Purity Culture (Part 3): You Have Heard That It Was Said

For my part, as a church-going Christian who wants to honor God, I’ve heard over and over until it is second nature in my head that the most important thing about sex is that it happens in marriage. Sermon after sermon, book after book. Gentle approach or hellfire and brimstone, this is what we know to be true, right? We always trot out what Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…” Inevitably, we take that to mean that just looking at someone who is not our spouse is as bad as sleeping with that person. The eye that causes you to sin is the one that looks at porn, etc. But… are we getting that right? Is Jesus’s point here to reinforce that sex is only allowed within marriage? I’m not convinced any more that it is.

As I’ve written this blog series, I’ve gotten private messages from a lot of people. Maybe it’s because of my age and who my friends are (maybe it’s not), but most of the people I hear from are married women. Married women who are hurting. Married women who feel gutted and betrayed by sex with their spouses. Several people sent me this article about how sex is often a rough experience for women physically and/or emotionally. Most sent me this article without comment, as if it goes without saying that this is a common experience, that’ I’ll just understand why they’re sending it to me.

Another friend with a teenage daughter wrote to me about learning to help her daughter navigate sex in a healthy way. She said that the most important things she wants her daughter to ask herself about sex are, “Was it satisfying? Did she feel valued? Is this a relationship that brings good to life?” My first reaction was that this is a list that I should use myself. That’s right, as an almost-forty-year-old woman, this is the first time I was really able to bring those questions front and center for myself. And I realized that after a lifetime of sermons and books, after a thirteen-year marriage, I have almost no tools for evaluating whether sex is meeting my emotional needs.

The mom with the teenage daughter is a good and loving parent. I believe in a God who is also a good and loving parent. If she wants those things for her children, shouldn’t God?

It is interesting to me that when Jesus talks about this in the passage above, he does not say, “everyone who looks at a woman who is not his wife with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I don’t think you could even say that’s implied. What if he’s saying that lust isn’t just about whether or not you’re married to the person? What if he’s saying that that isn’t even the MAIN thing? What if he’s saying that if you look at any woman with the desire to have sex with her without valuing her and wanting to bring her life, you are sinning? This is the Jesus who just equated bullying with murder a few breaths earlier in his speech. This is the Jesus who cares about intent, who cares about the heart. This is the Jesus who stood up for adulterous women in bold, public ways.

In an earlier post, I complained about the Christian literature on sex. One book a friend recommended in response–The Naked Truth About Sexuality by Havilah Cunnington–is better than most I’ve read. I’ll probably say good things about it in other posts. I like Havilah. I enjoyed one of her conferences. My life has been changed by some of the things she’s said and written. But, while this book is better than most, it still misses the mark. One thing that comes up repeatedly in her book is her encounter with evangelical Christians who have an expectation that their spouse is their “sex slave”. She sees the fact that an overemphasis on marriage as the line between acceptable and unacceptable sex can lead to unhealthy assumptions and behavior. But she still beats the drum of sex within marriage over and over and over, at the expense of some of her better points about sex communicating love and meeting emotional needs. She makes some good points, but she doesn’t go quite far enough. Havilah, you mention people making sex slaves out of each other in marriage and then keep emphasizing how important it is to be married when you have sex! We–we Christ-followers–HAVE A PROBLEM.

Are you with me yet on this? No? Let me ask you this, then. If someone has learned to speak in love, to regard other people’s feelings, are they more or less likely to commit murder? Do you want them avoiding murder because they’ve heard over and over just how bad and unhealthy murder is, or because they’ve learned to love well? Do you want someone to get married because they think it’s the only acceptable sexual outlet, or do you want to them to desire marriage because it’s a way to publicly demonstrate the commitment of their heart to valuing and giving life to their spouse? I vote for the latter. And if that’s the case, it’s time to stop pretending that marriage is the most important thing to consider when it comes to sexual morality. Is it unimportant? No. But there are some far more important heart issues we’ve been neglecting, to the detriment of marriage itself.

3 thoughts on “Purity Culture (Part 3): You Have Heard That It Was Said”

  1. Amy, I think you are getting at the heart of a matter that is deeply important to all of us. Those of us who grew up in our kind of church just don’t know how to talk about it because the church only talks about sex in one very specific, narrow way. So we all end up dealing with it alone. You are courageous and thoughtful and I keep thinking about your posts for a long time after I’ve read them.

  2. As we age in years and experience, our opinion, feelings and knowledge of sex will change and grow. I am often re-evaluating what I understand about my own sexuality and how I share that with my husband. Two things I am feeling as I try to reconcile what I’m reading from you, with what I am experiencing in my own life. First, we are two imperfect people who both try to love the other, sexually and otherwise, with deepening understanding. A lot of grace needs to be extended to each other to cushion all the humanness between us. Second, I’ve been learning in my life that the act of sex is much less important in the grand scheme of things. What is the grand scheme you ask? As a Christian, refining my soul and becoming more Christlike. With that goal in mind, sex takes a backseat as not a primary focus. I’m 40, from what I’ve read, I’m at the peak of female libido. Desire is definitely there. And I am grateful for an active life in that area. But sex isn’t everything. In fact, the Church, actually encourages us to fast from sex as well as certain foods, for certain periods of time.

    1. For my part, I’m realizing I know a lot more about treating it like an end in and of itself (enjoying it for its own sake) than about using it to accomplish its purpose (convey love and affection, for instance). It’s definitely not the main thing. Like C.S. Lewis said, “Sexual appetite, like any other appetite, grows by indulgence.” But of course, you can’t tell a starving person that when it relates to food. That’s just cruel.

Leave a Reply