“Grown Woman Theology” and the Sexual Miseducation of the Church

Photo by Anna Shvets

It’s Sunday, so let’s talk Christianity and sex.

My official theological position on most things sexual in the church is “uncertain”. I’ve not read enough or sat with the base text enough to assert a strong stance on non-marital sex of any kind or spiritual covenants not involving one man and one woman. As such, I don’t really get into whether I think a particular behavior between two or more consenting people is a sin. At some future date I might make those determinations, but it is very low on my list of priorities. What is high on my list of priorities is affirming real love when I see it and supporting the flourishing of the people around me. I’m sure if I miss a judgment, God will have it covered, and if I’ve failed to call something out that I should have, I’m prepared for God to deal with me.

I was raised in the modern Black Baptist church, which wasn’t “purity ring” level, but did frown on pre-marital sex and was pretty hush-hush about LGBTQ+. I attended a church for many years that took a modern Evangelical stance, though to their credit, they didn’t seem quite as obsessive about it in the way I’ve seen some churches be. (I am of course describing my experience as a cis-, straight man there, so apply appropriate grains of salt.)

The problem many churches are facing today is how they live purity culture out. Adolescents with raging hormones are not taught how to cope with them and that their feelings are healthy and natural, but that it is their flesh overcoming their spirit. Only through asceticism and staunch devotional work might they be able to turn the tide and once again live a life pleasing to Jesus. Men who fail to meet this standard are reprimanded and shepherded, but women who fail to meet this standard are more often publicly shamed, divested of responsibility, and humiliated.

In either case, the demands of this asceticism drive many from the church. Some reject conservative teaching, while others entirely reject a faith that they associate with shame, self-hatred, and an endless pressure to perform. For those who stay, there’s a pressure to “marry rather than burn with passion,” as Paul said. Two people who are raised thinking sex is bad (not all conservative churches teach this, but most teach it badly) get together and unsurprisingly have bad sex. Each may turn to less healthy outlets, and in a patriarchal context where women’s value is in pleasing and serving men, the women feel more shame about and disconnection from their physical bodies.

Brittney Cooper, in an excerpt from her book Eloquent Rage, tackles this subject in “Grown Woman Theology“, exploring Christian sexuality through conversation with her grandmother. Her grandmother’s theology seems to indicate a non-dual holding of the life of the body and life of the spirit that was known in her time but that we have lost as we have bought in to generation after generation of facades rather than absorbing a whole story. I’m not certain how much sex we “should” be having and with whom prior to marriage. But I can say:

  • I am suspicious of any teaching that does not allow women the full range of human responsibilities. Men and women are different, but if a woman has the capacity to lead a company, she has the capacity to lead a church. Don’t pick this apart and assume I’m saying that no spiritual gifting is required. What I’m saying is that there is no spiritual gifting that is only given to men because they are men. Whatever our differences are, they do not extend to women having less than a full measure of the image of God.
  • We have to teach both in and outside of church an integrative model of sexuality that helps people understand and accept their desires as healthy. We also need to provide better tooling so that people can assess what they’re ready for and make wise decisions for themselves, always with appropriate physical and psychological safety precautions. There might be an 18 year old who is ready to get out there, and a 23 year old who still needs more time.
  • As I’ve learned from my women friends in various conversations, we will have to address and dismantle the patriarchal and social constructs that produce much of the needless shame and confusion. As an example: imagine a man having 4 encounters with 4 women in a month. No tricks, lies, or strings attached, just fun. Now, imagine a woman having 4 encounters with 4 men in a month, same rules. You may think both are permissible or neither is permissible, but any difference between those in your mind in terms of how you view the man versus the woman is the societal construct that we need to address. And of course if you think one is permissible and the other isn’t, you’ve got some substantial work to do.
  • For churches that continue on a conservative path, they will need to take a hard look at where they have failed to serve women, support women, or allow them to develop into the fullness of their gifts, either by stifling their leadership potential and gift expression or by placing them under pressure to meet an uneven standard that men are not held to.

For men in general, we are also going to have to evaluate how we view women’s existence and relevance to us. Are they autonomous and equal beings, with their own desires, visions, and plans just like our male friends? Or are they only defined in terms of our needs, including but not limited to sexual ones?

When I originally posted this to social media, a friend commented:

“Freedom for women requires men give up [the idea of] woman as a fulfillment of man’s need.”

Just as women have to shake free of these ideas of their value being in their wifely and motherly work, men will have to shake free of some ideas as well. If we are not here to gain possession of a “good woman” and provide for a family, what are we as cishet men in the church doing? How can single men live a healthy existence in the church where they are at peace and not always on the prowl or being matched by concerned couples? And how do men in relationships navigate those with respect for their partner and allowance for their partner to bring their full self to the relationship rather than a truncated, traditionalized version? This requires that men engage in our own process of seeking an identity that is not dependent on control or dominance of women or even other men, but stands alone in one’s vocational purpose and leaves room for their partners to walk in theirs.