Let’s Talk about Sex

Turning periods into pathways is the latest Days for Girls campaign slogan.  By this DFG International means, “When we mobilize girls and women, their communities and our world grow stronger.  We are changing the status quo through quality menstrual care solutions, health education, and income-generating opportunities that give back days of opportunity and health.”

In my experiences, talking about periods, menstrual care solutions, and health education, also leads to talking about sex. 

So, Let’s talk about sex baby. 

I give what I call “the period talk” to high schools and community groups.  In those settings, I tell people they can ask any questions they have without worry of embarrassing me or being embarrassed and I also leave time at the end for people to ask individual questions because not everyone is going to ask questions in front of a large group (let alone ask a question about periods or related issues).  There is ALWAYS someone who wants to ask a question and usually a line of people who want to ask private questions after “the talk”, which leads me to wonder how few opportunities we have to talk about personal (but highly important) matters about health and wellness.  At one of my high school talks, a student stayed after to ask this question, “can you have sex with a cup?”.  And of course, the bell rang.  As quickly as I could, I told her, that some cups (that are really discs) can be used during sex, but they do not protect against disease or prevent pregnancy.  And that was it. 

I thought about that question a lot on the drive back to church.  I wish I could have given her more information like, Here is a comparison of cups and discs.   And, Thinx is a company that sells period underwear and other items, including a period sex blanket.  But, even better than their products (I use the underwear as a backup for my cup on heavy days), is their blog (the periodical), including this entry about period sex.  And, I wondered what sort of follow-up questions she might have had.  How would I have answered her?  I realized I wasn’t sure how to talk to a high school student about sex.  Maybe I should also figure out how to talk about sex to a college student too, after all, college students make up a large portion of my volunteers for DFG Pittsburgh. 

I’ve had engaging conversations with college students through the DFG Pittsburgh Chapter, but mostly about periods and other women’s health issues.  I described some of these conversations in Be A Good Neighbor and A Toast to Strong Women.  Sometimes doing large events like Be A Good Neighbor day and Pitt Make Difference Day lead to students volunteering more often and building relationships through this meaningful service activity.  Occasionally, I have the opportunity to visit with students outside of the church and get to know them better over coffee or lunch.  It’s nice to have a chance to have a full conversation with someone without being pulled away to re-thread a sewing machine, and it is after all, pastoral care (but people freak out when you call it that, so I don’t).  Building relationships is an interesting part of being a pastor, some people will trust you with important conversations right away simply because you are their pastor and for others it takes a long time to build trust.  After a ‘lady date’ (because I can’t call it pastoral care) with a student, I drove her back to her apartment.  It was in the car, navigating an area of off-campus housing that I was unfamiliar with, that she asked what I thought about premarital sex.  I stumbled through telling her that when I was younger I was told to wait until marriage but given the variety of life experiences I have had, and others have shared with me, I wasn’t sure that was practical or good advice.  I think I said something about being in a committed relationship and consent, and that it was a bad idea to pick a random person at a bar to have sex with, but I really don’t remember what I said.  What I remember was feeling like my answer sucked and hoping I would have an opportunity to have a better conversation with her later, after I had done some research.  I didn’t get that chance.  She graduated and moved away.

In thinking about how to have a better sex talk with students, I’ve been thinking a lot about the sex talks I have received.  I’ve already mentioned how I got the sex talk in Period Party, which was basically the clinical definition of penis-in-vagina sex (or p-i-v as I’m told ‘kids’ say today[1]).  At school, I received abstinence only sex education (if you can call it that) from our football coach/gym teacher/health teacher/friend-of-my-father, who was clearly uncomfortable and would rather talk about football.  He was probably teaching the class because he was the most comfortable talking about sex of all of the other gym/health teachers.  I should note, he was the only teacher that offered to talk (and listen) to me about my parent’s divorce, so he is a brave and good man in my opinion. 

Of course, the “unofficial” sex education I got at school was largely coming from the “Christian Club[2]” members and was also abstinence only but, with fear, sin, and damnation thrown in for good measure.  I knew a student whose purity ring cracked when he had sex with his girlfriend and that story put the fear of God in many of us.  I graduated high school in the year 2000, so the Silver Ring Thing was a big deal;  I like the Wikipedia description of it.  They have changed the name to Unaltered, but the message seems to be the same as it was when I was in school.  I didn’t participate in the Christian Club but many of my friends did.  My home church youth group provided a safe and loving way to learn about God with my peers, so I didn’t feel the need to join the school club.  But my church youth group didn’t talk about sex, so the only “Godly” information I got about sex was from friends in that school club or in other youth groups that did talk about it; that premarital sex was sinful.  Even then, I felt like the emphasis on this particular sin seemed over-done, I didn’t believe there was a such thing as ‘the worst sin anyone could ever commit’.  I would say that the Christian Club on campus was mostly styled for protestant evangelical types.  My Roman Catholic friends seemed to have heard a similar message at their church but were also told that masturbation, was sinful.  None of these messages made sense when held next to other lessons I was learning in youth group, especially that nothing could ever separate me from the love of God.  And, like Alanis Morissette, I noticed “my brothers never went blind for what they did”.  And I didn’t want to be the one to ask the ‘stupid question’, “Doesn’t God offer forgiveness?”  Do I really have to believe this?  But, I needed something to cling to, something to believe, so I did.  The Jagged Little Pill album came out in the same year the Silver Ring thing was founded, 1995.

At my Christian college freshmen orientation, there was an older woman giving a controversial sex talk; controversial because she talked about being in a committed relationship but, didn’t say that sex was to be saved for marriage.  It was clear to me that some of my college peers got the message that being ‘pure’ for your future spouse was part of being a good Christian.  That God would even reward this virtue with wonderful sex in marriage and a marriage that lasts.  I didn’t realize how damaging that message was until much later.  The phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner” was tossed around a lot when it came to sexuality, especially homosexuality.  I never figured out what that was supposed to mean, it seemed to mean that you could judge your friends for who they loved (even if they were celibate).  There seemed to also be a group on campus that decided sexual activity had nothing to do with faith.  That didn’t seem right to me either.  College was a strange place, where sinners and saints were separated: virgins and whores; straight and gay.  The people who were judging others based on sexual sins were also singing and dancing to “Hot In Herre” leaving me to ask: is there a reasonable sexual ethic to be found, isn’t it ironic, and why doesn’t anyone listen to alternative rock here?

And then, I went to seminary.  Just to be clear, sexual ethics for pastors is mostly about not having sex with parishioners, especially children.  One would hope you wouldn’t need to say those things out loud, but we do.  The only other time sex was mentioned in seminary was in the context of the tirade of one professor who was anti-gay marriage and anti-gay ordination.  His lectures on the subject I found to be unloving and unhelpful.  And yet, there was a small resistance, claiming that marriage and ordination should be (and could be) for everyone. For me, the problems weren’t the fighting, the problems were coming from the silence; the absence of healthy dialogue that engaged faith; the absence of a reasonable sexual ethic.  I thought I would not make those mistakes in ministry, in leading a church, in creating a marriage and family.  But I did.  Kelly Clarkson’s 2004 hit, “Because of you” was all too prophetic for me. 

In the years following seminary, my own marriage fell apart.  I adopted the non-ethic of ‘my sexuality is separate from my faith’.  I had to; I had nothing else to fall back on. I thought, “My heart can’t possibly break when it wasn’t even whole to start with…. because of you”. I was hurt and mad, mostly at myself.  If I had developed a healthier sexual ethic earlier (like when I started menstruating in 5th grade), maybe I wouldn’t feel so un-ordainable.  Added to that was the ordination standard for PCUSA at the time was “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”[3]  As life would have it, I ended up married (to a man) before I was ordained but before I developed a sexual ethic. Since then, thankfully, the ordination standards and definitions of marriage have changed for PCUSA

Which brings me back to: being the period pastor, and how talking about periods and how helping girls and women get access to sustainable menstrual products and health education leads to having other conversations about women’s health and women’s rights.  I’ve read “The Moment of Lift” by Melinda Gates and saw how she was able to connect having access to contraceptives to lifting women out of poverty the same way I’ve seen Celeste Mergens providing menstrual health and hygiene lifting girls and women out of poverty.  Both women can show that their methods improve the life of girls and women; provide them with the knowledge to keep themselves healthy; help them obtain education; provide financially for their families; improve the lives of all of those around them; end female genital cutting, child marriage and other harmful practices; lift entire communities out of poverty and SAVE THE WORLD!  Melinda doesn’t specifically talk about menstruation and Celeste doesn’t specifically talk about contraception, and yet both women are working to achieve the same goals.  Don’t worry, I’ve written to both of them… not that I have any kind of influence, it just makes me feel better to write (or blog).  All of this is the wonderful work of women who are inspired by their faith to make the lives of other women better.  And while both women understand their work as expressions of their faith, neither of them pushes their faith or morals onto those they are helping, which is also wonderful.  But at some point, periods, bodies, sex and sexuality also intersect with our beliefs and how we live according to our beliefs; and it is in this space that I feel called. 

So, if I can talk about what kind of menstrual cup is right for period sex, shouldn’t I also be able to articulate answers to faith-based questions about sex?  Shouldn’t I be able to tell a college student that the random hook up didn’t feel good the next day because you treated each other as objects and not because you committed an ‘unforgiveable act’ in the eyes of a prudish and angry god?  Mostly, I want to tell students (and everyone) that God (not god), the one who loves you no matter what, wants you to be loved and to love others.  It seems too simple and too complex to love God, others and yourself, especially when it comes to love, sex, and marriage.  I would love to provide an opportunity for the students I’ve interacted with to work all of that out for themselves without fear of judgement, shame, or guilt.  But first, I have to work it out for myself. 

What I have learned in ministry is that having a support system and people that inspire me to do better is what will make me a better pastor.  I am fortunate to have sought out role models in faith in my local clergy groups and in on-line groups.  In my local group, I found solidarity for the idea that we need a sexual ethic, although no one thought they could articulate one exactly, and in my on-line group, Young Clergy Women International, I was directed to the writings of another YCW, Bromleigh McCleneghan who wrote, “Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex”.  I read it cover to cover as fast as I could. 

It was an amazingly thoughtful, faithful, and thorough book about sex.  Her third chapter, “Playing Fair: The Ethics Of Good Sex”, is something I wish I could commit to memory in its entirety.  “Our sexuality is part of us—a part of who we are, something to be cherished and attended to, something for which we need never feel ashamed.  Sexuality is a part of human life—the way we inhabit our bodies, the way we express ourselves, the way we grow into our relationships—and Christians are called upon to be reflective about the ways in which we live out our sexuality, just as we are called upon to be reflective on the rest of our identities and practices.  In many ways, the same rules apply in the bedroom as anywhere else: love God, love your neighbor as yourself.”[4]  And if you think she is going to just pin a bible verse to the idea that sex should be enthusiastically consensual, mutually enjoyable, safe and legal, then you would be missing the depth at which she engages with scripture.  McCleneghan writes, “The Bible is such a rich resource—a treasure trove of insight and poetry, of inspiration and critique.  Because of its richness, its complexity, it calls Christians of many stripes to take it seriously, refusing to oversimplify its meanings or to proof-text to get the answers we want to see.  It’s a complicated resource for reflection on sexuality, in particular, but there’s no way around it: Christians have to engage the biblical text in constructing our ethics.  When Christians are trying to figure out what a sexual ethic might look like, then, it’s important to place the Bible in conversation with other sources.  The most reputable ones among Christians tend to be reason or knowledge, tradition or collected wisdom, and experience, both personal and of others.  …. Christians can locate their ethical norms within the intersection of all of these sources, though even in the intersection there can be varying interpretations.  ….  [However,] we can find enough that holds us together while also leaving room for difference and the change he Spirit often brings.”[5] 

Instead of ‘this action is sinful’ (like I heard as a young person), McCleneghan has a more nuance idea of what is sexual sin.  She describes sin as “that force within us and in our communities and world that pulls us to do, as Paul puts it so beautifully in Romans, ‘the evil I do not want.’  ….  Sin hurts people, and thus it’s important to name it, stop it, and work for healing and justice.  Some sin is obvious to name: sexual exploitation and abuse.  Some types of sin are harder to see: passively allowing the vulnerable to be abused, turning a blind eye or hard heart toward those who are suffering, or denying one’s own complicity in systems of injustice.  ….  Sin isn’t always, or usually, criminal, after all.  This sin is the sort that manifests our failure to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  It’s the kind of sin that stays with you long after you’ve stopped committing it, that drags you into moments of self-loathing and regret.”[6]  This is where she discusses treating ourselves and others as people and not objects and the work of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (especially his essay on “I and Thou”), and Jesus’ repeated instructions to love God, with all of your heart, being, strength, and mind and to  love neighbors and self.  The Christian sexual ethic comes from this norm: love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.[7] 

Then she asks if sexual ethics should be more complicated or more specific and sights examples of how some church cultures that emphasize sex for marriage or make lists of what sex acts are okay and not okay for single people leave out important dialogues about how to set boundaries for romantic relationships not between cis-gender heterosexuals.  I think McCleneghan gives this issue fair treatment, but Nadia-Boltz Weber’s book “Shameless” does a better job of communicating varieties of human experience for that topic.  I don’t mean this as a criticism of McCleneghan, simply I mean that the church Weber founded, is an affirming church, so in her context she has more to share than most.  Weber is a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor.  Her book is a must read too. 

McCleneghan confirms that sex in a covenant relationship (marriage) can be wonderful does not mean that it always is, but that in reality we are all capable of treating each other badly.  She cites the work of Margaret Farley, “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics” for her two important insights “an imagining of what constitutes just love and/or sex, and an exploration of what sources Christians can rightly us in reaching ethical decisions”.[8]  Farley encourages good exegesis instead of “proof texting with the Bible, especially around love, marriage and sexuality”  because the Bible does not offer a “consistent or systematic approach on the subject”.[9]  The Vatican didn’t like Margaret Farely’s work, but it seems many others love it.  I’m putting it on my (mile long) reading list.   Farley wrote as a member of the Mercy Sisters during her time on the ethics faculty of Yale Divinity School.   She “wants to make justice an underlying principle for both love and sex.  A just love, she argues, will have certain characteristics regardless of the type of love relationship, and just sex ought to manifest them, too: 1. Respect for autonomy and relationality that characterize persons as ends in themselves, and hence respect for their well-being.  ….  2. Respect for autonomy.  ….  3. Respect for relationality.  ….  4. Respect for persons as sexual beings in society.”[10]

In writing about consent and autonomy, McCleneghan cites the work of Melanie Springer Mock quoting “We may assume that Christian teaching on sex and sexuality inures us from having such discussions about affirmative consent: because abstinence education teaches young people to avoid situations where consent might be needed; because Christian youth will not be incapacitated by substances that often complicate questions about consent; and because talking about “yes means yes” promotes sexual activity outside of marriage. (Never mind that that affirmative consent needs to occur within marriage as well.)  Helping young people understand affirmative consent might be difficult given Christian teaching about abstinence, but such conversations are imperative. Fundamentally, the Christian faith relies on outdoing each other in showing honor (Rom. 12:10), and on loving one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34). Affirmative consent challenges us to honor the worth of each person. Nonconsensual activity challenges this notion, suggesting that a person is worthy as an object for our own pleasure. Surely we can see the problems in this kind of coercion, whether it happens within or outside the bounds of marriage.” from her article in Christianity Today, True love Consents.  The article is definitely worth a read, as is the notes section in McCleneghan’s book to find other engaging works like these.

McCleneghan concludes her third chapter with this, “It would be easier to have a simple list of dos and don’ts…but think of all the mutual, creative, committed, and relational fun we’d miss out on.”[11]  It’s a super cute sentiment to end this chapter on but I’m not sure “easier” is the word I use.  It isn’t easier to have a list of dos and don’ts.  It isn’t easier to claim that sexuality has nothing to do with spirituality and ethics. In my experience, it is better, maybe even freeing, to do the hard work of creating a frame work to live by; to critically examine faith; to have a semblance of a sexual ethic.  To have a Christian Sexual Ethic means to have a fuller understanding of what it means to love God, neighbor, and self.  To honor, respect, and love neighbor as a child of God and not as an object to be used.  To have a Christian Sexual Ethic means to broaden a sense of justice to include respect for autonomy, relationally and for all persons as sexual beings in society.  To have a Christian Sexual Ethic means to have the possibility of freedom from sexual sin, the freedom to choose what is right and just. 

[1] This is a nod to the McCleneghan book I will discuss more later.

[2] This wasn’t the real name of the club… this is me trying to be kind

[3] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/theology-and-worship/our-challenging-way-faithfulness-sex-ordination-and-marriage/

[4] Bromleigh McCleneghan (2016) “Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex”. Page 69 

[5] Bromleigh McCleneghan (2016) “Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex”. Pages73-74

[6] Bromleigh McCleneghan (2016) “Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex”. Pages 74-75

[7] Bromleigh McCleneghan (2016) “Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex”. Pages 75-78

[8] Bromleigh McCleneghan (2016) “Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex”. Page 82

[9] Bromleigh McCleneghan (2016) “Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex”. Page 80

[10] Bromleigh McCleneghan (2016) “Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex”. Pages 82-83

[11] Bromleigh McCleneghan (2016) “Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex”. Page 87

1 thought on “Let’s Talk about Sex

  1. Great lit review of a difficult subject.

    P.s. Jagged Little Pill was the first CD I ever owned.

    Liked by 1 person

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