An Over-reaction to the Fear of Sex by Kevin Kriedeman

An Over-reaction to the Fear of Sex by Kevin Kriedeman


Leviticus 15:16 says, ‘If a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water, and be unclean until the evening. Everything made of cloth or of skin on which the semen falls shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the evening. If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe in water and be unclean until evening’. And if a man has sex with a woman during her menstrual cycle, they will both be ‘cut off from their people’ (Lev 20:18).

Since the Bible expressly links sex with being unclean, it’s no surprise that so many of the church fathers had such a low view of it. For example, St Jerome warned that ‘anyone who is too passionate a lover of his wife is an adulterer’, while Origen believed that sex only occurred as a result of the fall, and that if Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned babies would have been conceived in some other way. Augustine, one of the most powerful influences on Christian thought, wrote about ‘the shame which attends all sexual intercourse’, describing sexual organs as ‘obscene parts’ and stating that ‘nothing so casts down the manly mind from its heights as the fondling of women and those bodily contacts which belong to the married state’. In around 600 CE, Pope Gregory the Great declared that ‘sensual pleasure can never be without sin’, while 600 years later, William of Auvergne, the Bishop of Paris, advised married couples to ‘flee all physical pleasure’.

In the Middle Ages, Yves of Chartes taught that you couldn’t have sex on five out of the seven days in a week: on Thursdays in memory of Jesus’ arrest, on Fridays in honour of his death, on Saturdays in honour of the Virgin Mary, on Sundays in remembrance of the Resurrection, and on Mondays out of respect for the faithful departed. In addition to banning sex on 270 of the 365 days of the year, making love was also banned on the 40 days before Pentecost, Christmas and Easter.

Even today, the Roman Catholic Church claims that Mary, the mother of God, was a virgin not just at the time of Jesus’ birth, but for the rest of her life as well (poor Joseph). It seems that the church struggles to reconcile a belief in her holiness with an acknowledgement of her sexuality. Similarly, Catholic priests are expected to remain celibate.

Recently I’ve been wondering if this fear of sex within Christianity is not intrinsically linked to the religion’s fear of women. Certainly, when you read some of these celibate church fathers’ comments about women, it’s hard not to hear the fear in their voices. Take Tertullian’s famous statement to women: ‘Do you not know that you are each an Eve? ... You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert – that is, death – even the son of God had to die’. It’s not really surprising then that Tertullian didn’t take to the idea of working alongside temptation on a daily basis.

This fear of women as the embodiment of temptation inevitably led to the exclusion of women, especially in those spiritual realms of life the church found hardest to reconcile with sex. Even today, we see this fear of temptation used, understandably, to end male-female friendships when men marry, and to avoid male-female counselling situations. When men and women come together, sex often results, so the church has traditionally tried to keep men and women separate.

However, rather than removing women from any situation where men are present, we’d do better to remove this unhealthy fear of sex, where pleasing another person sexually has somehow been seen as a more serious sin than lying or racism or corruption or hatred.

The Bible is surprisingly full of eroticism. As Jack Murnighan, the former editor-in-chief of nerve.com, wrote in his article, ‘Thumping in the Bible’, ‘I think it was Umberto Eco who said that he dreaded reading the Bible as a teenager, until he discovered how much sex was in it’.

Sex is a gift from God to be enjoyed, which is why one of the first things we’re told in the first book of the Bible is that almost as soon as people were created, they had sex and felt no shame (Gen 2:24). After running through all the racy bits in the first 20 pages of his Bible, Jack Murnighan concluded, ‘By comparison, the first twenty pages of Best American Erotica 1999 contain nowhere near as much sex, and a fraction of the scandal’.

Following the example of the biblical authors, Christians don’t have to get nervous talking about sex or be ashamed of sex. For many Christians, sex is associated with guilt, not love, but this sense of shame regarding our sexuality isn’t biblical. Rather, the entire book of Song of Songs in the Old Testament celebrates sexual intimacy and in fact glorifies a love affair between a couple who aren’t married. The Bible’s treatment of sexuality is both more explicit and more ambiguous than most youth leaders would like to admit to their horny teenage congregations. As Walter Wink points out:

‘Virtually all modern readers would agree with the Bible in rejecting incest, rape, adultery, and intercourse with animals. But we disagree with the Bible on most other sexual mores. The Bible condemned the following behaviors which we generally allow: intercourse during menstruation, celibacy, exogamy (marriage with non-Jews), naming sexual organs, nudity (under certain conditions), masturbation (some Christians still condemn this), and birth control (some Christians still forbid this). And the Bible regarded semen and menstrual blood as unclean, which most of us do not. Likewise, the Bible permitted behaviors that we today condemn: prostitution, polygamy, levirate marriage, sex with slaves, concubinage, treatment of women as property, and very early marriage (for the girl, age 11-13). In short, of the sexual mores mentioned here, we only agree with the Bible on four of them, and disagree with it on sixteen … The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no Biblical sex ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand-year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period’ (www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-walter-wink).

I recently read an amazing article in Time Magazine on the benefits of sex. Partners who have a robust sex life are more likely to remain partners and to be satisfied with life as whole. Sex is good aerobic exercise; it improves circulation, works the heart and burns around 200 calories. Having sex regularly makes you less vulnerable to heart attacks, depression, suicide and the flu. Moreover, orgasm is a great painkiller and sedative and has even been linked to longer life.

If there’s one thing we should all be able to agree on, it’s that sex is one of God’s good inventions. If we can agree on that, then perhaps we can start allowing women to become priests without worrying that they’ll corrupt anyone and without feeling that sexuality undermines the sacred.

While we’re on the topic of sex, it’s unfortunate that James Dobson, America’s ‘most trusted parenting authority’, teaches that ‘girls should not call boys on the telephone – at least until a committed relationship has developed. Guys must be the initiators, planning the dates and asking for the girl’s company’.

Fairytales and Hollywood blockbusters constantly remind us that the man must initiate romance: he must slay the dragon, climb the wall, stand outside the tower and sing. He must buy her flowers, phone her first, ask her to marry him. In contrast, women who initiate romance are seen as pushy, rude or even loose and sluttish.

However, these stereotypes come from Hollywood, not the Bible. Ruth seduced Boaz, lying at his feet after he had drunk too much. This gets even saucier when we remember that ‘his feet’ is apparently a biblical euphemism for genitals.

Similarly, Robert K. Johnson says, ‘The portrayal of the couple in the Song of Songs reveals a woman who is in every way the equal of the man. She has full freedom of speech and action. In fact, she is more often the initiator than he, and her words seem more imaginative and significant than his. There is no hint of a patriarchal bias here; full equality in the love relationship reigns’.

Similarly, both men and women should take responsibility to initiate romance and express their love in thoughtful and creative ways.