Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”
I think one of my biggest issues with the way the church teaches about sex is how vague and ill-defined the dialogue tends to be.
In my experience, the church I went to tried its hardest to teach me the right things. I imbibed plenty of purity culture rhetoric at the Christian school I attended (“you girls need to dress modestly to help your brothers in Christ keep temptation at bay,” and all that), but for the most part my church did its best to emphasize that sex is a great gift, a blessing, a beautiful expression of love, etc. etc., while maintaining the hard line on sex, and even sexual thoughts, before marriage as sin.
I think my issue is that the church tends to hold sex at such a distance that it renders it vague, blurry, and incomprehensible. And to the untrained eye of the adolescent, it tends to translate into something along these lines: “Sex is bad, and it’s only good when you’re way, way older, so much older that we can’t get into any real details about how to define sex itself and exactly how and why it is good, and when it might still not be good, even if you’re married.”
And when it comes to sex, we naturally long for specificity. Sex as a phenomenon already plays on mystery and withholding, concealment and euphemism, the desire to know what is hidden. Our sex education, from childhood onward, has the same dynamic—the more vague the church is on sex, the more tantalizing the details become. If the church or school doesn’t educate us, we’ll educate ourselves.
I understand why my church has never given me good sex advice, but I think it’s a shame that it hasn’t. I’ve found good advice elsewhere, mostly in scholarly books because, thank you Calvin College, I can’t stop living this examined life you’ve indoctrinated me into. But these are sources of advice that are specific and detailed without being voyeuristic or lurid, charitable towards different ideas of when sex should come in a relationship, but absolutely none of them are relativistic, anything-goes sexuality. Sex is tied up in love and responsibility, and this “good sex advice” will tell you that.
Good sex advice: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Margaret Farley
Just a beautiful work of scholarship by a Catholic sister and professor of philosophy. Farley situates sexual ethics in its historical and theological context, writing with precision and accessibility. She approaches sexual ethics not as a set of norms or actions on a dos and don’ts list, as we’re so used to them being presented, but as questions of character and virtue in the context of justice: how do we create just relationships, between men and women, between LGBT partners, between ourselves and society, ourselves and God. Bonus points: Farley received an official censure from the Vatican for contradicting the teachings of the Catholic church. Got to love a rebel nun.
Good sex advice: Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
Simply essential. Nagoski takes a thoroughly researched, science-based approach to dispel myths about female sexuality and to explain how the body and mind are inextricable in all things to do with relationships. Thesis: everyone is different, everyone is normal, and everyone is whole. Every person should read this book about sex. Even if you plan on being celibate the rest of your life. It’s truly universally-applicable knowledge about living in relationship.
Good sex advice: honest conversations with your partner, if you have one.
Maybe you’re not having quote-unquote “sex” yet (again, it would take an entire post just to define sex itself), but you’re sure as hell making out. It might be vulnerable, meaningful, self-giving, and of course fun in much the same way sex will be. Is it meaningful to you? Talk about it. Are there things you like and things you don’t like? Describe, in detail what you like and don’t like. If something scares you, why does it scare you? Talk about what you felt about sex growing up. Did it seem gross, exciting, shameful, confusing? You’ll learn from yourself, you’ll learn from each other. Some of your sex advice will have to come from yourself, because if you had read Nagoski’s Come As You Are, you would know—everyone is different.
Good sex advice: Love and Responsibility, by Karol Wojtyla (also known as Pope John Paul II)
Full disclosure: I have not actually read this one. But I’ve heard it cited plenty and read several analyses, and if a college education is good for anything it’s the mastery of scraping together a working knowledge of a piece of literature through the free pages available on Google Books and a couple JSTOR book reviews and calling it good. Wojtyla’s theology of personhood stands out here as a basis for creating limitations on when sex is good; Wojtyla sees sexual desire as natural, healthy, and good, but only a certain level of committed love between two persons (i.e. marriage) guarantees that one’s partner is not used as a means to an end (of course Wojtyla does not argue marriage guarantees it, either; he’s also wise to the possibility that married partners can treat each other like objects). I like Wojtyla’s approach because it encapsulates and incudes consent but also goes beyond it. Even if both people in a relationship consent, if they are merely using each other for their own pleasure, there may not be any great lasting harm done to the world, but they’ve also stripped sex of any meaning for themselves. Sex with meaning, good sex, is only possible in a self-giving, good-affirming, committed relationship.
Good sex advice: conversations with friends.
This is my favorite one. Find those friends whom you trust so wholly that you can speak freely about one of the most vulnerable, weirdest, most shameful, silliest topics on earth. You will laugh, cry, discover what’s normal, discover what’s not. Friends have always been the unofficial sex educators of the world, and for good reason. Not because friends teach you that “anything goes”—quite the contrary. Friends have taught me why boundaries matter, and why sex is consequential and important, not just funny and strange. A lot of friends have experienced trauma from both consensual and nonconsensual sex, trauma that’s been amplified because of what the church taught them about purity or virginity. It’s conversations like these that teach us that sex matters, a lot, and the way we talk about it matters, too.
Carolyn Muyskens is a 2017 graduate of Calvin’s English department. She is working as a research assistant studying news media trends and as an assistant at a law firm. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.