The sexual revolution continues: About 65 percent of American teenagers have sex before they finish high school, and the number of unmarried couples living together has shot up tenfold between 1960 and 2000. Sexual morality has also collapsed among Christians, with one survey finding that two-thirds of single Christians have not practiced chastity. A 2003 study of young people signing abstinence pledges found that, while the vows did postpone sex, 61 percent eventually broke their promises. Of the 39 percent who kept their pledges, 55 percent said they had oral sex, which they didn't consider to be sex.
The problem is not just behavior, but changing beliefs to match behavior. One study of "born again" Christians distinguishes between "nontraditional evangelicals" (who have had a spiritual experience but who are less interested in church and doctrine) and "traditional evangelicals" (who go to church more and have a higher view of Scripture). Among the nontraditionals, 46 percent say there is nothing wrong with premarital sex; 26 percent of traditionals say the same. Meanwhile, 19 percent of nontraditionals and 13 percent of traditionals see no problem with adultery.
Writer Lauren Winner, as a teenager and then a young adult, went with the flow, viewing sex as a normal part of dating and of premarital relationships. Then she became a Christian. But, as with many others her age, conversion did not change her sex life: "I knew, dimly, that Christianity didn't look kindly on premarital sex, but I couldn't have told you very much about where Christian teachings about sex came from." She read the Bible but thought biblical prohibitions against sexual immorality only applied to sex without love or a committed relationship.
Then one day she participated in the rite of personal confession in an Anglican church, and when her confessor told her she had sinned sexually, "something sunk in." She studied the Bible on the subject, prayed and, after a long struggle that included slips and backsliding, discovered the spiritual discipline of chastity. At the same time, Ms. Winner was becoming a popular Christian author. Her book Girl Meets God (2002), a memoir of coming to faith, is a work of apologetics and evangelism that speaks powerfully to postmodern young adults.
In the midst of her struggles over the issue of chastity, she wrote an article on Beliefnet.com, "Sex and the Single Evangelical," that recounted her then-current sexual involvement with her boyfriend and called for evangelicals to reconsider their teachings about sex. Now Ms. Winner recognizes that "it is only God's grace-and not my intellectual apprehension of the whys and wherefores of Christian sexual ethics-that has tutored me in chastity." Her new book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity (Brazos Press), calls for a return to genuine sexual morality as taught in the Bible and offers specific suggestions.
She says, "I write for those of us who have no memory of chastity," and declares it a spiritual discipline, like prayer, Bible reading, fasting, and accountability to the community of the church. Christians today tend not to bother about controlling any of their desires and have forgotten the classic disciplines of self-control and self-denial for the sake of a closer relationship with Christ. A key to recovering chastity, she argues, is to recover the other spiritual disciplines.
"In Real Sex," she told WORLD, "I contextualize chastity as one of many ascetical spiritual disciplines, disciplines in which we renounce something in order to attend to God in a particular way." Fasting, for example, "is a time-honored Christian spiritual practice, not because food is evil, but because refraining from food can clear out space in which we can focus on God in a particular way."
Can we really expect today's relatively self-indulgent Christians to embrace spiritual disciplines? Ms. Winner hopes so, because "these are tools that God gave us to help us become more like Him. . . . As the church, we tell the story of Creation and redemption, and we speak to one another about sexuality's place in that story. But we also live the story through confession and confrontation [and] embroider the story with practical tips that help people manage desire."
A funny thing happened as Ms. Winner was writing her book. She got married: "Actually I worked on the book for about 5 years, and was only married for the last 3 months of that! Initially, I set out not to mention marriage at all in this book. For many of my own single years, I cringed when Christians talked about marriage. I was sick of hearing about nuptial bliss, sick of feeling like I wasn't participating in authentic Christian life because I wasn't married. . . . The book I write, I thought, won't have any of that. It will be the real deal about singleness, and it won't make anyone feel icky by prattling on about marriage.
"But as I wrote, I realized there was a good reason that Christian conversations about sex always circled back to marriage. What sits at the center of Christian sexual ethics is not a negative view of sex; the Christian vision of marriage is not, at its most concise, merely 'no sex before marriage.' Rather, the heart of the Christian story about sex is a vigorously positive statement about sex: Sex was created for marriage. Without a robust account of the Christian vision of sex within marriage, the Christian insistence that unmarried folks refrain from sex just doesn't make any sense."
Real Sex tries to "set out the characteristics of good sex, and to explore who partakes of it, under what circumstances." In recovering the biblical dimensions of "real sex"-that is, sex within marriage-Ms. Winner is critical of marital advice that urges spouses to spice up their marriages by escapes from the routine, exotic experimentation, and a rekindling of romantic fantasy. Such fantasies, she says, are part of the problem: The goal should be for "real sex" within marriage to become a part of ordinary life, the everyday intimacy of being "one flesh" with another person.
She says, "Forty years into the sexual revolution, we have all been taught distorted lessons about what 'good sex' looks like. Pick up any women's magazine-there's always an article telling married couples how to spice up their sex life. What we're told to aspire to is conjugal sex that looks very much like wild, unstable, always-new unmarried sex. Even Christians, who proclaim that sex is made for marriage, have not taken the next step and asked, 'So, what does real, everyday, ordinary married sex look like?' It does not look like the sex unmarried folks have in the movies or on Friends. Rather, it is deeply embedded in the domestic warp and woof. It is part and parcel of the household."
Cop vs. storyteller
An interview with Lauren Winner:
WORLD: How do you define chastity?
WINNER: As the church has always defined it-all Christians are called to recognize that God created sex for marriage, which means, for married people, chastity = fidelity, only having sex with your spouse, and for unmarried people it means not having sex at all.
Chastity is not just about keeping your pants zipped. It is about renouncing bodily union with another person so that you can find a deeper union with the Body of Christ. This is why some of the recent books on modesty irk me. Many of these books suggest to women that they should be chaste because godly men don't want to date women who wear tubetops; because farmers won't buy the cow if they can get the milk for free; because chaste women will attract godly men. If that's your reason for dressing modestly-if your attention is still focused on attracting the right kind of guy-then I'm not sure you're really inhabiting chastity.
WORLD: How can churches do a better job of teaching about sex?
WINNER: One thing we need to do is give a richer, more theologically robust account of chastity. It's not enough to say "Paul says don't fornicate." . . . Rather, he is seeking to preserve, restore, and protect God's vision for humanity and sexuality, laid out at the opening of Genesis.
WORLD: How can the church become more of a community that can help Christians live chastely?
WINNER: One of the fundamental lies Christians have absorbed from our surrounding individualistic society is that "what I do with my body is none of your concern." Paul instructs the Galatians to hold one another accountable for sin: "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. . . . Carry each other's burdens." That verse, if we construe it uncharitably, can lead us to envision a community that functions primarily as a police force [but] the more important task of the community is to make sense of the ethical codes that are being enforced. Here the community is not so much cop as storyteller, sustaining the stories that make sense of the community's norms. This storytelling is part of the working out of God's grace in the Church. We do this every time we read Scripture, and every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper, and (hopefully) each time we minister to one another.