The Church, the Culture, and Sex

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells, an Anglican priest, is Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He begins a recent column in the Church Times with the disturbing statement, “For many students today, sex is a sport.” How did this happen? The Rev. Wells tells a story in three parts, wisely refusing to separate economic from social change in the usual partisan fashion, and he then offers some useful advice to pastors:

Period one was an era (we could call it the ’50s and earlier) when economic well-being was fragile. The way out of poverty was hard work and a stable family life. Family was the only reliable insurance against the vagaries of health and old age. This was an era of duty, when one’s own desires were secondary to a compelling greater national or moral cause. Think of the novel Anne of Green Gables or the film Brief Encounter — women could study and spread their wings, but duty called them back to the schoolroom and home, and passion was a fleeting fantasy, suppressed by commitment to decency and order.

Period two (“the ’70s”) was when romance took over from economic security and duty as the primary matrix of sexual discourse. But the key development was, of course, the Pill. Add the legislation on abortion, and the revolution is complete: sex without guilt and sex without consequences become an intoxicating combination. Yet, in the paradigmatic 1970 film Love Story, boy meets girl; they go to bed; they marry; she dies; he is devastated.

This is still quite a conservative model. The economic and social revolution has taken place, but its logic hasn’t fully worked its way to the aspirations of the undergraduate. Sex may be easy, but many go to college hoping to meet the One whom they will love and marry.

Period three is a curious combination of periods one and two. Romance and permanent relationships are no longer the aspiration. In the ’70s, you went to parties to meet a partner, while today you don’t settle on a regular partner because it would stop you going to parties.

Notice the subtle economic links between period three and period one. In period one, marriage and family stability were essential for economic security; today, they are problematic, because they jeopardise the individual’s geographic and social mobility, which is essential for climbing the professional ladders that a degree unfurls. How can you stay together when his job takes him to London and yours to Tokyo?

Marriage, or long-term partnership, becomes an issue much later, when a career is established and the practicalities of home and children expose the loneliness of the isolated consumer lifestyle. Those who rushed into marriage in period two now find their children seem to spend their 20s still dependent on the parental home and bank balance during transitional moments of a life shorn of both duty and romance.

Christians may believe that they have good news about the body — as a gift from God, destined for glorious resurrection and transformation, and a beautiful instrument for showing another person how deeply cherished he or she is by God. They may believe that sexual expression belongs in a relationship of passion, permanent friendship, and hospitality to children. But Christians can no longer rely on social norms or economic necessities to shape sexual behaviour for them.

One can easily fall into thinking that once there was a golden era, when Christian assumptions about propriety were reflected in the general society’s sexual habits. Whether or not this was ever so, it makes the mistake of thinking that one can legislate for or demand adherence to Christian patterns of life, without communicating the convictions or practices that make those patterns meaningful.

Christians can no longer rely on economic hardship or a culture of shame to do the work of ensuring adherence to their expectations about sex. They have to rely instead on their own witness and example. They have to live in marriages that inspire others. They have to offer models of a good time that go way beyond “getting wasted” and “getting laid”. They have to portray a sense of corporate duty as compelling as that on offer in the ’50s, and a sense of passionate love as thrilling as that on offer in the ’70s.

Otherwise, no one is going to be interested in what they have to say, because it defies the economic, political, and social logic of the culture of which they are a part. And perhaps that is no bad thing.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Neil. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s