Sex Without Marriage

A meaningful discussion with a particularly interesting and articulate group of people last night has emboldened me to share a paper I wrote in seminary for a course, “Ethics of Gender, Body and Sex.”  I hope it will be a helpful resource for people who think about this stuff but don’t have the time to spend 3 years in seminary.  Here goes:

SEX WITHOUT MARRIAGE
December 2, 2014

I believe that many of the prohibitions the Christian church has placed on sexuality have served to dishonour this gift from God. I believe that sexuality is a good gift from a loving Creator who desires that we experience pleasure in our relationships with one another. I recognize that there are ways in which sexual acts can enhance life as well as ways in which sexual acts can diminish or damage life. I think that there are appropriate boundaries that can be asserted universally to aid individuals in making healthy, life giving decisions around sexuality. I think teaching that sex must be confined to marital relationships is not only unhelpful but also irresponsible in light of the spiritual and emotional damage this has caused both individuals and communities.

I will explore the belief that sex can be healthy, life enhancing and God-pleasing outside of marital relationships in the following series of questions and answers.

Is sex inherently good or inherently bad?

It seems to depend where you look. North American pop culture assures us that sex is not only good, but it is one of the most exciting and most important things in life. We are encouraged to embrace our sexuality in the way we talk and dress, in the games we play and the shows we watch, and with partners and strangers alike. The attention that the Christian church pays to sex also implies that sex is one of the most important things in life. Yet the church simultaneously assures us that sex outside the confines of marriage is sinful, shameful, and not to be enjoyed. So while culture tells us sex is inherently good, it seems the church tells us that sex is inherently bad. This creates an environment for confusion, shame and emotional baggage around sex for Christian youth and adults.

I hold that sex is a good gift from a generous Creator, and that we have been given sexual organs and sexual desire not only for the purposes of procreation, but for pleasure as well. Sex is inherently good, not because of the institution of marriage but because it is part of God’s good creation. While sex is inherently good it is still subject to sin, and can be destructive and damaging to individuals and communities when disrespected or abused. This is an important truth worthy of much care and consideration.

What does the Bible have to say about sex and marriage?

Genesis contains two creation myths, both of which speak to human sexuality. In Genesis 1:27-28 God creates humankind – male and female, blessing them, and telling them to be fruitful and multiply. In Genesis 2:24 we read that a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. Both of these verses have been widely understood to exclusively support heterosexual marriage and sexuality for the purposes of procreation. While I agree that these creation myths provide an understanding of the science behind procreation, I do not believe that they were intended to answer the deeper questions of how we might be faithful, sexual beings in our world.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bible is unable to provide any specific moral teaching when it comes to sexual activity – because it is beyond the Bible’s scope. As an example, many people use scripture to back the claim that virginity is a Christian virtue. I agree that the Bible holds up virginity as important, but in most cases this is exclusively for women. The same goes for marital fidelity – woman are to be faithful, while it is perfectly acceptable for a man to have multiple wives and/or mistresses. It seems that when it comes to the specifics of sexual relations, the biblical writer’s themselves can’t escape the sin they were writing about. Oppression is woven into their stories and accepted as normal. To offer another example, prostitution is rightly described as a societal evil in the Bible, but it is wrongly attributed to the sin of the women who were prostituted rather than the men who created the demand or the society that left women vulnerable with few or no other options. With this in mind, I feel confident asserting that it is dangerous to look to the Bible for examples of healthy sexuality or ideas of how sexuality ought to be “rightly ordered.”

Does the Bible therefore hold no authority?

On the contrary, I believe that the bible holds great authority when it comes to describing right relationship. It simply holds little to no authority when it comes to describing healthy sexuality. I think that most of our attempts to directly apply biblical passages that speak about sex to our own context have resulted in a shame-based culture that has perverted God’s good gift.

What does the bible say about right relationship?

The greatest commandment is that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and the second is that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. (Matthew 22:36-40) In this second greatest commandment, the bible corresponds with nearly every mainstream Internet or magazine article on how to be a good lover: Put your partner first, love them as you love yourself.

Isn’t this what marriage is about, love for the other?

There are two ways to approach this question.

  • First – Yes! And this is also the foundation for many other short-term and long-term relationships that are outside the definition of marriage.
  • Second – Yes! Ideally, this would be the foundation of every marriage. Yet we know that marriage is a human institution that has been defined in a variety of ways across time and place. There still exist today arranged marriages, forced marriages, and marriages of choice – some of which enhance life and some of which diminish life.

Could we still say that marriage is the ideal?

I find the claim that marriage is the ideal environment for a healthy, God-pleasing sexual relationship to be rather unconvincing. Even if the criteria for marriage were the most ideal and universally accepted – the conditions for a healthy sexual environment cannot be mandated. Marriage is not an automatic pass nor singleness an automatic fail. We desperately need a new way of considering how we can best honour this good gift from God both within and outside of marriage.

The church has long spoken of marriage as a prerequisite for sex as though getting married were as simple and natural as digesting food or falling asleep at night. Yet there are a myriad of reasons why this is inaccurate. This renders the prohibitions against sex outside of marriage both unrealistic and highly condescending. It also has the potential to be emotionally and spiritually damaging. For many, believing that God doesn’t like sex outside of marriage is like believing that God doesn’t like you. In the words of authors Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, “Because of this belief, a tremendous people carry great shame from their own perfectly natural sexual desires and activities.”[1]

But surely promiscuity must cause more damage?

Sometime in the church’s past we seem to have adopted the phrase “less is more” as a Christian slogan. In many churches we see this reflected in communion practices where the Eucharist is celebrated once a month at most, so as to not minimize the effect. Less is more! I can also recall stories from my parent’s generation of their own Christian parents saying “I love you” very infrequently, as though it was a phrase not to be overused. Less is more! It seems we have this same idea when it comes to sex –somehow less sex is more virtuous than more sex. It seems that we have a hard time accepting good gifts: salvation, love, and sex. It is as though we want them back under our own control and linking them with guilt or fear seems to serve this purpose.

So should sex just be a free for all as long as it feels good to do it?

I believe that sex is a gift that enhances life by allowing us to experience great pleasure with another person. I also believe there are certain universal principles that must be taken into account in order for sex to be life enhancing. Sexual intimacy is powerful, and it requires great vulnerability. The need for mutuality, equality, and trust cannot be overemphasized. They are essential to create a safe space for vulnerability and can only be established through open and honest communication.

So if these principles are not met, sexual activity is sinful?

I don’t think it is so simple. I think that where mutuality, equality and trust are lacking, there is great risk for sex to be demeaning or diminishing for one or both partners. I do not believe that this is part of God’s plan for this good gift. I also think we need to be careful how we use the word sin when it comes to sex because it is so misused and misunderstood. I think this discussion would be well served by a basic understanding of sin as anything that takes us out of right relationship with God. With this in mind, the label “sin” has less significance. What matters is the quality of one’s relationship with God, and with God’s creation. When the goodness of sexuality is dishonoured by demeaning, exploiting, or betraying another individual, this is a straightforward an example of not being in right relationship. On the other hand, when two people consent to sex with the best intentions to love and please the other and end up regretting it the next day, or month, or year – deciding whether or not this was a sin is far less important than continuing to work towards right relationship with each other and/or with God.

Practically speaking, how do we go about making moral decisions about sex?

I believe that in order to make moral decisions, one must have a good grasp of what is at stake and the resources to make an autonomous decision. For this reason it is crucial that sex is embraced in Christian communities as a good gift and that honest education happens around God’s desire for it to be life enhancing. In Genesis 2:25, after becoming one flesh, we read that the two were naked and they were not ashamed. Sex requires people to be extremely vulnerable yet not ashamed. This underlines the need for mutuality, equality and trust.

But how do you know when you have those three things?

You need to ask honest questions of your mind, heart and body.

Mind: Have we talked openly and honestly about our feelings, our hopes, and our fears about sex? Have we talked about STD’s and pregnancy? Do I know that I could change my mind at any moment at that would be okay? Will our decision to have sex negatively affect anyone else in a manner that is within our control?

Heart: Do I trust this person to keep me safe? Do I want to be intimately connected to this person, not just physically but emotionally as well?

Body: Do I want this person’s body as close to mine as humanly possible wearing as little as humanly possible?

If you answer yes to all of these questions, there is a good chance you are ready to have sex.[2] If your partner also answers yes to all of these questions there is a very good chance it will be life enhancing for both of you.

As a Christian, there is another set of questions you could consider.

Spirit: Do I sense the Holy Spirit in our relationship? Have we left room for the Spirit to guide us in all aspects of our relationship, including this one?

You don’t have to married to ask these questions, you don’t have to be Christian, you don’t have to be a certain age. The important thing is that you ask these questions and that you talk about them together. If you don’t, the risk of sex that diminishes or damages is way higher.

 As a church, I believe the best way we can encourage healthy conversations around sex is to stop perpetuating shame. I think this involves honouring and blessing life enhancing sexual relationships both within and outside of marriage.

[1] Easton, Dossie & Janet W. Hardy, The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Sexual Adventure,, 2nd Ed, Berkeley: Celestial Arts, 2009, p. 13.

[2] The concept of asking “Mind, Body, Heart” questions, is from the program: SafeTeen: Powerful Alternatives to Violence, and the book by the same name, written by Anita Roberts. http://www.safeteen.ca

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I have been following the #MeToo movement from a safe enough distance that it has felt  powerful, hopeful, and even exciting.  I actually started to feel a sense of relief that I don’t have to carry the weight of so many women’s stories anymore.  We are carrying them together now.

But when I realized I need to share some of my own MeToo stories it didn’t feel powerful at all.  It felt sickening, devastating, entirely horrible.  I became acutely aware of the fear other women must have felt when they told their stories.  But they still told them. I am in awe.

A few weeks ago a mentor of mine shared her MeToo witness on a professional website.  I commented on her post, thanking her for her insight into why we need to tell our stories, even though it’s so hard to do.  For all intents and purposes, it was a very tame comment. Nothing political, nothing inflammatory, nothing but one woman acknowledging another woman’s wisdom and power.

Yet within a few days, four people marked my comment ‘unhelpful’. Really? It was like four people were telling me, and her, to keep our mouths shut.

I don’t want to tell these stories to an open audience.  I have have spent the last few days (weeks, months, years, decades) making lists of reasons why I don’t have to. The problem is that all my reasons sound like the same things an abuser would say to get me to shut up.

And still, the only way I can bring myself to post this is by removing the names, even though I will never forget them.  Yes, this means I am still keeping the silence, still protecting these men. I resent this.  The very sick and very true reality is that I am afraid that putting their names in this post makes me more vulnerable than them.

When I was 10, a grade 4 teacher at Voyageur School wolf whistled at me when I walked by in a grass skirt during our Halloween parade.  I went back to my class and changed into my sweatpants.  I didn’t know he did anything wrong, but I thought maybe I did.

When I was doing promotions for Molson Canadian at a concert at the Winnipeg Convention Centre in September 2000, a manager put his hand between my legs, groped me, and then looked me in the eye. I didn’t know what to do. (Now I do. #SafeTeen)  I was so uncomfortable that I laughed.  I waited until I was alone with a friend to cry.  I had never had a conversation with him before that nor have I since.

To all of you silence-breakers who told your stories with names attached: you possess a bravery greater than most people realize. I know it comes at a great personal cost. Lights in the darkness, that’s what you are.

Which Came First?

It’s Easter, and I once again find myself surrounded with eggs. Hardboiled eggs, painted eggs, Cadbury Creme Eggs… I’m eating Mini Eggs as I write.

About a week ago, CadburyUK tweeted “Which came first, the mini chicken or the Mini Egg?” A cute promotion to be sure, but I am sitting here wondering if this might be one of the most important questions I have been asked all week: “Which came first?”

Easter Sunday I found myself in church singing familiar hymns about God’s faithfulness, listening to the story of God’s promises made evident to us via an empty tomb. And I couldn’t help but question why anyone would ever believe such a ridiculous story, when it is so much more plausible that Jesus’ body was stolen than that he rose from the dead.

Does our faith truly rely on this story?
Or does this story rely on our faith?

My belief that Christ is Risen leads me to exclaim “Alleluia!” I am assured that God is faithful and just, and that God’s steadfast love endures forever. And, I also know that it is only because I have trust in God’s faithfulness that I believe the story I am told about the empty tomb.

So, which came first?

Rust & Wrinkles

When I bought my 1999 Acura 1.6 EL with a standard transmission it was a pretty big deal. And ever since I stopped stalling at every stop sign I have felt pretty proud driving it.  This past month my trusty vehicle even made it through an 8,000 km road trip. That’s 5,000 miles, my American friends!
 
But here’s the issue: I’m not proud of it anymore.
 
It started earlier this year when someone saw my car and said “That’s your car? I guess I don’t have to worry what you’d think about my ride.”
 
And it wasn’t even meant to be rude. It was like she was saying “Oh, you don’t really care about what you drive either.”
 
But I was insulted… so apparently I do.
 
It just came as a surprise.  I kept putting miles on my sweet car and suddenly, one day, I’m driving a cracked, dented, rusted out crap-box.
 
And so I make myself feel better by telling myself that one day I will get another car.  Then I will roll down the windows without fear that they won’t roll back up.  I will pop the hood without the use of pliers. I will look in the rearview mirror and…
 
Have you ever looked at yourself in your rearview mirror on a sunny day? I have, and this is what my mind did:
 
“This can’t be right. There are two, no three, no FOUR separate wrinkle lines on either side of my face when I smile –  and that’s not counting the ones by my eyes! And my skin… it looks so… transparent!”
 

It came as a surprise. I kept living my life full of dramatic facial expressions when suddenly, one day, I’m rocking a face that rivals my fingertips after a soak in the tub.

And I realize that although a new car may be in my future, a new body will not.

So I find a new way to deal.  I smile as big as I can and look hard at those lines.  I imagine how many times I must have smiled like this to create such resilient facial memory.  Next I frown. A long crooked line threatens to break my forehead in half and I say a short prayer of thanks for all the hard and painful moments I have made it through.  I raise my eyebrows and it looks like waves on the beach.  The beach is my favorite place.

This face of mine is the product of a bazillion little moments that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

And as for my car… it is daily reminder of one of my favorite quotes.

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and thieves break in and steal… wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”   –  Matthew the Apostle

Uncertainty and Silence

In my work with SafeTeen, my role is to offer tools to help youth make decisions that are healthy and right for them. When it comes to sex we talk about how it is not just our bodies that need to be ready, but our hearts and minds as well. Uncertainty in any of these areas at any time is a good sign that you’re not ready.  If someone else is involved, he or she also has to be ready, and the only thing that means yes is yes.  No, I’m not sure, not now, and even silence very simply mean no.

Reading Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber gave me a whole new perspective on these important truths.

Steingraber is an ecologist, and this book is her personal investigation of cancer and the environment, motivated by her own diagnosis and eventual recovery from bladder cancer 30 years earlier. Her book is a compelling.  She looks into the causes of cancer in our everyday environments, our ‘safe places’ made toxic in order to keep our lawns green and our bathrooms clean.

So how is it still legal to produce, sell, purchase and use these products?

Steinberg explains that there are many chemical carcinogens “that remain unidentified, unmonitored, and at large.” This means that there is little known about them and therefore there is “no evidence for harm.”  This in turn is sometimes translated into “the chemical is harmless.” [1]  You can see the fatal flaw.

The thing is, there is evidence for harm.  We see it in our bodies, in the air, and on the earth.  We are uncertain whether our products and practices are safe, yet we wait for statistical proof of harm.

But “how can silence be statistically evaluated?”[2]

Is it plausible that until plant and animal life are flourishing, creation is simply stating ‘no?’

 

[1] Steingraber, Living Downstream, p. 102.

[2] Steingraber, Living Downstream, p. 86.

Buy Less, Use Less, Want Less

Task:  Try out a new care of creation practice for the course “Religious Education in Relation to Creation.”

Goal:   Address over-consumption – buy less, use less, want less.

I am an addict when it comes to consuming.

I’m not trying to be overdramatic, and I by no means want to minimize what it means to have an addiction.

I honestly believe that most people who would read this blog are in the same situation – we have succumbed to a debilitating addiction in our society and we can’t by our own power find a way out. We can’t stop consuming.

Unless I consciously take the time (every time) to remind myself otherwise, here are some things that I believe:

1)   My life would be easier if I had more money.

2)   I would be happier if I had certain things that I don’t already own.

3)   I’ve earned and deserve the things that I do already own.

Daily, these ideas are reinforced by friends, strangers, fictional television characters, 2D advertisements, myself…

But I know that for the most part, all of the statements are wrong, because:

1)   Life wasn’t easier when I was making money in a career instead of spending it in grad school

2)   New t-shirts, kitchen gadgets, or colorful markers do make me happy, but not long-term happy. Sometimes only 1 day, or 2 hours, or 5 minutes happy.

3)   I don’t deserve anything that comes with the following associated costs: human rights violations, animal cruelty, or environmental damage.

I know all of this, yet I continue to consume. Let the practice begin…