Every church I’ve been a part of over the past few years has always allocated some teaching time within the year to some sort of ‘relationship’ series.
The headline of ‘no sex outside of marriage’ is affirmed, it is linked with a theology of covenantal commitment, and then there is some sort of nod towards singleness and dating.
All my non-churched friends could tell you that headline. But for something the church is so noisy on, there has been a lot of silence on the details. Maybe if you say the headline loudly enough, the details look after themselves? I’m not sure what the theory is.
A sexual ethic of purity as unknowing
Sex is always affirmed as a good in church teaching, and yet, on reflection, the lens through which it is talked about has often been one of temptation and danger. The strength of this association in my own approach is one I’ve only noticed within the last year.
In previous relationships, physical boundaries have been navigated with caution. But it has been a caution characterised by fear, rather than confidence and clear articulation of how we want to relate to one another.
Inadvertently, church culture provides everything necessary to have a sexual ethic of purity – defined as a sexual ethic based on inexperience (unknowingness) and/or passive preservation (Christine Woolgar, 2017). This is the ethic which defines belonging or exclusion from community (just think about who is allowed to lead – many churches will not let someone living with a partner who isn’t also a spouse to lead a small group).
In many ways, I’m grateful for the impact of church teaching on relationships I’ve been in. I’ve never felt pressured to participate in a relationship sexually, and I’ve been able to establish healthy relationships during my teens and early twenties which I have left well. I have always felt in control of my own body, and having a clear sense of where a limitation was has left me free to own choices which would otherwise be viewed as atypical.
And yet, somehow, talking about sexual desire is still a cause for unease, and talking in plain terms about sex and its delineations causes embarrassment; because of the sexual ethic of purity, sexual desire effectively operates in binary – set on the off setting in every context but marriage.
As such, silence (unknowingness) replaces what should be the robust conversation (mistakenly conceived of as knowing) consistent with a belief system which places emphasis on the goodness of creation, living in right relationship, and honesty and truth within community.
A sexual ethic of purity as belonging
Modern sexual ethics affirm what doesn’t cause harm. The church needs to be able to say more than this, and talk about the important communal dimensions of romantic and sexual relationships (and say that this is the primary ethic for a rejection of e.g. incestual relationships rather than harm. Of course, these two logics are linked – we may want to say that harm is likely to derive from relationships which aren’t framed by communal belonging – but they also come apart in important ways).
If sex is understood as a form of play and self-expression, it is at its fullest within a context of belonging. This belonging is about mutual commitment and faithfulness, which in a Christian context is signified by marriage. At a wedding ceremony there is a public and communal recognition of a relationship, and acknowledgment of the implications this for the community around them.
At the same time, cultivating faithful relationships is not exclusive to marital relationships. Within a dating context, understanding, articulating, practicing and honouring consent is a form of faithfulness.
Sexual ethics and Christian dating
My perspective is shaped by being someone who really values and is part of Christian community, while also having become more self-aware about ways that the cultural practices of this community do not follow straightforwardly from the beliefs espoused.
I have had to deliberately think about and navigate for myself the way I want my Christian faith to inform my own relationships with others, and recognise the reasons I have felt discomfort with understanding myself to be a adult with sexual desire and agency.
Christians! Please! Get confident with being sexually literate – being sexually literate is not the same as being sexually active (I mean, this shouldn’t need saying, and yet here we are!), and having the language and confidence to navigate this space is important and honouring to others.
Christians may like to pretend like it’s only married people who have sex, but this isn’t true, and it’s helpful to have a framework with which you can contextualise and better identify relational dynamics which may be abusive. If Christian communities are surprised, fearful, taken aback, and panicked by talking about sex they will not be able to offer a positive sexual ethic. They will fall silent. People who need to talk and need counsel will only carry shame. Others will find the silence is exactly what allows abuse to flourish as ambiguity allows perversions to take root.
I still hold, for myself, to the headline of having sex only within a marital context. And yet, in a dating context there are many more conversations to be had. If you are dating, talk explicitly about sex. Talk explicitly about this in the wider theological context of what makes a good relationship and what is abusive. Make sure you are literate about things such as redlining (when people become highly sexually active as their way of processing a sexually traumatic experience). Communicate your known inclusions, known exclusions, and practice active continuous consent and being risk aware for unknowns.
I have found Christine Woolgar’s work particularly helpful in this area, and would recommend reading through and reflecting on –
I hope that the church, which places emphasis on the goodness of creation, living in right relationship, and honesty and truth within community, gets better at helping people navigate sex and consent in time. We each have a part in this – Christians, get sexually literate! Please feel free to put helpful resources in the comments. And if you know me in real life and ever want to talk things through, let me know.