This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.
O God, our times are in your hands; look graciously upon us, giving us good gifts in due season; help us to form loving relationships with one another, to find our true calling, not only as individuals but as friends, lovers, and companions; grant us, where it is your will, to find true partners, raise loving children, and show forth grace in all we do; in the name of him whose passion and humanity make us one, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Over the last several blogs I have tried to set forth a way of understanding the physical and emotional intimacy involved in sex. That way has more to do with a healthy perspective than a list of dos and don’ts. Here I wanted to sum up where we’ve been and try to answer directly “when” and “with whom” The challenge for me is that I think our society should be having far more sex (intimacy mediated physically and communication about that intimacy) and far less sex (intercourse and fixation on things related to intercourse and procreation). I’m doing my best to encourage both at the same time.
Sex is a big deal in the same way that talking is a big deal. Anyone over the age of 13 should be aware that you can get in more trouble with your tongue than you ever imagined. One ill-timed word can ruin a friendship for life, or provoke a fight, or get you kicked out of a community. One well-timed speech can save a life, or even a country. It is important precisely because it is a regular part of life. And so we need to learn to be comfortable with it, to learn, to make mistakes while on our way to compassionate competence.
1) Sex is, first and foremost, about communication. As much as we might like to, we cannot separate sexual thoughts, behaviors, and relationships from the rest of our thoughts, behaviors, and relationships. Instead of making them taboo or rigidly fitting them into social norms, we need to be aware of how they work, what impact they have over us, and what we want to do with them. There is a broad range of “sexual” activity that includes how we dress, how we think of ourselves, and how we interact as well as whom we touch, and how, and with what part of our anatomy.
2) Intercourse and other types of physical intimacy can be very intense physically, mentally, and spiritually. Caution, patience, and reflection are called for if we want to do them compassionately and well. It’s best to start small and work your way up.
2a) It’s valuable to have some grasp of who you are before attempting to share that with someone else. None of us knows ourselves fully and sex can be an important part of figuring things out, but its worth setting the groundwork. Get to know your own body and emotions before exploring them with someone else. I hate strict guidelines, but as a point of reference, I’d recommend letting puberty set in for a year or two before trying anything explicitly sexual with another person. Before 13, it doesn’t seem worthwhile to kiss or date, much less anything more serious. The feelings you have and the signals you get will be confused and may not be helpful in figuring yourself out in the present or future.
2b) It’s valuable to know who you are before committing to who you will be with someone else. Intercourse always comes with the possibility of a lifetime commitment. Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, it need not be so serious, but the possibility of pregnancy and disease, not to mention the emotional impact of firsts means that this experience and this person could be with you for a very long time. Let some level of independence set in for a year or two before going all the way with someone – either intercourse or marriage. Before 19, it doesn’t seem worthwhile and can set you up for unhealthy relationships. You’ll want to have some ability to differentiate yourself from your parents lest you jump into a relationship to escape or perpetuate old habits.
2c) It’s important to have some ability to read others – their intentions, needs, and emotional state – before getting too involved with them. This, I cannot put an age on. It happens differently for everyone and intimate relationships are a necessary part of learning. I can only suggest that you reflect on it so that you learn to read the cues as early as possible. Start by figuring out what holding hands means to you and to them. Work your way up. Try not to skip levels. This is not a competition to see who can make it around all four bases first (even though society tells you it is).
2d) It’s not just about you. Let me repeat that: it’s not just about you. It doesn’t matter whether you are ready if the other person is not and it takes serious skill and talent to figure out whether the other person is ready. It’s great if you believe you are precocious – some people are. If you want to jump in early, please take care that the other person is precocious as well. Find someone mature enough to help you reason this through. If you don’t have friends mature enough to reason this through, chances are good you’re not as precocious as you think you are.
2e) Parents, take it easy on your kids. See if you can communicate with them about what it all means without giving them an unhealthy attachment or aversion to sex. It is not a mystical and wonderful distant country to be aspired to when they are older. It is not a shameful place of guilty pleasure and/or pain to be avoided in all but the most proscribed of circumstances. It’s a way of figuring out who they are, what they want out of life and what God wants for them. Start talking to them early about gender and orientation and physicality. They will ask; you need only be calm and comfortable talking with them. It’s probably worth talking with your partner or friends about what topics you want to cover, how, and when. Don’t leave the strategic thinking until they are 13 and bring home a girlfriend.
3) Choose wisely. I’m a scientist and a fan of experimentation, but I mean that in a very particular way. Experiments call for a controlled environment and attention to detail. From your first sexual relationship to your last, find people you can trust and with whom you can communicate. Look for partners who will tell you what’s on their mind and ask what’s on yours. Find an appropriate time and place. Find people you trust to talk with about the experience and move one step at a time. Biology has conditioned us to pursue sex in a rush. It has also provided us with a brain that can make sex and relationships more fulfilling (and even better at producing children). We might as well use that brain.
4) Have fun – care does not mean lack of passion… Blogs are intellectual and verbal and concise. Sex is not (unless you go in for that sort of thing). Sex should be visceral as well as intellectual, expressive and expansive, however you express and expand yourself. It means blurring the boundaries between yourself and someone else. So I can only talk about one aspect – the intellectual moral one. There is a much more emotional moral one to attend to as well. And there is a letting go. Hopefully, these posts have given you some rational tools, with which you can prepare a place to be far less rational (but just as considerate).
5) Finally, be forgiving, both of yourself and others. If you don’t look like a fool when having sex, you’re not doing it right. God made us vulnerable and fragile and silly, perhaps so that we would never make the mistake of thinking we were perfect. Sex should be about sharing things you’ve never shared before and discovering things you didn’t know about yourself. They will be raw and unrefined; just another reason to take things slowly. It’s not about getting it right. It is about being honest and kind.
The process is never ideal. It couldn’t be. Every person is different and every relationship is different. I didn’t write this as an excuse to judge people who do it differently. I wrote it as a meditation for people who want to do it right – for whatever value of right they (with God’s help) come to. And I really think being honest and kind and careful at whatever stage you find yourself will make the whole process more rewarding for everyone.
I write with the hope that we, as a society, can learn to be more open about these difficult issues. They are important in Christianity because they are important in life. And talking about our hopes, fears, and expectations helps. For me, the good news of Jesus Christ means that our humanity may be fulfilled by attending to the love God has for us and the opportunity to love one another – and valuing that love, in joy and humility, above all else. Where better for such love to play out than in sexuality? (And where else can it be so diverted?) You may well disagree with me. I’d love to hear if you do. I may change my position or a I may not but both of us will know a little more about our priorities and about our selves.