I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The only thing my mother told me about sex was that if God made anything better He kept it to Himself. That’s always worth at least a smile. That this was the only thing either of my parents told me about human sexuality, however, isn’t funny at all. I know that it’s difficult to talk to one’s children about sex. As a parent – a father of two girls no less – creating conditions in which discussions about physical love can take place with honesty, limits, and without embarrassment is never easy.The thing is, though, there are so few situations in which any type of honest, frank talk about human sexuality can take place if it doesn’t take place in the home, where else is it going to happen?
For a long time – since Seminary, in fact – I’ve said the Church is a place where honest, age-appropriate education about the physiology and emotional and moral aspects of human sexuality could and should take place. The Unitarian Univeralist Association has excellent materials that do just that. It would be wonderful if other mainline Protestant denominations were so courageous. See, I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason we don’t do this is most adults are terrified of speaking frankly about human sexuality in any way. The idea of speaking honestly about making love – the phrase that describes what happens when two people connect physically, spiritually, and within a context of trust and intimacy – offers the threat of exposing not only things most people are hesitant to speak about openly; it presents the challenge of opening oneself to others, creating a sense of intimacy and trust with others that most of find difficult to do even with one person.
There’s also the sad reality that most everything people hear from Churches and “Christians”, when it comes to sex, is a series of “no”‘s that make it difficult to hear anything else. For example, did you know The United Methodist Book of Discipline begins its discussion of human sexuality with the affirmation that it is “a good gift from a good God”? Even if you’re a United Methodist lay person, I bet you didn’t know that. There are good reasons for that: all you hear from people are our declarations about celibacy in singleness; our anathematizing of same-sex physical love; no affirmative description of how or why sexuality is a good gift. These are all really good reasons to wonder if we United Methodists really believe that our sexuality is a gift.
How is it a gift? I’ll start. While not normally a fan of romantic comedies, one we like around our house is Notting Hill. I like it not least because there are times I feel like Hugh Grant’s character, a shy but friendly loser who finds himself in the company of a beautiful, well-known woman, a woman whose profession creates obstacles but also opportunities. Anyway, the scene in which they first make love, she comes to him, they say nothing for quite a while as they kiss. He slips Julia Roberts’ shirt off her shoulders. The audience sees nothing (because, we are told by the screen-writer and director in the commentary, Julia Roberts has a pretty strict nudity clause in her contracts; that she allowed her bare back to be shown was something no one expected) but Hugh Grant looks down, then back up into her eyes and whispers, “Wow”. The irony of all this is she is hiding at Grant’s place because someone leaked nude photos of her to the press. Hugh Grants’ reaction takes place in a context in which all of England has seen photos of Julia Roberts naked. That “Wow”, however, is the sigh of a man who sees what no one else sees. He sees her as a whole person, beautiful and open in the moment. It isn’t just that he sees her naked breasts. He sees Julia Roberts’ character as a whole person, standing in front of him, body bare, and he is saying “Wow” to that whole moment, that instant when the power and depth becomes real.
I know that feeling because that was the same reaction I had when I saw Lisa that way. The best thing is that I still feel that way. When we’re getting in to bed at night and the lights go out and before we drift off, I’ll have my hand resting on her bare skin. In front of my face is her shoulder and neck. I’ll lean forward, and every night I smell that good, clean, what I call Lisa smell. I kiss her shoulder and her neck. I whisper, “You’re so beautiful,” in her ear. The whole thing – us being together, the safety and security of our darkened room, the look of her body, the feel of her skin, that sweet scent, her smooth skin beneath my lips, the knowledge these are moments we share with no one else – is enough to make me a little giddy. Control is difficult to maintain.
This isn’t about sex. It’s about sexuality. That includes not just the physical acts, but the emotional, spiritual, and larger moral contexts in which two people share moments that bind them together more deeply, express the emotional depth of their love for one another, and might well have a certain measure of abandon about them, because those moments are all about those moments in their fullness.
How is it possible for us in the Christian Churches to be responsible stewards of the message of God’s infinite love and grace when we fail to allow space for serious discussions about the beauty and joy of making love? Nearly two millennia after the Christian Gospel allowed Neo-Platonism inside to reduce it all to the salvation of some “thing” called a soul, while our bodies were considered little more than dungheaps of filth, it is long past time to affirm that salvation in the Bible refers to the whole person. It is our bodies that shall be changed, a new Creation at the resurrection of the dead. We have a responsibility to teach the world that God loves us, that we are created as sexual beings, and that when our creation is complete God calls it “very good”. If we are only willing to condemn and restrict sexuality, insisting that real sexual intimacy is “private” which offers a convenient excuse to cover our shame and embarrassment behind alleged moral principles, what have we taught our children and youth, our young adults and even older adults? If we aren’t willing to tell the world how our sexuality is a good gift from a loving God, why do we pretend it is?
When I was little my older sister had the sheet music to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. I remember look through it, reading the lyrics. To this day, I remember what I felt when I read the third verse: “The first time ever I lay with you”. I thought “This is grown-up stuff”. And I was quite right. As much as I enjoy good fun songs about sex – without them what would we have? – there has to be room for grown-ups to talk about grown-up stuff. There has to be a place and time when we are willing to lift the veil on human sexuality, and offer really good, positive reasons and examples of just how wonderful sexual intimacy can be. Otherwise, why not just surrender and say, “Since we can’t talk about this, we shouldn’t talk about anything.”
Geoffrey, I think this is a helpful step forward for you and for the conversation. What I have always found needful in your writings is for you to couch your very valid critiques of others’ views in ways that focus on the argument, and only refer to the maker of the argument when it is imperative that the person and her/his context are essential to what is being said. I believe you’ve taken a good step for yourself and given all of us a model to ponder as we move actively into preparation for the 2016 General Conference. Yes, make amends for the ways in which your arguments have been couched, but don’t berate yourself for the arguments themselves. You have uncovered fallacies and logical lacunae that others of us missed. To that end, I encourage you to follow this path of saying what you mean in ways that are more approachable than in the past. And BTW, even Jesus had his moments; see “brood of vipers,” “children’s food to dogs,” and “get behind me, Satan!” Oh, and there was that time in the temple … Hugs to you! – Comment on Facebook link to yesterday’s post, “Love Keeps The Door Of His Lips”
When I linked yesterday’s post on Facebook, I invited two particular individuals to respond to it. Above is one of those particular responses. I have read it, and read it. I have sat and thought about it, the whole, the parts, what I like, what I don’t like, and realized that before I went any further, I had not so much to respond as I did to demonstrate that I was pausing to take stock. I wanted to show that I was listening, not just casually reading.
Can I confess the comment has a stumbling block for me? It’s a word, one simple, clear word: “berate”. In all honesty, I don’t believe I am berating myself at all. I do know that this whole self-reflection thing has offered more than glimpses of me doing and saying things about which I am embarrassed to say the least. Yesterday, I made that point as clearly as I could without slipping into self-flagellation or any kind of pose as a morose martyr. On the contrary: After I wrote what I did, I was happy. It was more than a little bit like cleaning out a wound. Rather than lounge in my hair shirt, I felt like moving on.
Then I saw this comment, and thought, “I need to read this and think about it.”
I’ve dealt with the specific word “berate”, and how it feels a bit like a stumbling block for me. There is more in there, however. Like the following: “What I have always found needful in your writings is for you to couch your very valid critiques of others’ views in ways that focus on the argument“. In all honesty, I do believe that the time for argument is long over. The time for playing games with others – “critiquing” their views, showing the world how clever I am – exhausted itself years ago. Precisely as the General Commission on General Conference has offered a different way forward for considering matters of human sexuality that come before the body, I believe it is imperative to model that, rather than continue the endless circle of the same tired arguments, the same bitterness, the same mutual destruction that is the end result of the constant claims of purity of motive and the apostasy of the opposition.
That whole mindset – that there are sides; that this is a question of opposition with winners and losers – needs to be given the old heave-ho. We are in this together. How is it possible to pretend to care a whit about continuing to be in covenant community together, all the while dismissing others, degrading them, showing off one’s alleged superiority and moral righteousness? That only sows the seeds of bitterness and schism. To that end, I am no longer going to engage in argument of any sort. Since many of those “arguments” were ones I started, that’s the best way to stop.
Furthermore, as I wrote in part in response to another comment, continuing to play the game of arguments, of winners and losers begs a question we in the United Methodist Church should face squarely: What, exactly, would “winning” mean? If there are “sides”, and one side “wins”, what, exactly, will either “win”? I always insist this matter is not about any particular individual’s feelings, any particular individual’s beliefs or preferences. I have written over and over again that this is about the United Methodist Church as a whole body. I do believe that. If so, however, what do we as the United Methodist Church gain by playing a game with “winners” and “losers”? Who gains anything by continuing to argue about who is more Biblically, doctrinally, theologically, and morally correct? This is why I embrace the General Commission’s recommendations for suspending the rules of debate regarding human sexuality and having real face to face dialogue about our church, our mission and ministry, and our identity. Obviously matters of Biblical interpretation, doctrine and theology, and morals and ethics will be involved in these discussions. What they won’t be is the focus of our discussions. If adopted, we will no longer be hamstrung, arguing over absolutes. Rather, we will be sitting across from and side-by-side with people whose views are very different from ours, yet who love the United Methodist Church, believe in its mission, its ministry, and are just as concerned and hopeful about its identity as we are. It will certainly be more difficult to carry on as so many have when seated together, rather than resting comfortably in the false freedom the distance and even anonymity the Internet affords.
For now, because I just don’t trust myself to model what I claim I believe to be in the best interest of the Church, I am just going to allow myself to be pulled in to these discussions, at least as they continue to play out on the Internet. I have always said the best way to “win” a game is not to play. To that end – no more. If anyone is really interested in my thoughts – and it isn’t like anyone is knocking my door down! – I will only say that my thoughts are that someone has to begin modeling this new way of discussing these matters, and I’m just not that person.
How are we to come to have an informed position on human sexuality, or on abortion or euthanasia for that matter, when we have no real doctrine of what it means to be human (theological anthropology)? This is perhaps why the UMC has not done more to be in ministry with people with disabilities. Denominationally, we haven’t done the theological homework to create a sense of urgency around this very important issue.
How are we to make decisions about who may be ordained and who may not be when we have no clear ecclesiology or doctrine of ordination? This lack of clear doctrinal teaching actually makes the discernment process much more difficult, both for boards of ordained ministry and for candidates. In the absence of theological direction, the process become highly arbitrary and idiosyncratic.
How are we to make decisions about marriage, divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, sexual intimacy, and related issues when we have no clear theology of marriage? Right now we are in an uproar over the issue of gay marriage, but we are neglecting to think through a host of related theological and ethical issues.
I know that some will say that we just need to read the Bible more closely, pay attention to its words, and be obedient to its teaching. Yes, we need to do all of these things, but doing so will not solve our theological and ethical disputes. We can be utterly committed to scripture, but still have different interpretive presuppositions and methods that will result in divergent conclusions about what scripture says and how we should follow its teachings. To provide a historical example, Arius wasn’t saying the Bible was wrong about Jesus. He was saying that his opponents interpreted scripture incorrectly. The witness of scripture is broad and often variegated. Scripture is complex. The Reformation notions of the perspicuity of scripture (its clarity) and its autopistic nature (that it is self-authenticating) have proven over time to be wrong. For the life of the church, we must read scripture in dialogue with a body of doctrine handed on to us through the Great Tradition of Christianity. – Dr. David Watson, “Getting The Horse Back In Front Of The Cart, Musings And Whatnot, June 13, 2014
In my previous incarnation, I wrote quite a bit about human sexual ethics, sexuality, and offered thoughts on how I felt a contemporary Christian sexual ethic should move forward. One thing I suppose I did not contend with were those forces within the church – both the United Methodist Church and the church universal – that are so outside current social and cultural discourse that their talk of sexuality is as meaningless as creationist arguments about physics and geology. That I also had to contend with discussions about popular culture and its impact upon girls and young women – the whole “slutty stars are bad role models!” argument – made me feel, more than once, that we in the churches are moving backwards rather than forward.
In my post earlier today I wrote that men needed to feel better about themselves, their body image, and in particular their penises. I am not joking. Increasingly men no less than women are under a great deal of pressure to conform to particular body types – the six-pack abs; the broad shoulders narrowing to a skinny waste; and, of course, an at least adequately sized penis – in order to be attractive to women. At the very least, it’s about time. After all, particularly here in the west (although, really, this is a nearly universal phenomenon) , women have done everything from destroy their internal organs through the use of corsets to starve themselves to death in order to meet the felt needs of a particular ideal that was or is considered attractive. That men are now under ever more pressure to do the same thing means that women have gained at least some traction in the sexual marketplace (or perhaps the manufacturers of products for male sexual desirability and potency have more capital invested in advertising; or both, most likely).
But we do need to have a healthy discussion of human sexuality. We in the churches do need to confront the stark reality that ours is a culture that is horribly schizophrenic about sex. On the one hand, it is to be approached, if at all, obliquely. On the other hand, we are swamped with images of sex in everything from hamburger ads to film and music. We are told if we eat certain foods, drink certain beverages, use particular toothpastes or deodorants or cologne we will be sexually desirable.
Being sexually desirable is not bad or wrong. On the contrary, as I wrote earlier today on Facebook, its part of the game and interchange of courtship and mating. Women dress and otherwise make themselves up to be sexually desirable, particularly at times of peak fertility in their cycles. Men, too, will dress and adorn and act in such ways that they believe (rightly or wrongly) will attract women with whom they would prefer to mate and have children. That we dress these rituals up sometimes, or deride them as part of “hook-up culture” – as if somehow human beings only now discovered casual sex – doesn’t make them any less part of who we are as human beings. We, no more or less than any other animal, have to find a mate with particular qualities to share our genetic material with. We just have enough rationality both to enjoy it and feel guilty about it at the same time.
Dr. Watson is correct to the extent that we in the church are lousy at articulating any kind of coherent sense of what it is to be human; wrapped up in that, both existentially and ethically, would be a sense of what should be proper as act for creatures constituted as we are. This would include, but not be limited to matters of social empathy and support; relations between the genders in the economic sphere; and, of course, sex. While it might be nice if we could just turn to the Bible and come up with answers, any serious Christian sexual ethic – any serious Christian ethic of any sort – will find contradictory materials there, to say the least. I would submit that while the vast majority of the Biblical text, when sex is mentioned at all, is pretty negative, there is always the Song of Songs with which to contend. While scholars have argued over its inclusion in the canon for centuries, there is just no escaping not just its earthiness, but its explicitness. Both the man and the woman are quite specific in what they are praising about one another. They are candid in their admiration not only for the physical beauty of the other, but for the other’s ability to use their bodies for mutual pleasure. We can neither ignore this poem, nor reconcile it with so much else in the Scriptures that is negative either about women or sexuality.
That leaves us in the peculiar position, at least as Wesleyan Christians, of searching not just tradition – which has been largely as negative as the Scriptures – but our reason and our experience to guide us through the thicket of contradictions that is our current discourse on sexuality. The first thing I would do, were I able to wave a magic wand and get folks to arrive on the same page on this matter, would be to insist that we start from an Incarnational hermeneutic. That is to say, we seek to understand the sheer variety of human sexuality in terms of the claim we Christians make that God became fully human, which most assuredly includes being a sexual person. Whether or not Jesus was sexually active is neither here nor there, and a matter that can never be answered given the absence of evidence one way or another; the point, rather, is that God chose be embodied within a specific human being in a specific time in history. As such, among the things Jesus experienced was his own sexuality. God would not have chosen to become fully human if sexuality wasn’t a part of his make-up. In and of itself, this reality should alter how we approach human sexuality: If it was good enough for God to become human, with all that entails, it should be good enough for us at the very least to wrestle with, to recognize its complexity and sometimes contradictory nature, and to be able to talk about it without evasion.
As a personal aside, I believe that Christian sexual ethics should be, by and large, a positive thing. That doesn’t mean that anything goes. Rather, it means that we in the Christian churches should affirm human sexuality, in its various iterations, as a good thing when pursued and acted upon in love: Love for God and love for one another. Neither women nor men are peculiarly weak nor strong in regards sexuality; neither women nor men are particularly guilty of violating sexual boundaries; both women and men are free to be fully sexual beings, provided they are attentive to matters not only of themselves as individuals, but their partners as individuals and their mutual need for God’s love. Having said that, there is nothing wrong with the cultural expression of sex-positive points of view; in fact, they can serve as guideposts for what it means to be fully human as sexual beings.
What we do not need are discussions about sexuality that set limits either upon what is open for discussion and what is not; what is acceptable to God and what is not; what sexual acts are more “Biblical” and “Christian” than others. Such talk is enough to turn off most people before any discussion gets going. Far too often, we in the churches are so afraid of sex, we can’t discuss it at all. When we do, we set boundaries so narrow that we cannot see what is happening around us, good and bad, and come to terms with it. Whether its Nicki Minaj celebrating her particular assets, Puddle of Mudd trying to figure out why mutually angry and obsessive sexuality can be both good and bad, or Liz Phair desiring little more than that a man understand she, too, is a sexual being with needs – we need to hear these things, even when expressed in ways of which we don’t approve, and be able to incorporate them (and so much more) in to our larger understanding of what it means to be a sexual being whose existence is both affirmed and redeemed by a good and loving God.
For reasons that should be obvious, male models wearing clothes that expose their penises is big news. I am writing about this not because I consider myself a fashion critic. Nor am I really all that interested in the public display of private parts. I find this fascinating because for years, it has been quite all right for women to wear fashions that are either sheer enough to expose their breasts . . .
. . . or to do away with covering them altogether in the name of fashion.
Rarely if ever, however, do fashion designers create clothing that is as exposing for men. Until now. And, of course, social media and the internet is all abuzz. While I’m not sure some line has been crossed – this is one designer with an odd clothing line – I do think it is important that we come face to face with the brazen sexism of fashion, of fashion design, and the titillating nature of far too much of what passes for high culture.
In ancient times, male nudity wasn’t frowned upon nearly as much as it is now. Indeed, even in many contemporary societies, male confraternity often includes sharing time together, either in steam baths or hot tubs, sans clothing. It seems we Americans, however, have some kind of hang-up about the exposure of the male member, as if not seeing it, we can pretend it doesn’t exist. At the same time, fashion designers go to great pains to make sure women’s breasts – and sometimes more – see the light of day, and the male gaze. In principle there is nothing wrong with creating clothing that is revealing, even extremely revealing. My concern for the moment, however, is the disparity. Creating fashions that allow the penis exposure is long overdue. Yet, because we live in a society where gender and sexuality norms are created by and for men, seeing a penis is taboo. As if somehow men seeing one will show them something they never knew before? More likely, its an expression of homophobia, along with an attraction/repulsion thing. After all, pornography shows not only the penis, but far more, and men have been watching pornography since humans figured out how to create images.
Yet, we live in a society that is so hung up on our sexuality, yet perversely hypocritical about it (consider how much bandwidth on the internet is dedicated to pornography as opposed, say, to politics, religion, or philosophy), that a contemporary fashion designer offering the penis for a larger social audience confuses, angers, frustrates, and embarrasses us. Of all the things it exposes, I believe it shows us that, at the end of all the discussions about design trends and fabrics, it’s all about creating clothing that makes women sexually desirable for men. Creating clothing that exposes the penis violates so many rules, most assuredly that last most of all, the welter of emotions it creates comes out as anger, a rage that someone would defy every rule not just of fashion but of what is and is not socially acceptable. For that reason, I applaud the exposure of the penis to the larger social gaze. It’s long past time we, especially we Americans, took a look not only at the public display of the penis, but our own ridiculous hang-ups about allowing it to be exposed. This is a victory of sorts not just for women, who after all have had their bodies exposed by fashion designers for decades; it is also a victory for men, who no longer need feel self-conscious about whether or not they are properly covered and attired.
We men need to become comfortable with our bodies, not in a sexual way (although we need that, too), but just as they are our bodies. Hiding them in the name of propriety is just another way of saying, “Please don’t look at me because I might not measure up to others’ expectations of maleness”. Even if this doesn’t become a trend, we should take this moment and glance at the exposed penises and remember it’s just a part of the body. It neither defines us nor ranks us as inferior or superior. Only our attitudes toward it do that. It’s just a penis. Get over it, and take a look.
“Western culture now celebrates casual sexuality, cohabitation, no-fault divorce, family redefinition and abortion right as part of a sexual revolution that can tear down old patriarchal systems,” [Russell] Moore told a global gathering of leaders from Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths as part of the “Complementarity of Man and Woman” conference convened by Pope Francis. – Josephine McKenna, “Sexual Revolution Is Destroying Families, Russell Moore Tells Vatican Conference”, Religion News Service, Nov. 18, 2014
The church continues to be divided, and therefore powerless, in the face of this reality. On the one hand is the racial and class divides that create what are, for all intents and purposes, antithetical ethical and social practices. On the other is the refusal to consider the reality of human sexuality, that it isn’t just a personal moral matter, but also has social implications, including how sexual acts are and are not regulated depending upon one’s social status. – Me, “Technotopia, Social Horror Stories, And The Holiness Of Sex: A Response To Christy Thomas”, No I Has Heard, Nov. 18, 2014
After my post yesterday, I was intrigued, to say the least, to find two prominent American social conservatives speaking at an interfaith gathering at the Vatican. Ostensibly about human gender complementarity – something that seems to excite conservative religious types no end; they love contemplating our physical and physiological differences – it appears it became an excuse for Russell Moore and Rick Warren to continue to beat the drums against changing gender roles, sexual mores, and the ever evolving nature of the family. Like most American conservatives, religious or not, Moore and Warren seem to think the bourgeois and petit bourgeois cult of the family, which has existed at most for only about a century and a half, was somehow handed down from God if not in the Garden of Eden, then certainly to Moses at Sinai. Like most American conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, the idea that women might enjoy the benefits of exploring their sexuality without having to face the possible consequences of pregnancy and childbirth is unbearable precisely because of that whole “complementarity” thing. For people such as these, that’s precisely the point of sex, and women should just remember that. Never mind that men, regardless of social class (at least to a certain extent) have always enjoyed the freedom to have sex with as many partners as possible without either social approbation or having to bear the physiological and interpersonal consequences. What people like Moore and Warren continue to call “the sexual revolution” is little more than opening opportunities for women to explore their sexuality that was solely the province of men prior to the invention of the birth control pill.
Except, I’m starting to wonder if there was a “sexual revolution” at all. One of the things historians and others who deal with the past are taught is to consider events and texts “in context”. The problem with this mantra is it’s too simplistic; there are always multiple contexts, some of which work against one another, others that work in tandem. Socioeconomic relations and how they structure relations among and between members of social classes is an important context; yet, so, too, are transcultural contexts, the most important of which to consider in this instance is patriarchy. There was the rise of the feminist movement in the United States, beginning in 1848, working through various causes from temperance to women’s suffrage to granting women equal status before the law and finally the desire on the part of women to join the work force on an equal footing with men. The church’s attempt to create some kind of theology around sex, human sexuality, marriage, and gender has been going on in multiple socioeconomic and historical and cultural contexts across nearly two thousand years. How these various contexts work against and with each other is a vital consideration when we listen to Church leaders, appointed or self-appointed, discuss matters of sexual morality.
What has been called the “sexual revolution” was really a series of events that can be understood in various ways, against a variety of backdrops and within a variety of contexts, none of which fully flesh out the social and political and cultural and even technological events we call “the sexual revolution”, but all of which, when brought together, shrink to meaninglessness what has been for nearly fifty years now a target of rage from social and religious conservatives. Which is not to say that there have not been changes in gender relations, in sexual mores, sexual practice, and marriage. It is only to say that these changes do not constitute a “revolution”. Rather, they are part of larger social and cultural and economic changes in late capitalist society that are sometimes opposed, sometimes complementary, and are on-going. To blame certain effects of socioeconomic changes and the demand for more labor as the post-World War II economic boom began to slow in the late-50’s as the cause of the decay and breakdown of marriage and the family is to miss the mark on what is actually happening.
The recession at the end of the Eisenhower Administration indicated there was a limit to how much growth the American economy could absorb, especially as previously destroyed economies in Europe and Asia began to revive and compete with the United States in the global market. What Noam Chomsky has called “military Keynsianism” – propping up the economy through enormous military expenditures – also had an upper limit. With more and more women agitating to join the work force – the post-WWII education boom included not only men but women among those who could now afford to attend college – the one impediment was childbirth and childcare. With the introduction of the birth control pill, there was now an enormous new pool of potential workers as well as consumers; women entering the work force in large numbers not only meant expansion could continue, it also meant these women would earn money for themselves, propping up the consumer economy through spending their own earned money.
Militating against this shift toward women entering the work force en masse was not only centuries of patriarchy that defined women’s roles as home-maker and child-rearer; this ideology was propped up in the Christian West by a theology that defined these social roles not only as “natural”, but particularly natural due to a doctrine of Creation and Humanity that viewed the genders as occupying distinct, separate, and incommensurate roles. Women entering what had been traditionally male-dominated spheres of work violated not only the whole history of western assumptions about gender roles, but what God had decreed about the proper extent and limits of the different sexes.
An incidental outcome of the introduction of the birth control pill was that single women could now explore their sexuality without fearing an unwanted pregnancy. This had been a perquisite of men, particularly men of power (although certainly not limited to them), from time immemorial. Women who enjoyed their sexuality with a variety of partners had always been disparaged and ostracized from polite society (except during the decadent late-Victorian and Edwardian eras in Great Britain; among the upper classes and aristocracy, sexual promiscuity was both common and unspoken; one of Winston Churchill’s biographers lists his mother’s sexual partners at above 30 and offers as an aside, “she was hardly promiscuous”, a statement with which most moralists would disagree). Men never faced serious consequences for having multiple sexual partners. Among the ruling classes in the West (outside the United States), it was expected that men of power would often have more than one mistress along with a wife.
That opportunities such as these were now open to women as well was a shock to a social and cultural matrix that demanded women fulfill particular roles even as late capitalism demanded they enter the work force in large numbers so that economic growth, and therefore profits, could continue to rise. That women could be paid less than men, with a variety of excuses on offer, was an added benefit; the wage gap still exists, with women earning roughly $0.79 for every $1 men earn. Another change that was needed in order to allow women easier access to the work force was to make divorce easier; since most men would object to their wives leaving their homes for the factory or the office, the creation of “no-fault” divorce opened up opportunities for women to separate themselves from men legally as well as economically. Women could now work without having a husband complaining, earning money for themselves.
The one thing the United States has not developed that Western Europe considers the norm is cradle-to-school child care that is either partially or completely subsidized by the state, as well as generous parental leave policies for both parents with pay and the guarantee of a return to one’s previous status once the parental leave is over. This indicates that the countervailing social and cultural pressures against the capitalist demand for more workers are stronger here than in Europe. Although not strong enough; the drive for more generous parental leave time, for better and state-supported child care, for altering school hours to accommodate one or both working parents (or, alternately, to keep schools open longer or provide after-school programs for children and youth that are similar to pre-school and day care) are all on offer as “progressive” solutions to the problems of the family. Even many mainline churches support efforts to enact such policies.
This is done, however, without looking at the larger arrangement of productive relations in which all these things have been happening, and continue to happen. For everyone from Pope Francis I to Rick Warren to insist that “the sexual revolution” and changing gender roles and relations are to blame for the “collapse” of the western nuclear family ignores the reality that these changes are incidental, unrelated to one another, and certainly do not constitute a “sexual revolution”. They are, rather, the by-product of late capitalism.
What does this mean for those particularly Christian ethical thinkers and teachers who want to speak and write about human sexuality within the context of the Christian proclamation of the Good News? It seems to me that a good place to start would be to protest the destructive nature of a socioeconomic relation of productive forces not only upon the natural world in which we live. It should also protest the destructive nature of these same relations upon the very real God-given social nature of human beings, the desire of two persons to bond with one another, perhaps even to raise children. Any sexual ethic that blames “the sexual revolution” and takes a simplistic moralistic stance against particular gender and sexual practices is not only missing the forest for the trees. Those folks can’t even see the forest, and insist it’s a desert.