Disclaimer: For those who read this, please recognize that this is a person who is trying communicate some of the ideas about sex that I have seen to be a cause and source of harm in the lives of many people, including in my own life. It is a common stereotype that people who talk about sex are simply obsessed with sex, but as discussed briefly through, this is not only false but may perpetuate some negative views about sex that can cause other people harm. I am a victim of sexual trauma who wants to find ways to turn my pervasive pain into good for others, so please read and hear this in that light rather than projecting other motivations about sex onto me here.
There are few things in life that can do more to grab people’s attention that sex. Whether the attention is motivationally rooted in desire, regret, disgust, or fear, sex has a power over the human mind. Different people respond more or less strongly to it, with occasionally there being people who are largely unconcerned about it, but in the end, the views of sex held by a wide group of people is largely determined by those who are the most emotionally effected by sex.
However, precisely because there are so many different emotions surrounding sex, with differnet people experiencing different emotional intensities, there often exists a stark differnence between what is socially and culturally communicated and accepted about sex and the experience of various individuals. There is no singular, uniform, universal way in which people think and are motivated about sex.
Nevertheless, while there is no universal motivation and thoughts about sex, there are some pretty pervasive, biological realities about sex. The one reality that is known by most everyone, amost to the point of being a stereotype, is that sex is pleasurable and enjoyable. This is communicated both explicitly and implicitly everywhere, from media, music, art, and even in churches, although the it tends to be more implicit and implied in churches. The end result is that there is often an assumption that develops that people are either just waiting to have sex if you don’t hold them back or that sex is some basic need that a person has.
The problem with this understanding of sex is that it is a very crude stereotype that is largely been propogated, and even formed and enculturated into people via self-fulfilling prophecy, by those voices who have most glorified sex for profit and attention. In addition to sex itself, our views of sex have been formed by the drive for money and pride. Yet, this is not the reality of sex for some people, or even most people. While sex can convey ideas of pleasure, it also evoke feelings of fear and anxiety in people.
Because we as humans have trouble thinking about things in terms of both positive and negative feelings, particuarly when these feelings are very strong, there is a tendency to downplay many of the negative emotions people about sex, both personally and culturally. In such a “sex-positive” culture, such feelings are left for the pain of individual people to work through. It took a pretty dramatic movement by mostly women in the #MeToo movement to shift the conversation about sex in a way that incorporated the more painful and scary realities that relate to sex.
However, I would contend that for humans, fear, and not pleasure, is most prevalent emotion when it comes to the idea of sex. Rather, the positive feelings and pleasures associated with sex are more situational, such as, ideally, a Christian finding someone they love and marry, but for most people, thinking about sex is actaully more controlled by fear than it is pleasure, even if we are not as conscious of the way fear does this. Fear and anxiety do not need to rely on our conscious deliberation to work, but they can have a tremendous power on the way we think and what motivates us, even without our conscious recognition and reflection on it.
At the risk of being sexually explicit without being graphic, at its most basic, physical reality, sex entails letting another person have physical access, if not control, over one’s body and body parts through the combination of seeing, touching, and body movements. This is not a state of affairs that most people would let just anyone at anytime engage in. While different cultures and different people have different standards and norms for physical distance, touch, visual perception of the body, etc., the physically exposed and vulnerable state required for sex is something that most people would feel aversion to from most people. Sexual behavior is an intense form of social contact and interaction that makes most people anxious to some degree.
While the “criterias” by which people feel open to sex with another person are diverse, such as a freer combination of mutual desire and consent to a more restrained amalgam of the relational bond of trust, commitment, feelings of love, etc., almost all of us are highly discriminating as to who and when we will have sex with. Such discrimination is largely driven by the anxiety to protect of physical well-being and integrity.
However, even as we all have different “criterias” because of the feelings of anxiety, that doesn’t mean our criterias are somehow “true” representations of what causes us to have anxieties about sex. Fear and anxiety do not need our conscious cognitive reflection to influence us. Rather, what is often the case is that we often come up with rationalizations about sex that are rooted in these implicit and subconscious anxieties.
As a victim of rape in college, I myself developed a series of rationalizations about dating and romance that made it incredibly for me to find someone I would be open to dating, making marriage and the possibility of sex and marrying. A later episode of emotional confusion and stalking with romantic and sexual undertones to it made me even more reticent. Everytime I dated, I would come up with various reasons why the relationship wouldn’t work out, even though the person and I may been someone who I could have enjoyed spending my life with. More often, the reasons were more criticisms of myself as somehow not worthy of being in a relationship. My avoidance was more biologically rooted in a fear of being physically and emotionally controlled by someone who I did not trust, but my conscious thinking rationalized that fear into various criticisms of myself. In my mind, I came up with an understanding about dating, marriage, and sex that required me to meet impossible expectations so that, in the end, I would never find someone to marry because of fears about sex, even as I had a desire for emotional intimacy and to be close with someone.1
I use that example to illustrate the point: our conscious thinking about sex need not truthfully represent to ourselves and others the anxieties and fears we have about sex. Whether it be in our own sexual behavior or in our more global understandings about sex, what we think and what we feel about sex are often not the same. The end result of this is that there are almost as many opinions about sex as there are people and cultures. While concerns about harm are perhaps the most salient conscious concerns about sex in a culture where psychological science has tried to test cognitive explanations with actual behavioral and physiological data, this underlying anxiety about sex can manifest itself in various other forms of sexual beliefs: such as beliefs that sex outside of marriage makes oneself impure, that sexual activity somehow bridges into the demonic2, etc.
What tends to remain present with these other, anxiety-laden views of sex, however, is that of some ethical concern about sexual deviance, even as the anxiety about close, physical proximity and control may not be as clearly represented. Beliefs rooted in a general fear of sexual deviance that don’t focus simply on the fear of physical violation and control can become entrenched.3
The problem with such beliefs about sex is that they can cause great harm and wrongly target people due to people’s fears. Generalized fears of sexual deviance have a way of wrongly targeting people who diverge sexually in some form as being somehow dangerous, dysfunctional, weird, etc., leadingto tremendous emotional, social, and even sexual abuse. There are many forms of harmful sex out there we need to protect from, but generalized fears of sexual deviance have a way of exaggerating the dangers when it comes to specific classes of people. For instance, the view that gay men have been perpetually linked with pedophila has caused great harm and falsehood because there is no real substantive connection between homosexuality and pedophilia, except that they both lack of conformity to general, overarching sexual norms. There is a real world difference between the two, as sexually active gay men do not cause harm the way that sexually active pedophiles do. Or, for the flip side, the views that sex should be reserved for marriage is often lampooned as “purity culture, with people failing to recognize that there are plenty of good and healthy reasons for waiting to have sex and that they do not cause harm in the way that sexual norms highly laden in sexual purity can cause.
Allow me to appropriate the language of Paul and the letter to the Hebrews. Such forms of anxieties and fears about sex that are rooted in overarching fears about sexual deviance that are quick to label other people is a harm that is the result of being enslaved to the fear of death. To be clear, I am not trying to suggest that if you have those generalized fears about sexual deviance, that you aren’t truly a believer or that you are under the control of the devil. Nowhere does Paul or the preacher of Hebrews suggest that struggles with fears makes you an unbeliever. Redemption from the controlling grasp of fear often takes time. Nevertheless, the fear of death, as outside of the cosnciousness as it may be in the moment, gives power to the anxieties and fears we have about our bodies, including when it comes to sex.
The right response to this isn’t to get rid of any ideas of sexual deviance. There are various types of sexual perpetrators that repeatedly cause great harm and trauma to people. Rather, the right response for Christians includes accurately recognize the evils and harms that can come with sex while ceasing to exaggerate and catstrophize all forms of sexual activity that diverges from our sexual ethos. Here is what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4.3-6:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own bodyb in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you. (NRSV)
Note what Paul explicitly expresses about sexual self-control: that one does not exploit a fellow believer. To be sure, the sexual ethic of the New Testament and of Paul can not be reduced to simply this statement about exploiting others, as Paul would also condemn exploiting unbelievers and there are other class of sexual behaviors that are warned against by Paul. However, at the core, Paul’s primary concern holiness is expressed about the way people have a sexual self-control of themselves and do not exploit other believers with whom they share close emotional and physical proximity to. Insofar as holiness is about self-control, the moral anxiety that Paul expresses is regarding harming other people. Paul does not express a highly general fear of sexual deviance, but he is concern about the way people treat one another.
Nevertheless, Paul has a more complex view about sexual behavior that is not rooted in fear, but is more purposeful. In 1 Corinthians 6.12-20, Paul writes:
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (NRSV)
What is particuarly noteable here is that Paul frames his warning to shun fornication with a temple prostitute with an inclusio that talks about knowledge; knowledge about ones membership in the Body of Christ and knowledge about one’s body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Here, Paul brings a striking emphasis on the human body, even go so far as to use the sexually implicit language of being “united” to refer to sexual intercourse. While not sexually graphic, Paul is being sexually explicit about the body here. To understand what Paul is getting at here, we can not simply engage this as evangelical Christians often do as some generic prohibition against sex outside of marriage and overlook the very clear and explicit way the body places a role in Paul’s discourse.
For Paul, there is a clear connection between the way one uses and relates to the body and one’s knowledge and judgment. We see a similar connection in 1 Corinthians 11.27-32 between body and self-examination. While on the one hand, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are responsible for how the “use” the body and blood of Christ, there is also the embiguous statement “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” While this is not the place to fully tease this passage out, the main point here is that Paul recognizes a close connection between human thinking and knowledge with the body.
This connection between body and knowing is similarily made about sex in Genesis, as sexual activity between Adam and Eve is euphimistically called “knowing.” While often treated as referring to emotional intimacy, more likely the word describes the cognitive effect of what happens to a person while engaging in sexual activity: they acquire a knowledge and understanding about the other person, particuarly of the body. Notice the way Adam and Even knew they were naked after they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3.7. While note the same “type” of knowledge, knowledge in the Genesis narrative is more more perceptual than it is the abstract representation of knowledge that is the default in highly educated societies. There is a form of learning and knowing that takes place as the physical level.
It is likely that this type of knowing between Adam and Eve in Genesis informed the way Paul connected knowledge and sex in the discourse of 1 Corinthians 6.12-21, as he also explicitly quotes from the description of the martial and sexual union of man and woman in Genesis 2.24 in 1 Corinthians 6.16. While making sense of everything Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6.12-21 is more complicated, what is being given here is that there is a strong connection between how one uses one’s body and learning for Paul. One should, therefore, seek to use one’s body for the purposes of the Lord, as the sexual knowledge of a temple prostitute interferes with the knowledge of one’s body spiritually being spiritually to the Lord and an eartthly residence of the Holy Spirit.
This provides a more positive, less fear-focused basis for the parts of the wider Christian sexual ethic than span beyond the fear of sexual exploitation and harm. What we do with our bodies is not simply harmless fun, but it has an impact on what we think. We are often oblivious to this effect in our highly educated society, as we think learning starts from reasoning and then trickles down from there. However, the vast majority of learning by humans is done experientially by the way they use their bodies in relationship to the world they percieve around themselves. It is how babies learn to walk. It is how people learn to share emotional love and affection their family. It is how people become learned to write and type on a keyboard. It is how people learn some trade, to repair cars, to cook food, etc. The vast majority of life is determined by the type of learning from the way we use our bodies, not simply our minds detached from our bodies. In that case, the way we use our bodies in having sex or not having sex, with whom we have sex and with whom we do not have sex, has all the implications in the world as to how we learn about ourselves and other people. We in the West have been so entranced by a transhumanistic dualism between body and mind that has intellectually disconnected that we largely overlook the significance and importance of embodied experience and learning, including how sex is instrumental in our embodied learning about other people.
The most salient example of this is what is known as sexual objectification, in which people who are rather indiscriminate in their strong sexual desires reduce what they know about people to a sexual knowledge. Sexual objectification treats and regards other people as sexual instruments, as the “criteria” for having sex for the objectifier is mere desire that causes them to disregard and be relatively unconcerned about what is important for the other person. A society and people that actively encourage sexual activity and exploits sexually graphic or near-graphic imagines create a soceity in which people are increasingly sexually objectified, including, most harmfully, the reduction of people’s value and worth to their sexual attractiveness and openness.
However, there are other ways that our sexual behavior forms our perceptions of other people. For instance, concerns about sexual harassment, justified as they concerns usually are, can at times balloon into a pervasive form of anxiety and hostility between women and men. In this case, the way sexual behavior is highly regulated can have the pronounced effect of creating distance between men and women. This environment embodies certains practices about touch and physical posture, along with verbal practices related to words and vocal tone, that controls the way we understand other people. Or, the ways that sexual attraction and communication can be used to grab people’s attention may inculcate a manipulative view of other people, in which their own needs and wants are simply instrumentalized for a person’s specific goals, which begans to veer perilously close to taking advantage of people through sexual means.
I present these three examples not to be exhaustive, but toy be demonstrative of the ways that behave as sexual creatures, both directly and indirectly, has an impact on what we learn and how we learning about other people. It isn’t that much of a leap, then, to suggest that insofar as our perceptions of other people and even ourselves is influenced by our sexual behavior that sex also impacts our knowledge of God and the work of God in our own lives and bodies. That is precisely what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 6.12-21.
The point here, in conclusion, is that the way Paul understands sex is not rooted in a deeply pervasive fears about sexual deviance. While Paul is highly concerned that believers do not take sexual advantage of each other, Paul’s undrestanding about sex is more so connected to one’s knowledge about one’s relationship to God. It is often the case that people seem to connect sex to some sort of ecstatic, almost spiritual, transcendent experience; we hear it in music and see it represented in movies all the time. Such “testimonies” about sex certainly suggests that the sense of the ‘spiritual’ and ‘transcendant’ is influenced by sexual activity. On the flip side, it is not uncommon within the history of the Christian tradition for some people to almost eroticize God, including the way some people read the sexual imagery of Songs of Songs as really about God’s relationship to Israel (while such an attempt is often to reduce the sexual overtoens of the Son of Solomon, it has the effect of esssentially representing the realtionship to God in sexual imagery). I am also reminded of how it was command when I was in college for many women to say that Jesus is their boyfriend, taking the Pauline mystery about Christ and the church as more than a metaphor about relational union that recognizes the way marriage and Christ’s redmeption of the church are interconnect, but sublimating romantic desires through Christ.
Such sexual actions and experiences, both direct and sublimated, may have a way of forming, habituating, and entrenching certain ways of thinking about ourselves, others, and life that can influence what we think about God, or even what we are willing to accept is true about God. For instance, prevalent in many of those Christian women in college was the belief that God has chosen a single, specific person for them to marry; perhaps it is the way they sublimated their romantic intentions that had a way of influencing that they thought God would ultimately give to them what they gave up.
The point here, in the end, is that if there is a connection between our perceptions and beliefs about God and our sexual behavior, then there is a positive, less fear-based reason for the vision of Christian sexuality. While I am nowhere near able to provide clear examples of the positive relationship between the two as my experiences of sex have largely left me in fear that makes me see most the negative relationship and that I can only overcome my anxieties and fears to some degree though intellectualizing about sex, I can see and imagine from both humanity made in image of God in Genesis in a gendered form and connecting that to filling the earth and the apostle Paul’s reflections, from my own knowledge about psychology and human life, and from my observations of my own experiences and the patterns of behaviors I have seen in others that sex has an impact on how we think beyond simply explicit and implicit thoughts about sex that can impact how we think about others and, yes, even God, for better or for worse.
- As an aside, for those not familiar with such traumas, it is also often the case that a person is motivated to try to break free from the pain that such traums can inflict by impulsively attempting to engage in direct or indirect sexual behavior where they are in control. In this case, the person tries to conquer their fears, although this is usually not in a healthy way.
- See the way some Jewish apocayptic literature portrayed the sons of God in Genesis 6 as fallen angels having sex with women.
- To be clear, this is not to dismiss other reasons why people have anxieties about sex and the motivations that guide how to think about sex. Most other anxieties about sex are much more circumstantial and control by context to specific social concerns, such as questions about fatherhood or questions about emotional and relational faithfulness that undergird moral norms against adultery, or health issues, such as sexually transmitted diseases motivated the moral norm of safe sex. However, such fears in and of themselves would not have the power to control our global, overarching views of sex.