What does the title of your new book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, signify?
Lauren Winner: At the core of this book is an effort to offer a definition, in a Christian vocabulary and grammar, of good sex, even (as the title suggests) of real sex. I seek to set out the characteristics of good sex, and to explore who partakes of it, under what circumstances.
One can say that in Christianity’s vocabulary the only real sex is the sex that happens in a marriage; the disordered, faux sex that goes on outside of marriage is not really sex at all. The physical coming together that happens between two people who are not married is only a distorted imitation of sex, as Walt Disney’s Wilderness Lodge Resort is only a simulation of real wilderness. The danger, of course, is that when we spend too much time in the simulations, we lost the capacity to distinguish between the ersatz and the real.
What made you decide to write this book? What did you find lacking in the other books out there on this topic?
LW: There are obviously plenty of books about Christianity and sex. Indeed, the cultured despisers of Christianity often accuse us Christians of spending too much time talking about sex. But I found—as I struggled myself to be chaste—that many of the available books were inadequate. Many of the books about chastity that very well-meaning people gave me to read seemed…like they were written for the nineteenth century. They seemed naïve. They seemed designed for people who get married right out of college.
Put another way: one of the best books I have read about sex is Lewis Smedes’s Sex for Christians. It is a superb book. It is clear, it is straightforward, it is compassionate. But it was written the year I was born. Is it still useful? Absolutely. I recommend you go out today and buy a copy. But it’s also a little dated. The theology isn’t dated; the ethics aren’t dated—for God’s vision of the good life doesn’t change. What has changed, however, is the social, and therefore pastoral, context. Smedes wrote in the heyday of the sexual revolution. He wrote in the midst of a tremendous social transformation. He wrote when the broader culture’s attitude towards sex was still in flux. But now very little is in flux. The sexual mores that were still radical and challenging in 1976 have now gelled (indeed, they may seem a bit tame: Smedes speaks of “petting,” but the vocabulary with which we speak of sex has changed so dramatically that I am not entirely sure what the term denotes). Smedes wrote for an audience that still remembered something of a “traditional” sexual ethic. I write for those of us who have no memory of chastity.
Another problem with many of the available books is the way they present biblical theology. Too many of the available books simply say “Paul said avoid fornication.” And yet Paul himself would not, I think, want us simply to quote isolated verses of his epistles and stop there. He himself understood the sexual ethics he laid out in reference to, and indeed as a riff on, the biblical story of sexuality laid out at the beginning of Genesis. I try, in my book, to give a robust, thick theological account of chastity, beginning with Genesis, beginning with the created order, and then tracing God’s will for Creation through the Pauline epistles.
Who is the new book written for?
LW: Well, lots of people! Christians, primarily, or people who want to explore Christian thinking about sex. The book discusses both premarital sexuality and chastity, and also marital sexuality. Indeed, some of the sections of the book people have responded to the most have been the sections on marital sexuality. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the interest of some secular readers in the book. I wasn’t writing primarily for a secular audience. I was writing principally to help reinvigorate a conversation in the church. But I’ve been encouraged and surprised by the number of non-Christians who seem interested in Real Sex. I think I’d given up on the secular culture ever changing, ever rethinking the sexual revolution. But in conversations with non-Christian reporters and pundits, I’ve come to see that all of us, Christian or secular, can diagnose the grossest excesses of the sexual revolution—none of us think it’s a good idea for 14-year-olds to have oral sex. So we might be seeing a turn in the larger culture—at least a turn to a place where Christians and non-Christians who are concerned about sex and chastity can come together and have a constructive conversation where we don’t simply see one another as antagonists.
What are some of the Church’s teachings on this subject that you found naive or even untrue?
LW: A theme that runs through many Christian conversations about sex is the insistence that that if we have premarital sex, we’ll feel bad about it. If we go to bed with our beau or paramour, we will feel wracked with guilt, or, even more likely, we will wake up in the morning feeling lonely and bereft. To be sure, that is sometimes true. Sometimes, after a one-night stand, or after sex with your girlfriend of two years, or after even kissing a guy you don’t know very well, you feel lousy. You feel ashamed, or alienated, or lonely, or just plain down in the dumps. But sometimes, it is not true. Sometimes, even after sinful sex, a person will feel fantastic, or neutral. Or hungover.
It is curious that contemporary Christians often insist that we will necessarily feel bad after premarital sex. Jesus understood that we pitiful human beings are often very out of touch with our sins. He makes the point in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The turning point of that story is Luke 15:17: the prodigal, Jesus tells us, “came to himself.” Before this moment of turning, of awakening, the Prodigal was not in himself at all. And we are often not in ourselves, not aware of our fallen state or the sins we cycle through. St. Augustine riffs on Jesus’ wisdom when he reminds his readers that we barely even know that we’re fallen let alone that we constantly sin. Dante sounds the same theme in his Inferno. None of the people in Dante’s hell, including the great traitor Judas Iscariot, think they have done anything wrong. Our feelings sometimes deceive us—which is precisely the point. This is how sin works: it whispers to us about the goodness of something not good. It makes distortions feel good. It tells us we’d be better of with pleasure in Hell than sanctification in Heaven.
What the church means to say, I think, is that premarital sex is bad for us, even if it happens to feel great. In other words, sin—sexual sin, and any other kind of sin– is not necessarily subjectively felt. Our feelings are just as fallen as every other part of Creation, and therefore not wholly reliable.
Second, there is a pervasive Gnosticism that continues to dog the church—the sneaking suspicion that our bodies are bad, or that they just don’t matter very much. The screen on which the contemporary church works out its anxieties about bodies is sexuality. Too often, Christian’s aching discomfort with bodies gets transmitted into how we do sex; our anxiety about bodies morphs into a anxiety about, or repugnance of, sexual desire and sexual acts. If we fear our bodies because they are undisciplined and contingent, messy and willful, we then get especially freaked out about sex, which is one of the places where our bodies are most willful and messiest. When the body becomes something to escape from, the sexual body becomes something to vilify. This anxiety about bodies runs counter to the radical embodiment of the Christian story–which unequivocally proclaims that we were created with bodies, that God called our bodies good, that Jesus came as a body, and saved us with His body, and He and we both will be resurrected as bodies.
What do you think about chastity movements like True Love Waits, started by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1993? If you find these movements unsatisfying, do you have any ideas or suggestions for other ways the church can support people in their efforts at purity?
LW: Those programs, of course, are extremely well-intentioned, but recent studies show that they may not be super effective. One study, for example, showed that 61% of students who signed sexual-abstinence commitment cards broke their pledges. And of the remaining 39% who kept their pledges, 55% said they’d had oral sex, and did not consider oral sex to be sex. 1One of the limitations of programs like True Love Waits is that they are framed as matters of individual will: the language of the pledge is “make a pledge to God, myself, my family.” I think the church needs to recover the notion that chastity is a discipline for the whole community, that the church is a community where transformation is expected and supported.
*For more information about Lauren Winner go to www.laurenwinner.net.