I’m not much of a gardener, but I know enough to know that before you can fill up a flower bed with flowers, you’ve got to get rid of the weeds. If the weeds remain, the flowers may grow and do their best, but the weeds will always get in their way and the flower bed will never look as beautiful as it could.
In a way, the same is true of our understanding of sex. God’s view on sex is good and life-giving, but often the weeds of our culture's view of sex get in the way and obscure that beauty. That’s why, in addition to being aware what the Bible says about sex, it’s important that we know what the secular world says about sex. When we do, we’re able to spot the weeds and uproot them so that we can truly see, and experience, the beauty of the God’s perspective on sex.
So, what are the misunderstandings about sex that are common in the world around us? Here are a few important ones.
Sex is just about pleasure
Many people think sex is just about pleasure. It’s just a bit of fun that makes us feel good. This is the sort of thinking that lies behind so-called ‘hook-up culture’. If sex is just about enjoying a fun activity, why not do it with a load of random strangers who you’ll probably never see again?
Sex is pleasurable, but it’s not just about pleasure. Simple biology tells us this. Sexual activity causes the release of oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the ‘bonding hormone’. It’s the same hormone that is released when a woman gives birth or breastfeeds her baby, and it helps to foster relational connections. It’s no wonder then that no-strings sex often seems to have strings attached. 1
And this fits with what the Bible says. Sex is about pleasure, but it’s also about much more. Sex unites two people to become ‘one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). And this isn’t just about the moment of sexual union, it’s also an ongoing union which remains after the act (Matthew 19:5-6). In this way, sex is powerful, and because it’s powerful, when used badly it’s dangerous.
Sex is about identity
A common misconception in the world around us is that our sexual desires are our identity and that we therefore need to embrace and express them in order to experience true satisfaction.
However, our sexual desires are a terrible basis in which to root our identity. To give us a good sense of self-worth and value we need an identity that is static and stable, but our sexual desires are not static and stable, they can change and even conflict, and we all know that we might experience desires – even sexual desires – that are not good and that we wouldn’t claim as our identity.
Our sexual desires are a terrible basis in which to root our identity.
The reality is, true identity can only come from our Creator. The Bible tells us that the God-given identity of every human is as one who bears the image of God and that the best identity is available to anyone who trusts in Jesus for salvation: the identity of a child of God. This is a solid, stable, truly life-giving identity. And this means that we will find true satisfaction when we embrace and express this identity. When it comes to our sexual desires, that means either being sexually active in an opposite-sex marriage or celibate in singleness.
Sex is a need
Many people believe that sex is a need: something that is truly necessary to living and flourishing. Sometimes sex is presented as a biological need, required to maintain good health. At other times it is presented as an adulthood need, something we need to experience in order to be a true adult. This latter attitude is seen in popular media when adults who are not having sex are presented as odd, juvenile figures (for example Andy in The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Sheldon in early seasons of The Big Bang Theory).
But there’s no evidence that sex is something we actually need. A lack of sex doesn’t cause physical or mental health problems. 2 And in what way is someone who has never had sex not a real adult? Where’s the evidence that sex has some great transformative effect such that through it we become a better or more mature person?
As Christians, we can be certain that sex isn’t a human need because of Jesus. Jesus is the most perfect example of what it means to be a human, and yet he lived as a man who was single and who never had sex. Jesus shows us that sex is not a human need.
Sex is the only form of intimacy
A final common misconception is the idea that sex is the only form of intimacy and the only way we can really feel loved. We see this in our culture’s suspicion of very close same-sex friendships, especially among guys. That suspicion gets projected back onto our reading of history (such as David and Jonathan in the Old Testament) and lies behind a whole genre of films: bromances. The comedy of a bromance relies on the idea that all intimacy is sexual. Can these two guys really be so close and there not be something sexual about it? The conclusion quickly follows: if sex is the only form of intimacy and we all need intimacy, we all need sex.
The conclusion quickly follows: if sex is the only form of intimacy and we all need intimacy, we all need sex.
It’s probably true that sex provides a different experience of intimacy, but it’s not true that it’s the only place our God-given need for human intimacy can be met. It’s also not true that sex is the only way physical intimacy can be experienced. Non-sexual physical intimacy is possible and often important. Physical touch is one of the primary ways that I receive love and so, for me, a hug from a friend, or even just sitting close to a friend on the sofa, is important to help me experience the love and intimacy I’m created to need.
In light of this, it’s significant that the Bible talks about Christians as new family. It is within the Church that our need for love and intimacy can be met, even if we are not married and having sex. And again, Jesus is the ultimate proof of this. A man who never had sex, but who recognised those who do God’s will as his family (Mark 3:31-35) and lived in intimate, but non-sexual, relationship with his closest friends.
Time for some weeding
These misunderstandings are like weeds that will get in the way of the beauty of God’s plan for sex. And the reality is, we live in a culture where the seeds of these weeds are being scattered everywhere every day. Because of that, if we want to continue seeing and experiencing the beauty of God’s plan, we need to learn to recognise and ruthlessly uproot these weeds.
- Justin Garcia, ‘Sexual hook-up culture’, Monitor on Psychology. Accessed 15 October 2020: ‘Despite their increasing social acceptability, however, developing research suggests that sexual hookups may leave more strings attached than many participants might first assume.'
- Kim, Tam & Muennig, ‘Sociodemographic Correlates of Sexlessness Among American Adults and Associations with Self-Reported Happiness Levels: Evidence from the U.S. General Social Survey’, Archives of Sexual Behaviour: ‘The purported detrimental impact of sexlessness on self-reported happiness levels was not evident in this large, nationally representative study after adjusting for sociodemographic factors. Sexless Americans reported very similar happiness levels as their sexually active counterparts.’ Muise, Schimmack & Impett, ‘Sexual Frequency Predicts Greater Well-Being, But More is Not Always Better’, Social Psychological and Personality Science: ‘[T]he association between sexual frequency and well-being is only significant for people in relationships.’