Bringing Sex into Focus: The Quest for Sexual Integrity
Let's talk about sex, says Caroline J. Simon, professor of philosophy (and interim dean for social sciences) at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Her new book, Bringing Sex into Focus: The Quest for Sexual Integrity (IVP Academic), explores human sexuality through six "lenses" (covenantal, procreative, romantic, plain sex, expressive, and power), while reflecting upon married life, single life, flirtation, homosexuality, casual sex, and the commodified sexuality of pornography and prostitution. Marlena Graves, a contributor to CT's Her.meneutics blog, spoke with Simon about how discipleship, character development, and virtue connect with sexual integrity.
Can you flesh out the "lens" concept you use to frame your book?
A lens is a metaphor for a broad conception of how people view sexuality, quite often without even knowing that they're picking up a perspective. Part of what the lens metaphor is supposed to convey is the sense that when you're looking through it, the lens is a bit invisible to you. Quite unknowingly, people often view sexuality from more than one perspective—through a combination of lenses.
For example, when I ask students their view of sexuality, they'll often say, "Well, I am a Christian, and I take a covenantal point of view on sexuality." But their actual stance on whether it's permissible to divorce and remarry when you've fallen out of love with your spouse is, "Staying in a marriage where you no longer love your spouse romantically is inappropriate." Although they think they're seeing sex through a covenantal point of view, their center of gravity is really a romantic lens.
There may be more than six lenses, but these are the six I see being deployed most often in our culture. Becoming aware of these lenses can be an aide to self-reflection. It can help people clearly understand whether they're looking at issues of sexuality from a perspective they don't realize they hold. In addition, this helps us genuinely understand people who have different views so that we can engage with them, instead of talking at cross purposes.
How are character development and sexual integrity related?
Character development is a lifelong process. Developing good Christian character takes time and grace and a whole web of the church doing what it needs to do to shape us into the kind of people that God intends us to be.
Sexual maturity is in part a biological conception of coming to puberty. We often assume people are going to reach sexual integrity on their own while fumbling around with their own sexual development. I don't think people can develop a sense of integrity without having other aspects of their character come to maturity. They need a community that surrounds them, gives them guidance, and offers places to talk about their struggles and what maturity and growth look like.
What do you mean when you say that we fall somewhere between sexual incontinence, continence, and chastity on the spectrum of sexual integrity?
In the case of continence, one successfully struggles and does the right thing even in the face of strong temptation. In the case of incontinence, a person might have exactly the same desires as a person who is continent, and struggle just as hard, but lose the struggle with their desires. This element of internal struggle is what differentiates incontinence from the vice of lust. The lustful don't struggle. They just find using other people for their own purposes and following their own desires so natural and habitual that they don't even know that there should be some restraint exercised.
But the difference between the first two states, continence and incontinence, and full sexual integrity is that a virtuous person in any kind of realm, including the sexual realm, is habitually, naturally, and without struggle acting in the right way.
What does chastity look like for someone who is single?
In the Christian ideal, chastity for single people is refraining from sexual intercourse. But it means much more than that. It means being comfortable with your sexuality and not being asexual, not repressed, but being well-behaved and not deploying your sexuality in ways that cause problems for you or other people.
Churches can help single people by communicating that within Christian tradition, singleness is a perfectly acceptable way of being human. It's not some abnormal or incomplete state if it's God's intention.
How does viewing pornography impede the development of sexual integrity?
It is very difficult to treat other people as fully human and worthy of respect when you are watching them in intimate interactions in order to be aroused. It's treating other human beings as a means to one's own gratification, which is dehumanizing to both the people depicted in pornographic scenes and the person who watches them. It's bound to habituate the user away from sexual integrity.
How can the church help us cultivate the virtues that lead us out of our sexual muddles and into sexual integrity?
We are bound to struggle because grace is at work in our lives, yet it hasn't fully overcome the Fall. When it comes to sexuality, we often leave people on their own because we don't open the conversation in ways that make people willing to talk about what they're really struggling with. We expect that people need help learning how to pray and how to be angry without sinning. But we too often assume that there are these extremes—that either you're a person of complete sexual integrity or you're completely lustful. But there's the whole messy in-between.
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Bringing Sex Into Focus is available from Christianbook.com and other retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles about sexuality include:
The Trouble with Ed Young's Rooftop Sexperiment | Yes, the church needs to talk more about sex. But pastors may need to talk about it less. (January 12, 2012)
Q & A: Mark and Grace Driscoll on Sex for the 21st-Century Christian | The Seattle couple talks to CT about their new book on marriage. (January 5, 2012)
Why 'All the Single Ladies' Shouldn't Give Up on Marriage | Frustrations with men and the institution are real, but shouldn't obscure our hope in what God is doing. (November 21, 2011)
The Science of Shacking Up | Why cohabitating couples are putting their future at risk. An interview with Glenn Stanton on 'The Ring Makes All the Difference.' (September 19, 2011)
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