The Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan has thought a lot about sex and religion.
“For a long time, I have wanted to reflect on how the complicating factors of sexual identity, sexual practice, drug or alcohol abuse, body image, all these things that sort of play out in our lives, how this interacted with what we were hearing in church, or not hearing,” she said.
This year’s Social Justice Keynote speaker, and author of the book “Good Christian Sex,” gave a talk on Monday that examined the conflict in Christianity between faith and sex, decrying the “abstinence-only” approach to sex often preached within the faith. Instead, she advocated for sex as a holy activity, provided that it was steeped in a healthy respect for one’s own feelings and boundaries.
Early in her talk, McCleneghan provided the context of American Christian thinking on abstinence and “purity culture.” Looking back on the complications and harm of the culture of purity put forth in the faith, especially in the Baptist faith, McCleneghan talked about not only the effects of the culture, but how sex and healthy relationships could be compatible with religion.
A particular target of her criticism was author Joshua Harris, whose book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” became hugely influential within purity culture spheres, and who wrote that traditional dating was “a training ground for divorce.” The book resulted in so much emotional damage to those influenced by the culture that he recently apologized for it, though in McCleneghan’s mind he didn’t apologize enough.
Throughout her talk she examined how sex and abstinence were viewed by several religious groups and high-profile religious leaders. She talked about how sex, kissing and even casual dating is frowned upon as a violation of “purity,” and that anything that happens before marriage is “essentially a lie.”
“Your job, God’s hope for you, is to avoid that damage,” she said. “So obviously, that empowered a lot of people to have healthy sexual and romantic relationships.”
“When you read the Bible, one of the things you will note is that its more like a library than a single text,” McCleneghan said. “On any big life topic, its very hard to suggest that the Bible says one thing.”
She noted that both abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates in the 1800s both quoted scripture to support their positions.
She also said that millennials were not having as much sex as often is thought, with baby boomers having significantly more partners than the younger generation.
Ultimately, she said that there is no one biblical rule about sex, and that young people should learn to trust their bodies and feelings rather than being told what they should be comfortable with.