If you’ve spent any time in feminist circles, you’ve probably bumped into the term sex-positive. It gets thrown around a bit, and one thing I’ve noticed is that it can occasionally be difficult to nail down what the writer/speaker means when they use it, so I’m going to offer a definition for what I mean when I use it.
To me, being sex-positive means that sex can be a good and healthy part of human experience. Not everyone wants sex a lot — or at all — and that is also good and healthy. Being sex-positive means I believe in educating people about sex, about safe sex, about contraception, about STIs, about how to give and experience sexual pleasure, and I believe in removing stigmas and myths from sex (such as “virgin women bleed the first time“). Being sex-positive means that I believe in seeking enthusiastic consent, and that consent is the most basic, fundamental, necessary part of sex, as it is the only thing that separates sex from rape. I believe in educating people about being a responsible sex partner, giving young people especially the tools to make complicated, nuanced decisions regarding sex.
It also means that I don’t shame, judge, or condemn those who are (or are not) having sex, regardless of their life circumstances.
Including whether or not they are married.
And that is where I and probably most Christians part ways. To many Christians, the only conversation to be had about sex is in the context of heterosexual (and, in same cases, such as Matthew Vines, homosexual) marriage. The gold standard in evangelical conversations about sex is abstinence, and it is typically the only information and encouragement unmarried people receive.
However, just because I disagree with many (if not most) Christians about this doesn’t mean that I don’t have access to either Christian tradition or the Bible to make my argument. I’m going to lay out my argument in a few posts, with today’s focusing on laying some groundwork.
A note before I begin: I am a progressive Christian, and that does mean I interact with Scripture differently than an evangelical who believes in inerrancy and takes a literalist approach. I don’t want to hash that all out, so if you’re curious about how I see the Bible, Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So is a good book to start with. For more controversial reading, Forged by Bart Ehrman was interesting.
The question that I have to start with, as a Christian, is “is pre-marital sex a sin?”, but the most relevant part of that question is our definition of sin. In many Christian conversations about what sin is, it seems to be assumed that “sin is a transgression of the law of God.” In a sense, I agree with this definition, but it’s because I believe that “the law of God” can be summed up in “to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.” Where I disagree with this definition is in its common application: many Christians preach and act as though “sin” is “doing something that God says you’re not allowed to do.”
That application is non-sensical to me because the Bible doesn’t cover that much ground, really, and there’s a whole lot of things we can do that is never addressed– so how are we supposed to know God’s stance on it? Especially when what we do have in the Bible has God apparently telling people to commit genocide and infanticide … repeatedly. I think we’d all agree that genocide is a moral evil, but the Bible shows God commanding it, which is disturbing. Personally, I believe that either a) the people who wrote the Old Testament believed that God told them to do that, regardless of whether or not he did, or b) they said God had commanded it to justify it. “B” makes the most sense to me, as people have used their deity to justify all sorts of evil things through history.
This is why I believe that it’s important to have a more consistent sense of ethics than my deity (dis)approves of this action. Personally, my ethics and morals are guided by the question could this action or inaction cause harm? This aligns with my understanding of “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “they shall know you be how you love one another.” This question allows a lot of room for nuance and complexity, as not every situation and person is going to require the same response from me. Does my deity approve of this action? is very black-and-white and does not allow for circumstance, but could this cause harm? does.
So, for me, the question “is pre-marital sex a sin?” becomes “will having sex cause harm?” It’s extremely important to note that this question applies inside of marriage, as well as out of it. This is not a question we can stop asking just because we signed a piece of paper.
II. Rejecting the Premise
The Bible is a very old collection of books. I wish that’s something that didn’t need to be mentioned, but it is. It is very old. Ancient, in fact. Directions in Deuteronomy about stoning women who didn’t bleed on their wedding night are from 700 BCE, possibly. Conversations about “fornication” or “sexual immorality” from the Pauline epistles are from the first century. These facts mean that there is some historical context we have to situate ourselves in before we can even begin having a biblically-based conversation about sex.
On its face, it seems as though the New Testament consistently condemns all forms of extra-marital sex, but I think it’s important to ask the question why? It’s also important to address the problem that what the New Testament writers had in mind may not be a 1-for-1 correlation to our modern-day situation, and for us to seek the “eternal principle” that can apply to us. I believe that the consistent morality presented in Scripture is rooted in love and not causing harm to others, and I’ll get to why I believe that specifically applies to sex on Friday.
For today, the most important idea to keep in front of us is that the New Testament does not reject the practice of owning people as property. Property law, it can be argued, was the foundation of Roman society (and, by influence, Western civilization. See: white police officers being more concerned with the destruction of property than the destruction of human life in places like Ferguson). At the time St. Paul was writing, the paterfamilias, the head of the household, was able to order his life and by extension society because he owned people. He owned his wife, he owned his children, he owned his slaves. We see this in the way that several biblical passages are organized around the Greco-Roman Household Codes.
Paul doesn’t directly challenge this system in his epistle to Philemon, although he doesn’t exactly endorse it, either. Owning people as property just … existed. Paul might not have been happy with it, but it was there. The NT almost seems to shrug it off in some ways– explaining to Christians how to live in this system while practicing love and doing no harm. Paul even made the shocking suggestion to the paterfamilias that he was morally obligated to take good care of his property. For its time, these letters were progressive. However, we’ve gone farther. Most of us have decided that slavery is a moral evil and that, specifically, women are capable people and are not possessions attached to their husbands.
In this system, in a society where women are either the property of their fathers, husbands, the government, or religion, we could be damaged. If we “lost” our virginity, we were quite literally worth less, and, as such, had been harmed. The fathers who owned us were also harmed because they’d lost their ability to sell us for an ‘unsullied’ price. Because of this, it’s easy to see why the NT seems to so roundly condemn extra-marital sex. When a woman’s value is directly attached to whether or not she’s had sex with or been raped by a man, having sex with her is harmful, and should not be done.
However, that’s not where we are today. Today, women aren’t property. Marriage isn’t about a sale. We don’t care about things like dowries and ensuring the existence of legal heirs. The context has changed, although the basic question (“would having sex be harmful?”) hasn’t.