A Shallow View of Sex

Aug 23, 2007 |Matt Kaufman

An advice columnist's message about sexuality misses the mark.

Jane has a problem. It's about, well, sex — what's the right thing to do, and what's not. And it's not about her, actually: It's about a friend.

Jane wrote about her problem to Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax. I'm changing her name (she was just listed as "Anonymous"), but that's the only thing I'll change. As for the rest of it, let Jane tell you in her own unedited words:

Dear Carolyn:
I have a friend who is very promiscuous, and at first I just rolled my eyes, but now it bothers me. I am not sure how or if I should tell her. She isn't discreet about her actions and is known among many people as "easy" or "slutty." Would you believe this woman is 35?

Her behavior doesn't really impact me, but people know I am good friends with this woman, and I wonder if I might suffer for the association. I also am starting to pass my own judgment on her actions, and I worry for her health.

I'm torn over if (and how!) I should tell her how I feel or if I should just let her live her own life and reap whatever she sows.

Jane definitely needs help thinking through the issues. Alas, the reply she got from Ms. Hax wasn't very helpful.

So, at 35 a woman's sexuality gets sentenced to home detention?

I believe men and women, from about 17 on, are capable of making their own decisions about their own sexuality. Some earlier, some later, some never, but you get the idea.

If she is plainly unhappy with her choices or if her choices are plainly hurting others, then you have grounds to express how you feel. If you just don't like or respect her, then you just don't like or respect her.

But if you just think someone with her image is bad for yours, then please take a harder look at your own values. Which is "right" here: drawing lines sexually or choosing to color outside them? Having questionable judgment or judging others as questionable? Dropping pants or dropping friends?

Little is black and white to begin with, and sexuality might be the grayest zone of all. To navigate through it, ask yourself two questions: Who is hurting whom and why? And, knowing this, whose heart would you trust to be in the right place?

Hax has a good point — a single good point. And a lot of bad ones.

The good point (at the risk of belaboring the obvious) is that friendship shouldn't hinge on image. Friends don't drop friends over things like that. But friends also don't just look the other way when friends plunge into promiscuity. They may not know what to say about it, or how, or when: They may struggle with finding the right time and way to talk about it. But they at least understand there's something wrong about it, and they want to do something about it if they can.

You wouldn't know this to listen to Hax here. Where sex is concerned, she speaks no language but the language of personal autonomy, and she seems to know no standard higher than individual choice. You have the right to make your "own decisions" about your "own sexuality." Everyone else should just butt out unless you're "plainly unhappy" or you're "plainly hurting others" with your "choices." And so on.

You've heard it all before, of course: People have been saying it for a while now. There's nothing inherently right or wrong about any sexual "choices" just so long as we're all "consenting adults." And, hey, maybe if we're just a year away from being adults. Or maybe two. Or....

But it's still a shame to hear it again. Hax is an advice columnist, after all, and while you don't really need insight or wisdom to get an advice column so long as someone's willing to publish it, people do take advice columnists seriously.

Moreover, Jane really could have used some good advice. She struck me as an honest inquirer. Yes, she may be concerned for her own reputation, but I suspect not so much as Hax seems to think. She seems genuinely concerned for her friend. She's convinced that something's wrong with promiscuity, and she hates to see her friend reduced to it. Her biggest problem may be that she's fuzzy on just what is wrong with it.

From her letter alone (or at least the part that got published), it's hard to tell exactly where Jane's coming from. What's the basis of her objection to promiscuity? Partly it's the physical consequences, like sexually transmitted diseases. Partly it's social pressure: People frown on it, and her friend isn't "discreet." And partly it's a matter of morality: Jane finds herself "passing judgment" on her friend's actions.

That still leaves a lot unclear. For example, how much of Jane's concern over reputations is based on a desire to be well regarded by others simply for the sake of their approval, and how much is based on a sense that others are reflecting an important moral consensus? Without knowing who Jane knows, we can't say. But both factors probably are related. Social pressure and moral standards have always reinforced each other to some extent. Sometimes you care what other people think because you sense they're right.

The big question, though, is this: Just why does Jane think promiscuity is morally wrong? Or to put it another way, what is her standard? Does she think it's OK to have sex with some people, but just not so many? Does she think it's OK to play around for a while, but at some point in life you have to settle down? ("Would you believe this woman is 35?") Does she think sex is OK in the context of a certain kind of "relationship?" Or if you think you're headed toward marriage? Or if you're engaged? Or if, and only if, you're married?

My hope is that Jane would embrace that last standard. My hunch is that she hovers somewhere between the others. Jane, I suspect, is torn not just over what to do, but what to think.

On the other hand, she knows in her gut that sex is supposed to matter on a moral level: To indulge in it too freely is to cheapen something which she feels should be precious. On the other hand, the entire culture tells her every day that a marriage-only approach is just a relic of a primitive past. Not that many people spend much time bothering to argue for that position. It's simply assumed, along with a lot of other things (like the idea that "judgment" of "personal choices" is, in a word, mean).

How does Jane deal with this clash between heart and culture? Yet again, we can only speculate. A lot of women do it by focusing on feelings. They work out a system where the morality of sex (if they allow themselves to think in moral terms at all) boils down to an emotional relationship. They may want a lasting marriage, but they imagine that's an "ideal," and they can't afford to hold out for it, much less hold it up as a universal standard. Outright promiscuity still strikes them as sleazy, but sex with some "partners" — one at a time, in the course of searching for "the right one" or finding someone to settle for — well, that's acceptable.

It's a lousy compromise, and it leaves women and men alike in a terrible position. Treating sex as one huge moral gray zone — in Hax's words, "the grayest zone of all" — is not only unbiblical, it's unworkable even on a purely practical level. Even if it's supposed to be reserved for "committed relationships" those have a way of getting uncommitted very fast. In fact, the whole point of remaining unmarried is to remain uncommitted.

What Jane and the millions of other people trying to work through this issue need, more than anything, is clarity. What they need to hear is not that everything is gray, but that some things really are black and white — and extramarital sex really is one of those things.

Christians have a great contribution to make on this subject — a deeper, richer, truer understanding of love between man and woman than anything the world can offer. We have an antidote to all the tempting but invariably destructive lies the world tells about sexuality. We have so much to say. But all too often we're shy about saying it, and by default, people who need to hear it only hear the lies.

We really need to get over our shyness. We owe it to the Janes of the world.

Copyright 2007 Matt Kaufman. All rights reserved.

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