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The Problem with “Sex as Sin”

In a chapel message entitled “The Cross and Sexuality,” Chaplain Blackmon discussed sex as a sin-issue for which we are in need of repentance and forgiveness. Sex is an issue of sin for some people. Repentance is the correct response to any sin of which the Holy Spirit convicts a believer. However, this chapel furthered painful and destructive aspects of purity culture at Wheaton. The overarching rhetoric of sexuality as an issue of sin perpetuates the understanding of sex and sexuality as dangerous things that need to be firmly held under control until they can be acknowledged, glorified, and idolized as the mark of a successful life in the context of heterosexual marriage. This rhetoric is ultimately harmful for survivors and victims of sexual assault.

Marriage as Savior

The rhetoric of “sex as sin until (heterosexual) marriage” increases the shame and guilt survivors of sexual assault experience on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. Marriage cannot be the solution to or end goal of sexual purity, health, or wholeness. To present “healing” or healthy sexuality as something that happens solely within heterosexual marriage fuels the fear, anxiety, and hopelessness many survivors of sexual assault experience. Sexual assault survivors may not want to marry or engage in sexual acts, either shortly after the attack or years later. Instead of portraying marriage as a savior or a prize, we need to remember the Cross. We must remind ourselves that Jesus never married and yet lacked nothing. We must speak of Jesus as the Healer, the Comforter, the Friend, and the Lover of our souls, rather than portraying sex within a heterosexual marriage as the goal or sign of healthy sexuality.

Sex Solely as Sin

The overarching rhetoric of sex as sin leads us to think of the despicable sin of sexual assault perpetrators before we acknowledge the pain, confusion, and trauma that survivors of sexual assault experience. This rhetoric is also reflective of the white, Western cultural captivity of the church (see Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism) instead of a biblical understanding of sin which is collective, communal, and centered on honor and shame. Ignoring the experience of survivors of sexual assault is also fundamentally opposed to the Cross, since Jesus himself was the innocent one who suffered. The main recognition of sexual assault in a chapel message cannot be directed towards potential perpetrators of sexual violence. Focusing on the perpetrator resembles glorifying someone’s sin and neglecting the victims and survivors of sexual abuse. We need to re-prioritize survivors of sexual assault and their experiences of “life after” a traumatic event.

Christ of the Cross

The Cross is not a hindrance to this re-focusing. When we remember the Cross, we do not need to think mainly or solely in terms of forgiveness of sin. When we remember the Cross, we need to recognize the lack of force, manipulation and coercion in Jesus’ interactions with women throughout Scripture. We need to honor the presence of compassion, understanding, and physical safety when Jesus speaks to the abused and ashamed. We need to remember Jesus’ compassionate interaction with the woman at the well, a victim of domestic abuse and neglect. The Cross was the sight of Jesus’ identification with the poor and the oppressed, with victims of injustice and abuse, with the innocent who are murdered (for further reading, see The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone). The intersection of the Cross and sexuality is important to highlight not (solely) in terms of sin, but in light of the fact that on the Cross, the God who became flesh was crucified. In the Resurrection, the God who became flesh rose again. This crucified and resurrected Lord is the Christ of the Cross.

Sexist Sex

Furthermore, rhetoric of the man “giving” himself and the woman “receiving” his gift in sexual intercourse is extremely problematic, not only for its heteronormativity, but also in light of sexual assault. During healthy sex, each party should give and each party should receive. Receiving is generally understood as a passive action in response to a stimulus or another act, while giving is active and involves agency. Women are most likely to be the victims of sexual violence, inside and outside of a marriage relationship. Men are far more likely to be the perpetrators of sexual assault, both against women and against other men. Attributing passive actions to women during sex is not just inappropriate and unhelpful – it is sexist and furthers rape culture which encourages men to coerce and force sexual acts, unwanted touching, and sexual intercourse.

#itsonus

Finally, discussing sex as sin perpetuates the understanding of sex as an individual issue from which specific individuals need to repent or receive restoration from. With our heads bowed and eyes closed, individuals are encouraged or socially pressured into admitting that they have sinned. However, sexual assault is never the product of a single individual. The national #itsonus campaign recognizes the role that groups of people and entire societies play both in allowing sexual assault to occur and hopefully in bringing an end to sexual violence. It is too easy to tell potential perpetrators “don’t force people to have sex.” It is far more difficult and much more important to challenge societies that portray women as prizes to be won or objects to be purchased. This definitely includes Christian (sub)cultures, as evidenced in the stories men tell of “pursuing” their wives and the applause in response to victory in their conquest. It is far more difficult and much more important to speak against a culture that celebrates, glorifies, rewards, and even overlooks (aka. passively allows) sexual exploits with people who are unwilling, intoxicated, or otherwise unable-to-consent.

Therefore

We need to reconsider The Cross and Sexuality in light of the experiences of sexual assault survivors. When sex is discussed solely or predominantly as a “sin-issue,” the pain resulting from sexual assault or abuse is not only overlooked, but exacerbated. Sex can be bonding and it may be an area where certain people are called to repent of sin. However, for sexual assault survivors, sex and sexuality is not a “sin issue.” Sexuality is an issue of justice. Justice is something close to God’s heart that we are called to seek (Isa. 1:17). Maybe it’s time to start talking about sexual justice.

In Conclusion

Sex is not sin. Sex is relationship. Sex is connection. Sex should be consent, and sex should be safe. Since our campus and college campus across the nation will never be full of people who get to choose what they have done and what has been done to them sexually, purity culture and the dominance of “sex as sin” rhetoric is unacceptable. We can do better. We need to do differently. We need to end this rhetoric because it is actually contrary to the Cross.

We need to speak of sex as relationship, and begin to restore what has been broken. We need to be the Body of Christ and suffer with those who suffer (1 Cor. 12:26) due to sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact. We need to remind sexual assault survivors that the One who hung on the Cross was not only the forgiver of sins, but also the One who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isa. 53:4). We need to pray for deeper understanding of what it means that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23). Through the Incarnation, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Through the Cross, God is with us in our suffering, in our confusion, in our trauma, and in our pain. Through the Resurrection, suffering does not have the last word. We have a God that not only suffers with us, but somehow, beyond understanding, is big enough to redeem.

I think our campus can & should continue dialogue about sexuality in ways that support and encourage survivors of sexual assault. I recognize that some of my peers have become exhausted by years of striving & fighting & praying & crying for our campus to address racial, sexual, and economic diversity in multiple capacities, while seeing little to no change. As a result, many no longer expect change & have stopped expressing their hurt. This piece was written with them in mind, as a thank-you note because I stand on their shoulders.

Ironically, the hope of this piece is in the expression of hurt itself. When hurt is expressed & addressed, bitterness (in all its toxicity) loses power. This piece was written with a broken heart because I hope & believe & pray for change. There needs to be space in the Church & on our campus for honesty and authenticity, especially when pain and frustration is directed towards fellow Christians & larger structures. This is nothing new. For the entirety of the Church’s existence, members of the Church have been speaking truth to power with hearts broken & breaking for the oppressed & marginalized. This is mainly perceived as a threat for those in power with privilege, those who have something to lose.

May we, whoever we are, learn to listen to the marginalized. May we seek to understand the hurt behind the frustration. May we lament. May we repent. May we change.

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About the Author

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Kimi is a lover of words, coffee, oversized sweaters, and good friends. In her dreams, she's Beyonce. In real life, she's more like Leslie Knope. She is passionate about social justice in its various forms. #blacklivesmatter #itsonus When she's not watching Parks and Rec, she studies Womanist and Black theology as an Interdisciplinary Studies major at Wheaton College.

7 Comments

  1. Kimi, this piece rocks. Thank you for writing it, thank you for calling up hard issues this campus woefully ignores. You put into words many of the things I found alarming but could not name during this chapel message. As I was leaving chapel and starting to process the twisting sensation in my gut about what I’d just heard, I spoke with a friend about the ways I found the “prostitute” trope to be problematic – that she, misleading men and lying to them with her body, was the example of sin, who you should avoid lest her shame rub off on you, rather than the man who pays for sex from a woman who is either literally enslaved or is a slave to her financial or social circumstances. As I shared this with said friend, a guy came up, that I did not know, and unapologetically told me I was wrong. When I started to respond, he interrupted me to reiterate that I was wrong, that I hadn’t been listening, that I was overreacting. Many people on this campus are just unwilling to allow these conversations to happen, to listen to one another and consider their ideas. Thank you for pushing against that and contributing to the conversation – I know I gained something from taking a few minutes to read this post, I’m sure I’m not the only one.

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    • Thank you for your encouragement, Ellie! I’m so sorry that happened. I started laughing reading your description of that guy’s interruptions because it was so ridiculous. I also had major disagreements with the prostitute section!! Thank you for mentioning that! It is/was extremely problematic to continue fostering a culture that tells men to be cautious of the female temptress and shames women for the shape of their bodies! You are so, so right that we need to focus on the man who literally pays for sex and talk about the “disordered loves” in his heart. Thank you for reading thoughtfully and choosing to engage. I’m glad you’re here 🙂

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  2. Kimi, this article is impeccably written. Thank you for putting to words my discomfort with this chapel and articulating the distaste in my mouth due to purity culture here at Wheaton. Thanks for boldly writing this and making an impact on the Wheaton community through your writing.

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  3. This is such a beautiful article; thank you for writing it. You have such a natural eloquence that I really admire, and even as someone now graduated from Wheaton it’s refreshing to hear such wisdom and truth on this subject. As someone who does have a lot of love for the Wheaton community no matter how annoying I found it at times, I’m very grateful to see you continuing to “stir the waters of that community” so as to speak with such respect, grace, and love. Please continue to confront Wheaton the way that you have here. Many people, such as myself, who were not always as brave as we wished we would have been, are greatly in debt to the courage that people like you showed in confronting communal and administrative sins.

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  4. Doug

    Kimmie – I’m not sure we heard the same message in Chapel. It appears you want to change the focus of the message, perhaps stir the pot, and for some reason you point the blame toward “whites”, “western” mis-interpretation, and perhaps the “purity-culture” of Wheaton. What does this have to do with Chaplain Blackmon’s over-riding message?

    You inject into the conversation the notion of “heteronormativity” with an air of condemnation, as if it were a bad thing. It is not. To the contrary, heterosexuality or chastity are the only two options given for Christians in Scripture. We are all guilty at times of redefining Scripture to meet our personal views. As Jerry Root so eloquently says on many occasions, “we must align the scoliosis of our lives to the plumb line of Scripture.”

    We are all on a journey, and to make a blanket statement that “Sex is not sin” seems somewhat of a cheap ploy to garner views on Facebook. You are fully aware that outside of heterosexual marriage, consensual sex with anyone else is sin. The Bible gives it quite a name: fornication (nothing “nice sounding” about that word).

    Do you know anyone personally, or even from a distance, who actually believes that victims of rape, abuse, assault, incest, etc. are “sinning” or “feel “bad” when fornication is discussed? They are two totally separate issues. I think you bring up a great point with regards to sensitivity toward those who are victims of some sort of abuse – well stated.

    Your argument seems to be made merely to vent some angst at people – in this case Chaplain Blackmon – who would call sinful actions for what they are, and call us all to repentance. God does not take sin lightly, either in the Old Testament or the New Testament, and for any of us to minimize sin of any form is a dangerous thing. I was so grateful for the Chaplain Blackmon’s willingness to lovingly and with tremendous grace address a significant issue for many in the Wheaton Community.

    I think your point could have been made with less angst and condemnation, and in about eight sentences.

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  5. ^”less angst and condemnation…in about eight sentences.” Forgive me, but this seems a bit…perhaps, ironic is the term I’m looking for? In light of your question regarding watching the same chapel message, I must ask: did you read the same article I read? Can you say, in all honesty, that you are unable to converse with this author sans belittling, dismissive rhetoric? Regardless of your disagreement, which you are no doubt entitled to, I challenge you to evaluate the extent to which your message is lost in light of your methods of response to those with whom you disagree. Perhaps this was not your intent (benefit of the doubt and all that), but your comments come off as… condescending, at best. To the author, I say thank you for your bravery and courage to write and publish something you believe, something I, who know you personally, know you to have pondered and poured over with great attention and thoughtful, deliberate investment of time, mental, physical, emotional energy. Keep up the faithful pursued. The Lord, our God, will reward you (2 Timothy 2:15, 22-25). Peace and Blessings.

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