Earlier, I wrote about the kind of stigma wrongfully attached to unwed parents. I also wrote about the Bible’s teachings on “fornication”.
In the latter post, I made the point that Christian obsession with sexual sin is arguably more prurient than puritan. But I also explained how “fornication” (as used in the Bible) is almost unquestionably a reference to prostitution and promiscuity, not sex itself. As it turns out, the Bible doesn’t actually ever call premarital sex a sin.
But does that mean all sex is okay?
This true-color image is an actual photograph of the surface of Venus, taken in 1982 by the Soviet Venera 13 lander. Image courtesy NASA.
I’m going to argue that there’s a very good, sensible basis for forming a consistent sexual ethic discouraging casual sex.
To start with, it isn’t this. Last month, Marty Schoenleber of ChosenRebel laid out a few arguments for why cohabitation without marriage is a terrible sin. His purpose is sound, but his arguments all assume the very thing that’s being questioned: the notion that sex belongs in marriage and marriage alone. I won’t go into a thorough evaluation, but it should be obvious “sex belongs in marriage” isn’t a good answer to the question “why should sex be restricted to marriage”.
I really shouldn’t keep going here….this isn’t a rebuttal post….but his very first argument completely misses the point. “Jesus taught clearly and forcefully that the sexual relationship of man and woman ought to be faithful and lifelong. We are not to separate what God has joined (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9).” Right, so adultery is wrong, and so is divorce. What does this have to do with sex between people who have never been married? Absolutely nothing.
Finally, he unwittingly falls into the same trap of prurience I wrote about earlier in talking about cohabiting relationships.
Whatever private understandings may have been entered into (and these vary enormously), the whole relationship is surrounded by a public haze of ambiguous commitment. When a woman introduces her ‘boyfriend’ or ‘partner’ (horrible word), we are left to guess the nature of their relationship. When a cohabitation breaks, we do not know what private understandings or assurances have been broken and by whom.
Why is it any of your concern? Barring instances of infidelity or other actual harm, the private sexual goings-on of consenting adults shouldn’t be the concern of society or the church or anybody else. Without trying to, mainstream Christianity ends up being terribly voyeuristic.
So what is the basis for discouraging casual sex?
There’s a fairly simple one, of course: the risk of unintended consequences. Condoms and birth control have nonzero failure rates, and STIs are really really bad, so the best way to prevent unplanned pregnancy or STDs is abstinence. But while that might make sex risky, it falls far short of making sex wrong. Almost 2,700 teenage drivers are killed each year in motor vehicle accidents, but you don’t see preachers decrying the Great Moral Evil of Teenage Driver Licensing.
I think I have a better approach.
Humans are sexual beings. Sex is physical, physiological, psychological, and emotional….not to mention occasionally biological. Our brains don’t process things in isolation; what we do affects how we think and perceive other people.
I think it can be argued with a fairly high degree of reasonableness that human beings are hard-wired for monogamy. It’s impossible (or at least incredibly difficult) to divorce our sexuality from our inherent expectation of love, affection, and security. Now, I’m not being sexist here; this hypothetical effect is independent of gender or sexual orientation. Thanks to a combination of instinct, evolution, societal expectations (and, adds the Christian, divine design), our bodies assume sex equals a permanent relationship even if our minds don’t.
Before anyone jumps down my throat: this has absolutely nothing to do with any Victorian sensibilities about the chivalrous duty of the man to protect the defenseless maiden from the ravaging dangers of sex. The effect is as mutual as the participation itself; both parties are set up to equally associate sex with permanence. As a result of all this, there is the potential of real emotional harm if you have sex with someone outside a permanent relationship. Put simply: there’s no such thing as no-strings-attached.
Of course, it’s possible to have sex without developing any connection whatsoever. If both people have already been so consistently promiscuous that they’ve completely disassociated intimacy from emotion, then sex might not do any further damage. But the issue is potential for harm, not actual harm. If you really care about someone, you won’t want to do something to them that has a chance of doing damage. And there’s a sliding scale; the more chance it has of doing harm, the more questionable a choice it is.
If you’re in a permanent relationship, on the other hand—if you’re married, or if you’re substantively engaged, or if you own a home together, or if you’re already raising a kid together under the same roof—then the emotional contradiction disappears. The important thing here: this approach takes sexual ethics out of the black-and-white religious God-said-you-need-a-marriage-license realm and places it where it belongs: as a personal choice, left up to the individual, based on actual realizable effects. Of course, some people will ultimately decide for themselves and choose sex without commitment….but they should recognize they run the risk of hurting the other person.
It’s a consistent ethic too. Casual sex cheats the other person out of the security and permanence our bodies automatically associate with sex….which is why prostitution and promiscuity are worse. It’s a sliding scale; the lower value you ascribe to sexuality (even to the point of making it a saleable commodity), the more you are cheating the other person. Rape is worst of all, because (among other, even worse things) it tells a person their sexuality is worth so little that they don’t even deserve to have a choice in the matter.