“How Should Christians Have Sex?” – A Belated Response to Katelyn Beaty

[Image description: Photo is an Escher-inspired painting of red and white birds.]

I’m late to the party on this. Katelyn Beaty’s New York Times opinion piece “How Should Christians Have Sex?” came out on June 15th, and I’ve just read it over a month later–I’m a miserly curmudgeon who won’t buy a subscription. (I did skim a couple of Twitter threads that I’m now unable to find, so I hope I’m not plagiarizing.) Here are my thoughts as a Christian who fortunately didn’t grow up in purity culture: 

In the piece, Beaty describes her negative experiences with Christian purity culture, acknowledging that purity culture has caused a lot of harm. Yet, according to Beaty, “its collapse has left a void for those of us looking for guidance in our intimate lives.” Beaty finds progressive Christianity’s looser guidelines to the question “How Should Christians Have Sex?” lacking. 

She does cover one progressive answer, citing Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Shameless (which I’ve also read). Beaty writes that Bolz-Weber “proposes a sexual ethic grounded in the goodness of bodies and of sexual expression based in consent, mutuality, and care.” My response when reading that was “There it is; there’s a sexual ethic that I can buy into.” 

Beaty felt differently, writing, “One would think that Pastor Bolz-Weber’s shame-free ethic would be a tall glass of water for a grace-parched soul. Instead, I find myself left with a sense of loss.” A bit later, Beaty says, “I yearn for guidance on how to integrate faith and sexuality in ways that honor more than my own desires in a given moment.” Throughout the article, Beaty searches for something more in a sexual ethic but somehow only skims the surface of the “progressive” ethics that she finds wanting. I wonder whether progressive Christianity’s acceptance of so many things that she was taught to condemn makes it difficult for her to take it seriously as a source of ethical wisdom. 

Please note, I don’t think progressive Christianity is beyond reproach, and Beaty may be responding to a ‘watered down’ quality that is apparent in some progressive settings. 

In that vein, Beaty says a couple of things that I agree with. For example, she states, “I long for more robust categories of right and wrong besides consent – a baseline, but only that – and more than a general reminder not to be a jerk.” She has a point; consensual is not a synonym for ‘good’ (I’ve heard that Joseph Fischel’s book Screw Consent provides a great critique of the treatment of consent as a satisfactory ethic in itself). 

But as Beaty says herself, the ethic that Nadia Bolz-Weber describes is about care and mutuality as well. Beaty says, “I also want to know what Jesus thinks.” For people who see Jesus as an exemplar or even a guide, that’s a good question.

But Jesus has almost nothing to say about sex in the Gospels. In fact, he may not share “the traditional Christian vision for married sex” that Beaty idolizes; in Jesus’ context, marriage was largely a matter of economic survival and control, not love.

Frankly, consent and mutuality were not on the radar of a society (the Roman Empire) in which over a third of the population was enslaved. I suspect that much of what Beaty associates with ‘traditional’ Christian sexuality and marriage come from Paul filtered through the commentary of Origen, Saint Augustine, and more recent evangelical thinkers who took up the ‘defense’ of heterosexual marriage as a political cause. 

Jesus does, however, say and show a lot about care. Beaty describes “married sex” as “a bodily expression that two people will be for each other, through all seasons.” Perhaps, for her and many others, (monogamous, sexually active) marriage is the best way to embody values of care and mutuality. It isn’t the most ethical path for everyone, though, and choosing a different path isn’t a sign of moral decay. 

Having ignored wholesale any part of Bolz-Weber’s ethic other than “consent,” Beaty concludes by declaring, “I find the traditional Christian vision for married sex radical, daunting, and extremely compelling – and one I want to uphold, even if I fumble along the way.” Far be it for me, a Christian connoisseur of the queer and kinky, to critique a person’s attraction to anything “daunting.” If she is compelled by this definition of marriage as “spiritual covenant,” it sounds like she has resolved her own problem; there is no void to fill because she has articulated a sexual ethic based on her experience; I’d also add that she likely finds consent, care, and mutuality in her vision of marriage. 

If that is the case, I wonder why she is concerned about the “lack of guidance” outside of purity culture. When I finished reading her opinion piece, I thought, “So what? Why this article?” I wonder whether it worries her that she might have reached a different understanding without the early guidance (and abuse, I daresay) of purity culture. I wonder whether she is searching for more boundaries because she still feels like she must be doing something shameful if she lets herself come to her own conclusions about ethical sexuality. I hear her saying “It can’t be that simple!” as she ignores the rich sexual ethics that Christians (especially queer ones) create every day outside the confines of purity culture. 

It saddens me that so many people think that rigidity is the mark of a good sexual ethic, that it honors God. Ultimately, we all get to craft our own ethics based on our needs and experiences. We needn’t worry that it’s ‘not difficult enough’ to follow; we get to explore for ourselves and find the ways that we can best promote justice and kindness through our actions. It’s not wishy-washy or empty of moral value; it’s courageous. I hope that someday, Katelyn Beaty will make peace with that and feel confident abandoning the pursuit of rules so that she can feel free to pursue a sexual ethic that reflects the love of God instead.

Postscript for clarity: I think that people can use the Bible to develop a sexual ethic. However, most of the sexual ethics on display in the Bible are either rubbish (ex: not caring about consent) or not applicable to our current sociopolitical circumstances. To find a biblical ethic that isn’t rubbish, we need to use interpretation filtered through the lens of experience in tandem with values like the consent and caring.

Further Reading: “Creating a Sexual Ethic After Coming Out” and “Inside the Scam of the Purity Movement

Listening: “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods

You don’t have to. – An Epistle for “Low Drive Wives”

[Image description: Photo is of clusters of bright red and purple flowers.]

Content Notice: Abstract discussion of rape culture and sexual coercion. This post is just a start to discussing a very complicated issue. Bear with me.  

Beloved, I don’t know about you, but when I try to want something more, I usually end up wanting it less. “How can I learn to like sex more?” is a question that I see all the time on Christian sex and marriage blogs, usually posed by married women whose interest in sex doesn’t seem to match their husbands’. The usual answers have some helpful information. Among Christian sex bloggers easily found on Google (which I won’t name specifically here), answers like “Check with your doctor” or “Get more in touch with your body” or “Reframe sex as good and holy” are common. 

They’re not wrong; sexual desire can absolutely be affected by factors like hormonal changes, past trauma, relationship issues, and regular old stress. I want to stress that I respect the work that these bloggers do to make sex a ‘speakable’ topic in heterosexual Christian marriages. 

That said, posts for low drive wives tend to make me really uncomfortable. Because these Christian sex bloggers sometimes believe that spouses owe each other sex, pointing to Paul’s epistles for evidence. This notion of ‘owing’ underpins the rest of their advice.

One blogger states that “Biblically, we are not to withhold sex from our spouse.” Another writes, “Let me clear that while I believe that 1 Corinthians 7:5 instructs spouses that they have a sexual duty to one another, God doesn’t want you to approach sex in your marriage as a chore.” 

What does this mean, “a sexual duty”? As a Christian, I believe that we do have certain duties in life, to show care for one another and to promote justice (because life isn’t just about us as individuals; we’re supposed to be a team). Sex should be a caring activity, rooted in respect and concern for the well-being of everyone involved. I enjoy sex. I enjoy helping partners feel pleasure. But do I ever have a divinely decreed “duty” to have sex with anyone? Hell no. 

I’m troubled by the apparent attitudes of the spouses in these posts who want more sex, especially husbands. Describing a conversation about how much her sex life had improved, another Christian sex blogger recalls that her husband’s “face showed a surprising look of disgust as he said, ‘Yeah, even when we did it back then, it was like you couldn’t wait to get it over with.’” I have to wonder, if he thought his wife wasn’t enjoying the sex, why did he keep going? Did they really have to “get it over with”? Or did they just think that they had to? 

These bloggers sometimes use language and concepts reminiscent of the Sex Positive Movement, rhapsodizing about how wonderful and sacred married sex is. They promote pleasure and object to rape. Yet, they treat it as a given that married people should have sex and that low desire, even hatred of sexual activity, is an obstacle to be overcome. Sex is ultimately a duty that we must learn to like, or else we are not following God’s plan for marriage. That’s not sex-positive. That’s rape culture. And it disturbs me. 

So how would I respond to a ‘low drive’ wife who asks how she can learn to enjoy sex with a ‘higher drive’ husband? 

First, here’s what I’m NOT saying: 

  • I am Not saying that mismatched sexual desire isn’t a frustrating or even painful issue.
  • I am Not saying that sex isn’t a valued part of many relationships. 
  • I am Not saying that people shouldn’t seek answers if they want to enjoy sex more. 

In fact, I encourage people to discuss sexual issues with their partners, medical professionals, therapists, and coaches. Sex is meant to be a mutual activity that you and your partner(s) choose together. You need support and good information to make that choice (here’s where I recommend my Resources page again). 

Here’s what I AM saying: 

Christians, we don’t have to apply the Apostle Paul’s marital standards directly to modern relationships. I will say more on dear Paul in future posts (long story short, I read and appreciate him, but I can safely say that his take is oft misinterpreted, irrelevant on some issues, and dead wrong on others).

Wives, if your husbands know that you don’t enjoy sex but keep initiating it anyway, you are not frigid or “withholding.” They are trying to get you to do something you dislike for their pleasure. That is selfish, not patient or kind. If you are trying to get your partner to have sex when they don’t want to, you need to STOP immediately. 

People of every gender, if sex feels like a chore or a pain, it’s okay not to have it. I will have more to say about how to have great sex soon, but I can’t say any of that without first saying that you don’t have to.