Conor Friedersdorf has a very good piece up this morning about how one might talk about sex out of a traditional Christian framework without being tuned out by a non-believing audience of young people.
He begins by raising real and important questions about the traditionalist case against sexual modernity – and that portion of the essay is very worth reading – but that’s not the heart of his argument. He gets to the heart when he imagines a minister or priest being given the opportunity to speak to an incoming freshman class as part of a larger orientation on sexuality, and imagines what he’d like that person to say:
I want to talk today about something that Jesus calls on his believers to do. He teaches us to love one another, to be good to one another, to treat others as we’d want to be treated. Christians aren’t alone in preaching that code. I raise it today in part because I expect you all already agree with it. And if you do agree that we have a responsibility to be good to one another, I’d ask one favor: As you proceed through this college, bear that obligation in mind! Do so even when you’re deciding how to live your sexual lives here. Doesn’t that sound like it’s the right thing to do? But of course, it isn’t always easy.
The dean of students talked to you about consent. By law and the rules of this campus, you need consent to be intimate with anyone. I want to remind you of something: If we’re truly trying to be good to one another, consent just isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a person who has a huge crush on you. You’re at a party. Maybe you’ve had a beer or two, and in the moment, kissing that person would be a lot of fun. But you know, deep down, that you don’t share the same feelings they have for you—that if you kiss, you’ll be leading them on, and they’ll be all the more hurt tomorrow or the next day when you’re not interested anymore. You have their consent. You want to kiss in the moment—but you don’t, because you decide it’s more important to be good to them.
Say you’re dating someone. And you want to have sex with this person. They consent without being pressured. Yet you can’t help but sense that they’re not ready for intercourse. You understand this is a big decision with many physical and emotional consequences. And so, to be good to them, you hold off, despite their consent. You err on the side of caution, even though you’d rather go ahead.
If you really try to be good to one another, if you earnestly question what that moral code demands and grapple your way toward answers, you may not always like what your reason and conscience tell you. It may tell you to stop slowly taking that person’s clothing off even though they haven’t said to stop. It may tell you that you need to stay in the room with a friend who’d clearly rather be alone with an intoxicated date. Students are at greater risk of sexual assault at parties where there’s drinking going on. Does that mean anything for your behavior if you’re obligated to be good to your fellow students? Do you stay sober, or drink less and keep an eye on those who drink more, or serve only beer, not hard alcohol, when you host, or throw a substance-free party?
You’ll need to decide. What’s truly best for my classmates, and what does it demand of me?
Some students will become depressed after hooking up with someone who doesn’t reciprocate the emotional intimacy they sought. Does that fact affect you? How? There’s always a chance that sexual intercourse will result in a sexually transmitted disease or the creation of a new life. What does that imply, if anything, about your own sexual behavior as you try to be good to one another?
There are so many situations you’ll face—so many more questions I could pose.
I don’t pretend that confronting these situations with the question, “How can I be good to others?” will lead all of you to the same answers, let alone to my answers, though I hope that you’ll keep your hearts open to the possibility. But if you really wrestle with that question in every situation that involves sex, romantic intimacy, dating, hooking up, whatever you kids call it these days—instead of thoughtlessly acting in whatever way most people seem to be acting—you’re much more likely to do right by others, much more likely to be proud of yourselves, and much less likely to remember your time here without the regrets that haunt some people, people who look back at their younger selves ashamed of how they hurt others. You’ll also bring about a community with fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer sexual assaults, less depression—just by trying your very hardest to be good to one another!
Friedersdorf explains why he finds this kind of talk appealing:
I won’t say I’ve never seen a traditionalist Christian talk about sex on campus, or in America, like that. . . . But the approach I’ve sketched is very different from the most prominent messages on sex I’ve heard from traditionalist Christians, and different from any message I ever heard at a Catholic high school or from orthodox friends I know. To me, that’s a shame. In theory, “do unto others” is a moral message that secularists could and sometimes do adopt, but it isn’t the focus of secular sexual norms or mores. We’re more likely to talk about consent or pleasure or self-actualization or gender equity—all important goods, but not the only ones to consider.
Christians would seem better prepared than many to raise and press thorny questions about what “do unto others” implies, and better prepared than most to speak in explicitly moral language about our obligations to one another in the sexual realm.
A few thoughts.
First, before anyone jumps up and calls this weak tea, let me just say that following the precept, “do unto others” is extraordinarily hard. Like, really insanely difficult – much more difficult, I would argue, than following a set of explicit prohibitions – which is hard enough. Because we all want to be treated well all the time. We never want to have our feelings ignored, to be taken for granted – to say nothing of being the subject of outright cruelty or abuse. Moreover, before we can even get to the point of treating everybody well, we have to be mindful enough, aware enough of them, to hear how they actually want to be treated – specifically. Taken absolutely, “do unto others” is positively Tolstoyan, a moral standard for saints.
For that very reason, I’m glad Friedersdorf wrote that this objective – being good to others – is only one of several legitimate concerns, that pleasure and self-actualization are also important. Unfortunately, I have a funny feeling that the very people who would be most receptive to a message about the importance of being good to others are the ones who need to pay a bit more attention to the actualization of their own selves, while the ones who most need to hear a message like this are the ones whose selves are, shall we say, a bit too actualized.
Second, since Friedersdorf has written before about how we shouldn’t belittle consent as an ethical touchstone, I’m glad that, in this piece, he seems to recognize that there’s something cold and contractual about stopping at that point in your ethical analysis. A society that took consent seriously would be a much, much better society than one where consent was regularly ignored – and we aren’t anywhere near there yet. But it also wouldn’t necessarily be a particularly caring society. And that’s before we get into all the ways that consent can be manufactured.
Third, I think Friedersdorf’s argument deserves a bit of a feminist gloss. Specifically: to practice “do unto others” in the sexual realm, you need to be able to imagine yourself in the position of the “others” in question. That’s not always easy for anybody – but gender is a particularly common fault line here. To follow some of Friedersdorf’s hypothetical minister’s advice, a man would need to be able to imagine what it would be like to be a woman. That’s a big challenge for a lot of men (particularly men in the heat of passion). I know it has been for me, at many times in my life. The typical traditionalist approach to this problem is to say, “imagine she was your sister.” Personally, I think that approach has real limitations, and the feminists have the better of this particular argument. What would Friedersdorf’s hypothetical traditionalist think, though? I wonder.
Finally: Friedersdorf’s hypothetical traditionalist says something towards the end of his speech that I need to pick at a bit. He talks about how following “do unto others” will help you avoid “the regrets that haunt some people, people who look back at their younger selves ashamed of how they hurt others.” I know that shame, from personal experience. But I can also say that I haven’t run into a lot of people who talk that way. By contrast, I’ve run into a lot more shame on the other side of the equation – people, particularly women, who feel crushing shame for allowing themselves to be hurt. And we’re, to some degree, aware of that; we have a whole therapeutic infrastructure (insufficient, but it’s there) for helping people who have been hurt talk about that kind of shame, and work to overcome it.
The predominant language we use for talking about having hurt other people, though, is the language of addiction, a language that, to my mind, complicates the question of personal agency in a way that makes the “do unto others” moral language that Friedersdorf’s traditionalist is advocating somewhat harder to hear. In other words, I think it may be problematic to have to admit to being powerless in order to admit that you have done wrong, and hurt other people. In any event, I’d be very interested to hear from Friedersdorf specifically whether he feels the same way, or disagrees.
The core argument Friedersdorf is making, though, I think is an important one. A lot of traditionalists I talk to think that the most important argument to be having with the larger culture relates to natural law. If we cannot agree on absolute standards for right and wrong, rooted in Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of human nature and the divine, then the only alternative is a swirling ethical void. This is a repeated theme in Rod Dreher’s writing, particularly when he asks what Christianity is for:
If Christianity teaches us to love, well, what do we mean by love? Caritas — charity — is a love in which we connect love of others to our love of God. Who is God, and what does He want from us? Does the Bible tell us so? How can we tell?
Well, perhaps we could start by listening to those others, trying to hear what they are saying, and not saying, about what would feel like love, and caring, to them. I suspect that’s actually harder than reading the Bible – or any other book, frankly – to find out a universally applicable answer. And maybe that difficulty is a sign that what looks on the surface like weak tea is actually a pretty stiff prescription.