Where Logic Meets Love

Defining "Sex" and Why It's Not the Same Thing as Dating

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

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Today, let's return to our discussion about how those who want to condemn same-sex behavior as sinful need to define both "sex" (as in the fuzzy boxes we call male and female) and "sexual behavior." Here's a link to last Wednesday's post about the difficulty in defining people's sex by their bodies.

We face much the same issue in attempting to condemn "homosexual behavior" as we do when talking about "premarital sex." We have to define "sex."

In most conversations about sex and morality, whether about teenagers having sex, or premarital sex, or gay sex, or sex and procreation, we talk as if sex is this one, specific, clearly defined action, when really, it's not.

I've shared this before, but here's a great post by John Green on the difficulties of defining "sex before marriage." (Yes, the same John Green from the video in last week's post. He's a smart man.) Here's the key parts:
What is sex? Is it actions that can result in procreation? Is it any kind of sexual intimacy? If so, is kissing sex? Is hugging sex if it happens to result in arousal?

We’ve created this aura around virginity as if one’s virginity is a real and tangible thing—but of course it isn’t. Sex and virginity are socially constructed concepts. Are you a virgin if you engage in oral sex? Are you a virgin if you’ve kissed a girl? Are you a virgin if it was just the tip? Are you a virgin if your hymen breaks from tampon-insertion?

In order to assign some sort of moral judgment to sexual behavior, one has to define what that is. After all, it wouldn't be fair to say, "If you do X, then you are sinning against God, but I'm not going to tell you which actions constitute X and which don't, so good luck not sinning." Right?

Let's go to an example, and you can tell me when you think we've entered the realm of "sexual behavior."

Mike and I met our freshman year of college and went through a long and awkward courting phase that you can read about here until I decided I was OK with dating him. So at this point we were romantically attracted to each other and we had entered into a monogamous relationship with one another. There was no physical contact yet. (Are we having sex yet?)

After we'd been dating a few weeks, Mike asked if he could hold my hand while we were watching a movie in my dorm room. After a few months, we progressed to cuddling and spooning. There was no kissing involved, and our hands always stayed within what you might call "safe zones." We were being physically close because we enjoyed being together. Sex yet?

After about two years, we decided that we were able to kiss each other on the cheek or the hand without that being a sexual temptation. It was a way of showing affection without trying to trigger sexual arousal or provide sexual pleasure. Was that sex?

Skipping ahead to our wedding day, we shared our first "real" kiss in front of the altar. Is kissing sex? I mean, we did it in a church... in front of all of our friends and family. It didn't lead to anything else, nor was it intended to.

If you classify any of the above as "sex" -- and I'm not saying you don't -- this has ramifications for all areas of sexual morality.

For those who believe premarital sex is sinful: Does that mean a couple can't hold hands or kiss on the cheek before their wedding?

For those who believe that all sexual acts must be open to procreation: Does that mean I can't kiss my husband goodbye because we're not planning on getting naked?

Is just the act of making a monogamous commitment to another person sex?

I'm going to guess that most of you don't consider the things I described to be "sex."

So now let's apply this to same-sex couples.

On what grounds can we say two women can't date each other?

How can we judge two men for walking down the street holding hands, or even exchanging a loving kiss?

If you are basing your moral judgments on Scripture, then you have to acknowledge that the only passages you can pull out to condemn same-sex relationships have to do with sex. Not "same-sex dating" or "same-sex holding hands."

I will reiterate that there is nothing in the Bible that explicitly talks about loving, committed, God-centered romantic relationships between people of the same sex. There are only condemnations of lustful sexual relationships -- whether opposite-sex or same-sex.

Since you're going to bring it up, I don't think there's any true Biblical support (regardless of your interpretation) for preventing same-sex couples from getting married.

"But, Jessica," you say, "are you saying that if we believe gay sex is sinful, we should let gay people get married anyway? Isn't that just enabling them, because they're probably going to have sex?"

What I'm saying is that even if you believe that "same-sex sexual behavior" is sinful, you have no grounds on which to legislate against same-sex marriage. That's like legislating against teenagers dating because you believe premarital sex is sinful. Dating is not the same thing as sex. Marriage is not the same thing as sex. Some teenagers and some gay people are going to have sex regardless of whether you legally recognize their relationships.

What I'm saying right now is that in order to have a conversation about same-sex marriage and "same-sex behavior," we first have to clearly define our terms.

And when we do that, we find that the Scripture passages being swung around to condemn same-sex marriage don't have to do with same-sex attraction, they don't have to do with same-sex couples dating, and they don't have to do with same-sex couples getting married.

They only have to do with sex.

And suddenly the conversation has changed, because the government, at least in the United States, rarely likes to pass laws having to do with sex. It's complicated enough with the laws that we do have, such as rape laws in some states for which it has to proved that there was "any penetration of the female sex organ by the male sex organ." That's an extremely specific definition of sexual intercourse. (And that means that according to this law, same-sex partners can't technically even have sex with each other. But that's besides the point.)

So, again, I'm not trying to make a case against the common interpretation of a handful of Scripture verses. (You can find plenty of resources here that do that.)

I'm saying that you can't condemn "sex" between partners of the same sex and then use a radically different definition of sex than you do in any other situation, one that includes even being in a romantic relationship.

One final thought on double standards: I'm going to guess that you don't walk around asking married women if they're on hormonal contraceptives (although most are) or engaged couples if they're having sex (although most are). You probably give most people the benefit of the doubt because you recognize that these kinds of sexual decisions are between the couple and God, and that Jesus wasn't the kind of person who walked around making sure that everyone was following all the moral laws to a T.

So what would be any different about a same-sex couple making a commitment to one another and letting their decisions about sex be between them and God?

As always, I want to hear your thoughts, and respectful disagreements are welcome, but those who are mean, close-minded, or insulting will be ignored and potentially deleted.


  1. So my husband and I have been kicking around an idea that might make everyone happy or crazy. Or both.

    What if we got the state out of the marriage business altogether? Why should the state implicitly endorse or condemn anyone's sex life? What's the state interest?

    In our state, at least, divorce laws have become so lax and cohabitation law has become sufficiently complex that there is little practical difference between a married couple and a cohabiting couple (assuming some commingling of property and/or children) splitting up, except for slightly greater legal fees for the married couple.

    Instead there could be a public registry where any adult could designate any other adult as the person whom they wanted to receive certain bundled legal responsibilities and benefits, e.g. claim as dependent on taxes, receive health benefits, default medical power of attorney, and whatever else was decided to be of value.

    It wouldn't have to be a mutual relationship or "union"--in fact, it should probably be one-sided (although to keep the benefits side from getting out of hand, you would probably have to keep with a limit of naming one person, though not of being the recipient for multiple people). There should be no implication of sexual intimacy--it should be perfectly appropriate for, say, a child to name a parent or a parent a child. (As would be immensely practical in many instances.)

    You could change or remove the beneficiary with payment of a modest fee and notice. Commingled assets would be dealt with like business partnerships. Parenting issues would be dealt with based on biology or adoption. (already pretty much the case).

    Marriage could be entirely the province of the church and/or individual conscience.

    Totally crazy? Could it work? Would it hurt?

    1. I would certainly be behind something like that. My mom and I have talked several times about how legal marriage should really be called something different from ceremonial/religious marriage because the "definition of marriage" is a big part of the anti-same-sex marriage rhetoric, but really the government should only be involved insofar as it involves legal benefits, like you say.

      The only problem I see is that proposing solutions like yours is like talking about how we shouldn't have a two-party political system. Even with abundant evidence that our current system is completely screwed up (whether it's the government having a say in the validity of one's relationship or people voting by party instead of voting based on issues), the system is not just going to change overnight because someone has a good idea about how it should be done instead. Which is good and bad -- it provides stability, though it's incredibly frustrating. So I think we have to start by making change within the system that we have, which is why, even if I think the way the government handles marriage doesn't make sense, I'm going to start by fighting for same-sex couples to get access to the legal process of marriage.

    2. I agree, it's a good idea! The one problem I have with it is the "certain bundled legal responsibilities and benefits." That bundling is one of the reasons my other-sex partner and I aren't married: We want some, but not all, of those responsibilities and benefits. To cite one example of one we don't want: At least in Pennsylvania, at least the last time I set up a new account which was a decade ago, as an unmarried person I could decide who would be my beneficiary/ies, but if I were married I would have to make my husband my primary beneficiary or have him sign his approval of another designation. That was for my retirement savings that are deducted directly from my paycheck, so all the deposits come from my individual earnings--why should he get veto power over my choosing to leave that money to someone else when I die? We prefer having responsibilities and benefits unbundled so that we can choose which we share, which we keep for ourselves, and which we share with someone else.

    3. I don't think QoC's solution would exclude people from only opting for certain benefits, just as they (you) can do now. It would just offer an option for people who do want those bundled benefits that right now can be easily obtained by getting married -- if you are allowed to get married.

  2. I just love this post. I don't necessarily have anything to add, other than thank you for writing it!

  3. Great point! But in the middle of this post about accurate definition of terms, you have this inaccuracy:

    It's complicated enough with the laws that we do have, such as rape laws in some states for which it has to proved that there was "any penetration of the female sex organ by the male sex organ." That's an extremely specific definition of sexual intercourse. (And that means that according to this law, same-sex partners can't technically even have sex with each other. But that's besides the point.)

    The quoted passage is defining rape, not sex. According to that law, a person cannot be RAPED by a person of the same sex. But it doesn't mean same-sex partners can't have sex, because it isn't defining sex.

    1. Hm, no, not quite. "[P]enetration of the female sex organ by the male sex organ" is not, in itself, a definition of rape, or it would mean that any sexual intercourse that involved this (e.g., me and my husband) would be rape. What the laws say is that rape cannot occur unless there is sexual intercourse, and sexual intercourse is defined as "penetration of the female sex organ by the male sex organ." It's a precondition of rape, but not the definition of rape itself. My point is that the government rarely likes to define what "sex" is; one case in which it has to define sex is in the larger context of defining rape. The definition of sex, as used in this situation, would mean that a person cannot have sexual intercourse with a person of the same sex. The ramifications of that would be, yes, that legally a person could not be raped by someone of the same sex.


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