In my last post on explaining the true value of sexual abstinence, I made a connection between the stories of sexual exploitative behavior in churhces we have recently heard and the role of the sexual liberation movement in the 1960s had in contributing to a rapid increase in rape. This prompted a question from one person on facebook discussion: since sexual progressives have advocated against sexual exploitative behaviors, how is it the progressive sexuality that is responsible for the problems in churches within the “purity culture?” On the surface, it certainly seems contradictory. But as it is so often with matters of psychology and culture, the truth is often times not what makes sense to us at first. But before answering the how of this question, we need to establish the dramatic changes regarding sex and relationships that occurred during the 1960s.
During the 1960s, and into the 1970s, there was a movement that was built around the concept of “free love.” It’s original premise wasn’t based upon some idea of being sexually promiscuous but rather around the idea that laws should not regulate relationships. It essentially had a libertarian ethos undergirding it. In addition, it had the symbolic effect of freeing women from the obligations towards men, offering them freedom for their own sexual lives. In effect, “free love” was a rejection of the institutional control of sex, including how men held control over women, and allowing people more autonomy over themselves.
To many people, this might seem like a good idea. In America, we have a strong valuation of liberty from governmental control. Aside from those who have been directly or indirectly influenced by the Moral Majority’s reaction against the “free love” moment, most people don’t like the idea of government controlling sexual relationships.
However, the “free love” movement was not only focused on institutional regulations. It rather established and proposed very different ideas about sex, relationships, and marriage from the Christian perspective. Far from being simply a rebellion against institutional control that also promoted greater equality between men and women, the sexual revolution of the 60s was a cultural shift away from the sexual values influenced by Christian faith. No longer was sex considered normatively reserved between a man and a woman in a marital relationship, it is something that people freely enter into when they want to. The specific context and circumstances in which people had sex became radically different; the way people viewed their relationship to their sexual partners changed dramatically. This is represented in various statistical changes in the 60s.
- Divorce rates started to dramatically increase during the 1960s. The rate didn’t just simply spike for a short term as women felt free to leave bad marriages; the rate of divorces steadily increased and only started to decrease as people got married less.
- The rates of out-of-wedlock birthrates started to increase in the 1960s. This change was must more dramatic for black females than white females, but nationwide the percentage of out-of-wedlock births nearly doubled.
- There was a greater proliferation of explicitly sexual and pornographic content during the 60s. Playboy subscriptions rose nearly 400% from 1960s to the 1970s. The number of “adult movie theatres” from 1960 to 1970 increased by over 3600% (that is NOT a typo!)
- The rates of 19 year old, unmarried women with sexual experience started to dramatically change in the 60s. While it was gradually changing in the previous two decades, from the 60s onwards, young women were increasingly engaged in sexual activity prior to marriage.
- Rape rates nearly double from the 1960s to the 1970s.
All of these statistical changes occurred during the 60s. These were not just short-term trends of the decade either. These statistical trajectories continued in the succeeding decades. For instance, while divorce rates and reported rate of rape have decreased since the 90s, they are far from pre-60s rates.
Each of these 5 statistical changes contain a common factor. Far from simply being deviant sexual behavior that conservative Christians might label these behaviors, there is something much more significant that has occurred. The relationship people have with other people when it comes to sex has dramatically changed. Relationships shifted in at least three ways:
- Sexual relationships became shorter-term relationships. Increased divorces rates, more out of wedlock births, and higher levels of pre-marital sexual activity all represent this.
- Other persons were increasingly evaluated in terms of potential sexual pleasure, that is, objectified. The rise of sexually explicit and pornographic material is the clear statistic in favor of that.
- The other person became increasingly less important. Divorce rates represent this in terms of decreasing satisfaction with one’s spouse. However, the rise in rape reflects this pattern even more so.
The effect of the sexual liberation movement went beyond simply freedom from governmental control and greater equality between the sexes. It permanently altered the way people saw their relationships to each other. People became increasingly valued/objectified for matters of sexual pleasure.
There are many ways this cultural change manifested itself in movies, music, news, etc. where people were increasingly evaluated in terms of their sexual suitability. Consequently, as sexual attractiveness became a more pervasive and significant part of our evaluating others, people expressed this in their own identity through their clothing that emphasized the sexual features of the body; even if people dress as they do for themselves and not for other people, their own thoughts about what looked good for them has been influenced by the hyper-sexualized standards that they are progressively encultured into. Then, whether these people wanted to be evaluated in terms of their sexual attractiveness or not, people were consistently exposing themselves to people where the sexual features of their body were more accentuated.
Then, it came to be a common view that late adolescence and more particularly college was a time for sexual experimentation. As sexual activity became a more prominent part of the college lifestyle, concerns about sexual health lead to increase availability to condoms and birth control, only further reinforcing the place of sexual experimentation in college.
Now, before one hears this as simply some “conservative rant” against promiscuous behavior, I am not focused on criticizing birth control, trying to get people to dress “decently,” etc. My point is to paint a picture of the culture that has been formed and the outcomes that result. Both in terms of sexual evaluation of others and in sexual practice, a culture has been created that continues to reinforce the trends of sexual relationships being short-term and the sexual objectification of others. Without there being any clear, authoritative, persistent message that either a) you should treat people as only sexual objects or b) you should consider sexual relationships interchangeable and disposable, the way the culture has molded sexual practices has had this impact.
In other words, the sexual liberation movement has many unintended side effects. By abandoning the traditional sexual values that were passed down over the course of centuries, the sexual liberation movement of the 60s trekked out in a radical direction for one purpose. But it was truly unaware of the powerful, psychological dynamics that sexuality has.
Sexual desire can be a very powerful motivator that dramatically impacts the person’s decision making. Consequently, people undergo serious psychological changes as a result of sexual behavior; many of these changes are not intended or sought after, but simply occur and happen. Furthermore, by nature, we don’t become reflective and thoughtful when it comes to sex; rather, we have to learn how to self-regulate ourselves and train ourselves how to direct our sexual behavior in respectful and healthy ways. If one is not careful, it can very easily be the case that it isn’t us controlling sex, but it is sex that is controlling us. However, the less time, training, and building of a relationship one needs to engage in sexual activity, the less one learns how to self-regulate this drive well.
Thus, this leads to peculiar consequence in how people engage in sexual behavior. The more sexual behavior is encouraged, openly celebrated, and easily and readily engaged in, the less self-regulated people are when it comes to their sexual desire. As a consequence, when people who are less self-regulated are in the throes of sexual desire, they are thinking more about themselves and what they want rather than their potential sexual partner; this is reflective of the naturally egocentric nature of people when they are in states of strong emotion and desire. As a result, the feelings and thoughts of the other person are increasingly less important, except insofar as attention to those feelings and thoughts are relevant to take into account in pursuit of sexual gratification. Rather than as a loving partner/spouse having a longer-term, sustained attention to them, their thoughts, and feelings leading to sexual encounters, people engage more in a form of sexual manipulation of the others that are not as concerned about the long-term of their potential sexual partner.
No one trains people to engage in sexual behavior in this manner. Aside from a few “courses” or books that you may find here or there which may be labeled as training in manliness or in how to get women but ultimately amount to sexual manipulation, there is no concentrated effort to treat sex in such a manipulative manner. No one intends it. It just occurs. It emerges unconsciously and without explicit direction.
Perhaps, then, you can see where this is going: the less important the feelings and thoughts of another person are when it comes to sexual desire and gratification, the less important matters of consent and feeling of security of the other person will be. Given that sex is a social behavior, all sex entail some form of power/influence. The less important the influence of long-lasting love is in sexual relationships, the more people will learn to use other forms of power, including possibly physical coercion, psychological manipulation, and social pressure.
By the sexual liberation movement dramatically changing the nature of relationships in the context of sex, the more they reinforced an ego-centric way of approaching sexual relationships that increased the likelihood of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. Certainly, the persons behind the sexual liberation movement didn’t intend this, but by managing to change the sexual culture they ran into the deep, pervasive psychological dynamics of sexual desire and behavior. Thus, this culture has become such a prevalent part of day-to-day life through media, music, social interactions, etc., it has influenced everyone, how we think of sex and the way we see people as sexual beings, even those who are in conscious rejection of the sexual liberation movement including in evangelical/tradition churches.
This is not to deny many of the legitimate criticism of “purity culture” and its role in sexual abuse in churches. “Purity culture” has been decidedly patriarchal at times, maintain the power dynamic in favor of males, thus giving an avenue of power to exploit. “Purity culture” was more concerned about the physical purity of the body than the purity of heart in one’s relationships. These dynamics could be used to reinforce, enable, and mask sexual abuse. Furthermore, by reinforcing a taboo about talking about sex except in a very stilted, proscribed manner, “purity culture” prevented against healthy discussions about sex and replaced it with stereotyped discourse, making people unaware of what they were thinking and feeling. Nevertheless, despite these specific criticisms, “purity culture” just like sexual liberation movement didn’t consciously train people to sexually exploit others.
But, it isn’t the “purity culture” that had a place of prominence and influence in society. While there were still ideas of the Christian sexual ethic, such as heterosexuality and marriage, a nominal concern for children in the context of marriage, etc. these were more like artifacts of the past that still retaining credence for a while but crumbled as the culture of sexual liberation had more influence in significant areas of public life, such as on media, educational settings, etc. Thus, it is the way the sexual liberation culture trains people to be sexual beings that has had a dramatic impact on the life of the church. The logical mistake in the analysis of “purity culture” is to assume that everyone that occurs in evangelical churches is solely the result a singular, monolithic culture that was impervious to outside influences; in fact, the “purity culture” only operated and had any staying power in churches because the values of the sexual liberation movement had greatly influenced in society and in churches. The existence of the “purity culture” necessarily entailed the influence of progressive sexuality in churches.
Nevertheless, proponents of sexual liberation and sexual progressiveness are not going to be inclined to see what they support being a major cultural contributor to rape, sexual harassment, sexual objectification, etc. Rather, they will treat “purity culture” as a scapegoat due to other hostilities, such as teachings regarding homosexuality, and thus distract from the most pervasive influence on the sexually degrading and objectifying culture we live in. Since the progressive narrative has more credibility than the evangelical narrative in wider media and because there are legitimate, narrow criticisms of the way evangelical culture taught people about sex, there will be a greater influence towards blaming the “purity culture” for all the problems that exist in churches. This can then contribute to the bandwagon effect through hearing more and more people speaking something as if it is a matter of fact when the real cause of the problems are complex.
There are many things we as Christians need to learn, unlearn, and relearn about how to address concerns about human sexuality. But it can only begin by Christians not giving into the brainwashing of the cult of progressive sexuality. Rather, in recognizing the legitimate complaints and the real harm done in churches, we can begin to identify the way we have talked about sex in ways that has been more about physical purity and aversion to anything sex rather than relational purity and honest conversations.
Secondly, we need to recognize that we in the church, along with American society, are in serious need of redemption from how we view other people as sexual creatures and that won’t come by simply trying to regulate behaviors, such as telling women how to dress, but through repentance, confession, and open discussion. That means some of the taboos we have built around talking about sex need to be torn down; we need to feel the freedom to talk about sex like the Apostle Paul did in 1 Corinthians. It is only in discussing sex openly that we can then begin to identify our own thoughts about sex, which can strengthen our thinking in the face of the cultural brainwashing.
Thirdly, we need to make the distinction between calling people to live out the Gospel through their sexual faithfulness from trying to control people’s sexual lives. The concern about sex for the Bible is centered upon the type of people we become and the way our sexual behavior impacts that and not so much about simply avoiding the wrong type of sexual behavior. This will be helpful for how we develop a sexual pedagogy within the churches but also how we entirely let go of the desire to legislate our sexual values onto a secular society; not only has that battle been lost but it is deeply counterproductive even if a change in the direction the winds of society blows occurs.
However, we don’t need to capitulate to the Trojan horse of the sexual liberation movement. We need to rethink and relearn how we live in an increasing sexually objectifying and exploitative culture, but the solution is to recognize the way we respond to it in the past was ineffectual and even deeply traumatizing in some cases rather than suggest the core values were wrong. While maybe we should give up our “purity rings,” the answer isn’t asking a modern day Aaron of Nadia Bolz-Weber to fashion them into an image that is an ode to sex, just as the golden calf was connected to a sexual orgy, but to explore and relearn what it means to love God and love one another, including through our sexuality