Will Sexual Propriety Make a Comeback?

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If you’ve been following the trajectory of the #MeToo movement and listening to our society’s ongoing conversations about sexual harassment and assault, you may get a little dizzy from the back-and-forth over what constitutes proper behavior between the sexes. The allegations made against Aziz Ansari and recent articles in The New Yorker show just how complicated and open-to-misinterpretation signals and cues can be.

‘Progress’ and Sexual Taboos

As Christians, we see through much of our culture’s sexual insanity and recognize the inadequacy of the concept of “consent” as the last surviving rule of sexual propriety. So many of these scenarios fraught with peril and misunderstanding would cease to exist if sexual intimacy were guarded and cultivated solely within the covenant of marriage. The ancient pathways for sexual expression appear wiser and more relevant than ever.

Sadly, it doesn’t appear the world will soon champion the idea of reserving sex for marriage. For decades now, the narrative in our culture (driven largely by entertainment) has tended to view “progress” as whatever leads to breaking down sexual boundaries, crossing moral lines, and disregarding sexual taboos. Prudishness was the great sin. Progress was the great advance, most visible through open acceptance and affirmation of new sexual values in place of the old ones.

Still, I wonder if this “progress narrative” might undergo an alteration of sorts. Is it possible we will see the development of new standards for sexual behavior that go beyond “consent”? Will we see the emergence of a modified secular version of prudishness? Is it possible that, in terms of behavior, the next generation may be more conservative than the last? How will people respond to the heightened sensitivities that show up in a culture that once prided itself on destroying boundaries?

Example of Pornography

Take pornography, for example. Time magazine featured a cover story on how pornography is affecting the ability of young men to perform sexually, leading to isolation and shame. The article carefully avoided any notion of objective morality in the question about porn. The reporter’s judgments were issued based on porn’s interference with men’s health and sexual pleasure. Still, the fact this conversation came up is a sign that the “innocence” of porn may be on the table for reconsideration.

Twenty years ago, the sitcom Friends was noteworthy for being “ahead” of the culture in its treatment of casual sex. Adultery was still out of bounds, but pornography was a running gag, an example of “men acting like boys.” The main characters of Friends, male and female, treated porn as little more than a charming vice.

Since the digital revolution, cultural attitudes regarding pornography have shifted considerably. The recent British detective series Broadchurch features a storyline about sexual assault, where porn use is implicated. When the main character discovers porn (again) on her adolescent son’s smartphone, she takes a hammer and smashes it. I realize that Broadchurch is a crime drama and Friends a sitcom, but the nonchalance of Friends toward pornography feels increasingly out-of-date, especially in an era in which pornography objectifies women and leads to a descending spiral of sexual experimentation that often leaves both partners feeling degraded.

Sex and the Church

For a time, even the church seemed to get on board with the “progress narrative” by championing open and frank talk about sexuality. The pastor would take the stage with his wife and give sexual counsel to the congregation. But what was “edgy” 15 years ago seems “pathetic” now. (In one case, the gimmick of broadcasting from a bed on the church roof led to an eye injury and the cringe-inducing headline, “Pastor injured in sexperiment.”)

The church’s attempts to find common ground with the culture by rejecting Victorian-era mores in favor of an earthy and frank approach backfired because it violated the sacred mystery of the sexual union. Yes, there are dangers in being too reticent to speak of sex (abuse can hide anywhere, as we’ve seen in many a congregation), but wisdom and modesty should keep us from treating sex in sensational or casual ways.

New Trend?

That’s why, both in the church and culture, I wonder if we might see a trend toward a newfound modesty and/or sexual propriety. I know it doesn’t seem likely when you look at the latest shows on television or listen to the latest stand-up comic or watch a superstar’s most recent music video. But established narratives can be dethroned. Cultural shifts toward sexual modesty have surprised observers in the past. See, for example, David Sandifer’s article on the rise of Victorian values in England.

Who knows? As more data arrive showing the negative effects of our entertainment consumption and our use of social media, it’s possible that the next generation of Americans will reconsider some beliefs and practices that are prevalent today.

Among millennial parents, I often hear the sentiment: I can’t believe my parents let me watch that, implying that their parents were too loose or too indifferent or too trusting of whatever entertainment was available. In the workplace, we are already witnessing a heightened sense of vigilance in order to avoid the appearance of sexual harassment or impropriety.

As Christians, we know that our culture cannot have it both ways. We cannot maintain that sex is something casual and merely physical and at the same time claim it is so fraught with significance that any infraction is met with disdain and immediate censure. Modesty is not the opposite of sexuality; it’s the framework that allows sexuality to flourish in a physical union built upon a spiritual covenant.

Long desensitized by immorality and a narrative that charts progress based on the breaking of sexual taboos, perhaps these recent cultural alarms will wake up a slumbering society and lead people to question the “progress” that has led to our downward spiral of perversity.

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