The Josh Duggar scandal has brought up a lot of conversations about conservative Christian sexual ethics. A lot of important concepts have been brought up, such as Libby Anne’s “two boxes” and Captain Cassidy’s discussion of in-group hypocrisy. All of this has gotten my own gears turning, trying to make sense of the people who are flocking to defend a child molester, while simultaneously insisting that teenaged couple going on a date to Disneyland is equally as sinful. And I think this brings me to the entire justification for the two boxes and hypocrisy: in conservative Christian sexual ethics, there is no such thing as victimless non-marital sex.
People who believe that gay sex and rape belong in the same category haven’t necessarily completely shut off their ability to understand pain and consequences. Rather, they’ve bought into the idea that all non-approved sex has horrific, painful consequences that must be defended against, whether they are visible or not. This rationale is desperately necessary in order to keep people in line. The fact of the matter is, people build their ethics from experience and consequences. This is an unavoidable part of our psychology. Certainly, external consequences can be imposed to encourage better (or worse) morals, but people can’t help but be affected by the actual consequences they observe. This is why we all fall prey to the just-world fallacy, assuming that good things will naturally happy to good people and bad things to bad people.
Of course, this poses a huge problem for the arbitrarily legislated sexual morality that Conservative Christians pedal. Happy gay couples and people who have casual sex and go on to live productive lives are a threat to the assumptions that gay sex and casual sex are immoral. This becomes even tougher to sell when one attempts to claim that gay sex or casual sex are equivalently evil as rape or child molestation… crimes in which a victim can clearly be identified and horrible consequences are obvious. Christians could chalk it up to god being mysterious. They could simply tell people “I know that looks like fun, but god doesn’t want you to,” and leave it at that. But rules without reinforcement are difficult to maintain.
And thus, we get the idea that all non-marital sex victimizes. This is so endemic in our culture that it shows up as well in non-Christian forms. Men are assumed to be predators, unable to control their urges, assumed to take advantage of women because they only want sex. Women are assumed to be temptresses, constantly “defrauding” their brothers in Christ by daring to have bodies. LGB kids are said to be destroying their mental health, gay men are reviled as spreaders of disease, gay women are scorned for being “emotionally codependent”, gay families are pitied as inadequate and unloving, depriving children of a “real” family. Pre-marital sex is said to cause your soul to be damaged, your body to be defiled, your paper heart to be ripped into pieces. And all of these things are tied nebulously to societal decay and a loss of privilege for an entire country. All of these dire (and largely false) accusations are laid at the feet of non-approved sex in order to scare people into submitting to the rules.
What are the consequences? Rendering a gay child homeless is considered less harmful to them than allowing them to be gay. Women are taught to be ashamed of their bodies and to cover up every inch of themselves to avoid damaging men by temptation. Fathers still think that threats of violence or actual violence against men and boys who enter consensual relationships with their daughters is acceptable. Teenagers are still left woefully unaware of how to practice sex safely because the heightened risk of pregnancy and STDs is considered a worthwhile sacrifice to try to prevent teens from having unapproved sex (even if that STILL doesn’t actually work).
This is why Christians will still refer to my homosexuality or transgenderism as something that I “struggle with,” regardless of my insistence to the contrary. They simply can’t imagine that being transgender and being married to someone of my birth gender could fail to cause me some sort of mental anguish or horrible repercussions. Similarly, my mother lamented that she just wanted to protect me from the pain and regret of premarital sex, and refused to believe me when I insisted that I felt no pain nor regret. Indeed, despite the fact that many people have asserted that their chosen non-approved sexual behaviors have led them to feel no guilt, shame, pain, suffering, or regret, many Christians stubbornly refuse to accept this.
The fact that the consequences of being “victimized” by non-approved sex are so difficult to quantify is a feature, not a bug. The times that I have refuted the victim narrative that they have attempted to impose on me, I always received either outright claims that I was lying, or gas-lighting of some sort. “Deep down, your soul is tortured, you just can’t admit it,” they’ve said. Or “maybe you haven’t realized it yet, but you will, and then you’ll wish you had listened.” Or the Christian will point to some unrelated struggle in my life (especially if there is an actual or imagined mental illness involved) and claim that this is my reward for being gay/transgender/a slut. These claims are intended to be irrefutable. That is why these Christians have such confidence in them. That’s also why Christians clutch so hard at the rare juicy conversion story, where a sinner will describe the bondage of (sexual) sin and how horrible it was and how Jesus saved them. It encourages them that their irrefutable narratives are correct, regardless of the paucity of evidence outside of a few straggling anecdotes.
The thing is, these threats are powerful. They are scary. They scared the hell out of me when I was younger. The damage is especially borne by young Christian people who are trying to understand their sexuality amidst a slew of slut-shaming, purity-espousing, LGBT-hating, fear-mongering, misinformation. And it has actual, real-world, physical, deadly consequences. Instead of the conjured up, nebulous nightmares that Conservative Christians fear, these lies injure kids. These lies make them ill. These lies emotionally cripple them. These lies cause them to be vulnerable to abuse. These lies kill. The morally bankrupt idea that unproven spiritual consequences are equally bad as proven physical consequences is killing our youth. And that is worth being outraged about.
In closing, this all made me scrutinize myself a little. I try to be very fair to other people with differing views (hey, I used to be on the other team) and I relish the open-mindedness that I was not allowed to have when I was a conservative Christian. So my question to myself was, do I ever do the same thing? Do I look at conservative Christians and assume that they are suffering secret, unproven, dire consequences for their different beliefs? And the honest answer is: sometimes. I’ve seen enough visible, physical harm to wonder. But I also recognize that conservative Christians can be perfectly happy and lead wonderful fulfilled lives even believing things about sex that I find backwards and harmful. I can accept that. I don’t think having conservative Christian sexual ethics automatically relegates you to being guilty, miserable, or victimized. However, I do think that there is ample, concrete evidence that, statistically speaking, conservative Christian sexual ethics do not lead to superior outcomes. If you, as an individual, are happy with abiding by no-sex-outside-of-hetero-marriage rules, then by all means, enjoy yourself (safely and consensually). But don’t assume that the rest of us are victims of our unapproved sexuality. We just might be finding just as much (or more) fulfillment and happiness outside of your sexual norms than you have within them.