“Just say no.”
Not bad advice as far as it goes but, then again, it doesn’t go all that far. When it comes to dealing with sexual sin, willing yourself to say “no” usually isn’t enough. And thankfully Christ doesn’t just help us to say “no” but gives us so much to say “yes” to. That’s what I like about Winner’s book, Real Sex. It isn’t just one more plea for Christians to say “no” to sexual sin, but a help to say “yes” to sexual purity by appreciating the connections between sex and the riches of life in Christ.
An Old Approach Made New: Chastity
Interestingly, one of the ways Real Sex helps us to say “yes” to purity is by refusing to downplay the difficulties of sexual purity. Winner understands that sexual sin isn’t an annoyance that can be flicked away, an addiction that is excised with a therapeutic scalpel, or a cultural wave that we simply must brace ourselves against. No, sexual temptation has been and always will be with us. Successfully navigating it requires a long view, discipline, and an awareness of how the means of grace apply. In part, Winner does this is by reintroducing us to the concept of chastity as a spiritual discipline. Viewing chastity as a discipline reminds us that sexual purity is hard; it reminds us that the Christian life is hard. Real Sex isn’t a cookbook of magical formulations that make purity easy – and neither is the Bible. Winner shows us how chastity, rightly understood, points us to life in Christ. That gives us hope, direction, meaning, purpose, and even great power and resources in battling sin. But the help is not in the form of a three, five or twelve step program that allows us to simply tackle one problem and move on to the next. Winner gets the big picture of the Christian life and so chastity is presented as a vibrant, time-honored and biblical way of battling sexual sin.
I found Real Sex especially helpful as a biblical counselor who always lives with the pressure of needing to bring immediate and practical aid to my counselees. Sexual sin often creates a sense of urgency that sometimes pushes me towards behavioral interventions and it’s easy to forget how sanctification roots us in Christ and requires us to take the long view of change and growth. At the same time, Real Sex does not simply shoe horn a modern audience into an old discipline. Winner urges us to take the modern/post modern experience of sexuality into account as we think biblically. She convincingly describes the nature of sexual temptation in our culture and demonstrates how good advice and even the words of scripture are sometimes fruitlessly applied when we’ve failed to carefully understand the experience of sexual temptation. This should resonate with counselors who have learned that unless our counselees know that we understand their experience, we have little hope that our input will be helpful or welcome.
Communal Aspects of Sexuality
As I counsel those who battle with sexual sin, I also regularly observe how easy it is to believe that sex is entirely a private matter, especially in the areas of pornography and masturbation but even when it involves adultery. The cultural ethos is essentially that whatever happens behind closed doors between consenting adults is no one else’s business. Winner comments on just how odd this is. On the one hand, we can’t escape public displays of eroticism and sex while, on the other hand, we are forbidden to make any comment on it other than approval. We have no right to find it harmful, only arousing.
Winner explains how sex is both private and public—that there is always a communal aspect to sexuality. Because sex is part of how we were designed to image God, it is more than an expression of biological urges or a private indulgence. It always powerfully affects and forms us shaping who we are and how we live with others. And biblically we should always care about how we are affecting others. Winner reminds us that as Christians we always live as a “people”. She goes on to describe how marriage itself is part of a larger social unit, the “household”. Sex must be understood not just as the private and impassioned expressions of lovers, but as part of the life and workings of households. Household life requires us to shed culturally touted demands for the new and exciting and learn to appreciate sex within the contours of everyday life. Like every aspect of household life, it isn’t always exciting, fun, or easy but must always be shaped, appropriately so, by the needs and demands of those we live with.
One of our Enemy’s favorite weapons is the lie. To resist him we need to know what he sounds like and Winner does a great job of identifying and deconstructing the lies that can make chastity so difficult. Interestingly, Real Sex contains two chapters on lies. One describes the lies that come at us from the world. If you’ve given much thought to sexual purity, some of these lies will be quite familiar to you, though you’ll still find her analysis thought-provoking and helpful. The second, perhaps more surprising chapter, deals with three lies that come from within the Church. These are lies that you may be familiar with as well, though you may not have recognized them as lies before:
- Premarital sex is guaranteed to make you feel lousy.
- Bodies (and sex) are gross, dirty, or just plain unimportant.
- Women don’t really want to have sex, anyway.
I don’t have room to expand on them here, but perhaps by listing them I’ve peeked your curiosity. All of the lies Winner details deserve our careful thought but perhaps it is the one’s sometimes promoted by the church that deserve the closest attention. After all, it’s the lies that we believe that are the most devastating.
I think anyone would appreciate Real Sex. Lauren Winner is an excellent thinker and biblically astute. She writes clearly but tersely. To get the full value of Real Sex expect to read it more than once. Since she writes with wit and her prose is lively, it’s no chore. She is expounding a model, a way of thinking about sexuality, that we need to stay rooted in.
Lauren Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth abut Chastity, (Wheaton, IL: Brazos Press, 2006) 192 pages.