[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