Note: Every January, Calvin College hosts a series of lectures called the January Series. The invited speakers hail from a wide variety of backgrounds and viewpoints, but generally have something significant to say to the Christian and academic community. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to be attending several January Series lectures, and hope to report on them here. This is the first such report.
This afternoon I had the chance to attend a lecture by Lauren Winner—the first address in this year's January Series at Calvin College. Winner's writings have attracted a fair amount of discussion and debate online for her views on sex, relationships, and marriage, and her lecture today, "The Truth About Married Sex," was a testament to her ability to speak candidly and directly about the place of sex in the Christian life.
Winner's topic was sex in marriage--specifically, why "good sex" and "marriage" often don't seem to go together, and how Christians can articulate a Biblical understanding of sex within marriage. What are we to make of frequent magazine stories claiming that sex is a rare event in the marriages of many Americans? What about the common complaint that sex within marriage quickly becomes routine and dull, and that the pressures and demands of everyday family life make "good sex" difficult for busy spouses to experience? And if so many married couples have less-than-satisfactory sexual relationships, how can Christians honestly tell the world around us that sex within marriage is a wonderful gift from God?
It's a daunting topic, and I won't be able to do justice here to Winner's thoughts. Her essential thesis is that all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, have over the last several decades accepted a redefinition of "good sex" that excludes the sort of sex that one encounters within a married relationship. We're conditioned to chase after the "good sex" that our media and culture hold aloft for us to admire: sex that is exciting, unpredictable, exotic, not taken for granted, and unbound by the restrictions of commitment... and judging sex by those standards will mean that married sex, which is predictable, familiar, and affected by the ups and downs of everyday family life, will inevitably disappoint.
The problem is exacerbated by the way we pit our ideas of "ideal domestic life" against this ideal of "good sex"--the two simply aren't compatible. The realities of domestic life--doing the laundry, fixing dinner, going to work, raising kids--makes married couples increasingly feel that to enjoy good sex, they need to escape their normal domestic environment. But "romantic getaways" are tough to schedule when you're a busy mom or dad, and so the prospect of "good sex" grows increasingly dim for many marriages.
So how do we address this problem? A commonly suggested solution is that Christian couples try to "spice up" their sex lives--but Winner notes that this solution (while not sinful in itself) merely amounts to trying to make married sex feel like the idealized, unmarried "good sex" that our society idolizes. Such efforts reinforce the idea that ordinary, everyday sex within marriage is less than ideal, something to be escaped.
Winner suggests that the solution may lie in our understanding of what the ideal domestic life is. We ought to see sex as a healthy part of the spousal relationship, whether or not it's always as thrilling and exciting as you'd like. In other words, we need to see that "normal, routine" sex over the course of a marriage is good sex. Winner is not saying that we ought to lower our expectations for sex, but that we shift them to focus on the joys that come uniquely from married sex. It's largely a psychological change that's called for--we need to abandon unrealistic, mainstream-culture ideas of what sex should be, and learn to appreciate the ebb and flow of sexuality between two spouses who are sometimes tired, sometimes romantic, but nevertheless committed to each other. Married sexuality is infinitely more satisfying when it's free of the pressure to conform to the unrealistic and shallow expectations of mainstream culture.
While her primary call is for Christians to appreciate (and then trumpet) the value of sex as a key part of healthy domestic life, she also cites some secondary issues that Christians need to address. She expressed concern that many couples rely too heavily on their spouses for complete emotional and social fulfillment; without a strong church or family community to support them and provide a social outlet, married couples can become smotheringly dependent on each other, and that can stifle a healthy romantic relationship. Similarly, Winner suggests that the evangelical community's definition of "healthy family"--which is often extremely, perhaps overly, child-centered--unintentionally encourages spouses to put sexuality on the back burner in favor of other domestic duties.
I found Winner's address fascinating; she's a skilled public speaker, and has a candid and straightforward personality that feels refreshing given the extreme difficulty the evangelical church has in discussing sex without either going overboard (making it the focus of our entire moral lives) or stepping cautiously around the tough questions. Winner's talk was a good start to the January Series, and I heartily encourage you to explore her many writings on the topic of sex and Christianity.