Good Christian Sex, Chapters 3 and 4--Getting Away from the Golden Ticket

Chapters 3 and 4 of Good Christian Sex are, at a 10,000 foot level, a critique of the traditional Christian superstructure and presuppositions regarding marriage and sex.  McCleneghan expresses that superstructure accurately, if snarkily, as follows:

The Church Universal, as I hope is becoming clear, can be so entirely goofy on the topics of sex, love, and relationships.  Sex is a critical part of identity (but only if you are straight, and fit traditional gender roles, and are married).  Singleness is great and easy to bear and a virtue, and celibacy is expected; but, whoa, man, does God want you to get married and enjoy the marital bed (which is both a joy and an obligation!) and start cranking out those Christian babies who will complete your life and give you purpose.  God will bless you with all of these things (unless He chooses not to, in which case you are to submit to His will, too bad, so sad).

Let's talk first about the marriage piece, which hovers around all of the discussions in Chapters 3 and 4 (and Chapter 5 and 6 as well, and maybe the rest of the book).  Distilled down to its most basic form, (straight) marriage in the traditional Christian moral context is seen as the Golden Ticket of sexuality--all sexual expression without the Golden Ticket is immoral, and all sexual expression while possessing the Golden Ticket is moral.  In a sense, that's sort of the end of the analysis of sexual morality, as everything can ultimately be resolved in reference to whether or not the parties in question possess the Golden Ticket.

McCleneghan views this Golden Ticket model to be inadequate as a basis for sexual morality.  True, part of the reason she feels it is inadequate is because she thinks it is overinclusive, leading to what for many is the most controversial conclusion of book--that sex before/outside of marriage is not necessarily morally unacceptable.  But Chapter 3 is mostly about how the Golden Ticket model is also underinclusive in the way that it provides a blanket approval to anything that might go on within a marriage.

McCleneghan's framing example for Chapter 3 is a college relationship that she had.  It's a common enough story--one party to the relationship is all the way in, and the other party (in this case, McCleneghan) likes having someone around to hook up with but is not fully committed, despite knowing full well that the other party is all in.  McCleneghan concludes that she was morally wrong to engage in the relationship in the way she did.  Not because they were having sex together, but because she was knowingly exploiting the fact that he was completely into her in order to get what she wanted, without having to commit to anything.

McCleneghan buttresses this conclusion by citing Sr. Margaret Farley's book Just Love, especially Farley's seven principles.  I should pause here and say that it is great that McCleneghan is introducing Farley's ideas to a wider audience--Just Love is a wonderful book but not exactly a beach read, so having others take what Farley has done and repackage it to a wider audience is exciting to see.  In any event, Farley and McCleneghan insist that a truly just relationship needs to be mutual, and it needs to be equal, and neither of those things are true where one person is, consciously or unconsciously, using the affections of the other to get what they want without a reciprocal commitment.

What's important about this analysis is that it is on a different plane altogether from the fact that the parties in question are not married to each other.
Marriage would not make the relationship McCleneghan describes just, nor is marriage a guarantee that this arrangement will not occur.   One can easily imagine how a married couple's relationship could be unjust in precisely the same way the relationship described by McCleneghan was.  Said another way, a lack of being married to your partner does not make your relationship inherently unjust, and being married doesn't make your relationship necessarily just.  You might view whether the parties are married as an indication of whether the relationship is just, but marriage or non-marriage is not in and of itself a moral criteria under this view.

I have said before that I think that Christian sexual morality is underinclusive in many important ways, and Chapter 3 does a good job of laying out the case for this position.  But that doesn't answer the question of why the old line is overinclusive as well--you could easily say that you have to follow all of Farley's seven principles and all of the old rules.  McCleneghan's defense of the overinclusiveness idea comes in part in Chapter 4, which is about being single.  Before getting to what McCleneghan does say about that, I want to bring up something that I am a bit surprised she doesn't mention.  It is a question for our more conservative, especially evangelical, friends---where exactly in the Bible does it explicitly say that pre-marital sex is never OK?  You can point to discussions of "adultery," but that's doesn't cover pre-marital sex unless you have a pre-existing commitment to the notion that only sex in marriage is morally acceptable.  Ditto for Greek terms like porneia in the New Testament--saying that "sexual immorality" includes pre-marital sex is begging the question.  One would think that the claim that everything you need to know about sexual morality can be distilled down to "don't have pre-marital sex" (i.e. the Golden Ticket model) would have unambiguous Scriptural support, but such support is no where to be found.  It seems like a moral principle that is just treated as a given, accepted without question and without much backing.

Having mentioned that one perhaps missed opportunity, I want to say that Chapter 4 is the best thing I have ever read on the topic of singleness, and worth the price of the book on its own.  As someone who has been single for the vast majority of my adult life, I have never encountered a more hopeful and sensitive discussion of being single anywhere in any context.  For me, reading it was both personal and moving, especially because McCleneghan is happily married, and married relatively young.  I have found that many happily married folks are often not especially sympathetic or helpful to folks who are walking this path, and so to here someone "get it" without having fully experienced it is a sign of a pretty awesome and unusual person.  So, from one of your target audience, thank you.

McCleneghan begins by naming the structural problem--by placing all of the emphasis on marriage and couplehood, anyone who is not coupled up for whatever reason is banished to a kind of Christian Phantom Zone--a liminal space where their lives are sort of in stasis until they become "real" people by getting together.  It is not so much that being single is condemned morally (though, there is some of that) as it is ignored.  And, in so doing, a whole large category of people are simply not taken seriously as part of sexual moral analysis or by the broader Christian culture.  If Christian life is about relationships--to God and to others and to ourselves--there must be an accounting in that scheme for people who are single to build those relationships in the context of their current circumstances, and support for them to do so.  As misguided as I think folks like Eve Tushnet and the other "New Homophiles" or "Side B Christians" are, they raise an important conversation about how the Christian church has become entirely monolithic in its insistence on exclusive partnership as the only relevant model of adult human relationships.

Where single people are considered, it is often exclusively in terms of telling them not to have sex, and otherwise sent along their way without any other meaningful support.  McCleneghan recognizes that people who find themselves single, especially those who are single not by choice and/or for an extended period of time, are dealing with loneliness or shame or a sense of failure or some combination of all three.  In that context, being hyper-focused on their sex lives seems to be either missing the point or some sort of cruel joke.

McCleneghan also notes that periods of singleness are often occasions for broader questioning of God--if God loves me, how come I am stuck being alone?  McCleneghan doesn't provide solutions here so much as she calls us to be attentive and respectful of the difficulties and pain that people in these situations might be facing, avoiding facile or minimizing dismissals of what people are going through.  Part of being sensitive to this is be aware of not adding additional shame or guilt on top of what is already there.

McCleneghan then wades into the turbulent waters of the sexuality of Jesus.  The Church has traditionally insisted that Jesus was unmarried and celibate, but some (Dan Brown et al., the Mormons) have claimed He was in fact married, while others say that He was gay.  What is more important than His precise sexuality, McCleneghan asserts, is the fact that He stood outside of the rigid social structure that mandated a singular, normative model of relating to others.  Jesus was, in the broadest sense of the term, "queer," irrespective of who He may have been attracted to.  Seen in that light, the idea that Jesus was celibate is not (as it was traditionally seen) a demonstration that sexuality was to be held under suspicion, but as a piece of Jesus's broader program of solidarity with all of the marginalized and forgotten in society.  The idea that Jesus chose to be single to stand along side those who are single not by choice was something I had never thought of before, and something I found to be profoundly moving spiritually.  I get a little emotional just writing it, to be honest.

In this context, McCleneghan implicitly draws a distinction between singleness and celibacy.  Celibacy is, or I would argue should be (and I suspect McCleneghan would agree), a life chosen for the purpose of providing an alternative vehicle for relating to others, ourselves, and God.  In the example of Jesus, He chooses to be celibate (on this reading) in order to facilitate and demonstrate the radically inclusive love of God that reached even to (and maybe especially to) people who are not experiencing human love in the present.  That's celibacy ordered to some higher end (Professor Sarah Coakley, who I have talked about before, discusses this in her recent book The New Asceticism).  Whatever the merits of celibacy, it has nothing to do with single people who are seeking on some level not be single at some future.  For one thing, this reading of celibacy categorically requires that it be fully and freely chosen, while singleness is very often not chosen at all.  So, to talk about celibacy in the context of single people is unhelpful and a category mistake.

Summed up succinctly, Chapter 4 essentially says, "being single is hard and lonely and often results in being ignored or pushed into pre-determined boxes that don't really fit.  Back up, give them space, and don't add to their burdens."  It is in service of this agenda of not adding to their burdens that McCleneghan is unwilling to condemn all non-marital sex.  In essence, McCleneghan argues that many folks are faced with a significant task of finding a way to build a life of love and relationships without a committed partner, often not by their own choice, without a great deal of social support.  To ask them to do that and insist that they never have any intimate experiences while doing so is too heavy a yoke to be expected to bear.  McCleneghan ultimately lands in the same place Richard Beck lands with his reflection "Refuse to Blow the Candles Out."

But here is where the two pieces of the argument work together--by moving away from the idea of the Golden Ticket that places on marriage all the moral work, McCleneghan can define an otherwise loaded term like "chastity" like this:

Plenty of women and men love sex, and need it-we need bodily pleasure, remember--and the abundant life for them will involve seeking out relationships of mutual pleasure.  Chastity, or just sex, requires that whether we are married or unmarried, our sex lives restrain our egos in ways that destroy mutuality, restrain our desire for physical pleasure when pursuing it would bring harm to self or other.

Being single is not a license to do whatever you want sexually, but instead holds you to the same standards that married people are held to in the context of their relationships.  I think it is fair to say that it is harder to have just sex with a non-permanent partner (you don't know them as well, you have less "relationship capital" at stake, etc.), but it certainly isn't impossible.  And, going back to the underinclusive dimension, it is also not the case that being married is some guarantee that all of the sex will be just.  Ultimately, everyone is on the same playing field and held to the same basic standard.

So, good stuff, especially Chapter 4.  The next two chapters are related--Chapter 5 on nakedness and vulnerability, and Chapter 6 on intimacy.

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