Is Paradise Lost? In Search of Sexual Commitment
This is the text of the talk I gave at the Johns Hopkins Veritas Forum, Baltimore, Maryland, October 19, 2011.
The forum was a panel discussion featuring myself and Dr. Christopher Ryan.
Dr. Ryan has published a book, Sex at Dawn, arguing that monogamy is not ‘natural’ and just doesn’t work. He represented the ‘naturalistic’ or evolutionary approach to understanding human sexuality. I represented the
socioeconomic and Christian approaches to understanding modern problems with sexual relationships.
We each answered three questions. Today I am posting my answer to the first question.
1. What is the problem with modern relationships?
Finding happiness in sexual relationships has never been guaranteed in any place or time, but I think it is a particularly serious problem for the current generation of young adults, and will continue to be a problem in the future.
One way to think about the problems with modern relationships is in terms of the collapse of community that was the result of the Industrial Revolution.
Unlike earlier generations, young people today face a vast cultural divide when it comes to sex. On one extreme is popular culture, which on college campuses takes the form of what is known as hookup culture. At the other extreme is the
conservative religious reaction to the sexual revolution, which I’m calling the
religious purity movement.
And in the middle, there is nothing.
Which means that if you don’t want to participate in either of these two extremes, there is no place else to go, and no one else there should you get there. The moderate institutions that should be helping single people just don’t know what to say or do for them. Ironically, a large majority of college students today themselves say they prefer a middle ground between these two poles. The new ‘silent majority’ tell researchers that despite the casual insouciance of hookup culture, they really do want meaning in their relationships. But because there is no ‘culture’ or community to support them, they can’t admit it. And if there is no community to support people who want a relationship, how do you meet someone to have a relationship with?
From both a Christian and socioeconomic standpoint, having a real, loving, committed relationship today requires us to purposefully choose values and behaviors that are quite at odds from where the world is pushing us.
Let’s explore a little further the kind of relationships on either side of this divide.
The most common, at least in the popular media, is ‘hooking up’, or casual, relationship-free sex. Hooking up is actually just the college version of where the current socioeconomic forces are driving us as a culture, that is, what I would consider ‘natural’ now. Hooking up is when singles meet at parties, usually with lots of alcohol involved, and then pairing off to have some kind of sexual contact. What is done on a hook up is left purposefully vague, but it can mean kissing or making out, (with or without clothes on), sexual touching, oral sex, or intercourse.
There has been a flurry of research on hooking up in the last few years, and the findings suggest much of what college students think they know about who is doing what is wrong. While hooking up appears to be total freedom and empowerment, these studies show that hook up culture is actually controlling (lots of gossip), contradictory, and kind of crazy-making. Furthermore, the studies uncovered a lot of feelings that people don’t feel safe admitting to their friends: many of the people who hook up actually don’t like it. Lisa Wade’s in-depth study (although with a small sample size) of first year students found that only about 11% of the people who hooked up were really happy with it. 50 % were ambivalent, some having endured some very bad experiences, and about 38% (24% in Donna Freitas’ larger sample) didn’t participate at all. Wade notes that these students still want to have sex, but they are not willing to accept having it under the emotional disconnection of ‘hooking up.’
An example of the kind of dirty secrets being exposed about hooking up: “In public, women maintain a lax attitude about no-strings-attached hookups, but in private, they express ambivalence and even dismay that they allow themselves to be pressured into sexual behaviors that often make them feel used and unhappy” (Freitas, p.99). Women in particular go along with
doing things they really don’t want to do because they are hoping it will lead
to a real relationship. Unfortunately, while hooking up may lead to a string of
hook ups with the same partner, apparently it rarely leads to a real relationship.
But as Lisa Wade argues, the real problem is not so much hook up behavior, as it is that the culture dominates campus life. There is no alternative, no place else to go to meet people who are interested in something else, at least not among the undergraduates. Hook up culture allows no vision for romance. As Freitas poignantly writes, the most romantic advice book available to singles in hook up culture is Greg Behrendt’s, He’s Just Not That into You.
At the other extreme is the purity movement. Purity culture is usually thought of as the Christian response. This is inaccurate in two ways, however. First, the purity movement can be found not just among Christians but also in the Jewish and Muslim communities.
In many ways, the purity movements are a reaction to the sexual revolution, i.e., many in these groups actually became more conservative than they were before the new sexual norms. I first became aware of this about 15 years ago when my son brought home a book called, I Kissed Dating Goodbye,
by Joshua Harris. Part of it are programs like the ‘Silver Ring Thing,’ in
which fathers give their teenage daughters rings, which the girls wear until
they are married and then present to their husbands as a symbol of their purity.
‘True Love Waits’ is another one. Conferences in which young people take
abstinence pledges became popular. But the purity movement is not just about
waiting until marriage for sex. To be ‘pure’, singles are not supposed to date
or go out with a variety of people, but are supposed to ‘court.’ In courtship,
a young woman waits passively for a man to decide he was interested in marrying her. Ideally, he then asks her father’s permission for a chaste courtship, with marriage as the ultimate goal. The ideal is that the first kiss would be at the marriage altar, or at least, not until engagement.
Purity culture is the norm in some religious colleges, in conservative congregations, and among some of home-schooling groups, but this kind of culture is unrealistic for most people. It only works if you live in a very restricted environment – a community — in which everyone shares the same viewpoint and you can get married relatively young. It makes men and women see each other as a source of temptation and afraid of each other. There are lots of regulation and judgment and policing of each other’s behavior and dress. The sense of guilt that results if an individual is unable to follow the rules alienates him or her from God.
Now the purity culture movement is not nearly as widespread as hooking up. Freitas reports that students on secular college campuses had not even heard of it. But as far as I know, this is the only perspective on sex that is being offered by religion right now. The liberal churches have little to say, except to tell you to do what seems right to you, which is often no help at all. No community.
The second problem with the popular perception of the purity movement as the Christian teachings on sexuality is that the purity movement is one expression of modern cultural Christianity, but is at odds in many ways with primitive or biblical Christianity. In the Song of Solomon, a lovely erotic love poem found in the Old Testament, the female character does not wait passively for a man to notice and court her, but initiates the relationship. She makes her own decision about commitment — her father is not mentioned at all, let alone asked for permission. Similarly, the notion of male authority over women – the father over the daughter until she marries, when she is transferred to the authority of her husband – is not biblical.
Further, the restricted interactions, suspicions between the sexes, and
judgments typical of purity movement are contrary to Jesus’s and Paul’s
examples encouraging men and women to work and socialize together without
sexual thoughts interfering. Jesus also refused to let women be confined to the
narrow social confines of gendered expectation, and spoke freely with
prostitutes and other women whose sexually behavior was very suspect. He was opposed to defining a woman’s worth solely in terms of her sexual ‘purity’ to the exclusion of all other qualities.
But I think the real problem with restoring a biblical model of relationships is
that the more moderate Christian communities also think, or are afraid, that
the purity-extreme beliefs are biblical Christianity, too. That’s why they
aren’t saying anything.
In Search of the Lost Middle
Let’s explore that problem, of the middle shying away from the Bible because of a fear that it does teach the repression of women. The bad news first: As we
begin, we have to recognize that people read the Bible through the eyes of
their own culture, and their own assumption. They translate it through those
eyes, too. Virtually all biblical translations are horribly biased against
So don’t try this at home. (My book, The Redemption of Love, presents a more accurate picture of what the Bible is really saying about sex and gender.)
The good news: The biblical portrayal of sexuality and gender is not about rules, condemnation, judgement, or repression. It is about what is possible for us, about what God intended for us to be to each other when he made our created us as sexual beings.
When Jesus was asked about how the husbands and wives of his day should be interacting, he told his questioners that the way men and women were interacting in his day did not reflect God’s will. Instead, Jesus said, look at God’s intent in Creation.
Since the other speaker on this panel is talking about evolution, I need to say that I’m not going to get into that whole evolution versus creationism argument. The Bible is not a biology textbook but is a spiritual tool intended to teach us about what we can be in our relationship with God and with each other. If you don’t believe in a seven-day creation, that’s okay, because the Creation accounts are still profoundly meaningful. They aren’t just entertaining ‘just so’ stories but convey a religious truth about human nature, our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other.
The Creation narrative has been badly abused in the battle over gender, but if you read it carefully, you see that:
God created man and woman as equals, with both given dominion over earth and the blessing of children. This may not mean much in the U.S., but in much of Africa, the idea that the earth and one’s children belong to the woman as much as the man is a liberating idea. (Come to think of it, these were radical and liberating ideas in the U.S. not that long ago.)
The Creation account explicitly disallows patriarchy, or the male dominance of women. Couples put each other as first priority before material concerns or before loyalties to one’s family or inheritance prospects.
The ideal relationship is that two people become one flesh, naked and unashamed. This is a relationship of honesty, openness, fearlessness, transparency, sharing, and trust. There are no games, no hiding in shame in the ideal relationship.
Such a relationship is not natural – but it is our heart’s desire.