Non-monogamy, kink, same-sex couplings, or casual sex are healthy expressions of sexuality when engaged in a consensual manner, according to a writer published this week in the Religious Left journal Sojourners.
The article is among the most recent examples of the Sojourners editorial team steering the publication far afield from its Evangelical Left roots. In March, Sojourners President Adam Russell Taylor authored a column decrying state laws opposed by transgender activists, including those that seek to preserve women’s and girls’ sports for biological females.
Contributor Jennifer C. Martin, a professed polyamorous Christian with three partners, authored a review of Washington Post columnist Christine Emba’s Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. In her book, Emba, a convert to Roman Catholicism, questions the trivialization of sex and the objectification it brings on ourselves and others, arguing that a consent-only approach to sex has made us unhappy and that even consensual sex can be damaging.
Martin affirms Emba’s appeal to raise expectations and pursue joy, but, shaped by her own off-putting experience with a fundamentalist purity culture, resists an argument for sexual boundaries.
“I don’t think we need limitations in order to have good sex,” Martin writes in reviewing Emba’s book. “We ultimately differ on what constitutes healthy sex.”
Martin assesses that Emba’s end goal is a good one, but, “the way she gets there is through reiterating gender roles and differences, decrying kink culture and casual sex, and attaching the values of purity to our sexual encounters.”
“What kind of consensual sex is considered ‘damaging?’” Martin asks, determining that Emba is overly critical of the sexual liberation movement:
“She [Emba] believes that liberated sex comes ‘without norms and boundaries’ and ‘we don’t know where things will stop—so we’re afraid to start at all.’ Her argument continues saying that sex ‘could be a delightful space of possibility. But without limitations, we’re too worried to really enjoy ourselves.’ She doesn’t state exactly what sexual ‘limitations’ we should be enacting on ourselves.”
Martin herself eschews the sexual boundaries that the church has historically instructed. She identifies herself as “a Christian who happens to have multiple partners, including two who live with me and my children.”
by the power of God https://t.co/DdIN4grMtq— Jennifer C. Martin (@notreallyjcm) April 26, 2022
“I have had to re-examine the intersection of sex and faith and what it means to have ethical sex,” Martin recounts. “I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home and was expected to maintain my purity until marriage. I got engaged at 19, married at 20, and had two children by age 25. My attempts to live out traditional sexual ethics led me to oppress parts of me that often fell in love with other people, or parts of me that were attracted to other genders. Ultimately, my husband and I found love outside our marriage while still maintaining love inside our marriage.”
Martin is partly reacting against the excesses of 1990s-era purity culture, characterized by books like Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye as well as rituals including courtship and purity rings. Those who advocated purity culture were themselves reacting against the cultural wreckage brought by the sexual revolution, but their pursuit of personal holiness sometimes came at the expense of grace and detoured into moralism. Authors including the late Rachel Held Evans spoke to the experiences of Christian women hurt in the pendulum swings between sexual liberation and purity culture.
Purity culture in some cases twisted the scriptural call to holiness by demarcating a separation between the virtuous who are “in” and those it characterized by sexual vice who are “out”. If Christians believe that every part of ourselves is touched by sin, then everyone was at one time “out” and everyone – through Christ’s work on the cross – has a path to be brought “in”.
This redemptive hope doesn’t throw out all rules. When Martin criticizes boundaries for sex, I’m reminded of how, as in sports, rules facilitate the beauty of the game. Otherwise it’s just “Calvinball” from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, where there is no structure or order. Sexual conduct matters because it cuts so intimately into ourselves. The epistles are replete with admonitions “to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27) and Jesus himself references consequences of sexual immorality (porneia) in (Matthew 5:32 and 19:9).
“For those of us raised in environments where anything other than heterosexual, vanilla sex for cisgender people within the confines of marriage would send you to hell — where sexual assault was at least partially the fault of the victim, where your purity and spirituality were directly tied to the status of your virginity — Rethinking Sex might feel dismissive as it overtly dances around touchy subjects like gender roles, birth control, and same-sex couplings,” Martin reviews.
Maybe so, but examining the Christian call to steward our sexuality for the good of ourselves and others seems like a reasonable place to begin.