At the end of this past school year, one of my eight year-old twin sons came home with a ‘memory book’ where he’d written down his responses to a variety of questions.
Favorite movie?……The Avengers
Favorite sport? ……..Hockey
So far so good. Then we got to this one:
Favorite song? ….‘Baby got Back’ by Sir Mix-a-lot.
My husband, who had seen the memory book first, promptly brought this last answer to my attention.
The fact that my young child even knows this song demonstrates a failure of parenting on my part (actually more accurately, it shows my inability to figure out how to properly manage the ‘Cloud’ that automatically passes on every song I buy on iTunes to my son’s Ipod). While I’m pretty sure that he likes the song simply because eight year-old boys think anything to do with butts is supremely funny, his response pushed me to spend a good part of the summer thinking about what I should be teaching my kids about sex. I’m not talking about explaining the basic facts of sex. We were already forced to go through that process last year when our fourth grade daughter insisted that our male, neutered cat was about to have kittens – an experience that validated Eminem’s point:
Of course they gonna know what intercourse is
by the time they hit fourth grade
they got the Discovery Channel don’t they?
Right. But what I’m talking about here is what we should tell our children about the meaning of sex, especially given our faith and commitment to our church. When is it OK to have sex? With whom? What should our stance be on other forms of sexual activity?
For many Christians, the answers to these questions are clear: sexual intercourse is a holy act that should only be conducted between a man and a woman within the sacred bonds of matrimony, for the purposes of procreation, (and only in certain positions that are considered kosher!) As Dennis Hollinger puts it in his book The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life:
The classical Christian position on sexual behavior is often summed up through two principles: purity before marriage and fidelity within marriage.
There’s a plethora of Scriptural passages one can turn to justify this position. If you research what the Bible has to say about sex – from the creation story in Genesis where God creates man and woman to be together to Paul’s epistles condemning fornication – it’s pretty clear that the overwhelming message of the Bible supports this traditional view.
However, as I’ve written elsewhere, I do not view the Bible as the inerrant, literal word of God. I view is as a sacred text, inspired by God but written down by humans who were writing in times that were very different from ours. My views about the Bible are well expressed by John Shelby Spong in his book Living in Sin? A Bishop rethinks human sexuality:
The Bible is a major source feeding the ethical decision-making of Christian people, and its message must be taken by Christians with utmost seriousness. But the Bible itself is not free of contradictions, of expressions of prejudice, and of attitudes that have long been abandoned. The same could be said about the ongoing tradition of the Christian church. Church history also reveals sin, prejudice and misleading appeals to long-abandoned practices. Therefore, arguments that issue from the authority of sacred Scripture or sacred tradition must state what part of Scripture or tradition is being upheld and on what basis that part is retained while other parts are abandoned.
Given this (progressive, reformed Christian) view of the Bible, what should be my guideline for sexual ethics, and what should I teach to my children?
I realized that the answer to this question is another question:
Why should I have a separate sexual ethic that is any different from the ethics that guides the rest of my life?
As I wrote here, the ethic that guides my life is Jesus – his life, his teachings, his entire story. Jesus himself sums up his ethics perfectly in his answer to the question “what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40
That, in a nutshell, is how I try to live my life (albeit imperfectly!) What happens if we apply this ethic to sex? What would it mean to think of sex this way? There’s really three parts to this commandment: love God, love your neighbor and love yourself. Let’s see how these three elements relate to sex:
1. Love God with all your heart, soul and mind
This commandment reminds us not to turn sex into an idol. Given the tremendous power of the sexual drive and the sexualized culture we live in, it’s very easy to spend our days focused on sex in one form or another. This commandment reminds us that making the pursuit of sex the center of our lives is not the path to ultimate happiness.
2. Love your neighbor as you love yourself
This is the classic ‘golden rule’ – treat others the way you want to be treated. It’s pretty obvious how this relates to sex:
- Don’t give someone else a disease
- Don’t mislead someone in what you mean by having sex
- Don’t force sex on someone else
- Don’t steal someone else’s significant other
- Don’t create a child you don’t want and you aren’t prepared to care for – because that isn’t treating that future person the way he/she would want to be treated.
- Don’t pass judgement on other people’s sexual preferences when they don’t impact you.
- Don’t get yourself into a situation where any of the above are more likely to happen (getting drunk/high where your judgement is impaired)
This last element often gets overlooked in the golden rule, but when it comes to sex, it is crucial. As children of God, we should respect ourselves and our bodies and refuse to let them be used in ways that are contrary to our own health and welfare. We also should recognize that our desires and pleasures are a good part of this creation – not something to be ashamed of or to be suppressed. Loving yourself also means looking for someone to love who will love you back -someone to be your life partner. It is only through this element that we can fully address something that is often seen as missing from the Christ’s ‘agape’ (self-sacrificing, non-sexual love). As Jonathan Haidt notes:
Caritas and agape are beautiful, but they are not related to or derived from the kinds of love that people need. Although I would like to live in a world in which everyone radiates benevolence toward everyone else, I would rather live in a world in which there was at least one person who loved me specifically, and whom I loved in return.
Finally, in loving ourselves we remember that we are loved by God, even when we fail to abide by even these deceptively simple commandments. Because when it comes to the core human drives such as sex, it’s not always easy to do the right thing. As St. Paul put it so well:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15)
So much of the power of the Christian message is that even when our humanity makes us slip, Christ never gives up on us, but calls on us to simply pick ourselves up and do better tomorrow.
So that’s it. This is an approach that is simple, consistent, and Christ-focused. I realize that this ethic leaves the door open for premarital sex, or even casual sex outside of a committed relationship. But it also highlights how a deeply loving, committed, monogamous relationship is superior – it is the end goal. Given that our kids are most likely going to listen to whatever we say and go off and make their own mistakes, it seems like the best we can do as parents is try to give them a framework that they can fall back on. I’ll keep you posted on how it works out.