So after Tuesday’s post, I thought it worth examining, in brief (though I’ll definitely return to this topic), what a healthy, holy sexual ethic might look like for the church. As Fred Clark observed this week and as Libby Anne at Love Joy Feminism has observed in the past, we have a very simple sexual ethic in the modern evangelical church. In fact, it might be the only “ethic” that can be summed up in one word: “no.”
There’s a massive discussion in the history of Christianity about what sexual ethics for a Christian are and should be, from celibacy for the most devout to procreation only to sex is fun and holy. But the past 40 years – possibly as a response to the sexual revolution of the mid 20th century – the ethic has simplified into bumper sticker thoughts for much of the modern church.
We have a literal sloganized version of sexual ethics. Here are some oft-repeated ones (contributed by many of you via Twitter!):
“Pet your dog, not your date.”
“Leave room for the Holy Spirit.”
“Boys are blue, girls are red. No making purple.”
“No one buys a cow when he can get the milk for free.”
“Flies spread disease so keep yours closed.”
When I bring this up, I’m often pointed to academic theologians who have been doing a lot of legwork on the issues, and I appreciate their work. However, the fact is that this work is not being translated to the laity. 400 page books discussing the topic do exist, but we’re missing something in the modern church discussion when Purity Bears and balls are what the laity take away. Part of this is the divide between the ivory tower and the peasants in the field, but part of it too is the legalistic desire for black and white, yes and no thoughts, rather than an actual ethic that helps you make good, healthy decisions.
That is, as Clark says, exactly what an ethic is supposed to do. And, as Preston Yancey said on Monday, ethics are not memory verse we can point to. They are a system of guiding beliefs.
Right now, we have rules – labels under which sex is good and sex is bad, and not much variation or grace for the gray areas.
So how do we start developing a new, healthy ethic?
I propose that we start with what consent looks like.
A healthy sexual relationship has much more room to happen when everyone involved is doing so enthusiastically and with full knowledge and agreement about boundaries.
Consent is not “well, he didn’t say no.”
Consent is not “I guess so.”
Consent is not given from someone too drunk to stand.
Consent is not something wrung from someone after weeks of badgering.
Consent is not “giving in.”
Consent is an enthusiastic, unequivocal yes.
Consent is asking at every step "Is this okay? Does this feel good? Can I touch you here?" and getting a unequivocally positive response before proceeding.
Consent is asking permission every, single time because consent given once is not consent given for all of time.
It needs to be assumed that people’s bodies are in a state of “don’t touch” until they give you the green light to do so. This is the first step toward a healthy view of sexuality.
This basic understanding of bodily autonomy is – no surprise – frequently shunted aside in narratives of the purity movement. The fear seems to be that if we teach people how to say yes in a healthy manner, they’ll start doing so outside of the contexts we think are best. But, that’s the thing about education: if you really, truly want people acting of their own free will and owning their decisions, you really, truly have to let them.
We have warped our thinking to the point where we think people are unable to make good decisions if we equip them with the right tools to do so. So we empty their toolbox and tell them no and badger them into being terrified of sex. But teaching consent teaches people that they own their bodies and empowers them to make decisions about what they do with their bodies. It also empowers them to make healthy decisions about how they treat other embodied people.
And that, after all, is what Christianity is centered upon - living with embodied people in a community that reflects the goodness of a loving God. Consent is central to that ethic.