booknotes: making sense of sex

Without getting too explicit here, I can pinpoint the exact moment in which I made the decision to pursue a sexual relationship with Hanna. I was in the Schlesinger Library's reading room ostensibly doing research for a seminar paper, but in actual fact writing a long and incredibly angst-ridden letter to a friend about all these unruly thoughts and feelings I was having about this new person who'd just recently walked into my life. And somewhere in the midst of writing the letter, it clicked. I was in a muddle -- and then I wasn't. I can't explain it more coherently than that. It was an intuitive thing: When I sat with the idea of not being with Hanna, I was anxious and sad; when I sat with the idea of being with her, that knot of unhappiness unwound and the world settled into place.

Of course, that moment of decision was only a hinge, the personal turning point amidst a sea of smaller decision-making steps, choices made and chances taken in the midst of what I still think of as our "courtship" period. All of which added up to the "intuitive" decision that I wanted to be with this person, wanted a specific type of relationship with her. What Michael F. Duffy, author of Making Sense of Sex: Responsible Decision Making for Young Singles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), would like us all to do is make that intuitive process a conscious and deliberate one: a process of personal and moral discernment.

I'm going to come clean here and confess that I requested the advance review copy of this book because I expected to be able to write a snarky review highlighting how full of fail it was. The pre-publication blurb made clear that this book was coming at the question of whether or not to have sex from a Christian perspective, and while I'm definitely open to the possibility that Christians can be awesome about human sexuality, most of the Christian-centric literature I've read on decision-making about sex has been woeful. So yeah (guilty foot shuffle) I was kinda looking forward to making fun of it.

The thing is: This is one of the best books I've read on the subject of ethical sexual decision-making. Granted, I haven't read everything out there -- and not much of it has been from an explicitly religious point of view. But I was pretty damn impressed: it pushed virtually none of the buttons I was expecting it to push, and got a lot right in the process. It has its limitations (about which Mr. Duffy is upfront in the introduction): it supposes a predominantly Christian audience, and a heterosexual, gender-normative one. Anyone who isn't interested in lengthy examinations of personal motivation and ethics is bound to be bored, and someone who isn't Christian and is actively turned off by Christian language would likely have a hard time getting passed the more overtly religious chapters. But the overall point of this book is to lay out a framework for sexual decision-making, not to point readers toward any one way of engaging in relational sex. Beyond the principle of basic mutual consent (more on this below), Duffy bends over backward to remind his readers that ethical people are capable of coming to differing conclusions about what constitutes a good reason to engage in sexual activity -- and that each person might have made a moral choice.

Things for which Duffy earned points in my book:
  • The chapter on sexual consent. This chapter is solidly grounded in (I would say feminist) theories of mutual consent, not only covering the ground-rules of basic consent but also pushing readers to consider how much responsibility we have ensure our partners are making informed decisions about being sexual with us. His four ground-rules are 1) no sex with someone unwilling, 2) alcohol and drugs make consent problematic, 3) in general no sex with people in categories that make them incapable of consent [i.e. underage, mentally incapacitated], and 4) no sex when one person has "identifiable power" over the other. Beyond that, he writes "We should remember as we go that sexual consent is not a one-time agreement but must be maintained throughout any sexual encounter or relationship" (6). In other words, consent is ongoing and negotiated between the relevant parties.
  • Reasons for being sexually intimate. He pushes his (presumably Christian) audience to consider that premarital and "casual" sex can be a moral choice for some people, in some circumstances. He emphasizes throughout that self-awareness, responsibility, and communication are key. He allows that, depending on your view of God and the Bible, it may be that you personally decide that premarital sex is sinful -- while reminding his readers that many Christians have caring, nourishing sexual relationships outside of marriage and that many of the arguments for limiting sex to marriage have more to do with rules than the actual material difference between marital and non-marital relationships.
  • Pregnancy and abortion. Anyone who pushes Planned Parenthood as an organization to which you can turn to for resources and support (p. 147) is someone who deserves kudos in my book. The chapter on pregnancy prevention and family planning is somewhat limited by the fact he's only talking about heterosexual relationships (my marginalia alongside the chapter title, "If you do not wish to become pregnancy, how will you prevent it?" reads: "have sex only with women :)" (43)!). Given that, though, he encourages partners to be clear about their desires regarding pregnancy and emphasizes mutual responsibility in the event of an unplanned pregnancy -- while being very clear that the "deciding vote" over what to do goes to "the woman in whose body this form of human life is growing" (80). Basic? Perhaps -- but not when written for college students and twentysomethings who have been steeped in anti-abortion rhetoric and culture their entire lives.
  • Lack of sexism. This, also, is going to sound basic. But Duffy's overall schematic for sexual decision-making is very light on the question of gender. With the exception (for obvious reasons) of the chapter on pregnancy -- and to a lesser extent the section on sexual assault and coercion -- one could take his questions about sexual ethics and ask them of any person, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. His concept of sexual ethics is not dependent on a belief in innate gender difference -- he does not assume, for example, that women will automatically suffer more (or at all) from "hooking up," or that men are not interested in committed relationships. In this era of increasing buy-in to theories of gender difference, gender-blind sexual ethics are a welcome relief.
Areas in which Making Sense of Sex was lacking:
  • Heteronormative framework. Duffy is up-front in the introduction that he chose to focus on heterosexual partners in his text, in part because that's where his own personal experience lies. While I'm pleased he made a conscious decision, I also question the narrowness of his interpretation of sexual ethics: are same-sex or genderqueer folks really so different as to need a whole different framework for understanding their sexual lives? And the same could go for folks choosing poly relationships -- couldn't the same basic questions about trust and meaning apply to them as well? I think he short-changes himself in this regard and (perhaps inadvertently) sends the message that non-heteronormative relationships are so utterly different as to be beyond the scope of his project. He makes a passing mention to "group sex" and the fact it can be ethical, but doesn't get much into it.
  • Sex = "vaginal intercourse" (xv)? Really? Even given Duffy's focus on heterosexual couples, I feel that choosing to define sex straight-up as "vaginal intercourse" is a missed opportunity to challenge the majority assumption that this is the beginning and ending of human sexual activity.
  • Pornography and sexual ethics. While I understand why he skirted this issue (it could be a book in and of itself), I think the question of pornography and erotica -- and its place in human sexual activities -- really cannot and should not be avoided when talking about sexual ethics. If I were going to use Duffy's book in a class, I'd want to augment it with a list of readings on erotica.
So, overall verdict? This would be a solid text to use in a course or workshop on sexual decision-making, but I'd definitely want to add some other titles to the list -- Heather Corinna's invaluable S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College (New York: Marlowe, 2007) comes to mind -- as a way to bring queer perspectives into the discussion. And I'd make sure to have a full-fledged discussion about how erotic materials might be ethically and mutually enjoyed by all parties in a sexual relationship, as well as the way in which they are often used to cover up or avoid areas of a relationship that have ceased to function. If this is your area of professional or personal interest -- and especially if you're working with young people who come from a Christian background -- I'd highly recommend checking this book out as a useful resource.

This book was made available to me in electronic format for advance review through NetGalley.

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