e live in a highly sexualized society in which sex is perceived to be part of almost everything. We have more information about sexuality and sexual behavior than a person might ever wish to know. All this openness and information, however, does not appear to be helping us very much. It seems that somehow we’re missing something—such as a major foundational aspect of human sexuality that we are not clued into—leaving us with a rather large personal and societal deficiency.
Beyond My Expertise
Many years ago a literature evangelist put me in touch with two people in my pastoral district who wanted help with strengthening their relationship. The man was an aspiring country-western singer, and the woman had earned her living as a stripper. They had met during one of the man’s musical performances, “fallen in love,” and then moved in together.
The couple struggled with challenges that were so severe and complex that it quickly became clear that their situation was beyond my skills to address. The most noticeable challenge was the young woman’s inability to trust anyone, apparently because of the numerous times she had been mistreated both sexually and relationally. After I realized I was in over my head, I graciously bowed out and referred them to a more capable counselor.
I have always had the impression that the woman’s mistreatment had somehow infringed upon her sense of personhood. In order to survive, she had developed a defense mechanism comprising many layers of opaqueness that could not be penetrated, so I was never able to help her (or them) at all.
The Beginning of Clarity
I later came across some information that helped me begin to understand the woman’s problem. It was a review of a book titled Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying.”1
It describes the work of two sociologists, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, who examined statistics on 15,000 young adults, 300 of whom they personally interviewed. The book review noted their observation that the “sexual script” of young adults today is quite different from what it was a generation or two ago.
“Going on casual dates, progressing to an exclusive relationship, getting married, buying a house in the suburbs, having kids—that was yesterday’s middle-class American script, in which people tended to have sex within marriage or shortly before it, while society provided rules and guidelines for every stage.
“Today’s sexual script looks much different. Many young adults think they will not be married for years. Although marriage remains an ideal for the young, they see it more as an end of the romantic story than the beginning. Sex, self-discovery, and freedom all end in marriage, while financial responsibility, the burden of children, and the likelihood of divorce begin there. If the desire of young adults for marriage is postponed, their desire for sex and companionship remains strong. So, though many (especially women) hope for permanence, they form temporary, exclusive relationships that last only as long as both parties remain interested.
“In other words, they embrace serial monogamy. But serial monogamy has few clearly defined rules.”2
All this sets up the researchers’ observation that “those who are virgins or those who have had only one or two previous partners and are in a relationship are the most emotionally healthy. The more serial the monogamy, the greater the likelihood of some kind of emotional dissatisfaction or instability.”3
Regnerus and Uecker describe what I experienced when talking to the would-be country-western singer and his girlfriend: that somehow all the jumping from one relationship to another diminished or tarnished the life experience of those involved. In their book the researchers make the point that sex and sexuality are not outside of or separate from ourselves; but rather, sexual exploitation and serial intimacies do damage to personhood. All the sexual information and open sexual behaviors notwithstanding, we are not getting this human sexuality thing right. Somehow the grand promise of the sexual revolution that told us that unbridled and uninhibited sex would “free our culture from its Victorian inhibitions to usher in a whole new and joyous era of free and open love untrammeled by commitments” has not worked out. The Freudian notion that a suppressed libido is the underlying cause of all kinds of personal and social ills is appearing to be badly flawed. Various statistics about unbridled sexual behaviors do not show an increase in happiness, but rather a significant increase in unhappiness, sometimes to the point of depression. Apparently there’s a deeper dimension underlying human sexuality than what we commonly understand.
It is in light of this that Ephesians 5:3, 4 intrigues me: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (ESV).4
Paul is laying out a pretty stringent standard here. Believers are not even to mention sexual immorality nor make crude comments or jokes about it. He is saying that believers should give thanks for human sexuality and all it entails, and part of that thanksgiving is to refrain from diminishing or demeaning it even by something as slight as a joke or innuendo.
I am struck once more by the possibility that there is something about human sexuality that lies deeper than what we commonly perceive, something that warrants our careful treatment of it, something that calls for us to (dare I use the word?) “reverence” it.
Some years ago research psychologists G. W. Allport and J. M. Ross published findings based on their formative work on human self-understanding. Their premise was that humans have two dimensions: an internal one that is carefully formed and monitored, and kept largely hidden from others; and an external one that we show to the public. They saw the internal dimension as part of what we commonly call “spirituality.” The external dimension was the public expression of that internal spirituality. The first dimension they called “intrinsic religion”; the second, “extrinsic religion.”5
Allport and Ross contended that the intrinsic dimension is the more significant one, for it’s there that we bring together various ideas and beliefs that we hold to be true and viable and form our code of life, or code for living. We assemble what I have come to call a “belief grid.” Some of these beliefs are at a low level at which we feel at liberty to use our discretion, while others are at a very high level, which might even involve us in life-or-death decisions. As we face the daily task of living, we filter the opportunities or difficulties that arise through our belief grids in order to come to life-directing decisions. This whole function is protected by what we commonly call our “conscience.” For humans, then, intrinsic religion is not a play zone; instead, it’s a zone of great seriousness, because we know that if we do well by our beliefs, we are able to retain a sense of integrity. If we become duplicitous, we can diminish ourselves significantly.
Another researcher, Kurt Lewin,6
coined a name for this inner dimension: our “life space.”7
The visual image this name suggests is a “space” inside us in which life happens. And the life that happens in the inner space ends up influencing and guiding what is seen on the outside.
Allport and Ross developed a list of things that they saw domiciled in the life space, which include highly personal beliefs about life: identity and sexuality, family and origin, expectations of self and others, attitudes toward personal risk-taking, life goals and relationships, personal hopes and dreams, and ideas we use to make sense of life.8
They form the inner essence of our lives and are “sacred” to us in that we hold them in such high esteem that we revere them. They not only give us a sense of morality, direction, and purpose but also our sense of identity. Who you perceive yourself to be is derived from these very ideas.
The order in which Allport and Ross set things down is also intriguing. Identity is mentioned first, because our sense of who we are is foundational to life. The second item on the list is sexuality. Interestingly, Allport and Ross link identity and sexuality together as a pair, which suggests an inherent understanding that identity and sexuality are parts of our basic makeup—part of who we perceive ourselves to be.
Embedded in our belief grid and linked to our sense of personhood is our sexuality, domiciled within the intrinsic realm of the human mind in which we hold things sacred to us.
Implications of Infringement
Since sexuality is part of the intrinsic zone in which we hold sacred things, if it is not properly reverenced and is treated tritely a person will feel diminished and infringed upon. The misuse of sexuality or the infringement upon it by someone else becomes both offensive and damaging, because the inner sanctum of life was trampled upon. People who have been victimized sexually, for example, are often overtaken by a sense of diminished personhood. It’s not unusual for a victim of sexual mistreatment to exhibit a sense of self-loathing, even to the point of depression.
When such a person realizes the depths of the offense they have suffered, they sometimes become fearless, unafraid to confront the perpetrators of the deeds done against them. They struggle to feel whole again until they have done so. Their very sense of being clamors for justice and restitution.
If, indeed, sexuality is part of the intrinsic zone, or life space, and linked to identity, then it should be reverenced, protected, carefully tended, and held as sacred. I believe this is why Paul wrote the counsel he did, and why for so many centuries societies have attempted to protect sexuality by the establishment of taboos. Certainly, those taboos have not all been good, but their existence testifies to an inherent human understanding of a certain “sacredness” to sexuality that is missing almost entirely from current culture.
On the positive side, because sexuality is domiciled in the life space, when it’s respected, preserved, and guarded as something sacred, it can become the means of a deep bonding between two people. When two people who have preserved their sense of sexual integrity consent, in love, to willingly offer themselves to each other, it’s not just their physical bodies that touch, but their intrinsic dimensions as well. Love and volition allow the intrinsic dimensions to open without any sense of infringement. Their sexuality becomes an instrument of a profoundly intimate bond that is theirs alone to enjoy and be blessed by.
It is this inner aspect of human sexuality, the idea that personhood and sexuality are linked, that is all but gone from popular culture. This is what leaves us with such a deficit in spite of all our knowledge and information. It’s an aspect that Christians are well situated to address powerfully, if we would but reverence the gift God has given us by way of this very complicated thing we call sexuality.
1 Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
2 Quoted from a review in First Things, August/September 2011, p. 53.
3 Ibid., p. 55.
4 Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5 Harding Journal 9, no. 2 (1990). (This journal was once associated with Harding Hospital, but is now defunct and can no longer be found.)
6 Kurt Lewin was a notable person in the field of psychology and best remembered for his pioneering work in group dynamics.
7 The idea of “life space” in Lewin’s thinking can be quite expansive, enough to include all events in a person’s past, present, and future that help shape and affect them. But it begins with the internal dimension describing a person’s motives, values, needs, moods, goals, anxieties, and ideals. The term is used here in the internal sense.
8 Harding Journal.
David E. Thomas is dean and a professor of the Practical Theology and Apologetics Department and chair of the Faculty Development Committee at Walla Walla University School of Theology. This article was pubished on June 20, 2013.