By Julie Hanlon Rubio
For over a decade, I taught a course on sexual ethics to undergraduates at Saint Louis University. Often those unfamiliar with Jesuit education assume my job would be difficult because of limits my Catholic context might place on course content. But I was never told what to teach or not teach. My greatest challenge has been helping students see questions of sexual ethics as both complicated and crucial to their becoming a person for and with others.
Students often come to my class expecting to be presented with rules and easy answers (for instance, no sex before marriage, no contraception, no same-sex relationships). I start the semester by telling them about a text that was used to teach Catholic sexual morality in the pre-Vatican II era: Modern Youth and Chastity (1941). It fits their expectations. “This is what we’re not going to do,” I say. Then I present students with the best essays I can find on both sides of controversial questions and encourage them to see the value and limits of each one. The presence of a diversity of views helps both “liberal” and “conservative” students feel safe formulating their own arguments without pretending to be something they are not. Seeing the complexity of the questions allows them to think more seriously about sexual ethics.
One of my favorite days in the course is when I ask students to answer the questions, “What is sex for?” and “What is good sex?” Initially the conversation is difficult, both for students educated in Catholic contexts who are used to strict rules and for others whose previous sexual education might have been limited to “safe sex.”
By introducing the language of virtue ethics, we are able to begin talking about sex as a practice that shapes our character and asking what a good practice might look like. We seek wisdom from both traditional and progressive writers (for example, Audre Lorde, John Paul II, Margaret Farley, the Song of Songs, Christian mystics, and James Alison). Liberal-versus-conservative arguments fade into the background as students think about how sex could be marked by integrity, respect, mutuality, equality, and justice.
Our conversation becomes more difficult when we discuss what the Catholic tradition offers those who identify as gay, lesbian, gender fluid, or trans. One year a student asked if she could bring a panel of students with diverse sexual identities to class to talk about the intersection of sex, gender, and religion. It became a regular, important feature of the course and an occasion to hear fellow students talk about why they had changed religions, left religion behind, or stayed religious, despite great challenges.
Paradoxically, giving students the freedom to question traditional teachings increased their willingness to question aspects of secular wisdom. Each year, I asked my class to attend a production of The Vagina Monologues, performed by SLU students off campus, in preparation for their midterm essay. Always, they affirmed the play’s open discussion of sexual violence and its affirmation of the goodness of sexual pleasure. But many also saw the limits of an ethic that separates sex from intimacy, self-giving, and belonging. And they sought ways to bring the best of both worlds together.
Most of my students affirm the Jesuit mission of forming men and women for and with others but are less than enthusiastic about what they think the Christian tradition has to say about sex. Over the years, in trying to reach them, I had the privilege of witnessing difficult and honest discussions in which they opened themselves to the possibility that the ideal of being for and with others should shape every aspect of their lives.