The Flesh as Bogeyman: Sex, Self-Control, and Post-Evangelical Culture

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[trigger warning: rape culture, purity culture, disordered eating]

In the dash yesterday that was going to the mechanic to remove a plastic bag from my car's engine ($62! For a plastic bag!), a few things escaped my notice. Since one references the others fairly heavily, I don’t think it’s unfair to attempt to boil them down to the significant points. I think these posts create a convenient beginning point for discussing some larger issues within post-evangelicalism’s grappling with purity culture and its unwillingness to step back from a broken doctrine.

There’s a discomfort, when discussing purity culture in a post-evangelicalism/emergent sphere, to try very, very hard not to throw the baby out with the bath water, to develop new language to discuss abstinence until marriage that doesn’t reach back into shaming. This is what Jamie Wright and Rachel Held Evans’ posts are trying to do. They’re reframing the discussion as one of self-control and holiness, rather than shame and purity. They’re encouraging waiting to marriage as a matter of holiness, connecting it (in Rachel’s case) to monastic discipline and denial of self and the flesh. Waiting until marriage, then, is a high holiness calling, but not waiting is merely a stumble, not an earth-shattering destruction of self-worth. Rachel tells me that her intent was not to create a universal and I want to acknowledge and appreciate that. But I think we need to be especially careful when we discuss sexuality in terms of self-control.

While I appreciate the move away from tying one’s moral and spiritual worth to virginity, I’ve been discovering more and more that these reframings of the discussion often end up just being window dressing on a concept that is broken in of itself. I cannot, in good conscience, say that God’s plan is for me to be a virgin on my wedding day. Neither can I state that this denial of self is a marker of holiness because that buys into an uncomfortable hierarchy of holiness - in which spartan hermit monks will always be closer to God than I. I also cannot, in good conscience, get behind the language of self-control as it pertains to sexuality because it implies a false dichotomy between people who wait and people who choose to have sex - it fails to provide adequate sexual ethics of consent and respect.

The problem, I’ve found, is much larger than simply the discussion of virginity or purity or sexuality, though that part of it is important. Instead, our language and philosophies have been heavily infiltrated by the heresy of Gnosticism. It’s hard to sum up in a couple of paragraphs, but Gnosticism is based out of dualims, which preaches that our bodies and our souls are separated entities. There’s a famous quote (that’s not actually, if I recall correctly, from CS Lewis but is attributed to him) about how “You are a soul. You have a body.” This is, I’m sure you recognize, very common teaching in evangelicalism.

Dualism often becomes combined with Gnosticism – Gnosticism preaches that The Flesh is inherently bad – it is what carries our sin, and therefore must be subdued. The Flesh extends out to the material world in general in Gnosticism, therefore living without the pleasure of the material world is much more holy. Unfortunately, this leads to a setting aside of the created world in entire – it makes God’s creation into an evil.

This is, I propose, what the evangelical language surrounding purity – including these new(ish) self-control ideas – does to our bodies. When we discussing purity and holiness as a mastery of our flesh, we invoke the spectres of dualism and Gnosticism. We Other our own selves from the God-created bodies we are. We make our natural, God-given, God-created sexual appetites into bogeymen that must be defeated, mastered, and controlled.

This idea of self-control of sexual desire as holiness is a problem – one that recourses right back into the harmful ideology of the purity culture.

When I first started questioning purity culture, one of the first things I latched onto was how purity culture creates a disordered view of one’s sexual desire. Because it requires so much denial of the self, it ends up unfairly demonizing sexual desire in itself. Rather than contextualizing sexual desire and intimacy as merely aspects of a person, purity culture makes sexual desire into something outside us that requires much control (and promises a reward at the end for all our hard work). The desire to control sexual desire in purity culture, indeed, mirrors the desire to control one’s intake of food in eating disorders. Rather than integrating one’s appetite into one’s personality and life as simply a part of oneself, disordered control about eating turns a very basic biological mechanism into a thing to be feared – into a bogeyman that must be subdued.

Purity culture treats sexual appetite as diet culture treats a biological food appetite – creating a disordered, destructive attitude toward our very selves. The ability to know yourself well enough to moderate and eat in a healthy (dare I say, consensual?) manner is far more important than simply controlling yourself to the point of not eating. But talk of controlling  and mastering  doesn't do that, especially when the end result of control is the encouragement of complete abstinence until a designated time. It doesn't give you the tools to indulge in a healthy manner anymore than "eat less" helps you to form a nutritional diet.

I discuss this more in the book, but I think it’s important and relevant here – purity culture made me so good at self-control that I divorced myself from my body until I was in my early 20s. I was so good at controlling my sexual appetite that I wasn’t even aware that I had one. Lust wasn’t a thing I experienced, except in the tame “I’d sure like to hold hands with that guy” way. But even that slight desire was worth pages and pages of self-flagellating diary entries, praying for God to give me the self-control to overcome my lust and to bring my future husband into my life so I could be fully holy.

Notice the language. Self-control. Holiness. It’s all much the same. Wrapped up in the intense shaming of purity culture was also the idea of self-control. Those who lusted did not have adequate control over their sexual appetites – they had failed in the mission to give everything up to the mastery of God. I viewed my natural sexual appetite as inherently disordered, inherently sinful, merely for the fact that it existed in the first place. And I had no understanding of myself as a sexual being, which divorced me from understanding the fullness of who I am as a person.

It all wraps back into Gnosticism and dualism. Self-control and holiness sound good, until you realize that this control is over one’s God-created and God-given desires and appetites. The language of self-control, as regards sex, is often language that mirrors the negative self-talk of the anorexic teenager. 

"Delayed gratification," for example, places our bodies into a give and take reward system (if I wait to do this, it'll be EVEN BETTER later!), rather than placing us in a context of asking ourselves why we want to act, what we hope to get from it, and how it functions within our lives. As such, it turns our responsibility for such acts into an equation of possible good or bad outcomes, rather than understanding and knowing ourselves. "Delaying gratification" isn't strong footing for any ethic, much less sex.

This metaphor of disordered eating, of course, only goes so far – sex is not necessarily a needed survival mechanism like food is, but taking the view that one must starve one’s sexual appetite until it can rightly be indulged creates a disordered view of relationships and one’s own flesh. It removes one’s sense of autonomy from one’s decisions.

How? When we talk of saving oneself for marriage as an act of self-control, we necessary posit those who do not wait as unable or less able to control themselves. In doing so, we remove from them the idea that they make the decision to have sex of their own volition. It prevents those who do not wait from owning their decisions – and thus understanding themselves as sexual beings capable of autonomy and consent, rather than souls who just temporarily lost control of their bodies.

This, to me, is where the post-evangelical discussion of self-control fails. Having premarital sex still, in this mindset, ends up being categorized as a failure of holiness, as a failure of one’s will or relationship with God, which prevents the experience from being something in which one can learn about one’s self and one’s wants and desires and pleasures. It necessarily demonizes the flesh (and therefore one’s sexuality) by making it into something that must be tamed rather than something that must be understood. Instead of framing the experience in a positive - "Why did I make that choice and what can I learn about myself from it? Was it healthy?" - it necessarily interjects a negative - "Failed to control myself again."

It’s a subtle difference, but it is a necessary one. It is impossibly hard to find a sexual ethic that still encourages saving sex for marriage without also demonizing sexuality and sexual desire in itself. It is, I propose, because no such universal exists. Healthy sexuality is far more important than delayed sexuality. Healthy demands introspection, understanding, and responsibility, not just self-control and delayed satisfaction.

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A note:

If you want to wait, even for religious reasons, that’s fine. I have zero problem with that. What I am discussing is how we frame that discussion, especially within universal ideas. Your self-control language may help you, but for many of the rest of us, it is simply another prison.

Also, thanks very much to Abi, Sarah, and Grace, who discussed this with me when I was awake and thinking about it at 1AM this morning.