There’s a shirt my youth pastor used to wear that said, “I practice safe sex. Instead of crossing my fingers I cross my legs.” He told us guys want to have sex for the physicality and girls want to have sex for the emotions, and if they worked together, we could make it to our wedding night and the Holiday Inn by the airport. All we had to do was cross our legs.
But in the wake of #ChurchToo, many of those pastors telling us to wait were caught in sexual abuse, infidelity and misogyny. The allegations and exposed criminality rocked the church. “Crossing our legs” wasn’t working.
The church’s mode of sexual dialogue caused repression and abuse, and this demands we figure out a solution.
The Church Needs to Play the ‘Penis Game’
You may have heard of “the Penis Game.” You and a group of friends/loved ones take turns saying “penis” louder and louder in a public space until someone becomes too squeamish to say it again. In most contexts, the Penis Game is chauvinistic and regressive, but the church could take a few cues from the game and start speaking in frank terms about sex, sexuality, and our bodies.
It’s a struggle even in church-adjacent environments. In 2017, Lifeway Retailers pulled rapper Sho Baraka’s album The Narrative off their shelves because of “language.” That language? Baraka claims it was his use of the word “penis” on one track.
Churches often avoid terms like “penis” or “sex drive” because sex is something “the world” talks about. To counteract the world, the church tiptoes around sex and paints it in scary terms to create barriers between lay people and potential promiscuity. The church doesn’t offer filters or other ways a congregation can navigate external messages. Instead, the typical “wait for marriage” sermon just delivers the typical veiled threats: unwanted pregnancies, STDs.
So we develop fears of our bodies as well as our sex drives and begin shoving those unwanted desires into the closet of our brains and closing the door, leaning hard against it and hoping the sex drive and desires we’ve stored in there won’t burst through the door and ruin our purity and credibility.
Let Her Speak
If you only listened to retrograde sermons to shape your views of sex, you’d think women only pursued sex for the emotional intimacy it provides. You’d think emotions and sex were always in tension, bound together by manipulation—men using emotions to get sex; women using sex to access emotions.
You’d also hear in those sermons how women are temptations to men, and should be crossing their own legs to help temper the male sex drive. You’d think women held responsibility for keeping men pure. Turtlenecks and chastity belts and all that.
But what you most likely wouldn’t find in the context of those sermons were the actual voices of women speaking to co-ed groups about sexual desires, beliefs and theology.
First, the idea that the physical and emotional elements of sex are separate is a false dichotomy. Sex is two people bringing their physical and emotional and spiritual identities into union. Not one physical human and one emotional human, but two complex, all-or-nothing humans under God’s design serving and respecting one another.
Second, when women are made responsible for the sex drives of men, they are conditioned to feel responsible for sexual abuse, often defaulting to silence for fear of the retribution they will receive for their perceived role in that abuse. Women don’t come forward because they think they were wrong for having been in the situation in the first place. Or they shouldn’t have been wearing those clothes. Or drinking that much. The shame and false responsibility flows out of this broken view of a woman’s sexual responsibilities.
When we don’t give the stage to women, we are only perpetuating reductionist theology and an abusive cycle.
The Bible provides answers for a 21st Century sexual ethic in the Song of Songs. It speaks frankly about sexual desire and gives room for the voices and passions of women.
A love song built on the holistic reality of unity, the Song of Songs is two lovers unashamed of their bodies and unashamed by the excitement they discover in the physical-ness of the other. It talks about the beauty of the woman’s breasts (4:5), the man’s “ivory tusk” (5:14), and the sex they enjoy together within marriage. The poem doesn’t tiptoe around anything; instead, it provides a lens for us to understand what real intimacy looks like.
The Song is also an equitable text. The woman speaks the majority of the lines, and she initiates sex, saying things like, “Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me!” (2:5-6 ESV).
Both the woman and the man in Song of Songs submit to one another, and neither carries a purely emotional or physical desire. They both carry an irreducible mixture of the two.
When the Song does speak of abstinence, it doesn’t do it with threats or shame-laced tactics. Multiple times, the woman tells the single characters to wait until the right time to “awaken love.” There is no talk of repression, which is a catalyst for shame and frames sex as evil. Instead, Song of Songs talks about abstinence in terms of a self-control which lives in freedom and recognizes the worth of waiting until sex can glorify God the most.
For the church to produce sexually healthy disciples, we need to stop making desire scary and forcing women to be emotional keepers of the male libido. We need to follow Song of Songs and be unapologetic in our desires while cultivating holistic conversations featuring diverse voices, especially female voices. When we do that, we will give sex both the respect and the beauty it deserves.