CW: I’m discussing the continuing harassment of Lila Perry, a transgender girl in Missouri–my current home state. She has been using the girls’ locker room and bathrooms since school started this year, and many students (many of them female) have walked out in protest. In this post, I am addressing TERF (trans-exclusive radical feminist) comments regarding this issue. I’m putting the rest of this post below a cut so that trans people do not need to read this and be triggered. Cis people, I am a cis person talking to you. Please do read this post.
A friend asked me recently whether I thought premarital sex is sinful.
I answered simply, “No.”
But more deeply, my answer is: what makes some sex premarital? What defines something as premarital? And why are we so worried about that here in America?
My friend was worried about a biblical basis for the answer–and the thing is, the Bible has a diverse amount of things to say about sex. It has about as much to say about marriage:
A lot has been made about the Bible’s negative views of sex and marriage and relationships–but it has also modeled some positive views. The entire book of Song of Songs, for example, can be read straight as the love poem it is–about two lovers meeting, trysting, having sex with one another, all without being married. Interestingly, this was the most-translated book by monks in the Middle Ages–mostly to say that it was a metaphor of God’s love, of course–but it does leave one to wonder what else the monks may have been thinking. (Or maybe that’s just me.)
A lot of people who put forth that two people must wait until marriage to have sex will try to claim that such views come from an Adam-and-Eve model of sexuality (which is very cissexist and heteronormative of them, to say the least). And while starting with creation sounds like a great foundation for laying claim to something–because what better way to stake a claim to power?–it doesn’t really hold up on examination.
If we read the creation stories in Genesis–and yes, there’s more than one! even in the first two chapters!–we can very quickly realize that not only is marriage never mentioned, but in at least the first creation story canonically (which is probably the later-written story, chronologically) the first beings can be read as intersex/transgender/non-binary/non-gendered.
So, not only do Adam and Eve not get married before they have sex and have children, but also–at least one creation story doesn’t seem to require human beings to be heteronormatively paired (and thus biologically capable of reproducing together) in order to have children, thereby destroying another common argument: that sex is for procreation, and that’s why two people should wait until marriage (because all children ‘obviously’ need two [heterosexual] parents–neveryoumind cases of abuse, incest, and the like, or people who consciously choose to be single parents, or people who choose to partner but cannot procreate or do not want to procreate…..).
So, no, the argument that sex-waits comes from Adam and Eve doesn’t hold up, because hey: Adam and Eve didn’t get married. And–even if they had–their marriage likely wouldn’t have looked like what we consider marriage to look like today.
So where does it come from? I argue that it comes from the pseudo-Pauline epistles. What are those? These are the letters after the seven likely letters of Paul. Most people I know raised in the Christian Church think of Paul as an anti-LGBTQI, anti-woman, anti-sex, prudish, non-inclusive, exclusive ass. I used to agree.
It turns out that Paul has only 7 likely epistles, with 6 more attributed to him by admirers and one undoubtedly not by him at all. The 7 likely letters by Paul show Paul to be a pretty inclusive person–he wanted everyone to be on equal standing with one another, with no one above or below. All were to be a part of the body of Christ, with no ‘body part’ functioning in a superior manner to any other body part–because all were needed. And Paul utilized women in his ministry in very important roles, which may have angered those who came after him. 1 Timothy in particular, as well as the other Pastoral epistles, turns these verses of inclusion on their heads. Where Paul preaches for women to be cared for, the Pastoral epistles preach that the church should not provide for women unless they reach a certain age and are widows–thereby ruining many women’s chances to enter the ministry in an effective way. And where Paul taught that all were a part of the body, with no body part superior, the pseudo-Pauline epistles taught that man was the head of the woman, ruling over her, in the ‘body of Christ.’ Superiority was put in place.
The church had been providing for women’s livelihoods under Paul’s instructions, allowing some women to remain unmarried and therefore able to be ministers. But in marriages, they had duties to perform, customs to follow, and usually could not stray from those duties in order to be ministers like the men of their communities could. Thus, with women suborned through a twisting of Paul’s teachings, men could retain power.
I think this is where our ‘modern’ ideas about heteronormative, cisgender sex-waits marriage ideals comes from. And I think this is the sin. I think it twists because it unnaturally binds, shaming people who do not deserve to be shamed.
Such a model doesn’t allow for same-sex unions, doesn’t allow for polyamorous families, doesn’t allow for the fact that rape happens. Such a model often leads to purity culture, wherein most often young women are shamed for their sexuality (though sometimes young men are, too, particularly if they sway from the strict hyper-masculine, heterosexual line set for them). Such a model leads to a need for SlutWalks, because it cannot understand that rape and sex are not the same thing and it creates rape culture by assuming that women’s bodies are for men’s consumption. Such a model does not allow that some sex workers do choose sex work and enjoy it, even while human trafficking remains a problem. Such a model doesn’t allow for women to enjoy sex even while we expect men to do so. And it certainly doesn’t allow for us to be kinky, even when that correlates with better mental health–because everything has to be about procreation and cisgender, heterosexual marriage. (Even when, as the title of Stephanie Coontz’s book says, that’s The Way We Never Were.)
I don’t think this is what God intended. I don’t think God ever intends for us to shame one another about how and who we love, and how and with whom we have sex–so long as we’re doing so honestly and openly, with integrity. Even casual sex–that much maligned predator of all our young people!–can be healing. Just as importantly, choosing not to have sex–if we don’t want to (maybe we’re demisexual, for example)–is awesome, too. The point is that all of us get to choose, and it doesn’t have to be dependent on some arbitrary line drawn in the sand by society or by a legal body. So long as we are able to consent, then we are able to make our own choices about our sexualities and our bodies–and I think that’s how God intended it when God made such a diverse array of human beings.
So, no, I don’t think premarital sex is a sin. I think sex that is forced–rape, coercion (without it being consensual non-consent)–is sin. I think that forcing people into unnatural unions just to get their needs met is sin. I think oppressing people for power is sin. And I think we’ve been doing all of these things for centuries, while gaslighting one another and ourselves into believing the opposite–which is why there’s so much cognitive dissonance surrounding sex in our culture.
Fifty Shades has a lot of elements to it that I want to explore. Most of those are external cultural elements.
On the one hand, there’s the ‘porn’ aspect of it–that it’s just trashy entertainment that ultimately doesn’t harm anyone. For a certain part of the population, this can hold true. Those lucky enough never to have been through rape, sexual assault, and stalking at the hands of a partner or prospective partner probably aren’t terribly triggered by a trilogy that is, at its best, poorly-written porn.
As well, because of its quick rise to popularity and the ease of getting it in digital format early on, it has been and continues to be an introduction to BDSM–which can be good, as long as it serves as only an introduction and not the complete manual on What It Is We Do (not that there is any one complete manual–but this would be a pretty poor one). For those who get turned on by some of the sexier play bits in the books and movies–awesome.
But on another hand, I think it’s irresponsible to ignore the massive culture into which these trilogies come, as well as those things they enable in their wake. Not only are the books and movies heteronormative and cisnormative both in characters and in the roles they take on, but they promote rape and stalking and ignoring safe words as sexy. They equate Dominance with stalking and rape (not rape play, not consensual nonconsent, but actual rape), equate submission/submissiveness with being vapid/devoid of self, and sensationalizethe violent aspects of BDSM without giving any nuance or context to the types of play we consensually desire and do.
I can’t see these books and movies as ‘harmless entertainment,’ because too many of us, across gender lines, have experienced stalking, rape, sexual assault, harassment, and more. Too many of our communities still protect predators at the expense of victims and survivors. Too many are disbelieved when we try to report our rapists and assailants, and few of us ever see any support or justice for experiences of domestic violence, assault, rape, stalking, and harassment. These books and movies play into a culture that prefers to see BDSM as harmful and the stuff of severely damaged people, rather than something that is a play preference that may lead to better mental health. They play into the cultural stereotypes that men know women’s bodies better than women, that female Dominants are evil, that female submissives are lost vessels just waiting to be broken and remade in the male Dominant’s image (and heaven forbid there be same-sex or same-gender pairings, or pairings involving sexes and genders other than binary genders and sexes), that BDSM is the same as sexual assault/rape/harassment/stalking, that ignoring safewords is just fine, that ‘the rules’ set in advance don’t apply to one half of the slash, that rape isn’t rape if it doesn’t fit a certain mold….
So, sure. On the one hand, there’s trashy entertainment that will probably help some people broaden their sexual horizons. But on the other, far weightier hand, there are huge issues with these books and movies that we cannot safely ignore. We need to be ready to have these conversations with people just as much as the ‘Hi, welcome, come on in!’ types of conversations, or the ‘What’s your kink?’ conversations, the comparisons of marks and paddles and costumes and collars. We need to see the harm in these ‘entertainment’ pieces and look to our own communities to make them better, to roust out predators and support survivors, to work to make it as difficult as possible for abusers to hide behind the mask of kink.
Edited to add: This made me laugh a bit. What a reimagining.
Previously posted on my FetLife profile.