Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lauren Winner's Real Sex

It is difficult to overstate how much I disliked Lauren Winner’s book Real Sex (complete with the pure white flower of virginity on the cover). The best parts of the book were fairly general and common sense, but at worst, Winner relies on begging the question, self-contradiction, and borderline misogyny to make her point about chastity. This point is not terribly different from what anyone who grew up in a church has heard before – sex is intended for marriage. Winner’s big difference from the standard line about chastity is that there is a spiritual discipline to abstaining; she acknowledges that for the single person, foregoing sex can be a sacrifice rather than an easy virtue, and she uses her own sexual past to demonstrate the difficulties of such a spiritual journey.

Winner would like us to believe that God created sex for marriage, that sex is a community act (we should ask our friends about their sex lives to help them discern correct behaviors), and sex without the possibility of procreation is not as complete a unifying experience as sex sans contraception (the myriad problems with this aside, it is clear that Winner is not dealing with any kind of homosexual experience – but she’s not really interested in complicating her thesis). The assumptions built into these kinds of beliefs are not challenged, even in the most basic of ways. She neglects thinking about marriage’s tumultuous history as a cultural institution, she assumes that discernment requires outside intrusion rather than invitation from the discerner, and she devalues the sexual experiences of many. Perhaps she does not care about these issues, or perhaps she thinks that her assumptions about the nature of marriage are accepted by her audience. She needs to be a little more persuasive – as a writing professor, I’m not entirely certain how her book was published without an editor saying, “Well, Ms. Winner, you need to actually explain this to your audience, since you’re trying to convince them you’re right.”

Winner also discusses how the church is often not nuanced or thoughtful enough in its teachings to single people, which is true, but she also assumes all of these singles are heterosexual, and that marriage is an institution created by God for the church. Of course, Winner also believes in the theological concept of “original sin,” which always sets off alarm bells for me, despite my dim views of humanity in general. This belief is interesting given her exploration of sexuality. She argues that because we are fallen, our experience and vision are tainted by sin, and we should rely on tradition and scripture. And yet, the fact that tradition is a legacy of shared experience created by others who are also fallen, and that the discussion of issues of history, translation, and manipulation of scripture are not exactly new or hidden seem to escape her notice. Winner also relies a great deal on personal experience (both hers and others) throughout the book. I guess experiences that lead to chastity are somehow less tainted and can be used to support one’s theological worldview.

Of course, the other problem with the idea of original sin is that it has been historically used to oppress women as somehow more sinful and responsible for men’s poor sexual choices, a justification given for all kinds of terrible things, including rape. Women’s sexuality as been seen as resulting from the punishment given by God for eating the apple, and women who are not chaste have been held to different standards than non-chaste men (see Popes with secret, forbidden families). Thus, using original sin to negate experiential arguments against the primacy of chastity as holy sexual behavior smacks of unexamined, casual misogyny – for all her theological and spiritual examination, Winner does not question the assumptions on which she founds her argument, to the detriment of that argument.

There are many such instances in the book that lead me to believe that sending someone who is searching for guidance in their sexual life to Winner’s book is a very bad idea. Asking someone undergoing self-examination to take the advice of someone who demonstrates a lack of social, historical, and cultural awareness seems like it will lead to trouble. But then, where do we send people looking for such guidance? Clearly scripture is confusing, going to pastors may be intimidating or irrelevant, and not many well-rounded guides to Christian sexuality exist. We seem to long for an easy answer, for a roadmap to what is and isn’t off limits in various types of relationship. We want to be pure and to avoid sexual sin with a fervor that escapes us, at least culturally, in relation to other kinds of bodily behaviors. We don’t, as a Christian culture, obsess over food and drink in the same way (one Methodist potluck will demonstrate this). Nor do we think about exercise, hair, clothing, public space, conversation, even lies as we think about sex. If, as Winner maintains, and I agree, our bodies are good, why is one kind of bodily risk more urgently attended to than others? If we are to keep our bodies pure because they are temples, why is a casual drink no big deal? Is it because of the intimacy of sex – because we are engaging with someone else during our impure acts that it is so shameful?

If we sought out Winner, we’d be told that even masturbation is wrong sexual behavior as it substitutes partnered sex for, as she calls it, complete with references to phone sex lines, “a world of unreality.” So, at least according to Winner’s logic, sexual sin is not a graver sin just because the act impacts the community, but also because doing the act alone neglects community.

Really? We have become so culturally dependent on the idea that sexuality is somehow an impulse to be controlled more firmly than any other appetite that we have driven ourselves to the point where self-loathing takes over. People are frigid, even after marriage, an issue Winner takes to be a symptom of the church’s poor teaching to young single people. But Winner too, in positioning chastity as the only correct sexual behavior outside of marriage, is furthering the sexual silencing of a generation who are trying to process the myriad unhealthy and unspiritual sexual messages they receive, the healthy appetites of their bodies, and the negotiation of relationships. This silencing contributes to people staying in closets, to people feeling deep shame, to people developing truly unhealthy sexual needs and habits, and perhaps worst of all, to people with deeply troubling sexual attitudes leading the church itself. The idea that God ranks sin, and that sexual sin is among the worst leads us to forget why certain sexual thoughts are unhealthy and begin to allow the idea that all sexual thoughts need to be curbed.

For example, we know that lust is wrong, but how often do we address why? Lust makes another person an object; it removes agency and imposes our wants on that person, an unChristian act. Desire, however, is not the same. Desire allows us to see our sexual partner as a subject, someone whom we want to know and experience, someone who participates in and shapes our appetites.

And chastity? Well, as Winner says, it is largely a matter of tradition, a tradition that remains unchallenged in the book. Winner does not plumb this tradition for its many moments of incorrectness. After all, tradition also demands that our churches remain exclusive, and many of us now realize that demand is deeply flawed.

Perhaps chastity is like any other life choice – intentionally hard, difficult to figure out. What if we applied the same self-awareness and exploration that we use in choosing careers to examining our sexual behaviors? We would not be able to simply rely on the church, an action Winner takes happy refuge in. Instead, we would have to recognize, as Foundry United Methodist Church pastor Dean Synder once said, sometimes the church can mask the voice of God, and we have to look outside it for guidance.

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