Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity

Laura C. Miguelez
In Real Sex: the naked truth about chastity, Lauren Winner addresses a gap she perceives in how Christians think about and the Church addresses sexual chastity. The work is readable and well-organized. The writing style is "confessional" as indicated in the opening chapter's title: "Unchaste Confessions." From her personal confessions, Winner launches into Part I which contains chapters addressing both orthodox and heterodox understandings about what constitutes appropriate sexual behavior. In her second chapter, "Real Sex," she begins, appropriately enough, with Scriptural backing for what follows. The third chapter on "Communal Sex" addresses societal misconceptions about sex. The fourth chapter "Straight Talk I" builds upon these misconceptions or "Lies Our Culture Tells about Sex." The fifth chapter, "Straight Talk II" turns its critique to the Church, identifying "Lies the Church Tells about Sex."

Part II addresses "Practicing Chastity." Here Winner sketches orthodox and heterodox practices within the Church. The sixth chapter, "On the Steps of the Rotunda" suggests common-sense guidance about sex outside of marriage. The seventh chapter, "Chastity as Spiritual Discipline" offers positive encouragement for how both single and married Christians can conform their lives, sexual and otherwise, to Scriptural teaching. Chapter eight, "Communities of Chastity" proposes gentle correctives about how the Church can do a better job incorporating singles into its life and practices. Winner ends with a final practical chapter, "Responding to M" in which the inevitable question about past sins is addressed.

The strengths in Winner's book are important ones too often overlooked by the Church. Despite the occasional unnecessarily suggestive titles or subtitles--"Real Sex"; "Communal Sex"--she gives biblical and healthy ways for Christians to think about sex. What Winner means by "real sex" is sexual behavior defined by Scriptural foundations. For Christians the only "real sex" is within marriage (25, 38). As she rightly observes: "God created sex for marriage, and within a Christian moral vocabulary, it is impossible to defend sex outside of marriage" (29). Conversely, "the faux sex that goes on outside marriage is not really sex at all" (38). Winner grounds this vision noting obvious but important truths: the Creation (33), Fall (34), and Salvation (37) are all bodily realities. Though she states her goal "is to provide companionship and strength for the journey for unmarried people who are trying to live in a Christian moral universe" (24) what Winner actually covers is more broad. There is sage advice here not only for singles but also for those who are married and the Church community in general.

Throughout Winner addresses cultural lies that have infiltrated the Church. Among these are that sex is no one else's business (47); sex can be separated from procreation (64ff); people should not marry for sex (67ff); how we dress does not matter (70ff); and good sex cannot happen in marriage (77ff). Within this discussion, she insightfully notes that society on the one hand tells us "that sex is the most important thing there is" (77); on the other hand "the shapers of popular culture tell us that sex is meaningless" (78), hence the notion of "casual" sex. Yet as Winner indicates "casual sex is a contradiction in terms. Sex--even sex that does not feel intense or meaningful, even sex with someone you don't love--is never truly casual" (87). Quoting Lewis Smedes, she states that Scripturally "' a life-uniting act.' This is what sex is, not necessarily what sex seems to be. It may seem casual, but in fact it is, always profound" (87). Winner's truth-speaking about the dulling, blinding nature of sin is a much-needed corrective to society's "it can't be wrong if it feels so right" mentality. Sexual encounters are not just about being "committed" to one another, regardless of marital status (30). Sin "whispers to us about the goodness of something not good. It makes distortions feel good" (89). Yet if sin did not feel good, "there would be a lot less sinning in the world. And if we felt great every time we did something good and worthy and true" (89) surely we would all be saints. These are important points.

Some of the lies in the Church Winner identifies seem a bit dated. Are churches really teaching that "premarital sex is guaranteed to make you feel lousy" (85ff)? Or that "bodies (and sex) are gross, dirty, or just plain unimportant" (93ff)? One would hope that the Church has moved beyond these manifestly false assertions. A third lie--"women don't really want to have sex, anyway" (90ff)--is perhaps more debated. Regardless Winner is surely correct in stating: "Women's bodies (like men's bodies) are wired for sexual pleasure. Women (like men) crave the emotional connectivity that sex seems to offer" (93).

Whether one ultimately ends up agreeing with her or not, Winner offers practical suggestions for "Christians who are trying to live chastely" and seek "concrete guidance" (104). She wisely notes: "The choices we make every day--where we shop, what we do with our bodies, how we pass our time--form us. They shape the type of Christians we become. What we do matters--not because good behavior gets us into heaven, but because behavior, good and bad, creates certain expectations in us, teaches us certain lessons" (109). Having established Scripturally that sexual intercourse is intended only within the context of marriage, she suggests that single Christians may only go so far as they are willing to do publicly. She also offers her views on pornography (110ff), masturbation (113ff), and why premarital sex seems more thrilling than "married" sex (117ff).

Winner's greatest challenges, however, are reserved for the Church. She reminds those both single and married what sex means within the Body of Christ.

Sex is, in Paul's image, a joining of your body to someone else's. In baptism, you have become Christ's Body, and it is Christ's Body that must give you permission to join His Body to another body. In the Christian grammar, we have no right to sex. The place where the church confers that privilege on you is the wedding; weddings grant us license to have sex with one person (123-124).

In a society that is so very individualistically oriented, even within the Church, Winner's charge is a refreshing one. She additionally places chastity within the context of Christian discipline noting that

The spiritual disciplines are things that we do; they are things that we practice. They are ways we orient our whole selves--our bodies and minds and hearts, our communities and rhythms and ways of being in the world--toward God.... practicing spiritual disciplines helps align your feelings, your will, and your habits with God's will (124).

A constant strength in this work is this ability to relate sexual practice to Christian practices as a whole. Further, if marriage lives out before the Church what God's relationship with his bride should be, singleness teaches "a radical dependence on God.... In singleness we see not only where our true dependence lies, but also who and what our real family is. Singleness reminds Christians that the church is our primary family" (145). These are needed reminders. At the end of the day, single and married people need one another since the Church, not our biological family, is what Scripture teaches is our real family.

Winner concludes her work by addressing repentance. What if one has already committed sexual sins? Again she places sexual sin in a broader context pointing out that all sin is forgivable (151). Christians ought not to look back at past sins, but rather they need to live faithfully now (154). In the end, "We seek to do right because we fear the wrath of God, but more centrally because we have died to sin and been given a new self" (157). This does not come easily or naturally. And this returns to Winner's reason for writing. For many, adopting chastity "requires prayer, teaching, work, reformation, even weeping. It requires that we tell each other the story of the gospel, and the narrative of chastity over and over and over. To embrace chastity is to reconstruct a culture, and the reconstruction of a culture doesn't happen overnight." For those churches, pastors, counselors, and Christians seeking to "reconstruct a culture," Winner's book is a good place to start. If right behavior begins with right thinking, then Winner will prove a helpful guide for Christians seeking to navigate the Scylla of culture and the Charybdis of ecclesial and Scriptural teaching.

Possibly the biggest deficiency (aside from a weak Study Guide) in Winner's book is its confessional style. Her "Autobiographical Excursion" begins: "My own history with chastity is nothing to be proud of. I first had sex when I was fifteen, with a guy I met at summer camp" (10). This is one of various sexual confessions both prior and subsequent to coming to Christian faith. It points to a weakness with testimonies in general: readers end up learning more about the individual than they do about God. Though Winner's sexual highlights were no doubt intended to help her connect with her audience--she can speak about this topic because she has struggled with it--they do not, in the end, add anything to her otherwise thoughtful examination of how sexual chastity is to be viewed and practiced within the Church. As she later observes:

Conversations, debates, and revelations about sex are everywhere in our common culture. There's a lot of talk about sex in Internet chatrooms, and on the airwaves, and in Good Housekeeping, the New York Times, and GQ. Sexual chatter is downright ambient. According to one study, over 14,000 sexual references are shown on TV per year (63).

In offering such a confessional account, it would seem that Winner has inadvertently become part of this "sexual chatter." Granted, she insists, "The problem is not that we talk about sex. The problem is how we talk about sex" (63) and with this qualifier perhaps opens a space for her book. Nonetheless, her accounts at times detract from her otherwise thoughtful reflections on Christian chastity and proper sexual behavior.

Lauren Winner / Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006
Review by Laura C. Miguelez, Associate Professor of Theology, Wheaton College