A few weeks ago, I assigned the article “What is Marriage?” to the students in my gender theory class, which I teach at an evangelical university. This article presents an in-depth defense of the conjugal view of marriage, and I included it on the reading list as part of my efforts to expose students to a range of viewpoints—religious and secular, progressive and conservative. The goal is to create robust civil dialogue, and, ideally, to pave the way for thoughtful Christian contributions to cultural understandings of sex and gender. The one promise I make to my students at the beginning of the course is that they are guaranteed to read something they will find disagreeable, probably even offensive.
That promise used to be easier to keep.
When I first began teaching this course, my students were certainly curious about questions of gender, sexuality, feminism—the various “hot button” issues of our cultural moment—but they were nonetheless devout, and demonstrated, more or less, a Christian orientation to these topics. It wasn’t hard to find readings that challenged students’ shared values and assumptions, considering the secular bent of contemporary gender studies.
In just five years, however, this has changed. Students now arrive in my class thoroughly versed in the language and categories of identity politics; they are reticent to disagree with anything for fear of seeming intolerant—except, of course, what they perceive to be intolerant. Like, for example, “What is Marriage?”
My students hated it, as I suspected they would. They also seemed unable to fully understand the argument. As I tried to explain the reasoning behind the conjugal view of marriage and its attitude toward sex, I received dubious stares in response. I realized, as I listened to the discussion, that the idea of “redefining” marriage was nonsensical to them, because they had never encountered the philosophy behind the conjugal view of marriage. To them, the Christian argument against same-sex marriage is an appeal to the authority of a few disparate Bible verses, and therefore compelling only to those with a literalist hermeneutic. What the article names as a “revisionist” idea of marriage—marriage as an emotional, romantic, sexual bond between two people—does not seem “new” to my students at all, because this is the view of marriage they were raised with, albeit with a scriptural, heterosexual gloss.
While I listened to my students lambast the article, it struck me that, on one level, they were right: marriage isn’t in danger of being redefined; the redefinition began decades ago, in the wake of the sexual revolution. Once the link between sexuality and procreation was severed in our cultural imagination, marriage morphed into an exclusive romantic bond that has only an arbitrary relationship to reproduction. It is this redefinition, arguably, that has given rise to the same-sex marriage movement, rather than the other way around, and as the broader culture has shifted on this issue, so have many young evangelicals.
As I consider my own upbringing and the various “sex talks” I encountered in evangelical church settings over the past twenty years, I realize that the view of marital sex presented there was primarily revisionist. While the ideal of raising a family is ever-present in evangelical culture, discussions about sex itself focused almost exclusively on purity, as well as the intense spiritual bond that sexual intimacy brings to a married couple. Pregnancy was mentioned only in passing and often in negative terms, paraded alongside sexually transmitted diseases as a possible punishment for those who succumb to temptation. But for those who wait, ah! Pleasures abound!
There was little attempt to cultivate an attitude toward sexuality that celebrates its full telos: the bonding of the couple and the incarnation of new life. And there was certainly no discussion of a married couple learning to be responsive to their fertility, even as a guiding principle. To the contrary, the narrative implied that once the “waiting” was over, self-discipline would no longer be necessary. Marriage would be a lifelong pleasure romp. Sex was routinely praised as God’s gift to married couples—a “gift” largely due to its orgasmic, unitive properties, rather than its intrinsic capacity to create life.
The conjugal understanding of marriage, as articulated by Girgis et al, depends upon a view of sex that, in my experience, is not predominant in evangelicalism. Take Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage as a recent, if extreme, example. With its celebration of anal sex and breast augmentation as marital sex aids, Real Marriage is emblematic of how deeply the ideals of the sexual revolution have permeated our culture, even to its evangelical corners.
To my students, the authors of “What is Marriage?” are making a troubling move, reducing the purpose of marital sex to its reproductive function. What they seemed less able to recognize is that they have inherited the inverse: a view of sex with little meaningful connection to procreation. And once such a view of sexuality is embraced, there is not much foothold, aside from appeals to biblical authority, to support the conjugal understanding of marriage.
Abigail Rine, Ph.D., is assistant professor of english at George Fox University.