Last night, I finished Lauren Winner's Real Sex. I finished it during Matilde's "out time" (she nibbled on the dust jacket), after having returned home from night two of "Sex, All Saints Style" with the kids at youth group. More on that later.
As I've written before, my friend Scott always said to respond to something new with a "Yes, No, and Hmmm." I'll try that with Winner's interesting little paean to chastity.
There's lots here to which to say "yes". The middle portion of her book, chapters called "Straight Talk I" and "Straight Talk II" take aim at some deeply ingrained myths of both secular and religious culture about sexuality. For example, Winner challenges the notion that we ought to expect married sex to always be ecstatic, a "swinging from the chandeliers" experience. She writes:
In a Christian landscape, what's important about sex is nurtured when we allow sex to be ordinary. This does not mean that sex will not be meaningful. Its meaning, instead, will partake in the variety of meanings that ordinary life offers. Sex needs to be clumsy. It should at times feel awkward. It should be an act we engage in for comfort. It should also be allowed to hold any number of anxieties -- the sorts of anxieties, for instance, we might feel about our child's progress in school, or our ability to provide sustenance for our family....
Our task it not to cultivate moments when eros can whisk us away from our ordinary routines, but rather to love each other as eros becomes embedded in, and transformed by, the daily warp and woof of married life.
I like that insistence that we need to stop burdening ourselves with the expectations of the extraordinary.
I've got some other "yeses" as well. She takes on the myth, perpetuated even now in some Christian dating manuals, that women don't have strong libidos:
We Christians are not doing anyone any good when we perpetuate the notion that women don't really want to have sex. In fact, to insist that women lack sexual desire is really to do a disservice to teenage girls and women... Are many women likely to encounter men who pressure them to have sex? Sure. But they are also likely to encounter pressures that may seem even more urgent and be even more persuasive -- the pressures of their own bodies and their own desires.
It's vital that everyone on all sides of the "sex debates" acknowledge that much. Most of us on the "progressive" side already do recognize the reality of women's libidinousness; I am pleased that those who advocate a more traditional understanding of morality are willing to acknowledge it as well.
Above all, I think Winner is right to insist that our sexual behavior doesn't just affect us and our partners. It affects everyone in the larger community we inhabit. She quotes a famous line from Wendell Berry:
Sex, like any other necessary, precious, and volatile power that is commonly held, is everybody's business.
If we on either the religious or secular left insist that how we live out our sexual lives is no one's business but our own, we ignore fundamental human realities. Our sexual decision-making affects countless people around us, our children most obviously. In high school, after all, the romantic and sexual behavior of others has an immense impact on our own thinking. The fact that we love to gossip seems to reflect this. When a popular couple suddenly breaks up, or someone we admire cheats on his or her partner, we are affected. Our views of sexuality, of relationships, of men and women -- all these things can be shaped and transformed by our witnessing (or simply hearing about) the "private" behavior of our families and our peers.
I've watched my marriages and my divorces take a toll on my family. I've watched them have an impact on the kids I work with at church. Last fall, when I told the kids that I was engaged to my fiancee, they rejoiced in excitement. They love hearing -- heck, they need to hear -- stories of second (and fourth) chances. Though I never share with them intimate details of my relationship with my beloved, I'm kidding myself if I think that our commitment to each other doesn't have a genuine impact on the well-being of the community which I serve! As Christians, even progressive ones, we have an obligation to acknowledge that "good sex" meets the needs of a larger society.
But I have a "no" or two to Winner as well. Recognizing that our sexual choices inevitably impact others is not a sufficient argument for limiting all genital expression to heterosexual marriage. I've known too many gay and lesbian couples in the church whose long, stable relationships have provided powerful witness to our youth and to our larger community about the nature of love, sacrifice, devotion, and commitment.
Winner is cavalier (literally, mind you; she attended Virginia) towards and dismissive of progressive Christian arguments for the legitimacy of sex outside of marriage. She writes:
I read all the classics of 1970s Christian sexual ethics, all the appealing and comforting books that insisted that Christians must avoid not sex outside of marriage, but exploitative sex, or sex where you run the risk of getting hurt... After all, as long as our 1970s man and woman care about each other, making love will be meaningful. In fact, sex might even liberate them, or facilitate their personal development.
I don't know what she was reading, but that's a gross mischaracterization of liberal Christian ethics on several levels. She's putting up a fairly flimsy straw man, especially with the rather uncharitable dig at the 1970s (the decade in which the young Ms. Winner was born.) Um, Lauren? We've got plenty of more recent books you might want to take a gander at:
Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their Implications for Today (William Countryman, 1988).
Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics (Christine Gudorf, 1994)
Body and Soul: Rethinking Sexuality as Justice-Love (Marvin Ellison, editor; 2003).
I'm sure my helpful liberal readers could assist in drafting a list for Winner. She uses a tactic that's really beneath her, and that's the standard right-wing trope that liberal main-line Protestantism had its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, and is now diminishing into social and theological irrelevance. Read those books and come to All Saints Pasadena, folks; I hate to break it to you, but rumors of the death of progressive Protestantism have been grossly exaggerated!
And I've got a few hmms as well, especially around her brief tangent off on to the topic of modesty. She's got some of the usual cant about hip-hugging jeans and midriff-bearing tops on young women, though she rightly places blame where it belongs:
Those who would criticize a culture of immodesty need to castigate not individual women but the marketplace that produces the clothes women wear.
That's fair. But I can't go with her when she decries the habit of teachers wearing jeans to class, of men running shirtless through Charlottesville in the summer (I've run in Charlottesville in the summer -- I'd die with a shirt on), and of casual dress Fridays at work and pajamas at church. (I've worn pajamas at All Saints on more than one occasion, though always after an all night retreat. I don't need a tie and suit jacket to approach the altar rail with awe.)
And on this rainy Thursday morning, I'm in jeans and a t-shirt in front of my computer. I've got class in ten minutes, and the students will no doubt be able to cope with my sartorial choices.
Whew. This entry is plenty long enough -- anyone still reading? All in all, I can count myself delighted with Real Sex. And on the issue of chastity itself, I'm captivated -- but still unsold.