Normal Sex, Cat Person and Possible Futures image

Normal Sex, Cat Person and Possible Futures

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Christians can easily give in to a doomed fatalism when observing the flow of our culture. We live, after all, in a day of dystopias. A day of Black Mirror, not Thomas More. And while the world around us fears a technological apocalypse, characterised by genetic aberrations and robot overlords, our dreaded future is found at the end of an ethical slide, in a brave new world where polyamory, prostitution and incest have become standard practice.

And I could certainly see that happening. However, I do think that we need to realise that there is another way that this could play out – an alternative possible future that may be the answer to some of our prayers, but that would come with its own challenges too.

This all came up in a side line to a chat I was having with a friend about the short story ‘Cat Person’. The New Yorker published this piece in December and it went viral, winning its author, Kristen Roupenian, a seven-figure book deal. The story itself is a well written fictional account of a short relationship that ends rather badly. It certainly struck a chord. Many women identified closely with the protagonist Margot and the power imbalance evident in her relationship with the villainous Robert. My friend and I just wanted to bash around some of the big issues that seemed to be at play here (gender power dynamics, the patriarchy and suchlike) and in the midst of that conversation, my friend added as something of a footnote: ‘Okay, so here’s a suggestion in the light of the story – don’t have sex with someone you don’t know well.’

I think he had a point and I was reminded of his suggestion when the same friend brought my attention to the Aziz Ansari ‘scandal’ that erupted at the beginning of January. To get everyone on the same page, a woman (who isn’t actually) called Grace, wrote an account on the feminist blog, ‘Babe’ of a liaison she had with the comedian and Parks and Recreation star. Grace had met Ansari, they had connected in some way, went out on a date, went back to his apartment and had sex. She recounts how she felt increasingly uncomfortable as the evening went on and eventually left crying. Her response was to publicly shame Ansari for ‘the worst night of my life.’

Is Ansari a sexual abuser or simply an insensitive lover? Is Grace’s account a helpful revelation ‘so maybe the next girl doesn’t have to cry on the ride home’ (as she claims) or simply an act of revenge? These are the questions the world is asking. But as I read it, my friend’s suggestion reasserted itself and another question came to mind: ‘why not consider only having sex with someone you’re committed, or, dare I say it, even married to?’

To ask such a question a year ago could have seemed incredibly naïve, both by people who aren’t Christians and by Christians trying to find a relevant conversation starter in sparking questions of faith. Now, I wonder whether things are somewhat different.

The feminist writer Jessica Valenti defended ‘Grace’ by tweeting:

A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.

I recognise that we’d be coming from slightly different angles in this, but I agree with every word of this tweet.

I’m not saying that many people are asking the same question my friend and I are asking, or even that our question is as important as the other questions being asked. However, as these sort of conversations rumble on, I can imagine that the next time I do a talk on a Christian approach to sexual ethics, I may do it with a bit more oomph.

So back to possible futures. Isn’t it at least possible that these conversations in our culture could lead to a very different future from the one we’d often project? Could it be that these increasingly disturbing revelations of what ‘normal sexual encounters’ look like, and the complex problems they engender could, among other things, lead to a significant backlash against permissive libertarianism and a fresh openness to the idea that keeping sex exclusively in a long-term relationship is actually not such a bad thing?

Well, however this unravels in the cultural conversation, I think that Christians should see this as an excellent opportunity to come out of the bunker on issues of sex and relationships, and confidently let people know God’s wisdom in this area. His wisdom has always been wise, but while broken families, mental health problems and STI epidemics may not have convinced people of this, perhaps a realisation that ‘normal’ sexual encounters are actually not very fun (and ‘the patriarchy’ isn’t the only reason why) might strangely be the thing that makes us think again about this one. Maybe.

But such a future would have its challenges as well. An extreme illustration can be found by returning to the dystopias of our day. One of the most critically acclaimed TV series of last year was the adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The story unfolds in an imagined near future in which almost all women have lost the ability to have babies. The few who can still conceive and give birth are rounded up and forced into becoming surrogates for the rich and powerful. It is the religious backdrop to all of this that I found most interesting though. As a result of this catastrophe of infertility, the America of The Handmaid’s Tale has turned to religion. Convinced that it must be the result of some sort of divine judgement brought about by sexual immorality, the society of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has become very moralistic in a bid to appease whatever deity may have closed everyone’s wombs. Homosexual acts, and in fact, any unapproved sexual relationships receive the ultimate sanction.

This presents an interesting thought experiment for us- if we had to choose between today’s confused and dehumanising approach to sexual freedom and a future of pharisaical finger pointing and coercion, which would we choose?

I’m not suggesting that there’s a sudden crisis of fertility round the corner, but it could well be that the voices calling for a return to traditional values in this area become louder, and start to emanate more and more from outside of the church. I think we as Christians need to think carefully about what we would do in such a case. Would we punch the air with delight, shouting gleefully ‘we told you so!’ Would we forget all of the soul searching we’ve done recently about how we may have treated single mothers, divorcees and gay people harshly in the past? Would those of us who’ve been forced to reacquaint ourselves with the Jesus of John 8 by the challenges of a sexually permissive culture, quickly pick up our stones again if that culture decides to turn on itself?

We live in interesting times, and it’s far from clear where our culture is heading. Wherever it goes though, we’ve got to learn the lessons that God is teaching us now to prepare us for whatever dystopia awaits us before Jesus’ return. Let’s confidently hold on to God’s wisdom, and, whatever happens, continue to actively and graciously work through how we can show kindness to people we disagree with, as God has done to us.

A church that could manage this will make any possible future considerably brighter.

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