What comes to mind when you hear the phrase, "Christian sexual ethics"? Or "biblical sexual ethics"?
If you're anything like me, the associations with those phrases aren't any good. You get images of pastors telling you to be celibate or reminding you to stay pure. Some may have memories of pastors telling them that homosexual, bisexual, or transgender identities are inherently sinful and there was no possible way you could be pure.
And this impression is not without its precedent. For decades (one may even argue centuries), the queer community and the evangelical Christian community have stood at odds -- one always hears talk of one or the other, and it is hard to find communities where both identities are embraced. A lot of this divide is due to the rise of evangelical purity culture, which demands abstinence until a heterosexual marriage, and prizes a virginal vagina as part of the gospel message.
Purity became a major craze through the 1980s and 1990s, becoming an accepted part of the gospel by the time I hit high school youth group in the early 2000s. It's no coincidence the purity movement corresponded with a rise in homophobia and victim blaming during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, as homosexuality became associated with disease. Even today, evangelical leaders have trouble divorcing themselves from the "queer = disease = impure" discussion.
It's also long been the mantra of the church in America that LGB identities are okay as long as you never act on them. For bisexuals like myself, this creates pressure to deny oneself potentially life-changing relationships because we could maybe "choose" to be in a different-sex relationship. For gays and lesbians, however, this means lifelong celibacy -- a path that leads many to conclude that the church has no place for them. We queer folk are often forced to choose between God or living out our full identity. And that's not an easy choice for anyone to make.
So it's completely understandable that any discussion of "Christian sexual ethics" puts a person's shoulders up around their ears. But I believe there is a way to fuse the two opposing forces, to develop a Christian sexual ethic that applies whether or not you're a believer and whether or not you're engaged in same-sex relationships. This is an ethic for a new generation; for a world where queerness is not an illness to be cured but an identity to be embraced.
In this brave new Christian sexual ethic, consent is important. No matter who you are, who you're with, or what you're doing, sexual activity fundamentally needs to be performed with the consent of all parties involved. Purity culture does a very poor job of teaching consent - the stories purity advocates tell to keep us abstinent often depict rape and hazy consent as opposed to solid communication and healthy "yes" or "no." We need to move away from this kind of culture, and the way to do that is to obtain consent, all the time, every time.
This leads to healthy and honest communication. It's important to always communicate with your partner about expectations, experience, and desires. It calls on people to honor their partner as part of God's creation, and recognizing that hurting them is hurting someone who is like you. Sexual ethics need to have an element of empathy in them -- an ability to see our partner not just as masturbation material but as a complete human being who has a right to say no and a right to their own pleasure.
Speaking of, the third aspect of a healthy sexual ethics is the fun part: pleasure. If everything's going as it should, everyone involved should be having a good time (and helping others have a good time, as well).
And the last part is more a supplication than an instruction: remember that what speaks of shame is not of God. God doesn't function in shame -- God does not rely on shame to fulfill their love for humanity. Indeed, the great liberating God of the Bible embraces those who are shamed by society, and rebukes those who would shame them. It is a profound move that Jesus embraces tax collectors, lepers, and those considered cursed by society. The institutional church has tried to baptize shame, to make it something of God. It isn't. God does not speak in shame, even as those who claim to be God's representatives do. There is no shame in being who we are -- fully, and openly, and graciously. Recognizing this is a major step toward healthy sexual ethics.
There is no requirement to give up one's sexual identity or be involved in a different-sex relationship before one can learn how to behave in a healthy, understanding manner in the bedroom. Instead of approaching sexual ethics with shame and disgrace, a newly reformed sexual ethics can give queer Christians the space they need to be loved by God and to love themselves.
DIANNA E. ANDERSON is the author of Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, out February 10th. She blogs at Faith and Feminism and tweets @diannaeanderson. She lives in Sioux Falls, S.D.
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