Last Monday night, a sassy redhead wearing cat-eye glasses and glitter-and-fishnet stockings took the stage of McCosh 10 to give a talk about sex. While her appearance foreshadowed a Harper’s Bazaar-esque talk on steamy sex tips, Lauren Winner came to Princeton courtesy of a range of student groups from the Anscombe Society to University Health Services to speak about Real Sex, her recent book about…keep your pants on: chastity. Even stranger, this hired-gun-for-clean-living skirted one key issue: chastity.
Apart from her unique stage presence, Winner’s triumph as a Christian speaker seems to come from the life experiences under her belt: born of a Jewish father and a lapsed Southern Baptist mother, Winner entered Columbia University a practicing Jew from the South. She graduated an “evangelical Episcopalian,” with a pit-stop conversion to Orthodox Judaism along the way. This inspired her first Christian bestseller, Girl Meets God, a memoir about the experience. Winner’s second memoir, Real Sex: The naked truth about chastity, is a semi-academic exposition about abstinence, retelling to Christian audiences her life story as—you guessed it—a skank.
Skank is not exactly the word, but in comparison to the audience attending a talk about Christians and chastity, it only seems fit. Winner explained that abstinence was an ethic she had been “trying to get out of for years,” and continues alluding to her past experiences (for lack of a better word), earning credibility as one who has the “real” perspective, having been there and done that.
Her gutsy tone continued as she cracked a joke about how “churchy” the word chastity sounds. She told us, “before we married my husband had kissed one woman, one time…like seven years before we met…needless to say, we came from different places,” later adding that sex in the context of marriage isn’t always exciting…but that habit and fidelity are sexy. And then she proceeded to lord her sexiness over a captive audience for the next hour.
After her smug introduction, Winner launched into her talk with an important qualification, “If we talked about sex better, we could talk about it less.” Granted, it was an awkward introduction to a speech on the very subject, though it revealed her intelligent, honest style. And that this was probably going to be a very different speech than the sponsoring religious groups imagined, focusing not on why Christians must abstain, but rather highlighting the false messages churches give about chastity.
Winner related the first false message to emotional scare tactics: you’ll feel ashamed, guilty, and wretched the next day if you have premarital sex. Winner replied, “you might feel great…or bad…or just hung over.” The point is not how sex feels, Christians must avoid premarital and extramarital sex because it is a sin. She argued that sin is not always ugly; it can be enjoyable, seductive, and most importantly: irresistible.
The second false message Winner criticized the church for promoting is the idea that all men are unemotional horndogs and all women lack libidos. Again, Winner pointed out the fallacy in absolute labels, which promotes gender stereotypes while failing to recognize the uniqueness of an individual’s sexuality.
Finally, Winner highlighted the idea that Christian writings warning against pre-and extra-marital sexual acts invariably include narratives of shame and images of scarring, ghostliness, and “used goods” associated with the involved parties. Not only is this untrue, Winner argued, but stands in violation of the forgiveness and redemption inherent to Christianity. “So,” a few in the crowd seemed to wonder, ”what are we sitting here waiting for !?”
Lecture attendees seeking profound insight into sexual purity—or maybe just a reason to wait another week before shacking up with an OA crush—certainly did not get the sermon they expected. Part of me likes to think that upon assessing her markedly WASP-y audience (some perhaps even eager to hear a stern message about righteous sexual behavior), Winner cranked up the shock value a few notches with the intention of sending them away with a message less about Christian sexual purity, more about being a Christian.
Winner’s speech ended with a comment reflecting her well-placed priorities as an evangelical more than a hard-and-fast ruling about sex, saying, “I am more interested in your relationship with Jesus Christ than what you did last night in your dorm room.” Light bulbs went off in heads across the crowd. That was when Lauren Winner won me over.
Despite her illuminating insight into the greater picture, the greatest mistake Winner made with her audience was by blindsiding the issue at hand. She lost her hard-earned street cred many in the crowd by completely avoiding explaining exactly why she wrote a book about abstinence, or even exactly why anyone in her audience should commit to the ethic. Maybe talking about chastity in public makes her blush, but it was awkward nevertheless when Winner avoided answering a question from the Anscombe society President, who wanted to know exactly why Christians should remain sexually pure. Winner spun her tires with a lengthy and somewhat opaque explanation, even saying, “I’m going to sidestep your question for several reasons.” Finally, with the acumen of a businesswoman more than a priest-in-training, she responded: “Also, read chapter two of my book.”
As a result of these missteps and despite Winner’s impressively “real” perspective on sex, many left wondering why they had really gone to hear a talk about chastity given by a speaker whose experience therein equates to a dry spell, the length of which is estimated roughly between six months and a few years of her late twenties. Others might have asked Winner why she really does think that sexual purity is a must, since she seems fairly comfortable with her life decisions and their ultimate outcomes. With two books prominently displayed in every Barnes & Noble in the country and the look of the hippest Christian in town, I’d be comfortable, too.