In 2004, Thousands of upscale urban women were grieving the end of the wildly successful Sex and the City, the HBO series about four 30-something women tackling self-actualization through their romantic relationships. During weekly viewing parties, women watched Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte struggle with whether worldly success had any meaning without Mr. Right. Even as true love eluded them, the characters' circle provided the support they needed to keep going—they celebrated each other's love interests and sexual exploits and consoled each other through serial humiliations, sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, and loneliness.
The backbone of the show was the eternal human dilemmas the four friends faced: the fear of commitment versus a ticking biological clock; the difference between being cherished and being consumed; the tension between pleasure and sacrifice. We, the audience, pondered the apparent mysteries of love. Is it true that you're nobody until somebody loves you? Can women have sex like men? Can we be happy alone?
To find answers Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte changed sexual partners as often as their Manolo Blahniks, trading their sexual power for the often-distant chance at emotional and economic security. Every relationship—no matter how brief—was a transaction. When they failed to acquire the symbols of female success—primarily a man—they resorted to the most convenient form of self-help: Shopping. A pair of $500 Jimmy Choo shoes soothed hurts. Powerlessness was replaced by a Prada handbag. The disappointment of love was replaced by the joy of Gucci. It is a society where everything is consumable.
But as we must, the characters in Sex and the City eventually had to deal with aging, babies that cannot be postponed any longer, illness, and death. For the characters to ring true, they had to face the questions that being human creates. And nothing makes us more human than our decaying and limited bodies.
SO WHY DID Sex's writers use the vehicle of sex as the place to work out these dilemmas? Why is it sex and the city instead of sex in the city? The reason involves more than just our contemporary fixation on all things erotic.
Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wrote, "the point of cities is the multiplicity of choice." It is this multiplicity of choices that drives a consumer society. In the marketplace, everything is negotiated and evaluated. Nothing is free. The trick is to negotiate to get more than you give.
Along with being a marketplace, the city is also a symbol of the human community. In the city, we come together for a common purpose and meet our relational needs. Through our work and relationships, we create culture and express our imago Dei. The bonds in the human city are based on bodily relationships; we are physically present with each other and intimately connected. Conceived through the union of a community, each life is intricately woven into other lives from generation to generation. Sex's writers understood that the body places us in relationship and creates deep social meaning.
When we think about the body, what is more encompassing than sexuality? More than the merely erotic, our sexuality is a compelling desire to give ourselves fully to another—to a work and to the community. We bring our sexuality to everything we do. Because sexuality is always socially and spiritually situated, the need for belonging, affirmation, and meaning that is not satisfied in a community will readily show up as sexual desire. This holistic understanding of sexuality is foreign to the contemporary mindset, yet it is unavoidable in life.
In the contemporary city, our bodies are increasingly traded, consumed, molded, and treated as a piece of performance art. Reduced to the erotic, the body loses its power to create communal bonds that keep us grounded. Because the consumption, bartering, and exchange of the body is the most dehumanizing, sex is a great metaphor for exposing our profound disintegrity.
THERE IS ANOTHER truth: Regardless of how much we try to commodify the body, we don't experience bodies as mere objects. With its pain and pleasure, the body is the place where the most profound human desire is exposed - the desire to be fully known, yet fully loved. Through hookups and breakups, Sex and the City explores this fundamental human experience.
The body presents the need for a God who has taken on flesh. What we find is the response of a triune God who enters the broken human community to dwell in the messiness of our lives. By taking on flesh, living and dying along with us, God identifies with our dilemmas; our longing to be loved is shared by God. This is God's pleasure. When Sex and the City asks: Can we be fully known yet fully loved?, the biblical narrative gives us a resounding "yes!"
What I learned from Sex and the City is not only that we cannot escape our bodies, but also that it is unnecessary. Our bodily desires for food, touch, sleep, and comfort point us to God. The body acts as a tutor toward satisfying a greater hunger for a relationship with the Creator in a community.
This relationship is complete outside the transaction economy of our world. There is nothing to be traded; there is nothing that we barter to enter into the community of God. What is the most perplexing to us is that it's free—it is grace.
This is much more scandalous than Sex and the City attempts to be. It is difficult for us to tolerate that there is a love so profound that it could not be purchased or negotiated. This is the outrageousness of grace. Finally, a relationship where the market forces are silenced; a place where we never run out of time, money, or beauty. Free from selling ourselves to the highest bidder, we can experience gift and counter-gift with God and others.
This is not just a religious idea but profoundly practical. What could redeem our sexuality more than the idea of gift-giving and receiving? What could be more healing to the whole community than replacing transaction with gift? Faith in a God who takes on flesh creates the real possibility that transaction can be replaced by love. Is that not what we all desire?
Lilian Calles Barger was founder of The Damaris Project and author of Eve's Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body (Brazos Press) when this article appeared.