First a story. Tara and I went on a cruise about a year ago. Anyone who has ever been on a cruise will tell you that there are a few things that are never in short supply on the boat: buffets, drunks, drunks at buffets, and mediocre entertainment. While on this cruise, one of the evening “shows” was a newlywed show. They chose three couples to participate: an actual newly married couple, a couple who had been married for 10 years, and a couple who had been married for 60(!) years. Each person was asked to respond to certain questions and then their answers were compared to the answers of their spouse. It was at times both extremely funny and painfully awkward. At one point each couple was asked to describe their first date. The first two couples had similar stories; stories punctuated with awkwardness, alcohol, and, eventually, some sort of sexual encounter. The room was loud with laughter. The third couple – the one celebrating their 60th anniversary – described a quaint evening “out on the town.” When the husband was asked how the evening ended he responded with a matter-of-fact “I got her home by 10:00, walked her to the door, thanked her for a lovely evening and told her good night.” “Was there any kissing?” he was asked. “Well, no. It was only our first date after all and I felt she deserved more respect than that.” Suddenly, the room erupted in cheers. The entire room stood to applaud!
I was confused. What was the source for the applause? What was the crowd – who had just been reveling in the sex-soaked stories of the other two couples – cheering for in that moment? It’s hard to know for sure. But I think more than anything we were cheering for virtue; a virtue that proved easy to recognize but that also seemed so distant to most of the people in the room. It was like hearing a war story – a story that we marvel at and appreciate – but nevertheless know that it can never be our story. I could be wrong, but there seemed to be a bit of regret in that applause.
Our culture is confused about sex. The evidence is everywhere, but perhaps best illustrated by the #metoo movement. Women who take the very difficult step of talking publicly about the abuse and harassment that they have endured should be encouraged and loved. But where the confusion starts to show up is when we try to think about the causes or proper responses to the problem that #metoo has exposed.
Let me tread carefully into the arena and suggest that the cause of our confusion about (and abuse of) sex is that since the 1960s we have re-categorized sex with horrible consequences.
The New Testament word for common, everyday things is koinos. In the book of Acts, the word was used to describe the first church who shared all things in common. In other contexts the word takes on a meaning that is the opposite of “sacred.” Things that are koinos are not pure or set apart for God’s good purposes. This is especially true of the context of Hebrews 10:29 where those who reject Christ are said to have made the blood of the covenant koinos by their decision.
When it comes to sex, we have taken something that God designed to be pure and holy (see Hebrews 13:4 for instance) and have made it koinos. We have stripped sex of its sacredness and have turned it into the equivalent of a naked handshake. Sex is just another activity that we engage in. It is simply another thing to do on a date. Dinner, movie, sex. It has become taboo for a person to even speak of the sacredness of sex. Sex, you see, is a personal choice – an exercise of freedom. It’s nobody’s business but my own. Anyone who dares to protest is literally working to make the Handmaid’s Tale real and is more evil than Hitler…or Mike Pence. It’s like our culture can’t grasp the difference between honoring the sacred and Puritanical frigidity. Our culture can’t grasp that it is quite normal that you protect something out of love and not out of hatred.
As Chesterton prophetically pointed out in 1923, sex defies our attempts to turn it into koinos. “The effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex. For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping. The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant. There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication. The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago.”
We treat sex as a common thing emptied of the sacred and then we act surprised when it is misused for abuse and selfish ends. Sacred things that are misused and misplaced will eventually defile. Or, if you don’t like the religious sound of that sentence – Sex is not a value-neutral human action and to treat it as such will inevitably lead to abuse and heartache.
But turning sex into koinos is not the only move that has lead to our confusion about sex. (This is where I’m going to be really controversial.) What we have done to sex we have also done to gender. Differences between the genders used to be regarded as more than merely cultural. To be a man meant something. To be a woman meant something. There were virtues and expectations associated with gender that have now largely been removed. Talking about gender differences has become taboo and maybe even dangerous. It’s better to see all gender as koinos. Gender is a personal choice (in expression, in behavior, even in identity) just as sex is a personal choice. Some would argue that these traditional gender expectations have been used destructively – especially by men – to keep women “in their place.” Honestly, the people who argue this make a valid point. Gender norms have been weaponized. My goal is not to protect or defend the patriarchy (although blaming some nebulous “patriarchy” for everything wrong in a culture is so tired). My point is simply this: You cannot remove any and all gender distinctives and then expect virtuous behavior consistent with a gender. How is a young man supposed to treat a young lady when he isn’t even sure what it is to be a young man or if he is even allowed to refer to her a “young lady?”
So here is the situation that a young person finds him/herself in: They have been told that sex is “no big deal.” It’s just something that a couple does. Only prudes avoid sex. At the same time, they have no clue how to conduct themselves in a virtuous way. The young man has no clue what it means to be a gentleman. The young lady doesn’t know what it means to be a lady. They’ve both been subtly trained to be suspicious of both “gentlemen” and “ladies.” It’s no wonder there is confusion. It’s no wonder there is heartache. It’s also no wonder why we would stand and applaud a couple who has been married for 60 years who know what it is to treat sex and each other as sacred.