I picked up Real Sex just after moving into my new condo. I read it incessantly on the porch swing. I live on the first floor of a six-flat, so my brand new neighbors kept walking by on their way to the dumpster, eyeing me with curiosity as I slipped the book under my leg.
I’m sure it’s OK for a young priest’s wife to read a book about sex, but the problem with this one — with its black cover, red lettering and white gardenia slowly opening on the cover — is that one casual glance and you’re not quite sure if it is a sex manual, an erotica lit book, or — almost as blush-worthy in my neck of the woods — a winsome case for chastity.
According to Lauren Winner, chastity is no walk in the park — not for single or married people. It involves unceasing prayer, diligent discernment and a fierce battle against the lies that our culture and church communicate to us related to sexuality.
Real Sex is the fruit of this sometimes-faltering quest in Winner’s own life, a continual movement toward wholeness, as well as an ongoing conversation between herself, God and her readers. The book took more than five years to write, she told me, because it was challenging to find the proper idiom in which to write it — she needed to balance personal shame about her premarital sexual experiences with profound hope in the healing power of God’s love.
Real Sex is full of hope — hope that frank discussion will triumph over platitudes, that sexual wholeness can be recovered even after virginity has been lost and that we can all relearn what authentic sexuality is even in the face of cultural mythology.
Inhabiting Our Bodies
According to Winner, one of the greatest falsehoods Christians must struggle against is an idea that has infected the church for centuries — Gnosticism. Gnosticism teaches that the body is innately bad while the soul is inherently good.
During the single years and beyond, Christians struggle with this notion. “We Christians get embarrassed about our bodies,” Winner wrote. “We are not always sure that God likes them very much. We are not sure whether bodies are good or bad; it follows that we are not sure whether sex is good or bad.”
This struggle plays itself out for many couples who remain chaste before the wedding day but find they are unable to enjoy sex afterward. “We spend years guarding our virginity,” writes Winner, “But find, upon getting married that we cannot just flip a switch. Now that sex is licit, sanctioned — even blessed by our community — we are stuck with years of work (and sometimes therapy) to unlearn a Gnostic anxiety about sex; to learn instead, that sex is good.”
Winner believes the church should teach young people to inhabit their bodies in healthy ways, pointing to studies that show that the greatest predictor of chastity for females is athletic involvement. It is by learning that our bodies are graceful and strong and capable of great things, Winner argues, that we find the strength to glorify God with them.
By the same token, our bodies can also lead us in perverse directions. Winner doesn’t shy away from topics like masturbation and internet pornography. In both cases, Winner believes these teach wrong lessons — that intimacy can be had on our own terms — and that we can control sex.
The problem with these lessons is that they can be difficult to unlearn within the context of marriage. Sex within marriage involves surrender and loss of control, and on a more basic level, involves union with a real (i.e. physically, emotionally and spiritually imperfect) person. Internet pornography, on the other hand, allows access to mute supermodels.
The greatest obstacle to overcome in our day of easy access to pseudo-sex is learning to desire the real thing — intimacy with a living, breathing, human being who will challenge us to become more then we are and more than we ever thought we could be.
So what does healthy sex within marriage look like? According to Winner, it is quite unlike sex outside of marriage — which she says tends to be exhilarating because of the risks and lack of stability. “I find I still have to do battle with my expectation, formed through years of premarital sex, that sex is always supposed to be exciting,” Winner said. “I believe that unlearning this lesson — and learning that fidelity and habit are erotic and sexy — will take some time.”
Winner places married sex back in its proper context — the home — with all its tensions and imperfections. “Sex needs to be clumsy,” Winner writes. “It should at times feel awkward. It should be an act we engage in for comfort. It should also be allowed to hold any number of anxieties — the sorts of anxieties, for instance, we might feel about our child’s progress in school, or our ability to provide sustenance for our family. Sex becomes another way for two people to realistically engage the strengths and foibles of each other.”
Winner’s thoughts on married sex are generally insightful, but readers should bear in mind that much of the book was written before Winner was married. Married friends of mine have pointed out that sex within marriage is a process of discovery and growth that gets dramatically better with time.
Sex and Social Responsibility
In contrast to married sexuality, which participates in the larger context of domestic life, sex outside of marriage rarely affords opportunities for accountability or meaningful discussion.
Winner believes these discussions must be public because our sexual ethics affect our society as a whole. “If we believe that sex forms us, then it goes without saying that it is public business, because how we build the persons we are — persons who are social and communal and political and economic beings, is itself a matter of social concern,” she writes.
How would Winner’s vision filter into everyday life? She believes Christians have not only the right, but also the responsibility to engage in public as well as private discussions about sexuality. Accountability among Christians is critical, she says, that we need to frankly (but gently) challenge each other about our sexual activities.
The Real Walk
For all that was accomplished in the pages of Real Sex, I did have a few concerns while reading the book. One of the main themes of the book is that sex outside of marriage is an exciting adventure, while sex within marriage is hum-drum and dull.
For all of Winner’s attempts at realism and nuance, she creates a false dichotomy here. It is far too simplistic to say that married sex is always dull (ask a few of your married friends and they might just tell you a whole different story), nor is it fair to say that sex outside of marriage is always going to be exhilarating.
I also wish Winner had answered some questions related to sexuality — what is the role, for example, of parental attachment in our ability to form intimate bonds? Why do some people enjoy recreational sex while others feel that it tears them apart?
Winner does a good job pointing out that the church hasn’t been truthful when teaching that sex outside of marriage will always make you feel miserable. But she never, to my satisfaction, exposes the more pathetic aspects of sexual exploits outside of marriage — she never exposes the resulting fragmentation.
In the end, Winner’s argument for chastity is based on the authority of Scripture, which doesn’t always cohere with her experiences. There is something inorganic about the way she tries to integrate the two. Christians who share her commitment to scripture will rightly share her convictions about sexual morality. But that may be the end of her influence: those who rely on other sources of authority won’t necessarily find her ideas compelling.
Still, there is something to be said for planting seeds, even in harsh climates. A Hasidic tale describes a Rabbi who told people that if they studied the Torah it would put Scripture on their hearts. When someone asked him why he always used the word “on” instead of “in” he said, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your hearts, and when your hearts break the holy words will fall inside.”Quoted in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. (New York; Riverhead Books, Penguin 2005).
Copyright 2005 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.