Women’s Bodyrights and Christian Sexual Ethics

For at least twenty years, western feminist theologians working in the field of sexual ethics have been wrestling with questions about human sexuality. Critical of oppressive, androcentric perspectives in traditional Christian sexual ethics, feminist scholars have argued for a comprehensive revision of Christian thought in sexuality issues, – a revision that would, instead of denying women the moral right to control their own bodies, affirm and respect women’s bodyself and bodyright.

In their diverse approaches to theological sexual ethics, feminist theologians usually share three ambitions: 1) to evaluate and critique actions, practices, systems, structures and ideologies that perpetuate women’s subordination; 2) to develop morally acceptable ways to resist the dissimilar causes of women’s subordination; and 3) to visualize morally feasible alternatives to the sexist, heterosexist and racist culture that is identified within Western Christian civilization (Jaggar 1992, Nelson 1978, Robb 1985, Gudorf 1994, Bóasdóttir 1998, Ellison & Thorson-Smith 2003).

Evaluation and critique

Essentially, the challenge for feminist theological sexual ethics has been to deconstruct the androcentric foundations of Christian moral traditions that underlie the harmful construction of women’s sexuality. First, feminist theologians have critiqued the devaluation of sex in the Christian tradition. The negative focus on sexuality in Christianity, as well as the low status of sexual pleasure in the Christian tradition, is seen as highly problematic. Platonism, one dominant force in the development of Christendom, was distrustful of the body in general and of sex in particular. This view was readily adopted as the writings of all the major fathers in the early Church reveal (Jantzen 1995).

 

Of all the Church fathers, however, the most influential was St. Augustine, who made close connections between sin and sex. (Augustine 1952, 1971). Christine Gudorf argues that he regarded sexual pleasure as dangerous because he considered it irresistible (Gudorf 1994, 82-84). Seen as irresistible, sexual pleasure in St. Augustine’s view is a powerful and unmanageable passion, resulting in the loss of rational control. Overpowering sexual pas¬sion leads to carelessness and neglect of moral duties toward our neighbors. The low value given to sexual pleasure, Gudorf argues, can also be attributed to Thomas Aquinas, who stressed that sexual pleasure is something we have in common with animals.

According to Aquinas, sexuality is part of human lower nature, not the higher rational nature that links us to God. In Aquinas’ view, sexual pleasure, as such, is not morally wrong, but in order to be justified, it must be oriented to a more human end. That end was procreation (Aquinas 1964). Feminist theologians claim that the close connection between sexuality and procreation are due to male experience; because orgasm is nearly equivalent with ejaculation for men, the exclusive purpose of sex was constructed as procreation (Jung 2001, 77-95).

A second element to be critically highlighted is the neglect of women’s wellbeing in Christian sexual ethics. One reason for this inadequacy, feminist theologians argue, is that men, rather than women, have shaped the theological discourse in sexual ethics, and that they have failed to take into consideration the different experiences of women. The sexual well-being of women during intimate sexual activities was never considered from a Christian standpoint, Patricia B. Jung argues, “so foreign was it to the experience of most men” (Jung 2001, 91). Karen Lebacqz adds that conventional androcentric perspectives in Christian sexual ethics do not recognize the links between violence and sexuality in the experiences of women.

To be able to do that, one has to view sexuality as ideologically and culturally shaped, and to account for women’s experiences. Instead of making these connections, most theological sexual ethics eroticizes men’s dominance (Lebacqz 1994, 244-246). Given sociological facts, it is difficult to deny that sexuality and violence are linked in the experiences of women. For Christian sexual ethics to ignore this social reality and urge women to seek intimacy in an arena which is unsafe for them, fraught with sexual violence and power struggle, is ethically inadequate (Bóasdóttir 1998, 175-179).

Development: bodyright – mutual sexual pleasure

Feminist theologians stress mutuality in sexual pleasure as an ethical criterion for sexual activity. The reason so much attention has been paid to this issue is the history of Christian repression of sexual pleasure, its pervasive fear of sex and of strong passion that has led to a violent and unhealthy culture which is especially dangerous to women, but even problematic for men and for sexual minorities, i.e. gays/lesbians and bisexual people. Any failure to include one’s partner in sexual pleasure is a violation of the Christian imperative to love one’s neighbor, and even, a rejection of the social function of sex which is dependent upon the mutuality of pleasure (Heyward 1989, Fortune 1995, Ellison 1996).

Christine Gudorf points out that mutual consent to sex can be seen as an extremely radical moral criterion, given existing sexual practice both in Western society and elsewhere. Mutual consent to sex is however, a much less radical criterion than mutuality in sexual pleasure. Sex can be formally consented to but, because of power differences it does not aim at mutual sexual pleasure. Examples of this are sex with children, with prostitutes and sex between superiors and subordinates (Gudorf 1994). Mind/body dualism, sees life composed of two antagonistic elements: spirit, which is good and eternal, and flesh or matter, which is temporal, corruptible and corrupting. The heritage of this pervasive dualism in the Christian West, Christine Gudorf continues, is further the root of the failure to recognize bodyright. In her view, the absence of bodyright in Western culture is directly attributable to patriarchal ideology. But what is bodyright? It is a moral right that humans have to control their own bodies. The incapability to implement that control seriously hinders a person’s ability to become responsible a moral agent (ibid).

Feminist theologians criticize Christian dualistic anthropology as well as antiwoman and anti-body dualisms, claiming that bodyright is the most foundational human right of all. Evidence of pervasive sexual violence against women and children also shows that this is one of the most violated human rights. Global research reveals that sexual violence has appalling effects on the victims. The struggle to move Western Christian culture toward more complete respect for bodyright is both a feminist and a theological claim. The link between theology and the moral claim of bodyright shows alternative vision of God as the loving parent who created our bodyselves and calls all persons into full adulthood as co-creators of the universe. A feminist moral vision is that all sexual relationships, including marriage, would change if bodyright were respected. This would happen if all sexual unions would be based in mutuality (ibid).

Conclusion: Sexual health and well-being

Feminist theologians working in the field of sexual ethics have an important contribution to make to global feminist ethics and even to the fields of international human rights laws and development theory. Here I am thinking especially of the moral principles of human well-being and mutuality in sexual pleasure, fundamental in feminist theological discourse on sexual ethics. These offer potential resources as well as correctives for social change. In this respect, feminist theologians have already made a valuable contribution to the improvement of human sexual health and well-being across the globe, as can be discerned in a recent document, Promotion of Sexual Health, which focuses on a number of recommendations for action. Under the headline Rationale, some of the most important developmentsconcerning sexual health in the past twenty-five years are considered.

Three out of eight areas in this development are recognized by the Promotion of Sexual Health document as directly linked to feminist scholarly thinking and feminist activist work. These areas include feminist contributions on 1) the social construction of gender and human sexuality, 2) sexual violence and 3) women’s human rights and sexual rights. All three areas mentioned in the document represent important areas of commitment in the feminist theological struggle to enhance women’s health and well-being across cultural and national boundaries.

Feminist thinking in the field of theological sexual ethics puts forward visions of wholeness, health and healing in their understanding of human sexuality. Thus, the development of feminist theological sexual ethics has paralleled the development of social justice movements, especially the women’s movement. The moral concern of feminist theologians is to enhance women’s health and well-being in the whole world. That concern implies incorporating human rights perspectives, thereby supporting the global human rights movement. I consider this one of the great tasks of feminist, theological sexual ethics in the future: to make strong connection to human rights theories and human rights movements.

By Sólveig Anna Bóasdóttir

Notes:

Aquinas, Thomas (1964): Summa Theologiae 1:82:1,1 (McGraw-Hill: New York).

Augustine (1952): “The City of God”, Ch. 14, in: The Fathers of the Church, vol. 14, trans. G. Walsh and G. Monohan (Father of the Church, Innc.: New York)

Augustine (1971): “On Marriage and Concupiscence,” in Philip Schaff, (ed.), The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers I:17 (Wm. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI)

Bóasdóttir, Sólveig Anna (1998): Violence, Power, and Justice. A Feminist Contribution to Christian Sexual Ethics. Uppsala University: Uppsala

Marvin Ellison (1996): Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality. Westminster/John Knox Press: Louisville

Marvin M. Ellison & Sylvia Thorson-Smith (eds) (2003). Body and Soul. Rethinking Sexuality as Justice-Love. The Pilgrim Press: Cleveland

Marie M. Fortune (1995): Love Does No Harm: Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us (Continuum: New York)

Christine Gudorf (1994): Body, Sex, and Pleasure (The Pilgrim Press: Cleveland, Ohio).

Carter Heyward (1998): Touching Our Strength. The Erotic as Power and the Love of God. Harper Publishers: San Francisco

Alison Jaggar (1992): “Feminist Ethics” in: Lawrence Becker with Charlotte Becker (eds) Encyclopedia of Ethics (Garland: New York).

Grace M. Jantzen (1995): Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, chapter 2.

Patrica Betty Jung (2001): “Sanctifying Women´s Pleasure” in: Jung, Hunt & Balakrishnan, Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religions (Rithgers University Press: London).

Karen Lebacqz (1994): “Love Your Enemy: Sex, Power, and Christian Ethics” in Lois K. Daly (ed.) Feminist Theological Ethics. A Reader. Westminster John Knox Press: Loisville.

James Nelson (1978): Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology. Augsburg Press: Minneapolis.

James Nelson (1984): Between Two Gardens: Reflections on Sexuality and Religious Experience Pilgrim Press: New York

Carol Robb (ed.) (1985): Making the Connections. Essays in Feminist Social Ethics. Harper & row: San Francisco.

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