One thing I hate about the teachings of many Western religions (and some others) is the way they villainize pre-marital sex. They assert that sex outside the context of marriage is unhealthy, not based on love, and immoral. And the reasons they give for this are frustratingly bad.
I decided to do a post here in which I take a look at what authorities from various Western religions have to say about sex. After this entry got a bit lengthy, I decided I would have to do this in parts. This is part 1.
To start off with, sex is wonderful! Yes you have to be safe about it, yes you have to be ready for it, but when adequate caution is taken sex can be a beautiful thing. At its most basic, sex is a way of bringing extreme pleasure to yourself and another person. It can be a largely physical experience, or it can be a physical and emotional connection between two people sharing their love for each other.
These are good things. I often find that religions and their adherents do not treat them as such. While claiming to have the best, most uplifting views of sexuality, the unfortunate reality is that they often have the worst.
Here is Rev. Gregory S. Neal – a man who has served as a senior pastor in the United Methodist Church (UMC) for 18 years, who has served on several boards and agencies of the UMC, and who has lectured at colleges and regional seminars – explaining what is wrong with pre-marital sex. He says that pre-marital sex, along with polygamous and homosexual sex, “does harm to people, relationships, and families,” and that “…the *ideal* [emphasis his] for all sexual relations is the marriage covenant. It is within such a covenant that loving, caring, meaningful sexual sharing can occur which neither exploits nor demeans.”
Already, we have a view of sexuality that seems to make little sense.
Sexual acts, insofar as they tap into our emotions, have psychological consequences for a person. Absolutely. For example, what if you felt that your partner was not emotionally open to you during sex, and you wanted him or her to be more so? That is a valid emotional need. Or what if you felt like your partner was using sex partially as a way to deal with a personal insecurity, and not entirely because of love? Of course such an imbalance in what sex means to you and your partner could be hurtful! I do not think anyone denies that these are real concerns, or that it is in a couple’s best interests to address them.
But it is important to recognize what the actual concern is. In the first example above, the issue is openness. Openness is not something that only comes up during sex – it’s important in any part of a relationship. Openness is also not something that only unmarried couples have difficulty with. Married couples have to work on it as well! So why would Neal say specifically that pre-marital sex is the problem, as opposed to, say, a lack of openness in relationships? What is so harmful about pre-marital sex itself?
Neal goes so far as to imply that pre-marital (and polygamous and homosexual) sex is by necessity exploitative and/or demeaning.
But does this comport with anyone’s experience at all? Can you imagine this line between a man and his girlfriend?
“I’m sorry, honey – I do love you, but I don’t want to demean you by physically expressing it.”
This is patent nonsense. If my partner and I wish to have sex with each other, we are no more demeaning each other than people who kiss, cuddle, or hug before marriage. And despite Neal’s anti-gay statements, it is not any more demeaning just because my partner has the same genitals as me.
The objections here are not merely philosophical. The fact is that most people have had premarital sex and many of them are happy about it. What actually seems to do harm is telling people that they’re immoral for doing something that can be safe, pleasurable, and beautiful.
And it is beautiful. One of the things that is so rewarding about sex with my partner – my girlfriend – is that not only is it extremely pleasurable for me, but I find great joy in the fact that I can give that pleasure to her. The reciprocity of sex, just like the reciprocity of friendship and basic human kindness, is one of the greatest things about it.
But according to Neal, there must be something wrong with this picture. The person who wrote Neal asking for his advice says that she, too, is in a loving, committed relationship, and asks if sex under these circumstances could be “wrong.” Neal avoids using the word in his reply, but every sentence reeks of moral judgement. Unmarried sex is “not affirmed.” This is the “correct and appropriate” stance. Pre-marital sex is harmful. It is within marriage that “loving, caring, meaningful sexual sharing can occur which neither exploits nor demeans.”
In the end, Neal suggests to the couple that if they have a committed, loving relationship – you know, like married people – why not just get married? I assume Neal might even suggest the same thing to me.
I’ll tell you why. Because there is nothing wrong with not getting married. There is nothing impossible about loving someone and treating them well, and enjoying sex with them outside of marriage. And if there were, putting a ring on someone’s finger would not fix it! The only way to fix relationship issues is to work on them, not sign a contract.
That is what Neal, and presumably other members of his church, cannot accept – that sex can be valid without a contract. That people don’t need his ceremony, or his god, to be good to each other. If they want it, that’s their prerogative. But to tell people that they are immoral or hurting their loved ones because they’re conducting their relationship in some other way is, to use Neal’s words, harmful and demeaning.