Sweet Chastity

To Christian author Lauren Winner, saving sex for marriage is about more than just saying no.

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Lauren Winner wants to change the way Christians have sex. Before that, though, she wants to change the way they think about sex, talk about sex and teach about sex. Her latest book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Brazos Press), is an attempt to craft a theologically based and culturally aware case for returning sex to what Winner believes is its divinely intended place: marriage.

Real Sex, however, is far from an uncomfortable, prudish lecture about the evils of the body. In a straightforward and conversational style, Winner shares her own sexual history and speaks frankly about often-taboo topics such as pornography and masturbation. Agree or disagree with the author's faith-based conclusions, Real Sex is a timely, thought-provoking work.

Winner's previous writings include 2002's spiritual memoir Girl Meets God (Algonquin Books), selected by Barnes & Noble for its Discover Great New Writers program, and its 2003 follow-up Mudhouse Sabbath (Paraclete Press); she also has contributed to The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, O: The Oprah Magazine and Christianity Today. The 28-year-old author is currently completing doctoral studies in American religious history at Columbia University, but took time out for an email interview about her latest work.

Q: I think most people might be surprised to read a Christian book about sex that doesn't present an airtight, generic definition of chastity. Did you know from the beginning that you would not be attempting to set definite parameters?

A: I actually think I did offer a pretty clear explication of chastity -- that chastity means sex only with one's spouse -- though emphasizing too that sexual sins are not somehow unforgivable and also emphasizing that we need to think of chastity as one of many spiritual disciplines that are part of Christian discipleship and obedience.

Q: What I think some people might find a bit surprising, though, is that you aren't dividing all physical behaviors into "acceptable" and "forbidden." You tell the story that you and your now-husband received advice from a pastor when you were dating not to do anything sexual that you would not be comfortable doing on the steps of the University of Virginia Rotunda. At the same time, you acknowledge that certain Christians wouldn't accept kissing as part of their definition of chastity.

A: I'm much more interested in suggesting/modeling certain principles -- so, for example, I told the on-the-steps-of-the-Rotunda story not because I thought everyone should adopt my boundaries, but because I do think most people (all?) should adopt the idea of inviting their community into their "personal" decision. (In this case, "community" was represented by our friend/pastor/interlocutor.)

I think this sort of obsession with line-drawing already misses the point. Chastity is about focusing on God in a particular way, and if one gets too obsessed with line-drawing, then one is, well, focused on line-drawing -- not on God.

Q: Real Sex is written most specifically for those with what you call "articulated Christian ethics." What do you think readers who don't share that same perspective can take away from your discussion of chastity?

A: I wrote the book, as you say, envisioning a primarily Christian audience. In fact, I turned down offers from "secular," New York publishing houses (which most of my friends and colleagues thought was nuts) because I knew that what I wanted to do, primarily, was shake up a Christian conversation -- not convert the secular world to Christian sexual ethics.

The point I like to raise when speaking to audiences not primarily made up of Christians is: Since the sexual revolution, we've been living in America with a cultural norm that accepts premarital sex as normal, good, even normative. (I.e. If you're not having premarital sex, you must be weird, repressed, etc.) I believe this culture of premarital sex has affected how all of us -- Christian or non-Christian, whether we've had premarital sex or not -- understands what good sex is.

As I say in the book, "the sex of blind dates and fraternity parties, even of relatively long-standing dating relationships, has, simply, no normal qualities. It is based on mutual desire, and it dispenses with the ordinary rhythms of marital sex, trading them for a seemingly thrilling but ultimately false story. This may be the way that the sin of premarital sex sticks with us most lastingly; it may be the twisted lesson it teaches us most convincingly: that sex is exciting. That sex derives its thrill from instability and drama.

"In fact, the opposite is true: the dramas of married sex are smaller and more intimate, and indeed it is the stability of marriage that allows sex to be what it is."

I think the absurdities of the sexual revolution have become so absurd -- 14-year-olds having rainbow parties -- that people who in general think premarital sex is fine are beginning to see some of the negative effects of the sexual license in our current society. In other words, you don't have to be religious to wish your teenage son or daughter wasn't out having random sex with a bunch of different people. These excesses, I think, mean that Christians and non-Christians may be able to come together to talk about sexuality and sexual ethics in a way we haven't much done over the last 30 years.

Q: You talk about the church needing to treat sex as an issue for congregations to deal with and not just individuals. I'm wondering how your own spiritual journey -- into Orthodox Judaism and then into Christianity, as set out in Girl Meets God -- has influenced your ideas about community.

A: I think I absolutely learned the value of community from living in Jewish communities. In general, Judaism does community a lot better than Christianity, at least in the contemporary era. Of course, part of that has to do with being a minority community -- in America, Protestants at least don't have a social imperative to make Christian community because the whole surrounding culture is in some way culturally Protestant.

But there are theological and religious imperatives to community in Judaism, too -- down to the fact that there are certain prayers that a Jew is forbidden to say alone. For Christians, the most basic images, metaphors and signs are corporate, and the basic unit of ethical meaning is not the individual, but the body, the community. This talk about community is not mere metaphorizing. The community has a role in the making of ethics. But in general, American Protestants have done a lame job of inhabiting this community.

Sex is just one of many issues that may appear -- in our hyper-individualized, atomized American society -- to be an individual matter, but is really properly a matter of communal concern.

Q: Two chapters in Real Sex are titled "Straight Talk I: Lies Our Culture Tells about Sex" and "Straight Talk II: Lies the Church Tells about Sex," your point being that there are real problems on both sides with the way sex is perceived. I'm not sure that the culture is all that interested in changing; what does the church need to do differently to influence the way the general public thinks about sex?

A: Here I would take a line influenced by ethicist Stanley Hauerwas: We are to bear witness by living robustly Christian (and therefore in many areas, countercultural) lives. If a single Christian manages to inhabit chastity well and manages to make his or her sexuality and chastity a communal issue -- well, that will look different from how most of us in America handle our sexuality. Frankly, I think it will look appealing.

Christians need to take our insight that sex belongs in marriage and then develop a notion of what good, domestically grounded, real married sex looks like -- what ordinary sex looks like -- and then share that ideal with our surrounding society.

Q: In 2002, the ACLU successfully filed suit against former Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster because his abstinence program provided federal funds to religious organizations; a follow-up claim that religious links and references on the program's official Web site violated the settlement of the 2002 suit was rejected by a federal judge last month.

One thing your book makes plain is that you believe that what you do with your mind (and not just what you do with your body) is an important part of Christian chastity. You also make the point that, biblically speaking, there are more reasons to be chaste than simply to avoid pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease. Do you think that these messages perhaps get lost when the Christian community lends its voice to publicly funded and politically controversial abstinence-education programs?

A: To be honest, I don't think I can intelligently comment on this because I know so little about these abstinence programs. I do think that it would be impossible to articulate a robustly Christian view of sexuality in a public school. You could, presumably, teach public school kids the "just say no" ethic, but if the explanation you give for that saying no is pregnancy/STDs, then you have not taught them a Christian view of sexuality. You've just given them a pragmatic and, in my view, ultimately inadequate tool for responding to sexual longings.

Q: Early on in Real Sex, you set aside issues of adultery, homosexuality and divorce, saying "those are all topics that a comprehensive account of Christian sexual ethics would need to address." Are those topics that you plan on writing about next?

A: I am involved in an academic project that looks at sex on campuses, but other than that, I don't, at the present, envision doing more writing on sex. Obviously, I think sex is important, or I wouldn't have devoted years to writing a book about it. But I don't think it is the only important thing or the most important thing. Thinking about money is every bit as -- indeed, arguably more -- important, for example. So is thinking about peace and justice and war and electoral politics. Non-Christians often say Christians spend too much time talking about sex. I actually think there's something true in that criticism. I think if we talked about sex better, we could talk about it less.

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