big a sin.” That remains my position. It’s up there with over-eating, excessive consumerism, the idolatry of money and profit, and spoliation of our environment—except the powerful sex drive in humans and the absence of any direct harm to another, gives sexual sin, I’d argue, a little more lee-way.
The sexual obsession among trads... can be deeply distortive. It elides and displaces other vital issues. Access to universal healthcare and asylum for children escaping terror, for example, matter far more in traditional Christianity than whether my long-term relationship is deemed a civil marriage or a civil union. Torture is exponentially more sinful than a pre-marital fling—and yet it is embraced by evangelical “traditional” Christians most of all. The Catholic hierarchy has devoted far far less time and effort to combating torture than to preventing birth control as part of the ACA—to its eternal shame. And the centrality of sex to celibate traditional Christians has a lot to do with it.
Though I agree with parts of this critique, I'd add an important caveat: Organized religions are concerned with the everyday lives and souls of every individual in their congregations, nearly all of whom will grapple with sex and sexuality on a daily basis.
For many, the instances when their behavior has the ability to most powerfully affect others for good or ill will involve sex. That's when they interact with other humans at their most vulnerable, when they hold the most sway over their well-being. In contrast, the vast majority of believers confront policy questions—even on matters as important as torture or the environment—only indirectly, at election time. Should religious groups speak out against torture and advocate for environmental stewardship? I think so. Should they also provide guidance on matters of sexual behavior for their congregations and participate in public discourse on these matters?
Yes. Sex is a tremendously important subject! But even apart from my disagreements with traditionalist Christians on sexual matters, I often wish that they would talk about sex differently, emphasizing Christianity's demands to be loving and good to one another rather than its prohibitions. The obstacle to traditionalists being heard in the public square—to persuading people that there's wisdom in their approach—isn't their focus on sex, but what they focus on when sex comes up.
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Let's imagine a private, residential college in purple America. It was once an explicitly Christian institution, and while now avowedly secular, the faculty still has a few beloved old-timers who retain a sense that part of their job is moral education. There is also a Christian pastor who lives on campus, runs a campus ministry for Christian students, and sits on a collegiate interfaith counsel. Each year, he plays a role in freshmen orientation—initially, to introduce himself to the students and invite any who are interested to join his ministry; and later, as one voice among many in a half-day session on sex and sexuality. He has 15 minutes to share whatever thoughts he has with the freshmen, who've already learned where to get free condoms and been counseled in consent and sexual assault. This is the only time he'll have the whole class as a captive audience until graduation.
What should he say?
Should he say that abstinence is the only acceptable method for preventing unwanted pregnancy, because premarital sex is always wrong and contraception violates natural law by subverting God's design of the human form? Should he say that while gays and lesbians are as loved by God as anyone and their desires are not themselves sinful, acting on them is immoral? Should he say that gay students should think about a vocation besides marriage, because the institution is inherently procreative and always will be? Or that students who never accept Jesus as their personal savior may be consigning themselves to eternity in hell? Should he say that anyone who aborts a pregnancy is murdering an innocent human? Or that the weight of tradition should cause students to look askance at masturbation? These are all beliefs a particular traditionalist Christian might well hold. You can imagine why he might feel impelled to speak them aloud—to "stay true" to his beliefs, despite their present unpopularity, or to facilitate what he regards as the potential saving of as many student souls as possible.
Now, it isn't my place to dictate what any practicing Christian should say in any setting. They're entitled to speak their minds in any way they wish. And abortion would be a particularly tricky subject for a believer to address in a crowd with fundamental disagreements about whether an innocent human life is at stake. But what follows is the sort of address I'd like to see a traditionalist Christian minister deliver, as someone who thinks that many would benefit from parts of the message:
Hello again, everyone. You didn't expect to spend your first day of college listening to a Christian minister talk about sex. But every year, I ask if I can say something during this part of orientation, because it's such an important subject. Some of you have heard a priest or a rabbi or an imam talk about it back home. Some of you may have talked to your parents about it. Some of you have never talked to an adult about sex. And you're all smart young people, so you've developed your own opinions on all kinds of controversial subjects: abortion, gay marriage, contraception. If you ever want to hear my thinking on those subjects, I'm always happy to talk, whether we end up agreeing or not. It doesn't matter who you are or what you think. I'll love you when you walk in my door, I'll listen respectfully, and I'll love you when you leave.
Since I'm speaking today to people of all different faiths—as well as agnostics and atheists—I want to focus on a desire we all share: We all want to figure out what's right as best we can and to act accordingly. This can be difficult in college. You're living on your own for the first time. Your parents aren't around to enforce rules you've always known—you must choose what code to live by. At the same time, you'll find yourselves in lots of new situations, even as you're exposed to new notions of right and wrong that you've never considered.
Christianity prohibits certain things, like murder and stealing and adultery. But I want to talk today about something that Jesus calls on his believers to do. He teaches us to love one another, to be good to one another, to treat others as we'd want to be treated. Christians aren't alone in preaching that code. I raise it today in part because I expect you all already agree with it. And if you do agree that we have a responsibility to be good to one another, I'd ask one favor: As you proceed through this college, bear that obligation in mind! Do so even when you're deciding how to live your sexual lives here. Doesn't that sound like it's the right thing to do? But of course, it isn't always easy.
The dean of students talked to you about consent. By law and the rules of this campus, you need consent to be intimate with anyone. I want to remind you of something: If we're truly trying to be good to one another, consent just isn't enough. Maybe there's a person who has a huge crush on you. You're at a party. Maybe you've had a beer or two, and in the moment, kissing that person would be a lot of fun. But you know, deep down, that you don't share the same feelings they have for you—that if you kiss, you'll be leading them on, and they'll be all the more hurt tomorrow or the next day when you're not interested anymore. You have their consent. You want to kiss in the moment—but you don't, because you decide it's more important to be good to them.
Say you're dating someone. And you want to have sex with this person. They consent without being pressured. Yet you can't help but sense that they're not ready for intercourse. You understand this is a big decision with many physical and emotional consequences. And so, to be good to them, you hold off, despite their consent. You err on the side of caution, even though you'd rather go ahead.
If you really try to be good to one another, if you earnestly question what that moral code demands and grapple your way toward answers, you may not always like what your reason and conscience tell you. It may tell you to stop slowly taking that person's clothing off even though they haven't said to stop. It may tell you that you need to stay in the room with a friend who'd clearly rather be alone with an intoxicated date. Students are at greater risk of sexual assault at parties where there's drinking going on. Does that mean anything for your behavior if you're obligated to be good to your fellow students? Do you stay sober, or drink less and keep an eye on those who drink more, or serve only beer, not hard alcohol, when you host, or throw a substance-free party?
You'll need to decide. What's truly best for my classmates, and what does it demand of me?
Some students will become depressed after hooking up with someone who doesn't reciprocate the emotional intimacy they sought. Does that fact affect you? How? There's always a chance that sexual intercourse will result in a sexually transmitted disease or the creation of a new life. What does that imply, if anything, about your own sexual behavior as you try to be good to one another?
There are so many situations you'll face—so many more questions I could pose.
I don't pretend that confronting these situations with the question, "How can I be good to others?" will lead all of you to the same answers, let alone to my answers, though I hope that you'll keep your hearts open to the possibility. But if you really wrestle with that question in every situation that involves sex, romantic intimacy, dating, hooking up, whatever you kids call it these days—instead of thoughtlessly acting in whatever way most people seem to be acting—you're much more likely to do right by others, much more likely to be proud of yourselves, and much less likely to remember your time here without the regrets that haunt some people, people who look back at their younger selves ashamed of how they hurt others. You'll also bring about a community with fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer sexual assaults, less depression—just by trying your very hardest to be good to one another!
I won't say I've never seen a traditionalist Christian talk about sex on campus, or in America, like that. Ross Douthat is a prominent columnist who regularly speaks from a place that acknowledges his own orthodox Catholicism while trying to engage folks outside his faith by making discrete points about shared moral terrain. And perhaps there are many traditionalist Christians who talk to diverse audiences about sex by invoking the general moral approach of Jesus Christ, rather than particular prohibitions against sodomy or divorce or contraception. There are, after all, a lot of Christians in America. We're not privy to their conversations.
But the approach I've sketched is very different from the most prominent messages on sex I've heard from traditionalist Christians, and different from any message I ever heard at a Catholic high school or from orthodox friends I know. To me, that's a shame. In theory, "do unto others" is a moral message that secularists could and sometimes do adopt, but it isn't the focus of secular sexual norms or mores. We're more likely to talk about consent or pleasure or self-actualization or gender equity—all important goods, but not the only ones to consider.
Christians would seem better prepared than many to raise and press thorny questions about what "do unto others" implies, and better prepared than most to speak in explicitly moral language about our obligations to one another in the sexual realm. I strongly suspect that approach would win more partial converts to their way of thinking than efforts to persuade the next generation that civil marriage is a procreative institution, or that gay sex is wrong, or that contraception is immoral. But perhaps I'm blinded by my disagreements with those statements. I wouldn't give exactly the same advice as my made up campus minister. But I think his speech captures real traditionalist wisdom that we're now ignoring. With that in mind, let me urge in conclusion that we "do unto others..." I don't always know what that implies, but it's never a bad place to begin.
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