Lauren F. Winner started a lot of conversations when she published her 2003 memoir, "Girl Meets God," about her journey from Orthodox Judaism to evangelical Christianity. Now, with the publication of her new book, "Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity," Winner, a former Beliefnet books editor, again is turning heads with her frank arguments about Christian sexual ethics. Winner spoke to Beliefnet about everything from why masturbation is a "separation from reality" to how she and her now-husband reined in their sexual impulses while they were dating.

What is the sexual ethic of "Real Sex?" Is it as simple as, "just say no?"
I think capturing the core message of the book in the phrase 'just say no' is problematic. Whenever I speak with youth groups or college student groups about sex and chastity, I often start by asking them, what does the Bible tell us about sex? Every single time, the first person who speaks says you shouldn't have sex before marriage. Starting with that negative doesn't make any sense. So I start from the positive point that sex was created by God, our bodies were created by God, and they are good. Sex was made for marriage, and therefore sex doesn't belong any other context than marriage. The second reason I wouldn't want to summarize it as 'just say no,' is that I think that catchphrase puts us into a place where we resist strong bodily urges like sexual desire solely through the will. And while I think the will is certainly a part of Christian living, it's the will that is empowered through God's grace. The catch phrase of 'just say no' places too much burden on our will and doesn't acknowledge the crucial place of God's activity in our faithful living. In the book, you share a lot of personal information and personal stories. Have there been moments when you wished you could re-write history?
Sure. I wrote this book because sex and chastity have been such huge issues in my own life, and I didn't feel that any of the books that people were giving me, or any of the seminars that I was attending, were quite fitting the bill.

Sexual sin in my life is something that I feel real shame and discomfort about. This is not something about which I feel cavalier.

It is also something that I think God forgives. Finding the balance between beating one's breast but also appreciating God's forgiveness is difficult. There's part of me that of course wishes I could re-write history. If there's a part of me that doesn't wish that, it's the part that knows that I couldn't have written this particular book were it not for my particular life experiences.

Can you explain the concept of "on the steps of the Rotunda?"
It's the story of how the man that I'm now married to and I navigated sexuality when we were dating. We got this advice from a very good friend of my husband Griff's, a man who's a campus pastor at the University of Virginia, which is near where we live. He said, what you can do sexually with each other in private is whatever you would feel comfortable doing standing on the steps of the Rotunda, which is the architectural capstone of the university's campus.

There were two really important pieces of wisdom in that. One was simply the fact that we had a conversation partner, it wasn't Griff and me in the throes of passion trying to make this decision for ourselves. It was a decision made in community with someone who knew us well and was able to give us guidance that took our particular stories into consideration. Second, the pastor recognized that there are public dimensions to sexuality and private dimensions to sexuality.

We've heard about college students at Christian colleges who are sexually active but also very religiously committed. What is the disconnect there?
While a large percentage of college-aged Christians are not having sex, a lot of them are. Then there's the sort of equally large category of unmarried Christians who are having oral sex and saying this doesn't count, I'm still a virgin because I'm not having genital intercourse. Part of what's going on is that the society in which we live is ever more sex-saturated, and people get married later. It's obviously easier to stay chaste if you think you're going to get married at 19 than if you're getting married at 35. But, though the church is often accused of being too obsessed with sex, and while I think people in the church are very well-meaning about wanting to help unmarried Christians stay chaste, some of the tools that the church gives unmarried Christians are a little thin.

Is the `True Love Waits' pledge program one of those?
I don't want to pick apart a particular program. Recent studies have come out to show that abstinence pledge card programs tend to delay sexual activity in teenagers by 18 months. So the average non-pledge-card-signing teenager has sex at 18, the average person who signs a pledge card has sex at 19 and a half.

But these programs also don't do college-aged or teenage girls any favors in basically denying that women have sexual desires and saying that their job in remaining chaste is to fend off the walking ball of hormones who takes them to the movies and tries to have sex with them.

One of the things I talk about in the book is in particular how we talk about women's sexuality. So many `Christian' books that I've read on sexuality really don't acknowledge that women have libidos. I don't think that we have to say that men and women are identical, or that men and women experience sexuality in identical ways, to recognize that women do have libidos. We would better serve unmarried women in the church to instead say, look, women also feel sexual desire, and here are some ways that you can discipline that desire rather than saying, eh, you're not really going to have to worry about this.

What do you suggest that women do with their sexual needs if they find themselves in their 30s and haven't met the right guy yet?
I don't necessarily suggest that women 'do' anything. One of the questions that constantly comes up in this discussion is, how can I be sexual as an unmarried person and a Christian? And that question always means one of two things. It's either a coded question about masturbation, or it's a question which invites some answer like, just take a bubble bath and drink a glass of Chablis, and that will be a sensual experience for you.

People keep asking that question hoping that there's some third answer. What we have to recognize is that the Christian life is full of loss, suffering, and difficulty, in addition to being full of joy, contentment, and peace. Part of what unmarried Christians cope with is that stark recognition that chastity is sometimes really difficult. You have sexual desires and longings that are not fulfilled, just as married Christians sometimes do. The answer involves recognizing that this is a discipline of abstinence, and sometimes it is really difficult and doesn't feel good.

You write that masturbation, if it's done frequently, can become `a substitute for reality.' What do you mean by that?
One of the guidelines or benchmarks that I use in thinking about sex, and here again this is where it's important to start with a positive vision of sex, is that sex was created to be relational. In God's vision, any sexual activity that takes sex outside of a relational reality is something to worry about. Now, there are Christians who think that any masturbation, ever, is horrible and should be avoided at all costs. I would not say that. The Bible doesn't have anything to say about masturbation. A lot of Christian ethicists today would agree that masturbation falls into a gray area.

I would get concerned not with the occasional masturbating experience, but rather with habitual, regular masturbation. I don't have some magic number in my head, for how many times a month crosses the line into habitual masturbation, but if someone is masturbating really frequently, I would worry about how that is forming you're his or her expectations and thoughts about sexuality, and what it's teaching about sex being instantly gratifying. I would also wonder if there were something going on emotionally, such as taking emotional refuge in masturbation the same way people might take emotional refuge in porn or promiscuous sex or whatever.

What is your advice to couples who get married but who come from different sexual backgrounds from each other?
Speaking from my own experience, marrying someone who was a virgin-and I wasn't-it has not been easy. My mother died right before I got married, and comatose libido tends to be associated with bereavement. But that's how real sex works, there are added layers: you're stressed out because of things at work, your mother has died and your libido is in a coma, or whatever. One of the major themes of this book is community. Chastity is a community discipline and we need to be in conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ about sexuality. But I'm well aware that it's not easy.

It's not just sex but marriage that we need to be open with our community about. Marriage is hard, and married sexuality is only one of many aspects of married life that is difficult, and you feel like you're not doing it right. I have innumerable friends who've said, `I felt like on my wedding night or my honeymoon, I was supposed to be rarin' to go, wanting to have sex 24/7, and I didn't feel that way so I felt like a failure.' We have so many expectations coming from so many different places. It's crucial that you try to be reflective not only with your spouse, but with some wise friends who can walk with you.

Can sex ever become too big a part of someone's marriage? Would you use the language of chastity to talk to a couple that was in that situation?
Certainly I think sexual brokenness can manifest itself in marriages just as easily as it can manifest itself outside of marriage, and I can imagine marriages where sex becomes too all-consuming. Some couples might use sex as an escape from some other issues. In the book, the way I talk about marital sexuality has more to do with wanting to suggest that our contemporary society has started defining good sex in a marriage as that sex which parrots unmarried sex as much as possible, that it's always swinging from the chandeliers, and that it is not grounded in domesticity. Flipping through contemporary magazines and talk shows, I think we get the message that domestic routine is at odds with what sex is.

The Christian message would actually be the opposite of that. We would say, if sex was made for marriage, we must learn from that something about what good sex looks like. That doesn't mean it's not exciting--of course married sex can be exciting--but rather that it is part and parcel of married life and one's domestic economy. In general in the book, I try to remember that there are lots of disciplines of abstinence in the church, like fasting and simplicity and tithing and so forth, and that what these disciplines have in common is that they clear out a space to allow us to attend to God in a particular way. I wouldn't suggest that everyone has to adopt a Lenten sex fast like some of my friends did. But sex does require discipline--the discipline of fidelity, along with figuring out the discipline of having sex when you don't want to, or refraining from having sex when you really want to.

What are your views on sexual education? When, and where-public schools, churches, families?
I would say, from the womb. I imagine that when one has kids, these are not soundbites we're trying to impart to our children, but ways of faithfulness that we're trying to form in our children. It's not going to work if you wait till they're 13 and sit them down and have one conversation about the birds and the bees. Rather, that should be a process that starts from day one. It's unfortunate that socially we're in a situation where we have to have curricula about these things. You don't form character by having experts come in and teach a seminar to 9th graders.

I would hope that schools, churches, and other groups would think about sexual education in pretty broad terms, as part and parcel of fostering good character. It might somehow be something that's integrated into the life of a school and not something that's taught in PE class one month a year. That sounds like a pipe dream, though.

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