Dr Belle Tindall unpacks purity ethics within the Church and wider culture
Navigating being a Christian and a feminist is complicated.
Complicated because there are things taught and done in the name of feminism that, however well-meaning, simply don’t look enough like Jesus. And because there are things taught and done in the name of Christianity that don’t look enough like Jesus either.
Can I be honest with you for a moment? I mean, we’re basically friends now, aren’t we? Being a Christian who believes in the social, political, economic (and spiritual) equality of the sexes can feel a lot like walking on a tightrope. And not any old tightrope – I’m talking Philip Petit walking on a wire between the Twin Towers in 1974, 1,350 feet in the air, while the whole of New York city watches from below kind of tightrope.
Being a Christian feminist is tense. It’s wobbly. It’s a complete and utter balancing act. And nowhere is that more apparent than when it comes to the topic of women having sex.
‘Being a Christian feminist is tense. Nowhere is that more apparent than when it comes to the topic of women having sex’
Seeing as it’s February, the month dedicated to all things romantic, I figured it’s the perfect time to dust off my balance pole and hone my highwire skills. Fancy joining me as I walk a tightrope between the traditional ‘Christian’ sexual ethic and the liberal feminist one? I warn you, it’s a notoriously wobbly journey. Pretty high-stakes, too. But at least you know it’ll be interesting, eh?
A look at Christian sexual ethics
Let’s begin with the more traditional, so-called ‘Christian’, sexual ethic.
Christian teachings have long been twisted, misappropriated and occasionally just outright made up, in order to argue that, when it comes to sex, women don’t matter. In its most devastating extremity, this has led to women being (mis)treated as objects for male gratification and as a threat to male virtue. Somehow, we are both dangerous temptresses that need to be foiled and fragile beings whose purity needs to be protected.
While such extreme prejudices still exist, we’re probably more familiar with diluted versions. Such as the idea that women aren’t intended to enjoy sex as much as men. Or that the ‘orgasm gap’ is the fault of our elusive bodies as opposed to a major lack of research, and therefore knowledge, about the female body and the way it was designed to experience arousal. And what about how common it is for newly married women to not enjoy sex purely because sex has always been something to avoid at all costs – until your wedding night that is, when you’re expected to flip a mental switch that enables you to embrace it wholeheartedly? Ultimately, prejudice is revealed by the fact that we never talk about any of this, because there’s shame heaped upon shame, sprinkled with confusion and a dollop of more shame.
And none of that – not one bit of it – was what God had in mind, nor is it what he wants for us.
A cultural sexual revolution
Now, onto the war that was waged against such things – otherwise known as the sexual revolution.
The revolution that swept through the UK in the 1960s, 70s and 80s fought for, and ultimately achieved, an astonishing amount of change – change in law, change it attitude, change in medical technology. All of which encouraged women to ‘have sex like men’ – freely, whenever, wherever and with whomever we like. The residue of the sexual revolution is still very present; we still live in a culture that encourages us to regard sex as meaningless – just one of the many social interactions we have on any given day. Sex is viewed as being as sacred as making a coffee for a colleague in the office, as intimate as a game of tennis. There is nothing inherently unique, special or distinct about it. At least, not if one decides there isn’t. While this has (arguably) afforded liberty to women – at what cost?
Somehow, we are both dangerous temptresses that need to be foiled and fragile beings whose purity needs to be protected
What many feminists have claimed as a victory for women, I can’t help but feel is no more in line with what God wants for women than the previous option. Both, in very different ways, cause immense pain. Both, in very different ways, treat women as if we’re lacking in value.
Finding the balance
So, you see what I mean? To be a Christian feminist is to walk a tightrope between the two extremes. To ultimately refuse both and suggest that there is a better way. To insist that God made women to experience profound sexual pleasure, and for that pleasure to be experienced in the safe and secure confines of a loving relationship. To remind the world that women’s bodies are their own – to neither be vilified nor commodified. To reiterate that sex is nothing more, and certainly nothing less, than a good gift. And that it was designed with us in mind too.
Gosh. That was a wobbly walk, but I think we’ve made it.