Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Sex Talk at General Conference

This is the week at General Conference when things start to get really hot, as the controversial votes come to the floor of plenary session.  The topic of homosexuality will grab the headlines again and, though I understand why, I wish we were talking about other sexual matters, too.

Anyone working with young adults in the church (and in higher education) should take the time to read Mark Regnerus’ and Jeremy Uecker’s book, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think about Marrying, (Oxford U Press, 2011).  The book focuses virtually entirely on heterosexual activity, offering only one page (in the introductory chapter) of reference to same-sex coupling.  And this is exactly why I think church leaders should read the book.  While same sex activity gets all the attention, really serious problems regarding “straight” sex go virtually unnoticed.  Have we bought into culture’s fatalistic norms about sex?  Yes.

I won’t take the time to do a full review of the book, but let me make a couple of observations.  First, our stereotype of the “hookup culture” needs modification.  Most young people having sex are doing so within exclusive relationships.  Of course, as the authors show, people do hook up and there is plenty of casual sex going on (more among young people not in college than in college – one of the possible surprises that doesn’t fit the stereotype about college).  But, as the book shows, people in romantic relationships have much more sex than people not in a relationship.  

The problem is that the relationships don’t last.  Hence, the phenomenon known as “serial monogamy.”  (Gosh, where did they learn this one?)  Emerging adults are postponing marriage precisely because they value it.  But they don’t connect sex to marriage any more.  So, they get into a romantic relationship and most start having sex early.  (Ironically, sexually active young people find it far more easy to engage in sexual intimacy than to have an intimate, non-sexual conversation.)  Since most of them are not ready to settle down and commit to one another for life, they fatalistically assume that the relationship will end.  There is a psychological, spiritual cost to this practice!  

The most important and sobering generalization of Premarital Sex in America shines light on the moral norming that takes place among emerging adults.  Although the book makes reference to moral norms, it often describes these norms in terms of “scripts” that young people believe and live.  

Precisely here is why the church should start paying more attention.  We use words like “peer pressure” and we don’t notice the moral character of peer pressure.  We simply do not recognize that college students form moral communities.  They learn from each other, often through social networking media, television and the movies.  (When was the last time you saw a TV show or movie involving romance that did not have the main characters having sex practically almost to start the relationship?)   They learn from these sources and not from their church communities what is expected in romantic relationships.  Therefore, their choices are not as free as they think and have been told.  They are being shaped by a moral community.  

The last chapter of the book summarizes 10 myths about sex.  I can’t resist quoting some of them.  The first one is “Long-term exclusivity is a fiction.”  (Really?)  Second, “the introduction of sex is necessary in order to sustain a struggling or fledgling relationship.”  Fifth, “It doesn’t matter what other people do sexually; you make your own choices.”  Eighth, “Sex need not mean anything.”  (Wow, this is a doozy.  The book acknowledges that some people seem able to engage in “free love” without any serious side effects, but most people suffer.  This is one of the dirty little secrets about the myth of no-cost sexual expression in America.)  Finally, “Moving in together is definitely a step toward marriage.”  No, it isn’t.  This is not the authors’ opinion.  It is empirical.  People who move in together before they get married do not usually go ahead and get married.  

There are bright spots in the book.  One of them is that students really value marriage, hold it in high esteem and dream of entering this estate.  Someday.  The problem is, by the time they get there, most of them will have a sexual history that will include significant amounts of pain and regret.  

We’ve been told again and again by a thousand different means that it’s none of our business; that it’s none of the church’s business. How dare we try to impose our Christian morality on the young?  But someone’s morality is being imposed.  And it is not good.  Just open your eyes and look around.    

I know General Conference must address the issues that people present to it.  I know that various questions related to homosexuality will get the lion’s share of attention this week.  I also know that we are entirely failing our young with regard to the kind of sex that most of them are having.  I’m not trying to set up a false dichotomy.  I’m just begging for us to pay more attention.  



April 30, 2012 - Posted by | Religion | , , , , , ,


  1. Don’t you think that same sex couples would also “really value marriage, hold it in high esteem and dream of entering this estate” if society and the church did not forbid such an activity?

    Comment by Just Wondering | May 1, 2012 | Reply

    • Just Wondering, is this a rhetorical question you ask?

      Comment by steverankin | May 1, 2012 | Reply

      • Please feel free to respond as you see fit.

        Comment by Just Wondering | May 3, 2012

  2. Just Wondering, I hesitate to respond because there is already a lot of talk about same sex relationships, rights and challenges. That was the underlying complaint of my blog post. I’m equally as frustrated by the either-or falsely dichotomous approaches to the polemics about same sex relationships that dominate our denominational politics. If I take your question at face value, then the only real answer is “yes.” That is why I asked if you were asking a rhetorical question. But some of us still believe the assumption you make is more complex and contentious than most of the debates treat it. We’d like to be able to talk about some of those concerns without having our motives impugned. If I sound a little gun shy, it is because I am.

    Comment by steverankin | May 3, 2012 | Reply

    • Fair enough. That was probably the wrong comment for this post but the text which I had quoted was what prompted my train of thought.

      I was attempting to respond more but my phone is not a good platform on which to express my thoughts. Perhaps discussions of sexual experiences, relationships , history, etc. would be more effective than imposing our Christin morals.

      Comment by Just Wondering | May 3, 2012 | Reply

      • How do you keep from “imposing” someone’s moral view, when all is said and done? As I see it, here lies the dilemma: we cannot get away from having some moral vision, at least to some degree, “imposed” on us. This is exactly my point about heterosexual emerging adults. They live in a “scripted” world, according to Regnerus, et. al, not entirely of their choosing or of their liking. Ironically, this is especially the case for women, for whom the current sexual economy (to use another metaphor from the book) works against them. They (not just women) feel pressure to go along. The idea that we can make untrammeled free choices about any moral matter is a myth. We all participate in moral communities. The United Methodist Church appears to be intractably divided on matters of sexuality. We are not a community with a shared moral vision. This is a massive problem.

        Secondly, if I understand your point about preferring discussions of sexual experiences, relationships, etc. as an alternative to imposing something, then I ask you to notice that your statement is not free from the problem I name. There is an the underlying claim usually being made (even though, unfortunately, left unspoken) when people share stories in such settings. That claim is, “It is unfair and unjust to judge one person’s experience by another person’s moral system.” But, you see, that statement is itself a moral judgment. Certainly, there is value in our getting to know each other as people, created in God’s image. Sharing our stories is the very heart of human relationships. But it does not help us avoid moral disagreements. Hopefully, it helps us do so more gently.

        Comment by steverankin | May 3, 2012

  3. You write: “The book focuses virtually entirely on heterosexual activity, offering only one page (in the introductory chapter) of reference to same-sex coupling. And this is exactly why I think church leaders should read the book. While same sex activity gets all the attention, really serious problems regarding “straight” sex go virtually unnoticed. Have we bought into culture’s fatalistic norms about sex? Yes”

    I don’t follow. The book, as you describe it, offers “only one page…of reference to same sex coupling.” But then you write “”While same sex activity gets all the attention…” I can only assume you mean the second sentence to refer to something other than the book. But, to what? To the culture in general? If so, your assertion is clearly false. The unclear writing and argumentation continues throughout. I certainly agree that adults in all kinds of moral communities need to educate kids about sex, love, romance, etc. But, when we live in a hyper-Puritanical and hypocritical society that imposes “abstinence only” policies in communities with scandalously high teenage pregnancy and std rates (think Lubbock, for example), it is difficult to have open and frank discussions. Personally, I think we should encourage young people to have good, considerate sex–good, meaningful,and fun sexual activity being a part of human health.

    Comment by Clarification, Please | May 4, 2012 | Reply

    • The “all the attention” reference is to the United Methodist General Conference.

      Comment by steverankin | May 4, 2012 | Reply

      • Ah. It would help the general reader to make this a bit more clear. But I understand now. It is in general a good idea to talk about sex in its varieties in an open conversation with religious leaders and educators.

        Comment by Clarification, Please | May 4, 2012

  4. […] Rankin writes a book review that  serves also as a critique of our denominational conversations about sex. His central point? […]

    Pingback by Rankin: Sex and the UMC | John Meunier | November 28, 2013 | Reply

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