Friday, June 8, 2012

The Right Kind of Sex?

As an undergraduate in biblical studies, I took a required course on ethics, taught by a world-class theologian and a very capable biblical scholar. He used the common rubric of the Ten Commandments to organize biblical ethics (though this is a method very often criticized in the academy of Evangelical scholars). We came to the seventh commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery,” and he moved from adultery to fornication to lust and licentiousness. Then he told us that oral and anal sex were likewise prohibited and a violation of the seventh commandment.

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. I wanted to talk about his reasoning but I was aware that any discussion would give the impression that I, gasp, engaged in such practices. But I WAS the oldest student in the room, and I WAS the only married student in the room, and I HATE unasked questions. So I asked, “Sir, where do you get that?” “It's not natural,” he answered.

That was it. There was no biblical argument, no theological argument, no citing of Church fathers, just as dismissive statement. To be honest, he didn't say it dismissively, it seemed more like no one had asked the question before. Thinking about it now, the statement was radically out of touch with modern Christian college students, for whom “technical virginity” is a very live concept. There are Christian girls having anal sex because it leaves their hymens intact. Discussing non-vaginal sexual behavior would have been massively more helpful.

The truth is that Christians rarely question the morality of oral sex any more, even if they don't find it distasteful. Douglas Rosenau, probably the most eminent Christian sex therapist today, either wrote or told me (I don't remember which) that thirty years ago Christians asked him if oral sex was ok, today they ask about anal sex.

Ed Wheat, who wrote a helpful, if somewhat limited, book, Intended for Pleasure, cautions against sex toys, arguing that women become dependent upon them (citing absolutely no research). I had no recollection that statement was in his book until a worried couple came back into premarital counseling and asked me about it. I think they had been investing in a variety of sex toys before the honeymoon. He isn't the only one who sets limits, Doug Rosenau, in a much more candid and open book, cautions against anal sex because of “health risks.”

So I thought I'd write up what the Bible actually says and doesn't say about forbidden sex.

The grand list in the Bible is in Leviticus 18. The commandment to not commit adultery is in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. “Lusting in the heart” is in Matthew 5:28. Prohibitions against male and female homosexuality are found in Romans 1:26-27 (and in other places).

So the Bible limits sex between a man and a woman married to each other. If you have sex with someone who is married to another person or if you are married and have sex with another, it is adultery. Very bad. If you have sex with someone with whom you are not married and neither are they, it is fornication. Not quite as bad. If you “fool around” without having sex, it is technically licentiousness or “sensuality,” though I think most fooling around that results in an orgasm would be considered sex and therefore be fornication or adultery. Jesus makes the point that the standard is not just drawing the line with behavior, but striving for real heart holiness.

Leviticus forbids you from marrying someone of too close of relation: father, mother, stepmother, sister, half-sister, step-sibling brought up in your home, aunt (either side) and presumably uncle, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, your brother's wife (while he is alive I guess, given the whole Levirite marriage thing), a woman and her daughter (back in the polygamy days) or one of her grandchildren or a woman and her sister (I guess Rachel and Leah were an exception?). Cousins, nieces and nephews are ok (at least in Louisiana!).

So this means that Woody Allen broke God's law with his step-daughter, but my friend who married his step-sister didn't because they grew up (mostly) in different homes didn't. My friend who's mom married her ex-husband's oldest son had a bad situation though. It was kind of creepy in that his step-father was a dead-ringer for his older brother.

Aside from this, no adultery, no sex during periods and no sex with animals.

That's the entire list.

I figured that the rest of the stuff didn't make the list because it just wasn't around. It was in the category of questionable things that the Bible didn't address directly, but might not be OK. I mean the Bible doesn't say you can't shoot heroin and heroin's basically legal in some places.
Ishtar, a very racy goddess
Then I spent a summer reading literature about the Ancient Near East: Sumerians, Hittites (Gurney), Egyptians (Gardiner) and all of the different cultures that have called Babylon home (Assyrians, old and new Babylonians, Akkadians, Arameans, etc, by Saggs.). They did EVERYTHING. Same-sex intercourse, animals, oral and sex toys. Saggs even makes a point of mentioning that sex “per anum” (in the booty) was common. The Ancient Near East was full of all the kinds of sex we have today, and God mentions only a few things: homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, marrying relatives, animals, and menstrual sex.

Apparently God isn't terribly concerned if you perform oral sex on your husband or if you have anal sex with your wife. There's even some evidence (grist for another post) that God encourages some “alternative sexual practices.”

A word of caution. Sex is supposed to be about intimacy with your spouse, not just using your spouse as an object. We are commanded to live in love and it isn't loving to pressure your wife into anal sex or dressing up in leather and chains. Sex should express love not degrade it. But God's not a prude and I guess his people shouldn't be either.

What are your thoughts on acceptable sex?

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