Sexual Illiteracy

By Rosemary Radford Reuther
Summer 2003

In 1989 I spent a sabbatical in South Africa lecturing at various universities throughout the country. This included a pleasant week with the faculty of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of the Transkei, an area then defined as a separate “Bantustan,” or homeland, in South Africa. In a memorable conversation, one of the professors, Ephraim Mosothoane, described to me how local Africans had traditionally managed young people’s sexual development and how Christian missionaries had then sabotaged a perfectly functioning system.

According to Mosothoane, in the traditional societies of the region the grandmothers supervised a group of huts where the young people were allowed to come and engage in free sexual experimentation. The older women taught them how to satisfy each other sexually and how to avoid pregnancy. After this period of sexual experimentation, young people married and were expected to be faithful to one partner. But the key was that they went into marriage experienced in how to give one another pleasure and equipped to elect or avoid pregnancy.

When the missionaries came, they were horrified at this practice, seeing it as sexual license, and demanded that it be stopped. The missionaries sought to teach the local Africans their own values of sexual abstinence before marriage. The result was a disaster with premarital pregnancies happening for the first time. Young people didn’t stop sexual experimentation before marriage, but they now did so clandestinely, without learning how to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

Bush’s Puritanism

The recent announcement about the US government’s funding for AIDS prevention in Africa is a similar example of Western puritanical missionary zeal that seems likely to add to the social disasters of African life. At the request of President George W. Bush, the US Congress passed a $15 billion initiative to combat AIDS worldwide, but aimed primarily at Africa. Several congressmen succeeded in earmarking a third of the funds for prevention for “abstinence-unless-married” programs. Representative Mike Pence (Republican, Indiana) revealed the missionary impulse underlying this demand when he opined that it was not enough to send billions of dollars to Africa without sending “values that work.”

The slogan “Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms” (ABC) has been coined to describe this approach to AIDS prevention. The slogan was adapted from a program developed in Uganda, but with an emphasis on “abstinence alone” for the unmarried that was not part of the Ugandan program. This effort to impose Western sexual morality on Africans in the AIDS crisis not only does not represent values that will work in Africa, but also is based on “values” that have never “worked” in the United States or indeed any place in the Western world.

In Christian cultures, abstinence before marriage has always been based on an unadmitted double standard that is both sexist and classist. “Good” girls are supposed to be abstinent before marriage, while boys “sow their wild oats” with “bad (lower class) girls” who are not socially acceptable marriage partners. To keep the “good girls” chaste before marriage they were traditionally segregated and denied free access to public society.

The marriage night then became a nightmare for many young women. Without sexual experience they were, in effect, raped by young husbands whose previous sexual experience came from exploitative relationships with servant women and prostitutes. The young bride went into marriage without knowledge of how to experience pleasure or prevent pregnancy. The result was continual pregnancies, without access to birth control or abortion, under conditions that often kept women from ever experiencing sexuality as pleasurable. Sexuality for women was synonymous with subjugation–a loss of control over their own bodies.

Sexual Ethics

Modern societies have sought to change this situation, allowing women education, legal autonomy, paid employment and personal freedom. But the sexual morality of traditional puritanical patriarchal Christianity has never been adequately rethought. Instead the “sexual revolution” was simply construed as making all young girls available to young men who wanted to “sow their wild oats” without taking responsibility for the results. Girls should now have the same premarital sexual license as boys, but without changing the male sexually exploitative mentality. Young girls were supposed to learn quickly how to have sexual pleasure or prevent pregnancies, but without any help or accountability from adults or their male partners.

The result was often a strange doublethink on the part of supposedly emancipated young women. In the early 1970s, while visiting Cornell University for some lectures, a woman professor revealed how the faculty was startled by the number of college women getting pregnant out of wedlock. These were not young women without education or means to secure contraception. But mentally they seemed to be trapped between two contrary ethics, virtue defined as abstinence before marriage and sexual freedom defined on male terms. Young women imagined that their acquiescence to a boyfriend’s sexual demands was “innocent” as long as the sexual intercourse occurred “spontaneously” and they had not prepared for it by using contraception themselves or demanding that the boy use a condom. The result was pre-ordained; many Cornell women either had to seek abortions or drop out of college due to pregnancy.

The Christian Right, Catholic and Protestant, is trying to roll back the sexual revolution by returning to a patriarchal puritanism based on a classist separation of females into “good” girls and “bad” girls, exploiting the bad girls while denying the good girls personal freedom. Clearly the feminist revolution that gained women personal freedom and access to public life has been hampered by the failure to define a sexual ethic of responsible mutuality between males and females.

The recent announcement about the US government’s funding for AIDS prevention in Africa is an example of Western puritanical missionary zeal that seems likely to add to the social disasters of African life.

Feminism is falsely blamed for a sexual promiscuity that often results in pregnancies outside marriage. Society has not faced up to the fact that what is causing this situation is an unreformed male ethic of sexual exploitation that was always the underside of official patriarchal puritanism. This is what I have called the “puritan-prurient” syndrome; that is, a male ethic of sexual repression of one group of women that one marries, and sexual exploitation of another group of women that one does not marry. What is needed is a definition of an egalitarian feminist sexual ethic of mutual accountability. This is what Dr. Sheila Briggs has called an alternative ABC: Accountability, Be responsible, use Condoms.

In the last chapter of my book, Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (2000), I sought to define such a feminist sexual ethic. This ethic is based on the assumption that good sexuality is achieved through a process of learning and experience. One doesn’t jump in feet first at some moment when sexuality is allowed, having previously been totally banned (i.e. the wedding night). Like the traditional African system, we need to imagine a framework for such a process of learning.

In my book I suggest a process of learning how to integrate eros and philia (sexual pleasure and friendship) and then to integrate erosphilia and agape (sexual pleasure, friendship and loving care for others). We should think of at least a two-stage process of such sexual integration. In the first stage of young people’s lives they should learn how to give sexual pleasure to one another without getting pregnant. This entails adults helping them to learn about their own sexuality in a way that would endorse both sexual pleasure and contraception. It assumes that young people can engage in sexual experimentation before they are ready for reproduction, perhaps “going steady” with a partner, in a way that connects sexual pleasure and contraception with friendship; i.e. accountable, responsible relationships.

That decision to form a permanent relationship, that might or might not include child raising, would come later, and would follow learning how to enjoy sex, prevent unwanted pregnancy and form responsible relationships. Is this so shocking, so hard to imagine? I think this is what many young people are already doing. But they are doing it under a cloud of disapproval and hypocritical doublethink on the part of their parents, teachers and pastors. It makes it very difficult for them to progress along the path to personal sexual maturity in a secure and self-confident way. Americans can hardly attempt to impose their sexual values on others when their own sexual values do not work for themselves and their children.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, an editorial adviser to Conscience and a CFC board member.

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