Where Logic Meets Love

The Middle is a Big Place: Jumping into the Sex-and-Self-Control Fray

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

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I usually don't get involved in the Christian/feminist blogosphere arguments, but this one is something I've written about extensively before, so I thought it might actually help to add my voice to the discussion this time.

Rachel Held Evans wrote a post explaining that because she rejects a shame-based purity culture, people assume she doesn't think saving sex for marriage is important, but in reality she thinks striving for holiness and self-control in relationships is important.

Libby Anne at Love Joy Feminism then responded that Rachel didn't actually make a case for saving sex for marriage and that her focus on sexual self-control seems to be limited to the time before marriage.

What's interesting is that both women describe -- and reject -- the same two ends of the spectrum: a purity culture in which your entire self-worth is dependent on what you do with your body, and a free-for-all in which you have sex with as many people as possible and it never has any effect on your life.

Yet both woman also seem to consider their own position to be "the middle ground" between these two extremes, and lump each other's position in with one of the other groups: Libby Anne groups Rachel's "self-control" position with the purity culture extremists ("what she's saying here really isn't that different from the purity culture rhetoric"), and Rachel emphasizes sexual holiness and warns those stepping away from purity culture to avoid "swinging to the opposite extreme to endorse an anything-goes sexual ethic."

In fact, there are a multitude of possible positions that fall somewhere in between the extremes.

Where distinctions can start to be made are in answers to these two questions:
  1. Is saving sex for marriage a valid choice?
  2. Is saving sex for marriage the best choice for everyone?
(You may remember from my previous posts that my own answers to these questions are Yes and No respectively.)

Rachel clearly answers Yes to the first question, but I'm not sure her answer to the second question is as clear-cut as Libby Anne implies. What Rachel does say is that "some have wrongly concluded that I don't value saving sex for marriage" and that she gets frustrated (as I do!) that TV shows "take it for granted that characters attracted to one another [will] sleep together after the first date."

In my view, she (or anyone else) could answer Yes to the second question and still not be anywhere near as extreme or damaging as the purity culture she's worked to combat. There's a big gulf between "this is the ideal situation" and "if you don't do this you are damaged for life and all of your relationships will be ruined." Ideally, Mike and I would always be loving and patient with one another, but that doesn't mean either of us thinks our marriage is destroyed if we fail to live up to this ideal.

What's interesting is that I don't think Rachel and Libby Anne are that far apart in their beliefs, even while painting each other as being on the far ends of the spectrum. They both agree that a healthy sexuality involves some measure of self-control, and that your overall approach to sexuality is far more important than any particular act that you do or don't do.

The main difference, it seems, is how they each interpreted the point of Rachel's post. Libby Anne seems to see Rachel's post as "Here is why saving sex for marriage is the right decision," and then points out that it really doesn't do a good job of making that argument. Which is true.

However, I read Rachel's post as having a different message, which was, "Here's why I haven't thrown out the idea of saving sex for marriage yet, even though I reject purity culture messages." Some of the criticism -- of equating self-control with abstinence-before-marriage -- still stands, but I think it's easier to know how to respond when you understand the angle Rachel is coming from.

I'll close with this: What Rachel is describing -- what she calls "holiness," in contrast to virginity or purity -- already has a term in the Catholic Church, which is chastity. Chastity is not the same as virginity; it's a kind of sexual ethic that applies whether you're married or not. You can disagree (and I do) that a healthy sexual ethic necessarily includes waiting for marriage to have sex, but the concept of chastity addresses Libby Anne's concern that these ideas about holiness and self-control deal only with what you do before marriage.

Here is the explanation of chastity from Catholic.net:
Chastity is a virtue that directs all our sexual desires, emotions, and attractions toward the dignity of the person and the real meaning of love.

That means that all of our sexual desires, emotions, and attractions to others are supposed to be at the service of the dignity of the other person and the real meaning of love -- not at the service of what we want! Chastity is a deep respect and admiration for the person AND for the gifts of our sexuality and sex.
That is a sexual ethic I can get behind.


  1. Awesome. Love it, Jessica. I've often wondered why people think we are divided so sharply between two polar opposites, while leaving a huge swath of space between ourselves.

    1. Thanks, Matt! I've never understood the idea that "if you don't agree with me completely, you're just as bad as [very extreme position]." We can disagree while still recognizing that our differences aren't actually that huge.

  2. You're far more Catholic than many Catholics on the internet give you credit for, Jessica. :-)

    I think so many discussions about sexuality and self-control get caught up in the "culture war" divide that it's easy to forget just how big of a middle there is or how close two people in the middle may be, even if they disagree on a "hot button" issue.

    For example, why do "Side A" and "Side B" Christians see each other as the enemy when they have far more in common with each other than with their "allies" who believe that one can't be gay and Christian? That's dumb.

    I've seen this recently in the Catholic blogosphere in the discussion of Boy Scouts allowing gay scouts: The Catholics who are insisting that the Boy Scouts are encouraging immorality and have sold out to secular culture have gotten more attention and more "likes", while the Catholics who are mindful that the Catechism forbids unjust discrimination against GLBTQ people are largely ignored.

    As a result, it's especially tempting to "take sides" as a blogger when you have a readers who are looking for a "fight". But when you start doing that, you've stopped looking for truth and started preaching to the choir. In areas as sensitive and personal as sexuality, this can really cause a lot of collateral damage.

    1. For example, why do "Side A" and "Side B" Christians see each other as the enemy when they have far more in common with each other than with their "allies" who believe that one can't be gay and Christian?
      This is why I am in awe of the work the Gay Christian Network has done, and why I enjoyed being part of their conference so much. They make it clear that the question of same-sex relationships is just one issue in the large realm of faith and sexuality and that there are still plenty of things to talk about and wrestle with together if we set that aside.

  3. I agree that a sexual ethic built on self-control applies just as much after marriage as before. More so, in my experience. I do believe that sexuality is only rightly fully expressed as part of a permanent commitment. (How that commitment is expressed and solemnified varies with culture; that it should be expressed does not, in my view.) But thinking a thing is wrong and thinking it means you have ruined yourself for life if you do differently are two very different things, as you rightly point out.

    1. Exactly. Just as there is a difference between "this is right for me" and "I think this is right for everyone" (which many people still don't understand), there is a difference between "I think this is right for everyone" and "There is no redemption for you if you don't do this."

    2. I think it's a shame how self-control in marriage has been forgotten in some circles. Some of the comments on some Christian marriage sites are, quite frankly, disturbing ... and depressing.

      My view on many matters of sexual ethics is "I do think this is right/wrong for everyone, but I don't think you're ruined for life, doomed to have a bad marriage, or cut off from redemption if you do differently." Which most people don't seem to understand.

  4. Yes, the middle is a big place! While I am closer to the "anything goes" end of the spectrum, I have strong feelings against sex with strangers, sex for money, sex combined with violent behavior, super-jealous monogamy, and some other ways sexuality can be used--and while I try to be open-minded and compassionate with people who've done things I wouldn't, I do intend to teach my son "rules" for sexual decision-making. In my sexual history and my current relationships, it's not that there are no rules but that the rules I've played by are not the most conventional rules. Most importantly, I believe that sex should be based in love but that there are many kinds and gradations of love that can work well--lifelong monogamous heterosexual marriage is not the only valid kind of love.

    Thanks for bringing these interesting articles to my attention!

  5. I also read both these posts and I see where each of them are coming from- and I kind of didn't like how 2 of my favorite bloggers were disagreeing with each other, because the internet tends to turn these things into a super-big deal.

    Anyway, yeah. They're both in the middle. They both COMPLETELY reject purity culture. I really didn't like how some of the commenters on Love Joy Feminism were saying that Rachel's post was pretty much the same as shame-based purity culture and all that. Really? That is a huge misrepresentation.

    And I feel like I'm sort of in the same place as Rachel- I'm SO DONE with "purity" but now I'm making up this whole new understanding of dating from scratch. (Last year there was this guy I really liked, and I was terrified and praying so much about whether or not I could date him- because that's what you do in purity culture- and I realized all my beliefs about dating and purity were based in fear, and so they can't be right because God wants us to have freedom, not fear. So I asked the guy out and we are still dating now. <3 But yeah, the point of this story is I rejected purity culture when all I knew was "this is entirely based in fear, so it can't be right" and I've been trying to figure out what IS right ever since.)

    I still really strongly believe I shouldn't have sex before marriage. And in general I think that's a good idea for most people. But I can't say it's always a sin, and I would never judge other people for coming to a different conclusion than me.

    Still trying to figure stuff out though. :)

    1. I really don't agree that teaching someone to wait to have sex equates purity culture. The problem seems to me that every single example I know is when the church also exalts virginity itself. I cannot think of a single example of a time where someone teaches that it's a sin to have sex outside marriage, and then the result is the congregation says, "It's just a sin." No, instead it is a BIG sin. It's a huge deal. If you lie to your best friend and you also have sex that same day with your boyfriend, you are most likely going to feel 10 times worse about the sex than the lying even though the lying hurt someone and the sex did not. In real application Libby Anne seems to be right.

      The question is, does it have to be this way? Can someone wait to have sex, forgive herself if she does not, and it not be a huge dea?. Can a person mess up and not be fired from teaching the sunday school class? Can we make body "sins" a sin without it being more than any other sin? No, can it be less of a sin (in some ways) than any other sin, because to me gossip is a lot worse.

      As far as what I believe, in some ways I feel it's not fair to ask young people to wait until they are 30 years old. It's a recipe for disaster and shame in many respects.


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