Christians obsessed with sex – a short history

There must be many people both inside and outside the church who wonder about the current obsession among some Christians over issues of sexuality. Why is it that Christians in some circles seem to define themselves by the position they take on abortion or same-sex marriage? A recent book entitled: Moral Combat: How Sex divided American Christians and fractured American Politics helps to answer this question. More importantly it shows how the issues around sex have divided Christians for at least the past 100 years. The actual topics that were under discussion in this period varied enormously.

The forces of conservative Christianity, particularly the Catholic variety, were rallied against new thinking about contraception during the 1920s. The battles fought by the pioneer Margaret Sanger in America to promote the cause of women beaten down by excessive childbearing were bitter at times. But in the 20 years between 1910 and 1930 public opinion shifted decisively in favour of planned parenthood. By the time of the Anglican Lambeth conference in 1930, it was regarded as acceptable to many liberal Christians that married women should have access to means of birth control. In noting this we pass over quickly the fact that some Christians then and now cannot imagine the sexual act being anything other than a means of procreation. It was not just the Catholic Church that took this line but also some other branches of conservative Protestant Christianity.

Another area of human life that caused division among Christians throughout the 20th century was the degree to which censorship was required to control the portrayal of sex in literature and in other entertainment. The writings of DH Lawrence especially were deemed to be morally dangerous. Some Christian leaders both Protestant and Catholic demanded that the strictest rules be applied to protect the public from displays of indecency. The problem for the censors was knowing where the boundary between art and gratuitous pornography should be drawn. Conservative Christians were normally on the side of complete suppression of any representation of the sexual act, whether in words or simulation. What these early 20th-century Christians seem to have found so difficult was the thought that the sexual act might enrich life and have a purpose beyond the creation of new life. Good living Christian people were never to be corrupted with the idea that sex could be something to be enjoyed.

A further issue, of more relevance to the American situation at the beginning of the 20th-century than our own, was that of race. The motivation for many of the lynchings committed by white males against black American men was a widespread belief that white women were always in danger of being raped by black males. Any idea that a black man should be allowed to have sexual relations with a white woman filled the conservative Christian imagination with horror. Passages from the Bible about the different races and the way they had been geographically separated were read. These suggested to white conservative churches that God approved of the races living apart, with one subservient to the other. These same Bible passages had been used to justify slavery in the previous century. Equally the offspring of any black/white union was treated with distaste and shunning. Much of the segregation that was practised right up to the middle of the 20th century and beyond was tied in with ideas connected with sexuality. The word ‘miscegenation’, or mixing of race, was a word which filled white Christian people with a particular frisson of horror. The white race of America was designed to be kept pure and not ‘polluted’ by black or Negro blood.

Bringing the story of sex obsessions more up-to-date, conservatives and liberals in the Churches clashed over their response to the issue of sex education. Christians of a conservative bent only wanted to hear a narrative of sexual behaviour strictly within a patriarchal model of family life. Sexual education threatened to give women ideas of autonomy and even independence from the wishes and demands of their menfolk. The publication of the Kinsey reports in the late 40s and early 50s showed to the reading public that the fantasy of a controlled ordered sexuality among women was in fact a myth. The model of subservience and obedience by women to men proved to be existing more in the male imagination than in fact. It is not surprising that the idea that women might have choices in their sexual lives was regarded as the result of the influence of Communism into American society. The demand for sex education was seen as a communist plot to subvert Western civilisation and its values.

Communism was also seen to be undergirding the debate about abortion which took hold in America in the 1950s. Conservative Christians and Roman Catholics once again combined to challenge the demand of women to make decisions about their bodies. In America the debate reached some sort of conclusion in 1973 with the Supreme Court (Roe-Wade) coming down in favour of abortion in certain situations. That decision has been challenged ever since by conservative Christians. The debate is still strongly contested within political/religious circles in Trump’s America.

In the light of all these debates that have gone on over the past 100 years it is not surprising that many points of difference between liberals and conservatives should still centre on sexuality. It is of course an area of life that touches everyone deeply and can rouse enormous passion. When we look at the history of debates about sexuality in the churches, we see how many of these could be said to be about men controlling women’s sexuality. Thankfully conservative Christians have quietly abandoned their opposition to interracial marriage, birth control and the promotion of sex education in schools. Censorship is still an issue with the rapid spread of pornography on the Internet but few people would regard the writings of DH Lawrence as corrupting today.

The pattern of the past hundred years would suggest that there is a pattern in the way that Christians and society have approached questions relating to sexuality. On the one side there are liberal Christians whose approach to sexual topics is not largely different from the rest of society. In some cases, liberals take a forward prophetic view on sexual matters as they did with the gay issue in the 1960s. On the other side are conservative Christians who only learn to catch up with the overriding consensus long after the rest of society. The Catholic Church is still against contraception officially but it spends very little time in speaking on the topic. It knows it has decisively lost the argument in the court of public opinion and among its own followers. Public opinion has learnt to accept the existence of gay relationships and it would seem only a matter of time before the conservative churches discover that they do better not to keep speaking about the subject. A younger generation who think quite differently in matters of sexuality will eventually silence the aggressive Christian homophobic condemnations uttered by their elders.

The lesson of the past hundred years is that Christian ‘truth’ is the area of sexuality is fairly fragile and porous. It is especially weak when dictated by primal fears. How much better would Christians do if they focused their energy on promoting reconciliation, love and justice in the world?

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

13 thoughts on “Christians obsessed with sex – a short history

  1. When I was growing up there were a number of things said about sex which must have affected society quite a bit. For the most part, these things are not said today. Because of better education, and because of a greater openness. So, for example; sex always hurts (women); virgins always bleed, so a man can tell if you’re not; women on the whole stop having sex at 40. Now you can see how the things girls were told, by the teen magazines of the day, contributed to the control. Of course, millions of women must have discovered that sex was quite good fun, and decided not to stop at 40! But if you’re 13 and no-one talks about it? Of course, if both partners were expecting pain, if a lad went at it in too gung ho a fashion, and it did indeed hurt, small wonder that women were pretty keen not to do it for fun! Hence, it was just for reproduction. Grit your teeth and do your duty! It was pretty dismal. Some things have improved! It wasn’t just the church. And it wasn’t just gays who weren’t supposed to have sex. No-one did! Not unless married. There was a fair amount of bundling, but people did actually follow the rules. A friend told me that when they were both students, his now wife decided to seduce him one night, drink having been taken. She accidentally spilled a drink on her dress, took it off, and promptly fell asleep. He spent the night washing her frock and ironing it dry on the carpet! Things were pretty quiet in those days!

  2. “Primal Fears”

    Not so sure about that one! Innate conservatism – for sure. And there are parts of the Church that are much more conservative for sure. If it isn’t theological conservatism, it might be liturgical, political, or even furniture-related!!

    I’m a little troubled by the use of the term “homophobic”. This is really often not the issue. I dont know many people either side of the debate who are phobic or afraid of homosexuality or of anybody who identifies as LGBTIQQ……

    Sure some have theological issues.

    Personally I am very conflicted. I have had / have some good friends who would identify as LGBT. When they are in stable loving relationships I am genuinely happy for them and when they struggle for self or other acceptance I feel their pain.

    But I still struggle with the theological aspect. There has been some pretty laughable hermeneutics used by folks both sides of the debate.

    But primal fear – phobia – I don’t recognise that – in my view it is polarising language, and as such profoundly unhelpful.

  3. It seems to me that we are obsessed with sex. How is that when Teresa May took over as Pm, she walked out of 10 Downing Street to the rostrum, and talked about (Amongst other things) David Cameron’s wonderful work towards gay marriage and never mentioned the elderly once! Popularism rules and it sickens me.

    I refuse to accept the term ‘Homophobic” A judgement on me that is illogical, untrue, and cruel.

    For what it’s worth I would love to believe that Homosexual/Lesbian relationships are in accordance with the will of God, but it seems that “Homophobes” (And I am not afraid of homosexuals) are not allowed a conscience.

    David Starkey who is himself a homosexual has spoken of a ‘new tyranny’ and I don’t think we should ignore the horse’s mouth?

    Please Google : Christian B&B: Gay historian David Starkey warns about a state imposed liberal morality.

  4. A quote from another blog: ‘ David Robertson (who tweets as @theweeflea and is a minister in Dundee), has taken exception to the approach Steve Chalke (a Baptist minister and founder of the Oasis Charitable Trust) takes to the Bible. Robertson even compares Chalke to the devil, pretending to be ‘a smiling shining angel of light’; Chalke is a man who would have us follow him rather than Jesus, a man who makes up the Gospel to suit himself; a man who is a ‘false teacher’; a man whose message is ‘anti-Christ’.

    I would have thought that describing the teaching of someone as ‘Anti-Christ’ because they have liberal views on homosexuality is an example of homophobia. This is NOT the same as claiming that every Christian who disapproves of homosexual marriage is homophobic. Nevertheless there is a point at which disagreement becomes something else – something nasty and vindictive. I find quite a lot of this in the church at present (especially in the States where it is fanned by divisive politics) so I believe it is accurate to describe such nastiness as indeed homophobic. I doubt very much if any readers of this blog would fall into that category. Tolerance of others and a readiness to consider the opinions of others is not found among those that deserve this epiphet.

    1. Sorry – I disagree Stephen. Trenchant disagreement leading to name calling (as you depict in your quote) is not good – that is for sure. But it is not phobic behaviour – it is just blinkered dogmatism. Now I’m sure you dislike blinkered dogmatism as much as I do and I’m sure like me you are troubled when people from “our camp” step out of line. In this case because one of the “labels” I own is “evangelical” they are nominally in “my camp” – but I happen to disagree with at least one side of that debate. (If not both).

      Intolerance of another’s point of view is also something I dislike, but I’m not phobic (ie afraid) of it.

      Sure – there are plenty of people who appear to be intolerant of any sexuality other than heterosexuality or chastity.

      But labelling people as homophobic when they are NOT – that is unhelpful.

      I also own the label “liberal” – and in my view that means not being closed to the ideas and opinions of those different from us.

      1. You’re objecting to the Greek! I’m afraid it’s too late for that. Of course the hate stuff is not properly described as a “phobia”, but we’re going to have to live with it now, I’m afraid. But you’re totally right that worrying about what it says in the Bible is a long way from the hate that is described as homophobia. I get cross about that. Start asking how you square trying to be decent with trying to take the Bible (and by extension, God’s will) seriously, and people jump on your head and accuse you of things you don’t feel or mean.

  5. Disagreement in the church is nothing new. The New Testament records Paul and Barnabas disagreeing, however how we disagree is important. For me this question rests upon the question of, scripture and tradition. There are those who say; ‘Jesus never said anything about Homosexuality’ they are wrong, (Matthew 10:15, NLT,”Even wicked Sodom will be better off than such a town on judgment day”) At what point do we just throw away the bible and choose to believe what we want?
    I return to David Starkey (Himself a homosexual) talking about the gay lib movement as ‘another tyranny’?
    There are many non-radical homosexuals who agree with him because of their respect for scripture.

    1. I think the big problem with this whole area is ‘bulverism’. If you are not familiar with that term it was invented by C S Lewis based on Ezekiel Bulver. It is where an argument is stated as being wrong on the basis of the arguer’s identity or motive and not on the argument’s validity or otherwise. An example would be “You say that because you’re a man or a bus driver or an academic or an Englishman …..etc”. The actual statement or argument is immediately put to one side as not worth dealing with.

      Bulverism is rife in the Church because almost any argument someone puts up about something invites open season for the game of labelling – liberal, fundamentalist, homophobic, traditionalist, high church …etc. It really is most wearying. OK it may be the case that I think something because of my background, education, personality, emotional make-up or such like but it surely is worth dealing with the argument rather than my psychology. It either bears weight or not

  6. Thanks Leslie,
    I agree. In the attempt to challenge fundamentalism, it seems that with this discussion
    ( on homosexuality) we are getting near the Ex-Cathedra statement?


  7. Thank you Leslie for revealing another layer to this discussion. I do love C.S. Lewis! and the concept of bulverism is very helpful in keeping us on track. It is just so easy to get off track on such important issues.

  8. The thing about Bulverism is it works on triggers and knocks sideways any genuine engagement with arguments. On sex for example someone who wanted to talk about a physical health issue would begin to hear a “homophobic” cry growing whilst someone who wanted to talk about mental health would tend to trigger the opposite. Both issues deserve quiet calm discussion but the roar of opposing sides tends to drown out the arguments.
    In our present climate popularism just likes to shout.

    1. Not wanting to hog the limelight on this blog, but I’ve been pondering again your title Stephen, “Christians obsessed with sex”. A useful exercise is to stand at any News-stand and look along the the magazines looking for one that doesn’t have some sex-related item flagged up on the front covers and, oh, I suppose you could add newspapers as well. I’m afraid that the shot that the Church is obsessed with sex doesn’t hold more water than the world about us. Doesn’t the Harvey Weinstein expose and it’s follow-on have something to say about that? And do check the internet and the porn sites that proliferate catering for an eager audience. I don’t think we would say Christians are obsessed with Rice Krispies, or with violent movies, or with holidays in the sun … you see my point?
      The Church always had at least one commandment about sex (and another about the family) so it would be strange if it were not to respond to the sexual mores taking place around it. If the birds settled on my grass seed and I started shooing them away I would feel aggrieved if it were put about that I was hostile t0 birds.

      1. Fair point. And keep posting! This is a refreshing conversation.

        On the subject of sex, the current Aziz Ansari issue is another indication that there is a great danger of climbing on the bandwagon on this issue.

        More nuance, more thoughtful engagement is always valuable.

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