Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Book Review)

real-sex-chastity“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” St. Augustine.

Chastity, or sexual morality, is perhaps the most unpopular of Christian virtues. Most people are glad that chastity is a virtue, but they are content that others are chaste. Others strive for chastity, but want to live life for awhile while single, pursuing the pleasures of pre-marital sex in a permissive culture. Augustine’s famous quote pretty much sums up the secret prayers of many Christians.

Part of me hesitates to call chastity a “virtue” because I think it connotes the idea that Christians can take it or leave it. In other words, I can choose to be a virtuous Christian or a regular sinning Christian like the rest of the crowd. But the other side of me likes the word virtue, because it stirs up in me a lofty goal that I am called to but do not ever completely attain. Virtues are character qualities that Christians discipline themselves toward out of thankfulness to Christ and his sacrifice precisely because we cannot attain to the perfectly virtuous life—but Jesus did, and for us.

It is in this spirit that Lauren Winner challenges us in her winsome book Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity. As a newly minted Christian, Winner struggled with the why and how questions that naturally arise from the traditional Christian ethic, based on the Bible, of chastity. Why be chaste as a single person when almost everyone she knew was sexually active before marriage? A pastor who quoted her a few verses from the Apostle Paul regarding the Bible’s prohibitions regarding sexual immorality only marginally helped her. Winner knew the Bible had a sexual ethic. That God cared about sex and how people behave themselves under the sheets. But as a new Christian she did not know why the Bible said these things. She didn’t have a sustained theology of sex and marriage, which is what she needed to understand why God cares so much about his children’s sexual behavior, and how to practically make the transition from unchastity to chastity in a culture that does a thorough job arguing for free sexual expression.

During her quest to understand chastity and write this book for single Christian people, unforeseen to her, Winner got married. Therefore the book that she set out to write evolved into this book—an accessible, conversational, thoughtful, biblical in a post-feminist postmodern culture, defense of chastity for singles and marrieds.

The author begins at the beginning, exploring the Bible’s teaching on sex from a creational perspective, concluding that sex is God’s good gift to men and women, to be enjoyed in the context of marriage. Then she develops a biblical argument that sex is communal (not in the promiscuous hippie-commune sense), such that the state of any Christian living in marriage is the business of those he/she lives with in community. Of course this doesn’t mean what you probably think it means—that your Christian friends are allowed to ask you intimate and private details. Winner means that the health of our marriages is vital to the health of our churches, and therefore as we are all one body of Christ, we ought to support, nurture, defend, and gently speak to each other of our marriages.

One of the most intriguing parts of the book is her two chapters on the particular lies we hear about sex, both from our culture and the Church. This is straight talk that is all but absent from any large group discussion to which I’ve been privy. But small groups of folks who know each other could profit immensely from an evening of honest dialog. (To that end, the book includes a discussion guide for each chapter.)

Part two of the book focuses on the art of practicing chastity. Winner argues that for single people chastity ought to be consistently practiced in public and private. The principle that worked for her and her fiancé is “don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do on the steps of the Rotunda (at the University of Virginia). This rule of thumb was not their idea, but was proposed to them as a couple by their pastor who knew them, their pasts, and their particular struggles. According to Winner, that is the idea: to be accountable to others in your Christian community (church) regarding your romantic behavior. In another chapter she argues that chastity is like other spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, fasting, Bible reading), the value of which is that they “conform your body to the arc of the gospel.” She ends her book with chapters on the value of the state of singleness (and singles as people) to the Church, what singleness teaches the Church, and what repentance might look like as all of us as sinners seek to conform our lives to the virtue of chastity for the sake of Jesus our Lord.

This is a fun and easy book to read (unless you get queasy reading about sex and our human struggles with being chaste). Bu it is not a flawless book. If I were to hand it to a friend, I would inform him that Winner’s prose could be taken as allowing baby-steps or occasional steps toward chastity as enough. The fact is that God requires us to practice chastity. We are fooling ourselves and dancing around Christ’s lordship if we pat ourselves on the back for a two-week fast from pre-marital sex. Eating is not sin, and so ending a food fast is not sin. Pre-marital sex is sin, so ending a sex fast is not virtuous. It could actually does more harm than good because it creates the illusion of obedience and sacrifice for a time, when repentance is the proper response to falls into sexual unfaithfulness. I would also say to my friend that Winner probably needs a slightly higher view of the bible and a slightly lower view of the Church. It seems that she believes that the community’s standard (if shared by those in leadership) may be allowed to trump the Bible’s sexual ethic. Winner would probably object to this notion, but I don’t see how she can avoid it when she asserts that the Apostle Paul gave the Corinthians fallible advice based on his mistaken notion that Christ would be returning soon. If Paul’s biblical advice could be wrong, and the Christian community is usually collectively wise and good, then the door is open for the community to stray from the Bible. This is exactly what happens in churches that admire and revere the Bible, but do not believe it is God-breathed, infallible, and inerrant.

These qualifications aside, I would recommend Winner’s book Real Sex as a great conversation starter for Christians who want to know why they should save themselves sexually for marriage, and how to live right now full lives as children of God in the community of other believers—the Church.

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3 Responses to Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Book Review)

  1. Pingback: Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Book Review) |

  2. Reblogged this on Daddy's Little Brat and commented:
    A wonderful post on the topic. I will have to look into this book.

  3. Q: What I think some people might find a bit surprising, though, is that you aren’t dividing all physical behaviors into “acceptable” and “forbidden.” You tell the story that you and your now-husband received advice from a pastor when you were dating not to do anything sexual that you would not be comfortable doing on the steps of the University of Virginia Rotunda. At the same time, you acknowledge that certain Christians wouldn’t accept kissing as part of their definition of chastity.

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