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New Girl, same old story

Frothy it may be but I have a soft spot for New Girl…the new Zooey Deschanel vehicle which is basically just an unashamed excuse for her to kooky-it-to-the-max [1]. I like it because it is gentle; the characters are nice to one another; people are allowed to be different…at least up to a point. But somehow, in its deliberate quirkiness, the unchallenged social norms of the 'situation' become all the more striking.

Most sitcoms seem to draw from the same pool of 'skeleton' episodes, by turns fished out and furnished with appropriate situation-specific embellishments. Episode 8 was 'the one where two people reach the point in their relationship where they're supposed to have sex but it all gets rather awkward'. Zooey's character had been seeing a fellow teacher for a couple of weeks and they decide it's time to 'get serious' in the bedroom department. They both feel vulnerable and nervous; they are not yet at a point in their relationship where they can talk openly and frankly about their feelings; she is hurt by past unfaithfulness and feels under pressure to bring something 'new' to the table; he is intimidated by her determined but confused attempts at creative dirtiness (best illustrated by the image of her wearing some rather elaborately naughty bedroom-wear over her normal, very modest underwear).

They seem more driven by pressure to conform to social convention than by lust, even, as they persevere to overcome the apparent obstacles to their physical relationship. Advice from friends (and the message to the audience) is 'you just need to stop thinking about it' -- betraying an overwhelming certainty that this is just 'what you do'. It would somehow be unnatural to not be sleeping together at that stage in their relationship, so that there is no question of questioning whether that's really how the sex thing works. (Much like the episode of Friends where Joey and Rachel give up on their relationship because after a couple of tries it doesn't seem to be happening).

Of course, norms vary: there are still large subcultures where it is generally accepted that sex is best-placed in the context of committed and emotionally developed relationships (exemplified on television by such 'wholesome' programs as Everybody Loves Raymond...though don't get me started on my objections to some of the other values promoted therein). Elsewhere, it tends to the other extreme; in the world of Sex and the City if you're not having nightly sex with mostly strangers then you are an unliberated prude (at least, that's the impression I got from the 20 minutes or so I endured when I once tried to watch it).

What interests me is that whatever the established norm (within a particular social circle), pressure to conform is what really guides sexual behaviour -- not that the norm is directly obeyed, rather that it dictates what people expect of or from themselves. So being under-active according to the norm becomes embarrassing or shameful; being over- or extra-active produces guilt (or at least a sense of 'naughtiness'). Sexual liberation is a myth because each set of expectations carries its own pressures. No matter what is going on in our minds and hearts as individuals -- anxiety, uncertainty, fears of being hurt, pain from past experiences, suspicions that maybe sex was supposed to be something else -- the message from most corners of society is that these 'restraints' are unnatural and that if we're not doing it we might as well not be doing anything. We should ignore what our minds are telling us and accept the norm, even if (as I suggest) this means systematically ignoring the brokenness and distress caused by misuse of sex which is all-too-evident in the world and in our lives.

Conversely, in abstinence-promoting Christian circles [2] the advice to the unmarried also runs along the lines of 'you need to stop thinking about it'. Of course, in the sense that indulging particular thought patterns will make temptation and/or frustration all the more acute, this is excellent practical advice for those who do desire to 'wait'. But sometimes the hidden instruction is that one should just accept the social norm you are presented with and conform to expectations. So 'Christian conduct' becomes more about not rocking the boat or looking bad to our fellow church members than it is about living "lives worthy of the calling we have received" (Ephesians 4:1). I can see at least three dangers to this. 'Abstinence' becomes a rule without reason: we don't really understand sex, we just know it's not allowed, so it must be bad. It also becomes a rule without sufficient incentive: if our primary motivation is social pressure then as long as no-one finds out we can do what we like. And it becomes a rule without support: the shame and reproach associated with 'sexual sin' stops us from talking openly and supporting one another in living out our acknowledged priorities.

I really enjoyed the film 'The 40 Year Old Virgin' -- though it was some years ago I watched it -- firstly because it was Steve Carrell at his best, and secondly because it dared to question its own norm. At the start, the total sexual inexperience of the protagonist is treated as unusual, unnatural, pitiful and mockable. But as his self-appointed team of 'helpers' contrive all sorts of dreadful schemes to get him laid, the brokenness and pain of their own supposedly fulfilled sex lives begins to surface and they start to question what sex has done for them. At the same time, Carrell's character is falling in love with a delightful, warm, sincere lady, who is keen to develop a full and multi-faceted relationship and (not knowing he is a virgin) independently proposes that they wait until their 20th date to have sex. Whilst this storyline might not tick enough boxes to placate your average 'Conservative Evangelical' [3] it certainly makes for an affirming and refreshing exploration of the role of sex within relationship and is bold in calling out many of the unchallenged flaws in society's view on sex and our denial of the damage it can cause.

The problem, I think, with our approach to sex (inside and outside the church) is that we at once have too low and too high a view of it. It is cheapened to the level of recreation, and at the same time loaded with the weight of our very identity, significance, fulfillment and security. It's not important enough to reserve, it's too important to miss out on. For Christians who are taught to abstain, then, it becomes a double frustration: if it's not a big deal, why does it matter? if it is a big deal, isn't it immensely unfair to be so deprived?

The Bible offers the perfect check to our double misconception and our double dilemma, neither dismissing sex as insignificant nor making it out to be the totality of who we are. The whole of the Old Testament book 'Song of Songs' is a poetic celebration of love and physical consummation of love, leaving no doubt that sex is a beautiful, God-given gift to be appropriately enjoyed. But it should not rule us; and this is perhaps most clearly seen in chapter 7 of Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth, who have been asking his advice on marriage versus celibacy. His response, as I understand it, seems to run along the lines that singleness is a good thing because you can serve God with fewer distractions, but that absence of sex can itself become a distraction and a temptation, in which case you should marry and enjoy it: "For it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (v9). Although he is clearly a big fan of celibacy, he is very keen to acknowledge that it is not for everybody and that marriage is a good thing too. "So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better." (v39) The whole discussion can seem very cold and concessional -- where's the romance in such pragmatism? It is also not much of a comfort to those who would like to be married but are not. I guess that these particular objections were not so strongly felt by the original recipients of the letter as they are in a contemporary western culture which firmly emphasises 'marrying for love' (as did some of Jane Austen's more radical and flighty characters). Even today, such expectations are by no means globally universal, and alternative ideas about how best to 'start' marriages are not without support. [4]

How better to round up what's turned into a rather long and meandering train of thought by considering what Jesus had to say and the examples he set. Sex and relationships are such immensely sensitive issues for so many people and for so many reasons...I fear adding to existing hurts through glibness and naivete (and sincerely apologise if this is so). By contrast, Jesus was always so loving, so restorative in the way he dealt with those damaged or led astray by sex: he didn't shout at the prostitutes, he dined with them, and built relationships with them, and gave them real hope for a different future (e.g. Luke 7:37-50). It was the self-righteous he most frequently reprimanded; those who took pride in being untainted but whose inner lives harboured double standards. "…I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matt 5:27-28) For those who, like me, are seeking to follow him, let's take comfort and encouragement from his grace towards us and his restoring, transforming power -- being willing to face up to our own double standards, whatever form they take, so that that process of transformation can continue day by day. And let's learn to respond with compassion and wisdom, rather than the sadly typical condemnation and disapproval we are often (deservedly) accused of, towards those who don't meet (or even aspire to meet) our own expectations.

[1] Why not celebrate being bemoaning it.

[2] Acknowledging that not all Christians share the same views...

[3] Although if I remember the film rightly they do end up waiting until marriage to 'consummate the relationship' after all…

[4] Of course, all marriages should be built on love -- it's just, perhaps we would benefit from becoming more open to the idea that romance can grow out of love rather than always insisting that love grow out of romance. At any rate, romance comes and goes…and comes back round again, if we let it. Love is constant (1 Corinthians 13 )…and when it underpins a relationship the door is always left open for romance to return.