Where Logic Meets Love

Deconstructing the Desire for Christian Sex Rules

Friday, May 3, 2013

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Deconstructing the Desire for Christian Sex Rules | Faith Permeating Life

Here's a snapshot of some of the search terms that land people on my How Do Christians Have Sex? post:

having sex as a christian
can a christian talk dirty to their spouse
can christian married couples have sex for fun
how should christians have sex
what kinds of sex are allowed in christianity
are christians allowed to have passionate sex
christian way of doing sex
how christians should make love
how should married christian couples have sex?
is it wrong for christians to like sex
sex activity allowed in christian marriage
sex the christian way


You get the idea.

There are a lot of people out there wanting to know what rules their sex life should follow if they're a Christian.

We talk a lot about rules in Christianity. The Old Testament, in particular, is full of rules -- the book of Leviticus is itself essentially a long list of very specific rules about how God's people were to behave. And today's Christians spend a lot of time debating which of these rules, if any, Christians are supposed to follow today. We debate whether Jesus overrode the old rules by giving us a more important commandment (Matthew 22:37-40, Romans 13:9) or if Jesus reaffirmed the importance of the old rules by saying not a single one would be erased (Matthew 5:18). Sometimes Christians say that other people aren't Christians if they don't follow specific rules.

Of course, there are plenty of people who are ready to tell you exactly which rules you should and should not follow to be a true Christian. It's no different than in areas outside religion -- how many parenting experts are there, ready to share the one right set of things you should do to be the best parent ever? We know that people raised in any number of different ways grow up to be healthy, happy adults. And yet when people are faced with too many possible options, they often look for rules to follow, to spell things out in black-and-white. And thus there will always be someone there to provide that security by doling out rules.

In the case of parenting, the end goal is clear: People want their children to be happy and healthy, and so they want to find out what rules to follow to "guarantee" a happy, healthy child -- or at least to maximize their chances of such. What I want to know is, what exactly are people seeking when they look for faith-based rules about sex?

Here are some possibilities.

Identifying Oneself as Christian
The purity codes in the Old Testament were, among other things, a way of marking the Jewish community as different -- set apart -- from the surrounding cultures. By observing certain restrictions in food and clothing, marking the males' bodies through circumcision, engaging in certain rituals, and abstaining from behaviors common to other cultures' worship rituals, the Jewish people signified that they were God's people.

Some elements of Christianity retain this idea. (Think "They will know we are Christians by our love.") And when it comes to sex, premarital sex (or the lack thereof) is one way that some people assert their Christian identity -- in a culture where most people have sex before marriage, proclaiming, "I'm saving sex for marriage" can be a way people choose to show "I'm different! I'm a Christian!" But other than these kinds of proclamations, sexual activity is generally something private. People wanting to know what kind of sex to have with their spouse as a Christian are unlikely to be thinking, "Which kind of sex will show our neighbors that we are Christians?" since their neighbors will almost certainly have no idea what goes on in their bedroom.

Securing Salvation
Many of the "rules" in Christianity nowadays are focused on defining sin so that it can be avoided, since much of the Bible talks about God telling people to turn away from their sin (which, in the Old Testament, about 90% of the time involves people worshipping other gods). Of course, not everyone can agree on what the rules actually are. And when there is a rule, it's a little bit murky what actually happens if you break that rule. When people turn away from God in the Old Testament, God generally responds by punishing people in this life -- killing them or their families, bringing plagues on the Jewish community, etc. Now we tend to talk about an afterlife and how the actions of this life determine where you end up after death. Or your actions have no effect on your salvation because it's all about what you believe. Or that's true, but how you act is an indication of whether or not you actually do believe.

It depends on who you ask.

So the desire to have and follow a specific set of rules around sex may come from a desire to avoid sin (whether you can sin unintentionally is another debate) and thus secure salvation (if salvation is actually dependent on not sinning). Yet I believe this kind of thinking is problematic because it leads to people talking as if there were such thing as heaven points, where God was adding points for not having oral sex and subtracting points when you enjoyed sex too much. Is having "perfect" sex really necessary for salvation?

Having Better Sex
Here's another argument often made both about the Levitical purity codes and when drawing an analogy of God as a parent. It's the "rules are for your own good" argument. So people might point out that in the days before antibiotics and disinfectants, not touching a person's exposed sores or bodily fluids was a good strategy for limiting the spread of infection. And just like your parents wouldn't let you eat all the candy you wanted because they knew it would make you sick, the analogy goes, God gives us rules because God knows better than we do what is best for us.

Following this logic, someone seeking a set of God-given rules about sex might be thinking that they will have the best (most enjoyable, most fulfilling, however you want to define it) sex if they follow those rules.

I don't claim to be an expert after only a few years of having sex, but it seems to me that basing your sex life on what is supposedly the "right" or "wrong" way to have sex is unlikely to lead to the best possible sex. Good sex requires a lot of things -- open communication with your partner, an awareness of your own body, balancing an openness to novelty with knowledge of your and your partner's comfort levels -- and relying on some external list as some kind of guarantee for good sex seems like a disastrous proposition. This is particularly true if this is accompanied by an anxiety about "getting it right," as I can't think of a situation in which adding anxiety into the mix makes sex better.

Having a Better Marriage
OK, so maybe these rules about sex aren't actually supposed to make the sex better, as that would imply some sort of hedonistic self-centered pleasure-seeking intentions that are supposedly antithetical to living a Christian life. But maybe people are seeking guidance about having sex as a Christian because they believe that having the right kind of sex will have positive effects for their marriage as a whole, or maybe just their life generally.

Again, I'm not going to pretend to speak for anyone but myself, as there are most certainly people out there who believe that they are having the holiest kind of sex (whatever that is) and that that is bearing fruit in other areas of their life. It just seems to me, from my own experience and from all that I've read about other people's experiences, that any time a person or a couple is trying to fit into some one-size-fits-all model, they're going to encounter more difficulty than when they're seeking the right fit for themselves. For my own marriage, I see more benefits when I treat Mike as a unique individual and seek to serve and engage him as such -- and when he does the same for me -- than when trying to apply some model of "how men are" or "how a Christian marriage should be." And so it makes sense that the same should be true when it comes to sex, that seeking to love and serve my spouse by approaching him as an individual with his own unique body and mind is going to bear more fruit for the whole of our relationship than by trying to make a pre-set list of rules work for us.


There may be other reasons that someone would seek a detailed list of what Christians are allowed to do sexually, and I welcome your insights. But as you may have gathered, I think this approach to sex is unlikely to produce the end result a person seeking such rules is looking for. And I think it's a shame that Christian culture has tended to place such an emphasis generally on rule-following, such that people are seeking more rules for something that is so intimate and so unique to each relationship.

I believe that reducing anything, including sex, to a list of do's and don'ts is in direct contradiction to the message repeated over and over and over again throughout the New Testament, the message that acting out of love is far more important than going through the right motions. Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath," and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say the same thing about sex. Sex is a gift from God given for us; we were not created for the purpose of having perfect, righteous sex.

What might cause someone to seek a set of rules about what they can do sexually? Do you think there is a value in such rules that I'm missing? If so, how do we know which are the right rules to follow?

16 comments:

  1. Everything comes down to love, but love is not so simple, either, or the New Testament would be a much shorter book. It's not always obvious what is or is not loving, and not everyone is good at putting vague feelings into words or reading their partners. It is as natural for some people to look to others to work out philosophy into practice or explain the other gender as it is for me to want someone else to fix my car.

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    1. At the same time, I think it's a weakness of modern thinking to believe that every question or difficulty can be boiled down to a simple, clear, articulate set of rules.

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    2. That's true. Sex and relationships can be intimidating because they do require so much work, so as in any field people may look for simplifications and shortcuts, including a set of rules to follow.

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  2. I actually had a different thought about these search terms- it could be Christians searching about their own sex lives, but my first thought was actually that it was non-Christian people searching out of curiosity. The Christian Right is bizarrely obsessed with sex and rules about it, as you know, and I wouldn't be surprised if the more vocal conservative Christians people hear about have led people to conclude that Christians aren't supposed to enjoy sex.

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    1. That's an interesting perspective. I think my interpretation was influenced by some of the search terms I didn't include, like "as a christian wife how to approach my christian husband to make love with him" "can i have sex with my wife unlimited christian" "how to have better sex for christians" and "i am a christian and my husband wants me to do things sexually that are not biblical." But you're right that many of these could be non-Christians who see Christians as a strange subculture and want to know whether Christian sex is different or has different rules from other people.

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  3. Interesting topic! I like Katie's idea, since search terms can never give you the reason why someone entered them into google. But having seen a lot of similar questions on the secular side of sexuality education, I think that a lot of it comes down to people feeling anxious about sex and wanting reassurance.

    I'm guessing that for people who've prioritized abstinence for religious reasons, this might be amplified, since during the period of abstaining, you've got to get really good at putting off your body's carnal desires and not satisfying your sexual instincts. Once married, it can be hard to then do an about-face and be able to get in touch with those instincts and desires, and to let them guide you.

    So if you're learning to trust yourself, you can want reassurance. But those vocal, conservative voices tend to focus on what you *shouldn't* do, and don't give a lot of guidance on what a sexually fulfilling relationship would look like. There are a lot of great sex-positive resources available, but most come from a pretty secular perspective, and that may feel too anarchic for folks who are just starting out with a lot of this.

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    1. That's a very good point, and similar to things I've written about before, like How Short-Term Fear Makes Your Children Bad Lovers. When everything taught about sex prior to marriage (when you're supposed to start having it) is based in both rules and fear, then the free-for-all of trying to learn how to have sex on your own could be overwhelming and cause someone to reach for the familiar -- rules, and fear of doing it wrong.

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  4. Very interesting discussion on why these questions are going into Google.

    Maybe they're seeking reassurance, but also, perhaps it's proof that the one-size-fits all attitude of rules doesn't work for everyone.

    I agree with what Jessica said about figuring out your comfort level together with your partner. I feel like most people have lines they're comfortable crossing and others not. It's the personal decision of the couple of what those lines are and how they fall within the integrity (I don't like "integrity" here but I can't think of a better way to frame it) of the relationship. Maybe those Google terms are the people trying to reconcile their personal lines with their perception of Christianity.

    Maybe people seek rules because it simplifies things. It's keeps things black and white. This is okay but that is not. "Don't do it" is a much easier answer than try to discuss the ins and outs of such decisions.

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    1. Maybe those Google terms are the people trying to reconcile their personal lines with their perception of Christianity.
      I think so, and what's interesting is that I tend to think of it in terms of "I want to do this, but 'Christianity' says I shouldn't" whereas many people may not be comfortable doing something sexually and so want to point to external rules saying they can't rather than admit that they just don't want to.

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    2. Very true. I also feel like the problem evolves as people--especially Christians--go through their teen years to their young adult years and the messages they get from adults vs. coming to their own conclusions.

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    3. I'm not sure I know what you mean. Can you say more about this?

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  5. I'm not sure if it's people "searching" for Christian rules about sex. I think it's more that Christian rules about sex have been taught to them when they are young, so they then continue to follow them because it's the "right" thing to do. It's hard for us to break out of a confine when it's somehting that's been the "norm" their entire life. I agree, that if people try to set themselves within the confines of someone elses rules about sex it's going to cause them more trouble in life later. But, maybe that's a lesson they'll have to find out on their own as they become sexually active within a relationship.

    On a completely unrelated note, I've nominated you for an award on my blog. The post is here: http://myfabulouspursuitofhappiness.blogspot.com/2013/05/leibster-award.html
    Thanks for having a blog that gets me thinking!

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    1. Thanks for the nomination! I'm glad you've come back to blogging again! :)

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  7. "Christian" rules about sex can mean MANY different things, and I'm not going to address all of them in a combox.

    As for my own view, the Catholic view, I think Chesterton put it best:

    "Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased." G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

    To put it briefly, boundaries are necessarily in any sexual relationship and many couples DO benefit from the Catholic rules. (No opinion on other sets of Christian "rules") I have also seen couples harmed by not having boundaries in their relationship and not being able to say what isn't OK. Selfishness, mistrust, and fear can build in the relationship, which leads to bland, boring, sex.

    Can Catholics become neurotic about the rules? Of course. I've written about that here: http://allpartoflifesrichpageant.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/lets-talk-about-sex/

    When couples make the rules more important than their relationship, that's a recipe for neuroses, fear, and bad sex. If you're using the rules as a checklist, or a formula to a good sex life, or to earn "heaven points", your doing it wrong.

    I very strongly agree with you about the need for communication, body awareness and acceptance, and a rejection of gender stereotypes. Each spouse is an individual. Each marriage is unique.

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  8. I take a different line I'm afraid viz there are no rules in the bedroom. If there are rules it is keeping it in marriage and not outside of it and also the rule of love whereby you do not force the other to do what they are extremely uncomfortable about. That frames the marriage relationship in my view and not rules about what you can do. I would class porn as outside of marriage by the way (mental adultery) as all sexual desire is reserved for the other. One has to adjust to the other and that is a big rule in itself.

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