Campus has been abuzz lately with sex talk - talk about what constitutes healthy sex, moral sex, good sex, and what "sex" even means. So let me just go on record here and say that, while I totally support the decision to be abstinent and/or celibate, however those terms are defined, I do not think that abstinence is necessarily the best policy. And further, that heterosexual intercourse is not the be-all and end-all of human existence. And finally, that I don't think of sex as sinful, or as something that automatically has negative consequences.
I moderated a student discussion about sex last night, and I was really surprised by how many people almost unconsciously think about sexual acts as sinful, or as "mistakes," or as acts that have inherent consequences. All acts have inherent consequences, but no one seems to think about the consequences of non-sexual acts, even those with far-reaching effects. For example, Coke products are sold exclusively on this Lutheran campus, and the direct consequence of giving Coke our business is that the people of India have little access to clean water due to Coke's practices there. But the consequences of sex seem to be far more important from the way the word "consequences" gets so loosely thrown about. I think largely because this is a Lutheran campus, we come to discussions about sex with a lot of underlying thoughts about sex in relation to sin. For instance, several people talked last night about having made mistakes in their sexual lives and needing to be forgiven for them, prompting a (sadly) much smaller number of others to speak up and state that they didn't see their sexual pasts as mistakes.
It was an interesting dialgoue, and a tricky one, because there were some who clearly defined all sexual activity outside of legal marriage as sinful and others who could not have been further away from this definition. It was hard for this somewhat polarized community to hear what the other side had to say. It was also interesting to me how much it seemed to matter to the sexually active students what others had to say about it. But we each have to make our own moral choices. Reasonable people can disagree. And no one else's opinion should really matter to us if we are honest with ourselves and making our moral choices with discernment.
I became sexually active when I was about 17, and for many years I wished that I had started exploring my sexuality earlier. I felt like I came to it late and missed out on a lot. Oddly, it was mostly in retrospect that I felt this way because once I was becoming intimate with other people, I realized how much this enabled me to learn about my body, about my pleasure, about communication, about self-esteem (both good and bad). It was an education, and I was angry that I hadn't been learning all along.
I got the sense last night that many of the students felt that once they got married, the sexual relationship part would be a piece of cake. One or two students wondered aloud, "what if the sex just isn't that great?" We never got too deeply into this conversation, but that is a realistic concern. It's not that people can't get past bad sex and have better sex, but that we pretend as a society that marriage is an easy answer for sexual problems. The reality is that every married couple I can think of has, at one time or another, had to deal with problems in their sex lives. It is just like every other aspect of a relationship: you have to work at it, and you have to communicate about it.
I submit that coming into a relationship with sexual knowledge isn't a bad thing - in fact, it's a necessary thing. I'm not suggesting that everyone ought to be sexually active before they get married - "sexual knowledge" doesn't necessarily translate into "sexual activity." But I am arguing that everyone should come into a relationship knowing how their bodies work and being able to talk openly about sex and to ask the hard questions without discomfort. We simply cannot move suddenly from thinking that sex is shameful to thinking it's healthy. We have to have positive feelings about our sexualities and our bodies if we are going to have positive sexual lives.
Intercourse tends to be seen as the meat and potatoes of sex (this analogy is not mine, but I don't remember from whom I got it). But sex is really more of a buffet, and there are all kinds of vegetarian options that meat-and-potatoes people often don't think to explore. I mean, let's face it. 30% of American women have never had an orgasm. And a much higher percentage do not have orgasms from intercourse alone. Frankly, I have yet to meet the man who prefers intercourse to oral sex - and while I know some women who do, I suspect that most see it as part of a balanced diet rather than as the only thing on the plate.
I don't mean to knock intercourse - just to point out that it is one among many sexual acts, and one that is male- and heterosexually-defined, besides. It is the one that is based entirely on the male orgasm (as we all know from high school, that's how you know if you've had sex or not, right?).
I would argue, instead, that we should define sex by our own desires and our own pleasures. I don't think that we need to mean the same things, necessarily, when we talk about it. And we certainly don't need to all be having the same kind(s) of sex.
Similarly, I think we each need to define positive sexual expression for ourselves. I had an interesting conversation about this the other day with a pastor. She was concerned about the possible sexual relativism that could result from this perspective, and she argued instead that we needed to make these sorts of decisions about sex in community with others.
Here's what I think that perspective leaves out. As a bisexual woman, and as a former fundamentalist Christian, I know what it's like to come out *from* a community because rejecting the ideals of the community is the only way to survive. For me, making healthy sexual decisions has frequently been about turning away from what the community is telling me and being true to the person I am, as best as I can figure it. This has resulted in some poor decisions, certainly, but also in some excellent ones. I have been fortunate that along the way, I have not gotten pregnant unintentionally, I have not contracted any STIs, and I have received/caused no more than the average amount of heartbreak. (But some of that is also a result of my decisions not to engage in "risky" sex - and those, too, were decisions made in opposition to my community (in this case, the community of my peers).)
We can, and, in my opinion, should make our own sexual decisions individually, or with those others whose counsel we invite. We also have a responsibility to tell those we care about when we think they are making harmful sexual decisions, but with that must come the recognition that our sexual practices and desires can vary quite a bit and still be healthy. I don't think this is sexual relativism. I don't believe that "anything goes" - there are ways to measure whether or not these are harmful practices and desires (the impact on ourselves and others, for example). But I think we need more, not less, respect for individual decision-making - and more open, respectful conversation.