Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Sex Talk

My oldest son has gotten old enough to begin to grasp at least the concept of this aspect of life. We’ve had a few basic talks about the subject, but since he hasn’t hit puberty yet I know there is still a lot he just can’t comprehend, so we haven’t gone in depth at all. One of the interesting things about sexuality is how utterly wrecked our society is when it comes to examining the subject in a holistic manner. It has become such a politicalized subject as our culture tries strenuously to divorce sex from anything spiritual, symbolic, or even deeply emotional. As we try to stress the freedom to exercise our desires and shun the old Victorian facades of propriety, our kids are left in a pretty difficult position. They are told that it is unhealthy to restrain their sexual impulses, and shown in every storytelling medium available that sex is simply what couples do. The glaring flaw our culture’s implicit commandment to “Do as thou wilt.” Is that teens just aren’t wired to be able to process the ramifications of sex. They can’t understand how it affects their psyche or their future. Sure, they have been taught very well about the physical dangers of unprotected sex, but the valueless void of “Do as thou wilt… as long as you use a condom.” Leaves the impression that other dangers are minimal or even non-existent.

I don’t want to come off as an abstinence pamphlet here. I’m not a fear-monger, and I know that the majority of my friends and co-workers have done plenty of premarital sex, yet they are relatively stable, healthy people. So as I consider what I’m going to tell my sons when the time comes, I’m trying to find an approach that considers what the culture is telling them, and what they can easily observe about the real world, along with what they will be feeling. The problem is that I don’t feel it’s particularly useful to combat “Do as thou wilt.” With “Thou shalt not.” I’m sure it works fine for some kids. But I think I can do better than that. I think I can delineate why premarital sex is a bad idea, rather than just saying, “Thou shalt not!”

A recent forum discussion about premarital sex led me to work through this issue in a bit of detail, so I’m using that conversation to record my thoughts on the subject so I can refer back to it when I need to. I’ve edited the conversation down and turned the counter arguments into anonymous questions…

If you have any recognition of life beyond the physical dimensions, you can see that sex has ramifications there. Men and women are affected in drastically different way by sex. In general guys are clueless about how the act affects their partner, and as a result there is all sorts of tension and stupidity because the woman thinks the man "meant" something far deeper and lasting with the sex because that's the way they think. And the man just thinks "Ah, that felt great, hope we can do it again soon." (Obviously not all men are exactly like this, but the point is that we usually process the physical act in a far less emotional way then women.)

I think we don't appreciate the implications that our sexual acts have. As a result I think we are inadvertently disrespecting women with pre-marital sex. (Even though most of the time they are party to the disrespect.) I'm not saying only jerks do it. I'm saying I think we guys don't realize what we're doing. I think the act of sex is just about the most intimate thing you can do with a person, and when the act is not sacred in any way, it's undermined, thereby undermining your intentions of intimacy. You can't make a thing sacred if there are no limits on it.

The core concept I'm trying to get at is matching the physical display of affection with its appropriate context. For example, a peck on the cheek can occur between mom/kid, brother/sister, close friends, or the French/anyone. So the context is one of friendly or family affection. Now when it comes to a romantic relationship the context changes, and so does the physical interaction. I think our society has flattened the entire range of physical interaction that can occur in a romantic relationship. In other words there are only two contexts: romantic and non-romantic. Non-romantic contexts can support light kisses, hugs, hand-holding, etc. Romantic contexts are all seen to support everything from long kissing to explicit sex.

I think that this flattened approach to romance is the result of our culture's choice to ignore the more dimensional view of life that spirituality brings. I'm proposing that more shades of physical interaction are necessary for a healthy and respectful romantic relationship. Because our physical actions are communicating a broader message than we realize. Maybe our language has tripped us up in this area... our astonishing lack of words for different kinds of love may put us in the mindset that a kiss means "I love you." and intercourse means "I love you more." as though that is all that is being communicated.

When we are on a first or second date, and we kiss someone goodnight, everyone knows that the kiss is a signal of intent. It usually means, "I think we may have something here and I want to keep seeing you." Right? That's why it's really weird to kiss someone goodnight after a date and never call again. It's contradicting the implicit communication that the kiss held. Now take it up a notch... Once a couple is deep kissing they are communicating that they really hold each other as something great and are ideally in a long-term relationship. In other words they are creating a context within which the physical act occurs, and is justified by the level of commitment they have with each other.

The fact that lots of people engage in this level of physical intimacy indiscriminately and casually doesn't negate this point. I'm talking about normal, non-substance-induced relationships between non-broken people here.

So this is my problem with sex before marriage. Sex is, obviously, the most intimate physical act a couple can engage in. It's clearly on a different level than kissing and messing around. (Which I also don't encourage.) So when sex is put in the relatively mild context of "We are a committed couple who want to stay in each other's lives for some period of time.", it doesn't match the context. There are different levels of romantic relationship. Being boyfriend/girlfriend, being engaged, and being married are all different in terms of implicit dedication and commitment. Sex is the most intimate thing, carrying with it the heaviest weight of implication possible, but it's put in a context that isn't powerful enough for it. As the highest form of intimacy its only appropriate context is the highest form of commitment: marriage.

That is why I say that premarital sex is disrespectful to each other. The act carries promises that your words have not cemented in reality. You are lying with your penis. And when marriage finally comes, you have no way of sealing the ceremony physically. You have already communicated to your wife that you are willing to have sex outside of the marriage context, and as such, you have diminished the power of the union that you have.

Q. Are you saying that everyone who has premarital sex is deceptive or has bad motives?

No. I want to be careful to note that the disrespect and such all happens ‘under the hood’, as it were, outside the consciousness of the participants. So I am not asserting that there are bad motives here at all. I'm sure most premarital sexual relationships are very loving and mostly pure in motive. My argument is that the participants are inadvertently sabotaging their long term relationship. I'm not saying that they are doomed, I'm saying they are cutting off a very important potential relationship strengthener.

Q. But not all girls equate sex with a lifetime of commitment, right?

Very true. But I'm not talking about what the couple expects or doesn't expect. I'm talking about a scale of propriety/context that matches the scale of the act. Here's an illustration:

Level 1 = Friendship.________Level 1 = Hugging
Level 2 = Dating.____________Level 2 = Kissing
Skip a couple...
Level 9 = Engaged.__________Level 9 = Serious kissing
Level 10 = Marriage._________Level 10 = Sex

That my proposed Propriety Scale. Here is what our culture has proposed:

Level 1 = Friendship. ____________Level 1 = Hugging
Level 2-10 = Dating - Marriage. ____Level 2-10 = Sex

Why lose Levels 2 though 9? Why not keep the link between the highest form of commitment reserved for the highest form of physical intimacy?

Q. But isn’t it difficult to determine whether a relationship will last forever?

No one can ever know. That's completely beside the point. I'm not proposing that you only have sex with a person that you know you will be with forever. I'm proposing that you only have sex with a person that you have made the strongest possible commitment with because that is the only way to properly honor the act and its implications.


Q. I've been with a girl who I had an intense physical relationship with, and another girl with whom my relationship was mostly spiritual and little else, and lemme tell ya, even though the spiritual one was much shorter-lived, the pain of breaking that off was far, far greater than the physical one.

I think this anecdote speaks directly to the issue I'm raising. Your intense physical relationship was not matched with the highest intense commitment. I think that crippled the power of both the sex, and the attachment it could have potentially brought had it occurred in the context of marriage.


Q. Doesn’t sex just get a bad rap because it's easy to throw around?

I hope I'm not giving sex a bad rap. I hope I'm actually glorifying it by putting it on the pedestal that it belongs on.


Q. Isn’t sex just like alcohol...it can be a great thing, but you must handle it responsibly?

Exactly. I don't think it's responsible to drink while you are driving or before a job interview. I don't think it responsible to undermine your future with your potential wife by decontextualizing sex and minimizing the power that it should have within your marriage. I would think that if one truly wanted to give their all to a woman, they would want to ensure every little possible advantage is available for their marriage.

Q. By serious kissing do you mean (untoward sexual reference)?

Actually this silly question makes me want to clarify another real point.

Here's my simple equation: Since sex is obviously on a scale... you know, the penis in the vagina is not the end-all-and-be-all of sex... I would just say that the closer you come to sex before marriage, the more you are hobbling the power it could have once you are married. (By 'power' I'm referring to my above statements about how it seals the two of you in a physical way that mirrors and enforces the spiritual bonds of commitment that a marriage is supposed to bring.) So if you are feeling each other up or what-have-you, you are just eroding the specialness and sanctity of your future marital physical intimacy. The closer you come to sex, the more it erodes.

This isn't a legalistic Thou-Shalt-Not sort of equation. It's a simple cause-and-effect thing. If you really want to honor your future bride and marriage, you can do that best by reserving the utterly highest place for sex and the only truly worthy context for it.

There is a problem with this argument that leads to another big issue that I’ll tackle separately. Stay tuned.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

But that doesn't work with same-sex couples who aren't even allowed to legally marry in most places. :(
Speaking from a Christian lesbian's point-of-view.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Joshua C. Foreman said...

That's true. It doesn't work. If I had to advice a homosexual kid it would be a whole other ball of wax.

6:07 PM  

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