What if the current Christian sexual ethic isn’t working?
One of the big things to come out of our work evaluating the effects of purity culture is that our sexual ethic, the things that we taught teens about sex, is falling short. The way we’re teaching about sex is hurting people. We’re causing shame and confusion.
What if there’s another way to look at it–because Jesus shouldn’t cause shame and confusion!
Welcome to 2024 on the Bare Marriage blog! The big, huge thing that happened in 2023 was the release of our book She Deserves Better: Raising Girls to Resist Toxic Teachings on Sex, Self, and Speaking Up (and that book is on for $2.99 on Kindle all month!).
She Deserves Better was based on our survey of 7000 women, looking at how experiences as teens in Christian circles affected them long-term. And we found that we simply must do better about teaching about sex.
Rebecca and I have been talking about this on walks, and she’s the one who first came up with this idea:
We need a new sexual ethic that gives a positive vision for what health and wholeness looks like.
We need a sexual ethic that applies:
- whether we are single or married;
- whether we are young or old;
- whether we are male or female.
We need a sexual ethic that is about our humanity, and how we express sexuality in a way that honors Jesus.
Because right now the sexual ethics that we are being given are largely failing us.
And what is a sexual ethic?
It’s a statement of values or guidelines that express how we should act in sexual relationships, or that should govern how we treat each other sexually.
I think there are two competing sexual ethics right now: What would largely be called a Christian sexual ethic, and what would be termed a secular sexual ethic, and I think they can be summarized like this:
The Christian sexual ethic that we’re taught is largely: don’t have sex until you’re married!
This is what is communicated to children and teenagers. When I did the Passport to Purity puberty program from FamilyLife with Rebecca when she was 10, as soon as I told her what sex was I was also supposed to get her to promise never to have sex before she was married. Teaching about sex was always accompanied by, “but you have to wait to do it.”
But then very little else was ever said about it. There doesn’t seem to really be a sexual ethic for how you should treat each other once you are married (except for meeting each other’s sexual needs). There doesn’t seem to be an idea of what sexual ethics would look like if you’re not married.
It just seems like the important thing is don’t have anything to do with sex if you aren’t married, and then once you are–anything goes.
And what about a secular sexual ethic?
I would argue that in our culture, consent replaces marriage as the non-negotiable. As long as it’s consensual, you can do whatever you want. Any sex act is therefore moral if it is consensual.
I think both versions of the sexual ethic fall short.
I don’t think all acts are okay as long as they’re consensual. One can consent to being used and degraded, after all, and that’s not necessarily good. People can consent to something that hurts another (infidelity, porn use).
God made sex to be a sacred expression, and making it into the lowest common denominator seems to be what both versions of the sexual ethic do. Anything goes–as long as the conditions are right.
What if the starting point for our sexual ethic is wrong?
It seems like what both versions are trying to do is figure out, “is this right or wrong?”
What if that’s the wrong question?
If you studied psychology, you likely remember Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. At the youngest ages (pre-conventional), you’re just trying to avoid punishment. The conventional stages (ages 8-13), are about being known as a “good person”, and pursuing law & order and right & wrong.
But then there’s the post-conventional stage into adulthood, where it’s not about the rules but about the principle, which can be nuanced. And most people don’t reach that post-conventional stage.
What if we’re stuck in adolescence with our sexual ethic, just trying to figure out what’s right and wrong? What if there are bigger principles that are actually inspiring that can call us to more?
We’re stuck in the conventional stage, defining our sexual ethic in terms of, “is this a sin?”, rather than “is this treating people well and treating myself well? Is this honoring Christ?”
As I was thinking about this post, a commenter talking about something else left this thought, which perfectly encapsulates what I’m talking about:
Rich Villodas speaks about about how the opposite of sin is not goodness (not sinning) it’s love (Jesus ultimate act of love–dying on the cross, cancelled our debt of sin). Our calling as Christians is to love (the two greatest commandments) and when we aim to be like Jesus it should be to love more, like him.
But most Christians see it as to sin less in order to be like him.
But that leads to Christians who look at our sin outwardly and think “at least I’m not sinning as bad as that person” (that judgement itself being sinful) and as long as we feel we’re in a better position than the Christians around us then we are “good.” But if we actually took the command of “love more” seriously we wouldn’t weigh our actions as “how can I sin less than that guy?”, we would ask “how can I love my neighbour or God more?” And now it becomes an internal examination.
When our actions are to love more we will actually end up sinning less.
Exactly! What about a sexual ethic that causes us to love more–which will have the effect of making us sin less, but isn’t really focused on not sinning?
In that vein, I’d like to propose what I think can be a new sexual ethic that we can teach young, old, married, single, men, women. It calls us to more.
(And when I say “I”, I really mean Rebecca, since she thought of this first).
Our New Christian Sexual Ethic
Treat each other with respect and kindness, and honor the dignity in yourself and others.
That’s the sexual ethic I’d like to explore this month.
We’ll look at each element in turn, and see what it might look like in different stages of our lives. And hopefully, through our conversations, we’ll flesh this out even more and have something that’s workable!
What do you think of our first attempt at a new sexual ethic? What do you want to see included or talked about? What’s gone wrong with how we’ve handled this before? Let’s talk in the comments!
The New Sexual Ethic Series
- We Need a New Sexual Ethic
- Treat Each Other with Respect (coming January 15)
- Treat Each Other with Kindness (coming January 22)
- Honor the Dignity in Others (coming January 29)
- Honor the Dignity in Yourself (coming January 31)
- The New Sexual Ethic Podcast (coming February 1)
Plus don’t forget our book She Deserves Better is on for $2.99 on Kindle in January, and shows how our current sexual ethic has failed teens.