Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sex outside marriage: is it okay?

In my old church, sex outside marriage was seen as a sin. That doesn't mean that people didn't do it. But people were expected to wait until marriage before having sex and not have sex unless they were married. Anything else was wrong. They considered this the 'biblical' view and therefore God's view.

It's also been the traditional view. Throughout history, Christians have generally considered sex outside marriage as a sin. However, it was a sin that lots of people were prepared to commit. And generally, people didn't seem to worried about it. Popes have been known to not only have mistresses, but illegitimate children. Men were often actually encouraged to sow their wild oats and even after marriage a mistress on the side was perfectly acceptable - often even expected. So sex outside marriage wasn't considered that big of a deal.

Unless of course you were a woman. Then the rules were completely different. Women were expected to be a virgin on their wedding day and never to take a lover. Obviously some still did. But women's 'fornication' or 'adultery' was seen as a much graver matter than men's 'fornication' or 'adultery'.

Biblical interpretation doesn't exist in a cultural vacuum. And in every time and age people are most likely to interpret the bible in a way that fits well with their cultural ideas. It is quite possible that one reason why sex outside marriage has been seen as a sin for so long is because it kept women from having sex outside marriage. And it was in men's best interests for women to be virgins on their wedding day and remain monogamous. And it suited their culturally formed ideas about what women were meant to be like.

The bible does not exist in a cultural vacuum either. So to understand the bible's teachings on sex outside marriage, we need to understand the culture it was written in. Women had far less status in society than they do today. They had little rights on their own and were often considered to be man's possession. Therefore, to have sex with a woman outside of marriage was to despoil another man's property (either her father's, her future husband's or her husband's).

In 1 Corinthians 7:2, Paul says that men should have sex with their own wife and wives should have sex with their own husband. That seems very plain. However, this is also the chapter where Paul says it is better for the married to stay unmarried. If we had heeded this advice, we probably wouldn't have the population problem we have now. And admittedly, Paul does not say they cannot marry. Indeed, he says it is better to marry than to burn with passion. However, it doesn't seem like good long-term advice.

And we are given some reason for that advice later on in the chapter. Paul says it is 'because of the present crisis' that it is better for people to remain unmarried. And in 1 Corinthians 7:29, he says the time is short. This was a time when people were expecting the Lord's return any day. They were not making plans for 2000 years of Christianity.

This is not to say that sex outside marriage was only bad in Paul's time. However, it is worth noting that we now (with the exception of religious orders in the Catholic Church) have disregarded most of what Paul had to say about remaining unmarried. Can we really still hold fast to its advice about sex outside marriage?

I mentioned before that women's status has changed since biblical times. Indeed, women's inferior status was a constant throughout much of Christianity's history. So too were their lives. It has only been in relatively recent times that a woman's life has consisted of far more than marrying early and spending her life bearing children. In the past, women had little chance to earn money or support themselves. They were totally dependent on their husband. They also had far fewer ways of preventing pregnancy and were greatly disadvantaged if an unwanted pregnancy occurred. In such a context, refraining from having sex outside marriage was a very good idea.

But things have changed. Women now not only can earn money but often want to put children on hold for a while as they pursue a career. And with the invention of the pill, they're able to do that and still enjoy a healthy sex life. In the past, if a woman was not married by the age of 20, she might be seen as a spinster. Now, it's quite common for women to wait until they're 30 before getting married. It's also quite common for women to go travelling or pursue other interests in their 20s. Women are doing a lot more than they used to. And marriage and children are getting delayed.

And I personally think that can be a good thing. I had my first child while I was 24. And while that's not as young as some other people I know, it did mean I didn't get the chance to travel or pursue a career or even have the same kind of social life that other people in their 20s often get. Not that I regret it, of course. And there are lots of benefits to having children young. But I can also see the benefits of waiting until you're older. 

So should sex have to wait until someone's 30? Different people will have different answers to that. But whatever the answer is, we have to recognise that waiting until you're 30 to have sex is completely different to waiting until you're 15!

But this does not mean we should just dismiss any biblical teachings about sex as culturally irrelevant. If the bible says something, it's worth asking questions about why it says it. Is it just because those teachings met cultural expectations? Or is there a deeper reason?

I think one thing the bible constantly says about sex is that it is a special act. It binds you to another person - not just physically, but emotionally. While I do not think this necessarily means we have to wait until we're married to have sex, we do need to carefully consider who we have sex with. And we need to be aware that it a special act and that it does have emotional consequences.

Society's expectation nowadays is often the complete opposite to what the traditional and biblical view on sex before marriage was. Now, we're told we can have sex with whomever we want, whenever we want. It doesn't matter. It's not important. It's just two consenting adults having fun.

And yet this view of sex can damage people - particularly women, who are far more likely to make an emotional investment in the act of sex. Since the sexual revolution, how many women have had sex with a man thinking he likes her only to find out he just wanted sex? My guess is millions. How many women find themselves having sex when they're don't really want to, just because they feel it's expected of them? Just because society tells us it's okay to have sex now doesn't mean it won't cause us pain.

A few writers have made the comment that, while the sexual revolution was meant to bring women a whole more freedom in the area of sex, all it really ended up doing was make women more sexually available for men. Men often benefited just as much as women - maybe even more so.

And while women's status has improved, the sexual revolution might be said to have actually diminished women's status, rather than improved it. Women are now much more likely to be seen as sexual objects and expected to be sexually available. And sexual objectification is just another way of seeking to possess someone.

I'm not saying that people should never have one-night stands. Nor am I saying that women shouldn't want to be sexy. We are sexual beings. And that's okay. It seems to me that God made us like that. Maybe we should acknowledge that, rather than trying to ignore it. However, it's because we're sexual beings that sex is important, and I think we need to acknowledge that too.

We can't take the bible's teaching on sex and transplant them to our own culture as though nothing has changed. It has. But nor can we dismiss them as culturally irrelevant. They still have something to teach us. And in the end, what people do with those teachings is really a matter between them and God.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Life without germs is not much of a life

Last week in Australia came the news that the government had created stricter hygiene and sanitary regulations for childcare centres. These new standards included children not being allowed to blow out candles on a communal birthday cake and having to use hand-sanitiser before and after playing in the sandpit.

Later on came the news that a study by Stanford University revealed that actually exposing children to some germs may be good for them, as it builds up their immune system. Out of all the mothers I have spoken to about it, not one was shocked by this news.

So why do we have such stringent requirements when it comes to sanitation and hygiene? And what is that doing to us?

The emphasis on germs really began in the post-war period. This was a period when women were forced back into the home after doing work during the war. It was also a period when a new wave of household appliances supposedly freed up house-wives' time. It was also a time when consumerism really took off.

Having more stricter cleanliness requirements not only meant that women were kept busier, but that there was a ready market for more products particularly aimed at house-wives.

Things have changed a bit since that time, but I can't kept thinking that at least some of our ideas about cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation come from the very companies that are trying to sell us products.

We've all seen the ads where a women cleans the bathroom, but (shock, horror) doesn't get all the germs. No, if she wants the germs, she has to buy this particular brand of product that is guaranteed to pick up germs that the other products leave behind.

I remember when I was a new mother, receiving a free magazine and pack. The pack contained lots of samples of things I might need for my new baby. The magazine was filled with ads for more products. And looking back, I would say that many of those ads really capitalise on the fears that a new mother has. Many a new mother would have looked at those ads and thought they immediately needed to go out and buy a million and one things just to keep their baby safe, healthy and free from germs.

And this is probably a good time to say that an emphasis on hygiene and safety can be a good thing. The discovery that it was important to wash hands in hospital actually saved lives. And I for one am pleased that someone created products to keep cupboards locked so that little fingers (and mouths) could not get into them.

But have we gone too far?

The rules about birthday cakes are only for childcare centres. Parents can still choose to have a communal birthday cake at their own party if they wish. And I'm sure that many parents will. But will some parents see these new laws and suddenly worry that their child should not eat any cake where another child has blowed out the candles. I can all too easily imagine a scenario where little Tommy has a birthday party and little Jane's mother says Jane can't have any birthday cake if Tommy blows out the candles - spoiling the moment for both Tommy and Jane.

Birthdays are special, magical, joyful times for children. And one of the best things about birthdays (besides the presents, of course) is blowing out the candles. Children have been doing it for years. And I don't think we've suffered too much for it. And if any of us did catch someone else's cold, it's a small price to pay for sharing this moment together.

And that's one thing about strict sanitary regulations. It keeps people apart. Yes, when we share things, we may share germs. But we also share special moments. We are together as a family, a group or a community. The occasional cold is a small price to pay for that.

Some churches have now stopped allowing parishioners to share from the same cup during communion. Again, this is an attempt to stop the spreading of germs. And while I can see times when this might be a good practice (for example, when deadly viruses are widespread), it kind of ruins the meaning of sharing communion. In communion, we all come together. We partake in the one bread and the one wine. We share in the one faith. That's symbolic and it's special. And yes, we can still have that drinking from separate communion glasses. But something is lost if we do.  

At some point we need to ask ourselves if the price we're paying to keep ourselves free from germs is actually worth what we are losing. And part of what we are losing is our sense of belonging to the one community. We focus on the individual rather than the shared sense of being together.

We are not only isolating ourselves from each other. We are isolating ourselves from nature. The hand-sanitising before and after sandpit use is an example of how we wish to protect ourselves from dirt (and often nature).

Nature can make us dirty. Nature can expose us to germs. Nature can make us cold and wet and lower our immune system. Nature can bite and sting and hurt us.

So what do we do in our super-safe, super-sanitised (and super-comfortable) world we have created? It's telling that many eco-holidays are now held in very clean, very comfortable and very safe resort type settings. People get to experience nature without being exposed to any of the risk. But it kind of seems that that super-safe, super-sanitised and super-comfortable experience of nature is missing at least some of what nature has to offer.

And what about the backyard? Or the park? Or general everyday places where kids get to experience nature? Do we keep our kids far from any of that because they might get hurt or they might catch germs? I personally think that a childhood where we don't experience nature is far worse than a childhood where we might get sick or get stung now and then.

My son got stung by a bee just recently. I asked him whether he thought it would have been better to not play outside, because therefore he wouldn't have got stung by a bee. His answer was no. When asked why he said, 'Because then I wouldn't get any exercise or any sun and I wouldn't have fun.' When I said, 'What if you knew you would get stung by a bee again if you played outside, would you still play outside?' His answer, 'yes' and he didn't really need to think about it too much.

There's one way to keep children safe. Keep them isolated in sterilised rooms, with nothing dangerous and no contact with anyone or barely anything. But that's not living.

We're not meant to live highly sterilised, highly safe, highly comfortable lives. Whether we like it or not, we are connected to each other and we are connected to nature. And that involves some risk. But the risk is worth it. Because a life that's connected to other people and connected to nature also contains much joy. And anyone who has experience that joy would say that it was worth the risk to get it.  


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