The Common Good
September/October 2009

Sex Without Shame

by Keith Graber Miller | September/October 2009

Somewhere between demonization of sex and the "sexual revolution," there is a middle way - a higher way.

After more than two decades of being married, birthing and adopting children, and teaching two college sexuality courses, I have come to the not-terribly-startling conclusion that I’m rather fond of sex. I delight in talking about sexuality, engaging sexually with my spouse, reading about sexuality, and walking alongside students as they come to grips with their own sexual passions and convictions.

I begin here because Christians have only recently emerged from a somewhat anti-sexual period in church history in which the words “sex” and “sin” have been so closely united in Christian thinking that many of the faithful regard them as synonymous.

This sex-negativity has deep roots, origins that begin with several early church scholars, who saw humans as divided beings consisting of a spiritual part that was good (the mind or soul) and a physical part (the body) that was bad. Such dualism also went hand in glove with the denigration of women, who were seen as more bodily because they became pregnant, lactated, menstruated, and otherwise needed to be more aware of their bodily nature.

During the patristic period and early Middle Ages, sexuality increasingly was perceived as problematic. This is especially clear in the requirements prescribed for various sins in the late medieval English penitentials. The penitentials prescribe 10 years of penance for coitus interruptus and lifelong penance for oral sex. But the same guidelines require only seven years of penance for premeditated murder. Hmm—something seems amiss.

Yet our sacred text is filled with stories about sexuality. Occasionally when people are trying to ban books from public classrooms, someone reminds school officials how much sex is in the Bible: foreplay, adulterous affairs, polygamy, sexy descriptions of lovers’ bodies, heterosexual and homosexual rapes, sexual frolicking, and concern about sacred temple sex in the surrounding culture.

In more than just biblical ways, our spirituality and sexuality are deeply intertwined. Theologically speaking, human sexuality is “most fundamentally the divine invitation to find our destinies not in loneliness but in deep connection,” write James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow. That yearning for connection is expressed not just genitally but with our whole selves, with intellectual and emotional passion. We need other people, and are drawn to them, just as we are drawn to God.

For the church, the recent recognition that sexuality and spirituality are intertwined, and that the biblical text is not afraid to talk openly about sexuality, has been life-giving.

But while these insights have been a breath of fresh air, sometimes they also have encouraged a certain naiveté or excessive optimism about our sexual selves.

Somewhere between the earlier demonization of sexuality and our current movement toward celebrating something passing itself off as “sexual freedom” must be a healthy balance, a middle way—no, a higher way. That higher, redemptive way must be informed by both the positive affirmation of sexuality as God’s good gift, on the one hand, and on the other hand our capacity for the sexual exploitation of each other.

Perhaps what we ought to call for, then, is a countercultural way of living, not like the sexually repressive way of previous decades but one with an open, positive view toward sexuality—and a clear witness against the abuses of this remarkable gift of God. I want to very tentatively propose some of what this might look like: a redemptive sexual counterculture, a way to both love sexuality and live faithfully.

1. We need to talk openly and directly about sexuality in our homes and churches. Often when I speak with teenagers and young adults, I ask where they learned the most about sexuality. Not surprisingly, churches consistently come in dead last from among various possible sources.

When I speak with high school youth, I now cart along a list of possible sexual behaviors ranging between holding hands and genital-genital sexual intercourse, and ask them to reflect on the moral significance of a wide range of sexual activities. A common refrain is, “I wish I had seen this list several years ago.”

We know after a couple of decades of “just saying no” and “True Love Waits” that True Love Doesn’t Wait Very Long. The average chastity pledger delays the onset of genital-genital sexual intercourse by only 18 months. By the time they hit college, less than 40 percent of True Love Waiters are still waiting, and half of those waiting students already have engaged in oral-genital intercourse.

In our churches we need to help younger people and each other say “yes” to some shared bodily interactions. And we need to help each other not only just say no, but understand why “no” or “not yet” is an appropriate, life-giving response to some other options we encounter along our sexual journeys.

2. We need to recognize how embodied our lives are, and we need to embrace the fundamental goodness of that embodiment. The fundamental tenet of incarnational Christian faith is that God became flesh and dwelt among us, fully experiencing the desires, drives, and sexual realities that we do. Jesus knew what it was like, in other words, to be subject to the same sexual desires that we are, and he empathizes with those desires.

Unlike painters before them, Renaissance artists frequently depicted the baby Jesus with his genitalia exposed. The apparent point of painting Jesus with his genitalia visible was to evidence that Jesus’ chastity was real, and his struggles were similar to ours: It would be no great virtue to be chaste unless one was a vigorous sexual being. It also was intended to indicate that Jesus was born without sin, and even more to the point, without the shame we sometimes feel for our genitalia.

That spirit of shame has led the church through the ages to condemn the practice of “self-pleasuring” as sinful, in line with its overall sex-negative approach. Masturbation is one of the most common sexual experiences across the age spectrum, cultures, partnered and single life situations, and genders. For many of the young people I come across in various religious settings, the church’s attitude of strict condemnation does more to alienate them from the church’s teaching than it does to deter them from self-gratification.

Finding pleasure in our own God-given bodies can be good, I believe, as long as it is shorn from undue lust (more on that in a moment). It’s not for everyone, and if it draws someone away from God, then for God’s sake, they shouldn’t do it. But we ought to release the stranglehold of guilt formerly associated with the practice of self-pleasuring.

3. To love sexuality and live faithfully, we need to keep in mind the Sexuality Big Picture. Sexuality is, of course, far more than what we do with our genitalia. It’s about our full body-selves, about love and connection and attachment and friendship, about relating in its many forms.

My fear is that over the last 30 years most of us in the church have focused too much on homosexuality, distracting ourselves from other pressing sexual realities.

In the church, of course, we hold a range of perspectives on same-sex sexuality. But my sense is that our contemporary problem with sexual vulgarization has very little to do with same-sex sexuality. I’m not convinced that traditional marriage and even the sacred authority of the biblical text are unduly endangered by gay and lesbian people loving each other and committing themselves to each other. All people are much more under threat by infidelity, too-early sexual engagement, promiscuity, sexual objectification, sexual exploitation, and sexual violence.

4. We need to become thoughtful critics of exploitative sexual images in our culture. One of the biggest cultural changes in the United States over the last 30 years has been the widespread, increasing acceptance and accessibility of overtly demeaning sexual material—pornography.

Although it seems impossible, in the U.S. we now have more adult sex shops than McDonald’s restaurants. Americans now spend around $13.3 billion a year on adult entertainment, more than we spend attending professional sporting events.

Now, with more than 200 million people in the U.S. hooked up to the Internet, online porn is booming. That’s due largely to its anonymity, affordability, and accessibility.

We need to commit ourselves to not participating in the pervasive purveyance of pornography. What is wrong about most pornography is not that it shows naked bodies (some of our finest art depicts bodies in the buff), but that the sexuality it depicts is casual, meaningless, often violent and degrading, and pervasively about unequal power relationships between men and women. Porn reduces, chips away at, our sexual wholeness.

We also should be aware of the corrosive nature of the “soft-core” exploitation of sexuality in advertising and Hollywood—especially the way women are objectified to sell products or draw viewers. Because it is so pervasive, it’s easy to overlook, and tacitly accept, this destructive aspect of our culture.

5. We cannot assume that all that passes for sexual freedom actually is. As a college professor, I sometimes worry about the relatively new phenomenon on university campuses of “hooking up,” casual acquaintances engaging in one-time sexual encounters with no plans to even talk afterward. At one university, about 80 percent of both men and women students said they have hooked up, a process they said routinely involved “petting below the waist, oral sex, or intercourse.” Usually such hook-ups occurred after consuming alcohol, and the average student accumulated about 11 hook-up partners in their college careers.

Some young adults defend this practice by noting that they always practice “safe sex” in their hook-ups. This is perhaps one of the most egregious misnomers of the postmodern period. As ethicists Patricia Beattie Jung and Shannon Jung write, purportedly “safe” sex “does nothing to protect partners from the boredom of mechanical sex; from the hurt, betrayal, and jealously that frequently accompany promiscuity; or from the grief and depression that accompany a broken heart.” There’s no condom for that, no prophylactic strong enough to contain such brokenness.

In 1 Corinthians 5-7, Paul speaks against incest, sexual perversions, and adultery, reminding his hearers that “the body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Corinthians 6:13). Because in genital interactions, “the two shall become one flesh,” Paul condemns joining oneself with a prostitute.

Of all places, a similar view is articulated by one of the characters in Tom Cruise’s film Vanilla Sky. Cruise has a fling with a shapely young woman with whom he is never very serious. She pursues him throughout the film, and finally corners him and says, “Don’t you know that when you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not?”

Sex is not dirty and disgusting. If that were so, it wouldn’t make sense to save it for those we love. Instead, I believe with Paul that something significant, something mystical happens when two bodies come together. The full-union, fully vulnerable orgasmic embrace is a moment out of time, embodied and yet transcendent, sacred, and sufficiently precious that ideally it should be kept within committed relationships.

6. Finally, we need to recognize that what we really yearn for in life is intimacy rather than the stimulation of genital nerve endings. Genital sexual intercourse is more than such stimulation, of course. And don’t get me wrong: Within appropriate contexts and relationships, I’m all for stimulating genital nerve endings as part of sexual expression. But I’m more concerned about intimacy.

Too often we have equated “being intimate” with sexual intercourse, but that really empties intimacy of its deepest meaning. If sexual intimacy happens for us at all, to be life-giving it needs to be preceded by emotional, aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual intimacy. And although an intimate relationship might include sexual relating, “sexual intercourse is only one small, nonessential part of true intimacy in a world that often acts as though it is the only thing,” wrote the late physician Willard Krabill. “We need to be loved, to be understood, to be accepted, and to be cared about. We need to be taken seriously, to have our thoughts and feelings respected and held in confidence, and to be trusted.” We need to know our companions will be there for us when we really need them. That sort of intimacy can be embraced by young and old, gay and straight, married and single people.

While Jesus’ primary concerns were not on narrowly defined sex and sexuality, he was committed to the formation of deep, meaningful, and intimate relationships. Jesus himself found it essential to surround himself with a group of friends, whom we now call disciples. According to the biblical text, these affirming relationships with men and with women were a fundamental part of who Jesus was, a glimpse into his mission and message.

May we strive for such intimacy in our lives—with others and with God. And from this beginning may we create a faithful, redemptive sexual counterculture.

Keith Graber Miller, chair of the Bible, religion, and philosophy department at Goshen (Ind.) College, is working on a book about sexuality and spirituality. This essay is adapted from a presentation he gave at Eastern Mennonite University in January 2009.

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