Category Archives: gender
The West is jettisoning the Christian understanding of human sexuality at an alarming speed. It is doing so, to a significant extent, without any meaningful understanding of how Christianity shaped western sexuality in the first place. Many seem to think that by freeing ourselves from the burden of Christian teaching we will finally be able to enjoy our sexuality without hindrance, as if this is what human beings were doing before prudish Christians came on the scene and ruined everything.
For this reason, Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is an illuminating read. Harper wants the West to better understand our inheritance. He wants us to appreciate what sexuality looked like in the Roman world, and how revolutionary Christianity’s impact was on western sexuality, for good and for ill. Harper is not a Christian, as far as I can tell. He writes as a historian who wants to get the story right….
Romans did not wrestle with the morality of sex outside of marriage or sexual activity between persons of the same sex. Rather, they wrestled with what was honorable for a free-born man or a free-born woman. It was acceptable for a free-born man to have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and boys (under certain conditions), so long as these things were done in moderation. But a free-born man must act as a man. It was shameful for him to play the passive role in sex.
The restrictions on a free woman, on the other hand, were much tighter. A woman’s modesty (i.e., sexual honor) was a fragile thing. “The sexual life course of free women was dominated by the imperatives of marriage. In a society that was never freed from the relentless grip of a high-mortality regime, the burden of reproduction weighed heavily on the female population” (39-40). Women were expected to marry at a very young age and to produce children for their husbands and for society. To commit adultery was to violate a respectable woman and so to sin against her husband. To do so was without excuse, because any man was free to have sex with slaves and prostitutes at will.
Underlying this double standard was the lucrative and omnipresent Roman sex trade, which itself was inseparable from the Roman system of slavery. The masses of slaves, prostitutes and other dishonorable persons had no claim to honor, and thus no entitlement to sexual morality. Slaves, especially girls and women, were “subjected to untrammeled sexual abuse” (26). They were utterly without social or legal protection. “The ubiquity of slaves meant pervasive sexual availability… Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures” (27). Prostitutes “stalked the streets. Taverns, inns, and baths were notorious dens of venal sex. Brothels ‘were visible everywhere’” (47).
When Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire during the first century it did so as a persecuted minority known for its distinctive sexual ethic. Harper argues, in fact, that it was their views of sex more than anything else that distinguished Christians in the ancient world. For Christians sex lay at the heart of what it meant to be a free person destined for communion with God. And Christians called all people, whatever their status or gender, to lives of sexual purity.
Harper refutes the notion that Christian teaching on sexuality was simply the product of Greco-Roman conservatism or even of Judaism. The Apostle Paul, he shows, developed a fresh sexual ethos and a new sexual vocabulary to go with it. The threat to human beings was not shame or dishonor, first and foremost. It was sin. In the Corinthian church Paul was faced with a libertinism that owed much to the Roman sense that sex outside of marriage, including sex with prostitutes, was simply a matter for moderation. In response, Paul called Christians to flee porneia just as they would flee idolatry. He turned the body – indeed, all human bodies – “into a consecrated space, a point of mediation between the individual and the divine” (92). Porneia, for Paul, encompassed all sex except that between a man and a woman in marriage, and it bound men and women, free and slaves, with equal rigor.
Paul closely associated sexual immorality with idolatry. “[S]exual fidelity was the corollary of monotheism, while the worship of many gods was, in every way, promiscuous.” Same-sex practice was a “particularly egregious violation of the natural order” (94). Harper observes that “any hermeneutic roundabout that tries to sanitize or soften Paul’s words is liable to obscure the inflection point around which attitudes toward same-sex erotics would be forever altered” (95). Paul’s originality, he maintains, lies in the fact that he did not reject homosexual behavior because of a logic of status, age, hierarchy, exploitation, penetration, or active and passive roles, but for the simple reason that it is not between a male and a female as intended from creation. For Paul, it is a simple question of gender difference. Natural sex, for Christians, following Paul, “came to mean, exclusively, the one configuration of body parts that has generative potential” (145).
Read the rest of this review at Reformation 21.
Last night’s presidential debate opened with the Republican candidate for president apologizing for boasting about sexual assault, while in the same breath claiming that it was just words, mere “locker room talk.” “I’m very embarrassed by it,” he admitted, “but it’s locker room talk.”
That’s all. Nothing to worry about. This is just how men talk when they are together having fun. People just say these things.
That’s what Trump would have us believe.
I have heard much “locker room talk” over the years and I have never, ever, heard someone even come close to bragging about sexual assault without being called out on it by any man with any self-respect whatsoever.
I am well aware that many men say these sorts of things. Many men commit sexual assault too. Indeed, one out of every five women in America has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, and half – half – of women have experienced sexual assault.
And I wonder if you can find anyone who knows anything at all about Donald Trump who actually believes his claim that he has never sexually assaulted a woman. These are not random comments from a distant past.
Hillary Clinton put it quite well in last night’s debate:
Donald Trump is different. I said starting back in June that he was not fit to be president and commander-in-chief. And many Republicans and independents have said the same thing. What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is.
But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is. Because we’ve seen this throughout the campaign. We have seen him insult women. We’ve seen him rate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to ten. We’ve seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter. We saw him after the first debate spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms.
So, yes, this is who Donald Trump is. But it’s not only women, and it’s not only this video that raises questions about his fitness to be our president, because he has also targeted immigrants, African- Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims, and so many others.
So this is who Donald Trump is. And the question for us, the question our country must answer is that this is not who we are.
I get it. Politics is complicated. There are many people who loath just about everything about Donald Trump – who feel sick to their stomach by the sorts of things he has said and done – who will nevertheless vote for him because they fear Hillary Clinton even more. I suspect more Americans than not will hold their noses when they enter the voting booth this November. And many will vote for a third candidate, or not vote at all.
I am not a political scientist or a political activist. I am a moral theologian. And so I’m not going to tell anyone how to vote. But I will say this. Trump’s record of speech and action with respect to women is no sideshow to who he really is and who he will really be as the president of the United States. His track record is one of consistent misogyny. Voting for Trump is supporting a man who has publicly objectified women while boasting that he has long been able to assault them sexually – forcing himself on them, groping their genitals, and manipulating them for sex – with impunity.
Where does women’s dignity as human beings made in the image of God rank on your hierarchy of moral and political concerns? What about sexual assault?
Many of Donald Trump’s supporters claim that Christians should support him in order to protect religious liberty. But it was Hillary Clinton who was defending religious liberty in last night’s debate. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how associating the cause of religious liberty with the darkness that is Donald Trump will do anything but damage the cause.
The same could be said for the pro-life movement. Perhaps Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said it best:
The life issue can not flourish in a culture of misogyny and sexual degradation. The life issue can not flourish when you have people calling for the torture and murder of innocent non-combatants. The life issue can not flourish when you have people who have given up on the idea that character matters. If you lose an election you can live to fight another day and move on, but if you lose an election while giving up your very soul then you have really lost it all, and so I think the stakes are really high.
And I think the issue, particularly, when you have people who have said, and we have said, and I have said for twenty years the life issue matters, and the life issue is important… When you have someone who is standing up race baiting, racist speech, using immigrants and others in our communities in the most horrific ways and we say ‘that doesn’t matter’ and we are part of the global body of Christ simply for the sake of American politics, and we expect that we are going to be able to reach the nations for Christ? I don’t think so, and so I think we need to let our yes be yes and our no be no and our never be never.
Abortion is a horrific, deeply rooted moral problem. Terrorism and violence seem to claim more lives every day. But every two minutes in this country another woman – or a child – is sexually assaulted. These are our wives. These are our children. These are our neighbors. What else do we have to say? Who else are we going to throw under the bus while claiming that all of this somehow helps us save the lives of the unborn? And can we really say with a straight face that hitching our wagon to Donald Trump is good for the cause and credibility of religious liberty?
Even aside from the principle of it, common sense itself dictates this conclusion: If evangelicals publicly support Donald Trump, the chief result will not be the advance of the sanctity of life or of religious liberty, let alone of family values. The result will be the collapse of any evangelical credibility on moral issues whatsoever.
When I recently asked a class of undergraduates at Oglethorpe University if any of them thought there were “no meaningful differences between men and women,” two female students raised their hands. When I pointed to the obvious reproductive differences between males and females, which give young women the unique ability to conceive and bear children, they looked at me as if I had committed an act of hurtful bigotry. “It’s just not fair to put people in a box like that,” one of them offered. The other pointed out that not everyone has the unambiguous experience of feeling male or female. Gender, she observed, is complicated.
The context was a discussion of Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that early nineteenth-century Americans recognized that women and men are equal, but that they also believed that women and men naturally serve different gender roles. I was attempting to elicit from my students the obvious recognition that while we may not hold the same assumptions about gender roles as did Americans during the 1800s, even we in the twenty-first century recognize that there are some basic physical differences between women and men—differences that have important social implications for the way we order society.
This observation is still too radical for some. The problem is not that they fail to appreciate the facts about human genitalia, which any three-year-old could explain to them. The sticking point, rather, is in that word “meaningful.” There may be physical differences between males and females, they concede, but those differences are not universal, nor are they determinative of anything. Gender is entirely socially constructed. It is the product of nurture, not nature, and to associate biological sex differences with gender is merely to promote the systemic injustices of gender inequality.