by Matt Kaufman
It’s been nearly two years since Colin Powell went on MTV preaching the secular gospel of “safe sex.” (I wrote about it in a column called “Sex in the Real World.”) At the time, while appearing on a network known for condom ads in addition to various forms of raunchiness, Powell sung the praises of condoms (“I not only support their use, I encourage their use”) and called upon “the whole international community” to rally behind his cause — to “forget about taboos, forget about conservative ideas.” For this he reaped predictable applause from liberal media outlets like The New York Times (“With Candor, Powell Charms Global MTV Audience,” cheered the headline) and The Washington Post (Powell was “straightforward and remarkably sensible,” an editorial proclaimed; his critics, “hysterical,” “polarizing,” “backward”).
But sometime during the past couple years, the secretary of state seems to have changed his tune.
In a November interview with the BBC, Powell defended the Bush administration’s policy of devoting a chunk of funds to programs that promote abstinence only — the kind that don’t trivialize the abstinence message with wink-wink escape clauses. (You know: “We really wish you’d pretty please consider abstinence, but since we know that’ll never happen … Here — have some condoms.”) Now Powell says “Abstinence works. We know it works … and it is a perfectly sensible strategy for young people.” In fact, Powell says he joins his wife Alma — who heads the abstinence program “Best Friends” in Washington, D.C. — in speaking to teen girls, urging them to stay away from sex.
Well, that’s more like it. Sure, there clearly are limits on how much high government officials can do to reverse destructive social trends; everyday fixtures in teens’ lives — parents, teachers, even entertainers — have more clout. But government officials can at least follow the Hippocratic Oath’s prescription: “First, do no harm.” And when they go out into a community, like the Powells, they can likely do some good, helping dozens if not hundreds of people avoid sex and all that comes with it.
Still, I don’t think Colin Powell really gets it just yet. Not judging by his own words, anyway.
“Abstinence is a good thing to teach young people before they’re ready for the responsibilities of sexual activity,” he told the BBC. The message he says he delivers: “You are not ready for this, so let’s take your energy and any hopes and dreams you have and convert that into other healthy activities … dance, group activities, that sort of thing.”
I emphasized various words throughout that paragraph, because they seem to echo a popular mentality that misses the real point behind abstinence. According to this view, the problem isn’t sex outside of marriage; it’s just sex among young people. When they’re older, they’ll be “ready,” regardless of whether they’re married. When they’re younger, they might neglect “responsibilities” (i.e., condoms) and end up dealing with pregnancy or diseases. And this, in turn, can mess up physical health, emotional self-esteem, lifestyle plans. Concepts like sin and repentance never really enter the picture. It’s all about self-interest and personal well-being, as conceived in the shallow and worldly notions of modern society.
It is — or should be — striking just how morally and spiritually impoverished all this is. And no wonder; it’s the cobbled-together standard of adults who grew up during the Sexual Revolution, seeking to reconcile incompatible aspects of their lives and create some sort of guidelines after they’ve rebelled against the ones God laid down. They don’t want their kids having sex, much less (say) dropping out of college to take care of a baby, but they also don’t want to repent of how they and their friends have lived or, in some cases, still are living. They don’t mind admitting to occasional “mistakes” (a conveniently nonjudgemental word) like getting into “relationships” that caused trouble, but they don’t want to admit sinning against God.
In the popular view, the problem isn’t sex outside of marriage; it’s just sex among young people.
I don’t mean that everyone who buys into this view is just covering up their own sins, past or present. But even those who’ve lived basically decent lives themselves (Colin Powell may be in this category, for all I know) often don’t like confrontation, especially if it means strained relationships within their families. So they resort to telling themselves that once Johnny and Sally are out of the house, “we’ve done our job” and don’t have to — indeed, shouldn’t — make an issue of it once Johnny moves in with his girlfriend and Sally moves in with her boyfriend. It’s just so much easier that way.
It’s also a cheat. Specifically, it’s a case of an older generation cheating a younger one out of what they really need to hear, not (for the most part) because the older folk never heard it but because they heard it and rejected it.
What every generation needs to hear is that the primary reason premarital sex (regardless of age) is wrong is the same reason marital sex is right. It’s important to know that sex can lead to pregnancy or disease. But it’s far more important to know why sex is good in marriage, and no place else.
It’s important to know that sex can lead to pregnancy or disease. But it’s far more important to know why sex is good in marriage, and no place else.
Far from being anti-sex, the Bible counts sex as precious precisely in the context of a lifelong union between man and woman — a closeness so great that God speaks of them becoming “one flesh,” and likens His love for His people to marital love, lavishly celebrated in an entire book of Scripture (Song of Songs) and portions of others (Revelation 19, for one). It’s in marriage that sex finds its intended meaning: lasting lifelong intimacy on every level. That’s not only a good thing, it’s a holy thing. The fact that it can produce children is far from incidental. The creation of life is one of the great earthly manifestations of the love of God; the loving life together of man and woman is meant to produce children bound to them in a great circle of love.
It’s in marriage that sex finds its intended meaning.
The great evil (and yes, that’s the right word) of sex outside marriage is that it takes something created to be holy and desecrates it. Sex can’t be separated from God’s order of creation, and when we try to pretend otherwise, we’re trying to make God go away so we can re-order creation to suit our own lusts or other emotional desires. We may try to tell ourselves we’re expressing “love.” But when we seek to slice sex off from the life of love — lasting marriage — and to have it on the side instead, we’re actually expressing a type of hatred for our Creator. We’re throwing the blessings He gave us back in His face and demanding substitutes tailored to our preferences.
The bad news is you won’t learn that in a speech by Colin Powell, or virtually any other public officials. The good news is you will learn that in the Good News.
Copyright © 2003 Matt Kaufman. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Matt Kaufman, “Sex in the Real World, Revisited,” Boundless, 2003, 2 February 2004.