Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Premarital Sex, Faith & the SCU Student

By Jessica Coblentz

As students began to take their seats in Kennedy Commons last Monday, January 28, 2008, a reporter from the school paper inquired: "So Jessica, what gave you the idea for today's panel?" In 15 minutes the second event in my student discussion series, Faith, Sex, and Ethics, would begin. Our topic for the evening was "Premarital Sex, Faith, and the SCU Student." Since my yearlong Hackworth Fellowship with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics focuses on the intersection between faith and sexual ethics among SCU students, it seemed only natural that an event in our series would concern this hot topic on college campuses. The crowds confirmed my intuition: Around 80 students joined the discussion that evening. The audience listened attentively to our student panelists, freshman Andy Victor and senior Monica Engel, responding with stories, comments, and inquiries of their own.

Catholic student Monica Engel, a Religious Studies major, began her presentation by acknowledging the irony of her presence on the panel that night. In high school she passionately spoke out against premarital sex, going so far as to bring a baby stroller to class to illustrate the severe potential consequences of sex outside of marriage. On this panel, however, she explained how her position has changed dramatically since coming to college. Her studies in theology and sexuality, as well as additional life experience, have led her to believe that premarital sex can be morally permissible provided that it takes place within a committed and mature partnership.

Engel credited her previous position to intense Catholic guilt and an over-simplified perception of physical intimacy in romantic relationships. When her college education led her to question the validity of a sexuality that left her full of shame and guilt, she discovered an alternative conception of spirituality and physical intimacy, one in which sexual desire was a gift from God in human creation. With this shift, she came to believe that God desires to be an active part in sexual intimacy, serving as the loving presence between two human beings.

Engel questioned the relevance of a position against premarital sex for couples who cannot marry, such as homosexual pairs, and others who choose to share lifelong commitments outside the confines of matrimony. While Engel said scripture is not a large authority in her ethical discernment, she cited Song of Songs as a biblical example of spiritual, non-marital sex.

A Mechanical Engineering major and Christian who regularly attends Mass at the Mission Church and Core Christian Fellowship on campus, Andy Victor followed Monica's presentation with an alternative perspective. Based on his understanding of the Bible, teachings he has encountered, and his personal experiences, Victor asserted that premarital sex is wrong. Furthermore, he asserted that all physical intimacy beyond cuddling and kissing is forbidden.

Yet Victor has not always held these views. Raised to believe that premarital sex is wrong, he found that the complexities of his ethical discernment were magnified when he began to question which physical acts short of sexual intercourse were permissible. His attempt to settle this confusion through romantic experimentation left him burdened with guilt, so he turned to a Christian book series entitled, Every Man, for another authoritative perspective. Every Man greatly informed Victor's current view of sexuality and premarital sex, encouraging its readers to fight the "war against lust" by refraining from sexual temptations long before encountering the decision to engage in premarital sex. These temptations include sexual arousal, female nudity and masturbation.

After the presentations, many in the audience were eager to join in the discussion. Numerous students contextualized their questions with personal anecdotes, mature candidness being a hallmark of the evening.

Many comments and inquiries revolved around students' observation that both Engel and Victor spoke of sex as a spiritual event. Should sex be considered spiritual when it takes place between two atheists, or people of other faith traditions? If "God is love," isn't God present in every act of love? Questions became abstract and philosophical in many inquiries, illustrating students' interest in considering whether premarital sex should be placed within a spiritual ethical framework at all. And if so, how and by whom?

Other questions concerned points of divergence between Victor and Engel. When asked about the role and origin of guilt in their ethical discernment, Victor, whose guilt emerged while physically intimate with girls, understood it as a matter of conscience. Thus, its presence deterred him from continuing sexual intimacy. In contrast, Engel seemed to understand guilt as a perversion of conscience, a sign that the legalistic reasons for speaking out against premarital sex were more of a burden than a gift from a loving God. Her conscience gained more peace when her position on the issue shifted, which, in her mind, was a superior affirmation from God than guilt had been. The presenters differed on their understanding of "lust," as well. Engel cited Song of Songs as an example of spiritual lust-of erotic passion for another person that is not only natural, but also good under many circumstances. Conversely, Victor viewed lust as an objectifying, physical passion that removed the spiritual and emotional content from one's interaction with others.

After more than 30 minutes of comments and questions from the audience, the event came to a conclusion with numerous hands still in the air. Based on comments I have received over the past week, these inquiries, agreements and disagreements carried beyond our conversation that evening, into the hours and days to come.

The next student panel and discussion in Faith, Sex, and Ethics will take place February 25, 2008, from 6-7 p.m. in the Kennedy Commons. The evening will focus on "The Ethics of Interfaith Dating at SCU."

Jessica Coblentz is a Santa Clara University senior and a 2007-08 Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

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