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Father Knows Best: Sexual ethics

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By Martin Elfert

Hey Rev!

Is it ever OK to have sex on the first date?

– JR

House-ad_SPO_FKB_new_0429139Dear JR:

It depends what you mean by “OK.”

If by “OK,” you mean that sex on a first date between two consenting adults isn’t a gross moral transgression, that it isn’t the sort of thing for which someone needs to spend the rest of his life apologizing, that it doesn’t mean that you have disappointed God, then yes, it’s OK. (We can debate about whether Jesus talks about sexual morality rarely or never in the Gospels. Either way, sex sure isn’t worth the obsessive energy that the church has put into it.) I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time agonizing about it.

If, on the other hand, by “OK” you mean that sex on first date between two consenting adults is no big deal, that we can safely understand it as a harmless recreational activity, that it’s more or less like going bowling, then no, it’s not OK. Notwithstanding the popular expression, sex is just never that casual.

Like a lot of folks, JR, I was a schoolchild when I first made the gleeful discovery that one of the ways that Scripture uses the “know” is to refer to sexual intercourse. And for years thereafter, I assumed that “know” was nothing more than a delightful and archaic euphemism. (The late Mad Magazine contributor, Dave Berg, penned a wonderful cartoon in which a tittering young man sneaks into a bathroom stall and writes on the wall, “Carol knows.”) But today, having sat with a bunch couples who are two or three or five decades into a marriage, I have come to believe that there is more to knowing than that.

Sex at its best is about deep trust, deep joy, and deep connection. It is about deeply knowing another person and, in turn, being deeply known. In a real sense, it is a kind of prayer. In the absence of such carefully earned mutual knowledge (and carefully earned mutual knowledge is, by definition, unavailable on a first, second, or even third date), sex holds an increased risk of being superficial or even damaging or exploitative.

I’d like to do something absurdly old-fashioned, therefore, and suggest that sex is best within the context of long-term monogamy. Now, I hope that I can make that suggestion, JR, without sounding sanctimonious or paternalistic or moralistic. I’m not advising you to confine sex to a well-established relationship because you will be bad or wrong if you don’t. I’m advising you to choose to limit sex to such a context because you will be freest and most joyful if you do.

One of the things that is such a gift about spending time with couples who are years into a marriage is the profound way that they know one another. They have shared so much. Some of what they have shared is big: the deaths of loved ones, the births of new loved ones, great delights and great disappointments, profound beauty. And some of it is mundane: the everydayness of laundry and paying bills and getting kids to school and cooking meals. For those couples who are sexually active, sex stands as a kind of sacrament, as an outward and visible sign of that mutual knowing. For those couples, sex is a kind of foretaste of the glorious day that St. Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians, when he promises that you I will know fully, even as we have been fully known.

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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3 comments

  1. “I’m not advising you to confine sex to a well-established relationship because you will be bad or wrong if you don’t. I’m advising you to choose to limit sex to such a context because you will be freest and most joyful if you do.”

    I don’t know why this kind of non-shaming approach isn’t the norm. Shaming gets the shamer nowhere and hurts the shamed parties.

    • It helps that–at least in my experience–it’s actually true. It’s not that “casual” sex is somehow wicked or wrong (assuming a great many things like mutuality of desire and consent that don’t always happen to be true), but it’s less than optimal. The deeper and fuller the connection between the parties, the more fulfilling and rewarding sex tends to be.

  2. Good hearing about you again, Martin. Good reflection for an otherwise single-minded “Pro-Lifer.”. tgreen

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