These days, Christianity is readily identified with sexual repressiveness. It’s news, for example, when the pope signals that he’s not neurotic about homosexuality (only flatly opposed to countenancing theirs as an acceptable behavior).
Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin puts Christianity in the context of late antiquity:
“there lurked the germ of a new ideology, one that could envision stilling the timeless patterns of life itself, and whose rules would reorder the experience of sexuality… It is in that context, as a dark horse in the chaotic, competitive atmosphere of the high empire, that the early Christians, with their highly distinctive sexual gospel, need to be imagined” (Harper 79).
The Roman Empire of late antiquity normalized the systematic sexual abuse of women. (It is refreshing to go back to a time when the Church was a seething critic of systematic sex abuse.) The availability of cheap slaves meant that girls and women were prostituted for the price of a loaf of bread (Harper 49). Submitted to the laws of ruthless efficiency, their bodies were disposable.
Christians weren’t the only critics of the horrific cruelties of the late antique sex industry. But typical Roman attitudes indexed moderation over social hierarchy; chastity and continence were the marks of good-breeding. And even Stoicism, with its radical maxims of self-control, could urge only moderation in the decadent sexual culture. Roman sexual honor, furthermore, was counterpoised to a reviled “queer type”. Sexual honor was contrasted with the kinaidos, the indiscriminate bisexual nymphomaniac, who had no self-control (Harper 33). Christianity tightened and democratized the rules of sexual self-restraint.
During the Super Bowl and on the Internet, we are reminded that sexual slavery and rampant sex abuse still exist in our own time. But we no longer regard this class of rape acceptable. We do, by and large, regard the objectification and commodification of the female body as acceptable. And one does not have to read Foucault (or the feeds of teenage cyberbullies, or the feminist case for banning hardcore pornography in Iceland) to see how sexuality is a site of much more complex power relations.
Many Americans are fairly (and increasingly) libertarian with respect to the bedroom. Restricting sexuality is seen as so much Victorian stuffiness. And Americans are squeamish enough about sex that we’d rather not talk about it — its invisibility takes priority. The late age of the American empire is not the late age of the Roman Empire.
The Church, defeated on no-fault divorce, (perhaps) on abortion, and (inevitably) on gay marriage, is in a compromised position. Its fragile accomplishment, a culture of respectful sexuality and marriage, is subject to skepticism and scrutiny. Disengaging from the conservative side of the culture wars may be a prudent move. But will the Church re-engage the debate as a radical critic of the exploitation of women? Will the Church try to shore up teenagers’ sense of self-worth in this society of ready objectification? Mustn’t she, really?
Strategically, the Church might rebuild credibility in modern society through a ressourcement of the original sexual ethics concerns of Jesus, Paul, and the Church Fathers.