Sexting is commonly known as the act of sending sexually explicit text messages, primarily between mobile phones. The term originated in the Globe and Mail article “Textual gratification: Quill or keypad, it’s all about sex” (May, 2004), and was later added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in 2012. While the original Globe and Mail piece included fresh phrasing that failed to flourish (such as “having a textie”), the sexting terminology remains entrenched in our popular cultural lexicon, as the term (and practice) continues to prevail.
While sexting is a more recent phenomenon due to modern technological advances, the act of sending sexually explicit messages is by no means new. For example, one can find historical precursors for sexting through paintings from the Renaissance era in Europe, as well in as sculptures and other forms of correspondence in eastern cultures and ancient Greece. In fact, some of the oldest surviving examples of sex-messaging can be found in Paleolithic cave paintings and carvings, some of which are thousands of years old. With such historical background in mind, we recognize that sex and communication have both existed since the onset of human life, thus one can argue that sexting is simply the latest evolution in a long history of humans sending sexually explicit messages.
A critical and historical understanding of sexting is important for people of faith, because in our world of theological exploration and biblical interpretation, the content of those setting an agenda is directly shaped by the context in which they are placed. Along these lines, one can argue that generations of sex-messaging has led us to “sext scripture” by “sending” our sexually explicit thoughts and beliefs into the biblical text itself, which in turn affects the interpretations that we believe comes from our “conversations” with the text. In other words, upon reading a particular biblical text we convince ourselves that it is primarily about the physical act of sex, yet more often than not the scriptures are about far more. Altogether, our interpretive imaginations — intended to grow in conversation with the biblical text — are often limited because, quite frankly, we are tempted to sext the text, which in turn prevents us from actually understanding the fullness of what God seeks to reveal.
One of the most commonly sexted biblical texts comes from the 5th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, when we hear the following words attributed to Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:27-28). At first glance the biblical text appears quite straightforward, as Jesus is speaking to a small group of men, and it seems that he simply proclaims the need to keep their sexual temptations in check. “Fellas, keep it in your pants and out of your minds, or else!” is a standard religious reading. However, such an overtly sexted interpretation of the biblical text limits the extensiveness of what Jesus actually attempted to communicate through it. In other words, the text in question is about far more than physical sex, as it serves Jesus’ much larger liberative purpose to strategically and radically revolutionize the totality of how women and men related to each other.
As the content of Jesus’ message was shaped by the context in which he sought to change, we recognize that he lived at a time in which the far majority of women lacked much of what we now consider to be basic human rights. For example, women were mostly confined to the homes of fathers and husbands, they were considered inferior to (and thus under the authority of) men, they could not testify at court trials or even go into public and speak with strangers. In regards to common conception of marriage, in Jesus’ time women were by no means equal partners with their spouses, but women were viewed as property, to the point that any protections offered to women were granted indirectly through the desire to safeguard them as “human resources” of the husband. As a result, when Jesus spoke with and/or about women throughout his earthly ministry, we must remember that he did so in an era when women were objectified second-class citizens with status barely above that of slaves.
With the longstanding oppression of women in mind, we are reminded that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:27-28 and beyond is not merely about sexual control among men, but his words and deeds advocate for the sacred rights of women in critical response to their sexual, political, spiritual, and societal objectification and marginalization. In doing so, Jesus showed that both men and women were created in God’s image, thus he did not overlook gender-based diversity, but he refused to allow gender-based bias to limit the dignity of either of women or men. For example, Jesus consistently opposed the cultural devaluation of women's bodies (Luke 8:40-49), he spoke with women openly and visibly (John 4:4-42), and unlike his religious contemporaries, Jesus welcomed women to study alongside him in preparation for service and leadership (Luke 10:38-42). In the midst of it all, the scriptures reveal that gender justice was self-evident, implicit, and most importantly, a consistent counter-cultural presence in the words and deeds of Jesus. As a result, those seeking to follow Jesus in our current day and age must seek to un-sext the biblical text in order to ensure the full human rights of women and men of all ages.
As biblical texts are often taken out of context in order to oppress, it is important to remember the ongoing sexist effects of sexting the biblical text. It is not all about sex. In light of such awareness, we may learn to return to the scriptures with new eyes, allow the texts to speak, and be moved by God to reconsider some of the basic assumptions we possess about what gender justice truly looks like in our world today. In other words, when we resist the temptation to make biblical texts exclusively about sex, we recognize that Jesus was not only concerned with our personal thoughts and actions, but Jesus sought to thoroughly and thoughtfully restructure the ways in which we organized society. And so, the time has come to participate in this larger purpose of gender justice with God, and in doing so, boldly live into a future where all people — women, men, boys, and girls — are honored as the gifts to this world that they are. In response to God’s abounding and inclusive love, and for the sake of the world as we know it, the time is not only upon us, but we are long overdue.
Rev. Brian E. Konkol is a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.