Sexual Ethics In An Oversexed World
Rev. Rebecca Turner
Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, January 23, 2005
This is the truth my lover:
My childhood could not last;
Since my long hair was clipped
Full eight long years have passed.
Blooming like a fruit tree,
I am a secret stream
Running beneath earth’s surface
And you my constant dream.
I, too, have prayed the gods
To make my childhood stay.
But time must take its course
And love will have its way.
Just before Christmas, a commercial played constantly. It showed several scenes of women, first dressed in white, then in red, each of them saying in a sultry voice “I got the Big O.” The first time I saw this commercial, my eyes were nearly popping out of my head, wondering what was next. And then I saw it across the screen “Overstock.com”. What a letdown.
This week I saw a commercial with a woman in a sleek, sexy gown looking over herself in a full-length mirror. There are several shots of her in different gowns…red, white, black…all of them quite seductive. The voiceover says “whatever car you dream of, we’ve already created it.” Now I ask you…how was I supposed to know I should be thinking of cars while looking at a woman in an evening gown?
Sex is used to sell everything. We are inundated with sexual images every time we turn on the television or pick up a magazine or newspaper. An observer from another planet might think we live in a completely permissive, sexually open society. But upon closer inspection, another side also becomes clear.
Janet Jackson reveals a breast during the halftime show of a football game, and gets into big trouble with the network and the FCC. But they have no problem airing commercials during that same game that have a woman swooning over a man and extolling the powers of Viagra.
NBC refuses to show a paid commercial for the United Church of Christ that shows two men being refused entrance into a church. They said that given the efforts of the administrative branch of the federal government to define marriage, it was too controversial. Please note that the commercial implied nothing about marriage. Please also note that NBC’s top sitcom is Will and Grace.
Could we possibly send any more extreme mixed messages? If you watch television, free sex is everywhere, without consequence. But the message coming from our government agencies is “no sex outside of marriage” which obviously means no sex for teens, no sex for college students, no sex for same-sex couples, no sex after divorce, no sex for older adults after they are widowed.
So what’s wrong with an “abstinence outside of marriage” philosophy? I want to answer that question by sharing some very personal stories with you. I am assuming that if all of these situations have existed in my life, they’ve probably been in yours, too.
When I was in high school, I had a friend named Charlita. Charlita dated the boy next door from the time she was in seventh grade. When Charlita was 16, her mother sat her down and said “You’ve been dating Steve for a very long time. Either you break up with him, or it’s time to get married.” And so it was that Charlita, beautiful, young and in love, got married at 17, had two children, and was divorced by age 21. Was marriage the right answer when Charlita was ready to be sexually active?
When I was a freshman in college my mother called and asked me to come home that weekend. Her voice had an ominous sound, and I feared something catastrophic. The big news was that my 19 year old sister was pregnant. My parents were taking her out of college and forcing the young man to marry her. I was horrified and argued with my mother that we didn’t want that irresponsible man in the family, that he would make a horrible father and husband. My mother argued that family life would make a man out of him, and besides that was just the right thing to do. Two years and two babies later, the man deserted my sister. Once a bright, talented college student with a full-ride music scholarship, Debbie has lived near the poverty line her entire adult life. Was marriage the solution?
My mother died about 15 years ago. About two years later, my father met a widow and fell in love. He moved in with her. He took me aside and said “Becky, would you perform a wedding ceremony for Esther and me, something where we invite all the kids and grandkids?” and I quickly said “Of course!” He said, “But there’s a catch. We don’t want to get a license, so the marriage wouldn’t be legal. I’d like you to keep that a secret until I die.” I said, “Dad, I understand the legal reasons that someone your age should not get married. I know how it hurts your social security benefits, and complicates your will. You don’t have to explain why you don’t want it to be legal. But I want to know why you want the ceremony, and why you want the legal part kept secret.”
My dad then explained that the reason he wanted the ceremony was because he thought he was setting a bad example for the grandkids. He didn’t want them to think that “living in sin” was okay. I said “Dad, you’re not setting a bad example. I teach my kids that sex is for adults in a loving, committed, monogamous relationship. By that standard, you are setting a very good example.” He was so relieved, and we never did the ceremony.
So what’s wrong with our public policy that drums into our heads and our children’s heads that there is to be no sex outside of marriage?
It assumes that marriage can take a bad relationship and make it good.
It encourages young people to marry too early, before they know themselves, before they finish their education, before they have a decent job and a solid foundation for their lives.
It ignores the realities of older adults.
It ignores same-sex relationships.
It implies that sex is only for procreation.
It just plain doesn’t work in our culture.
When I was a pastor serving a congregation, I frequently worked with teenagers and their parents. It was not unusual for a mother to say to me “I teach my kids that they shouldn’t have sex until they get married, but I don’t really expect them to do it. I just want them to wait as long as possible.” I would respond “Then why don’t you teach them what you actually expect?”
Abstinence until marriage made sense in a by-gone culture where puberty came at age 15, boys and girls were married young, young women died in childbirth in their 30s, and a man’s life expectancy was 45.
But today, young girls experience menses at age 10. We want them to finish college and develop a career. We don’t want them to have children while they are too young because we know that teen mothers and their children are at risk for a variety of health problems and social ills. We don’t want our daughters to stay in abusive marriages. Half of us have been through a divorce. We can expect to live healthy lives well into our 80s and 90s.
We live in a far different world than our ancestors. And we’re really confused about how to think and talk about sex in ways that are healthy and wholesome and ethical and moral.
Our confusion is evident is the way our media spouts one thing and our religious and political leaders spout the extreme opposite. Our confusion comes out when we read that although we live in the most religious of the industrialized nations, the United States has higher teen pregnancy and abortion rates than any of them.
How can we be an oversexed nation and a fundamentalist one at the same time? I would suggest that the two extremes depend upon one another, they feed off one another, they are each a reaction to the other, and cannot exist separately. Look at the sex scandals within the Catholic church. The church takes young men and women in their teens and early 20s, and demands celibacy as the proof of a pious life. What is the most likely outcome of such repression of natural physical urges? Why should we be surprised that those urges, long denied and suppressed and seen as sinful, would ultimately express themselves in the most deviant of ways? The demand for celibacy as a godly virtue cannot be maintained and becomes responsible for the most ungodly behavior.
This hypocrisy isn’t just in the Catholic Church. I don’t mean to pick on them, but they just provide us with an excellent example. It’s also in the government that makes the NIH take the word “condom” off of the website that teaches people how to avoid HIV. This hypocrisy about sex is everywhere around us, and we must confront it.
We don’t want to promote promiscuity, but the old ethics don’t work. Neither of these extremes is working for us, and we don’t seem to know what to do except spout the old ethics and make people feel guilty when they can’t live up to them. We need sexual ethics that don’t change with the situation, that work whether you are 16 or 60. We need sexual ethics that promote health and well-being for everyone involved. We need sexual ethics that tell the truth.
And I don’t think it’s all that difficult.
First we begin by acknowledging that sex is a good and natural part of human experience. And we can’t just say that privately in our bedrooms, but also to our children. If children do not hear it from adults, they will take all of their messages about sex from the television, from their music, from magazines that a friend sneaks into the locker room. We need to say to our children “those people are not real.” and “I don’t like the way that commercial uses a sexy woman to sell soap.” Sex is not dirty. It is a good and healthy part of an adult relationship.
Next, we need to talk about treating others with respect. We teach our children this value from the time they are toddlers. It is natural that we should talk about respect in the context of an intimate relationship. Sex should only happen between two people who respect one another, and want to be kind and gentle in all of the ways they touch one another. Our boys and girls should not hesitate to run from relationships where they are put down or harmed in any way.
A good sexual ethic is concerned with health. Physical, mental, and spiritual health. Couples in a good sexual relationship are concerned with protecting their own health and protecting the health of their partner. They should be able to talk easily about testing, condoms, birth control, and all of their health needs.
The new sexual ethics should emphasize monogamy instead of marriage. A couple that decides to allow sex into the relationship should first feel a deep commitment to the other and to the future of the relationship. This may or may not include marriage at some future time. Marriage might be unrealistic, but commitment to one special person is a value we can agree upon. Some other ceremony may be in order, but more important than a ceremony is the understanding forged between the two…an understanding that they are committed to making their relationship work, an understanding that sex is reserved for that relationship alone.
When my daughter was 15, she asked me “How will I know when I’m ready for sex?” My answer was this: When you’ve met someone and dated him for awhile, and you both act in very loving ways toward one another. You each trust the other completely. You feel a deep sense of commitment, and you both want the relationship to last. But if you’re afraid to talk about condoms, birth control, and sexually transmitted diseases, then you know you’re not mature enough to have sex. If you are afraid to ask and answer the question “What will we do if I get pregnant?” then you’re not mature enough to have sex.
Sex is for adults who are in a loving, committed, monogamous relationship. I believe that this ethic is one we can all live with throughout our entire life cycles. It is one that works for the divorced mom and her teenager. The widower grandfather. The determined college student. And it even works for our gay and lesbian friends who are denied the legal rights of marriage.
The church has for too long been the voice of rejection and shame upon those in non-traditional relationships. It is time the religious community opened its doors and its arms to all families. It is time the church found ways to honor and welcome all of those people who are living in loving, committed, healthy relationships.
And then the religious community needs to spread the word to our government. We have some serious hypocrisy going on. In Missouri, legislators have introduced a bill that will alter the current law on sex education in the schools. It will remove the words “teach the latest medically accurate information” from our law. We have to stop this.
We have to stop allowing the government to define morality by sexual behavior. Where is the morality in lying to our children? Where is the morality in destroying our national parks, or allowing more mercury in our children’s drinking water, or rounding up hundreds of people and putting them into prison without any legal charges? Why can we so easily have a public debate over a public official’s sex life, but not his business dealings?
The religious community has the power to define ethics and morality, and we cannot let the government take that power from us.
Thomas Moore, in his book “The Soul of Sex” talks about restoring the soul to our understanding and experience of sex. I’ll close with this quote:
“What then, does it mean to live our ordinary, daily lives erotically? It doesn’t mean to exaggerate the importance of sex. It doesn’t mean to abandon our spiritual and moral sensibilities. It doesn’t mean to create a sentimental philosophy that denies the dark and difficult aspects of everyday living. Eros is involved in our pain and struggle as much as it is in happy moments.
“In this context, sex takes on immense meaning. The expression of love, desire, passion, and attraction to one’s partner are ritual ways of saying yes to life’s grander offerings. With our partner, we dance the aesthetics of sex, expressing the deepest nature of things, and that realization goes so deep that it makes relationship meaningful and makes sex the spring from which a full life flows. As we embody our love with another, we make a significant contribution to the erotic dynamic that keeps all things fully alive and connected. Sex mirrors the contours, movements, qualities, and sensations of everyday life recapitulated, celebrated, and made into art.”