Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Review: Bringing Sex Into Focus by Caroline Simon

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"Bringing Sex Into Focus: The Quest for Sexual Integrity" is a new offering from Caroline J. Simon. It is an interesting read on Christian sexuality and a manageable length at less than 200 pages. Simon uses throughout the metaphor of vision -- employing a visit to the optometrist and the various diagnostic lenses they employ in order to allow us to see clearly.

Simon creates a typology of "lenses" through which we view sexuality. These include two Christian lesnses, the covenantal and procreative ones, and four "sexular" ones: expressivist, romantic, power, and plain sex. She is clear throughout that we never use just one lens when viewing sexuality, nor should we. I'm a fan of typologies, although I can understand how some may find them too subjective or ambiguous for ethical work.

Overall, I liked the book quite a bit. Simon comes from an evangelical perspective and not surprisingly ends up further on the conservative side of the spectrum than I personally do. Nonetheless, most of her arguments are cogent and well presented. While I am at times quite critical, especially in my last disagreement, this should not mean I do not recommend the book. I do.

There are three points of contention (perhaps too severe a word?) for me in her work, though. The first is simply on the name "covenantal." Simon uses this throughout as the main Christian but not Catholic lense of sexuality, yet she hardly touches on what the word "covenant" means. She briefly mentions how God made a covenant with the Israelites which was then transfered to Christians (I realize I'm being theologically imprecise right now, but the specifics aren't important). What she DOESN'T mention is that "covenant" means "contract." They are synonyms. To say we have a "contractual lens" when viewing sexuality would sound bizarre indeed. When speaking of marriage, the covenantal lens can prove extra problematic. Not once does Simon touch on the "Biblical view of marriage" (to use a phrase made famous in the Chik-Fil-A debates) as one of a property contract. As I've discussed in my thesis (for the four people who read it -- my committee and my father), marriage in the Hebrew Bible was strictly a property exchange between father-of-the-bride and groom. So to invoke a "contract lens" with marriage is certainly not in keeping with 21st century Christian ethics. Granted, I am not saying this is what Simon means when she mentions a covenantal lens, but she did not spend any ink on the topic.

My second issue with the book is her reliance on the untenable axiom "abstinence in singleness, fidelity in marriage." This may have made sense long ago when the average age of marriage for women was menarche, but with record high ages upon first marriage in the US, it has now become a false dilemma. Where in this axiom do those graduate students who have been in long-term relationships with their partners for 6 years fit? I would argue that they are neither single nor married. Yet surely they are closer to married than single! What about the couple that has been married for 20 years but is waiting until their youngest child graduates high school to divorce? This axiom also places an unneeded emphasis on genitals. Does abstinence mean no coitus? Does it mean no genital contact? What about "second base"? How about phone sex in a committed yet long distance relationship? With all of these contemporary issues that are neither coitus nor hand-holding along with the false dilemma of single vs. married, Christian sexual ethics needs a lot of conversation about these in-betweens, not simply a regurgitation of a hackneyed axiom.

Lastly and most significantly, Simon presents these six lenses almost as value-free. She certainly makes it clear that she prefers the covenantal lens, but also argues (and rightly so) that civil discourse calls for us to listen to ALL perspectives, including the secular views. This does not mean, however, that we should accept them uncritically as "valid." Yet she does just this in the chapter on homosexuality. In taking another philosopher to task on the label of "connubial bigot" for those who oppose same sex marriage, she points out that the procreative lens views all sex that cannot possibly result in conception to be sinful. That means coitus is the only ticket in town. Sorry to the homosexuals. This is simply appalling. The first and only lens that matters is the lens of justice. When considering the procreative lens through the lens of justice, it becomes obviously clear that those who view the orthodox Catholic teaching on sex to be on the opposite side of justice. Simon argues, however, that those who view homosexual activity as sinful are not bigots, but merely are consistent in their views on sexuality. I wonder if Simon would argue that the Christians that argued that slavery was theologically just or that denying the franchise to women was morally accepted would be simply "consistent" as opposed to racist and misogynist.

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