Lauren Winner: Reformed Sinner or Canny Opportunist?
In her new book on sex, the onetime "evangelical whore" morphs into her old nemesis, the Church Lady.
By Astrid Storm
Just before I processed down the aisle to take my ordination vows as an Episcopal priest, an older priest leaned over and said, “Astrid, just remember that priests are bottom feeders; so if you’re going to be in a job that’s nourished off the misery of others, at least try not to contribute to that misery, too.”
Perhaps Lauren Winner, the popular twentysomething journalist/author and self-styled expert in contemporary Christian morality, could use that advice. It’s bad enough that in her latest book, “Real Sex: the Naked Truth about Chastity,” Winner might be contributing to that misery by doling out dubious marriage advice to impressionable young people. But what’s worse is that if all goes as planned, Winner will soon become an Episcopal priest—a scary thought to those of us who may end up having to minister to the casualties of her evangelically hip but potentially destructive theology.
In an increasingly conservative world where everybody wants the answers without having to ask the questions, “Real Sex: the Naked Truth About Chastity” is undoubtedly destined to become a bandwagon bestseller. It deals with the evils of premarital sex and the biblically correct approach to sex, i.e. confined to marriage. The topic is so ancient it creaks, but Winner is nothing if not media-savvy, and has added lots of perky yet supposedly scholarly window-dressing to what is essentially fundamentalism at its most insidious. A sharp young woman with a degree from Columbia, making an intellectually arguable case for chastity for her generation? Bring on the talk shows!
Winner’s thesis—that it’s better to marry for sex than indulge in pre-marital hanky panky—certainly has biblical roots. As her hallowed predecessor, St. Paul, preached in Corinthians: “If [unmarried Christians] cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
Paul, however, didn’t have a degree in couples counseling. Neither has Winner, but that doesn’t stop her from dispensing eagerly awaited wisdom to hot-blooded but uncertain young Christians.
For example, Lauren tells us about Camille, a 22-year-old student who comes to her looking for guidance on whether to marry her boyfriend of one and a half years. Camille’s mother, a divorcee who has a close relationship with her daughter, begs her not to marry this young man.
But Lauren, who has decided to dismiss the mother because she’s divorced, prosaically writes: “I disagreed with the advice Mom gave this week.” Lauren’s cavalier alternative? Marry for sex. You may be young and somewhat immature, but hey: if sex outside of marriage isn’t allowed and our desires are important, then order your life around your desires and get married! I’ll even come toast you when you do!
In four years of ministry, I’ve counseled several couples that got advice like this early on—in fact, I am seeing one such couple now. I’ve married young couples whose potential for disaster was about a 9.9 on the marital Richter scale, but, thanks to the likes of Lauren and in spite of my protestations, were determined to wed no matter what. What’s more, I grew up in a conservative evangelical tradition where pastors and mentors regularly dispensed this kind of platitudinous palaver. Thankfully, I ignored it, but several friends of mine who followed it are now divorced.
However, who am I to complain if Lauren seems to want to keep me in a job? I should just let her go on dishing up careless advice to slavish and impressionable young adults so I can marry them and then help them try and clean up the mess, right? Well, wrong. Wrong, because I’m a priest who cares about her church but hates what its unsubtle, uninformed proclamations on sex are doing to many thinking, loving Christians, both straight and gay. I’m a priest who gets very frustrated every time my church arrogantly dismisses valid opinions because they don’t conform to its own. And I’m a young, single woman who, in struggling herself with this issue, has often found the church’s bromides on sex to be irrelevant, hurtful, and, more often than not, just plain false.
Which is why Lauren’s book annoyed me so much. Even though she sets out to challenge lies the church tells about sex, she ends up telling a few whoppers herself. One is the one she told Camille: that marrying for sex at a young age isn’t extremely risky. But her most absurd falsehood—and the one that made it very difficult for me to take this book seriously—is that all sex outside of marriage is distorted and not what she calls “real sex.” For Lauren, careless sexual romps at a fraternity party and sex within committed dating relationships are all the same: “The sex of blind dates and fraternity parties, even of relatively long-standing dating relationships, has, simply, no normal qualities. Based principally on mutual desire, it dispenses with the ordinary rhythms of marital sex, trading them for a seemingly thrilling but ultimately false story.”
Along those lines, Winner claims that sex outside of marriage distorts our picture of sex because it makes us think that sex is “constantly exciting,” and “always thrilling” (hence the section header: “Premarital Sex: It Teaches You that Sex Is Thrilling”). But again, she appeals here to an utterly ridiculous caricature of premarital sex that has no basis in reality. Ask any older couple that has lived through a long marriage whether they think sex is always an ecstatic experience. Even unmarried twenty- and thirtysomethings can tell you that sex isn’t always that mind-blowing. If this picture of premarital sex is based on her own experience, then maybe Lauren should get busy writing sex manuals.
Or maybe she should stop forming her view of the world based on what goes on at frat parties. Did it ever even occur to Winner to take into account the people I deal with day in and day out? People like the gay couple that can’t take marriage vows; the older couples whose spouses have died and who aren’t quite ready to tie the knot again; or the many intelligent, sexually active thirtysomething Christians in my congregation? Just because sex is performed outside the context of marriage doesn’t mean that it is automatically promiscuous, vacuous, and self-serving. In attempting to provide all of humanity with a blanket formula for sexual/marital bliss, Winner glibly disregards the diversity and uniqueness of the individual and is thus every bit as dangerous as a physician who prescribes the same antibiotic to all of his patients, regardless of their particular illness.
Unfortunately, while such an approach would be immediately censured in the medical world, it’s embraced with open arms and closed minds in the world of tried-and-untrue Christian theology. Shortly after my ordination, I decided to hunt down the Episcopal Church’s official position on sex outside of marriage. I called the national church office and explained my question to the operator, who then connected me to someone in the Office of Pastoral Development. “What canon actually prohibits me or any young person in the church from having sex with our boyfriends and girlfriends before marriage?” I asked, and he immediately began to talk about the church’s positions on adultery and sex with one’s parishioners—as though those had anything to do with my question! The church’s inability to distinguish adultery from a committed dating relationship points to its repeated failure to talk about sex in any kind of compelling, informed way.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not for throwing out church tradition on sex—I am an Episcopal priest, after all, and bound by it. That doesn’t prohibit me, though, from challenging it, hoping for future change, and calling it out when it lies. And it lies every time it denies that sex outside of marriage can be very beautiful and “real,” and, by the same token, that sex inside marriage can be very abusive and distorted.
But you don’t have to be an Episcopal priest to find Lauren Winner’s position innately absurd. Her own record of promiscuity, which she’s obliged to confess at the outset, speaks for itself. As far as I can tell, Lauren’s brief flirtation with chastity encompassed the one-and-a-half year period of her courtship with her now-husband. She began having sex at 15, and kept in shape with a regular regimen of pre-marital bedroom calisthenics. Back in 2000, while I was in Divinity School, I actually became a temporary Winner fan when a friend sent me an article that Lauren had written for Beliefnet: “Sex and the Single Evangelical: The Church Lady versus the Evangelical Whore.” In it, Lauren boasted that she had been tumbling about recently in a king-sized hotel bed with her boyfriend. Maybe tumbling about with this particular boyfriend wasn’t the best example of thoughtful, premarital sex, but someone like Winner, I thought, just might be smart and bold enough to challenge the overly simplistic assumptions the church makes about sex outside of marriage.
So I looked forward to her next piece, which came out just months later in the decidedly more conservative Christianity Today. In “Solitary Refinement” she started talking more about chastity, even proclaiming that, at age 24, she might be called to a single and celibate life herself. Oh no. I waited in the hopes that she might still articulate a more nuanced theology of sex for young unmarried Christians like herself, but alas, Lauren did a turnabout, marching backwards instead of forwards, straight into the Dark Ages. Actually, she seems to have a history of flip-flopping; a devout Orthodox Jew, she converted to evangelical Christianity, and got a lot of journalistic mileage out of that role reversal. A year later, she published "Mudhouse Sabbath"—"a book about all those things I miss" about being Jewish. And now, the “evangelical whore” has morphed into her old nemesis, the Church Lady, and written a book about that transformation. Which leads one to ask what, exactly, is Lauren Winner—reformed sinner or trend-sniffing opportunist?
Short-lived beliefs and lack of credentials can be excused as just part of being young. But that's why youth calls for some judicious withholding of opinion until one’s views are tested over time. Perhaps there's no better place to learn that lesson than in the ordained ministry; when and if she starts mounting the pulpit as a priest (and from the tone of this book, preaching comes easily to her), Lauren may want to remember that credentials do matter when you’re standing up there, and they can make a big difference in how willing people are to listen to what you’re saying. Your authority has the power to bring about both joy and misery in people’s lives.
Such authority scares the hell out of me; whether or not it will have the same effect on Lauren Winner, who seems to have all the answers, is not so certain. Then again, since Lauren seems to change her tune more often than a rock station, we can always hope, can’t we?
Read SoMA's "Why I Love Lauren Winner" here.
Astrid Storm is the Curate at Grace Church in New York City.
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