Power, Possibility, and Pleasure: Recovering an Old Scarleteen Piece

As part of the continued fall-out from the controversy over my past, Scarleteen — perhaps the nation’s best sex education site — has removed all articles I wrote or to which I contributed.  (Scroll to the bottom of this link for their statement.) I was kindly informed in advance of the public announcement of this decision by the site’s executive director, who also gave me permission to rerun the pieces here on my own blog.  I’m grateful for that kind consideration.

So below the fold, find a post that ran at Scarleteen in 2009: my answer to a young Christian woman agonizing over the ethics of pre-marital sex.

Hello, my name is Christine, I am 20 years old and I have had a boyfriend for about 5 years. We have been having intercourse for over 2 years now but recently, for about 3 months, I have started going to an apostolic church and I am thinking about getting baptised and becoming a christian. But I have a question about what I should do about my sexual life…should I abbandon it until I get married now? Because this really weighing heavily on my morals. I have asked many friends in my church on their opinion about this, and they tell me that premarital sex causes to leave an open doorway for the devil get in so that he can distort sex after marriage. I know that God will not love me any less or be disappointed in me, but if you sacrifice something for God, it will be so much better for you in the end. Everyone has heard that silly line: “sex stops after you get married”. I don’t want that to be the case…so will sex be better in marriage or does it really make a difference if I continue to make love to my significant other? Because this sounds like a skeptical concept to me… please help!! Thank you

 Dear Christine:

Thanks for writing.

As someone just beginning a new faith journey, it’s understandable that you’d be a bit confused by the messages you’re hearing from your friends in church.  Surely, they want the best for you, and they’re giving you information based upon their own understanding of what it is that God wants for us.  But even though you’re very new in the church, not even baptized, it’s perfectly okay for you to ask questions – and maybe discover some answers that are different from the ones you’ve been hearing.

First off, you need to know that a lot of what folks say the Bible says about sex isn’t really in the Scriptures at all.  There is nothing in the Bible that condemns masturbation (the sin of Onan is about the withdrawal method), nothing that condemns loving and mutually committed homosexual relationships, and very, very little about pre-marital sex.  The references in the New Testament to “sexual immorality” and “fornication” are based on a very loose translation of a single Greek word, “porneia (yeah, we get the word “porn” from it) which is better translated as “adultery.”  Adultery, of course, is sex that breaks a commitment to someone else.  If you were to cheat on your boyfriend (or, if you guys get married, your husband), you would certainly be committing “porneia”.  But sex before marriage between two people who are not committed to others?   Most scholars think the Bible says nothing about that at all.

Let me suggest, Christine, that God cares more about the content of our sexuality than he does about its form. Traditional Christian sexual ethics are often discussed in the context of what Christians can and can’t do. Some Christians will often say things like “the only form of genital contact sanctioned by God is that which happens in a marriage between one husband and one wife.” The implication is clear: if you get the “form” (heterosexual marriage) right, then the sex that follows is okay. If you haven’t got the form right, then you’ve “fallen short of the mark.”

But “form-based” sexual ethics clearly have their problems. For example, it ignores entirely the great likelihood that coercion, disrespect, and force can take place within marriage. The Churches did not start condemning marital rape — or even acknowledging that such a concept was possible — until the second half of the twentieth century. Is a situation in which a husband demands sex from his wife against her will somehow more in keeping with the spirit of Christ than a situation in which two unmarried people make love with mutual enthusiasm? If you’re a stickler for “form-based ethics”, you bet. For the most traditional of theologians, marital rape is less of a serious sin than homosexuality or pre-marital sex, because form matters more than content.

“Content” based sexual ethics are concerned with the way in which people, in the process of being sexual, value themselves and their partners. Content-based ethics are deeply concerned with mutuality, with pleasure, and with the willingness of each partner to take responsibility for the physical, spiritual, and emotional consequences of what is done. Form-based ethics teach the Christian to ask the question “Am I allowed to do this?” Content-based ethics teach the Christian to ask “Am I truly loving — in every sense of the word — the person or persons with whom I am doing this, including myself?”

As for marriage, there’s no evidence that sex before marriage ruins sex after.  I know a great many happily married people (my wife and I are two of them) who had great sex while they were dating – and great sex after they were wed.  God isn’t in the business of punishing people for pre-marital sex by making the sex they have as husband and wife tedious and unfulfilling!  What makes sex in any long-term relationship seem stale is a lack of communication and the habit of taking one’s partner for granted – and that can happen just as easily to folks who were virgins on their wedding night as it can to those who weren’t.

Good, just, and spiritual sex can happen both inside and outside of marriage.  And I’m certain that the God you’re just starting to get to know, Christine, cares more about the care and concern that you and your boyfriend share together than he does about the fact that you’re not married.  Focus on the way you treat each other – the content of your relationship – and give thanks for the pleasure you both give and receive.  Your friends may quote to you Hebrews 13:4, the chapter which is often mistakenly used to condemn pre-marital sex.  (It only condemns infidelity and sex with underage prostitutes if you read the Greek closely).  Focus instead on Hebrews 13:15, from the very same chapter.  It says that the best sacrifice is the “sacrifice of praise.”  You know, even atheists sometimes cry out “Oh God!” when they orgasm; that’s giving thanks for the gift of receiving and sharing pleasure.

God made our bodies to give and receive intense joy.  When you make love with your boyfriend, thank God for giving you that power and that possibility.



11 thoughts on “Power, Possibility, and Pleasure: Recovering an Old Scarleteen Piece

  1. Very nicely put. I have to admire the delicacy with which this issue was handled. If I was a friend of Christine’s, I would have peppered my reaction to this issue with a lot of curse words for choosing woman hating religious enslavement over freedom.

  2. SOPA/PIPA is up again for review in Congress and by the President, bills if signed into law could result in internet censorship and site shutdowns. Wikipedia is one of several sites participating in a blackout on 1/18 to protest SOPA. Take time to familiarize yourself with these proposed bills and call your state representative to say no to SOPA.

    Keep the Internet neutral, accessible, and free.

  3. I discovered your writing a few months back through the Good Men Project, and I’ve been sad to hear of your needing to resign from various publications recently. I think the world of feminism benefits from your voice. As a Christian and feminist and recovering evangelical, I especially appreciate the kindness and thoughtfulness in this piece.

  4. Hugo: I check your site out from time to time. There was a period (2004-2007) where I read religiously. I was then (and sadly still am) married to an emotionally abusive man who cheats on me relentlessly. During the time I read you most often, I didn’t know my husband was a philanderer, I was getting my PhD at Claremont Graduate University, and your blog got me through many dark days because of the way you approached the relations between men & women. At that time, I recall you being very frank about what a messed up person you had been, and the role it played in how you lived your life today/tomorrow. Nonetheless, your blog got me through many many dark days. Dark days that have returned, hence my visit. I for one am glad you are still here blogging. I wish I had your strength and perseverance. I’m sorry you are experiencing knee jerk reactions to your confession; you had always been upfront that one of the reasons you were involved in making women be stronger, better people was because of the twisty, windy road you had taken to get there. I don’t think remorseful people should continue to be punished. Now I’m rambling. Thank you for your blog. It has meant the world to me.

    • I agree, when I was in an abusive relationship, I found his site incredibly helpful too. When I left the relationship all of my abuse triggers were very raw, and I over-reacted by running away from anyone who reminded me of my abuser (a pretty, petite, 5ft2 women). I suspect that because Hugo is male, and telling people what to think (teaching), he is accidentally triggering the women who are initiating the hate campaign and that is why it is so fierce and irrational.

  5. I think your advice to this young woman was on point. Well worded and well handled.
    However as to the “fallout”, I would have to say that this is turning me off of checking in here as often. I started reading this blog because you offered a unique perspective that I had not heard before. The concept that a lot of our ideas about men’s lack of self control being a belief in the myth of male weakness was a fascinating way of putting it that I have gone on to use in conversation.

    It now seems, however, that everything that gets posted somehow relates back to your personal life, often at the expense of the focus of the ideas. Every time I come on here, I feel like I am getting into someone else’s personal affairs that I should not be going into.

  6. It’s all about Hugo 24×7 now. He’s probably giddy with joy about all of this commotion – because it has to do with him, Hugo. He can read stuff about him, Hugo, and write stuff about himself. And confess all his bad stuff and then have other people think about it for him, Hugo.

    I don’t think the problem is a lack of morals or an attempted murder here or there under friends, the problem is a boring lack of real content from a true narcissist.

    • Okay. Let’s discuss you.

      Here’s the wiki definition of an internet troll: “In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

      Hmm…. your comment may be seen as being off-topic and inflammatory.

      Often such behavior is the result of deinvidiualization. It’s all a part of the online disinhibition effect. Posting as Reality and not under you own name, lacking any real world consequences, frees you up to act in ways that you wouldn’t in real life.


      Being anonymous like this has been likened to being drunk. You’re high on your own supply. One problem is that there are nuances that you might miss and the fact that things get reduced to black and white thinking. It may explain the extreme language you use with respects to your target.


      It’s funny that you throw around the accusation of narcissism at your targets, when internet trolls are often accused of being narcissists. (Google, narcissism and internet troll.)

      Overall, some of your problems with your target may be a case of transference:

      “Because the experience of the other person often is limited to text, there is a tendency for the user to project a variety of wishes, fantasies, and fears onto the ambiguous figure at the other end of cyberspace. The “blending” of one’s mind with the other, as some users describe the experience of relating in cyberspace, may reflect this transference process. In fact, some users describe this blending of mind with the computer itself. Transference to the computer and to other users may interact in very subtle, complex ways. As one avid cybernaut once told me, “wherever I go on the internet, I discover myself.”

      “Unconscious motivations related to the transference will also affect the “filtering” process that determines the choices the user makes in establishing relationships. Users may be surprised to find that the close friends they make online all seem to be the same types of people, even though this was not immediately obvious at the start of the relationship. This unconscious “homing” device can be very sensitive. Even when communicating only via text and in cumbersome or distracting online environments, we nevertheless zoom in on relationships that touch some hidden need within us. ”


      I’m not sure if Hugo Schwyzer is everything you accuse him of being, but I do get the sense that for some reason you really need to believe this of him, which I find disturbing.

      You may believe yourself to be brave in posting your attack on your target’s blog, but the truth is that people with extreme views of a topic are vocal only when they believe themselves to be in the majority. The problem with extremists is that they’re more vocal in general than the silent majority on a given topic, and because more of you post, it appears as though more people agree, and an interesting feedback loop is created.

      “You have a cycle that feeds on itself: the more you hear these extremists expressing their opinions, the more you are going to believe that those extreme beliefs are normal for your community.”


      No laurels or darts at anyone. I’m getting sick of the extremes at play here.

  7. Perhaps a random comment, but I always thought Onan’s sin was not the act of withdrawal itself but his intent to withhold an heir from his brother. The way I look at it there are 3 main areas of moral significance relating to an act: the intent of an action, the nature of an action, and the consequences of an action. It’s difficult for the nature of an action to be bad unless it involves some sort of force or other violation of another person’s rights, and since we know that Onan’s intent is bad (to harm his brother indirectly by refusing to produce an heir as is his brotherly obligation) it seems only reasonable that that would be the reason his behavior was bad – as I see no obvious reason why withdrawal in itself would be immoral. But I’m not a believer so I probably have a much different perspective! Still, just goes to show how open to interpretation these sorts of things are… shame that just one interpretation (and one facet of Christianity) seems to get so much (disproportionate) air time!

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