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.

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