Friday, December 9, 2011

Sexual Morality

"We must now consider Christian morality as regards sex, what Christians call the virtue of chastity."

Must we? Well, if we must.

I think I should point out that Lewis deals mostly with the definition of 'modesty' as regards dress and 'chastity' as regards sexuality. There are other, related, definitions and there is a point where the definitions of both words sort of crossover and can become synonyms. But for the purposes here they're treated in that narrow fashion and I think it's easy enough to understand.

"The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of 'mod­esty' (in one sense of that word); i.e. propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes."

Interesting. But I think that there's some sort of underlying...assumption or belief that Christianity, whether it comes from the Bible, Tradition or just the consensus of the masses that there is a 'Christian' way to dress. I'm sure that it changes from era to era and place to place but the idea is that a Christian will not wear 'x' kind of clothing. There's also the factor that the concern over what is 'appropriate' clothing seems to focus mainly on the clothing of women. You cannot judge a persons spirituality or faithfulness to their religion based on their clothing, though we all do it. I'm certainly guilty of it, perhaps even more than most people. I'm trying to be better about that but it's something of an automatic process so it's hard to grab a hold of it and put a stop to it. 

Anyway. There are certain passages within the Bible that can be, and are in some circles, interpreted as directing what kinds of clothing Christians (mostly women) are supposed to wear. However there is, as far as I'm aware, no monolithic (as in believed by all of those claiming the title of 'Christian') consensus on a specific mode of dress labeling one as a 'Christian' or not.

And Lewis' point is that 'modesty' is a societal construct while 'chastity' is the religious requirement. He gives the example of a Victorian lady, covered from neck to ankles in clothing and a 'girl in the Pacific islands' who wears, essentially, nothing. Both, in their modes of dress, are meeting their societal standards of modesty. Both of them may *also* be chaste but their mode of dress is not an indicator of that chastity one way or the other. There is a tendency to equate modesty with chastity. It's a false connection though. One can be the most modest person in their own culture and not be chaste. In the same way someone can dress immodestly by the standards of their society and be chaste.

"I do not think that a very strict or fussy standard of propriety is any proof of chastity or any help to it, and I therefore regard the great relaxation and simplifying of the rule which has taken place in my own lifetime as a good thing. At its present stage, however, it has this inconvenience, that peo­ple of different ages and different types do not all acknowl­edge the same standard, and we hardly know where we are. While this confusion lasts I think that old, or old-fashioned, people should be very careful not to assume that young or `emancipated' people are corrupt whenever they are (by the old standard) improper; and, in return, that young people should not call their elders prudes or puritans because they do not easily adopt the new standard. A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems."

I wonder what Lewis would make of modern society? I'm guessing he might not be as pleased by the 'relaxation of the standards' as he was in his own time. I think that this confusion he speaks of is something that always exists. After all, pretty much every generation rebels against the one that came before. I'm sure there were 'old folks' back in ancient pick-your-culture who were railing against the clothes and music and actions of the younger generation while the younger generation were complaining about how old fashioned and stuffy their parents and grand-parents were. The world is, in many ways, like a washing machine. It all just keeps going around and around, the same thing over and over just with different clothes. And yes, that made more sense in my head. I'm leaving it though! Pretend it's some sort of wisdom-y Zen koan or something. 'Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar.' Reality is a washing machine on spin cycle. Go with it.

"Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, `Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.' Now this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong. One or the other. Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong."

I agree that some people find chastity hard. Others do not. So perhaps the problem is that we've tried to impose what is natural to a portion of the population on the entire population? I honestly think that many people would be better served if there wasn't still the assumption that only one way is the correct way to have a relationship. I don't believe that our instincts are wrong or that Christianity is wrong. Just that it *obviously* doesn't work for everyone on the planet. But nothing does. I've come to think that we're too diverse for any single theology or philosophy to encompass everyone and their needs.

"The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body."

Is that really the only purpose of sex? Maybe in animals, and while we may be descended from animals we've evolved since then. It's absolutely true that one of the primary biological purposes to sex is to reproduce and preserve the species. But for many humans there is also the biological need of companionship and bonding to be met. I think some people make the distinction and think of companionship as a mental need but I think, for many people, there's a physical/biological aspect to it as well. After all, if all we needed to feel fulfilled was an intellectual connection then the people who don't want children would never have sex. But they do. Yes, you could argue that that's part of our biology's way of forcing/tricking us into doing something that would produce children but even if that's so that doesn't change the fact that we have a biological *need* for sex in order to feel fulfilled, with or without the end result of children.

And yes, I am aware that there are asexual people who do not feel the draw of sex. That's why I said 'many' and not 'all'. It's very, very hard to make blanket statements about anything because there are always exceptions to the rule. And I find that wonderful. :D 

"if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function."

But that's not the way it works. Our *biology* ensures that not every single sexual act produces a child. The appetite is *not* ludicrous in excess of its function. I think it's important to keep in mind that not every sexual act produces a child and not every pregnancy lasts to term. I think it's also important to remember that the world has changed a great deal since our ancient progenitors sat in a cave and doodled on the walls. In the past the mortality rate of..well...everyone was much much higher than it is today. Than it was in Lewis' time as well though we've made a lot of progress even since then. 

When the sexual instinct/urge was developed it was appropriate to the needs of the species. Let's say, since I have no idea what the actual numbers were, that half of every sexual act historically, without the intervention of modern science and medicine, (in this case restricted to vaginal intercourse obviously) produced a viable embryo. So we have 1,000 couples having sex. Of them, only 500 embryo's are originally produced. Let's be nice and say that 75% of those make it to term. 375 babies are born. Of those let's say another 25% have some sort of birth defect that kills them before they hit puberty. 282 kids who are born healthy. Take away another 50% of those who are lost due to accidents, illness, etc. 141 children survive. 28% of the original embryos have survived to adulthood. 

Of those 141 adults, not all of them will survive to pass on their genes. Of those that do survive to the point of getting to try and pass on their genes, not all will succeed. Some of them will and the cycle starts again.

Of course these are all numbers that I pulled out of my ass, but you see the idea, right? Now days the rates of survival are much, much higher in developed first world countries. Our sexual urges, assuming that the main, if not sole, purpose of them is to drive us to produce future generations, are in proportion to the needs of the species as we evolved. Do we need to produce so many children now? Opinions vary. But assuming that your answer is 'no', that's why we invented birth control. And different sexual positions. Ones that do not include the possibility of offspring.

"a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage."

I find it charmingly adorable and funny that Lewis felt that he had to explain what a strip tease was. *laughs*

Lewis continues to equate the need for food with the need for sex. He says that if we went to a country where they had 'strip tease' style acts with food, where "you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon" that we would come to the conclusion that there is something very wrong with that country's appetite for food. And so, it being the same thing and all, there is obviously something wrong with the need for sex in any country that has such things as strip shows. *side eyes Lewis* Because those haven't been around since the beginning of time or anything, just like prostitution. Oh, wait, it's clear that Lewis believes that stripping is something new.

"One critic said that if he found a country in which such strip-tease acts with food were popular, he would conclude that the people of that country were starving. He meant, of course, to imply that such things as the strip-tease act resulted not from sexual corruption but from sexual starvation. I agree with him that if, in some strange land, we found that similar acts with mutton chops were popular, one of the possible explanations which would occur to me would be famine. But the next step would be to test our hypothesis by finding out whether, in fact, much or little food was being consumed in that country. If the evidence showed that a good deal was being eaten, then of course we should have to abandon the hypothesis of starvation and try to think of another one. In the same way, before accepting sexual starvation as the cause of the strip-tease, we should have to look for evidence that there is in fact more sexual abstinence in our age than in those ages when things like the strip-tease were unknown. But surely there is no such evidence. Contraceptives have made sexual indulgence far less costly within marriage and far safer outside it than ever before, and public opinion is less hostile to illicit unions and even to perversion than it has been since Pagan times."
Another explanation, apart from the 'starvation' or 'corruption' ideas is that there *was* starvation in the land and now that it no longer exists there're expressions of natural hunger that shock some people. People have always had the sexual appetites that we have now. The difference is that, as opposed to Victorian times (for example) we feel more free to express them. The culture is changing and so the visible availability of some things has increased. However, just because some people, in the past, chose to believe that such things never happened doesn't make it so. 
"You find very few people who want to eat things that really are not food or to do other things with food instead of eating it. In other words, perversions of the food appetite are rare."

That's not even remotely true. I'm going to chalk this one up to ignorance of the times and move on. 
"But perversions of the sex instinct are numer­ous, hard to cure, and frightful. I am sorry to have to go into all these details but I must."

Yes, dear lord, some people want to have sex for fun! *gasps in shock* I'm not entirely sure about which 'perversions' Lewis is referring to. He makes it clear that homosexuality is a perversion, of course, but I don't know if he counts wanting to have non-vaginal sex or perhaps the idea that women have (or would really like to have) orgasms. Or perhaps (probably) pain play, BDSM, roleplaying, or any other form of sex that is not 100% vanilla and 'normal' - and those are *sarcastic* air quotes around normal right there.
"We have been told, till one is sick of hear­ing it, that sexual desire is in the same state as any of our other natural desires and that if only we abandon the silly old Victorian idea of hushing it up, everything in the garden will be lovely."

I'm not advocating the idea that just getting rid of outdated ideas about sex and sexuality will fix everything, but it would help a lot of things. Think of all the people who feel the need to pretend to a sexuality or gender identity that is not true to them in order to please society or their family. And all of the ones who are so beaten and depressed by it and the harassment they are subjected to be people who believe that they are 'wrong' or 'dirty' or 'sick', the ones who wind up taking their own lives because they can't see any hope.

"They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. But for the last twenty years it has not been. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still in a mess. If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right. But it has not. I think it is the other way round. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess."

Um. Twenty years is not a very long time for centuries and possibly millenia of a cultural problem to get cleared up. Just saying. It took a long time to get that way and it's going to take a long time to get it out of our collective system.

Lewis talks about how Christianity is one of the only religions that is sex positive. I have my doubts about that, and even about how sex positive you can even claim Christianity really is. Does it definitively say that sex is evil? *waggles hand* Depends on your reading of the texts. Some say yes, some say no. It's a matter of interpretation. I think it has been hijacked, historically, by men who did have issues with sex and their interpretation became the most widely read and believed for the longest time. However, talking to Muslims you find them saying that their faith is the most sex (and matter) positive. I'm sure I could find Jews who believed the same. And Hindus. Etc. Everyone thinks they're the best and every religion can and has been hijacked. *shrug* Happily I don't base my views on sex on religion.

On the heels of that, however, Lewis says that the 'modern' (his time) view of sex *has* gone wrong. It is warped. We are ill in the sexual sense and need to be cured, but before we can be cured we must admit that we need to be cured. This is one of those things where Lewis and I are just not going to agree. I don't believe that our society, in its continuing attempt to embrace healthy expressions of sexuality (those that are not inherently wrong - pedophilia, bestiality, and necrophilia, for examples of those that I believe are by their very nature wrong), is sick. I think we're on the other side of that - we've admitted that we were sick, that the shaming and oppression of natural sexual instincts and needs made us sick and that we are now getting better.


  1. This is really interesting. I didn't have time to read it all, but I always find these discussions fascinating.


  2. I'm sure there were 'old folks' back in ancient pick-your-culture who were railing against the clothes and music and actions of the younger generation while the younger generation were complaining about how old fashioned and stuffy their parents and grand-parents were.

    This made me think of Doctor Who. You know the episode where they're in Pompeii? And the parents are ranting about their rebellious son hanging out with Christians? :D Love it. Also, awesome use of the Butters quote. That line made him my favorite character.

    Oh, Lewis. I definitely disagree with his assertion that Christianity teaches marriage or abstinence. I'm not even going to get into polygamy, which is another option. There's actually nothing said against sex before marriage, except in that it brings down the bride's value and so if you break it you bought it. And since, you know, women aren't property anymore, that's kind of a moot point. Now, it can be said that a lot of Christians interpret it differently, but to say all Christianity is this way...well, it's Lewis. What do I expect? (That's not meant to be an insult. I do like him, he's just very obviously a product of a certain worldview sometimes.)

    Aww. Thanks for pointing out the strip-tease line, which I probably wouldn't have even thought about if I was reading it. And I mean, for the time, he probably did have to explain! There could be innocent older ladies with Victorian sensibilities reading this! Or young women, or possibly even children, I guess. Although in the last case, most of the sex talk is gonna go right over their head anyway, so maybe they could just skip this chapter and go play with their toys instead.

    Re: starvation tests. -.- Lewis, really? Really? *sigh* Ok, then. Because, you know, testing to see how much food was consumed in the country totally means that it's shared equally, it can't possibly be that some people hoard it all while the powerless go hungry. And the fact that sex is "safer" now can't possibly mean that people are starving for it as much as or more than before. Certainly puritanical views such as these can't possibly make it so that people think of sex as something hidden/forbidden from them and therefore have a lot of curiosity and desire for it. Nope.

    And as far as it being discussed in the open now...Yeah, no. Like you point out, there's still quite a bit of shame placed on things considered outside the normal/accepted expressions of sexuality. Sex may be in our faces all the time, but it's still something "dirty," something we don't want kids to see and that you don't discuss in polite company. We're still treating it like some secret, hidden thing that is inappropriate to talk about. Which means there's still that drive to bring it out into the open. Heck, we probably talk about it so much in the ways we're allowed to because it's made this secret thing and so we have to grab the opportunities to examine it and get our fill.

  3. Amber I really enjoyed this post and I'm going to publicise it on my Facebook Page. Thanks for sharing this! I'll comment more in a bit.

  4. I liked the washing machine Amberism! :)

    Yeah, I, too, wonder what Lewis would say about the standards of dress in some places today, but maybe he would be OK with it. He actually sounds pretty liberated as far as that goes. I really like that he recognizes that modesty varies by culture.

    Funny about the strip tease definition. It seems that was NOT really known where he lived anyway. Maybe he was shielded from it and thought it was new. I'd say the dance before Herod that resulted in John the Baptist's death was probably along the same lines. I agree with Sanil that he may have had to explain for his audience of older ladies who would not even think women would do such things. Didn't they even cover piano legs because, well, they were LEGS?? :-D

  5. Stephanie,

    Thanks for dropping by!

  6. sanil,

    Ah, Doctor Who. All things are relatable to the Doctor!

    Butters is wonderful and I love that quote so much. :)

    I actually started to go into the polygamy angle but it was getting way too long so I cut it.

    *laughs* It's true, he probably did have to explain what a strip-tease was for the time period. I just found it funny, and then his assertion that the strip-tease was a new thing was just wacky to me.

    Yeah...that whole thing with the starvation tests was just...out there. And it just ignored so many factors or other options.

    re: your last paragraph: Yes. I agree completely.

  7. Susanne,


    I think Lewis would have the same adjustment problems that the older generations of his time were having. We've come a long way from his time period after all.

    I too was happy that he admitted that 'modesty' is a cultural value.

    *laughs* Yes, we did used to cover table legs because they were 'legs'. Though I thought that was a bit before Lewis' time but it might have hung on in there. So many things do...

  8. "I agree that some people find chastity hard. Others do not."

    I have a friend (what do you call someone who used to be a really close friend, and actually my oldest friend, but not you haven't seen them in 3 years and whenever you talk to them it's usually "discussions" on FB, where you think WTF happened to this person, you and I used to be the same and now I feel like you've gone off the deep end?), who doesn't find it hard.

    According to her, she's never understood why people wanted to have sex and finds the thought sort of gross (I'm not sure if she's asexual, or if she has some deeper-lying issues with sex, but that's beside the point). She goes on these RAMPAGES judging everyone, but especially Christians who have pre-marital sex, and it really annoys me, mainly because, like she said herself, she does not find it hard. I think it's waaay too easy for us to judge people on things that are easy for us to do.

    Sorry, I know that was a bit off-topic, but I was just reminded of that when I read your post, really enjoyed it as well! :)

  9. Becky,

    I would call someone like that an acquaintance at this point. You used to be friends but it doesn't sound like you really are anymore.

    Anyway. Both might be true. They could be asexual and have deep issues with sex, especially since asexuality hasn't been acknowledged for a very long time. People who are asexual are often (from my limited interaction with people who identify as asexual) told that they are 'just frigid' or don't understand their own sexuality.

    Given that you say she goes on rampages of judging people who want to have sex...I'd guess there are sexual issues. The asexual people I know don't have any problem with other people wanting to or having sex, even those of them who hold strong religious convictions.

    Back on topic. It's impossible for anyone who doesn't struggle with trying to be chaste against natural sexual urges to understand how hard it is. It's like people who've never smoked a day in their lives telling smokers that it's easy to quit. They have no personal experience with anything like it.


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