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Agnes Howard

Sex and the Single Christian

No, chastity isn't archaic.

The title of Lauren Winner's first book, Girl Meets God, invoked courtship to describe conversion; her new one gets right down to the earthy aspects of human romance. Real Sex aims to rehabilitate the virtue of chastity in the Christian life. This title seems calculated to raise eyebrows on both sides of the colon. First there's real sex—wow!—and then we hit "chastity" in the subtitle, a noun scarcely in the language any longer, hard to speak without either a smirk or an embarrassed inflection (or both?).

Some words of definition are in order straightaway. For Winner, "real" sex means the gift of embodied love that is only authentic when it conforms to God's creative intent, within marriage. This is decidedly not the "faux sex" to which Americans have grown accustomed. To our spiritual peril, we have gotten used to the "lies our culture tells about sex": that sex is for adventure and pleasure (not babies), hugely important to happiness but also no big deal, just another form of recreation, my affair and none of your business.

Christians, especially singles, need help if they are to remain faithful in such a vale of temptation. To the author's regret, the church often does a poor job providing this help because it is hampered by its own untruths. Too often churches are hysterical about sex, or else make chastity sound easy, "sweet and obvious." Unrealistic abstinence preaching gives struggling singletons only the thinnest support in romantic temptation and makes forgiveness hard to grasp when they fall.

It's a little disconcerting that a book on chastity repeatedly has to remind readers that sex is important. Even Christians seem to need persuading. A Christian friend asks Winner, "Shouldn't I focus on learning to pray, and deal with the sex stuff later?" Another, not identified by faith, demands, "Look, we're two consenting adults. Why is what we do under the sheets anyone else's concern?"

Or, since Winner is writing from Charlottesville, Virginia, we might ask the question in terms lifted from that town's patron saint, Thomas Jefferson: does it break my leg or pick my pocket whether my neighbors have no sex partner or twenty? What difference does it make? It makes a great deal of difference, Winner insists, but explaining why takes some effort. Sure, there are possibilities of unplanned pregnancy and the costs of unwanted children and social breakdown. The case becomes more convincing when she returns to Scripture. Two points of theology indicate why the intimate behavior of Christians matters: because God intended sex to be exclusive and marital, and because Christians are united in the body of Christ. Therefore, what I do with my body touches everyone else in the Body of Christ. What we do privately matters because community matters.

Community looms large throughout the book. It is both a motivation to purity and a big part of the solution to sexual temptation. Here Winner speaks beyond the singles crowd to address Christians more broadly. She reminds us that congregations pledge to support baptismal candidates and married couples in keeping their vows. Thus, it is the community's responsibility to help its members embrace discipline, uphold accountability, and mediate forgiveness. Purity is an active practice. The book's second half explores particular means, like prayer, fasting, and pastoral care, that church communities can use to nurture chastity.

Married people are supposed to serve the community by imaging God's love—another reason why what we do in our private lives matters to everybody else. Married couples, though, can run aground on the culture's falsehood that sex always is supposed to be exciting. Winner musters some enthusiasm for Christian marriage manuals that translate "The Joy of Sex into a Christian idiom," but she also acknowledges serious reservations about them. Her objection is that these books often accept the claim that sex must be thrilling, a transportation out of ordinary life. In response, she takes inspiration from Wendell Berry to offer a paean to "household sex," sex amidst the sock-sorting and dishwashing and bill-paying realities of everyday existence, rather than sex as deliverance from the dreary routine. Sometimes awkward, this kind of intimacy is nevertheless real and good: "Our task is not to cultivate moments when eros can whisk us away from our ordinary routines, but rather to love each other as eros becomes imbedded in, and transformed by, the daily warp and woof of married life."

The trouble is that for those who live in our time and place, with Temptation Island on TV, Cosmo at the check-out, and racy catalogs in the mail, that worthy suggestion is at a distinct disadvantage, to say the least. To borrow Walker Percy's phrasing, it is hard to imagine the hip, young American single settling for "settling down with a wife and family any more than Jove settling down with Juno. Juno—yuck! Wife, children, home, fireside, TV, patio, Medicare in Florida, growing old together … yuck! Better to grow old alone in the desert, sit on a rock like a Navajo."

Perceptively, Winner argues that Christians should counter not only promiscuity but a secular view of romance that renders household love unattractive, squeezing out "the sorts of values that marriage and sexual intercourse, when understood as distinctly Christian practices, must be made to honor." This is why my neighbors' twenty partners do me harm (and not them alone, but also the sitcoms provided for their entertainment and the commercials trying to sell them things)—not breaking legs but twisting our view of the body and our sexuality.

Christians should have a way of describing sex that is characterized neither by prudish disapproval, nor by adaptation of secular norms, nor by domestication of romance. Winner gives two excellent reasons to reject extramarital sex, one vertical (very vertical: God's command) and one horizontal (honoring our brethren in Christ). The case would be strengthened by a theology of the body, like that developed by Pope John Paul II, which describes sex as an opportunity for profound self-giving. Such a theology gives us reason in our own persons to live our sexuality seriously and well, unmasking casual sex as a kind of self-betrayal and rendering marital intimacy more than merely a realistic accommodation—rather, something worth our aspiration.

It makes perfect sense that a Christian book honoring real sex should praise marriage, although Winner admits this came as a surprise to her. ("Initially I set out not to mention marriage at all. … I was sick of hearing about nuptial bliss.") In part her change of mind came with her own recent marriage. In fact, much of the book springs from the author's experience, from her own romantic past, conversion of life, and attempts at chastity, right up to her newly wedded state. Her proximity to the life of a young single Christian is both a resource and a limitation. She is likeable as a fellow pilgrim on the way to purity. She handles hard subjects with frankness and delicacy. But chastity and eros have a long history in Christian reflection, and while some theological heavy hitters—St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis—get walk-on parts in Winner's account, she might rely on them still more. Our culture may present its own special stumbling blocks to virtue, so we should listen for faithful voices that address us from outside it.

Finally, since the book reflects Winner's experience, one wishes she had held off a while to write it. Maybe even until the next important milestone in real sex had been crossed: motherhood. Childbearing makes practical, visible, and incontestably real that other aspect of sex according to God's purpose: the procreative. It allows the unfolding of another dimension of sexuality, and not only in the honey-not-after-this-kind-of-day-with-the-kids manner.

Then again, maybe this should make us expectant for Winner's next book. For while Real Sex might be of particular interest to "spares and pairs," Winner impresses us with the conviction that chastity is not just the exercise of the celibate but, insofar as it means inhabiting one's sexuality consistent with the gospel, everybody's business.

Agnes R. Howard teaches English and history at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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