The High Cost of the Conventional Sexual Ethic

A reflection by Lindsey

I’ll admit it; I’m a child of the 80s. Courtesy of Nancy Reagan, I learned how to “Just say ‘No.'” The slogan taught me that any number of choices I could make as a teenager where peer pressure might be an issue. Drugs? Just say no. Alcohol? Just say no. Sex? Just say no…

Somehow, some way, “Just say ‘No'” snuck into how Christians have taught their kids about sexual ethics. This now-conventional sexual ethic asserts that sex belongs exclusively in a marriage. If a person is tempted to have sex in any other kind of situation, he or she should just say no.

Before I go further, I’d like to point out that I’ve intentionally used the word conventional to describe this kind of sexual ethic. I chose the word conventional because I think that both traditional and progressive sexual ethics can, and should, have much more substance. Christians across the theological spectrum consistently extol the virtues of saving sex until marriage. We know strong advocates for same-sex marriage who also deliver consistent messages about the importance of saving sex for marriage.

I’ve noticed that many adults will default towards presenting the conventional sexual ethic when talking to teenagers. I get that it’s all too easy to portray teenagers as hormonally-driven maniacs, but truth be told, teenagers are human. Everyone has their war stories about surviving puberty. The “crazy teenager” trope goes a long way in helping people make sense of a few very confusing years in life. However, reducing sexual ethics to a tweet rarely does anyone any favors. Teenagers can handle complexity. Just as teenagers are growing physically, they are also developing their abilities for ethical reasoning. When we fall back on the conventional sexual ethic, we’re unintentionally communicating that white-knuckled abstinence suffices as responsible use of one’s sexuality.

The conventional sexual ethic posits that all questions of sexual morality boil down to obedience. Even as I think about the Scriptures used to justify the conventional sexual ethic, I can’t help but hear the guilt and the shame associated when the only Scripture cited is:

“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard well-meaning married people telling unmarried people something to the effect of, “Seriously, Christ bought your body through his death on the cross. Surely, you can wait until you’re married before you have sex.” For such people, sexuality morality is nothing more than checking the boxes that you’ve lived your life rightly and noted your various indiscretions. This line of thought makes it incredibly difficult for people who have followed the rules as they’ve entered into their marriages. The conventional sexual ethic zooms in on how unmarried people should conduct themselves rather than helping married people understand various mutual sacrifices that should define marriage.

The conventional sexual ethic can create an environment where legalism prevails. If you’re a Christian teenager growing up in a community that emphasizes the conventional sexual ethic, being a good Christian can be measured by two things: 1) having a daily quiet time to connect with God, and 2) saving sex until marriage. Everyone understands why praying every day can be hard, but very few people have space to talk about why it might be difficult for some to just say no to sex. These churches assume that everyone is getting married. If you mix the conventional sexual ethic with a view that marriage is necessarily between a man and a woman, you are likely to default to a simplistic variant of mandated celibacy for LGBT people.

When I think about how Christians might want to talk about sexual morality, I keep going back to the idea that all people are created in the image of God. It’s hard to see the image of God in every person you meet. I’m consistently jarred by the fact that God has made every person in God’s image. It’s a message that sticks with me, especially when I reflect on my reactions to this particular advert dedicated to the theme:

It’s so easy for churches that teach a conventional sexual ethic to call attention to how various people of every stripe have simply made “bad choices.” Sometimes I wonder if we frame everything in terms of individual choice because we’re not quite willing to look into the mirror to see where we personally fall short. A conventional sexual ethic can go a long way in helping people feel like they are “good” Christians who are doing all of the “right” things.

Seeing everyone as being created in the image of God should have considerable effects of how we decide to treat people we meet. We can reflect on how Christ’s love was so expansive that it included people on the margins of society. In the Kingdom of God, we find space not only for people who love and serve the world through their Christ-centered marriage but also for celibate people who love and serve the world differently.

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