The blogosphere, not just the Christian blogosphere, has made much fuss over Christian purity culture and the damage it does to women in particular (here is a good primer on the subject); however, where much of the discussion has focused on misogyny, which is a good thing for us to recognize and condemn, there are other damaging effects to consider. Specifically, purity culture has fractured the human spirit into self and sexuality as though they are two separate things, and we should strive against this in order to achieve true Christian virtue and wholeness.
I happened across an enlightening post on Christian chastity over at Bad Catholic’s blog on Patheos. It echoed some of the sentiments which I had come to in my own thinking, but it had fleshed them out much more thoroughly. Here is a highlight which will be the focus of my thoughts in this post:
“Unchastity in dress is to dress like you are primarily an erect penis or an aroused vagina, that is, in a manner which highlights your sexual nature at the expense of the entirety of your person. … [But] here’s what often gets missed. I am also a sexual self. To say I am only sexual — which is the definition of sexual objectification — is a dishonesty, and thus unchastity. But to say I am not sexual at all is similarly a dishonesty.”
As a Christian virtue theorist, “goodness” for me means wholeness of being. If I am missing a part of myself, whether physically or spiritually, I am unhealthy. Christian purity culture has indeed deprived us of an integral part of ourselves: our bodies. We have shamed it out of sight and tried to diminish its importance. In a sense, I am arguing that Christianity needs to be more fully sexual.
“But Chris!” you say, “Our culture is already hypersexual! Why would we want to promote sexuality even more?” Good question. The problem is that at the same time that we have suppressed our sexual natures, we have remained sexual.
Let me reemphasize: we are still sexual, no matter our efforts to diminish this aspect of our natures.
What I believe has happened is that we have essentially outsourced this portion of our being to other venues to compensate. Pornography is a common replacement-of-sorts for a sexual partner. And, of course, there is prostitution and the sex trade. How tragically ironic it is that the churches which fight so desperately against sex trafficking may also be assisting the trafficking market by promoting unhealthy sexuality. Should we expect otherwise when we have worked so hard to fragment self and sexuality? A fearful, fragmented sexuality can only express itself in the dark corners of society where the self is free from the judgmental eye of purity culture. In those dark corners are lots of unsavory alternatives. Instead, we need to be courageous and acknowledge our sexuality in spite of those who would shame it.
I am getting married in four days from the time I started writing this. I love my fiancee dearly. However, I am discovering all of a sudden that I need to look at her and appreciate who she is physically just as much as I do the rest of her. When I think of sex, I should think of her and her beauty, and I should not be ashamed. I am not saying that in four days I need to get on Twitter and start abusing the #myhotwife hashtag; that would commit the same sort of dishonesty that the article at Bad Catholic condemns by putting my then-to-be-wife’s sexual appeal forward as her prominent feature. It would also commit a similar offense in putting forward something private as something public, denying the essential intimate nature of the relationship. Virtue is right being, and we cannot be prideful about our personal relationships; people, especially wives, are not trophies.
But as we try to reintegrate our sexuality into who we are, let us not pretend there is some objective way in which sexuality must be. For example, the neo-reformed movement, especially under the instruction of Mark Driscoll, has taken to using such books as Song of Solomon as a sex manual (though it would not be very comfortable with the suggestion that the man and woman in the book don’t appear to be married). Driscoll has said, and I quote him verbatim, “The wife performing oral sex on the husband is biblical. God’s men said, Amen. Ladies, your husbands appreciate oral sex. They do. So, serve them, love them well. It’s biblical.” The same thing happens a lot of times when men (or women) have their expectations for sex set by pornography: the husband goes into the relationship expecting the wife to be a certain way with regard to sex, be it in regard to blowjobs or anal sex or anything else.
What Driscoll and others fail to grasp is that sex and sexiness is not a particular thing. It is being comfortable, healthy, and honest with one’s body, and that takes many forms. My wife-to-be and I are aiming never to force one another to be something that we are not, never depriving one another of being our true selves. Yet in the ways which we are comfortable, we will enjoy each other to the fullest: our sexuality will grow from our companionship. When we look at sex and sexuality as an objective thing which is independent from our being, particularly in this case our being with a sexual companion, then we fragment ourselves. Sexuality is subjective and grows out of sexual companionship. I’m not going to judge a couple’s sexual practices so long as they are loving, physically safe, and non-abusive. Blowjobs may be totally fine for some couples; however, that sort of sex grows out of the relationship and is not an objective sexual standard.
It is my hope for all couples, specifically those affected by a culture which shames them for their sexual natures, to reintegrate the appreciation of sexiness in their loved ones. Those who are sexy should not feel ashamed of this fact. If you have a nice butt, a curvy figure, or something else attractive, don’t feel like you need to hide it, but don’t make it who you are. If you don’t fit the model set out by Victoria’s Secret models, guess what? You’re still sexual. You can still be sexy, but again, don’t turn yourself into your sexiness. Figure out what that means for you in your life. Be sexy; be whole.
Even further — let us not feel ashamed for recognizing attractiveness in others who are not our loved ones. Why should we deny what is plain to see? We should appreciate beauty in a healthy way. When appreciation moves into a stage where we are lying to ourselves mentally about our relationship to a certain person — that is to say, we imagine ourselves in sexual/romantic liaisons with people other than our lovers — we have moved from virtue to vice. In your mind, let them be sexy; let them be whole. People with a healthy relationship to their bodies should make us happy and should inspire us toward such health, as well.
We should encourage our theology and ethics to take into our account our whole being, including our sexual natures. Again, let us remember the words from the Bad Catholic article: “To say I am only sexual — which is the definition of sexual objectification — is a dishonesty, and thus unchastity. But to say I am not sexual at all is similarly a dishonesty.” We should be honest about who we are.
Christian sexual virtue is about being sexy while being whole.