Friday, August 04, 2006

A Critical Look at Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity

It must have been a year or so ago, when I discovered the book Real Sex: the Naked Truth About Chastity in a Barnes and Noble bookstore. The subtitle caught my attention. As I opened to the first page, I found a pretty solid opening:
Chastity: it is one of those unabashedly churchy words. It is is one of the words the church uses to call Christians to do something hard, something unpopular. ... Chastity is one of the many Christian practices that are at odds with the dictates of our surrounding, secular culture. It challenges the movies we watch, the magazines we read, the songs we listen to. ... Chastity is also something that many of us Christians have to learn.
So I felt compelled to buy this book, if only to read a popularized attempt at trying to defend and teach about chastity in the Christian life. I say popularized attempt because the author, Lauren F. Winner, is not a theologian but rather a lay woman, writing much from her own personal experiences and in an effort to bring more people to understanding the true nature of chastity.

The book, itself, is divided in to two sections. The first is "Talking About Sex" which constitutes the proper role of sex in marriage (from a biblical-creation perspective), how the community helps form our attitudes and public discourse concerning sex (in which sex is not a "private" matter), and addresses falsehoods concerning sex from the culture and church perspective. The second is "Practicing Chastity" which involves how to form proper guidance on living the virtue of chastity, how chastity is a spiritual practice which helps discipline the appetites of the body, how being single helps form the Church, and finally some practical matters concerning chastity.

There are some very important points that I think Winner makes and they deserve mention here. Part of her emphasis is that the Christian church, a term she uses broadly to denote Christianity, fails properly to dispose young people to chaste living, which has repercussions for later in life when situations arise that challenge a weak or limited understanding of the virtue of chastity and how it should form our lives. Winner writes:
...chastity is God's very best for us. God created sex for marriage and that is where it belongs. Still, many Christians who know about chastity have a hard time being chaste. Chastity may be instantly rewarding, but it doesn't always feel instantly rewarding, and let's face it, we live in a therapeutic culture in which people often make decisions based on what seems to feel right at the time. Too often the church, rather than giving unmarried Christians useful tools and thick theologies to help us live chastely, instead tosses off a few bromides - "True love waits" is not that compelling when you're twenty-nine and have been waiting, and wonder what, really, you're waiting for.
So how do we go about imparting the virtue of chastity better in young people? First we have to realize that "chastity, like most aspects of the Christian life, does not come naturally." It takes effort, patience, and working at the discipleship that has been given to us through our baptismal calling. Winner offers three furthering keys to developing the virtue of chastity: 1) prayer; 2) reading the bible and other Christian classics, and 3) the church, witnessing as the body of Christ in sharing the message of chastity, being willing to admonish those who sin and need help by showing generosity, compassion, and mercy to those who struggle with chastity in order to guide them through the love of Christ.

A key area in which she shows the role of the church and community in forming chaste relationships among men and women is the personal story she relates from her own dating situation. A campus pastor at the University of Virginia said to her and her boyfriend (her spouse now): "Don't do anything sexual that wouldn't be comfortable doing on the steps of the Rotunda." Meaning, in a non-marital relationship, the couple should be cognizant that they should not go beyond any activity that what they would not do in public setting. As Winner notes:
This was not just practical instruction, but also wisdom: sex has a public dimesnion and a private dimension. Christians gain access to the private side at a wedding. The question for married couples is not How far can we go? but How do we maintain the integrity of our sexual relationship, which at this point is only public?
"The point" here, "is to discern, with your community, what behaviors can protect the body and God's created sexual intent. For her and her future spouse, "the Rotunda rule established in us a certain discpline - perhpas a little disciplined sexuality migh titself be a good preparation for married, for the week when your wife has a urinary tract infection, or the few months after your husband's father dies, and sex is not in the cards, but maybe some kissing is." Very practical advice and helpful in trying to understand how chastity should help govern non-marital relationships. This is but one example of her down-to-earth sort of attitude toward the development of chastity in our daily lives.

I guess, in hindsight, I should have seen it coming from an author formed in the Protestant Christian tradition, but I was quite surprised to see in her rebuttal to the lie that "sex can be wholly separated from procreation" that Winner has no problem with birth control.
In part of justification for having birth control, she said something that bothered me. "...birth control allows married couples to relax a little and have sex without fear." When should conjugal sex ever have a component of fear? Why should a possible pregnancy instill fear? New life always should be welcomed. When fear enters the picture, the intent of those sexual acts needs to be called into question. While proscribing birth control options on the one hand, Winner hesitates with a "carefree" attitude towards contraceptive methods - afraid in part because constant usage of contraceptive methods "invites us to be people who have utterly separated sex from procreation." Before she addresses her final conclusion concerning birth control, she draws attention to couples who are sterile and how they have sexual relations without a finality of procreation. Thus, she can say,"...that the whole of a married couple's sex life needs to be open to procreation, but each and every sex act need not be." This is typical revisionist thinking concerning contraception. Each and every sex act does not need to be open to life. It is the "whole" of a couple's conjugal life that carries the moral weight.

This conclusion puzzles me for what she later says concerning each and every choice we make.
The choices we make every day - where we shop, what we do with our bodies, how we pass our time - form us. They shape the type of Christians we become. What we do matters - not because good behavior gets us into heaven, but because behavior, good and bad, creates certain expectations in us, teaches us certain lessons.
A good question to pose to Winner is this: What does contraceptive sexual activity teach us then? That we can use our spouses for our pleasure and benefit and not deal with the "fearful" consequences of a possible pregnancy which may ruin our future plans and endeavors? That our conjugal sex life need not be related to procreation? Since these choices affect us, each and every day, what does it say about us when we choose contraceptive sex? I still am puzzled. Winner argues for a revisionist way of thinking regarding contraception and yet seems eager to endore a very Thomistic understanding of the formation of character in that all the actions we take form us.

Another criticism I have of the book is Winner's approach to "lies" the church tells us about sex. Some of these cases seem to be her fighting against a strawman. In all my readings I never came across such lies as "premarital sex is guaranteed to make you feel lousy" or "women don't really want to have sex, anyway," or "bodies (and sex) are gross, dirty, or just plain unimportant."

So while I appreciate Winner's attempt to stimulate conversation and action regarding the habituation of chastity, especially in young people, I feel that the criticisms I have raised diminish the positive value of the whole work. I would not recommend such a work for those who need a primer on chastity because the book as a whole lacks the full Catholic approach to sexual morality.

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