Article by medical doctor and sexologist, Patricia Weerakoon.
We live in a culture soaked in sex. From sexy clothes for children, medicalisation of sexual desire, genital reconstructive surgery and pornography, we have sexualised, objectified and commodifies our bodies and our sex lives, and some would say our very souls. The very tools that provide us with information and relaxation feed our brains with a diet of varied, perverse and outright dangerous sexual mores and values. Our brains pick up the world’s seductive siren call and allow it to direct our behaviour.
Sex sells – and how!
We are entertained by TV screens, video games and the internet. In Australia, children aged five to 17 years spend 1 ½ hours per day watching TV and over 30 minutes a day using the internet for non-homework purposes, not counting time on their iPhone. The data is not much different for adults, who spend an average of 13 hours a week watching TV. So what? You may ask. It’s just for relaxation. But stop and consider. Collected sex scenes (16 minutes) from one of the most popular TV series today contains every form of sex – from full frontal nudity, to voyeurism, rape, incest, homosexual sex and violence. In fact, at least six former porn stars act in series three of this blockbuster. Family shows on TV normalise homosexual sex, premarital sex, extramarital affairs and incest.
What about the internet? Cyber-communication and ease of internet access has resulted in a generation of digital natives. Information on anything and everything is available literally at our fingertips. Living in a global cyber-village, friends are counted by Facebook contacts, and identity is an on-line profile or avatar. Knowledge is available 24-7 and mates and acquaintances only a click away. This burgeoning arena of technological prospects comes with a dark side – porn.
The porn industry generates $13 billion each year in the US. The average age at which young people first view pornography is said to be between 11 and 13 years. The negative effects of porn use on sexual attitudes, values and behaviour of both boys and girls have been clearly documented in Australia and internationally. Added to this is the constant bombardment of sexualised images, videos and advertisements.
Whereas this super-sexualisation of our teens and even our children is recognised and reacted to with abhorrence, parents, teachers and the church community feel helpless and often hopeless to counter it. We abrogate the sex talk to schools, but, although well intentioned, sex education in schools is undergirded by individualistic rights-based values of self-gratification, where self-control and purity are non-existent. Where does that leave us?
We see the results in the mental health and behaviour of our youth. There is a dramatic rise in hospitalisation for self-harm. In a Mission Australia survey 42.1% of girls and 14.4% of boys indicated body image as their number one concern, with a consequent increase in eating disorders and unhealthy dieting practices. One in four young people aged 16-24 years (26%) have a mental disorder and, overall, 40% of young people that age have experienced a mental disorder at some point in their lives. Globally men and women seek medication and plastic surgery to enhance and modify their body and genitals to some pornified image of ‘perfection’.
How do we as Christians – whether young or old, single or married, parenting or members of a church nurturing youth, lead lives of sexual integrity in a sexualised culture?
The foundational need for a life of sexual integrity is the development of a Bible-based rather than world-based sense of identity, including sexual identity. Building on this is an understanding of God’s plan for a redeemed model of sex and sexuality, and the ability to understand and critique unhealthy world views on sex. It is then that we can live a life of sexual integrity and demonstrate it to a fallen world.
Identity based on the Word and not the world. Our society surrounds us with challenges and role models of perceived perfection. ‘Be like me!’ the idols of the world scream out to us. ‘Look at me – I am the super athlete, the mega millionaire businessman, the catwalk model, the movie star, a self-sacrificial charity worker. Desire what I have, what I am – now work at being and doing what I portray. It will surely make you happy and fulfilled’.
And so we try to work harder at looking good getting more, even being better, more moral and giving more to charity. We build our identity and self-worth based on performance and possession. But wait a minute. Everyone around us is doing the same thing. So, to be truly significant and stand out in the crowd, we have to be better than and/or have more than the other person. We achieve something; get something; feel proud of who we are and what we have. Then realise that there is always someone who has more or is better than we are. This strikes at the very core of our identity and self-worth. We end up disappointed, frustrated, hopeless and depressed.
The Bible offers us an identity that is not based on our performance or possession. Not even on our goodness – however virtuous that may be.
The Bible tells us that we are created by God in his image – as embodied and gendered male and female (Genesis 1, 2) and known by him (Psalm 139) for the fallen, sinful and imperfect people we are (Romans 3:10-18). God knows our inmost thoughts and desires. The ones we act on and the ones we keep hidden from our friends and even family. God knows our history and our hurts. He understands the pain of sexual abuse and neglect; the struggles with porn and the grief of same sex desires.
And in Jesus’ death and resurrection we see God’s solution. Our self-worth and our identity as redeemed people is a free gift of grace.
Romans 3:23-24 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
That is an identity worth having – one that makes us children of God and adopted brothers and sisters with Jesus (Ephesians 1:2-10, Romans 8:15).
How do we live out this redeemed Christ-based identity in our sexualised world?
The need for a redeemed model of sex
A sexualised culture assumes that sexual satisfaction is a pre-requisite for a normal healthy life. It takes for granted that an individual has the right to define what it means to ‘be sexually satisfied’. Therefore no-one, least of all ‘God’ or ‘the Church’ has the right to decide how a person should desire, feel or act sexually – other than him or herself.
This is narcissistic individualism-hedonism on steroids. Anyone who tried to stop me from achieving sexual satisfaction – whatever that means for me – is at best old-fashioned, and at worst downright oppressive and evil.
Sexual desire, the testosterone driven appetite for sex is perceived a ‘natural’ need that must be met – not controlled. Pornography, fetishes, paraphilia, same sex attraction are all normal – so why should I not fulfil my desires, even if it results in compulsive porn use or infidelity? The only things that prevent the fulfilment of my ‘natural needs’ would be legal and moral limitations – and sometimes not even that – resulting in sexual abuse and rape.
What about falling in love? That cosmic dopamine fuelled thrill of limerance? Love is seen as equivalent to lust. So “I love you” means “I want to be sexually intimate with you”, I want to possess your body for the orgasmic thrill I get. It would be good if you enjoy it too. But what is truly important is my enjoyment – my feelings. Sexual gratification is detached from committed, monogamous heterosexual relationships. This means that I will move on when I no longer have the feeling, because I have to be true to myself. And so we have casual sex, one night stands, hook-ups, friends with privileges, booty buddies, premarital sex, cohabitation, de-fact relationships. The age of first intercourse is dropping, with 80% of year 10-12 students sexually active in some way and about a quarter of year 10 and half of year 12 students reporting that they have had sexual intercourse. Many young people say they were coerced and regret having sex early. Further, research indicates that cohabitation as a ‘try before you buy’ model of marriage is unsuccessful with a higher divorce rate, more dissatisfaction in marriage and marital dysfunction.
What of marriage? We are told that marriage as a one man one woman, committed, lifelong relationship is an outdated institution. We can make marriage what we wish because it is about love. Infidelity is good for a relationship and we should accept that monogamy is outdated and learn to accept ‘monogamish’ relationships.
Where does this leave Christians? How can we live by the Biblical view of sex, love and marriage in a sexualised world? And what is God’s pattern anyway?
To do this we need to turn our focus away from a world view of sex. We need to develop a new vision of our sexuality and a pattern of living that reflects the blessing of sex given to us by God. Sex is a wonderful and precious gift to be treated with care and honour when single, and enjoyed in marriage and, like all parts of our lives, used to bring God glory.
To do this, firstly, we need an evangelical, theological understanding of sex: a perspective on what it means to be sexual and behave sexually; one that is soaked through with the gospel of Jesus Christ, God incarnate.
Secondly, we need to be empowered to take on the world view and live our lives as the apostle Peter says in 1 Peter 2:12:
“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
God’s pattern for good sex
In a Biblical model, the “I want” of sexual desire is good – when co-ordinated with the other aspects of our sexual function. It’s meant to operate in harmony with falling in love with a particular person. Sexual desire is powerful: Three times in Song of Songs (2:7; 3:5; 8:4) we read:
“Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.”
It is also purposeful: It goes right back to creation, where God gave man and woman a command and made the fulfilment of the command a delightful experience. In Genesis 1 we read:
“…in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number…’”
And in Genesis 2 we see Adam’s excitement when he meets Eve:
Genesis 2:23 “The man (Adam) said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.”
Research tells us that what we feed our brain, especially in the developing teen years, will affect what we desire and value in life. Any wonder that the apostle Paul emphasises the importance of what we feed our brains. In Philippians 4:8, he writes:
“…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
So God’s pattern for dealing with desire, including sexual desire, means feeding good and pure things to our brain from early childhood; turning away from that which is impure whether it be TV, internet or porn and soaking our thinking in God’s word for life and sex.
But what of the argument “If I am created with specific desires, I can’t help but live them out”?
This assumes that humans are emotion and pleasure driven organisms, powerless to refuse to act on a desire. But we know this is not true. Humans are not Bonobo Monkeys or Chimpanzees. We are created with a cerebral cortex capable of integrating impulses, comparing it with past experiences and making executive decisions on actions. We choose how we respond to our desires.
The Apostle Paul speaks of self-control as a fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22-24:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
The ability to turn away from self-gratification and crucify our passions and desires does not come easily to us. It is God’s grace that enables us to be sanctified. It is the will of God.
1 Thessalonians 4:3-4 “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable.”
The ultimate desire of the human soul, body and brain is a relationship with God. The desire for earthly relationships and intimacy is a reflection of this. And so we enjoy our sexual desire in the context that God gives us – a one flesh marriage relationship.
What about love?
In God’s plan, love is not a narrative of self-expression and self-realisation. It is not about finding a soul mate who “completes me”, in which I assume that who “I am” is a given, and that you love “me” authentically only if you respect me exactly as I am, as if “I” is somehow sacred. Rather, love is a way to focus the energy of sexual desire towards the other person. So that the “I love you” means I honour you and care for you. It is an intimacy based on total vulnerability and ultimate trust of body and soul. In Genesis 2:24-25, we read:
“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”
How would this work out in a couple’s life?
Dating and engaged couples would seek to honour rather than possess the lover’s body, building non-sexual intimacy as they train for a lifetime of being a trustworthy spouse. Marrieds would demonstrate love in action accommodating another rather than expecting the other to accommodate self. Sacrificing, and often forgiving, in grace.
The once flesh loving becomes other-focused, sacrificial action. It is a cruciform reaching out to the other – sometimes when the other seems unworthy of our love.
Christ laid down his life for the church to make her holy, an act which the apostle Paul analogizes to the love of a husband and wife and the husband’s call to wash his wife with the word (Ephesians 5:25-33).
Marriage in God’s plan is a covenant. One in which we live – till death part us. It is not some ideal we aspire to. Making love in marriage is a sacramental act – one in which we remember and celebrate the covenant commitment. A covenant to which God is witness (Proverbs 2:17; Malachi 2:14).
Researchers tell us that the crazy brain intoxication of love lasts for 18-24 months. If we stay together, and are sexually intimate, the levels of bonding hormones (oxytocin and vasopressin) rise in our brain. This binds the two lovers together. The more intimate, the more the bonding. God graciously gives us a brain mechanism for a one flesh relationship for life.
Sexual desire, falling in love and marriage lived according to God’s plan is good for us individually, as a couple, our church and for society as a whole. Living God’s way will sometimes be hard. As the apostle Peter says in 1 Peter 4:4:
“They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you.”
We recognise that we can’t do it on our own. But we recognise the immensity of the god we worship and live our lives to bring him glory. Doing our best and resting on his grace – continuing to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who works in us to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose (Philippians 2:12b-13).
The word of God written in the Bible and incarnate in his son Jesus gives us hope for our sex life. Whatever age we may be, or whatever stage of life we may be at. Whether we are sexually inexperienced, sexually active or even sinned against. It is a hope we can rest on while we live our lives here on earth. But finally, it is the wonderful hope of a new creation of perfect untainted relationship with our creator God and his son Jesus.
Read more from Patricia Weerakoon at patriciaweerakoon.com.
This article was first published in the June 2014 glossy edition of RISE magazine. See back issues here.
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