Talking about sex may be the best way to unlock its mystery

How we have sex matters

I told the Cell Leader Coordinators during my end-of-term review with them on a rainy Friday night in Mt. Airy that one of the most important things I’ve re-learned over the last five years is that how we have sex matters. And we need to keep talking about that. Sex is among the most intimate acts we can have, so it’s not surprising that our personal and psychological issues come up when we have it.

Someone asked me the other day what was a surprising thing I learned about sex. My answer: “That it’s spiritual, unmistakenably so.” We need to keep talking about the spiritual significance of sex.

The church botched how we talk about sex

Unfortunately, the church, at large, has sort of messed up the conversation about sex. The early church Fathers saw sex as a sort of necessary evil, which got us started on the wrong foot. The perpetual virginity of Mary contrasted with the debunked “looseness” of Mary Magdalene got us off on the wrong foot, to be sure.

Fast forward to my conservative upbringing. The main rule I learned about sex was never to have it before I was married. Our youth group boys accountability groups were organized around not masturbating. Fourteen-year-old boys would gather with their accountability partner to confess that they had “messed up.” Looking back on it, I wonder what the point of it was. It ended up messing up how we saw sex, as a forbidden act, and didn’t afford us a chance to learn how to have sex in a good and healthy way.

The rebellion against the church’s absolutism is palpable. Combined with our society’s general belief that liberty leads to freedom, the morals around sex are lacking to say the least. The tension between the legalists and libertines is as real as it ever was. The rules won’t save us, but neither will our freedom from them. Just because we are not shackled to the anti-sex dogma of the church doesn’t mean we’ve found liberation and salvation. Our society’s obsession with liberty (and with commodification and monetization) has made it incredibly hard to have a dialogue about sex. It too often feels transactional. There’s still more to talk about sex, even if the conversation is no longer shut down by church authority.

Sex has meaning, and everyone agrees

If Pulp Fiction taught me anything it’s that sex has meaning. It’s incredible to me that in what is decidedly a postmodern film, we learn about the meaning of sex. The two gangsters that play leading parts in the movie are certainly not bastions of morality, but Jules and Vincent get into a discussion (find the profanity-laced scene here) which is quite illuminating about the inherent meaning of sex. I’ve written and spoke about this before, but the image is so clarifying I have to keep telling the story.

You see, Marcellus Wallace is recently married. An associate of his, Antwan Rockamora, gives his new bride a foot massage. And that drives Marcellus to throw him off a balcony into a green house, giving him a speech impediment as it were.

The two discuss the incident with Jules saying Marcellus was totally out of line and Vincent coming to Marcellus’s defense. Vincent doesn’t justify Marcellus’s violence, but he does acknowledge that the foot massage has meaning, not unlike sex does. Jules agrees that sex has meaning, but that a foot massage, “doesn’t mean shit.” When Vincent asks him for a foot massage, his point is made. It’s clear the foot massage has meaning.

This is a fairly uncontroversial point, I think. We are all in agreement that sex has meaning. It’s not just a physical transaction, it’s an emotional and spiritual transaction. Furthermore, we also know that sex affects not only the people have it, but the people around them. It has communal significance, too. It affects our friendships and our families. We know this because when things go wrong, the pain and the trauma (and the drama), extend far beyond the individuals who had sex.

We need a new moral vocabulary

I hope that the fact that sex has meaning is enough of a reason to consider beyond the moral vocabulary that the state has given us. The #MeToo movement has taught us that consent alone is not an adequate line for morality or goodness. In other words, we’ve learned that just because sex is legal and consensual, doesn’t make it righteous, ethical, or uplifting. I’m not sure we were ever far from this point.

However, the high-profile cases of both Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari show us that sex can be violent and damaging, even if it seems to fall within the parameters of legality. Aziz Ansari’s well-documented one-night-stand was the subject of much controversy earlier this year. The reporter was criticized for her explicitly detailed piece, others thought that because the sex she had with Aziz Ansari was seemingly consensual (because she did not protest), that it was just “bad sex.” But to me, there was more there; something wrong happened and this woman’s experience mattered. She was brave enough to share her story and too many people don’t share their story. Once she did, the amount of shame placed on her was enough to deter anyone from having an open and transparent conversation about problems with sex.

The issue is that once we acknowledge that something wrong happened in that situation, we start to interrogate our own actions and our own encounters. Good sex is hard to have. And consent isn’t an adequate moral line. We shouldn’t be surprised since the law keeps us from doing wrong, but doesn’t constrain us to do good. Only God’s love does that. And so we need to create a new language around how to have good sex because the language given to us is not adequate. Because we see how devastating bad sex can be, the church has an opportunity to lead the dialogue on good sex (and not “no sex,” as has been its tradition).

Let’s start by talking to each other

We need to talk about sex with each other. The church has not done a good job of this historically. And the reaction against the church has its own problems. We all know sex has meaning, and we’re coming up to the limits of the legal language around sex. Bad and immoral sex can occur even within legal confines; even when it’s not coercive or violent, apparently, it still can be. I think this gives us room to start the conversation again. We can begin to talk about sex in positive and uplifting and inclusive ways, as opposed to negative, exclusive, and condemning ways. That lack of teaching, that lack of dialogue, leaves us to fill in the gaps with nonsense. And the market exploits it. We’re taught a ton about sex just by the media we consume (not surprisingly, those media stars’ sex acts are indeed what is prompting our new dialogue).

So my call to action today is just to talk openly about sex. It isn’t just a matter of individual rights or private expression. How we have sex affects all of us. We need to do talk about it in community. I think that act of vulnerability opens up opportunities for truth and love to be shared. We need to confess to each other, forgive each other, seek reconciliation, repentance, and redemption. In our era of sexual libertarianism, we’re going to hurt each other more than likely. Let’s get back to restoration. Let’s start with dialogue.

And in moving toward hope and redemption, I think we can create a new conversation where sex isn’t a taboo subject, but an open dialogue. It doesn’t have to be forbidden to speak about. We can let our “secrets” out and I think ultimately edify each other. We can fill the gap created by our silence, that is too often filled with fear and pain, with love, joy, and truth.

To quote our Daily Prayer writer, “How we have sex is never far from how we love God.” The spiritual components of sex and the mystery that surrounds us means, for me, there is room for a metaphysical conversation about it. Sex is like a thin place, where heaven and earth almost meet. God is with us. Let’s start the dialogue.

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