In a culture that worships personal pleasure, nobody wants to admit she’s not having a good time.
That’s why it took admirable courage for Washington Post journalist Christine Emba to pen her new book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. What’s provoking is not a frank discussion about sex—which Emba embarks upon with tact. Instead, Emba’s taboo is the book’s central question: What if all our uninhibited sex has made things actually kind of terrible?
It’s a result Christians might have predicted. But we should appreciate Emba’s efforts to discuss the issue in terms a secular audience can engage.
Rethinking Sex: A Provocation
For years now, modern-day sexual ethics has held that “anything goes” when it comes to sex—as long as everyone says yes, and does so enthusiastically. So why, even when consent has been ascertained, are so many of our sexual experiences filled with frustration, and disappointment, even shame?
The truth is that the rules that make up today’s consent-only sexual code may actually be the cause of our sexual malaise—not the solution. Reaching back to the wisdom of thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and Andrea Dworkin, and drawing from sociological studies, interviews with college students, and poignant examples from her own life, Emba calls for a more humane philosophy, one that starts with consent but accounts for the very real emotional, mental, social, and political implications of sex—even, she argues, if it means saying no to certain sexual practices or challenging societal expectations altogether. More than a bold reassessment of modern norms, Rethinking Sex invites us to imagine what it means to will the good of others, and in turn, attain greater affirmation, fulfillment, and satisfaction for ourselves.
Emba, an unmarried 30-something who identifies as Catholic yet positions herself among the heterosexually liberated, comes across as clear-eyed and humble. But she’s also disillusioned enough to admit the sexual revolution never really delivered on its promise that freedom from all sexual restraints—“religious” and otherwise—meant nothing but unmitigated pleasure.
“We’ve breached the ramparts of repression,” she writes, “and the wall of silence that prevented us from expressing our sexuality has fallen. . . . But in the open field that now rolls out before us, everyone feels a bit . . . lost.”
Through stories and interviews with men and women she encountered in that lost open field, Emba’s unadorned, accessible writing makes for tragic reading. There’s the young woman who consented to violent sex even though she didn’t like it, because she liked the guy. There’s the woman who felt a little gross—and then a little embarrassed for feeling a little gross—after joking to her friends that she’d “ordered a man for delivery” on Tinder.
What Makes Sex Good or Bad?
The goal of her project is to expose the pitfalls of our reliance on “consent” as the only necessary barometer of “good,” moral sex. Consent is a good starting point, she argues, but it’s proven difficult to define in practice. It’s also a really low bar.
She’s right. “Liberating” sex from marriage was a bad idea, because that’s not what sex was made for. That bad idea has inevitably led to suffering. Emba is to be admired for encouraging us to raise our sexual expectations. But her project didn’t need to be nearly so complicated.
Consent is a good starting point, but it’s proven difficult to define in practice. It’s also a really low bar.
Throughout Rethinking Sex, Emba delicately attempts to thread the needle of advocating for a “better sexual ethic” while maintaining credibility with a crowd for whom a Christian sexual ethic is simply off the table. To accomplish this, she attempts to describe both “good” and “bad” sex (“good” sex is pleasurable; “bad” sex is painful or degrading or disappointing) without ever defining “good” or bad” and without ever asserting the purpose of sex. This is how she manages to ignore the fraught issue of homosexuality and other sexual manipulations, including sex outside of marriage. This unsuccessful needle-threading is the main failure of Rethinking Sex. Without the foundation of definitions for words like “better” and “ethic” and “bad,” her manifesto turns into an exercise in “just asking questions!” where it might have offered real solutions.
Christians can agree unequivocally that sex is good and that we ought to protect it as such. But we have the luxury of a fixed definition for a good act: one that honors God and celebrates our design, which makes it also an act that will lead to flourishing and, yes, pleasure. The definition for “good” isn’t found in ourselves or our own preferences, which Emba discovers can vary widely and from one moment to the next, but in God’s revelation.
Even without that fixed definition, Emba maintains that something called “bad sex” is still possible. She describes it as sex that “reinforces the notion that our bodies aren’t our own, that they exist to serve someone else’s desire rather than ours.”
We Are Not Our Own
Here is a point at which the Christian sexual ethic, and Christianity more generally, makes a stark departure. We are not our own. Isaiah entreated the people of God to spend themselves on behalf of others (Isa. 58:10). Our energy, time, talents, love, and bodies are part of what we offer the world and God in service to his glory. We give our bodies up, within the limits of God’s design. We challenge them, even to discomfort, when we exercise and eat well for our health. We give them sexually to our spouses. And we offer them up to our children, who daily require our physical energy, physical protection, and physical presence (does any mother, from the conception of her first child onward, ever again truly experience her body as “her own”?) To be human is to be embodied. To live for Christ is to live for him with our bodies.
Here’s where we glimpse God’s wisdom: limiting sex to an act within marriage promotes the physical and emotional protection of both men and women. It also defines what constitutes good sex. In this view, even sexual encounters between spouses that feel occasionally lackluster or disappointing don’t constitute an emergency or a violation, or even “bad sex.”
This is not to abandon consent as a necessary guardrail, even in marriage. We give our bodies to our spouses, but we do not give them to violence or degradation—that is, we do not give them to be treated as less than human bodies. But generosity presupposes that it’s not always and only our own pleasure that we seek. Good sex can still be an exercise in generosity. That kind of sexual freedom is made possible only inside of marriage, where each spouse is protected by a vow that God both created and blesses, and toward which each spouse willingly goes. It also relieves the pressure everyone seems to be under to experience sex as the pinnacle of the human experience (or the very core of the human identity).
‘Good’ Requires the Creator
Rethinking Sex tiptoes toward this truth. In the latter half of the book, Emba offers—disappointingly still in a spirit of “just spitballing!”—something like a concrete sexual ethic that she posits can raise the low bar of consent: “Willing the good of the other.” She credits both Thomas Aquinas and his philosophical predecessor Aristotle with this definition of the word “love.” She says, “[This] isn’t a religious concept; it’s a basic suggestion for how to live well.”
But without the Bible—the true account of the world—that kind of selflessness is both philosophically and practically impossible. Before we can will the good of another, we’ll have to know what “good” means. And if we define it however we please, our sexual partners will too—and we’ll be lost again in that open field of sexual pain. Even if we could manage to play-act “willing the good of the other,” toward the goal of “better sex,” we’d still be stuck in a loop of self-interested utilitarianism.
Before we can will the good of another, we’ll have to know what “good” means. And if we define it however we please, our sexual partners will too.
Emba’s plea to love each other better is boldly countercultural. But she leaves that potential for progress suspended in thin air. Because behind the ethic of “seeking the good of the other” is the same pesky question that haunted the ethic of consent in the first place: Why?
Thomas Aquinas had a wonderful idea about love. He also believed God came to the world as a man and then rose from the dead after he was murdered. To Aquinas, the resurrected Christ gets to define love. We can’t logically accept the claim that to love means to “will the good of others” without believing in the One who is Love. God made our bodies, and God made sex, and he made both with a particular design. If we want to repair the cultural wounds that so-called sexual liberation has inflicted, and if we want to restore sex to something at once physically pleasurable, spiritually safe and life-giving, and culturally workable and beneficial, we have to define it and engage with it in the way its very Designer intended.
Sex won’t be good for us, for the other, or for the culture at large until it’s hemmed in by a marriage commitment that’s made both possible and lovely by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
We don’t need a new sexual ethic. We need to recover a really, really old one. Emba’s book is worthwhile, and if our friends and neighbors outside the faith consider her credible, that’s a win. But she’s not “rethinking sex.” She’s overthinking it.