How Our Culture of Sex Got So Messed Up

How Our Culture Gets Sex Wrong--and what we in the church need to do to combat the message

Today is the beginning of a 4-part series I’m running on this blog about the culture of sex, and how we in the church talk about sex. I’ll be discussing how we inadvertently make women ashamed of their bodies and ashamed of sex, and then I’ll wind up talking about how we need to reframe our discussions around purity. God meant sex to be something beautiful and wonderful in marriage; too often, as we try to keep people from sin we end up making it seem like sex–and our bodies–are bad.

I asked Michael Rittenhouse to set the stage for our discussion by sharing a little bit of his journey. He’s the author of Sex: What Your Parents Didn’t Tell You, which is a great book about how our culture gets sex wrong. Here’s Michael:

As a five-year-old, I didn’t get why Goldie Hawn danced on TV in a swimsuit and graffiti. But I knew it had something to do with “sex,” and even though they rarely said “sex” on TV, they did say “making whoopee,” so I figured that’s what we called dancing in a swimsuit and graffiti.

Miss Hawn’s outlandish show disguised the fact that there was a war on. Not Vietnam, not the Cold War, but a cultural war, rolling out on our TV screen every night.

On one side, we had hippies, streakers, sitcom characters, and various others who seemed to have it in for the established order. They waged a guerrilla war for what they called “free love,” by which they meant “sex” in a very specific sense.

Their side had at least one legitimate gripe: a stifling, predominant culture that pushed matters of sexuality not just behind closed doors, but so far away from normal discourse that many people felt uncomfortable even talking about it with a doctor.

In writing about this conflict in “Sex: What Your Parents Didn’t Tell You,” I needed a name for each side. For the hippie-streaker-sitcom axis, I borrowed “Liberators” from a James Thurber parable called “The Last Flower.” His liberators would “set fire to the discontent.”

Sex: What Your Parents Didn't Tell YouThe late 20th Century’s sexual Liberators set fire to every social more they saw as constraining their base impulses. Many of those fires continue to burn, in the forms of hookup culture, abortion on demand, 40 percent unwed maternity (U.S.), and a high divorce rate. The Liberators knew what they opposed, but didn’t seem to care much about what their rebellion unleashed.

But what to call the other side, the focus of all the Liberators’ anger? Whose sensibilities meant that children’s dolls could not have genitals under their clothing, or that “The Tonight Show” must not air with the phrase “W.C.” (water closet, an oblique British term for bathroom)?

I dubbed them Prudes. On TV they looked uptight, dressed for church 24/7, and old. In real life they were just ordinary people reared in a Victorian-influenced culture, where respectable folk tried to shun their base impulses. They extrapolated the privacy that humans instinctively feel about sex into a taboo on any talk of it. As a result, in their growing up, nobody had spoken to them much about sexuality, and they, in turn, said little to their offspring.

As a child, I noticed the way adults’ voices grew hushed over matters of sexuality; how everyone watching TV in the family room pretended not to notice the feminine-hygiene commercials; how my innocent questions about what I saw in public—XXX theater ads, Playboy magazine, even a Great Dane’s testicles—earned an abrupt change of subject, or a promise to discuss it later. (That promise was not kept.)

I would find my answers elsewhere. This usually meant going to the Liberators in some form or other because, unlike the Prudes, they were always reaching out to young people, whether through books, movies, magazines, or even the schools.

I knew I didn’t want to be a Prude, because they didn’t look like fun. But the Liberators seemed untrustworthy, like salesmen hawking goods certain to disappoint.

For all their differences, the Liberators and the Prudes shared one core belief: God was on their side. Both of them were badly mistaken.

Liberators rationalized that whatever we’re inclined to do is OK with our Creator, because, well, he created us. Adam and Eve, man, they had everything right before the fig leaves, and if we would just roll up these parking lots we could have paradise right here. Of the Trinity, they seemed to identify with Jesus most because he was young and always in trouble with the Man.

Prudes deduce from the Ten Commandments that God takes a pretty dim view of anything like a vice. Because sex appeal can overrun our defenses, we should just lump all those nasty carnal desires together and push them out somewhere else … like Nevada, along with the nuclear waste. Doesn’t God want to keep us safe from sin and self-destruction? We should follow his lead on that, starting with fig leaves and any notion that sex and gender underlie every human interaction.

What both sides missed is that God invented sex.

Doors are never closed to him. He’s present in every encounter, hoping we will welcome him just like we say grace before a meal. He’s put a little glimpse of immortality at the height of sexual intercourse, and the degree to which we experience it hinges on how much of ourselves we are willing to surrender.

Ideas like that didn’t originate with me. I would owe them to a courageous parish priest; to C.S. Lewis and Peter Kreeft; to a little-known but influential therapist and author, Alexander Lowen; and—although I’m not a Roman Catholic—to Pope John Paul II, whose “Theology of the Body” would reassert the connection between sexuality and spirituality via popular writers like Christopher West and Mary Healy. And, of course, I owe our host on this blog.

If such voices existed during the war, I didn’t hear them. Even now, they have to shout over the censorious Prudes and the cynical Liberators, neither of whom wants to admit leading a lost cause.

But I’m optimistic. The Web has opened new, lateral forms of communication—blogs, podcasts, self-publishing. Now all that’s left is for parents (like me) to shake off our inherited Prudery, get a handle on the sexuality God’s given us, and communicate that appropriately to our offspring.

God invented sexuality to bring us out of ourselves.

Without it, we’d be like the amoeba: self-serving, isolated, incapable of anything greater than the sum of our parts.

So I hope to spur more parents to get out of themselves and talk with their children about how they came to be. After all, we (pro-)created our kids through the gift of natural sexuality. And to distinguish this from a spectrum of contrived “-sexualities” claiming legitimacy, I use the term “orthosexuality”—sex as nature intended. Uniquely capable of creating whole new human beings, orthosexuality is worthy of celebration, reverence, and respect. The privacy naturally associated with it must never be confused with shame.

A culture that panders to our innate, selfish tendencies cannot and will not do this for us.

Plus, the one gift I can’t give my kids is mates who understand all this. That’s up to you.

Sex What Your Parents Didnt Tell YouMichael RittenhouseMichael Rittenhouse is passionate about bringing God’s message of sex back into the discussion. He travels around the nation in his RV, talking to MOPS groups and churches about how we can reclaim real sexuality.

Michael’s book, Sex: What Your Parents Didn’t Tell You, is available now! It goes into the historical reasons why we got sex wrong, and then talks about how we can figure out a healthy view of sex ourselves, and how we can pass that on to our kids. It’s a great read! It’s available on Amazon in paperback and for Kindle, and it’s available in .pdf in Sheila’s store!

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