When I was 15 I cut out a four-by-two-inch piece of paper from my copy of Brio magazine and signed it. On the piece of paper was a vow that made me part of the-then newly emerging True Love Waits movement:
"Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship."
I hung the card on my bulletin board where it was surrounded by drawings from friends, stickers from my favorite bands (The Cranberries, Pearl Jam, and the Smashing Pumpkins to name a few), movie stubs, and pithy quotes from my favorite books (including the Bible). It was a brag board. "Hey, look how cool I am! I have artsy friends and I like alternative music and I'm a Christian at the same time. I'm hardcore. I'm even a virgin." Yes folks, I wore combat boots with my dresses.
Now I'm 27. My music is mainstream (worse yet, I heard Pearl Jam on a classic rock station the other day) and I think the pastel pink purse I'm carrying today officially disqualifies me from anything smacking of hardcore. I still have that True Love Waits card --- I came across it in my parents' basement a couple of years ago --- but my enthusiasm for being a virgin has waned. It's "punk rock" when you're 15 and marriage and sex is on the horizon, just the other side of college (wa-hoo! College!); it's "lite rock" when you're 27 and marriage isn't on the radar, much less the horizon, and college is quickly retreating in the rearview mirror (wa-hoo! Paying off school loans!). And frankly, I'm just not ready to be hanging out with Seals and Croft on a regular basis.
And I'm not alone. I can't think of one girlfriend who hasn't struggled with sexual immorality. We've all made compromises to one extent or another. And we're Christian women. Many of us have degrees from bible school, we grew up in church youth groups, we signed True Love Waits cards for goodness sake!
Part of the problem is that "just wait" becomes a weaker and weaker argument for pre-marital abstinence as one gets older. And a lot of us are getting older before getting married. So, how do you make a compelling case for chastity to adults?
I'm glad you asked.
REAL SEX by Lauren Winner is certainly one way. It offers a theologically grounded understanding of sex and an honest exploration of the merit of chastity when decreed in scripture. And it does so without being glib, sanctimonious, or saying, "just wait."
"Chastity is not always easy or fun. (Once I was standing in front of my car with my then-beau, E. His arms were wrapped around my waist and I kissed his cheek and said, 'So, I think we're doing pretty well on the chastity front, don't you?' and he allowed that yes, he thought so too, and then he grinned in that way he sometimes has and said, 'Maybe too well.') Which is to say that being chaste is sometimes strange, and difficult, and curious. But it is also a discipline, and like any spiritual discipline, it gets easier and better with time," she writes.
With a pastoral sensibility, Winner puts her own "slow conversion to chastity" in the context of sociological, historical, and theological trends and interpretations. The result is a new (or very old, depending on how you look at it) schema through which single Christians can view their sexuality and its ramifications not just for themselves, but also for the body of Christ.
This emphasis on community in relation to sexuality is one of the most radical aspects of REAL SEX. Winner suggests that our sexuality is indeed the "beeswax" of our neighbors. She tells the story of her friend Carrie who was living in a house post-college with six other Christian women. Carrie's boyfriend Thad was living down the street, and even though the two of them were not having sex, they were doing everything but. And the two spent many nights together. Her roommates had no way of knowing whether or not the two were having sex and no one asked, most likely out of fear of seeming noisy or imprudent.
Winner writes: "But the Bible tells us to intrude --- or rather, the Bible tells us that talking to one another about what is really going on in our lives is in fact not an intrusion at all, because what's going on in my life is already your concern; by dint of the baptism that made me your sister, my joys are your joys and my crises are your crises. We are called to speak to one another lovingly, to be sure, and with edifying, rather than gossipy or hurtful, goals. But we are called nonetheless to transform seemingly private matters into communal matters. Of course, premarital sexual behavior is just one of many instances of this larger point. Christians also need to speak courageously and transparently, for example, about the seemingly private matters of Christian marriage --- there would be, I suspect, a lot fewer divorces in the church if married Christians exposed their domestic lives, their fights and tensions and squabbles, to loving wisdom, advice, and sometimes rebuke from their community. Christians might claim less credit card debt if small-group members shared their bank account statements with one another. I suspect that if my best friend had permission to scrutinize my Day-timer, I would inhabit time better. Speaking to one another about our sexual selves is just one (admittedly risky) instance of a larger piece of Christian discipleship: being in community with each other."
In many respects, this emphasis on community makes Winner's call to purity more challenging than the True Love Waits pledge. Just as living under grace does in some ways require more of us than living under the law, so too does thinking about sexuality as a conduit for a relationship require more of us than thinking about sex as a purely personal matter.
But REAL SEX offers this challenge with compassion and generosity. Here Winner manages to be open about her own sexual missteps without wearing them like badges of honor. And in doing so, she provides an example of how to live faithfully with past sin --- learning from it without taking pride in it.
And REAL SEX isn't just for singles. I think one of its most helpful observations is the fact that married sex isn't given its proper due; we define good married sex by how well it approximates unmarried sex. Winners suggests that we should view sex more holistically and realize that if sex was indeed created for marriage, then it was created to be shaped and surrounded by the stuff of marriage --- kids, bills, laundry, etc. The occasional weekend at a bed and breakfast or the romantic dinner by candlelight isn't a bad thing, but it shouldn't necessarily consider those opportunities more important than the connection that can take place on a Tuesday night while the spaghetti sauce is simmering.
REAL SEX offers a compelling example of how all of us --- single or married --- can reframe our thoughts on sex and chastity within a more holistically biblical framework. And it does so in an honest, thoughtful way that I hope will help refresh the larger conversation about chastity and sexual fidelity in Christian circles. I highly recommend it to all. As those wise hip-hop sages, Salt-n-Pepa, once rapped, "Let's talk about sex."
Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel on April 1, 2005