“Purity” is a poor and abusive framework for sexual ethics. The notion of “sexual purity” has been weaponized against women while “purity culture,” most prototypically captured in Josh Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye, has been made into a tool of patriarchal and heterosexist dominance. While Harris has recently revisited the tone of the book, he remains committed to its basic thesis. His hemi-demi-semi retraction has led to the recent emergence of #stillpurityculture, a hashtag co-created by Emily Joy and Bethany Suckrow that proceeds from the observation that a kinder, gentler purity culture is still purity culture, and still embodies the same kinds of structural harm as more clearly repugnant presentations.
A rejection of “purity” as a concept, however, raises the question of what else sexual ethics might look like, particularly in a Christian key. If not purity, what are we aiming for in our sexual lives? I would like to suggest, following the dependency ethics introduced to me by Alasdair MacIntyre, that the notions of generosity, truthfulness, and acknowledged mutual vulnerability are more central to the core of Christian morality than the concept of purity, particularly as Jesus specifically repudiated “purity” as a category in his own ministry. These goals, I suggest, are more instructive than purity as a goal, without falling into the libertine hedonism that some conservative Christians fear may accompany a move away from “sexual purity” as a moral paradigm.
Moral reasoning based on the norms of the natural order has traditionally been referred to as natural theology or natural law thought. On the other hand, thinking that privileges the experiences of the individual or of the community that seeks to interpret the world has been labeled as “narrative theology.” We cannot, however, sharply divide these areas of thought. Because natural law seeks the conditions for human flourishing, it must accord with the experiences of actual humans. We must therefore take a phenomenological approach to understanding romantic love and sexuality: what they are for and when they are disordered.
Why do romantic love and sexuality emerge in humans in the first place? Many theorists suggest reproduction or social constructionism as evolutionary foundations of romantic love, but James Giles proposes a vulnerability and care theory that I find very persuasive and also compatible with the main themes of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. For Giles, “The experience of being in love involves a complex of desires for reciprocal vulnerability in order to care and be cared for.” Accordingly, sexual desire involves “the physical expression of these [romantic] desires in the form of desires for mutual baring in order to caress and be caressed.”
Vulnerability, dependence, and care are themes that have become central to Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the moral life. For some time, MacIntyre had worked to establish an account of morality that was purely sociological, based in communal practices and tradition. In the introduction to his 2001 Dependent Rational Animals, he writes, “I now judge that I was in error in supposing an ethics independent of biology to be possible.” MacIntyre thus seeks to reunite nature and narrative in his work.
Virtue always requires a telos, an end, a concrete conception of the good toward which actions should be oriented. Living morally as an embodied human, for MacIntyre, requires an awareness of two sets of irreducible biological facts: “Those concerning our vulnerabilities and afflictions and those concerning the extent of our dependence on particular others.” The most basic fact of human life is that each one of us is born and maintained alive in a state of moral debt. Within such a natural order, the fundamental virtues are ones of “acknowledged dependence,” of which MacIntyre emphasizes “just generosity” and “elementary truthfulness.”
Just generosity consists of three patterns of giving and receiving: affective/emotional relationships, hospitality, and openness to urgent need. Elementary truthfulness demands that we allow the other in any relationship to learn what they need to know, not concealing our own need to learn (that is, admitting our vulnerability), and not withdrawing from the circle of learning in some kind of “ironic detachment.” Just generosity and elementary truthfulness are at the same time obligations that we as humans owe to one another and skills in which we strive to grow.
What does this mean for our sexual lives in particular? What does it mean to be justly generous in our sexual lives, or to exercise truthfulness? It means, for instance, that sexual exploitation is unacceptable. It means that consent is respected and, indeed, prioritized. Generosity means that our sexual relationships cannot be only about taking, but must also be characterized by self-giving. Generosity also means that we will take steps to ensure that we are prepared to be parents, or else take steps to prevent it. Truthfulness means that we will self-disclose medical conditions that might affect our partners. Truthfulness also means that we will communicate clearly and honestly about our intentions, our hopes, our expectations. Additionally, we will recognize our mutual vulnerabilities. To be human is to be vulnerable, but the sexual relationship is among the most intentionally vulnerable we will ever be with another. To embrace this is to recognize the moral stakes involved.
It is important to note that this account of the meaning inherent in human embodiment does not rely on strict gender binary or gender subordination. All human beings are infinitely indebted. As MacIntyre notes, some debts are measurable, but every parent’s “initial commitments” are in “in important respects unconditional,” because we never know what becoming a parent will end up demanding of us, and the human race could not carry on without such unconditional commitment. Because all are infinitely indebted, all are equally bound to embrace the virtues of generosity and truthfulness, virtues that can only be established in relationship to particular others, that is, specific people as opposed to “humankind in general.” The reciprocal vulnerability of romantic relationships makes them a key institution for the cultivation of such virtues, and there is no compelling reason to presume that the genders of the individuals involved undoes that. Same-sex partners are as capable of generosity and truthfulness as opposite-sex partners, as these virtues do not rely on the natural subordination of one gender to another. Not only does gender subordination not figure into the virtues of acknowledged dependence, certain accounts of masculinity are toxic to them.
Indeed, given the configuration of our patriarchal culture, it is incumbent on men to recognize that the risks associated with being sexually active fall primarily on women. Cat-calling, domestic abuse, pregnancy, reputation are all areas that disproportionately affect women. Much of this is the direct result of the purity-culture mindset, but it is certainly the responsibility of men to understand this dynamic, to adapt themselves to it, and to work to correct it.
Ultimately, there is much left to be sketched out. This is a very small gesture toward a sexual ethic based in human dependency, truthfulness, generosity and mutual vulnerability. Still, I believe that this is a positive move away from purity culture, and I welcome thoughts, suggestions and critiques.