My car rolled swiftly down First Avenue North away from downtown Birmingham on a rainy, overcast fall morning. Off to the right, Sloss Furnaces towered over the “magic city” they helped create by turning minerals from the surrounding mountains into iron for the nation's industrial boom. To the left, low-income housing testified to the aftermath of the furnace shutdown in the early 1970s. Several blocks later I pulled into our church offices at Cornerstone Christian School, nestled behind the ministries that pass for commercial development in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Birmingham. Here, one day earlier, pastor Joel Brooks broke some bad news. While many of us last week were still celebrating a last-minute comeback victory by the Alabama Crimson Tide or watching election results, a Birmingham police undercover operation netted 35 arrests, mostly for soliciting prostitutes. On First Avenue North. In front of our church. One local TV station captured footage of the crime scene while standing next to our church sign.
We knew Redeemer Community Church meets in a tough neighborhood. In fact, that's why we're here. So the sting itself didn't catch our attention. But you could hear the gasps in the congregation when Joel told us the going rate for a prostitute in our neighborhood. Sex is cheap in Birmingham. You can get pretty much whatever you want for between $5 and $15. Our neighbors are selling their bodies for less than they could earn a couple blocks away working at McDonalds. Lord have mercy.
Police worked with local media to publish the names and photos of every man and woman caught soliciting prostitutes. Someone recognized one of the men as a 30-something pastor from another church. I can't imagine that call home from jail. From what I can gather reading the news, there were many such agonizing conversations last week. General David Petraeus, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Joseph Rogers Jr., chairman of Waffle House. Even the voice of Elmo, Kevin Clash. Infidelity cannot be confined to any class, race, or creed. Sex scandals are nothing new. Neither is prostitution, especially in economically distressed communities.
So what's the big deal? Why stigmatize adultery in a tolerant, permissive, supposedly enlightened age? Maybe because even as the supply of sex drives the price down, the cost of infidelity to our communities remains as high as ever. Our bodies know something our minds don't want to admit.
Not the Way It's Supposed to Be
Sexual liberation wasn't supposed to end with $5 hookers. By freeing love from the shackles of marriage, we were going to enjoy sex as a pleasurable physical act and nothing more. Our movies and TV shows envisioned a brave new world without repressive mores and the prudes who sought to enforce them through shame. Leading publications have celebrated the new normal, where women now rule the hookup culture. Writing this fall for The Atlantic, which has cheered such cultural progress, Hannah Rosin said:
We are, in the world's estimation, a nation of prostitutes. And not even prostitutes with hearts of gold. Is that so bad? . . . What makes this remarkable development possible [gains for women in education and workplace] is not just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom—the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don't derail education or career. To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.
Women, like men before them, could only reach this point by cheapening sex, by reducing it to purely physical pleasures. To conform around the education- and career-oriented life, sex has been devalued, robbed of its biological bounty and spiritual significance. Sex has been emptied of the power that attracts us to it in the first place.
Don't believe me? Check out the HBO series Girls, which has already done to Friends what The Sopranos did to the mobster genre. That is, life-imitating art casts doubt on earlier, glamorized renditions of the good life. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote earlier this year of Girls,
It's offering a fairly dystopian take on twentysomething social life, in which the comedy is dark, the sex is gross, the romance is disappointing, and the mix of nudity, jadedness and bawdy talk doesn't carry any of the aspirational frisson that was always associated with the post-sexual revolution single life on a show like Sex and the City.
Cheap sex is just that—fleeting, easily discarded, unworthy of memory. This is liberation? From what? Safety. Security. Significance.
According to the apostle Paul, God designed sex with awesome power. Writing to the sexually dysfunctional church in Corinth, Paul taught, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13). God created all things good for his glory, so he knows what he's talking about. Paul, then, asked these beleaguered believers, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, 'The two will become one flesh'” (1 Cor. 6:15-16).
Quoting Genesis 2:24, Paul grounded sex in the original purposes of God for the man and woman he crafted in his image. But tucked in 1 Corinthians 6:14, Paul says something unexpected, even jarring. “And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.” Apparently, God so values our bodies that one day he will raise them from the dead, just as he did with his sinless Son. God so values our bodies that as their creator he tells us how to protect them and even how to delight in them. God so values our bodies that even if we have offered them for $15 or tried to buy someone else's for a mere $5, he redeems them at the infinite cost of his Son.
Sex may be cheap in Birmingham, but we are not.