Christian Sexual Ethics: What Went Wrong? pt. 1

This is the first installment of this series. For the full series here is Part 2,  Part 3, Part 4, of this series.

On September 12, 1966, William F. Buckley hosted Hugh Hefner on his weekly talk program, Firing Line. Their subject was the “Playboy philosophy” that Hefner advocated through his magazine and associated enterprises such as the Playboy Clubs. Hefner was an articulate and thoughtful spokesman for his views.1 He described his goal as to replace the “old legalism” of “thou shalt not” with a more flexible and realistic approach to sex that truly promotes human happiness. Far from seeking to undermine marriage, he said, the Playboy philosophy by emphasizing sexual enjoyment would lead to a “more truly monogamous society” characterized by “happy monogamy” rather than the “sequential polygamy” of repeated divorce and remarriage. He further prophesied that more emphasis on “the heterosexual and the healthy” would lead to a decline in homosexuality, perversions, and frigidity, all of which are due to the frustrations introduced by the old sexual ethic. Perhaps most importantly, it would lead to a reduction in sex crimes, which are primarily a result of “repressive attitudes” and “sex suppression.”

William F Buckley on The Firing Line

Five decades later, one can only marvel at how wrong he was. Spurred by Playboy and its cultural allies, our society has indeed made a priority of sexual enjoyment of all kinds. But the results have not been what Hefner envisioned. Far from shrinking, homosexuality has ramified into the immensely powerful LGBT movement which continues to transform American society. Sex crimes are still very much with us, not only in the grislier forms of rape and murder but in the epidemic of child sexual abuse and other predatory misuses of power exposed by the #MeToo movement. We are now so far from being a monogamous society that many do not bother to get married at all, drifting instead from one hook-up or cohabitation to another, and many others who would like to get married can find no suitable partner. Most surprisingly from the standpoint of the heady optimism of the 1960’s, sex itself (at least of the heterosexual variety) seems to be in retreat. As a writer for the Atlantic reported a few years ago, “despite the easing of taboos and the rise of hookup apps, Americans are in the midst of a sex recession,” as many find pursuing and engaging the opposite sex simply too much trouble in light of the easy availability of on-line alternatives.2

Obviously not all of these ills can be laid at the door of any one person or agency. The sexual transformations of the last fifty years have been complex and are the result of many factors. I cite Hefner merely because he offers an especially striking example of an assumption that remains as pervasive today as it was in the 1960’s. This is that human sexuality is something naturally good and pleasant, and would remain so were it not for the various forms of repression imposed upon it by Christianity; therefore, in order to return it to its naturally healthy state we need only remove this Christian repression.

This view was hardly new in the 1960’s. Faramerz Dabhoiwala has traced its first great efflorescence (in England, at least) in his The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution.3 A number of factors converged in England in the latter seventeenth century to undermine traditional sexual morality. They began with the Restoration of Charles II and his notoriously libertine court, as well as other aspects of the reaction against Puritanism, and culminated with the Act of Toleration of 1689, which effectively eliminated ecclesiastical courts as enforcers of public morality. Deists and free-thinkers contributed a more radical strand, asserting that “organized religion did not teach virtue but concealed it” and “a great part of morality (if not all) was of merely human invention.”4 By the mid-eighteenth century prostitution was both legal and commonplace, as was the seduction of serving girls and other vulnerables, whether married or not, by those in positions of power. It is true that the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw a powerful reaction driven by evangelical revival movements. Yet the ideas set loose by the deists and free-thinkers remained current, often blending with popular ideals of liberty and hatred of “priestcraft.” Percy Bysshe Shelley, for example, went Hugh Hefner one better by rejecting marriage itself, writing in a note to his highly popular poem, Queen Mab (1813): “Love withers under constraint: its very essence is liberty . . . That which will result from the abolition of marriage, will be natural and right, because choice and change will be exempted from restraint.”5

One advantage we have today compared to earlier generations is that we have seen the consequences of the enactment of such ideas on a large scale. Marriage has been, if not abolished, at least effectively put out of reach for vast swathes of the lower classes and working poor, who today marry and remain married at vanishingly low rates. Charles Murray has documented the consequences in his Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.6 They are all too familiar: crime, poverty, drug addiction, educational failure, welfare dependency, and others that are just as important though less quantifiable, such as loneliness, despair, and a sense of alienation from the larger society. Nor are these consequences restricted to the poor; it is well known how devastating divorce can be even to the children of affluent parents. One cause of the “sex recession” mentioned earlier is the sense of wariness that the children of divorce have toward marital commitment. As Murray observes, marital stability today is increasingly a luxury good hoarded and handed down among the families of the elites, for whom it enables other goods like educational and career attainment. It is all too easy to fall out of this charmed circle, and all too hard to enter it.

In view of the experience of the past fifty years, I would propose a conclusion that is controversial but that I nonetheless believe is well supported by the evidence. It is that—precisely contrary to the view held by Hefner and still held by many others—in modern western societies, something like Christian sexual morality is required if there is to be long-lasting love, stable families, and a secure environment for raising children.

Let me briefly explain the main elements of this statement. In speaking of Christian sexual morality, I have in mind primarily three main points. The first is that man and woman are equal but different, and furthermore are made for one another in the way presented so powerfully in the opening chapters of Genesis. The second is that, as a consequence, marriage can exist only between a man and a woman, and, once formed, should in normal circumstances last until death; furthermore, sex, the joining of male and female into one flesh, should occur only in marriage. The third is that, out of respect for the integrity of marriage as well as that of the human body itself, lasciviousness of the kind promoted by Hefner and his like must be rejected; one should seek to cultivate purity and chastity as an interior orientation regardless of one’s marital state or walk of life.

In restricting my statement to modern western societies, I certainly do not mean to suggest that this ethic is not timeless and eternal. However, its necessity for the health of love, families, and children is a more contingent matter, for arguably these have done well enough in many non-Christian societies. What is distinctive about the modern West is that we continue to hold to ideals that emerged from, and find their natural home within, Christian civilization. These include human equality, respect for the individual conscience, the sanctity of human life, the protection and nurturing of children, and (at least for many) the significance and value of romantic love. Within such a context, marriage and the family take on added weight that they do not normally bear in other societies. We expect them to be the arena in which equality, mutual respect, the nurturing of children, and romantic love can most fully flourish and through which they are passed on to succeeding generations. Only the Christian sexual ethic can, at a broad cultural level, give them the strength to meet such high demands.

Much more would need to be said to fully explain and defend my statement. For the moment, however, I merely note that it is an assumption I will make going forward. I believe that many Christians, and perhaps even some secular thinkers, will find it plausible.

The main point I wish to make is that, if my statement is even roughly true, it raises a pointed question: what went wrong? Why, if the Christian sexual ethic is indeed so wholesome and essential, does it provoke such bitter opposition? For plainly the opposition to it today is not only of the measured sort exhibited by Hefner in his interview. It is hatred. The hatred can be expressed in more vulgar ways (“keep your rosaries off my ovaries”) or with more polish (as in The Handmaid’s Tale). But it is unquestionably hatred that is bitter, deep, and potent. Nor is it really new. Granted that it has grown more outspoken in recent decades, Dabhoiwala shows that a sense of indignation against Christian sexual morality has been a driving force within western society since at least the seventeenth century.

There are several ways one could approach the question, what went wrong? One is an idea voiced occasionally on the right—namely, that the hatred is a form of blame-shifting arising from sexual sin, or the desire for such sin, and is thus a suppressed form of guilt.7 Although this may well be true in many cases, as a global explanation it is speculative, at best. I do not know how it could be either proven or disproven.

A more philosophical explanation would be to locate the fault within the internal dynamic of Christian civilization itself. On this view, conflict arose inevitably as Christianity gave rise to ideals of freedom, autonomy, and self-realization that are in conflict with Christian sexual morality. Christianity thus contains the seeds of its own destruction, and the destructive process, in light of the resistance to it, must necessarily include an element of violent reaction. What we are witnessing now is the emergence of a hatchling (secular ethics) as it breaks out of its shell (Christian teaching). This is an intriguing idea, and I do not deny that it contains an element of truth. However, the fundamental premise that Christianity is self-contradictory is one that I reject, as any Christian must. Although Christianity as it is realized at any time and place may contain many faults, “the faith once delivered to the saints” is from God, and this faith surely includes at least the core elements of Christian moral teaching.

The approach I will take here bears some similarity to this, in that it seeks to identify internal tensions in Christian teaching that have led to our current predicament. I do not regard these as intrinsic contradictions, however, but as partial and temporary limitations that can be overcome. It should not surprise us that there are such limitations. The doctrine of the Trinity was part of the Christian faith from the beginning, but centuries had to pass before it began to find an adequate articulation at Nicaea. The doctrine of the Incarnation took even longer, in a period stretching from at least the fourth through the seventh centuries. Much the same can be said of the Christian view of sacred art, which had to wait until the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in 787, for an adequate articulation. Ideas that are both profound and revolutionary naturally take a long time to be assimilated, and the full effort to do so may not be undertaken until it is forced by external circumstances. I believe that we are largely in that situation with regard to Christian sexual ethics. We have been working with an idea (or set of ideas) that is fundamentally true, but has been poorly articulated and not properly integrated with the rest of Christian belief. It is time for this to change.

Part 2

  1. See the recording at (accessed June 29, 2021).
  2. Kate Julian, “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?,” Atlantic, December 2018; (accessed June 29, 2021). See also Arthur Goldberg, “What’s Behind the ‘Sex Recession’?,” (accessed June 29, 2021).
  3. Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  4. Dabhoiwala, Origins of Sex, 102.
  5. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab, note to V.189; quoted by Dabhoiwala, Origins of Sex, 126.
  6.  Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Random House, 2012).
  7. See, for example, E. Michael Jones, Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior (South Bend, IN: Fidelity Press, 2012).

About David Bradshaw

David Bradshaw is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin in 1996 with a specialization in ancient philosophy. He is the author of Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom (2004) and the editor of Philosophical Theology and the Christian Tradition: Russian and Western Perspectives (2012) and Ethics and the Challenge of Secularism: Russian and Western Perspectives (2013), as well as co-editor of Natural Theology in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition (2021). He also edited the section on “The Greek Christian Tradition” for Medieval Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader, ed. Bruce Foltz (2019). He and his wife attend St. Athanasius Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, KY.

FamilyMarriageSexualitySocial Thought


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