You want to know, of course, whether the editors of Teen Vogue really did make a pact with Satan to promote sodomy. We’ll get to that, I promise. There are a few important things that have to be said first.
In case you missed this latest episode of U.S. religious debate, the facts are pretty simple. Earlier this month, Teen Vogue posted an article on anal sex under the heading “Sexual Health & Identity.” (Deep breath! Yes, you have just read the phrase “anal sex” and not on a porn site. Religious debates lead us to many unusual topics.)
Written in a cheery tone, the short article moves from basic anatomy to some elementary cautions about possible risks and problems. It also argues that adolescents deserve information about the range of human sexual practices, including ones they don’t intend to adopt.
This optimistic article has provoked extravagant reactions from some figures who style themselves “conservative” or “orthodox” Christians. For example, Eric Metaxas tweeted:
— Eric Metaxas (@ericmetaxas) July 17, 2017
(Metaxas earlier identified himself as a “mere Christian,” in C. S. Lewis’s sense, while dismissing whole denominations for defecting from “the historic faith.”)
Elizabeth Johnson, The Activist Mommy, decided to burn the offending article for “teaching children…how to be safely sodomized.” She added, “We should not be teaching children, period, how to have sex.”
— The Activist Mommy (@activistmommy1) July 13, 2017
While I do have moral doubts about Teen Vogue, they don’t focus on these particular pages. (If I were going to throw pages into the fire, I’d start with the advertising.) Still, before anyone burns anything else, could we try to sort out a few theological confusions?
Let’s start with “sodomy.” It’s a Christian word, with a complex history of use and abuse in churches. Although it pretends to be biblical, it was in fact a theological coinage. The Genesis story about the city of Sodom is notably unclear about why its residents deserved divine destruction. Some readers conclude that the Sodomites wanted to rape visiting angels, but the prophet Ezekiel names the inhabitants’ crime as greedy, hard-hearted pride (see Ezekiel 16:49-50). It’s also notable that the one New Testament passage that speaks most graphically about male-male sex (Romans 1:27) makes no reference to Sodom.
For the theological definition of “sodomy,” we have to jump to medieval Rome and Peter Damian, fierce monk and sometimes cardinal. He defines four varieties of a sexual sin that he names “sodomy.” The varieties are (in modern terminology): male masturbation, mutual masturbation by men, penile insertion between a partner’s thighs, and intercourse “in the rear.” Note that for Peter Damian only men can commit sodomy and that they begin to do so as soon as they masturbate even once. Using this definition, a dispassionate observer of human affairs might conclude that there is a lot of sodomy going around.
About two centuries later, Thomas Aquinas offers an expanded list of “unnatural” acts for both sexes—a list that becomes authoritative for much of Christian theology. For Thomas, the vice against nature includes masturbation (again), bestiality, same-sex relations (“the sodomitic vice”), and any form of heterosexual activity that makes use of an improper organ or “other monstrous and bestial forms of intercourse.” The last phrase is not at all clear, even to specialists. It may mean that Thomas considers the only form of “natural” sexual activity to be penile-vaginal intercourse, male on top, for the sake of procreation. Whatever Thomas meant, churches that cited him used “sodomy” to make accusations that were both vague and damaging—and often more damaging because so vague.
Would the acts described by Teen Vogue count as “sodomy”? For some Christian theologians yes, for others no. Of course, the whole point of using the term is to avoid specifying sexual acts. Whether now or in the Middle Ages, the term is designed to call up a righteous disgust willing to destroy whole cities. Why burn Teen Vogue when the outraged can call down fire from heaven on all those who offend them?
And why exactly are they offended? Some people—maybe a lot of people—are disgusted by anuses. I’m more than willing to let that be. I do have to object when they begin to construct Christian sexual ethics on the basis of personal aversion.
My objection holds against concealed aversion as well. Anal intercourse often operates as a code for male-male sex. Adults now living in the U.S. should have figured out that gay men are not the only people having anal sex. They may even know that not all gay men like anal intercourse or choose to engage in it. Still, no small part of the reaction to the Teen Vogue article is animated by fear of that great bugbear of “conservative” Christian ethics—namely, male homosexuality.
I’m reminded of an anecdote told about a conversation between a leading conservative cardinal and Pope Paul VI before the pope reaffirmed the prohibition on artificial means of contraception. Cardinal Ottaviani is rumored to have said something like, “If we approve contraceptives, then we lose a main argument against homosexuality.” I have no idea whether that story is true, but it’s logic is certainly familiar—and not only among Catholics.
There is at least one more thing concealed in all these supposedly religious fulminations against Teen Vogue. Many of the writers are evidently shocked that the magazine is talking about sex at all. Remember the Activist Mommy: “We should not be teaching children, period, how to have sex.” Since “children” is taken to include 17-year-olds, this sort of view—typically backed by religious appeals—has gone a long way to blocking serious sex education in U.S. high schools. That abdication of educational responsibility is itself unethical.
Do I think that Teen Vogue is the best place to make up for this educational failure? No. Sex education should be done sequentially, over years, and with ethical questions always in view. Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world. So, better a mostly accurate, mostly respectful article in Teen Vogue than teenage gossip, porn sites, internet solicitations, or blank silence.
Christian ethics cannot be built on ignorance of human creation. It doesn’t work pedagogically. It’s also insulting to the Creator.
Now the answer you’ve been waiting for: Did the editors of Teen Vogue really make a pact with Satan? It’s possible, I guess, that contracts are being signed in blood at Condé Nast headquarters. But I doubt it. If there is a personified Satan interested in negotiating pacts, I believe that his/her/their attention is directed elsewhere. If I were plotting to lead large numbers of Christian youth to their damnation, I would aim for something a bit more consequential than a single issue of Teen Vogue—with all respect for its circulation numbers. I mean, I would try for systemic corruption.
It might be possible, for example, to render Christian teaching about sex so shrilly ridiculous that it provoked widespread ridicule. (Imagine what it would be like if most people thought that Christians were only preoccupied with sex—and that all they could say about it was “No!”) Or perhaps there could be a way to make public discussions of Christianity sound like the rants of demagogues rather than the offer of life-saving good news.
There are more effective ways to sabotage Christianity than by planting sex education articles in teen magazines. We have discovered most of them for ourselves—in the course of long practice.