Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What We Don't Talk About When We Don't Talk About Sex

I read Lena Dunham's book of personal essays a few weeks back. I'm not sure what prompted me to get it (good reviews, I suppose) - I tried watching Girls, but couldn't even make it through the pilot. I sort of recognize it as satire, but it's far too on-the-nose to be comfortable in our current cultural climate. Is it a satire if the people being satirized are flattered by portrayal?

Anyway, I got the book from the library and I was more than pleasantly surprised. It's the first time I've ever read a book where the forward/prologue/pre-chapter-one-author's-note (preface - that's the word I'm looking for) added any real value to the book. Dunham's totally defines her's. She wanted to write a book about life (in the vein of those plasticy-stepford-wives type women's guides of the '80's) the sort teaching women how to be perfect and have it all, Dunham just wanted hers to reflect real life. She truly does lay out her mistakes, failures, regrets, non-regrets, lessons, problems, and lack of solutions for all to see. It's exceptionally honest and mostly humble.

What was most intriguing (and refreshing) to me, was her early essays on sex. Granted, Dunham's perspective on sex and the rules by which she governs her sexual life are quite distinct from mine (as an evangelical minister), but I think they reflect some real truth, which is important for anyone to hear. Maybe I'm totally wrong here, but the message I got was that she'd had good experiences and bad experiences, but ultimately sex isn't something that should be used to define yourself or prove anything or learn anything - everything she needed to know she already knew.

That got me thinking about the Church and the ways in which we talk (or don't talk) about sex. Dunham's essay would never be acceptable discussion fodder in most churches because she only views some of the sex she's had as mistakes. The Church tends to take a pretty firm line on abstinence. We're pretty terrified of putting it into our children's heads that some sex isn't regrettable, even if it isn't wise. If they get the notion that sex might not be the entryway to hell, they might have sex.

This is not to downplay the importance of chastity and fidelity. Not at all. I believe that sex works best the more committed the relationship. I just think you're going to have less problems with the intricacies and nuances of sex if you're married to a mostly sane person who's committed to you beyond their own personal comfort. It's no guarantee things will work well, but, as I said, I think things generally work better the more committed the relationship.

I'm generally loathe to tell people what to do, but I certainly don't shy away from my conservative position on the matter. Conservative, in this instance, meaning that while there may be benefits to sex outside of marriage, generally the negative possibilities outweigh the positives. I don't believe things are necessarily cut and dry (even theologically), but I do tend to favor caution over risk where sex is concerned.

That's not a position most adolescents find very attractive (caution in general) and thus it terrifies the adults with impressionable youngsters around us whom we love. We all want our kids (or anyone we care about) to learn from our mistakes (or anyone's really), but in all honesty, most all of us need to make mistakes, even mistakes everyone was telling us about for years, in order to really decide for ourselves. Some warnings will go heeded. Others will go tested (sometimes repeatedly). That shouldn't stop us from sharing our perspective on things - giving the lessons anyway. They might not work the way we intend, but they'll work for someone, in some way - and those people will be grateful. Even then people who don't believe us and make the same mistakes themselves will thank us for caring enough to share with them (and might, possibly, if we're really lucky) listen to us more intently in the future.

What I think Lena Dunham was saying is that she didn't need to make sexual mistakes to know what she needed to know, but she did need to make them to know that she already knew it. She's got a liberal position on sex. Sex can be good, if it serves to celebrate the worth and value of both people involved, if it humanizes people rather than dehumanizing them. It's not a hedonistic, pleasure-hound kind of position (but I've never heard a defense of hedonism that wasn't entirely nihilistic at its core), but certainly one with more risk involved.

Choosing one position over another is not going to guarantee you anything. It's not as though the categories of "right" and "wrong" even make sense here. I've read too many of those articles with people bemoaning that what the Church taught them about sex really messed them up. People make different choices; people are both happy and unhappy with the choices they make, no matter what choice it is. Life works out well for some people and others get messed up. For church people, it might be a conservative messing up over a liberal one, but I hope we can all agree that it doesn't matter if the wind is blowing west or east when you spit into it.

It's the kind of dialogue that can deal honestly with real experience that will benefit people in the long run. I don't agree with everything Lena Dunham has to say about sex, but I applaud her honesty, her sincerity, and her willingness to speak against common perception and cultural norms.

The Church tends to teach kids sex is bad. We don't set out to do it, but it usually ends up that way. We say sex is good when you're married, but bad any other time, which becomes more confusing than explanatory. What we mean to say is that sex is important - when you have sex there are real emotional, social, spiritual, physical consequences. Some of those can be very good, others can be very bad. All in all it's pretty complicated and not necessarily something people can make sound judgments about during these later stages of human maturation.

Which means we want our kids to wait until they've got a better foundation in the world and are far enough beyond the hormonal catastrophe of their teenage years to form some general opinions about how they want their life to go. We want to spare our kids some mistakes. This is a worthy goal. What we often fail to do is speak honestly enough to give them tools for making decisions. The odds of making mistakes tend to multiply exponentially when we don't have accurate information.

It's good to assume it's possible to go through life without making sexual choices you'll later regret. It's that kind of hope which infuses our faith with something vital and formative. At the same time, we fail to acknowledge the reality that regrettable situations will arise. I think, ultimately, we're afraid that in telling kids there's a chance (even if it's a small one) they can have sex and not suffer any life-altering consequences, we're giving them carte blanche to explore their desires. We refrain from discussing sex rationally or theologically because we feel young people are utterly incapable of controlling themselves and thus scare tactics are more effective.

We tell our kids to avoid alcohol. We give them plenty of reasons why it's not a smart thing to do at this stage of life. We explain, both rationally and (hopefully) theologically, why the Church takes the position it does. Some kids heed the warning, others find out for themselves how they feel. In either event, we don't tell kids their lives will be irreparably damaged if they make the wrong choice because we recognize the importance of redemption and restoration.

So why doesn't it work the same way with sex?

It's probably generational. No one is ever completely comfortable talking about sex in ways it needs to be talked about. We're also not always sure exactly what we believe or why, so it's far easier to walk an either/or black/white divide and pray our kid isn't the one who gets pregnant. We've drawn a line of risk, ironically, at one of the things most likely to actually have a huge impact on people's lives.

Even stranger, the conversations about sex from liberal and conservative positions aren't all that different from one another. The range of opinion and conversation isn't so starkly divergent as to be unbridgeable. Whether one advocates abstinence or exploration, pretty much everyone cautions people to make healthy choices that reflect both your own worth and the value of the other, while keeping hormones and emotions in check well enough to make smart choices. In the end, it's not really about the sex - it's about what we believe about ourselves and what our actions say about our understanding of the world. Most people agree there.

As the Church, we can't just confine our understanding of sex to marriage. It's fine and honorable to believe and teach sex belongs only in marriage, but we can't (or shouldn't) arrive at that conclusion without a long sojourn through the fields of grey. You want to have an interesting discussion - talk sex and marriage and scripture and the terminally ill teenagers of The Fault in Our Stars. That's a veritable minefield of grey on the way to black and white.

I'm not sure why us "church people" keep saying getting a handle on sex is easy or straightforward when it just simply is not. Things are complicated and confusing, even if they're not ultimately fluid and undefinable. Perhaps the answer for the Church is not in saying what we already say better, but in saying some things we often just refuse to say. What's wrong with being honest and trusting the relationships we've built with young people who actually care what we have to say? Teenagers may be pretty stupid sometimes*, but they're a lot smarter than we give them credit for.

*Aren't we all?

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