Frictophobia: Marriage and Sexual Issues

Original positing: August 8, 2007

Why Wait Till Marriage?

by Theodore Plantinga

Chupah and yichud

I can recall the days when the bride and groom did not linger long at their wedding reception -- indeed, sometimes they were almost hustled away. "And now you two want to be alone!" We younger males made nervous jokes and wondered to ourselves what "the wedding night" would be like for them. But things have changed. Nowadays the bride and groom seem in no great hurry to leave the premises. As for embarking on the honeymoon, that event might well be a couple of days off -- or it might even be a number of months away (airline ticket prices go down after the summer rush, we are told). The urgency seems to be gone.

In a fine book whose title I have borrowed to serve as the title of this essay, Evelyn Millis Duvall explains: "Couples who have already begun to have sexual relations before marriage tend to avoid having a honeymoon." [NOTE duvall-1] For many couples in our time, it seems that the wedding and reception are just a point on a continuum: instead of starting something entirely new on their wedding day, it appears that they are gradually growing together as they try to fuse their lives.

There is an old Jewish wedding-day tradition that keeps alive something of the spirit of what I recall from my youth. Instead enduring a long reception line right after the wedding (chupah) ceremony, which can be a daunting proposition, and physically draining to boot, the newly-joined husband and wife are ushered into "yichud" -- seclusion. Rabbi A.R. Scheinerman explains:

Immediately following the chupah ceremony, it is traditional for the couple to enjoy some time together alone. This is called yichud and long ago it was an opportunity to consummate the marriage. Today, it serves to give the couple some breathing space before they greet their guests and celebrate their wedding publicly. A room set aside for the couple for at least ten or fifteen minutes, with some food for them to break their fast, can be easily arranged. [NOTE scheinerman]

Guests at Jewish weddings are supposed to understand these things. The bride and groom with whom they will celebrate at the reception are to be man and wife in every sense -- their union already consummated. In a Jewish website devoted to wedding planning we read:

Many guests of the faith will honor this custom by leaving the ceremony straightaway and saving their well-wishes for the reception. In olden days, this private time was a chance for the couple to consummate the marriage -- but today, it's more of an opportunity to reflect on the ceremony and the start of the couple's life together. [NOTE jewish]

Evelyn Millis Duvall

It is clear that in the "olden days," the bride and groom were supposed to wait until they were married. And when I was an undergraduate student in a conservative Christian college -- during the turbulent 1960s at that! -- the same expectation was in the air. Indeed, I recall that the college more or less promoted Duvall's book because it argued exactly that thesis: the book came out in 1965, just as I was entering my second year of studies.

I read it, and so did a number of my friends. I don't recall that we ever discussed it much, for we were rather private about our sexual struggles. But I respected the book, remembered it, and returned to it recently as I prepared for the writing of this essay.

Duvall's book should not be taken lightly or dismissed as outdated, even though it is out of print. I must confess that when I returned to it recently, I felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle, but I respected the arguments patiently assembled by Duvall from various quarters. She did her very best to take peer-pressure lines of thinking away from young people who were inclined to suppose that there's no point in "waiting" -- after all, everybody's doing it! Wrote Duvall:

One of the loudest arguments for going all the way before marriage is that everyone else is doing it. This is simply not true. ...

Numerous studies show that the more education a young person has or aspires to, the less tendency there is to go all the way before marriage. ... The boy or girl whose dream of the future includes becoming prepared for a career in business or in one of the professions has too much at stake to take a chance on losing it all in irresponsible sexual activity. ...

Although at times the behavior of young people and adults gets out of line, the norm is chastity before marriage and fidelity thereafter. [NOTE duvall-2]

If Duvall could get by with writing in a genteel manner, it was partly because she had public opinion on her side. While there were some notorious sinners in Hollywood, Mr. and Mrs. Smith who lived just down the street knew what was right, and they passed on their moral expectations to their children. Because such a climate of opinion existed in those days, Duvall was able to back up her stance by appealing to polling data. A 1964 poll in which 15,000 people were questioned came up with these results:

The majority of both adults (68 per cent) and teen-agers (60 per cent) felt that sex standards are freer now than they used to be and "that's bad." All ages concurred that parents are not strict enough today in supervising their children. When asked whether premarital sexual relations are all right for engaged couples, only 4 per cent said "Yes." A clear majority of 56 per cent thought premarital sexual experience among engaged couples was definitely wrong and immoral; another 19 per cent considered it questionable; and 14 per cent said, "It depends." Sex before and outside marriage is clearly frowned on. [NOTE duvall-3]

One of the interesting features of Duvall's book is that its copyright was held by the National Board of the Young Men's Christian Associations. Humanistic thinking, with its autonomy postulate, was far from her. If free consent rendered by adults is what makes sexual acts right and wrong -- as we are told constantly nowadays -- her entire case collapses. No, Duvall inhabited a moral universe in which moral norms have a degree of objectivity to them. She and many, many others who lived in her era and thought as she did acknowledged that there are norms that exist outside of ourselves. Such norms are needed to rein us in, to keep us from giving way to our impulses. Young men and women could hardly be expected to choose the right path and stay on it if they did not get help from society in the form of clear moral guidelines. Wrote Duvall:

Few can define exactly what other people ought to do in all circumstances. But there is one thing about sexual behavior upon which most reasonable men and women agree. There has to be a moral standard of some sort to regulate sexual relationships. An experience so profound in its effect upon both individuals and society as a whole cannot be left entirely to individual judgment. [NOTE duvall-4]

Stick to first base

A baseball analogy was used in those days, and it left many of us -- perhaps young males more than young females -- feeling stranded on base. If you got to first base with a girl, you had kissed her. To get to second base meant that you had managed to "grope" her (a dreadful term, but it was used to indicate that you really shouldn't be doing this stuff). French kissing also came under this heading. Third base involved some sort of oral-genital contact (still no danger of pregnancy). As for home plate -- well, use your imagination. The common phrase was "going all the way." Duvall, who pleaded with us to "wait till marriage," warned against "going the limit."

So what we were supposed to do? Stick to first base was the safe advice. Or, if that proves well-nigh impossible, perhaps allow yourself to steal second -- but don't go any further. You're playing with fire!

Why is Duvall's book no longer in print? One reason, I suspect, is that many of today's young people would not take instruction from it but would instead be amused by it. Time has not stood still, and the way people talked about these things in 1965 now seems quaint.

Two guys named Bob

I dug up a roughly similar book that came out exactly twenty-five years later, in 1990. Written by a pair of men both named "Bob," it uses the first-person singular pronoun, and thereby achieves a tone of brotherly advice, as if saying, "Listen, I'm your older brother -- I've been there. Trust me on this."

"Bob" had a tougher sell than Duvall, who preceded him. The situation had not improved with the passage of the years. In the 1990 book "Bob" reported on his contacts with teens who were openly skeptical of the "wait till marriage" message:

"Outside of marriage," many teenagers will say. "Don't tell me you're a man who still believes that?"
      Yes, I still believe that. After I made this statement to a high school class one day, a young man asked, "Am I understanding you to say that you do not believe in premarital sex?"
      "You've got it, brother."
      Immediately, about three-fourths of the class exploded into hysterical laughter, as if that were the funniest thing they had heard in a long time. [NOTE bob-1]

It's no wonder many of our youth leaders are embarrassed to bring up such subjects. But "Bob" soldiered on bravely and passed out practical advice. One such piece of advice had to do with how long you may think it advisable to carry on as an "engaged" couple -- all but married. I remember that in my undergraduate days people would sometimes say: It's about time for us -- or perhaps "them" -- to get married. "Bob" was of the same mind:

... I don't believe in long engagements -- not over six months, because the temptation to get physically involved grows more intense and becomes increasingly difficult to resist.
      One woman came in for help because she was wracked with guilt. The cause: premarital sex on the night before the wedding ceremony.
      "Do you mean that close to the wedding it's wrong?" Yes. When it's wrong, it's wrong. If you take it out of God's context it will always produce some distressing problems such as guilt, distrust, and a breakdown in communication. [NOTE bob-2]

"Bob" was not a believer in the baseball analogy. He did not advocate hanging out on second base:

Neither kissing, necking, nor petting will afford a person any lasting contentment. A teenager may feel some degree of temporary enjoyment and gratification during these activities, but there will always remain a degree of unfulfilled desire, an unquenched thirst. There will be a craving to go farther to reach fulfillment and satisfaction.
      Why do these enjoyable activities seem so incomplete? They were not meant to satisfy. God designed kissing and caressing, necking and petting to lead two marriage partners into the only sexual activity that does bring contentment -- intercourse. But these activities were never designed to lead to that complete satisfaction outside of marriage. [NOTE bob-3]

Don't start what you can't finish

Some people maintain that you just can't be conservative enough when it comes to these matters. It almost appears that this very line of thought was urged upon "Bob": writing 25 years after Duvall, he is actually less lenient in terms of the degree of sexual involvement he will countenance. Rejecting the baseball analogy, he speaks of a "biological hand grenade ladder" and maintains that once you get a certain distance up it, you will not be able to keep from going right to the top: "When a couple reaches the rung on the biological hand grenade ladder labeled heavy petting, it is only a matter of time until they move to the top rung of intercourse." "Bob" explains: "When a guy and a girl are attracted to each other, any physical contact will be enjoyable and will create a desire for more. Each level never satisfies but leads to the next." [NOTE bob-4] Joshua Harris concurs. Telling the story of his engagement, and of the struggle which he and his bride-to-be underwent in order to remain pure until the wedding day, he writes:

... we understood the progressive nature of sexual involvement. Once you start kissing, you want to move on. We didn't want to start what we couldn't finish. When a man and a woman's lips meet, and their tongues penetrate each other's mouths, their process of becoming one has begun. [NOTE harris-1]

Second base is not a safe place to be. Perhaps one shouldn't even try for first base.

Does it sound hopelessly unrealistic to you? One married couple I know, whose romance started in the Christian college in which I teach, shared with me the story of how they got together. Their first kiss came on the day they got engaged! [NOTE harris-2] At that point they were on first base. It seems to have worked for them. I have the highest respect for them: he is now a pastor, and she is his supportive wife and the mother of his children.

On or off campus

What sort of advice did they get from the authorities in the college in which they were studying? Many leaders of the covenant youth are afraid to speak up nowadays (remember that "Bob" got laughed at), but the student handbook used in their college is surprisingly stern and explicit. It explains that there is to be no "sexual misconduct." Lest one profess ignorance as to what sort of sexual interaction between a man and a woman who are not married to one another would be deemed "sexual misconduct," the handbook explains:

This covers a broad range of behaviour including sexual behaviour by students on or off campus when it falls outside Biblical intentions and/or explicit guidelines. These include sexual intimacies which occur outside of a heterosexual marriage, including any type of intercourse, sensual nakedness, fondling of sexual organs, or sleeping with one another. It also includes inappropriate relationships between single students and married persons or married students and single students, homosexual activity, or cohabitation with members of the opposite sex. Included as well is the distribution of pornographic material. Such activities may result in sanctions ranging from suspension to expulsion. [NOTE handbook]

Second base is clearly off limits, then. The handbook is more explicit in this regard than "Bob," who gives in just a bit to the relativistic spirit of the age and says that you have to decide these things for yourself:

You might say to me, "Okay, in the light of all this, where do you think I should draw the line on the biological hand grenade ladder?" I won't answer that. Nobody else can draw the line for you. You have to decide for yourself what your limits will be. Where you draw the line depends on what kind of person you are, what kind of person you really want to be, and what your relationship is with God.
      I will, however, give you some guidelines that may help:
      1. Don't pull up.
      2. Don't pull down.
      3. Don't unbutton.
      4. Don't unzip.
      5. Keep your hands to yourself. (It is well nigh impossible to "make out" without using your hands.)
      6. Keep your tongue in your own mouth. [NOTE bob-5]

It appears, then, that the grown-ups are not all of the same mind. The handbook has a somewhat simpler position than "Bob": here are the things you may not do -- or you may be expelled! It all comes down to a simple rule: save sex for marriage. [NOTE harris-3] That's why you need to wait -- Duvall was right about that. Don't listen to any of that "You have to decide for yourself" nonsense!

Tom Wolfe

Some time ago I attended a very interesting faculty meeting at the college with the stern handbook. Our guest speaker told us about a new Tom Wolfe novel that laid out the frightening things (sexually speaking) that are going on in universities nowadays. The novel's title was I Am Charlotte Simmons. [NOTE wolfe-1] I made a point of reading it. To say that its picture of on-campus sex in the twenty-first century is deeply disturbing would be an understatement.

Wolfe also address these matters in a book called Hooking Up (a frightening title -- it took some courage to buy the book). Wolfe minces no words as he explains what goes on nowadays among the younger set:

... sexual stimuli bombarded the young so incessantly and intensely [that] they were inflamed with a randy itch long before reaching puberty. At puberty the dams, if any were left, burst. ... Among girls, "virgin" was a term of contempt. The old term "dating" -- referring to a practice in which a boy asked a girl out for the evening and took her to the movies or dinner -- was now deader than "proletariat" or "pornography" or "perversion." In junior high school, high school, and college, girls headed out in packs in the evening, and boys headed out in packs, hoping to meet each other fortuitously. If they met and some girl liked the looks of some boy, she would give him the nod, or he would give her the nod, and the two of them would retire to a halfway-private room and "hook up."
      "Hooking up" was a term known in the year 2000 to almost every American child over the age of nine, but to only a relatively small percentage of their parents, who, even if they heard it, thought it was being used in the old sense of "meeting" someone. Among the children, hooking up was always a sexual experience, but the nature and extent of what they did could vary widely. [NOTE wolfe-2]

Parents might hope that their children would stick to "first base," but the bases had taken on new meaning in the brave new world of impersonal sex. Wolfe informs us: "In the year 2000, in the era of hooking up, 'first base' meant deep kissing ('tonsil hockey'), groping, and fondling; 'second base' meant oral sex; 'third base' meant going all the way; and 'home plate' meant learning each other's names." [NOTE wolfe-3] I'm reminded of movies where a man and woman become acquainted, get together somewhere, and the man says: "Let's just get the sex thing out of the way first -- then we can get to know each other, and maybe go out to dinner ...."

By this point you might suspect that someone is pulling your leg. Surely things can't have gone quite so far as that! Perhaps Wolfe is an older white guy pretending to be "in touch," whereas in fact he's out to lunch. Do younger folks and teens actually "hook up" as casually as he maintains?

Ambrose Madison

Doubters are advised to dip into Ambrose Madison's recent sex manual entitled Hooking Up: A Girl's All-Out Guide to Sex and Sexuality. [NOTE madison-1] The book has a good deal of information in it, as did the "marriage manual" I took with me on my honeymoon when I got married during my last year of undergraduate studies. The book I used, entitled Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, by Theodoor Hendrik van de Velde (1873-1937), a Dutch gynecologist, was an old-fashioned tome that had gone through various editions. Its author presupposed that people getting married might not have all that specific an idea of what they were expected to accomplish in bed.

Madison's book is much more amusing than Van de Velde's -- at least, I would find it amusing (as reviewers seem to do) if I were not put off by the cheery amorality that emanates from its pages. What do I mean by this "amorality" that bothers me so deeply? What I meant to point to is the absence of any sort of larger social framework of expectations that guide and regulate what is and is not permitted, what is and is not appropriate, in human relations, including situations in which a male and a female are alone together. In the absence of that larger framework of expectations, all Madison has to offer us is "consent." In other words, a simple yes or no makes a proposed act either right or wrong. She explains:

Telling a guy that you don't want to have sex with him can take a lot of guts. It's hard to say no if things get to the point where he's on top of you naked, has just pulled out a condom, and is asking, "Are we going to do this or not?" Many girls in this situation feel like they can't say no because they're almost doing it already. But it's never too late to say no to sex. [NOTE madison-2]

It appears, then, that it's perfectly all right for a man and a women who hardly know each other to be alone in private without any apparel -- as long as it's understood that either one can call a halt at any time. Hooking up is great -- it need not lead to Duvall's "going the limit." Unless, of course, you both want to go for it!

To shed light on what Madison actually seems to think and advocate, I will distinguish four possible relational settings in which a man and a woman might conceivably engage in the sex act (Madison talks about homosexuality too, but I won't go into that topic in this essay). First of all they could be married to one another. Secondly, they could be involved in a committed romantic relationship ("boyfriend" and "girlfriend" in terms of the younger set). Thirdly, they could be out on a date together quite apart from any sort of commitment to one another. Fourthly, they could be together just for sex (encounters with prostitutes would fit under this heading as well). Category 4, of course, is exactly what is meant by "hooking up." And that's what Madison's book is intended for: it's a guide not for "ideal marriage" (Van de Velde) but for the most casual sexual encounters you could conceive of.

As long as it's consensual

Anything and everything is okay -- provided it's consensual. Madison explains: "A girl isn't responsible for being raped because she agreed to go out on a date with a guy, went off alone with a guy, or started to hook up with a guy -- doing that is part of life." The ethos of "hooking up" does not presuppose anything in the way of commitment to -- or love received from -- one's potential sex partner. Addressing her intended female readership, Madison explains: "As long as you always respect yourself and engage in sex acts safely and responsibly, there is nothing 'bad' about being sexual. You have the same right to enjoy sex as guys do." [NOTE madison-3]

Hooking up need not involve intercourse; it might be just sexual touching. Even then you have the right to say no, regardless of what your hookup partner has just been doing: "It's not a cardinal hookup sin not to reciprocate." Autonomy is the key, whether we are talking about major or minor forms of sexual interchange. Madison tells us:

... intercourse shouldn't be put into a league of its own. Sure, only intercourse affects your status as a virgin, but that doesn't make it a good idea to go around giving out blow jobs like handshakes. Before you do anything sexual, no matter how big or small you might think the act, it's always a good idea to check with yourself and make sure that it's really what you want to be doing.

Your hookup partner may be someone you hardly know; therefore communication is important. Madison advises: "When you're hooking up with a guy, tell him how far you want to go in the beginning. That way there's no confusion about what's OK and what isn't." [NOTE madison-4]

About marriage Madison has nothing whatever to say. Various passages in her book mention or presuppose the possibility that you might be having sex with someone you consider your boyfriend or girlfriend -- and that's quite okay with our brash author. Much of the book's sober advice (watch out for those sexually transmitted diseases!) presupposes the out-on-a-date situation. But Madison also recognizes and accepts that in a great many cases, sexual relations occur in a strict "hooking up" setting. You may not even know each other's names, but if sex goes well, who knows -- you might wind up taking in a movie together sometime! [NOTE madison-5]

The Christian colleges

The practices and attitudes about which Tom Wolfe and Ambrose Madison write (disapprovingly in Wolfe's case, but quite contentedly in Madison's case) are so far out of line with the "save sex for marriage" expectation that one hardly knows how to relate these two cultural universes. I wish I could say that the casual immorality that Wolfe depicts has no place whatsoever on Christian college campuses, but I'm afraid that would not be true. I am quite well acquainted with three of the colleges in the Christian Reformed orbit: Redeemer (where I have long taught), Calvin (where I was an undergraduate and where I taught before coming to Redeemer), and Trinity Christian in Chicago (where I sent my son David). In all three there is a gap between the sexual ideals articulated by some members of the older, ruling generation and what actually goes on among the unmarried students.

My thesis in this essay is that the "save sex for marriage" rule doesn't seem to be working all that well anymore and is probably ambiguous and unrealistic. But before I answer the obvious question ("Then what do you propose?"), I need to make a point about definition. Please bear with me: I am a philosopher by training.

What is sex?

Just what is meant by "sex," that precious commodity which we are to save for marriage? When President Bill Clinton looked us in the eye on January 26, 1998, and assured us that he had not had "sexual relations" with "that woman" (at first he seemed to withhold her name, and then he added it: Ms. Lewinsky), what, exactly, was he saying? When the truth finally came out, was he not shown up to be a liar? Not necessarily so. Wolfe explains:

In the year 2000, boys and girls did not consider fellatio to be a truly sexual act, any more than tonsil hockey. It was just "fooling around." The President of the United States at the time used to have a twenty-two-year-old girl, an unpaid volunteer in the presidential palace, the White House, come around to his office for fellatio. He later testified under oath that he had never "had sex" with her. Older Americans tended to be shocked, but junior-high-school, high-school, and college students understood completely what he was saying and wondered what on earth all the fuss was about. The two of them had merely been on second base, hooking up. [NOTE wolfe-4]

Would Christian young people know better than to accept the Clinton definition? Don't be too sure. Even those who take the "TLW Pledge" (TLW = true love waits) have some wiggle room. The Pledge reads as follows: "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship." [NOTE truelove] So what, exactly, are they promising to abstain from? In other words, what is sex?

Lauren Winner, who has written a fine defense of a Christian understanding of sexual relations, also finds a sad significance in the Clinton definition. She writes:

Clinton said, under oath, that he had not had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky; and then, of course, we all learned that he'd had oral sex with her. When he claimed that he hadn't had sexual relations, he meant he had not engaged in genital intercourse. Turns out that many American teenagers agreed with him. Studies by academics and anecdotal evidence by reporters suggest that many teens have oral sex, but still proudly declare themselves "pure" and "chaste." This narrow definition, that sex equals vaginal penetration, seems even to be shared by many Christian teens -- and why not? They breathe the same cultural air as the rest of America. [NOTE winner-1]

If the Clinton definition can be accepted, the "save sex for marriage" rule still leaves the young people plenty of leeway for exploring first, second and third base under the old definitions. (It should be noted in passing that President Clinton subsequently admitted his wrongdoing in the Ms. Lewinsky matter, and so he should not be regarded as a crusader for the deplorable attitudes surveyed by Wolfe in his writings.) [NOTE clinton] It then becomes, "Save home plate for your wedding night." But that's not a reading which the college handbook quoted above would allow.

Sex on first base

My fear is that if we issue a "save sex for marriage" rule, we may well wind up pushing young people in the direction of a President Clinton understanding of the term "sex." I would then have to object: in my judgment, first, second and third bases all involve sex. We need to be realistic with our teenage children, our young people, our students. On the one hand, we should not make things too simple (by adopting the Clinton definition), but on the other hand we should not forbid any and every form of sexual involvement.

Neither can I agree with "Bob," who sees an Aristotelian telos toward full sexual consummation in every sexual interchange that takes place on second or third base. It must be possible for sexual acts short of intercourse to be meaningful in themselves: we need not always regard them as steps toward full genital intercourse. The experience and testimony of older men who have lost their sex drive (perhaps because of treatment for prostate cancer) would be important here.

Lewis Smedes

At this point the reader might be expecting that I will finally lay out my own conclusion about how best to abide on first base, or second, or perhaps even third. But my plan is to defer to a wiser man. Among my undergraduate teachers at Calvin College was Lewis Smedes, the author of Sex for Christians and many another fine book. I never got any sex education from Prof. Smedes: instead he taught me contemporary theology. We studied Schleiermacher, Harnack, Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and their ilk. It was a stimulating and enjoyable course. A little later in life, when Smedes moved on to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, he turned his attention to what we might call practical theology: his fine book Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve, [NOTE smedes-1] about which I lecture in one of my courses, stems from his Fuller Seminary days.

When Smedes came out with Sex for Christians in 1976, I read it with great interest and appreciation. By then I was a married man myself and was no longer needing to "wait," but the sexual tensions of the unmarried and the not-quite-yet-married were still close to my heart.


Smedes articulated what many of us believed during my undergraduate days, namely, that we may speak of "responsible petting." I trust that "Bob" would need to take issue with him here, but he makes no mention of Smedes in his book. Smedes tells us:

Petting can be a delicately tuned means of mutual discovery. It need not be a cheap way of having the thrills of starting out toward intercourse without the derring-do to finish it. Petting can be an end in itself. It can be a process in which two people explore each other's feelings with no intention of having intercourse. Communication can take place that conveys personal closeness and sharing, with flexible but recognizable limits.

Smedes gently chides the Christian public for an inadequate understanding of human sexuality. He maintains:

... sexual relationships have many meanings, and they are not all preludes to intercourse. ... Petting may be a way of sharing some intimacy without the ultimate intimacy being in consideration. ... Petting is a halfway house between shunning all physical expressions on the one hand and rushing swiftly toward sexual intercourse on the other.

Smedes had no time for the President Clinton evasion (remember that Mr. Clinton also assured us that he did not smoke pot -- he didn't "inhale"). Expressing a degree of impatience with the Christian community, Smedes wrote:

One thing we have to avoid is the morally silly notion that anyone who manages to avoid penetration has kept himself free from fornication. "Technical chastity" is only an escape from responsibility. A person who pets, perhaps to orgasm, but preserves "virginity," is not for that reason upholding the Christian sexual standard. But we must avoid the equally false notion that petting is really on the same level as intercourse, as though the only difference is the technical matter of the location of the genitals. [NOTE smedes-2]

In the end Smedes may disappoint us, for he maintains there are "no exact rules" when it comes to petting. Nevertheless, his chapter on "responsible petting" was courageous when written and is still well worth pondering today. And so I am pleased that the publisher asked Smedes for a revised edition of his book, which came out in 1994. The revision consists essentially in a postscript called "Second Thoughts," in which Smedes comes back briefly to some of the points in the book. When he gets to the subject of petting, he tells us:

To some readers I seemed to be offering young people a license for illicit sex. Others tell me that the whole question is beside the point today. ... [For] today's young people sexual intercourse carries no more moral meaning than brushing our teeth. If intercourse has no moral meaning, it is clear that petting has none.
      I think all sexual relationships are morally important, but I also think that not all sexual relationships are covered by moral rules. Which led me to say in Sex for Christians that the moral criterion for petting is responsibility. ... Responsibility is the key simply because there are no clear moral rules that tell us what parts of another person's body we may touch and fondle at different stages of our relationship. [NOTE smedes-3]

Since Prof. Smedes died in 2002, we must take this as his last word on the subject. During his Fuller Seminary days, Smedes became an ethicist in both the theoretical and the practical sense, and I hereby commend his writings to anyone who may read this essay of mine, even though certain people consider his point of view to be "dated." [NOTE winner-2]

More openness needed

What conclusions do I draw from all of this? Two for the moment. One is that we need more openness in terms of how and when we talk with our young people about these things. If we cannot be more open and honest, I suspect the younger set will pay little attention to our preachments. Lauren Winner is of the same mind. She writes:

I have, by now, read countless books and heard countless lectures on singleness, chastity, and refraining from premarital sex. Many of these lectures and books seem out of touch with reality. They seem naive. They seem designed for people who get married right out of college. They seem theologically vacuous. Above all, they seem dishonest.

In some of our institutions there is a repressive climate of thought in which we pretend that our unmarried young people in the residences don't get further than first base. We are kidding ourselves when we limit our discussion of sexuality to the articulation of vague norms and ideals. Such an approach to sex education serves no one well. All too often it leaves people living a lie.

My second conclusion that is that we need more sustained attention to the sources of our moral reasoning and conclusions. It will not do to say that all the rules are laid down in the Bible. But therein lies an essay topic for another occasion. Is the Bible indeed a rulebook for life? If so, how many commandments does it contain? And if all the rules can be plainly read in the Bible, why do we have so much trouble reaching moral agreement? [END]


NOTE bob-1
Bob Stone and Bob Palmer, The Dating Dilemma: Handling Sexual Pressures (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 22.

NOTE bob-2
Page 182.

NOTE bob-3
Page 22.

NOTE bob-4
Pages 21 and 24. The "biological hand grenade ladder" is pictured on pp. 15 and 19.

NOTE bob-5
Page 95.

NOTE clinton
Clinton admitted: "When I was alone with Ms. Lewinsky on certain occasions in early 1996, and once in early 1997, I engaged in conduct that was wrong. These encounters did not consist of sexual intercourse. They did not constitute sexual relations, as I understood that term to be defined at my January 17th, 1998 deposition. But they did involve inappropriate, intimate contact." Source:

NOTE duvall-1
Evelyn Millis Duvall, Why Wait Till Marriage? (New York: Association Press, 1965), p. 54.

NOTE duvall-2
The quotations come from pp. 15, 18 and 19. See also the arguments she presents on pp. 19-20, 30-31, and 112. She even throws in a section on sexually transmitted diseases: pp. 54-56 -- all this before the age of AIDS! To advocates of the "try before you buy" philosophy who maintain that the prospective bride and groom must make sure they are "sexually compatible," Duvall says: "... the woman's vagina is wonderfully stretchable. It can enlarge to accommodate the birth of a baby, or to fit the male organ of any size comfortably." [p. 52] In this passage she departs from her usual genteel tone!

NOTE duvall-3
Page 22.

NOTE duvall-4
Page 83.

NOTE handbook
The handbook is available online:

NOTE harris-1
Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2000), p. 160.

NOTE harris-2
Joshua Harris and the woman he married managed to refrain from that first kiss until they had been pronounced husband and wife. Harris had set this feat of restraint as a goal when he was a single man: see I Kissed Dating Goodbye (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 1997, second edition 2003), p. 201. In his second book (Boy Meets Girl), he reports that he and his beloved managed to stick to their resolve in this matter: see pp. 142 and 160.

NOTE harris-3
Joshua Harris used even stricter guidelines for himself and his bride-to-be during their courtship and engagement period: see Boy Meets Girl, pp. 157ff.

NOTE jewish

NOTE madison-1
Madison's book was published by Prometheus Books of Amherst, N.Y. in 2006.

NOTE madison-2
Page 70.

NOTE madison-3
Pages 152, 160.

NOTE madison-4
Pages 76, 78, 151.

NOTE madison-5
The way Madison uses the term "hookup" and its variants (see, for example, pp. 77, 79, 147, 151-2) reveals what an impoverished -- and utterly amoral -- mentality underlies her entire book.

NOTE scheinerman

NOTE smedes-1
See Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve (New York: Pocket Books, 1984). Some of the same themes are touched on in his fine book Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don't Deserve (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993).

NOTE smedes-2
Sex for Christians, revised edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 130, 131, and 135.

NOTE smedes-3
Pages 234-235.

NOTE truelove

NOTE winner-1
Lauren Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005), pp. 105-106.

NOTE winner-2
Lauren Winner observes: "... one of the best books I have read about sex is Lewis Smedes's Sex for Christians. It is a superb book. It is clear, it is straightforward, it is compassionate. But it was written the year I was born. Is it still useful? Absolutely. I recommend you go out today and buy a copy. But it's also a little dated. Smedes wrote in the heyday of the sexual revolution. He wrote in the midst of a tremendous social transformation. He wrote when the broader culture's attitude toward sex was still in flux. Today very little is in flux." [p. 21]

NOTE winner-3
Page 15.

NOTE wolfe-1
Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2004).

NOTE wolfe-2
Tom Wolfe, Hooking Up (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000), pp. 6-7.

NOTE wolfe-3
Page 7.

NOTE wolfe-4
Page 8.

© Theodore Plantinga 2007

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Please note that the views expressed here are not the official views of Redeemer University College.