Way back in the Olden Days, George Michael sang “I Want Your Sex,” and many people were scandalized by the blunt nature of the song. I suspect that, nearly two decades later, were that song to be re-released the number of people shocked wouldn’t be much different. Somehow, some way, we have gone backward on sexuality.
On the one hand, there is a segment 0f the twenty-something population that has returned to a level of casual sex not seen since the 1960s. To give some idea of how casual sex has become, “Talking to someone” is now a euphemism for sleeping with them. On the other hand, it has now become acceptable for conservative politicians to advocate eliminating access to birth control, to state that there is no problem with wage discrimination against females, and to tell female political opponents who speak directly to issues that they aren’t being “ladylike.” Overt misogyny has become acceptable political discourse, and the public is not universally outraged. What has happened?
It’s time for a new sexual ethic from the spiritual community, one that is informed by biology and sociology as well as spirituality. Religion may remain profoundly unwilling to address sexuality in a way that makes sense in contemporary culture. The good news is that we live in a world where institutional religion is becoming increasingly irrelevant. What is lacking is a coherent offering of an alternative to a two to four thousand year old ethic that has been misinterpreted by largely celibate males ever since. Forgotten is the truth that the Bible supports polygamy and concubinage, states clearly that only women can commit adultery, and portrays rape as an acceptable courting method. While we can be thankful that at least overt support for most of those practices has been eliminated, what hasn’t been eliminated is the belief that women who are sexually active are somehow dirty and undesirable. Hoping against hope that a woman will be sexually active with him, he at the same time believes that the moment she does she becomes undesirable. Could our sexuality be more conflicted?
We need to move beyond the pre-scientific notion that virgin birth stories – and there are plenty of them in history – are anything but mythological fictions. Mary, the mother of Jesus, wasn’t a virgin after he was conceived. Neither were the mothers of the Roman Emperors or the mother of Mithras. We may choose to continue to call Mary the Virgin Mary, but in doing so we must have enough integrity to declare that we don’t mean physical virginity in doing so.
Once that is out of the way, we need to apply some principles of consistent ethics and acknowledge that it is ethically impossible to be both anti-abortion and anti-birth control. You cannot be opposed to the method of preventing unwanted pregnancy (birth control) which, by extension, reduces the need for abortion without admitting you are pro-choice – and no pro-choice position on abortion could consistently be anti-contraception. We must clearly tell such people that their positions do not apply to the reality we currently inhabit.
Finally, we need to acknowledge that if women are somehow made less desirable by being sexually active then it must be men who make them so. Presumably masturbation does not make a woman less desirable, nor would losing her physical virginity in vigorous physical activity. In biblical times, the concern was that men wanted a first-born male heir. Given their ignorance of human reproduction, we can understand how they might place undue emphasis on virginity. However, in our era of DNA testing there can be no doubt about the identity of a child’s parents. Therefore, if women are somehow dirty through having sex with men, men must be the problem.
Can we abandon the primitive, fictional belief in a parental God in the sky who is just waiting to punish humans who misbehave? Do we have the humility and integrity to acknowledge that the biblical record on sexuality is at best ambiguous, containing things we can no longer endorse? Can we be honest enough to admit that people always have and always will have sex no matter what “authorities” say about it? Might we suggest that the healthiest environment for sexuality is in the context of a committed, loving relationship and that promiscuity is always self-destructive? Can we insist that sexual contact must always be consensual and that when it isn’t a crime has been committed by the perpetrator? Are we humble and mature enough to allow each person to determine, within the above limits, what appropriate sexuality is for themselves?