Few would contest the assertion that human sexuality is a wholly private matter. The collective laws of civilization and social mores require it be enjoyed in private. Our social mores, for the most part, desire that it be talked about in private. Our personal desires are largely the same. We generally believe we are all the better for keeping images and businesses that facilitate it off the streets and away from the view and awareness of our children and the larger community. This is one of the hallmarks of a good, safe and desirable community. Sex is private, right?
Christians must appreciate that human sexuality is every bit a public act as it is private. Is this a radical and provocative statement, a push for a more open, bohemian sexual ethic and practice? Just the opposite.
Valuing sex as an essential public act, one with very public consequences, is fundamental to the revolutionary and historic Christian ethos. This is clear and has been demonstrated empirically in the social sciences and cultural anthropology. Let’s see just how strong this case is.
The Social Science Evidence
The sexual relationship of two (or more!) people, by its inherent power and mysterious nature, is never entirely walled off from the larger community. To believe it can be is to profoundly misunderstand the power of what sex is and does. What people do in their intimate lives is indeed affects their neighbors, be they those next door, at work, or one’s extended family. It also reveals itself in our community institutions, at schools, in hospitals, police stations, social service offices and nearly all levels of government in various ways. Each of these must deal with the positive and negative consequences, often on a daily basis, of who had sex with whom and under what circumstances.
As the sexual revolution has spread, a vast mountain range of university-based social science findings published in premier academic journals and books has come to press over the last few decades. It consistently demonstrates just how true the public nature of sex is, erasing any and all doubt. (Just two summaries of the depth and diversity of this research are here and here.) Let’s examine just a few of the major facts here.
Child and Female Wellbeing
- The virginal youth and faithfully married did not usher in the tremendous rise in out-of-wedlock births which account for 40% of all births today.
- Married sexuality seldom results in impoverished women and children. Kids living with single or cohabiting parents are highly likely to spend at least some portion of their lives in poverty.
- The live-in boyfriend next door is substantially more likely to be physically and sexually abusive to his girlfriend and her children than if they were married raising their own biological children.
- So-called “sexual freedom” has given us 39 million neighbors who are currently infected with HIV globally.
- The World Health Organization tells us that we see more than 1 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections every day. More than 1 million. Every day. And most have no idea they are carrying such infections.
- Married sexuality creates better men who are more likely to be employed, holding jobs longer, going to school to improve their future, less likely to cause trouble in the neighborhood as well as being more involved in the lives of their children.
- School performance, in terms of grades, behavior, and prospects of college attendance, is driven as much by the sexual and relational circumstances of a student’s parents (currently and at the time of birth) as any other social factor.
Consider it this way. Choose one of the following schools for your child. One has 90 percent of the kids coming from intact homes raised by their own married mother and father. In the other school, 90 percent of kids come from single or cohabiting homes. Both schools have facilities, budgets and faculty of equal quality. Which school do you think would give your child a better, safer experience?
- A community’s level of crime and safety is driven by the relational status of the people having sex there.
Take the neighborhood park as a microcosm. Can any community park and its local law enforcement have the problem of too many married mothers and fathers spending time with their children there? It’s actually a very strong social benefit, the more the better.
Can it have too many amorous teen couples regularly hanging out there? Too many adults using its bathrooms for anonymous sex-and-go encounters arranged online? How about single men regularly coming to watch the children play? All but the first must be monitored with great care and stopped without kindness or apology.
Sex is very public act.
All of these findings and more are readily confirmed by the “four Ps” of your community: police, pediatricians, principals and public-welfare professionals. Ask each of these community leaders if the sexual decisions and actions of their community’s adults and young people make a difference in the success or difficulty of their work. It’s not a difficult question. Sex impacts nearly every sector of society.
It is certainly no coincidence that the term “feminization of poverty” was coined shortly after the sexual revolution initiated the great divorce between sex, babies and marriage. Feminist scholar Diane Pearce introduced the term in an important essay, explaining that at the very time educational and employment opportunities were opening for women due to greater equality, “Poverty is rapidly becoming a female problem” because “the economic status of women has declined over the past several decades.” Very ironic, isn’t it?
Pearce, as well as George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize winning professor, lay the cause at the feet of men walking away from the responsibility for their own children and their sexual partners. This is largely due to the emergence of the birth control pill and ready access to legal abortion. Women were supposedly “empowered” and men no longer felt responsible for a woman’s pregnancy. She was now in charge of her own fertility. Women, children and the larger community have suffered ever since.
Bottom line: No architect or facilitator of the sexual revolution could have ever imaged the deep and vast human suffering their project has wrought. But there it is.
Cultural Anthropologists Know This
Cultural anthropologists also know that sex is a very public act across diverse cultures because human sexuality always has the same public consequences. One of the most fundamental anthropological truths is that in order to remain free, safe and productive, every community must find a forceful and reliable way to regulate sexuality through normative monogamy.
Professor Suzanne Frayser, in her magisterial anthropology of sexuality, explains that across diverse cultures, we find …
The person with whom an individual decides to have a sexual relationship with is as relevant to the group as the occasion for sexual encounters. Groups provide guidelines to channel a person’s choice of a sexual partner. Social restrictions limit a potentially wide and diverse pool of sexual partners to a definable range of acceptable companions.
Yale’s George Peter Murdock, a founding father in the discipline of cultural anthropology, explains from his team’s examination of 150 diverse cultures,
As a powerful impulse, often pressing individuals to behavior disruptive of the cooperative relationship upon which human social life rests, sex cannot be safely left without restraints. All known societies, consequently, have sought to bring its expression under control by surrounding it with restrictions of various kinds.
Sexual guardrails are essential “for the simple reason that sex is really dangerous,” explains Bronislaw Malinowski. His is not a negative estimation of the thing. It’s a respectful one, recognizing the immense power and life- and community-altering consequence of human sexuality. Malinowski continues,
Sex is a great and wonderful power for evil and for good, and we must deal with it as we deal with other forces of nature: understand, respect, and control it in the light of truth…
The incredible power and consequence of human sexuality, for incalculable good and devastating harm, judge it as an undeniable public act. Societies that deny this fact can only do so by artificially constructing and continually maintaining a vast illusion. They do so to their own detriment. No community in history, anywhere in the world, has found a way outside monogamous life-long marriage to unleash sexuality’s profound goodness and limit its devastating harm. Irrefutable evidence demonstrates ours is no exception.
This is a truth that Christianity has brought to the world for its immeasurable betterment.
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