Biblical Sex and Beauty
This chapter from A Year of Biblical Womanhood could easily be a full book. In fact, I have some books on my shelf that are basically this topic, although I haven’t read through most of them in much detail. For this month of the project – February, appropriately – Rachel Held Evans decided to tackle the connected topics of beauty and sex. She went into it prepared to do such things as give her husband a “sex anytime” coupon (as well as other sex coupons she didn’t write down because her mother was going to read the book). Then she actually investigated 1 Corinthians 7 where that passage came from and realized that it isn’t really what it is saying. I’ll return to that idea in a minute. That was the theme for the month – most of what she had been told was biblical womanhood had no biblical basis so she ended up doing relatively little action after researching it.
My approach for this blog then will be a bit more scattered. I’m going to run through quickly what the Bible does say and what it doesn’t in terms of beauty and sex.
The Bible does not say that women are to keep themselves beautiful for their husbands. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered this, but apparently in many evangelical churches they teach women that it is their duty to keep themselves attractive and sexually pleasing to their husband. The reason why, of course, is to keep him from being tempted by somebody more attractive. At the same time, a woman couldn’t be more attractive to a different man than his wife is because then she would tempt him instead, so she is pretty much doomed either way.
In the Bible, a woman’s beauty is celebrated, but it is also clearly understood that beauty will not last forever. At some points we are told to celebrate the beauty of youth, but that doesn’t mean women are supposed to do everything in their power to retain that youth. Men are cautioned to stay away from prostitutes and other women who would tempt them. However, women are not told to make sure they are unattractive to everyone other than their husbands to whom they must stay as attractive as possible.
That other piece is something I have encountered a fair bit: women being told that it is essentially their fault if a man lusts after them. I’m guessing Rachel will go into this more in the Modesty chapter, but this is something that really bugs me as a man. I don’t really like being reduced to an animal that will rush to have sex with anyone who flashes a little bit of cleavage. If I go out and commit adultery, that is not my wife’s fault. It is mine. I do have moral agency for myself, thank you very much. Of course, from the woman’s perspective, it is at least as bad: they aren’t getting credited for all the men that don’t lust after all but they are getting blamed for every man who does. Let’s just agree that this mentality is harmful to everyone, please.
The Mutuality of Sex
Not too long ago the Christian blogosphere exploded, as it often does every couple of weeks over something or another. Jared Wilson over at the Gospel Coalition chose his words very badly, quoting Doug Wilson to say how things like Fifty Shades of Grey are a result of women sinfully not being submissive enough in sex. The language used was terrible, using words like “conquered” for what women are supposed to be during sex. After a while, Jared did apologize. I don’t think he meant to encourage marital rape, even if his poor word choice suggested that, although he was never really able to explain what he actually did mean to accomplish by the post as far as I saw.
It is this point where Rachel was originally going to give Dan sex coupons to be redeemed as often and at any time he wanted. This is basically what she had always been taught, at least, that it was her duty as a wife to give her body as often as requested by her husband. It didn’t matter if she was sick or in pain or just not feeling like it – it was his decision, not hers. When Rachel actually looked at 1 Corinthians 7, she realized that this isn’t biblical at all! It is a radically mutual passage. Check out this paraphrase from The Message:
It’s good for a man to have a wife, and for a woman to have a husband. Sexual drives are strong, but marriage is strong enough to contain them and provide for a balanced and fulfilling sexual life in a world of sexual disorder. The marriage bed must be a place of mutuality—the husband seeking to satisfy his wife, the wife seeking to satisfy her husband. Marriage is not a place to “stand up for your rights.” Marriage is a decision to serve the other, whether in bed or out.
Yes, The Message is a paraphrase, but the original text does convey the sense of mutuality as well. I like how this paraphrase explicitly says that the marriage bed is not the place to “stand up for your rights” such as the supposed right to have sex whenever and however we men want it.
Jesus was single, assuming a couple of recent forged documents weren’t really on to something after all. Paul was single and taught that he wished everyone else could be the same. Jesus’ disciples were upset when he said that divorce should not be a casual thing, asking if it was better if they don’t marry to which Jesus replied, essentially, “ok, don’t.”
The Protestant fascination with marriage and parenting as the true “biblical” solution really has a lot more to do with history, I think. When the Reformation came about 500 years ago, the early Protestants were trying to separate themselves from the Catholics on as many points as possible. All Protestant groups agreed that it was fine for a priest/pastor to marry and have children. It quickly went to the far extreme where it was understood there was something wrong with you if you’re not married, even though Jesus and Paul taught and lived the opposite. But this also clearly has no basis in the Bible – you have to either see marriage and singleness as equal or exult singleness as higher like Paul did.
The Song of Songs Woman
The main subject of the chapter was the woman from Songs of Songs (alternatively, Song of Solomon). This woman is downright amazing. The themes discussed above were primarily drawn out of this amazing woman. She holds the most uninterrupted speech of any woman in the Bible. She initiates sex with her lover, not waiting to be told what he wants, by telling him he can enter her garden any time he wants among other great not-so-subtle metaphors. People make fun of her small breasts and she responds proudly about them being good enough for her and good enough for him. She loses her lover and goes out into the streets looking for him, not the other way around. Overall, some of the most beautiful words in the Bible are hers in the way she talks about her beloved. He does respond with compliments that in context were also beautiful, but she does the majority of the initiating. Let’s try to learn from women like this as well, not just the domestic suburban goddess that many conservatives hold up as biblical womanhood.