LDRs and Turkey Drops

My pre-Thanksgiving Genderal Interest column at Jezebel: Technology Can’t Stop the Turkey Drop. It begins:

There may be tears around the dinner table tomorrow; as any campus psychologist can tell you, Thanksgiving is “turkey drop” time. The term famously refers to the holiday break-up, when college students who’ve been in long-distance relationships return home and end things with their sweethearts. The stereotypical “turkey dropper” is a college freshman whose boyfriend or girlfriend is still in high school, attending another college, or not in school at all. Come late November, he or she has spent two or three months marinating in a new environment, has met new people, perhaps had a hook-up (or fallen for someone new). Summer’s starry-eyed promise to “make it work, no matter what” has become late autumn’s “I think it’s time we took a break.”

Of webcams, long-distance relationships, and the misunderstanding of porneia

Here’s a new one.

Just before we left for Europe two weeks ago, I got an email from a young man named Josh. Josh is a Christian, and he and I have exchanged emails before about Christianity and a liberal sexual ethic. (See this post and this archive.) Josh and his girlfriend, Ruth, have been separated for the summer, and they’ve been talking on the phone and via webcam. Lately they’ve started having phone sex, and have been incorporating the webcam too, watching each other masturbate.

Josh writes that both he and Ruth like the webcam experience very much, but that they are also troubled. Each has a history of using internet porn, and both have committed to giving it up. (This is the moment to note parenthetically that in my work as a gender studies prof and sex educator I’ve been hearing lately from more and more young women who are troubled by their own porn use as well as that of their male partners. The evidence seems to be that we are moving closer to parity in terms of “consumption” of visual erotica by both sexes. I’m sure that there are studies out there on this. I report only my own “anecdata”.) Josh and Ruth dislike both the addictiveness of internet pornography and the ways in which it teaches the user to objectify and dehumanize the people whose bodies make up the images they view.

Josh and Ruth want to know how their private use of the webcam relates to pornography, as they sense that it is both troublingly similar to and yet in another way clearly distinct from the use of porn. Josh wanted my two cents.

When I first read Josh’s letter, I was reminded of a story I heard from my third ex-wife, Elizabeth, who taught for a while at Fuller Seminary. Elizabeth was mentoring a group of first-years, and leading a class on sexuality. One of the guys in the class confessed that he was having trouble getting lustful thoughts for his own fiancée out of his head. Elizabeth was stunned: the young man had made it all the way through a Christian college, BA in hand, and was now entering a Ph.D. program in psychology, and he didn’t grasp the colossal spiritual difference between lusting for someone with whom you are not in relationship and someone with whom you are. I need to give credit where credit is due; my ex-wife, who had a master’s in divinity, was very helpful to me in clarifying a progressive yet biblical perspective on lust. The tenth commandment (which deals with coveting) and Matthew 5:28 make it clear that lust is chiefly (and, arguably, only) problematic when it violates the bonds of covenant marriage. So when a married man lusts for a woman who is not his wife, or an unmarried man lusts for a married woman (reverse the sexes as you please), that’s a very real form of adultery. But when an unmarried man lusts for his unmarried fiancée, that’s hardly a violation of the covenant. When a single woman aches to be touched sexually by a single man, no adultery is committed.

My ex, whose Greek was better than mine, would at this point launch into an explanation of how porneia (the most commonly used Greek term for sexual immorality in the New Testament) ought never be translated as fornication (meaning pre-marital sex). Rather, she argued, it referred only to sex that was extra-covenantal (like incest as well as adultery). I’m not the NT scholar she was. The point is that her mentee had bought into a common misunderstanding of lust, and had concluded that all sexual desire was bad, even for one’s own girlfriend or boyfriend. Leaving aside the complicated question of the legitimacy of premarital sex, common sense makes it clear that sexual desire for a prospective spouse is a necessary, healthy, and good thing. Only a culture that has deeply distorted sexual values could confuse a prohibition against cheating on someone to whom one had pledged fidelity with lusting for someone with whom one planned to make that pledge! Continue reading

Of sacrifice and growth: an argument in favor of long-distance relationships for college students

I had coffee this week with one of the girls from my old youth group at All Saints church. “Brynne” has just finished up her junior year, and in the past few months, has started dating “Scott”, who is a year older and has just graduated. Scott is off to university in the fall, hundreds of miles away.

In many senses of the term, Scott is Brynne’s “first.” He’s the first guy she’s ever fallen in love with, certainly, and before they started dating this spring, they had been friends for two years, since they first met in youth group. I know Scott almost as well as I know Brynne: he is a remarkable young man, outgoing and ambitious and passionate. These two teens, so bright and sensitive and driven, are as near-to-perfect for each other as could be.

When we met at Starbucks, however, Brynne was anxious. Practically the first words out of her mouth to me were “September 18!” I asked what that date meant, and she explained that that was the day Scott was heading off to college. “It’s less than three months away”, she said, “and I don’t know what’s going to happen.” As we talked further, Brynne made it clear that both she and Scott had talked about wanting to stay together in a committed relationship after he goes off to university. “I know that’s what I want”, Brynne told me. “I also know it’s what Scott says he wants, and I believe him — now. But I don’t want to be the reason why he misses out on ‘college’ experiences, you know? I don’t want to be this stupid high school girl who is his ball-and-chain preventing him from having fun. Sometimes I think we should just break up, as much as that would suck, just so he could be ‘free'”.

In my role as a youth group leader and mentor, there are few questions I get asked more often than the one about the viability and wisdom of long-distance relationship. “Should we break up or stay together?” is a query I get every year, usually in the summer as a couple moves inexorably towards autumn’s physical separation. I never answer the question definitively, because each situation is in some sense unique, and each couple’s set of abilities and desires is different. But if I have a bias, and based on my own experience and that of a great many people I’ve worked with over many years I do have one, it is towards saying that yes, a couple that is in love ought to make an effort to stay together when separated by different colleges.

I asked Brynne: “What sort of experiences do you think Scott would miss out on because of being in a long-distance relationship with you?” She winced a bit, and I pressed on: “Is he going to miss out on great classes? Miss out on joining the right club or fraternity? Miss out on making great friends? Miss out on learning to surf, skydive, or mountain bike?” Brynne laughed, saying “That’s not what I mean.” “I know”, I said, “you’re worried he’s going to miss out on the chance to ‘be with’ new people, with other girls”. She nodded. Continue reading