Sex is great, sex is good: Part 1

UPDATE #2: I have responded to Rev. Neal.
UPDATE:
Rev. Neal has responded to my criticisms.

________________

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.

9 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Homosexuality, Marriage, Religion, Sex

9 responses to “Sex is great, sex is good: Part 1

  1. The religious/cultural prohibitions on premarital sex (and sex in general) come from a time with different concerns. In the early days of history, people still liked sex as much as we do today, but without birth control and disease shielding it was certainly a more risky proposition. Since so much of our early culture was linked to lineage, it was very important (for us men, since we can’t prove our paternity) that we prevent other men from planting their seed in our women and thus forcing us to raise a “cuckoo child” (cuckold), investing our resources into supporting another genetic line. (Although it is, according to Jared Diamond in his book “the Third Chimpanzee”, a hardwired goal to plant our seed in another man’s woman to make him raise our child)

    In addition the many risks of childbearing and death in childbirth made it a considerable investment to venture into the active sex life. Every time a woman engaged in sex it was a sort of “sexual russian roulette”

    Most religious rules started out as common sense. Don’t eat pork (because it will kill you), Don’t steal (because the people who you stole from will kill you), don’t kill (because the family of the person you killed will kill you), etc. In this, the prohibitions against premarital sex make contextual sense. Sex can kill you (mostly can kill her, but still).

    Since religious leaders were equivalent to political leaders in those days, and power is derived from followers, and we don’t want our followers to die, we tell them not to do these things, but since one man doesn’t have the true power to control the masses the easiest way to convince them to do what you want it to tell them that God says you can’t do it. and God sees all. and even sees what you do behind closed doors. so even though I can’t see you doing what I don’t want to, God can. and even if I can’t punish you for not doing what I say, God will when you die. Forever. That is scary, so my pre-scientific revolution mind will be scared and do what you say.

    But back to the point, most of these points are no longer relevant. True, we do have STIs and teen (and beyond) pregnancy now these things are greatly preventable (with proper education). As long as we don’t get in the way of the education with legislation like “no teaching about safe sex in schools because God will get mad” then we can protect our “followers” and still let them do good things like have awesome sex. With proper education, now the biggest danger in an active sex life is emotional.

    Also, great article Tim.

    • Tim Martin

      Thanks, Adam! Apologies for the late reply – I’m in Rio and don’t have much time for blogging.

      Yes, I’m sure the dangers of sex were amplified back in Biblical days, and that would change how people thought about it. Still, your explanation doesn’t touch on the incredible theology of Christianity (that God blesses sex between married couples only and makes it some kind of magical spiritual act, etc etc.), nor does it explain the moral proscriptions against certain forms of sex. That is the key issue, and the key immorality of religious teachings on sex – that it is a moral failing to do it without a contract.

      Anyway, I’ve been thinking lately that I’d love to know more about how pre-marital sex became a “sin” in early Christian circles. I’m sure the history would be quite edifying. If anyone knows of any books that deal with the subject, please let me know!

  2. I found your remarks of interest. Please note:

    1. In the material which you quoted (from allexperts.com) I was presenting the official position of the United Methodist Church as published in the Social Principles. I do not necessarily agree with all of the positions articulated by my denomination in its Social Principles. For instance, I have been outspoken in my opposition to the UMC’s negative stance on homosexual practice. Specifically, I believe that gays and lesbians should not only be granted all the rights and privileges available to heterosexuals through civil marriage, but that UMC clergy should be allowed by their Bishiops to perform gay marriages. I know many gays and lesbians who live with their partners in loving, caring, committed relationships which have all the characteristics of marriage; they already live a “married life,” even if they don’t have the legal rights and protections that come with a marriage license, or the formal recognition of their various churches. And, I believe God blesses them in their commitments to each other.

    2. The context from which you lifted my remarks was a Q&A with a person who was already involved in “a committed, loving relationship” … a relationship which already obtained the most important characteristics of a marriage. My question to her in that context was: “If you and your boy friend truly are committed to each other in a loving relationship — i.e., one that has the characteristics of marriage — then why not enter into the marriage covenant together? Unless something is preventing you from doing so, this is the proper course for you.” In other words, I couldn’t understand why she would not wish to seek marriage with her boyfriend if they were already living in a relationship which, in many respects, was typified by the characteristics found in a marriage (i.e., a mutual commitment.) Please note, no where in my response to her did tell her to stop having sex with her boy friend.

    3. In my response, I further stated: “So often we are prone to cheapen human sexuality and the good gift of God that sexual intimacy can bring when we engage in casual, uncommitted, uncovenanted sex. To this end, the *ideal* for all sexual relations is the marriage covenant.” Please note the stress on the word “ideal.” I understand the ideal context for sexual relations is a marriage or marriage-like covenant. And, I believe this is true for heterosexuals as well as for homosexuals. Sex that occurs outside such a context is frequently — but, I will grant, not always — exploitive and can be abusive to the dignity of another.

    4. Personally, I do not view premarital sex between to consenting adults who are already committed to one another in a loving, caring, supportive relationship to be intrinsically harmful. It might not be the “ideal” for sex to take place prior to the formal marriage, but when it occurs in such a context it is nevertheless taking place within a marriage-like condition which tends to preclude abuse or exploitation. And, frankly, real life is rarely ideal. My prayer for such people is that they love each other, commit to each other, and when they can — if the law allows — they marry. And, yes, I hold this position for homosexuals as well as for heterosexuals; my prayer is that the laws in the USA will be changed, and that the UMC will also change its own rules and allow for gays and lesbians to marry.

    • Tim Martin

      Before I reply, I need clarification on a few points.

      1. I do not at all understand your recommendation that Jennifer and her boyfriend get married simply because they are in a loving, committed relationship. I can think of a number of fantastic reasons why they should not yet get married – unless you’re using the words “loving” and “committed” to mean different things than what I’m used to.

      Let me use the example of my girlfriend and me, since we too are in a loving, committed relationship. Just because she and I are committed to each other now does not mean that we are ready to commit to each other for life. We are still in many ways getting to know each other. We are still testing our relationship and our love. It may very well happen at some time in the future that we discover our incompatibility, or that we find our love for each other diminishing, possibly due to a reason that we cannot do anything about. In other words, there is a great deal more knowledge and experience as a couple that will be required before we can say “I want to commit to this person for life,” despite the fact that we love each other and are committed to each other at present.

      Furthermore, most of the people I know in serious dating relationships are similarly “loving” and “committed.” Based on those requirements alone you are recommending that all of them get engaged immediately! And yet, like myself, I’m sure they are not yet ready for that step, otherwise they would do so.

      So please explain how you can make this recommendation so glibly.

      2. Please give an example of what you mean by “cheapening human sexuality.”

      3. Please give an example of sex that is “exploitative, demeaning, or abusive to the dignity of another.”

      4. Do you have any scientific evidence (i.e. controlled, non-anecdotal evidence) that pre-marital sex tends to be harmful? If not, what evidence of any kind do you have?

      5. “Personally, I do not view premarital sex between to consenting adults who are already committed to one another in a loving, caring, supportive relationship to be intrinsically harmful.”

      Do you believe it is morally wrong, or deserving of some sort of reprobation? Does the UMC?

      If not, what else could it possibly mean to say that sex is “only affirmed” among married couples? And what else could you possibly mean when you say that this stance is “the correct and appropriate one”?

      ————————-
      As an aside, I’m interested in how pre-marital sex originally came to be viewed as a sin in Christianity. If you have any information on this, including anything early church theologians were writing on the matter, I would greatly appreciate it.

  3. Tim Martin

    Hello Dr. Neal. Thank you for your comments – I do intend on responding, but I’m currently on vacation and don’t have as much time as I’d like to consider what you wrote. I will respond though, by next week at the latest.

  4. Joy Grad

    I have always been a proponent of sex outside of marriage. I have always taken my position for granted and have been pretty lucky to have had mostly sweet, loving encounters in my life. It has been eye-opening along the way to run into those with vastly different attitudes on premarital sex. The main stand out would be a born again Christian who I briefly dated. He was so pent up with sexual frustration that after one (amazing!) kiss he told me “No matter what I say, don’t let me sleep w/you!” A friend of mine had a similar experience with a different born again Christian. This is not a healthy attitude towards sex on many levels brought about by religious teachings that vilify sex before marriage. In a similar vein, I know of a Mormon couple that only got married so they could have sex.

    I agree with you, Tim, that many people don’t need to be married to be good to eachother. Treating another human being well, with love and caring, is a function of our personalities, and, as you said, marriage won’t fix any relationship or personality problems. Conversely, there are plenty of married couples who don’t treat each other well at all. I remember reading a while ago that most violence is spousal in nature.

    I do know, however, any number of people that professed a deepened sense of commitment to their partner after going through the marriage process. Pre-marriage they would consider an affair, whereas post-marriage they wouldn’t. Is that lingering religious or social conditioning on their part? Or is it the public ritual of professing ones love for another that added that deeper layer? I know of others who have had marriage-like ceremonies that did not want to get officially married to serve that purpose, to commit to each other before their friends and relatives.

    Funnily enough, I know one couple who only wanted to get married because vasectomies were free for married couples in that state! It worked.

    What I don’t like about religious teachings forcing marriage on couples is that it perpetuates the segmenting of people into good and evil. Committed, loving, sexual relationships outside of marriage happen all around us every day and we can never know the details of one couples committment to each other and how it varies from another.
    If every kind of relationship is accepted in society does marriage lose it’s meaning or does it just go on meaning different things to different people? Do we still need it for legal purposes like insurance, inheritance, legal responsibility for children? So what am I saying? I moved from a position of anti-marriage to a more neutral position that accepts the importance of the marriage convention in people’s lives for different reasons but in no way agree with Dr. Neal that it is the ideal or that most sex outside of marriage is exploitative in nature.

  5. Dear Tim,

    I’ll address your remarks and questions as best I can:

    You wrote: “I do not at all understand your recommendation that Jennifer and her boyfriend get married simply because they are in a loving, committed relationship. I can think of a number of fantastic reasons why they should not yet get married – unless you’re using the words “loving” and “committed” to mean different things than what I’m used to.”

    I may be using a different set of expectations and definitions. I understand “committed” to mean a monogamous commitment that is intended for life. That it doesn’t always work out that way is understood … nevertheless it often does.

    “It may very well happen at some time in the future that we discover our incompatibility, or that we find our love for each other diminishing, possibly due to a reason that we cannot do anything about. In other words, there is a great deal more knowledge and experience as a couple that will be required before we can say “I want to commit to this person for life,” despite the fact that we love each other and are committed to each other at present.”

    This does happen, and when it happens to a married couple divorce is the legal (and, in some cases, the moral) option. I don’t consider divorce a good thing, but it is sometimes a necessary thing. This is especially true where the incompatibility is generating physical, emotional, or spiritual harm on one or both persons in the marriage.

    “Furthermore, most of the people I know in serious dating relationships are similarly “loving” and “committed.” Based on those requirements alone you are recommending that all of them get engaged immediately! And yet, like myself, I’m sure they are not yet ready for that step, otherwise they would do so.”

    I agree that, in many dating relationships, a couple is not ready to either engage or marry. I also understand that, in many such cases, sexual relations occur. That is simply the way things frequently are and I agree with my boss that “the one who is without sin should be the one to cast the first stone.” If the dating relationship leads to a sense of commitment and a bond of love between two people, I do believe that the couple should outwardly express this to family, friends, and society and, when the time is right for them, enter into a marriage covenant which brings many rights and privileges (legal and financial) as well as spiritual aspects that people of religious faith (as the couple in the Q&A were) tend to accept.

    “2. Please give an example of what you mean by “cheapening human sexuality.””

    Objectification, as occurs with pornography and prostitution, can occur in casual sexual encounters. Principally at fault here is when another person is used as a thing, a toy, an object, and not known, experienced, or appreciated as the whole person they are.

    “3. Please give an example of sex that is “exploitative, demeaning, or abusive to the dignity of another.””

    Rape. Pornography. Child molestation, child rape, and child pornography. Sex Slavery and the “Sex Trade” (as found, for example, in Asia, but can also be found in the United States and Europe). In short, any time one person gratifies their sexual desires/needs through sexual interaction with another where the other finds it an unwanted, undesired, or coercive act.

    “4. Do you have any scientific evidence (i.e. controlled, non-anecdotal evidence) that pre-marital sex tends to be harmful? If not, what evidence of any kind do you have?”

    While such studies may exist, I do not have access to them. This is not an area of my personal specialization. My understanding of sex outside of the marriage or marriage-like covenant being harmful is rooted within Christian Scripture and Tradition as well as in the experience of others and myself (i.e., anecdotal). Again, please note that I do not say that sex outside of marriage is *necessarily* harmful, but that it can tend to be harmful. I know plenty of examples where it has not been harmful (or, a least, where the harm is not evident). I also know of examples where the harm is readily apparent: for example, in instances of date-rape that have occurred among youth I know.

    I had written: “Personally, I do not view premarital sex between to consenting adults who are already committed to one another in a loving, caring, supportive relationship to be intrinsically harmful.”

    Your question: “Do you believe it is morally wrong, or deserving of some sort of reprobation? Does the UMC?”

    Neither the UMC nor I use the term “reprobation.” I would agree with the general approach of the UMC that sexual relations “can be harmful” outside the above-articulated context.

    You further ask: “If not, what else could it possibly mean to say that sex is “only affirmed” among married couples? And what else could you possibly mean when you say that this stance is “the correct and appropriate one”?”

    The UMC affirms marriage as the *ideal* context for sexual relations, and subsequently affirms that status as the *ideal norm.* I nominally agree with this statement, while challenging the UMC to admit gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender person to the marriage covenant. I also extend marriage to marriage-like relationships … as would most UMC pastors. In other words, I recognize that there may well be reasons why two persons may not want or be able to enter into marriage (legal, social, financial, etc.). In such circumstances, I recognize that the marriage-like quality of their relationship is what is important here, not a legal document or even a religious ceremony. This doesn’t abrogate the affirmation that marriage is nevertheless the ideal context for sex; the ideal still exists, it’s just that life isn’t always ideal.

    The UMC tends to be practical on such matters: we will affirm what we believe to be the *ideal* context for sexual relations while, at the very same time, understand and accept that sex will occur in other contexts. We don’t feel we can affirm those other contexts, but we resist condemning *anyone.* Look at the UMC’s language about homosexual practice for an example of this: our official position is that we cannot affirm homosexual practice because we believe it to be “incompatible with Christian teaching” but nowhere does our Discipline use condemnatory language for practicing homosexuals. Quite the contrary, the Discipline States:

    “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.”

    See also:

    “Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons. We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting their rightful claims where they have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law. Moreover, we support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against gays and lesbians.”

    And, finally, you asked: “As an aside, I’m interested in how pre-marital sex originally came to be viewed as a sin in Christianity. If you have any information on this, including anything early church theologians were writing on the matter, I would greatly appreciate it.”

    Basically, it was understood that the Hebrew Scriptures forbade sexual relations outside of the marriage convent, and hence the church followed that teaching. This can be seen in the New Testament Church period, where authors like Paul and those who followed Paul gave their opinions in regard to sexual relations outside the marriage convent. In short, the Church adopted this viewpoint from the Jewish community that came before it. It was also a view that was not incompatible with some Gentile approaches within the Greek and Roman world, hence it wasn’t difficult to translate across the Jewish-Christian to the Gentle-Christian communities.

    Regards,

    Greg

  6. Meghan K

    Nice post! I think I had a professor once sum it up quite nicely for me – Would you buy a car without test driving it? Would you buy a house without looking inside? We explore practically every option imaginable when it comes to big decisions in life, why wouldn’t we do the same with a person we may want to be with for potentially the rest of our lives? Sex is just another aspect of a person and being sexually compatible or incompatible can have a big effect on a relationship considering that sex is a basic biological desire that people have.

    Coming from a fairly religious upbringing I appreciate the teachings of waiting for someone special (not necessarily marriage but not just throwing yourself around to anyone) and feel that it is easiest to simply make marriage the all defining line between right and wrong from a teacher’s point of view so as to not need to constantly clarify what would be acceptable. I think that people are comfortable with what is written in religious texts and merely don’t want to change with the times because people are resistant to change.

    Looking forward to reading more!

  7. rhomega

    changing religion is as volitale as changing the living US consitution. i think the problem lies within the idea of contract. if sex is so great and pleasurable why it is reserved for only people we love romantically? isn’t being in a commited relationship a contract? i would deem that sex doesn’t even need to be between loving and caring people and often isn’t. Also, I believe there is a statistic somewhere that most people are ashamed of their first sexual encounter. This probably stems from an ingrained part of our purtainical society but there also seems to be “baggage” that comes along with sex that might not be easily seen.

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