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Do It Like They Do

"The Mating Game Has Evolved", proclaimed the bottle of shower gel that I'd scraped from the bottom of our where-did-this-even-come-from? toiletries barrel on my hurried way out of the house. "Unleash The Chaos With Lynx Attract For Her – A Fragrance So Irresistible It Will Drive Guys Wild."

Chaos did not ensue. Much as I deplore false advertising, I was, on balance, relieved.

Still, it got me pondering their promotional premise: hooking up is a unisex sport now. Women are no less free to pursue numerous casual sexual encounters than men. To which I say: yes to equality! and great if we're really (really?!) gonna lay off with the misogynistic shaming... All the same ... I dunno. Two things:

Firstly, "evolved" strikes me as an ironic word to describe a drift towards instinct-led sexual ethics. Isn't, like, the human ability to reason against our immediate animal appetites in part why we fancy ourselves a somehow higher form of life than our biological ancestors? It doesn't take a puritan to question whether "driving guys/girls" (plural and unspecified) "wild" really represents a developmental advance on (e.g.) "intentionally subordinating sexual urges to the over-arching desire for meaningful personal connection". The Bloodhound Gang render a more accurate analysis with their obscene nostalgia-trip hit The Bad Touch [1]: "You and me baby we ain't nothing but mammals so let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel." Not the most romantic of proposals but at least it tells it like it often is.

Secondly... So, OK, I'm very much a novice feminist. But one concern I've quickly picked up on is that the notion of gender equality too often gets reduced to the extension to women of the experiences and opportunities currently open to men. Which reinforces (patriarchal) masculine norms as good and desirable, rather than exposing them to much-needed critique, whilst perpetuating the devalorisation of women and "the feminine". For me, that about sums up the Lynx Attract effect. Implicit in Lynx's brand image has always been the idea of man as stealthy predator, woman as prey, which – surprise! – doesn't wash with as broad a demographic as it used to. Promoting women to 'equal' predator status is a canny bit of brand-protecting PR – mitigating one of the more popularly glaring of the company's marketing sins, and adding a whole new target group as they do so – but ethos-wise it rather compares to 'cleaning the outside of the cup and plate'. (Actually, since the 'Attract' innovation they have taken further, more drastic steps to reinvent themselves away from the 'babe magnet' angle, but for my immediate purposes that's merely a bothersome tangent).

As a still-getting-the-hang-of-this feminist and a more-immature-than-I-should-be-by-now Christian I am interested not just in the equality implied by a more universal casualisation of sex but in whether or not it represents liberation. It's certainly billed that way – "no strings attached" being expressly the tagline. But it doesn't always play out that way ... does it? I don't think that's just my pious streak talking. A recent-ish study found that casual sex is great (in terms of self-esteem and life satisfaction) ... for those oriented towards casual sex (disproportionately men, in case you're wondering). But plenty of people (disproportionately women, evidence suggests) continue to find it dissatisfying and/or hurtful. Only, now, they're kinda expected to just 'deal with it', because it kinda is the deal now: if they've not fully embraced their liberated status that's their loss ... and their problem.

I don't doubt that some (women among them) experience hook-up culture as a type of freedom, nor am I dismissing that certain patriarchal oppressions are mitigated by society becoming more permissive. But what if the (perceived 'feminine') tendency to attach emotional and relational significance to sex, for all its reputation for repressed archaicism, actually hints towards an alternative, (at least) as substantive freedom, even for men?

Which leads me trepidatiously round to the New Testament's idea of sexual liberation:
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)
Liberation?! You splutter. In a passage that's routinely brandished to brow-beat lascivious adolescent lads and wanton legging-wearing women into confused but compliant 'purity', and to advocate for extremely problematic abstinence-only sex education programmes? Besides, as anyone who's ever been to a wedding reception is able to relay on the best (man's) authority, "marriage isn't a word, it's a sentence".

Liberation, yes; although it may take looking at through another lens than neoliberal individualism to perceive it. (But after all, isn't that presupposition itself open to feminist debate?) And a striking affirmation of equality too ... although I won't pretend that Paul doesn't throw the odd curveball on that front, or that I'm not sometimes still a bit stumped by them.

First, though, let's set the scene. I reckon it's no coincidence that Paul's relationship advice to the Corinthian church comes in the middle of a letter which is especially concerned with the problems of idol worship (e.g. 10:6-22) and division in the church community (e.g. 1:10-1711:17-22) – twin failings against Jesus' twin "greatest commandments", to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself (see Matthew 22:37-40). For Paul, worship and community are intrinsic to the "abundant life" promised by Jesus (John 10:10); the lived-out expression of the truth that sets you free (John 8:32). And the sex drive let loose, to his mind, suppresses both – it sets itself up as god (cf. Philippians 3:19), and prioritises self-gratification over functioning, mutually beneficial networks of interpersonal connection (5:1-3). (The adulation it receives from so many pop songs, and the havoc it wreaks on so many episodes of Jeremy Kyle, suggest it retains something like that potential today). It is not because Paul hates freedom that he is so down on sexual desire, it is precisely because he recoils against the controlling influence it exerts:
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. (1 Corinthians 6:12)
But far from insisting on the obliteration or suppression of erotic love, Paul advocates for a context in which it can be expressed and enjoyed unselfishly and with beneficial repercussions for individuals and the wider community. And that context is within the ultimate human agape (self-giving love) relationship: we are called to love our neighbour "as ourself" but only in marriage do we actually become "one flesh" (Genesis 2:24) with someone else [2]. Later in the letter he elaborates on the faithful, active, selflessness of agape love – a passage not directed exclusively to marriage partners but popular at weddings to this day (13:1-13); elsewhere (e.g. Ephesians 5:20-33 [3]) he describes the Christ-like reciprocal submission which should characterise the marriage relationship. It is (or should be) a setting in which sex can be disentangled from the self-seeking agendas implied (for example) by Lynx marketing, becoming instead one of many components in a framework of mutual nurture, encouragement, and discipleship – helping each other to follow Jesus.
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:3-5)
If you can get past the more-pragmatic-than-romantic nature of the wording, I encourage you to notice its symmetry: Paul absolutely recognises that women as well as men have sexual desires; he recognises that both partners have (expressly equal!) responsibilities towards one another as an agreed-on part of the marriage relationship. This explicit balance reverberates throughout the chapter (making later comments of a more gender-hierarchy-asserting gist (e.g. 11:3, 14:34-35) somewhat surprising and confusing as well as uncomfortable; I'm not going to get into this here but see again footnote [3]).

Interestingly, marriage isn't the only 'solution' Paul recommends; he is a big fan of celibacy, for those who can handle it, because it leaves one even more free of distractions from Kingdom life (7:25-40). This might not seem like much of a big deal (nor much of an alternative), but in a culture where a substantial criterion for human flourishing and blessedness was a large and enduring family line, to legitimise singleness was quite some paradigm shift!
There was no honor without family honor, and there was no real lasting significance or “legacy” without leaving heirs. By contrast, the early church not only did not pressure women to marry but it institutionally supported poor widows so they were not forced to remarry as they were out in the culture at large. (Tim Keller, Three Ways With Families)
Again with the norm-defying equality! Women in God's Kingdom are not defined by their roles as wives and mothers; they are first and foremost persons made and loved by God and called to know and serve Him (7:34). They shouldn't have to marry to survive or to have a place and significance in society. The teaching and the organisation (e.g. Acts 6:1-3) of the early church affirmed this more than many cultures (even 'Christian' ones) then and since. There are fascinating stories of women who welcomed these new freedoms to lead single lives of asceticism and/or ministry, and through whom God shaped and grew the church. Their influence unsettled the status quo and caused controversy, and would later be downplayed as the church eventually transitioned to a more decided stance against female leadership. Paul's celebratory endorsement of singleness also seems to have become sadly de-emphasised. Religious orders still exist (especially within the Catholic church), in which individuals embrace celibacy in order to dedicate their lives more freely to worship and community. But the contemporary church more broadly, especially when and where it is most enthusiastic to promote 'family values', is in danger of setting up the family itself as an idol and failing to recognise the equal value and significance of unmarried life. This is not helped by our assimilation of liberal western ideology. Singleness is not about being alone – Paul's commendation of it presupposed a deeply committed, connected, harmonious corporate existence, in which the diverse gifts and needs of everybody were acknowledged and attended to (12:12-31). Against a societal backdrop of entrenched individualism we struggle to so much as picture such communality, let alone actualise it at deeper-than-surface level. And both the willingly and unwillingly single suffer disproportionately, stranded by a shortfall of meaningful community as well as by a culture and teaching which threaten to implicitly corroborate the idea that they are somehow incomplete. I wrote recently about Hauerwas' entreaty to the church to "be herself" – to contrast with, rather than conform to, the structures and values (individualism among them) of a broken world, and so to challenge those structures and values simply by being. We've a way to go, but the common life of trust and character that he envisages seems to me precisely the sort of environment in which the theoretical freedom of singleness might be reclaimed as an experienced reality.

So there you have it: marriage and celibacy (according to the Bible (according to me)). Peel back the purity manifestos, and the patriarchal agendas, and the idol of family, and the assimilated individualism, and all the other layers of baggage with which us Christians have contrived to load those two alternatives, and you find – well, I find, anyway – liberation and equality in unexpected measure. Now, just need to find the right spin and we're all set to sell toiletries, right? "Leash The Chaos With Links Attached" ... "Resist From Impulse: The Scent That Will Drive Him Monastic". Unilever, you're welcome.

[1] Not a song I had any time for at the time but it came on in the car the other day and yes, I must confess, I was inclined to turn it up rather than off...

[2] Re. the 'mono' bit of monogamy: proponents of polyamory make a profoundly aspirational case for what might be possible if only we didn't insist on treating love like a scarce resource. I admire much of their critique, and the respect, intentionality, and faithfulness for which they advocate. If I am perhaps less optimistic about broken human nature than they are, then that'll have to be a story for another time. For now, suffice to say that – speaking for myself only – I find the challenges of loving one other person as my "own flesh" plenty to be getting on with...

[3] For some truly excellent exploration of the perhaps troubling aspects of this particular passage see Rachel Held Evans' piece on Christ and the Greco-Roman Household Codes.

[Thumbnail image cc. from jdnx on Flickr].