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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Real Sex Reality Check

I heard someone say recently that while sex may only account for 10% of a healthy marriage, it can easily become 90% of a bad one. The point here is simple: sex matters bigtime, and the prevalence of our sexual struggles - experienced by those both within and without the confines of marriage, on both sides of the dividing line of faith - suggests the seriousness of our disfunction.

Society tells us the problem is simply a matter of size or technique (you just need "more-bigger-better," and then it conveniently offers us all manner of "low-cost, zero-guilt-or-consequence" solutions). Scripture, however, flies in the face of such mainstream sensibilities, pointing us in the opposite direction: God calls all of us to inhabit sexual chastity - abstinence outside of marriage, fidelity within it.

Any guesses as to which message is more popular?

In Chapter 1 of Real Sex, Lauren Winner cuts to the heart of the problem with an excellent observation:
What sits at the center of Christian sexual ethics is not a negative view of sex; the Christian vision of marriage is not, at its most conise, merely, "no sex before marraige." Rather, the heart of the Christian story about sex is a vigorously positive statement: sex was created for marriage. Without a robust account of the Christian vision of sex within marriage, the Christian insistence that unmarried folks refrain from sex just doesn't make any sense...the core of this book is an effort to offer a definition, in a Christian vocabulary and grammar, of good sex, even (as the title suggests) of real sex. (p25)
Winner is quick to point out, however, that while the church may have the right theological answers for our sexual angst, we have often done a poor job of communicating the positive side of that message. Even worse, we frequently fail to provide both a context where people can be open about their sexual struggles, and find resources and accountability to strengthen them in their trials.

The result is an ecclesiological equivalent of gays in the military - when it comes to sexual chastity in the church, we end up with "don't ask, don't tell" where we all say one thing but many practice another.

The first chapter of Winner's book should serve as a wakeup call for this present reality. In terms of our sexual demographics, the church often looks indistinguishable from the world:
  • 65% of America's teens have sex by the time they graduate from high school; 75% of women will have sex before marriage; 41% will cohabitate with a man;
  • over 25% of 15 to 17 year old girls think that sex is "almost always" part of a "casual relationship"
  • for the most part Christians match these trends - a survey in the 90s showed that only one-third of single Christians are virgins (which means that two-thirds aren't)
  • for those who have maintained there virginity in college, religious reasons are extremely low on the list (most just haven't had the opportunity, or are still waiting for "the right person")
  • a study of teens who took abstinence pledges (think "True Love Waits") found that those who took the pledge abstained from sex a year and a half longer than those who didn't - which means they're having sex at 19 instead of at 18
  • research at Northern Kentucky University showed that 61% of students who signed such pledges broke them; but of the 39% who kept them, 55% said they had oral sex but did not consider that to be sex (Winner notes that anectdotally, a similar percentage of self-identified evangelical college students felt the same way about anal sex - fair game)
Winner has plenty more of such statistics (the book would be worth reading for this first chapter alone). Her point is that in terms of sexual practice, professing Christians are not that different from unabashed pagans, and this holds true across the denominational board (yes, even those Reformed Puritan girls and boys are engaging in some not-so-puritanical behavior).

And if such is the reality, Winner says it's high time the church starts talking about the situation. That's really the direction the book goes from here - how do we help Christians living in such a hyper-sexualized society actually reclaim a biblical view of sexuality? How do we help them inhabit chastity?

Winner says we need to start by seeing chastity as a spiritual discipline - to realize that it doesn't come naturally and certainly won't be easy; but it can be embraced and the benefits are real. She finds four ingedients particularly important:
  • 1) time (viewing chastity as an ongoing process),
  • 2) prayer,
  • 3) reading (both Scripture and Christian writings), and most importantly
  • 4) the church (a community of believers to help bear one another's burdens).
I won't try to flesh out the details behind these categories (that's really what Winner does throughout the rest of the book). But this is the basic trajectory of Real Sex, and my goal in sharing this much detail is to encourage you to pick up a copy of this book and start reading it for yourself. This is a huge issue facing the church today, and thoughtful answers must start with an honest assessment of where we are.

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