Bringing Sex into Focus: The Quest for Sexual Integrity

Caroline J. Simon
Published by IVP Books in 2011

Reviewed by Benjamin B. DeVan, Ethics and Theology, Durham University

“Of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). This aphorism traditionally attributed to King Solomon especially applies to books about sex, which proliferate in print and online faster than the proverbial jackrabbit, and exponentially exceed in number Solomon’s “seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines … [who] led him astray” (1 Kings 11:3). Books on sexual integrity are scarcer. Rarer still are books on sexual integrity by female Christian philosophy professors published by an evangelical press. Enter Caroline J. Simon’s Bringing Sex into Focus: The Quest for Sexual Integrity recently released by InterVarsity.

The crux of Simon’s argument is that how we discern sexual integrity depends on the lenses we consciously or unconsciously select to evaluate ethical dilemmas. Simon sets forth six lenses or “basic equipment” which she labels the “covenantal view,” “procreative view,” “romantic view,” “‘plain sex’ view,” “power view,” and “expressive view.” Sex for the covenantal view is a permanent bond between two people representing God’s covenant relationship with God’s people. The procreative view sees sexuality as essentially about reproduction. “Deep emotional attachment” is the romantic criteria for ethical sexual en-counter. “Plain sex” focuses on pleasure and avoiding pain for both partners. The power lens leverages sex as a means for controlling or possessing others while simultaneously evading others’ maneuvers to control or objectify oneself. The expressive view is perhaps the most encompassing by identifying sex as “a source of personal empowerment that is central to human flourishing. Sexual restraint is unnatural, yet sexuality should be deployed without hampering the empowerment of others” (39). Perceivers may prioritize or overlay multiple lenses.

Simon’s goal is to show that “a robust, twenty-first century covenantal view can make sense of sexuality by acknowledging the partial truths contained in the procreative, romantic, expressive, power, and plain sex views” (45). Following a highly readable and personal introduction, Simon briefly excursesinto Aristotle, conceding that her non-specialist readers may find the Aristotelian interjection tedious. Simon urges such readers to skip this passage and proceed to chapter two.

Simon serves chapters two through seven in thematic bite-sized portions on marital sexuality, virginity and chastity, flirtation and seduction, homosexuality, casual sex, and “sex as a commodity.” Each chapter is easily consumed and digested over a lunch or long coffee break. Simon’s chapters are conversational seasonings with philosophical salt rather than systematic treatises.

Simon’s covenantal view casts “marital sexuality” as the glorious glue uniting couples together in God commemorated by the multi-layered wedding vow “with my body, I thee worship” (51). The glory of marital sexuality is amplified by partial truths emphasized in other lenses. Simon is less clear about any positive wisdom arising from the apparently overbearing “power” lens.

On virginity and chastity, Simon distinguishes virtue of the heart from mere conformity to proper or expected behavior. “Right actions are a natural outgrowth of being the best sort of person” (72, italics in original). Inverting the Augustinian zinger, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet” (as compared to Confessions, Book VIII), the Christian prays for inner transformation not only to act well habitually (continence) but to enjoy acting well (virtue) in contrast with vice (habitually acting badly and enjoying it) or incontinence (unsuccessfully struggling to act well). Continence is obviously better than incontinence or vice. But stoic determination rivaling the horse in George Orwell’s Animal Farm is less than the ethical ideal. Christian virtue joyously recognizes, experiences, and embraces chastity and fidelity as desirable blessings yielding spiritually and even sexually delectable fruit.

Simon points out that sexual exploiters targeting virgins for seduction ironically value virginity, but not in the right way. An exploiter seeks to seduce virgins in order to go where no one else has been allowed to go before. Virgins are thus a “challenge and a prize” for conquest (67). For Simon, flirting is more ethically nuanced than non-marital seduction. Friskily attempting to alert someone that we are attracted to him or her can be fun, thrilling, and affirming to both parties. Yet the ambiguity in flirting ranges from empowering to abusive depending on the context, whether flirting is wanted, and the presence or preponderance of hidden intentions or manipulation.

Simon is more diplomatic about homosexuality than some of her readers will appreciate. Could this be partly due to her Hope College colleague David G. Myers who coauthored with Letha Dawson Scanzoni What God Has Joined Together? A [or The in the 2006 edition] Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperCollins, 2005, 2006)? Simon’s reticence to celebrate or unequivocally to condemn homosexuality will render her book user-friendlier for some secular and religious contexts while conceivably disqualifying it for others.

In chapters six and seven, Simon forthrightly criticizes casual sex and “sex as a commodity,” martialing Kantian, utilitarian, and feminist philosophers to do so. Chapter eight interlaces earlier motifs within a personable, confessional, and erudite conclusion. Simon deduces that sex can be a source of self-transcendence:

But it is far from the most important source … “greater intimacy with God” may sound hollow to those struggling with sexual loneliness—like saying “let them eat cake” to those without bread. But all of us, married or single, happy or restless, need to keep these two truths in mind: our sexuality is a very good, albeit difficult, gift; and sex is not our savior. (165)

Bringing Sex into Focus: The Quest for Sexual Integrity is intermittently endearing and pensive. Yet its format and tone raise questions regarding the envisioned audience. Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012) extols similar efforts that are flexibly marketable to mainstream, nonacademic readers. Yet InterVarsity chose to imprint Bringing Sex into Focus with its academic label. Since Simon is the “John and Jeanne Jacobson Professor of Philosophy at Hope College,” stiff tenure expectations are unlikely motivations for the “IVP Academic” moniker, though perhaps sabbatical, professional, or grant considerations are at play.

Simon’s argument about six lenses for sexual integrity might be sharpened by expanding her general appeal to the Bible (44) for why “covenantal” is her master lens and how it distinctively centers, filters, or enhances rather than distorts human apprehension of the beautiful, the good, the true, and their source in God. What leads Simon to privilege the covenantal lens and why? In what ways are covenantal and other views by themselves color-blind, cataract-prone, flawed, and thus requiring combination with other lenses? Are any lenses smudged, cracked, irreparable, or by their very nature do they direct attention to floaters and phantoms that obscure, distract, or mimic the true, the good, the beautiful, and the beneficial? How effectually do overlapping lenses filter harmful rays concentrated in or by new combinations? Can the covenantal view refract partial truths illumined by other lenses without suffering serious injury by a thousand qualifications? Switching briefly to a harvest metaphor, what principles and instruments enable profitable winnowing of wheat from chaff? What are the intense hungers, tastes, and yearnings whetted, sated, or fulfilled by the priorities of each lens, and which of these are healthy, simply a matter of preference, or hurtful and sinful? One wonders about the “power lens” particularly and whether any legitimate needs or aspirations are uniquely cultivated and salvageable from its soil.

A second set of questions is whether, how, and to what degree each view (its assump-tions and its prescriptions) is or can be legitimately rooted in objective morality. Simon’s six lenses describe or assert motivations and goals for sexual behavior such as maximiz-ing pleasure and avoiding pain (plain sex), power and control (power lens), expressing, nurturing, or augmenting emotional attachment (romantic), promoting human flourishing (expressive), bringing forth new life (procreative), and symbolic of God’s love while simul-taneously binding and bonding couples together (covenantal). But how is each objectively or transcendentally good? What are their foundations, and will houses built on them stand strong or fall with a great crash (Matthew 7:24-27)? Who or what is the final judge, arbiter, or moral appeal given each lens or combination of lenses? God is explicitly for the covenantal view, but an objective ground for the other lenses is less clear.

Bringing Sex into Focus is shorter and less systematic in tracing implications for each of the six lenses than I would prefer in a primary university or seminary course text. I heartily recommend it as a secondary or supplementary volume. But part of me hopes that other professors will be even more enthusiastic about utilizing this book as an evangelical perspec-tive that aims to honor Christ through philosophy. Simon and InterVarsity will benefit from pondering potentials beyond the academy for Bringing Sex into Focus and related ventures, as well as future wisdom concerning academic writing or writing by academic scholars that is concurrently marketable and relevant to general audiences.

Cite this article
Benjamin B. DeVan, “Bringing Sex Into Focus: The Quest for Sexual Integrity”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 42:2 , 213-215

Benjamin B. DeVan

Emory University
Benjamin B. DeVan teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University