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Trying to Navigate Heterosexual, Sexual Ethics

If you're on Google+ and know me personally you may have seen a couple of recent articles I linked to and made brief comments on. I have a fair amount of frustration with the predominate approach of conservative Evangelicals in heterosexual sexual ethics (I also have frustration with their homosexual sexual ethics too, but that's for another time). In this post I want to briefly outline what I view as problems and try to work toward some solutions.

Often, conservative Evangelical sexual ethics are patriarchal and dehumanizing. When a man looks at a woman with desire, it's very easy to turn her into an object of sexual desire (I assume the same is true when women look at men, but of course I can't know for sure) and fail to see her as a person who should not be violated in that way. It's dehumanizing. He's guilty of two sins, lust and dehumanizing the woman. Typically, Evangelical sexual ethics only deals with one of the two sins, and honestly the less important of the two. The way Evangelical sexual ethics typically work (implicitly not explicitly), it grants that women are sexual objects as a premise and then moves from there. The primary strategy is avoidance. Don't talk to women or even look at them. You don't want to be tempted by them to lust. Women, cover up your bodies, don't wear skirts above the knee, short shorts, bikinis, or pants that are too tight. This goes whether you're married or single. It doesn't matter if your husband would enjoy seeing you in a bikini at the beach. It's important that you control others' behavior. Their purity is in part your responsibility. After all, your body is the playground of their desires and you need to keep them off of it.

The situation gets even worse when we get to the emphasis on purity. The value of a woman to potential husbands is partially determined by her degree of purity before marriage. I find that so appalling that I don't even know how to respond. Jesus accepts us and draws us into union with him without requiring perfection in any area, why can't men do the same? The other issue in all of this is that it lets men off easy. There's no real change that has to happen here. Just avoid the temptation. It doesn't matter what the implications of your action are. There's also a double standard here. Unless they're pastors or elders, male sexual misconduct like watching pornography, while condemned, is almost assumed to have happened.

How do we go forward? Men need to take primary responsibility for their conduct. In my deconstruction above I am not advocating anything goes in terms of attire or sexual behavior. Women shouldn't dress with the intention of being sexually enticing or seductive (this is different from trying to be attractive or beautiful) to someone who isn't their spouse. But if you garner some looks from men, that's ok, it's not shameful. They're responsible for their own actions. You should not want to stumble someone, but in normal settings (i.e., not bars or nightclubs), few women (granted I do believe that number is growing) objectify themselves to the degree that stumbling others is unavoidable.

The focus needs to shift from purity to treating one another with dignity. This includes the manner in which a man looks at a woman and in which he doesn't look at a woman. There is nothing wrong with noticing the physical beauty of the person; it's an integral part of who they are. It's what happens from there that can become a problem. We need to have our vision and desire transformed so that we can interact with women in a way that treats them as people with inherent value, not as sexual objects. Avoidance strategies need to be tossed in the garbage. We need to begin the truly hard work of honoring one another above ourselves and mortifying our sexual impulse.

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