My Church Believes in Abstinence Outside of Marriage – Should We Still Talk About Affirmative Consent?

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With movements like #metoo and #churchtoo dominating headlines, the need for better education on consent in both society at large and within the church has become increasingly clear. But what does that look like in churches that hold to a conservative sexual ethic – teaching that any sex outside of marriage is a sin? Can education on abstinence and affirmative consent (“yes means yes”) go hand-in-hand?

My name is Emma Robinson. I’m a graduate student and researcher with the RAVE Project, and my work focuses on the intersection of victim blame and purity culture. As more Christians bravely speak up through #churchtoo, it’s clear that a narrow teaching of sexual ethics – focusing on marriage alone as the dividing line between moral sexual behaviour and sexual sin – is insufficient at best and harmful at worst. By teaching consent as a key part of a Christian sexual ethic, your community can take a strong stance against sexual violence (both outside of and within marriage) and begin to dismantle the shame and silence that allows it to flourish.

Why Being Clear about Consent Matters

Imagine a youth pastor – we’ll call him Pastor Liam – is leading his church’s College and Careers group. Speaking on the topic of dating relationships, he tells the group that couples shouldn’t share a bed before marriage to avoid being tempted into sexual sin.  Maya and Claire are two of the young adults present. Consider their responses:

  • Maya finds Pastor Liam’s advice helpful. She and her boyfriend both really want to have sex but have committed to wait until marriage. They respect each other’s boundaries, but sometimes, based on their strong mutual attraction, they choose to go further than they think they should. While engaging in sexual activity together is fun and consensual, they want to stick to their religious convictions going forward. She decides that this might be a good boundary to try.
  • Claire, unbeknownst to Pastor Liam, is a survivor of sexual assault. A previous boyfriend assaulted her one night when she stayed over at his apartment, leaving her struggling with both PTSD and a sense of being “impure” in the eyes of God. “I must’ve tempted my ex-boyfriend by sleeping in his bed,” she thinks. “I’ve brought this on myself”.

These two situations could not be more different. In the first, Maya and her boyfriend mutually chose to break a religiously-motivated fast from sexual activity – while in the second, Claire’s ex-boyfriend committed a terrible act of violence against her, resulting in lasting psychological and spiritual harm. And yet, by using “sexual sin” as an umbrella term without explaining the difference between consensual premarital sex and sexual assault, Pastor Liam has unintentionally implied that these two situations are one in the same.

How Common is Sexual Violence?

Claire’s context here is important to consider, given that approximately 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men experience sexual violence over the course of their lifetimes. Even though sexual violence is very common, there are many widespread myths that make it difficult for survivors to come forward. By remaining silent on the topic of consent and sexual violence, churches may inadvertently allow these myths to flourish, just like Pastor Liam’s lack of clarity led Claire to blame herself for her ex-boyfriend’s violence.

What is Consent?

Consent is a clear, enthusiastic, free, capable, and ongoing agreement to participate in sexual activity.

  • Clear: “Yes means yes” rather than “no means no” is the standard for consent in Canadian law. Sometimes an individual’s trauma response or other circumstances, such as being unconscious or intoxicated, make it difficult or impossible to say a clear “no”. If there isn’t a clear yes, you don’t have consent.
  • Enthusiastic: Both verbal and non-verbal cues are that someone is feeling good about engaging in sexual activity must be present. An “I guess” is not a “yes”, nor is a “yes” after a series of “no”s.
  • Free & Capable: The person giving consent must be conscious, not incapacitated in any way, of legal age to consent to sexual activity, and not be under threat. Lastly, someone cannot consent to sexual activity with a person in a position of authority or trust over them, such as a teacher or church leader.
  • Ongoing: It’s important to regularly check in with your partner. Consent is a conversation, not a contract, and can be withdrawn at any time.

Any sexual activity that occurs without consent is sexual assault.

How can I Teach Consent in a Conservative Christian Context?

While there are many great secular resources for learning about consent and sexual violence, including the popular Tea Consent video, the Bible also has some great stories for exploring this topic. Consider reading through Song of Songs and looking for examples of consent through the lens of “yes means yes”. Likewise, read through the story of Tamar and Amnon (2 Samuel 13) and discuss the ways this story challenges some of the myths our society believes about sexual violence.

Of course, talking about consent is just the beginning. It’s important to make sure your church community is a safe space for survivors to disclose and is a community that takes abuse seriously and takes action. Both the RAVE Project website and The Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) website have some helpful resources to build capacity in this way.

Emma Robinson, 22 January 2020