Young Sex and the City -
Developing a Sex Ethic for Urban Christians from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians
[Chris Andre-Watson is Regional Representative for the Baptist Missionary Society]
INSTRUCTION AND ADVICE FOR THE YOUNG BRIDE On the Conduct and Procedure of the Intimate and Personal Relationships of the Marriage State for the Greater Spiritual Sanctity of this Blessed Sacrament and the Glory of God by Ruth Smythers beloved wife of The Reverend L.D. Smythers Pastor of the Arcadian Methodist Church of the Eastern Regional Conference Published in the year of our Lord 1894 Spiritual Guidance Press New York City
INSTRUCTION AND ADVICE
To the sensitive young woman who has had the benefits of proper upbringing, the wedding day is, ironically, both the happiest and most terrifying day of her life. On the positive side, there is the wedding itself, in which the bride is the central attraction in a beautiful and inspiring ceremony, symbolizing her triumph in securing a male to provide for all her needs for the rest of her life. On the negative side, there is the wedding night, during which the bride must pay the piper, so to speak, by facing for the first time the terrible experience of sex.
At this point, dear reader, let me concede one shocking truth. Some young women actually anticipate the wedding night ordeal with curiosity and pleasure! Beware such an attitude! A selfish and sensual husband can easily take advantage of such a bride. One cardinal rule of marriage should never be forgotten: GIVE LITTLE, GIVE SELDOM, AND ABOVE ALL, GIVE GRUDGINGLY. Otherwise what could have been a proper marriage could become an orgy of sexual lust.
On the other hand, the bride's terror need not be extreme. While sex is at best revolting and at worse rather painful, it has to be endured, and has been by women since the beginning of time, and is compensated for by the monogamous home and by the children produced through it.
Young Sex and the City
Oscar Wilde once said: “It is easy to be good in the country there are no temptations there”
Whilst this is clearly an overstatement one which I our rural cousins would disagree, Wilde was identifying something about the nature of city life. The city especially the capital city represents the hedonistic, the greedy, the promiscuous, the sensual and the dangerous. Even the Bible portrays city life has a carnal with many NT cities identified as places of lust. The images of Sodom and Gomorrah are forever associated with the nature of city life.
I’ve always felt called to city life. Its energy and its brazenness always attracted me. To the young city life often represents opportunity and excitement.
This paper is born out my 10 years experience as minister of a church in Lambeth. It is a place that had many negative associations, including drugs, gun and gang violence. Yet for all that it is a vibrant and colourful and diverse place to live.
But underneath it all lay many lives trapped by poverty and lack of opportunity. One of the manifestations of this was young people’s attitude towards sex and their sexual behaviour.
Lambeth along with Peckham have the highest teen pregnancy rates and STI rates in the whole of Europe.
Locally it was almost assumed that by the time a young woman was 20 she would have had a child. Many young women simply fulfilled the assumption and there were more than enough willing young men to ensure this happened. Ironically or unsurprisingly depending on how you look at it, Brixton is home to the Marie Stopes abortion clinic.
However this was not a pattern limited to street life and culture. Even within the church these assumptions prevailed. In the church I ministered despite Christian assumptions of chastity before marriage, out of a Young People’s Bible Class of about 20, 90 per cent of those had become parents by the time they were 21.
In a community where the majority of children were growing up in either single parent households or where there parents were not married, marriage never entered the discussion or thoughts when considering starting a family. That conversation tended to follow after the arrival of a child.
One of the young men who belonged to the mentoring group I set up had three children by the time he was 18. Seeing him earlier this year he had another child but this time at least was still with the mother. During the time I knew him he used to entertain the rest of the group with his sexual exploits many of which were extremely shocking but sadly true.
Another told me how he had lost his virginity at 13 to an older girl. What was sad about the incident was that he did not want to have sex but the school he attended had provided him with the condom and he felt he did not have an excuse to say no.
However once on his sexual journey he became quite proficient to the extent he had developed a reputation that girls were booking him up by text message to help them lose their virginities!
However nothing compares to the young man whose funeral I conducted when he was just 34 but had 35 children. Another I had met in his mid 20’s already had 12 children. But he boasted that he was providing for all of them.
For many of these young men they had become sexual feral animals. But this had more to do with their environment than with anything intrinsically sexual about these boys
Some of the anecdotes may be particular to a community with a high West Indian population with a different attitude to sex, family and marriage. However statistics in recent years show young peoples attitudes towards sex are in high speed transition.
The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle (NATSAL 2000) study found that in the 16 to 19 age group, 30 per cent of males and 26 per cent of females had intercourse before 16 years of age.
In 2000, 23 per cent of all conceptions were terminated and 21 per cent of all terminations were in females under 20 years old. There was a slight increase in the proportion of all conceptions resulting in a termination among teenagers in 2000 compared with 1990. The proportion of all conceptions terminated by abortion among under 20-year-olds was 36 percent in 1990 and 39 per cent in 2000.
Over half (51 per cent) of all conceptions among under 16-year-olds resulted in termination in 1990 and 54 per cent in 2000.
In London, legal abortion rates among the 16 to 19 age group were 43 per 1,000 females in 2000 and 46 per 1,000 females in 2001, almost twice that of many other regions. The West Midlands had the next highest rates with 28 per 1,000 females in 2000 and 27 per 1,000 females in 2001. Although not all teenage pregnancies are unwanted the high termination rates indicate that many were unplanned
Recent UNICEF report on teenage pregnancy in industrialised countries listed the United Kingdom as having the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe and the second highest rate of all the industrialised countries in the world after the USA. Teenage pregnancy rates ranged from three per 100,000 in Korea to over 50 per 100,000 in the USA. In the UK, pregnancy rates were 31 per 100,000 females aged 15 to 19 years. The cause of high rates of teenage pregnancy in many westernised countries is not completely understood. Young women from lower socio-economic groups are disproportionately represented in teenage pregnancy rates.
Over the last 10 years, age at first sexual intercourse has dropped from 17 to 16 years in the UK. In 2000, over a quarter (26 per cent) of 16- to 19-year-old females were under 16 years of age at first sexual intercourse. Early age at first intercourse is significantly associated with pregnancy under 18 years of age.
Number of cases of STI doubled between 1991 – 2001 in England NI and Wales with women u20 most at risk.
The question arises for me as I read the statistics and listen to the stories of young people and the concerns of their parents is this – is Christian sexual ethics rooted in a bygone age?
Christian teaching and sexual morality seemed so far removed from the world the children I knew operated in. Christian sexual ethics is the sexual ethics of stable families, good education, employed parents, opportunity and life in the suburbs. Is it really easier to be good in the suburbs and countryside than in the city?
Traditional Christian teaching assumes many things that are becoming less true.
Individually some of the changes pose a serious challenge to traditional Christian sexual ethics. Collectively they are having the sort of impact on Christian sexual ethics that global warming is having on the polar ice caps.
Rediscovering a Biblical Ethic
The challenge for Christians is finding an ethic that makes sense in a world that has changed so profoundly. In the 21 Century can we really expect people to abstain from sex before marriage?
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians develops a Christian sexual ethic in a moral climate that bears some similarity with today’s context.
Corinth could likened to the Las Vegas of its day. Home to the temple of Aphrodite which was alleged to house 1,000 temple prostitutes it had a wild reputation. It was a pagan city and was also home to other Gods. It was probably the wealthiest city in Greece because of its strategic location near the coast. Paul highlighted the dangers for the Corinthian Christians living in such an environment. Trying to remain holy in an immoral climate is a balancing act that Christians struggle with today.
What is interesting about Paul’s response is that he does not make any allowance in his sexual ethic for the environment Christians lived in. Certainly there was theological flexibility to be to do this. That was one of the problems of the church in that they were using legitimate theological arguments to engage in practices that Paul considered to be illegitimate.
He did not expect the urban Christians to become ‘Corinthianised’ by their context. This is a challenge for us as we do sexual ethics in the 21st century.
Paul reminds the Christians of several things in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. Paul is addressing ignorance and misunderstanding. This is demonstrated by the repeated use of the of the phrase ‘do you not know’. Ignorance was leading to immorality and in using that phrase Paul was clearly addressing a lack the neeed for theological and moral education. Many Christians particularly young ones do not understand the sexual prohibitions that come with living a Christian lifestyle. They simply regard them as prohibitive but with no justification to give them merit. Many churches do not teach sexual ethic assuming that because a young person goes to church they are not going to bed with someone. Indeed when I once lead a service on the theme sexual ethics on a Sunday morning it wad criticised as being disgusting.
Knowing your Environment
Paul identifies and then deconstructs the moral assumptions that were driving the sexual behaviour and attitudes of the Corinthian Christians, “Everything is permissible for me …but I will not be mastered by anything.” It is unclear whether Paul was quoting directly from a letter or message from the Corinthian church or whether he was quoting some widely held Corinthian view but whatever it was it was being used as a license to misbehave. What they originally viewed as freedom “everything is permissible…” soon became controlling “…but I will not be mastered by anything”. In Christian sexual ethics we need to identify and deconstruct those widespread urban mythologies that hold young people captive to sexual immorality (being a virgin makes you uncool!).
Knowing who you are
“The body is not meant for sexual immorality…” We need to recover a theology of the body. In a world where they body is worshipped and regarded as an objected to be reconstructed or ‘made over’, what does it mean to be made in God’s image not our own? Understanding that the human body was made for a purpose and on purpose challenges the notion that sexual behaviour is a purely biological function with little or no moral consequence. It also challenges the notion that we are completely at liberty to do with our bodies what we like.
Knowing who you belong to
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself…You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” Understanding the special dignity of the Christian relationship with Christ acts as a corrective to some of the prevailing attitudes of crassness and lewdness that we see in the modern media. The lad’s mag /Big Brother fuelled culture has helped contribute to a lowering of moral thresholds, meaning that many young people are already groomed for their first sexual experience well before it actually happens. It’s not easy saying no in a permissive society. Remembering that we should honour God with our bodies is an antidote to the ‘if you’ve got flaunt it mentality that seems to prevail today’.
Knowing what you are made of
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” Paul reconciles the tension between flesh and spirit and bridges the gap between the sacred and the profane. We are neither just biological animal but neither are we just spiritual with little interest in sexual matters. This overcomes the secular tendency to regard sex as a physical act but also challenges Christian attitudes that we are too spiritual to be talking about or discussing such matters. It’s amazing to think that as a pastor Paul spoke so frankly about sexual ethics. In my years as a Christian I never once heard a sermon about sex during a Sunday morning service. Seminars yes, Sunday morning no. When you hold flesh and Spirit together in the way Pau does way there are no such taboos.
These ideas need further thought and development but I have not got the time I just want to at this stage think about sex in the future.
While the church is still locked into arguments about the acceptance of homosexuality and the nature of marriage the world has long since moved on. New vistas for sexual exploration are being considered.
The recent case of the actor Chris Langham involved in downloading child pornography is the tip of the iceberg. Interest in child pornographic images is one of the fastest growing areas of pornographic interest on the web.
While we currently find this distasteful will future generations be less offended as they grow accustomed to the images? Homosexuality itself was also once considered offensive. The assumption has also been that older people have been the sexual predators. But in an age where young people are starting their sexual careers earlier will they not develop a taste for older flesh and feel more confident in engaging sexually with an older person? The day that young people willingly advertise themselves to older people on the web is surely just around the corner.
The other area is in inter-family sexual relationships. In an age of fractured family life just who is my brother or sister or child even? In the reconstituted family is it wrong for the father to fall in love with his partner’s daughter or son for that matter? Fertilisation technology means that children in one family may not be genetically related. A relationship between siblings on this basis overcomes the objection that if they had children they would be in some ways damaged. And even where there are blood relations the notion in what can be considered as incest is being challenged. If sex is opportunistic, consensual and recreational on what grounds is it wrong between consenting siblings or consenting parents and children who love each other? Gay siblings in relationships also overcome the genetic birth defect argument. There are already stories of children who have been separated from each through the parents splitting who then embark on relationship when they are reunited.
These scenarios may currently seem shocking but the infrastructure is there in place to see further dramatic changes is sexual attitudes and behaviour. It will take some public ruling to signal that change and act as a tipping point. I certainly await the sexual future with interest.
· There is a brutalisation of sex & sexuality, reduced to the brute level. Sex is not in a loving context, or with the expectation of having children within a family. The Christian attitude seems quaint today in contrast.
· The common attitude, especially in the inner city, is the Vicky Pollard mentality [as in Little Britain on TV]; hard & tough. Children are over-sexualised. How can we give them a belief system about themselves and the world that may help to rehumanise them, give them some dignity? Paul said we have to ‘honour the body’. But today the body is devalued, by crassness, lewdness & casualness. And this is worked out in young people’s attitudes to sexual behaviour.
· The Church does not know how to talk about this, and does not want to. We do not have the language. We feel embarrassed. How can we pastorally address it? We do not have the forms to deal with it.
· Though the TV programme on sex after marriage was challenging. On this programme a Christian youth worker got groups of teens to gorego sex. This released them from the pressure of expectations to explore romantic relationships, and then learn something a bout people instead of going straight to sex.
· It’s not just young people. Baptist ministers & leaders also fall into sexual sin. The problem is bubbling & boiling. It is about deep depersonalisation.
· The future will bring increased desensitisation. It’s a scary prospect. To simply say ‘flee fornication’ will not wash, and not only for youth, but also the middle aged: with marriage separation, pornography, homosexuality, and abuse.
· It reflects a wider cultural shift, about how we see the body. The view of the body is being corrupted, undermined. It’s not only about sex, but how the body is viewed as changeable, malleable. It we don’t like our body, we can change it, through surgery or cosmetics; even sex-change operations. We are cybernetic. Scientific discovery will change the way we think about being human. Sex is also digital, e.g. porn on the internet.
· It’s also related to the level of violence: gun & knife crime, the killing of Jean Charles Menezes by the Metropolitan Police. There is a wider ‘disembodiedness. The body is seen as something under our control, which we can take to pieces and reassemble as we please.
· There is also a skewed line on abortion. We are trained to see the body as something to be dismembered. There’s also the obesity link: consumerism is altering the body.
· Amidst all these flows, where are the reference points? How can we begin to rediscover ethics? Can we have a renewed understanding of the body & how it works in relationships? For example, John Paul II wrote about the theology of the body.
· But how can we provide ethical resources for Christian communities, to form communities of resistance? It’s related to doctrine: how do we view ourselves? What do people know?
· But the platitudes & vaccuousness in Church, with our ‘ipod worship’ [we load up the playlist of songs and set it going on automatic], produce a consumer church. How can we create community if the supposedly alternative cultural option is so shallow?