“Communal Sex: Or, Why Your Neighbor Has Any Business Asking You What You Did Last Night”

In contemporary society, sex is public–moms go on talk shows and confess to sleeping with their daughters’ boyfriends, Calvin Klein models expose their body parts in magazine ads. But if sex is public, it is not communal. Americans consider sex a fine topic of public disclosure but we insist that sex is also private, nobody’s business but mine and the person with whom I’m doing it. I can show you my midriff in public, and I can make out with my boyfriend on a park bench, but there is no communal grammar that allows you to talk to me about this body I am exposing in front of you. (Lauren Winner, Real Sex, p. 47)

It’s an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it? Keep your nose out of my bedroom, unless I choose to broadcast it on Dr. Phil. I can decide to tell the world about my sex life, but if you ask me about it out of genuine care or concern you have become the definition of foot-in-mouth disease. On the one hand, I can’t ask a close friend if all is well in his sex life without fear of faux pas. On the other hand, the very public fascination with the affair of General Petraeus has far exceeded is newsworthiness.

I wonder if our public fascination with sex stems in part from our lack of communal discussion of sex. We don’t often talk about it in caring and constructive ways with friends and family. But we somehow know that it affects us deeply as a community, and (usually) we discuss things that affect us deeply as a community.

Winner uses art and education as examples. When there is a racy or racist art exhibit at a local gallery, the community has heated debate on its display. When a school board decides to teach (or not to teach) Intelligent Design theory in science classes, the community has a very heated debate. We talk about it because we know that art and education are social phenomena that shape who we are, and who we are matters to the community. Winner says, “As with art and education, so with sex. Because sex forms us, sex is a community matter.”

Somewhere deep deep down in our individualistic psyches, our hearts are clinging for dear life to an essential part of us: Community. We need to discuss in community the things that affect us as a community. But in a culture that tells us that our bedroom is absolutely private and that ordinary discussion, lament, joy, and confession about it is off limits, we seek what we take to be the next best alternative to community: Publicity. If we can put it out there in public, at least other people will have access to it…even if they’re not allowed to respond.

Sometimes our culture seems like the person who’s parents never had a meaningful discussion with her about alcohol, preferring instead to ban it outright without an accompanying conversation or explanation. I know plenty of people for whom that story ended in binge drinking through college. They never knew how to think about or use alcohol in a productive, responsible, and constructive way because the discussion itself was off limits. To be clear, I intend that critique to apply to both the church culture, which often refuses to have meaningful dialogue with people about sexuality lest it cause them to burn with lust or leave with unanswered questions, and to our broader contemporary culture, which often denies anyone the right to an opinion about communal morality.

I truly believe that the Christian church has (whether or not it utilizes it) a unique resource for the formative discussions we need about sex. The Bible says that Christians are bonded into one community so strongly, so irrevocably, that we are “One Body.” We are bonded together by the death of the very Son of God, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit among us. Furthermore, we have affirmed our communal identity in baptism.

I find it really interesting that in one passage, Ephesians chapter 4, Paul finishes a section on Christian unity by saying that it leads to personal and communal maturity. “How?” you might ask. This is what he says:

...speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.

Conversation filled with truth, wrapped in love. That’s a major part of how we grow into maturity as a community. And that conversation doesn’t just have to be about sex. I’ll leave you with Winner’s very useful extrapolation of this principle:

Of course, premarital sexual behavior is just one of many instances of this larger point. Christians also need to speak courageously and transparently, for example about the seemingly private matters of Christian marriage–there would be, I suspect, a lot fewer divorces in the church if married Christians exposed their domestic lives, their fights and tensions and squabbles, to loving wisdom, advice, and sometimes rebuke from their community. Christians might claim less credit-card debt if small-group members shared their bank account statements with one another. I suspect that if my best friend had permission to scrutinize my Day-timer, I would inhabit time better. Speaking to one another about our sexual selves is just one (admittedly risky) instance of a larger piece of Christian discipleship: being community with each other. (p. 53, my emphasis)

3 Responses to “Communal Sex: Or, Why Your Neighbor Has Any Business Asking You What You Did Last Night”

  1. J Brown says:

    Great book and important topics! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Ryan Cowden says:

    Great post Kyle! I have a couple of thoughts.

    First, when you mentioned public discussions of the private and the sexual, my mind first went to abortion and homosexuality. These are two very public and heated debates about the private and the sexual. I think that in both of these debates, the issue of what happens privately affecting the greater community is very much a concern. For the church specifically, these conversations are public and even forced. I wonder how you see these two topics in relation to your theory that sexual discourse is kept private.

    Second, I wonder if our lack of meaningful sexual discourse has something to do with our glaring disability to have a productive discourse on ANY topic in our country. This last election cycle has shown that our culture is very polarized. I wonder if the intimidating and fractured national discourse is sort of dis-incentivizing people to engage in public conversations on several levels, including that of private sexuality. My guess is that people have a very warranted fear that bringing up private matters such as sexuality will only open them up to the hostility they see displayed in the current discourse.

    I’m very interested to hear your thoughts. And great job on the blog! These posts are excellent.

    Ryan

    • kbrooksy says:

      Ryan! So glad to hear from you. In short…yes. I think that our lack of discourse about sex (and Winner is actually talking mostly about sex outside the marriage context) is indicative of a larger problem. The fragmenting of our society makes it more difficult to have meaningful yet loving discussions because there is no reasonable expectation of the conversation ending in unity. Unfortunately, it’s not an uncommon sentiment, when talking about difficult and rightfully emotion-fraught issues such as abortion and gay marriage, to just say, “For the sake of peace, we just better let sleeping dogs lie.” That, to me, is a tacit admission that we are incapable as a community of speaking the truth in love in any way that really counts. Just like in marriage, an unbreakable commitment to unity is a prerequisite for these incredibly difficult conversations.

      With respect to abortion and homosexuality in particular, I don’t like dealing with them in the same breath except insofar as they both represent challenging subjects of communal discourse. With just a little thought, it seems obvious that both topics have been co-opted by existing power structures to bolster support for the co-opting power, rather than to foster productive, clarifying, and unifying discussions on the topics themselves. I’m sure we can agree: it does us all a disservice to boil down the complicated intricacies of these subjects to sound bites.

      But as I said in the post, the church has a remarkable if often unused resource it can tap into for these conversations. The basis of and power for its unity has been established and given by Jesus Christ. With his life, death, and resurrection before our eyes and his Spirit in our hearts, we can be “like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil 2:2-4) And with this unity and humility we can have those difficult conversations that have the power to change all of us.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’ve been thinking about you lately reading Hegel and Heidegger’s forerunner, Schelling. Maybe I am just starting to grasp his concept of “The Nothing.” 🙂

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