The Meaning of Sex: Part 1, Less or More?

Over the years I've been asked to speak about sex, on college campuses, on podcasts, at churches and conferences. I've stood before large gatherings of college students taking questions from the audience about sex. 

Much of this conversation has been about what a Christian sexual ethic might look like given rapidly changing cultural norms about sex. Most of my audiences have been progressive Christians who, by and large, have adopted a reactionary stance toward the messages about sex they heard in conservative and evangelical communities. Specifically, there's great concern about stigma, shame, and guilt surrounding sexuality, especially from what has been called the "purity culture" of evangelicalism.

Wanting to address the shame experienced by many within evangelical purity culture, many progressive Christians have struggled to put forth a distinctively Christian sexual ethic. By and large, the progressive Christian sexual ethic has been tolerance and permissiveness. It seems that, among many progressive Christians, the only way to combat shame is to make sex mean less. Sex is just not that big a deal. That's the general recipe: lower the stakes. Make sex mean less and there will be less shame.

But for a lot of us this isn't a very satisfactory landing place. For two reasons.

First, there's nothing particularly or distinctively Christian about being more tolerant and permissive regarding sex. And for people like me that's a problem as we think that Jesus has some particular and distinctive "good news" about sexuality that you can't get anywhere else. You don't need Jesus to feel tolerant and permissive about sex. Everything in the world is already telling you to be tolerant and permissive. 

Second, the road forward for a Christian sexual ethic isn't for sex to mean less but for it to mean more. We don't want sex to become meaningless but meaningful and meaning-full. But that's the trick, isn't it? This is what we're all struggling to find. How do you make sex mean more without that bringing shame back into play? This, it seems to me, is the road forward for progressive Christians who have found themselves at a loss in saying anything distinctive, interesting or life-giving about sex. 

How do we make sex mean more without burdening people with shame?

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