Two weeks ago we started our Sex Talk with middle school students. At the end of this first part I did some Q&A with them. The following is one of the questions they asked anonymously on a 3×5 card that I thought would be a great one to attempt to answer and post on the blog.
As these posts have the potential to gain a relatively large audience I recognize that not all who read it share my faith and worldview. If you are an outsider to the Christian faith reading this chances are you won’t agree on principle with my answer. Even so I hope you may find it a well thought out answer.
Question: “If you’re in a committed relationship but are not married why is it bad to have sex?”
Answer: What makes a relationship committed? Is it simply two people agreeing that they won’t date another? Is it two people agreeing that they won’t be emotionally, physically, and sexually intimate with someone else? Committed is defined as, “being bound or obligated, as under a pledge to a particular cause, action, or attitude.” In marriage you are binding and pledging everything. Property, assets, name, and of course bodies, all legally lawfully bound together. Committed relationships, particularly those of teenagers, are in no way binding except for the fact that they spend a lot of time together, and are therefore exclusive with one another. There isn’t anything keeping them together beyond their affections. Should their affections change they can de-commit by simply, “breaking up”. There is no need to hire lawyers, divide property and assets, or change names back to what they were. Not that committed relationships are bad and should be done away with, but they were never meant to be the Junior Varsity to the Varsity Team that is marriage. Committed relationships are more like tryouts. No one receives nor gets to wear the uniform until the make the team. Sexual intercourse has the potential to bind you to someone in ways that can’t so easily be undone by walking away. The contraceptive industry makes the bulk of their millions by assisting people in a “committed relationship” to prevent being bound to one another via babies and STD’s. The false dichotomy of “casual sex” is built upon the exercise of divorcing your heart and mind from sex as to avoid being bound to someone with your thoughts and feelings. Likewise there is a false dichotomy of “sex within a committed relationship”. A committed relationship is for the purpose of deciding whether or not you want to commit to binding yourself to another for life. Sex then within a committed relationship is to begin binding a big part of yourself to someone while still having the option to “break up” at a significantly lower cost, before you’ve actually decided you want to commit to be bound to only them for life.
What makes sex sex? The Bible teaches that sex is way more than just two bodies joining together for the purpose of experiencing sensual pleasure (even though it doesn’t shy away from that aspect of it). So often the writers of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament writers, referred to sexual intercourse by saying “and they knew one another”. What are the scripture writers saying about what sex is when they refer to it as “knowing” another person?
When I was about 19 years old unmarried and a virgin, a sexually active non-Christian female told me, “If a girl ever tells you she wants you she doesn’t know what it is she’s asking for.” Admittedly I wasn’t quite sure what she meant but I know she, a sexually active unmarried non-Christian was provoking me to think of sex as much more than a physical act and thus something not to tread lightly upon. Honestly I think she was urging and encouraging me not to have sex outside of marriage. Think of the colloquialisms we have for sex today; ‘doing it’, ‘doing the nasty’, ‘afternoon delight’, the list goes on and on, but you’d be hard pressed to find any that capture the fact that when you become “one flesh” with someone there is the potential for something transcendent to happen that leaves you very vulnerable and exposed to the person you’re having sex with. I think that’s what she was trying to tell me. There is a power in sex to help heal our brokenness, to affirm our humanity and therefore it also has power to shame and destroy our humanity as well. There is a huge investment being made when we connect with someone sexually. The promises pledge and complete joining together of marriage is meant to provide the security of pledge and promise that frees us to experience it with our whole being without fear, without holding back any part of our humanness.
What is marriage? Contrary to what popular culture often tells us marriage is not shackles that imprison us to another but the safe confines to not have to keep parts of our self, the parts of us that can’t be quantified in limbs curves and skin, hidden from the person we are giving ourselves to and receiving them in return. Marriage is meant to be the confines within which you can be free to reveal and share all of who you are. That’s not to say that people in committed relationships can’t experience these things. It’s just that the cost to walk away doesn’t match nor correlate with the investment that sex dictates whether you want it to or not. We typically don’t tell engaged couples this when they are nearing the altar but the truth is they can still walk away without it costing them much. Sure the money spent on the wedding has gone down the drain, but they don’t have to divide up property and assets, they don’t have to change their name on legal documents and credit cards, and unless they have children they don’t have to be as concerned with who else it will have a lasting affect on. The reality is that some grown adults have chosen to join every aspect of their lives together as a functionally married couple without the formal and legal ceremony binding them together because so many married people have trudged into and out of marriage as though it were just another committed relationship.
How many committed relationships can one person have? Sometimes I wish I had dated more before I got married. I was slow on the pick up on how much a friendship with a woman and a “committed relationship” with a woman is not apples to apples. However, on the flip side if I had had a number of “committed relationships” how might they have formed me for marriage to my wife in ways that would be counter productive to our binding relationship? I can’t say for certain but she and I would have to take the good with the bad and everything in between. Say I had been sexually intimate in some of those hypothetical “committed relationships” I would have to unlearn, and undo the unique ways I had formed myself with those other women sexually, or bring all those things with me to be bound together with my wife. We often refer to all those things as baggage.
Why is it bad? At the end of the day you can do what you want. Even if you want to soften God’s commands into advisory precautions from the one who created human bodies, sex, and gifted them with this complex thing called intimacy, it’s not hard to see why sex outside of the binding pledge and promise of marriage is risky business. Encouraging young people, still dependent on their parents and under their authority, in particular to go ahead and have sex as long as it is within a committed relationship is as fraught with danger as encouraging the same young people to go to the bank and open a joint bank account. We would discourage teenagers from binding to one another financially no matter how much they thought they were in love or felt that the time was right. Likewise there is great wisdom in discouraging two people, especially teenagers, who aren’t joined and bound together by pledge and law from becoming sexual intimate.
One final thought… I have friends who aren’t Christians who have bound themselves to one another in most ways that married couples do. They have share exclusively with one another their bodies, their home, their property and assets. They are exclusively sharing their life and all of who they are with one another. In all likelihood they will never marry, but their hope is to grow old together. While I don’t approve of unmarried couples living together I treat them as a married couple. Given neither or them are Christians thus not holding the same view of marriage as me I want to encourage them to remain committed to one another for the long haul because that is their expressed desire. While I prefer they eventually make their relationship legally binding at this point I would hate for them to break the bonds they’ve formed together. In some ways based upon my view of how God designed humanity and sex they’ve gone too far in sharing their lives with one another exclusively that I’d hate to see them split and start the process over with someone else. If anything their decision not to marry is largely in response to how marriage is so often treated as a committed relationship. Too many married people don’t honor and value marriage for what it truly is. They see it as a means to be happy, and not as a means to bind them self to another person, and be fully known by them. Many people will end a marriage because they are no longer happy or don’t feel the way the once did. Many people who have pledged themselves to another in good times and bad, for better for worse, in sickness and health no matter what may come, in the sight of witnesses and God, only to leave when their marriage no longer suits them. They aren’t happy, they aren’t satisfied, the marriage is not what they thought it would be and so they break the pledge, the promise and the bond. Could it be that committed relationships while training us in some good ways also forms us to ignore, suppress, and break all the ways we have become bound to another person and muster up the ability to walk away because we’re no longer happy? Imagine how much easier it would be to suppress, ignore and break all bonds if you had done it even a few times since you were a teenager? Sex outside of marriage is not only not the best way to live it is a risky personal investment to make. Why is it bad to have unmarried sex in a committed relationship? Sex outside of marriage is potentially very bad for you.