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.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

10 thoughts on “The High Cost of the Conventional Sexual Ethic

  1. Could the “conventional sexual ethic” be promoted out of love at all?

    Could there be real, solid, economic, spiritual, and emotional reasons for the conventional sexual ethic?

    Or is your message that we should always abandon the conventional because it’s clearly just a patriarchy trying to control other people’s lives?

    I personally believe the first two. That if we examine history carefully, there are major economic, spiritual, and emotional benefits to lifelong committed monogamy in general, and when you throw procreation into the mix, there are physical benefits to heterosexual lifelong monogamy that benefit the entire species.

    In other words, it’s not just people being arbitrarily mean to teenagers and to those who either have or think they have different sexual orientations. It’s not just people being mean to those called to celibacy.

    It is that there are very real benefits for cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous couples that are simply NEVER going to be available to those choosing other paths. It isn’t people being mean. It is accepting reality, and loving our teenagers enough to try to teach them reality instead of fantasy.

    If we are all made in the image of God, if we are all in the icon of God, then yes, Just Say No isn’t enough. But neither is do whatever you want because there is no sin.

    • It’s worth saying that I chose the word “conventional” in an attempt to differentiate it from both traditional and progressive sexual ethics. It is entirely possible to teach a robust traditional sexual ethic that emphasizes unique vocations, responsible bodily conduct, quality relationships, and sacrificial love. “Just say No” only scratches the surface of responsible bodily conduct.

  2. I think you made an important point here. ‘Just say no’ is a slogan. And I agree behind the slogan should be solid teaching about sexuality and taking care of one’s body. It is good advice to flee sexual promiscuity but if we are not taught the importance of chastity with a proper emphasis on the whole person and relationships then there is no power behind the declaration of ‘no’.

    It seems we often have a knee jerk reaction to the idea of saying no as if it is asking too much of someone. Can we just say no while at the same time saying yes to something which builds up our life in a substantive way? Then we would be working against the pull in the other direction and living in the tension the best we can.

    Is that what you are trying to say?

    • Hi Kathy, your first paragraph is directly aligned with what I was trying to say in the post. A holistic sexual ethic teaches why it’s important to flee sexual immorality, and these reasons go far beyond “Christ paid for your body with his body, so just be obedient.”

      Incidentally, I disagree with the second paragraph because I believe a holistic sexual ethic (whether that ethic is traditional or progressive) demands much more of people than that they simply say no. Discerning one’s vocation takes time. There is so much that we can do with our bodies that does not align with cultivating Christ-centered vocations. Holistic sexual ethics (and again, both traditional and progressive sexual ethics can be holistic) emphasize the importance of sacrificial love and quality relationships. A basic legalism of “Just say no” can undermine both sacrificial love and quality relationships, especially in cases where the conventional sexual ethic couples with the view that a Christian wife has a duty to satisfy her husband sexually.

      • thanks for your reply Lindsay and Sarah. I agree to a point. I view legalism as quite different from the act of obedience. Legalism is the church as a whole dictating and enforcing rules but obedience is the inward submission of the heart to God. So just saying no, for me, is an integral aspect of how I express my obedience to God. It is a way by which I communicate my need and desire to do his will rather than follow my own desires.

        • I think this is a point where it’s important to say “Your mileage may vary.” I’ve spent a considerable part of the past 6 years shaping my understanding of obedience around “Yes.” The Gospels are full of places where being obedient demanded saying Yes. Mary’s Yes to the Incarnation is probably the highest form of this kind of obedience.

          Saying Yes and saying No are often the two sides of the same coin. Certain people do better emphasize Yes while certain people do better to emphasize No.

          • I appreciate what you are saying and I see the positive ways in which you demonstrate that in your life. Personally I don’t try to emphasize saying “no” over saying “yes” instead I do both …I think it helps balance me…I see them working together.

            However, I acquiesce as far as your experience goes and will keep what you said in mind so I can avoid the pitfalls. Thanks for engaging me. 🙂

  3. I agree with Kathy. “Just Say No” is a slogan and it’s a good start to the conversation of avoiding sexual immorality. It is good advice to tell teenagers as well as adults to flee sexual promiscuity. This is a message not heard very often in our current culture, in pop music and movies.

    Saying No to sexual temptation is a worthy goal, one worth teaching to any age group. It also is important to treat people as whole people and to give them positive messages. The best way I found to resist sexual temptation is to actively pursue positive friendships with both men and women. I choose to follow Jesus and to actively pursue an active relationship with Jesus Christ. One way that I do this is that I take time every day to pray (which means talk with Jesus) and to read my Bible. This is how Jesus talks to us as Christians.

    I also choose to build good friendships with both men and women, single and married, young and old, gay and straight inside the church and outside.

    I have found Lindsey’s and Sarah’s posts to be challenging and sometimes confusing since they do not come right and say Yes, we abstain from sexual contact. Abstaining from sexual relations is only one part of celibacy. But you left it out of your definition of celibacy.

    I would like to see some posts that describe your relationship with Jesus Christ. How do you live out celibacy in your day to day lives? Do you focus on your friendship? Do you have romantic feelings for each other? How do you resist sexual temptation in your relationship? We all have sexual feelings, gay or straight, single or married, Christian or non-Christian.

    I do appreciate that you are trying to facilitate a more open discussion of sexuality and how we practice our faith as Christians in our day to day life.

    I’m sorry to read about Kathy’s Meniere’s disease. It sounds quite debilitating. I’m praying for you both.

    • Hi Katy, thanks for leaving your comment. We always welcome conversations with any and all of our readers, recognizing that we all have our unique ways of seeing the conversation.

      Christians have an obligation to resist all sorts of temptations. The Lord’s Prayer is entirely illustrative that Christ would direct us to pray specifically, “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” One thing that I’ve learned time and time again is that there are different ways to resist temptations. When the only strategy people have is “Just say no” people can default towards thinking the only option for temptation is to white-knuckle through the situation until it goes away. (I’ve written more on how white-knuckling only gets people so far in this post: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/03/28/white-knuckling-can-only-get-you-so-far/) This logic works when a friend offers you an alcoholic drink, but this logic also breaks down when trying to submit your thoughts to Christ in order to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Holistic sexual ethics can help people differentiate between recognizing beauty and entertaining lustful fantasies. We know an incredible number of celibate LGBT people who have found reflecting on what specifically draws them to a particular person to be a critical part of navigating sexual temptation. These friends recognize that the mystery of attraction can be an enlivening force in healthy Christ-centered friendships.

      Since this is the first time you’ve commented on our blog, we’re not sure how long you’ve been reading. If you look at our blog in its entirety, you can see that we’re always talking about the questions you ask in one way or another. Our FAQ page is a great place to start: http://aqueercalling.com/frequently-asked-questions/ When we wrote our post on Defining Celibacy, we took it as a given that celibate people abstain from sexual contact. Our purpose in writing our defining celibacy was to highlight that there’s more to celibacy than abstaining from sex and that we believe radical hospitality, vulnerability, shared spirituality, and commitment are key parts of what makes celibacy a Christ-honoring vocation.

      We don’t have many posts where we discuss sex specifically. Given the nature of your comment, you might find our answer to “Isn’t Sex a Good Thing?” (available at http://aqueercalling.com/2014/03/26/isnt-sex-a-good-thing/) helpful because we specifically comment on how and why we choose to integrate our sexualities into our celibate vocations rather than excising our sexualities.

      I’d also like to direct you to our index of posts: http://aqueercalling.com/index/ We’ve written a heap of posts addressing celibacy and vocation, offered quite a few specific glimpses into our relationship, and have a section of posts that are about spirituality much more generally. We do our best to make it known that we are entirely committed to our celibate vocations, but we find that many people who are interested in knowing whether we abstain from sex also are entirely too interested in knowing exactly where we draw the line between what is and what is not sex. I’ve written an extended reflection on the challenge of drawing “the line” (available here: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/01/22/the-challenge-of-drawing-the-line/). I’ve spent many years actively cultivating a celibate vocation, so it’s much easier for me to think about whether particular actions at specific times are aligned with helping me grow in my vocation rather than wondering about the universal legality of a specific category.

      Neither Sarah nor I feel like any authority when it comes to the practical aspects of resisting sexual temptation. My difficulties with celibacy come more from trying to practice hospitality as an introvert (fuller discussion here: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/03/14/when-vocation-doesnt-come-naturally/); Sarah’s difficulties with celibacy come more from Sarah’s strong desire for children (discussed here: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/03/17/children-connectedness-and-the-vocation-to-celibacy/ and here: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/09/15/grieving-what-my-vocation-is-not/). We suspect that many people living celibate vocations find it more demanding to say “Yes” to everything a celibate vocation asks one to say “Yes” to. Knowing many people who simply abstain from sex because they have been told to “Just say no”, I can’t help but wonder if their struggles in saying No come from never having a sense of what they are supposed to say Yes to.

      Sorry for the book length comment. We’re coming up on 200 posts, and there are some aspects of your questions here that we address constantly. Hope to see you in the comments again! -Lindsey

Leave a Reply