Good Christian Sex, Chapters 1 and 2--The Question Behind the Question

Chapter 1 of Good Christian Sex is about pleasure and, more specifically, self pleasure (McCleneghan makes the case that "masturbation" is a ugly and negative word, and while I hadn't thought about it before, I think she is right), and Chapter 2 is about desire, especially our first early experiences of desire.  Before I get to the specifics of those chapters, there is something that has come into focus for me--before we talk about the specifics of sexual morality, we first have to figure out what sexual morality is and what it involves, because Christians definitely don't agree on this preliminary point.

Here's what I mean.  There are basically two accounts of what is at stake in sexual morality (and all morality, but the book is about sex and sexual morality puts these issues into sharp relief).  The first view, which we can call "Side A," is that there are a set of things that God doesn't want us to do with regard to sex, and, if we do them anyway, then God will be mad at us.  What is at stake with sexual morality, then, is a divine relationship, namely the individual relationship between the believer and God.  In contrast, "Side B" understands the question of sexual morality in terms of human relationships--certain sexual behaviors harm ourselves, or others, or both, and as such those behaviors are immoral.

These two ideas are not mutually exclusive.  Side B folks, at least those who are believers, will say that God's will is that we not harm ourselves and/or each other, and as such God is concerned about sexual behavior.  Plus, God gives rules that represent the codification of how we can avoid harming each other--basically a kind of instruction manual for life.  Likewise, Side A folks will generally argue that things that violate God's law will also harm ourselves or others.  But the place where you start and the place where you put your emphasis matters a great deal in how you approach sexual issues.  [As an aside, while Catholicism asserts that under natural law theory that these two sides are necessarily in alignment, as a practical matter most Catholics default either to Side A or Side B as a focus.  Which is probably why Catholics can get to such different moral conclusions.]

In particular, which of these two sides you start from determines the importance you place on experience, both one's personal experiences and the collective experiences of people as expressed in things like surveys and psychological studies.  If you are a Side B person, this kind of information is critical, because it allows you to figure out what kinds of behaviors and circumstances actually cause harm.  So, taking the question of self-pleasure, if you have strong evidence that this behavior is harmless, and likely even a positive and healthy part of well-adjusted sexual life, then that is a strong indication that there is nothing immoral about self-pleasure.  After all, the touchstone of immorality in a Side B perspective is harm, and if there is no harm, then there is likely no immorality. When you find that your evidence is in conflict with traditional Christian sexual morality, then either your evidence is bad, or you have to rethink your interpretation of Christian sources, but either way the conflict has to be resolved.  (See here for some good thoughts along those lines).

If you are a Side A person, all of this experiential evidence is beside the point.  There is no particular reason why God can only get mad at you for doing things can harm people, since God can do whatever God wants.  In Side A terms, the only thing that ultimately matters is what God wants and doesn't want, allows or doesn't allow.  Telling Side A people that self-pleasure doesn't harm anyone, and even has health benefits, doesn't move the needle because it is not addressing their core concern.  If you want to convince Side A people that self-pleasure is OK, you have to convince them that God isn't going to be mad at them if they self-pleasure.

McCleneghan is clearly a Side B person, and the book is manifestly written from a Side B perspective.
That works for me because I, too, am a Side B person.  But this Side A/Side B divide I think explains why a couple of the reviews I have read (both of which were generally positive) have wished that the book "did more to engage with the Scriptures."  On its face, this is an unfair criticism.  Getting back to self-pleasure, there is really only one Scripture passage that deals directly with the topic, and that is the story of Onan (Genesis 38).  McCleneghan discusses that passage, arguing that by "spilling his seed on the ground" as opposed to impregnating Tamar, Onan was denying Tamar the possibility of economic security that comes from having a child (preferably a son).  So, the story of Onan is about charity and concern for the less fortunate, not self-pleasure, and in any event is entirely dependent on an economic and social system that is long gone (and good riddance).  Now, you can accept this interpretation of the passage or not, but once you have discussed this passage you have exhausted all of the relevant Scriptural issues with regard to self-pleasure.  What more could she have talked about?

With respect, when these reviewers say "I wish the book talked more about the Scriptures," what I think they really mean is "I wish the book made a more rigorous argument as to why God won't be mad at us if we do these things."  In other words, "do more to address your arguments to the Side A crowd."  I wouldn't pretend to speak for McCleneghan, but it seems to me that the roots of the Side A/Side B divide are far more fundamental than sexual morality, and go directly to one's understanding of God.  To me, the best way to address Side A folks is to convince them to stop being Side A people--get them away from the idea that God is up in Heaven evaluating each of us on a divine checklist and getting angry at us when we flunk some item.  But that involves a discussion of grace much more than one about self-pleasure, and I think a long exegesis on the unconditional nature of divine love would take the book in a different direction, and take time away from a solid, Side B discussion of why self-pleasure can be a good thing.

Having said all of that about what is not in the book, let's talk about what is in these two chapters.  I found three themes that run through both chapters that were extremely thoughtful and helpful.  The first has to do with incarnational theology.  Many strands of Christianity love to talk about the significance of the Incarnation--by taking on human form, God shows endorses embodiedness and physicality over and against a dualist denigration of the the flesh in favor of the spirit.  And those strands tend to roll along down that line, until the topic of sex comes up.  The moment embodied sexual pleasure and desire come up, we too often quickly snap back into being anti-physicality dualists.

If the Incarnation shows us that embodiedness is good, then there is no principled reason why sexuality and sexual pleasure should be treated any differently than any other dimension of embodiedness and viewed as equally good.  And, importantly, there is no reason not to view it as good on its own terms. This is one of the core problems with Theology of the Body, and it was on clear display in Holy Sex!--as I said in that review, the basic message of Theology of the Body is that "[s]ex is only OK as long as it is really about something else."  Sex is good because it mirrors the love between Christ and His Church or because it brings spiritual blessings to the couple or is sacramental.  In other words, physical sex only becomes justified so long as it is not really about the physical at all, but instead is reframed in spiritual terms.

McCleneghan insists on finding the good of sex in its very physicality.  Pleasure and desire are human embodied realities, and are thus fundamentally good, full stop.  Capable of being abused and capable of abusing others, certainly, but nevertheless fundamentally good in and of itself.  Self-pleasure and desire are thus ways in which people, especially young people, can connect with their own embodiedness, and are thus good things in general as well.  I never really put the pieces together in the clean way McCleneghan does here, and I think she really adds to the discussion of the intersection of Christianity and sexuality by calling us away from our temptation to retreat from the Incarnation and from affirming embodiedness.

Related to this first point, she names a certain kind of hesitation or conservatism that is often passed on to people in sexual formation.  There is a tendency to present sexuality as a parade of horribles, whether in the form of moral horribles or medical horribles or emotional horribles or some combination of all three.  In doing so, there are folks, and I will say I was (and probably on some level still am) one of these folks, that become skittish or hesitant in engaging with their own sexuality and with others in a sexual context in fear of having something go wrong.  Again, this is not to deny that are aren't some extremely bad outcomes that can come as a result of being too adventurous with sexuality, but simply to say that there are also negative consequences that can come from not being adventurous enough.  Those negative consequences from a lack of adventurousness are often not recognized--people often have this notion that we can't go wrong by doing more, by hook or by crook, to keep young people from being too sexual.

In service of presenting a more balanced perspective, McCleneghan talks openly about her first "full" sexual experience and how it wasn't done under the best circumstances--it was something of a hook-up with someone with whom she was not especially committed to or engaged with.  The reason I think that story is helpful is because it cuts against the way in which bad sexual experiences are often presented in catastrophic tones.  The message I took away from that story was, "look, there is a real chance that you are going to make some decisions in this area that you are not going to look back on especially fondly.  That's something to work to avoid, but the fear of such an event should not paralyze you or prevent you from engaging with others and growing into comfort with this part of yourself."  I think that is a really important message for young people to hear, and I really wish I had heard it myself when I was a teenager.

Finally, I think it is extremely important that she is forthright about her own pleasure and desire, as well as the general notion that women have sexual desires and drives.  So much of the conservative Christian discourse on sexuality has this underlying current of "men want sex and women don't," and I think it does enormous damage to people (in addition to being simply untrue).  As McCleneghan points out, it makes women hesitant to express or explore their own desires for fear of being shamed.  Or, and this a point I have made before, I think there is a significant segment of women from conservative backgrounds who think that they don't like sex because they have not had the opportunity to figure out how their own bodies work via self-pleasure.  It also causes men to have to pretend to have a level of drive and confidence that they often don't actually have, and makes them think there is something wrong with them if they are not always and everywhere ready to go.

It's hard enough for two people to figure out sexuality together, but it is orders of magnitude harder if one or both of them feel like they can't express what they are really feeling and don't feel comfortable exploring what they want.  Let's not make this any harder or more complicated than it has to be by adding on a set of pre-loaded assumptions about how this is "supposed" to work.

So, good stuff in the first two chapters.  Chapter three might be the most controversial chapter, where McCleneghan argues that sex before marriage is OK.

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