Sex Without Fear. It was a dog-eared, dilapidated book with an inconspicuous, brown paper cover obscuring the title. I spotted it at a used book sale and, hoping the brown paper might be hiding a classic or little-known literary delight, thumbed it open to the first page. There was a black and white photograph, circa 1950s, of a young bride-to-be sitting at the edge of her quilted bed, looking apprehensive and serious-eyed. Her mother, calm and pragmatic, was leaning across the bed motioning the young woman to come closer, as if to say, “Come here, my child. Let me tell you the facts of life. There is nothing to fear. Sex is an unhappy reality we all must face during our transitory existence beneath the sun.”
My purpose in bringing up this book is not to critique or even discuss the book itself, but to draw attention to how the title and covert cover art express a belief typical of many Americans in the 1950s: sex is primarily for men, and women have minimal or no interest in sex. This belief is perpetuated today by many popular evangelical books on dating, marriage and sex. The mother in the photograph wishes to give her daughter a sex education so that her daughter will not be afraid to have sex. So far, so good – education is important. Yet compare this message with another book on sex written by two Christian medical professionals: Intended for Pleasure: Sex Technique and Sexual Fulfillment in Christian Marriage. The implication in the title of the former book is that the primary purpose of giving a woman a sex education is so that she will not be afraid. In contrast, the title of the latter book implies that the goal is pleasure and sexual fulfillment, presumably for both women and men.
You’ve likely heard the slogan: “Girls give sex to get love and guys give love to get sex.” It’s not a phrase that was coined by evangelicals, but the basic philosophy is common amongst evangelicals, as is evidenced by the vast corpus of Christian advice books which present women as emotional, delicate creatures sapped of both intellectual and sexual desire. In contrast, such books often portray men as savage beasts with insatiable sexual appetites which can only be held at bay by dutiful wives who respect (and seduce) them. This statement is crassly put and oversimplified, of course – but if you attend enough Christian dating/marriage conferences or home groups, you begin to realize that this is a Zeitgeist in many North American evangelical circles. For example, when Christian colleges sponsor same-sex topical Bible studies, the topics are dolefully predictable. Women are warned to “guard their hearts” and cover up their bodies and men are told to avoid pornography, masturbation and physical touch.
My aim is not to make light of the dangers of pornography or false emotion, but to draw attention to some potential problems which arise when we view the “battle” for appropriate sexuality as a primarily masculine issue. It is no secret that the media today exploits women by presenting them as sex objects. Pockets of evangelical culture have bought into a monogamous version of the same philosophy – sexual satisfaction is still viewed as being primarily for the man while the woman is the means to that end. Conversely, the man is presented as the source of emotional satisfaction for the woman, reflecting the same sort of dichotomy between the physical and the metaphysical. The woman is taught to distance herself from her own body, and the man is taught that he is an uncomplicated being with merely physical needs. The marriage relationship is thus a well-oiled machine, each gear fulfilling a single, specific role – always moving yet never creating, never experiencing the dynamic mutuality of personal encounter.
This imbalanced view of sexuality and relationships is only one symptom of a far more expansive and serious problem: a dearth of both true self-knowledge and a rooted sense of identity. Ultimately a lack of self-knowledge prompts us to divvy up the human being (and all of life) into neat little categories. If we can say “men are this way” or “women are that way,” this relieves us of the responsibility of getting to know a person – we can function by holding fast to an idea which is far less complicated than encountering a person.
Sex is risky and frightening and potentially wonderful precisely because it is not an isolated body of knowledge – what goes on in the bedroom does not stay in the bedroom but flows out into the rest of life. As A. G. Sertillanges emphasizes in his book, The Intellectual Life, no body of knowledge is isolated and one of the jobs of the intellectual is to seek out the connections between these seemingly separate spheres. In order to do this, the intellectual must cultivate an inner quietness, a profound self-knowledge which prepares her or him to pay attention to the world and so become a diligent student of the world created by God.
In this sense, sexual knowledge is no different from any other kind of knowledge. It requires focused attention and awareness of both the self and another human being. The life of the mind is intimately linked to the life of the body. Work, study, food, family, sex – these are all part of the real world and our job is to increase our understanding of the self and the world and see how everything coheres.
When we lack genuine awareness or a sense of who we are, our impulse is to hide behind a fabricated persona, whether it be our profession, a perceived gender role or some other kind of image. Instead of finding our identity as followers of the Creator God and imitators of God’s own relational creativity, we segment the world and claim that a plumber can find no use for Plato and a poet traverses a separate sphere from a farmer. We claim that women are raw emotion and men are pure physicality.
When we partition the world, we gradually become espoused to an idea instead of a person – a fabricated avatar instead of a real human being. And there’s nothing more frightening and dissatisfying than knowing we have made love to a false image.