I was flicking through the Sydney Morning Herald online recently when I saw a tab on the side to the “world’s sexiest women”, as voted by men, and found myself there. Next I was flicking through photos of Kelly Brook, the winner, “out of curiosity”, for as long as it took to realise that I didn’t look anything like her, so I closed it down in dismay. I asked myself why I’d bothered or cared. That is perhaps one of the more important questions, with what I thought was a somewhat surprising answer, when it comes to raunch culture: why are women behaving like this? In one way or another it seems to be related to power and to men —both the power that women believe their sexuality gives them over men, and the power that wanting to be attractive to men has over women.
Tracing the history of third-wave feminism it follows on from a striving after freedom, and as Carolyn writes, “sex-positive” or “porn-positive” feminism hinges on the idea that sexual freedom is essential to women’s freedom. (I have to say that once again I thought Sanger (pg 171) was waxing lyrical with rather fanciful ideas — and it is now quite obvious that sexual liberation hasn’t overcome the evils of society or lead to earthly paradise.) I actually struggled to make the link between this quest for sexual freedom and third-wave feminists claiming participants in pornography and sex work can be “empowered”. It seems a little incongruous that for all the struggle to be rid of any kind of enslavement to a man’s world, sex-positive feminists all seem to be (self-confessed — see pg 169) riding on this notion of the power that it gives them, a power which only exists in relation to men. Perhaps this is seen as the ultimate triumph?
The section I actually thought particularly interesting in this chapter was that of ‘Real Women Are Bad Porn’, this being the effect on women of men using porn, especially the idea quoted from Naomi Wolf that “The ubiquity of sexual images does not free eros but dilutes it. Today, real naked women are just bad porn … Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.”
That’s true (and relates back to the power that wanting to be attractive has over women) and incredibly sad. As is young women dressing immodestly because they actually believe that that is what is attractive to men (or to men worth attracting!). As Carolyn suggests, they know nothing of the beauty of modesty and restraint or of the power, or increased value, of a thing withheld. (There is a fascinating post by Ben Myers here that speaks, as an illustration, of the boredom of having everything revealed in pornography.)
While I appreciated the conclusion of this chapter that God’s design for sex is best and of celebrating the honour and respect, security and emotional freedom of marital sex, I did have some hesitancies about that being the primary response to sex-positive feminism and porn, in the same way that I hesitate over the prevailing means of motivating teenagers towards sexual purity being the future expectation of marriage. The reason for that is perhaps partly obvious in the fact that I am single — and so I feel like this rationale is in some ways redundant to me (and a good many of my friends) and of limited usefulness. As Carolyn writes of the 15-year-old girl who'd been around the block (pg 177), without the expectation of marriage she had no particular reason to refrain from sexual encounters. But therein actually lies the danger and the problem of hinging things on this future expectation of marriage, and I think we need to be careful of setting up that scenario — inside and outside the church. That’s because as Christians we actually need to refrain from sexual encounters with and without the future expectation of marriage. Otherwise the long-term single woman, who may never know what it is to be “cherished and prized” by a guy who’s “smitten by his wife’s sex appeal”, can reach a point of thinking, well, I am unlikely to get married now (and so have this intimate, most satisfying, free married sex), so who really cares what I do anymore.
So, while I absolutely agree that God’s design for sex is best, and it is a good gift of God to be celebrated within the guidelines of its use, and that Christians shouldn’t be all about prohibitions, I think we also need to be teaching what sex is actually for and stressing that sexual sin is sin against God first and foremost (not against a future marriage partner etc — David sinned terribly against Bathsheba and Uriah, but he knew what his sexual sin ultimately was and said, to God, “against you and you only have I sinned”) — so then it’s God who cares what I do and who gives a particular reason to refrain. Outside of relationship sex has no purpose — it’s not an end in itself, and exists in order to serve relational intimacy, so, if we don’t have a spouse, we have no need of sex. As Lydia Brownback writes in Fine China is for Single Women Too: “God intends for sex to be fulfilling only within the context of marriage. Sex has no validity or worth as an end in itself. Sex is purely a physical expression of a spiritual reality. If we don’t have a husband, therefore, we have no need of sex”. Hard as it can be to believe, sex is not actually a primary need (like food, oxygen and water) and neither is it necessary to make you fully human (very interesting, theologically dense, thoughts on this here and here). I’d like to hear something added to the idea that being a Christian doesn’t mean you miss out on fun sex, or that Christianity has something to say about sex, because married sex is the best (given that the reality for a large number of Christian women in this country is that being a Christian is the reason they are not married, and so they do have to live with the prohibitions) along the lines of telling people what sex is for and therefore why a life of chastity isn’t any kind of missing out — which, together with the former, is, to my mind, the message that young women today need to hear.
(One thing I was a little disappointed about in this book was that all of the stories given at the end of each chapter were of women in relationship and mostly with children — which could seem to suggest that the happy ending, or resolution/redemption of each of the issues, or ultimate expression of radical womanhood came through marriage and motherhood. It left me wondering what some of these ideas actually looked like for single women. Thankfully Carolyn has written another book for single wome, if that is you too, which we have already read through here, if you weren’t reading along then.)