Christianity, sexuality and gender
Recently in Harare, we gave a lift to a couple from our church and after several minutes of healthy discussion on political issues in the country, the couple suddenly went quiet. Later on, we (the authors) realised that they had just discovered a box of ‘public sector’ – commonly known as free Panther condoms – placed at the back of the seat. The condoms were there because it is company policy for Brian to move around with condoms in the car for distribution to communities. But they had no idea about that.
Recently in Harare, we gave a lift to a couple from our church and after several minutes of healthy discussion on political issues in the country, the couple suddenly went quiet. Later on, we (the authors) realised that they had just discovered a box of ‘public sector’ – commonly known as free Panther condoms – placed at the back of the seat. The condoms were there because it is company policy for Brian to move around with condoms in the car for distribution to communities. But they had no idea about that. And we can just imagine the questions that must have been going through their minds when they spotted them. Which of us owned them? Or had someone else forgotten them in our car? Was either of us involved in an extra-marital affair, and if so why then would the condoms be placed where they were? Are condoms not supposed to be hidden away?
As we learned later – during the heated debate on issues surrounding sex, gender and religion that occupied the rest of the journey – the possibility that the condoms were for us as a married couple to use had never crossed their minds. We realised that for this Christian couple – and possibly for thousands of other Christians in Zimbabwe – there was a significant information gap or naive ignorance about sex, particularly safe sex. The idea of a married couple using condoms was a weird thing for them but they also demonstrated a lack of knowledge about condoms in general, asking questions about whether or not condoms killed spontaneity during sex since you have to spend a little time putting them on. The fact that condoms could be carried around was also astonishing to them. As was the whole discussion we had with them – talking about sex openly with another couple, and from the same church was totally mind blowing!
And while it got them thinking about condoms, it got us thinking about how the Christian community regards issues of sex, sexuality, sensuality, gender, family planning and religion.
Sex on the Christian agenda?
There are some issues such as adultery, fornication, sexual orientation, and polygamy that many members of the Christian community do not have questions about, as the Bible is clear on them. However, there are certain issues that the Bible is not very clear on. For instance, the Bible understandably makes no reference to condoms and therefore gives no guidance to Christians. And there are a number of other grey areas when it comes to sex.
For example, who is responsible for negotiating sex in a married couple? Is it morally acceptable for the wife to initiate sex? In our largely patriarchal society, sex has always been deemed to be the prerogative of the man. However, sex is meant for both the wife and husband to enjoy. In this regard, it should be perfectly fine for the wife to confidently initiate sex, even though it is generally men who initiate it. But surely it is fair that a wife can initiate it when she feels like it and can safely ask for it from her husband? And it is not only about initiating, both parties should also be allowed to experience pleasure.
The Bible mandates the woman to submit to her husband. This is not meant to make her a subject of her husband, but it is a wilful act of showing love to her husband, who is also given the task of loving his wife – not on account of her being submissive, respectful and so forth but simply because he ought to love her. So since a husband loves his wife, he should also allow her to initiate sex if she wants to. And even if the woman does submit as the bible instructs, then she should be still be allowed to discuss the different ways that they can enjoy sex together. It does not simply have to be a ‘husband thing’ because he is the biblical head of the house!
Paris (2007) argues that what has been said about submission in Christian marriages (and this applies even to sex) is not an endorsement of an irresponsible pursuit of pleasure, sexual or otherwise, in disregard of the biblical principles of love which call on us to guard the well-being of ourselves and others in all of our activities. In terms of the sexual sphere, the way the Bible is interpreted should not provide an excuse for an obnoxious, discourteous or careless approach to sexual activity, which might include such foolish behaviour as disregard for the emotional sensitivities of others. What is important is that both husband and wife engage in safe and satisfying sex that leaves both of them fulfilled by the encounter.
So if it is okay for a wife to initiate sex, she should also be free enough to negotiate for safe sex. Indeed, the idea of sex being safe should guarantee a more pleasurable act as psychologically the couple can fully engage knowing that they are completely safe from any negative consequences of sex, such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, and unplanned pregnancies.
Indeed, the HIV and AIDS pandemic has not spared any community, including Christian communities. Considering the scale of the pandemic, Christians obviously need to take necessary precautions and begin a useful and open dialogue around these matters, particularly about using condoms as a way of guaranteeing safe sex, even for married couples. And couples should freely discuss issues around sex and condom use and how to derive pleasure for both partners. The same way couples can negotiate and agree to have sex; they can negotiate and agree to make it safe. In this regard, couples also ought to know their HIV status all the time. Making an informed decision to get tested and counselled at regular intervals would be a good first step to ensuring this happens.
While traditionally sexual gratification is the preserve of the man, Ellison et al (2010:100) argue that our bodyselves are intended to express the language of love. They add that sexuality is God’s way of calling everyone, both man and woman, into communion with others through our need to reach out, to touch, to embrace – emotionally, intellectually and physically. Therefore, since human beings have been created with the desire for communion, the positive moral claim upon humans is that they become what they essentially are: lovers – in the richest and deepest sense of that good word. A sexual ethic grounded in love need not be devoid of clear values and sturdy guidelines. Indeed, such norms are vitally important in ensuring the balance of Christianity, sexuality and gender. However, women will become empowered enough to claim their bodies as sexual symbols and to liberate themselves to enjoy sex with their husbands.
Reclaiming our sexuality
The interaction with the Christian couple showed how traditional and religious backgrounds can turn sex into something that is taboo. But it should not be. The Bible talks about it and people do it whether with the light on or off – they have sex. Why then does it become something shameful to talk about? Couples should be proud of their sexuality, especially when it is expressed in the way God intended it to be. Sexuality is the expression of who we are as human beings and it starts at birth and ends at death. It includes all the feelings, thoughts and behaviours of being female or male, being attractive, being in love, as well as being in relationships that include sexual intimacy and physical sexual activity.
In the bible, the Song of Solomon chapter seven verses 1 to 13 say:
You are a princess, and your feet are graceful in their sandals. Your thighs are works of art, each one a jewel; your navel is a wine glass filled to overflowing. Your body is full and slender like a bundle of wheat bound together by lilies. Your breasts are like twins of a deer. Your neck is like ivory, and your eyes sparkle like the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath-Rabbim. Your nose is beautiful like Mount Lebanon above the city of Damascus. Your head is held high like Mount Carmel; your hair is so lovely it holds a king prisoner. You are beautiful, so very desirable! You are tall and slender like a palm tree, and your breasts are full. I will climb that tree and cling to its branches. I will discover that your breasts are clusters of grapes and that your breath is the aroma of apples…
Is this not a wonderful description of sexuality? So if the bible talks about it, then we should surely also talk about it? Why then are couples confident in doing it, but not in discussing it? For Christians, the bible is the standard, and with this reference, it is clear that sex should be openly talked about it. And we believe that by talking about sex freely and responsibly, relationships will improve and our efforts to address the challenges brought about HIV and AIDS will surely be enhanced.
Motsei (2011,31) argues that the above concept of sex is a noble one. However, she goes on to say that influenced by beliefs such as Christianity and patriarchy, society has developed rules to police appropriate sexual behaviour. It is sad to say that women suffer the most from these rules on what is and what is not appropriate. Amadiume (undated) argues that the notion of sex as pleasure is counter to fundamentalist thinking that insists on sex as either marital duty or sin with the balance of scale tilted in favour of men. Therefore, it is important that women begin to reclaim their sexual prowess – not only to please their husbands in bed but also to ensure that they too share in the ecstatic moment of sex and all the pleasures it brings.
Speaking of women’s liberation when it comes to their sexuality, Mcfadden (2003) adds that there has been a shift in recent years with discussions beginning to link reproductive health with women's rights to safe sexual behaviour. She explains that discourses on sexual rights have also been woven into the burgeoning work on reproductive health and women's well-being, and there is no doubt that African women are increasingly speaking out about their rights to make informed choices in terms of contraception, safer sex, and safe motherhood.
Christianity and Sensuality
Sensuality is a key component in sexuality, but one that religious people often dismiss. Sensuality is awareness about your own body and other people’s bodies, especially the body of your sexual partner. It enables us to feel good about how our bodies look and feel and what they can do. The bible states in Psalm 139 verse 14 that everyone is wonderfully made – and since each person’s body has been created with such perfect engineering and craftsmanship, it should surely be enjoyed by the person’s spouse.
McDoogle (undated) explains that a Christian relationship filled with sensuality is also the ultimate display of appreciation for God. Living day-to-day and just ‘managing to make it to Church’ certainly does not cut the mustard in relation to the true Christian practice of living a fulfilling, sensuous life celebrating God. He notes that what many Christian couples do not understand is the potential they have for a Christian marriage with strong love and sensuality.
There is so much to discuss when it comes to sex, in the same way there is so much to discuss when it comes to religion, and yet the two are usually discussed separately – as if they do not intersect. But since so many people are Christian, it is critical to discuss sex in the context of Christianity to help couples to understand the issues better – and to live more fulfilling lives. Sex is an integral part of a married couple’s life and openly talking about sex, sensuality, gender and condomising would be worth everyone’s while.
This article was written by Grace Chirenje and Brian Nachipo. The original printed version with full footnotes can be downloaded below.
About the author(s)
Grace Chirenje is a growing feminist leader from Harare, Zimbabwe. Her background is in the humanities. She holds an Honours degree in African Languages and Culture, and a Masters in Leadership and Management. She is currently studying towards her PhD in Gender, Feminism and Sexualities with a minor in Leadership. Grace’s passion is working with women and girls and helping them reach their full potential. Grace is known for her magnanimity, energy and strong dedication to life and her work in all its facets. She is also a writer, mother, wife, sister and talk-show host. She works hard to juggle her athletic and relaxation activities with her work, research and role as a black African feminist leader. Twitter handle: @graceruvimbo