by Guest Blogger: Rev. Beverly Dale
The Christian fundamentalists have discovered sex and are proclaiming it’s good, well, at least for married heterosexuals. There are a couple of best selling books on the topic, cutesy sound-bites, and, oh yes, the 24 hour publicity stunt of hauling a bed onto a church’s roof top and inviting the media to focus cameras on the ever-so-photogenic minister and his wife in the bed…who, curiously, are not attired in bedclothes and who hasten to reassure there will be no hanky panky! (Rather defeats the purpose, doncha think?) (See the blog Religion Dispatches posted on May 7, 2012) It is no doubt true that sex-negative congregations are thirsty for some godly approval for the heretofore hidden pleasures of the boudoir. Goodness knows there have been plenty of anti-sex messages from that group. So any movement in this direction can only be positive for sexually repressed Christians and the heterosexual couples stuck in boring monogamous marriages.
As a matter of disclosure I confess I was reared in a conservative Christian household in the Bible belt. It never occurred to me that women were equal partners for sexual pleasure or that a non-missionary position was appropriate or necessary for women’s orgasmic pleasure. It took 13 years of marriage before my first orgasm which was an accident and complete surprise. But it took 3 more years before to rid myself of religious shame and guilt to become orgasmic and a total of 18 to leave a dysfunctional, though church-sanctioned, marriage that should never have occurred.
But, saying married sex is blessed by God and a source of spiritual joy and bliss is too little-too late. Better start earlier. If these churches want to tackle the topic of making marital sex more fun then they can start by questioning the wisdom of their support of abstinence-only sex “education” in the school systems. The existence of a marriage license does not turn this long-anticipated but delayed behavior into sexual bliss especially if both parties have been intentionally kept sexually ignorant of sexual functioning and even their own personal sexual needs. Campus Crusade staff on an Ivy League college are currently teaching students not to masturbate and to delay that obvious educational learning tool until marriage…at which point, presumably, it is not necessary. But such teaching is not grounded in Genesis that all of creation is made in the image of God and therefore “very good” nor is it consistent with the incarnational story of God-becoming-flesh.
Somebody needs to take responsibility for the fact many evangelical churches are teaching children, then teens, and finally young unmarried people that sex is sin if not legal, sexual pleasure is suspect, and the lustful body is linked only to hedonism and irresponsibility. And although they tout the message that two inexperienced virgins will have marital bliss far exceeding anything that which sexually active and experienced people may have, me thinks thou doest protest too much. A friend of mine who attended a religiously conservative college in Pennsylvania before discovering the sexual repression told me that, of the five young married couples she knows who bought into no-sex-before-marriage, sex-is-sin line of thinking, four of those couples married less than seven years have no sex life. All are in their twenties and no doubt some are extremely frustrated and unhappy!
Churches might want to re-examine their narrow definitions of sex as Body Part A into Body Part B. That definition combined with the inevitable patriarchal bent that applauds women’s submission to their husbands and full obedience to his decision-making and supposed god-given power guarantee this is carried into the bedroom. The result? Sex is what pleases the male and the female does all the pleasing. This teaching cannot begin to accommodate the extraordinary sexual capacity of the female nor does it encourage the male to promote the woman’s sexual pleasure, a religious tenet that is taught by most of Judaism. And such gender hierarchies contradict the mutuality evident in both Jesus’ relationships and the radical egalitarianism of his teachings. This is what liberates us for hot sex. You can’t get there through patriarchal theology unless you are into gendered bondage and submission.
It is ironic that such Christians rely on a state-issued marriage license to tell them when God-sanctioned sex can begin because Judeo-Christianity teaches the concept of covenant and the distinction from contract. When two people covenant together to be partners and lovers God listens and blesses our promises. But a marriage license is a legal contract that the State listens to. The public announcement of a couple’s private covenant in a religious ceremony is not to gain the community’s permission for sex but for the community’s blessing of their covenant made before God. The State has no legal interest in love, commitment, or the sacred for that matter but rather in protecting the civil rights of both partners and any progeny.
A little history lesson might be helpful here. The early US colonialist understood marriage covenant. Sex was allowed at the time of betrothal or the engagement, (the covenant.) Further, in biblical times people did not get a marriage license and trot down to the local synagogue for a Jewish ceremony. Instead, when sex occurred the legal responsibilities of marriage kicked in as a protection for any progeny. Whether the woman wanted, agreed, or was given any sexual satisfaction was not the focus, of course, since the woman’s function was to birth heirs to keep the whole patriarchal system going. When you also note that God never condemns multiple wives in the Bible either, then being biblical on this matter becomes quite problematic, that is, if we are really talking about the bible instead of cultural norms.
So if (some) Christian fundamentalists have discovered they need to add spice to their heterosexual marriages more power to them. But this is still a variation on their common theme of exclusivism and godly perks for insiders only. Just as there is a prevailing sentiment that only members of their peculiar brand of Christianity have God’s blessing, so only those who look like them are allowed to have sexual bliss, that is, heterosexual, married, and in long-term, committed, and legal relationships. This obviously omits everyone else; Grandma Betty who will lose her deceased husband’s pension if she remarries Edward, Jose and Michael who as gay men have covenanted together as partners, Sue and Tajsha who are exclusive and committed, Miriam and Alex who as graduate students are committed for the next three years they are together in school, and Valerie and Nick and Steve who are also in long term committed relationships. More people are viewing marriage for the cultural custom that it is and finding variations that work for their own lives. The question is where in Christianity are the churches teaching what is moral and ethical sexual decision-making grounded in faith principles of the gospel rather than simply nregurgitating cultural norms and calling it God’s word?
Instead of teaching hot sex is ok for a select group (with the focus on heterosexual husbands), a sex-affirming Christian teaching consistent with the teachings of Jesus would not judge other’s decisions about intimacy or their covenants. Christians would teach that God looks on the heart, loves diversity, and honors the god-given desire to connect in intimacy with others. When we use Jesus’ teaching of the second commandment to loving ourselves and one another as well as the standards of the Golden rule to treat our sexual partners with respect and integrity as we wish to be treated, then our sexuality can take on a sacred depth (as opposed to simply ‘hot sex.’) And we can live faithfully and righteously with or without the approval of the culture. But as long as evangelicals or the liberal churches have their blinders on about the entanglement of culture and Christian teaching then all the sermons and books on hot sex simply miss the point.
Rev. Beverly Dale serves on the Advisory Council of the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance.