Around this time last year, I posted a series of articles called “Pop Culture or Porn Culture?’ In these articles, I looked at popular culture’s current fascination with all things porn like. Through movies, magazines, and celebrity culture, it appears as if Hollywood is engaged in the process of blurring the lines between the mainstream and the pornographic. (You can read the articles here and here). Of course, I then attempted to reflect theologically on these issues, all the while having a nagging question in the back of my mind:
What’s next? What is the next incarnation of the culture’s use of sexuality as a tool of popularity?
Well it appears as if that question has been answered—although not in the way that one would think.
In complete rejection of the celebri-porn of the Kim Kardashians and Farrah Abrahams, the newest trend to be promoted in popular culture is an extreme version of chastity and virginity. This is primarily seen through the hit show 19 kids and Counting and its newest counterpart Home Sweet Bus. There are many different reasons why these families are fascinating, yet the most prominent factor is their religious conservatism around the issues of dating and sexuality. The Duggars of 19 Kids, for example, eschew all forms of birth control, electing to leave their number of children ‘up to God.’ What is more, they adhere to an extreme understanding of modesty, wherein the moral and spiritual purity of the woman is evidenced through the exclusive wearing of floor-lengthed dresses.
While 19 Kids and Counting has had a presence on TLC for many years, it has become mainstream due to the marriages of two of the Duggar daughters. This is, in itself quite interesting. Never was there this much attention when eldest son was married (again to someone who refuses to wear pants and will leave the number of children to divine appointment – they are expecting number 4). It was only when the Duggar daughters began ‘courting’ that mainstream popular culture turned its attention to them. Not only is it clear that the current season of 19 Kids has a higher budget than other seasons, the first daughter to married, along with her husband, was recently on the cover of People Magazine.
The current popularity of the Duggars, and now the Allens, is centred on the regulations surrounding dating. Frankly, these families do not believe in dating opting for the more conservative tradition of ‘courting.’ Of course, one only courts for the purpose of marriage. Thus to enter into ‘courtship’ is to decide that he/she is the person that one will marry. Because of this ever-constant eye toward marriage, the Duggar and Allen children adhere to strict guidelines when it comes to how that relationship is lived out. For example, the courting couple must be continually in the presence of a chaperone. This chaperone (usually a sibling) is there to ensure that the moral and spiritual standards are upheld for the couple. Hugs must be ‘side hugs’ and not ‘front-facing’ hugs –as this would be too sexually suggestive. And if front-hugs are prohibited, what do you think about a casual kiss on the cheek? Throughout their courtships, both Duggar daughters chose to refrain from holding hands with their future husbands until officially engaged, and their first kiss was left for their wedding day.
What is a bit disturbing to me is that these restrictions are not held simply for restrictions sake. There is a deeply held theology that is attached to these rules. In both programs, the parents speak about having to ‘hold the heart’ of their daughters. The three eldest daughters of the Allen family wear a charm around their necks symbolizing this very fact. Within these families there is the understanding that heart of the daughter ‘belongs’ to their father – until the time when the father deems a suitable mate has come along. Oddly enough, there is never any mention of how a son’s heart is held by the mother. One has to wonder how the daughters can grow into healthy, mature individuals, if a fundamental part of their identity is never under their own ownership.
On one hand, I praise the fact that the popularity of 19 Kids and HSB is highlighting that the rampant sexual openness of celebrity culture is not the only option when it comes to our romantic lives. In some sense, the popularity of these programs is a good thing. The fact that Jill and her husband can grace the cover of a popular magazine, all the while holding to an extreme understanding of sexual and romantic conservatism, shows that popularity is not simply for the sexually open or adventurous.
The problem for me is that there is the suggestion that we are only capable of sexual extremes. It is a view that states that any rejection of rampant sexual licence must take the form of purity pledges and chastity-skirts. This is apparently the only other option. Sexuality, in the Duggar and Allen worldview, has an either/or quality to it; either you engage in the sinful sexuality of the pornographic and adulterous celebrity culture, or you shun all sexuality to the extreme.
Yet all you have done is exchange one unhealthy view of sexuality with another equally unhealthy view of sexuality. I fear this extreme take on sexual and romantic purity inadvertently leads to a denial of the fact that God has created us as sexual and romantic individuals. This is part of our identity, and suggesting that all romantic impulses are ‘sinful’ outside the covenant of marriage is both wrong and dangerous. So too is it dangerous to assert that the Duggar and Allen daughters do not have a sense of ownership over their romantic lives until their father gives the approval.
While I do agree that there is to be limits to the expression of our sexual selves, the limits we impose are not because sex is evil, bad, or wrong; In fact it is quite the opposite. It is precisely because sex is so good, so holy, so God-given that it cannot and should not be tossed around as if it is nothing more than a casual pass-time. Romance and sexuality in scripture is not focused the receiving of pleasure, but the act of self-giving. The sexual relationship is one in which each party mutually gives that which is central to their own self and identity. It is a unique gift of intimacy, vulnerability, and personhood. It is because this gift is so valuable and unique that, I believe, it should not be given until the full act of self-offering can both be fully given and received. This self-giving has been limited to marriage because it is here where each person engages in self-giving socially, familially, legally, and spiritually, and then, as an expression of all this, physically.
I admit, this is a more conservative view on sex than others would have, but importantly, the limits imposed on the sexual union does not preclude an acceptance or pursuit of one’s romantic life. After all, it is possible that one can hold hands with a guy or a girl and not be looking for the nearest bedroom. What is more, ‘dating’ can actually aid in developing one’s self understanding, and help them learn what is valuable in a potential partner. Yes, these things, when given extreme license, can lead to unhealthy behaviours and consequences. Yet the extreme denial and abdication of casual romantic interests is equally unhealthy and can lead to equally dangerous consequences.
It is here where we see the wonder of the biblical understanding of sexuality. The beauty in the way the Bible presents both romance and sexuality is that it doesn’t play the either/or game. Scripture holds much more of a both/and view. It is this duality that is fundamentally denied in both the extreme sexual licence of celebrity lifestyle and the extreme self-denying chasteness of the Duggars and Allens. It is only in the shunning of either extreme that we fully understand the complexity of God’s gift of our sexual and romantic selves, and thereby grow to be the person whom God has created us to be. This should be the wish for our sons and our daughters.