Contemporary Western culture is rife with public stories about unhealthy sexuality. The 2016 US presidential election, for example, reverberated with the recording of then-candidate Donald Trump boasting about how he could grab women’s genitals because he was rich.1 As 2017 wore on, high-profile incidents of sexual harassment and assault continued to surface, bringing the nation to what some experienced as “a national moment of reckoning for abusers and creeps.”2 During rushed, pre-print conversations, journalists debated appropriate words for front page articles. Around dinner tables, parents explained adult terminology to their children. Via Facebook and Twitter feeds, the #metoo movement revealed how many mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends experience sexual harassment and abuse. Behind pulpits and closed doors, church leaders decided how to publicly respond and privately care for some who are triggered and others who are emboldened.
In my work as a university chaplain, questions regarding the relationship of sexuality and spirituality arise regularly. As people explore their relationship with God, conversations often surface about pornography addiction, commitments to celibacy, processing of purity culture and first sexual encounters, sexual identity, and the sexual trauma of rape. How we experience our bodies as sexual beings profoundly shapes our lives as spiritual beings. Yet, as I pastor, I find few readily available resources for holistically connecting these fundamental aspects of our humanity.3
Consideration of sexuality and spirituality certainly applies to both men and women, but I focus here on women’s experience. For the past several years, I have worked to provide better guidance and care regarding what it means to be a spiritually and sexually healthy woman. For example, when sexual trauma such as rape or harassment has occurred, women need spiritual and religious processing. When the perpetrator was someone they knew and trusted, for example, women have questions about how the Bible’s teaching regarding forgiveness applies to their situations. When women committed to celibacy have sex before marriage, they have spiritual concerns related to guilt and shame, or they have questions about whether social and moral expectations regarding celibacy are different in today’s society than they were in the ancient cultures of the biblical world. Women who experience pregnancy, childbirth, or menopause often need spiritual guidance as their bodies and emotions change. Even the most sexually inexperienced women are trying to understand the intersection between spirituality and sexuality. Because women are routinely marginalized and demeaned through public language and social media, those with pastoral hearts must be ready to spiritually affirm and empower women when this abuse causes pain and fear. In short, all women have reasons to contemplate what it means to be sexually and spiritually healthy. In the context of my ministry, I have turned to the example of a sexually healthy ancient woman who is, perhaps surprisingly, found in the Bible. The Song of Songs, generally dated around the fourth century BC,4 is a poetic and dramatic collection of love songs that is entirely monologue and dialogue between characters—the Shulammite woman and her lover—with no additional narrator.
Like most poetry, the Song elicits a wide variety of interpretations. Early Christian leaders such as Origen, Hippolytus, and Gregory of Nyssa, initiated a long tradition of interpreting the Song allegorically, largely because of discomfort with such explicit sexual language in the context of religious life. During the eighteenth century, John Wesley summarized how the majority interpreted Song of Songs when he noted that if the Song was literally sexual, “it would be absurd and monstrous.”5 An emphasis on the allegorical sense led to the neglect of the literal, sexual content of the poem, which only recent scholarship has begun to celebrate and consult concerning what it might teach us about sex.
While allegorical interpretations of the Song are important, so are literal interpretations.6 The Song is clearly about sex, and the characters in the Song do not find it absurd or monstrous. They present physicality and sexuality openly and without apology. The female speaker, often referred to as the Shulammite woman (Song 6:13), speaks the first four verses of the Song which appeal directly to the body’s corporeal senses: hearing a song, touching one another, smelling the fragrance of oil, and tasting one another in kisses.7 Physicality is central to the Song, starting with these first few lines. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) any discomfort that physicality provokes, readers must grapple with how the sexuality in this text informs spiritual and religious lives. Engaging the Song holistically provides valuable insight into healthy sexuality, including healthy female sexuality.
The World Health Organization describes healthy sexuality as “a state of physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality, including a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, and the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.”8 While the Shulammite woman, or any person for that matter, is not perfectly sexually healthy, she is an excellent example, in a world nearly void even of mediocre examples, of a woman who experiences and expresses her sexuality, and this notably takes place in the biblical canon—an explicitly religious context. Due to the well-established patriarchal context of the biblical world, it may be surprising to find a sexually healthy woman so clearly depicted and given such a strong voice, but there she is, singing her song for all to hear—and I am convicted that we have much to learn from her.
One factor to consider when talking about sexual health is women’s gender ideologies. “According to feminist theory, femininity ideologies can be defined as ideas, norms, and restrictions about what constitutes ‘normal,’ acceptable and ideal womanhood.”9 Particularly of concern in my context of Christian ministry is the idea of traditional femininity ideologies “which emphasize women’s passivity, compliance, concern for others, and agreeableness.”10 The Shulammite woman offers a strong voice and normalizes female sexuality, disrupting unhealthy femininity ideologies that have shaped women’s understandings of their sexuality. In my exploration of how the Shulammite woman in Song of Songs can inform our understanding of healthy sexuality, I discuss three aspects of sexual health: knowledge, embodiment, and agency.11
First, the Shulammite woman models healthy sexual knowledge. Women have traditionally been expected to be passive sexual gatekeepers who should not be knowledgeable about sex. Their primary role is not to seek out information about sexuality because their role is primarily summed up in saying “no” to men who are more sexually knowledgeable, and thus they function as the sexual gate openers.12 Of course, saying “no” is indeed an important aspect of sexual health, but when it is tied to femininity ideologies that require women’s passivity, compliance, and agreeableness, it can be negative, disempowering, and dangerously coupled with an inability to connect with and communicate one’s own needs and desires.13
Sexual knowledge is central to healthy sexuality, a connection often overlooked in traditional femininity ideologies that associate sex with shame. Because parents may associate sex with shame, they often avoid talking about it with their children, leading to a lack of healthy knowledge. Unfortunately, when Christian parents do not talk about sexuality, they reinforce media images of sex, “as something separate from spirituality,”14 and adolescents go outside their religious contexts to gain knowledge about sex, increasing the unhealthy experience of the spirit-body dualism and a cycle of shame. Without spiritual and religious grounding for sexual relationships, they are then more likely to encounter unhealthy sexuality because of unhealthy teaching.15 I have noticed this effect is particularly challenging when young women who have been told to guard their virginity and remain naïve about sex are then expected to change all of that in one night when they get married.
The Shulammite woman, in contrast to traditional expectations of female sexuality, is not cast in the role of naïve gatekeeper and has much more to say than “no.” Simply counting the lines spoken by each character makes this clear. The Shulammite woman and the “daughters of Jerusalem” speak more than the male lover and the brothers.16 The Song is sometimes referred to as the Song of Solomon, because it has at least some connections to King Solomon, though the timing and direct connection are disputed. Yet Song of Songs is a better name for the text, since it so freely celebrates love from a woman’s perspective. This title should be understood as a superlative—a most excellent song, an exemplary song—and the woman’s prominent role is central to its goodness and wholeness. The woman’s prominent role is especially salient considering the patriarchal contexts of the Bible with texts shaped primarily by men. The Song of Songs is the only book in the Bible in which a woman clearly speaks more than a man or men. Her words begin and end the Song, she speaks throughout in the first person “I” and “myself,” and she refers to “my soul” and “my heart” far more frequently than the male speaker does.17 The Shulammite woman illustrates qualities of a healthy sexuality, which Nicola Curtin and her coauthors describe as a woman who knows when to speak and is empowered to speak instead of staying silent.18 The Shulammite models what it means to have and use one’s voice: She communicates her desires and seeks her beloved in the city streets (3:2), she advises her friends not to awaken love until it is ready (2:7, 3:5, 8:4), and she boldly holds her lover and will not let go, leading him openly into her mother’s house (3:4). This is a woman who voices both her needs and her boundaries, thus modeling healthy sexual knowledge.
In contrast to being knowledgeable, if a woman remains ignorant about sex, then sex is primarily about a man’s pleasure, needs, and experience, and the woman becomes a tool for his needs. It is worth noting that Bible translations sometimes refer to intercourse as “knowing.” For example, the KJV translates Gen 4:1 as, “Adam knew his wife Eve, and she became pregnant.” Sometimes, the sexual experience is translated as “had sexual relations” or “made love.” “Knowing,” however, could be the most healthy and holistic terminology for reciprocal knowing, giving, and receiving as the standard of sexual health. If knowing is ongoing openness to learning one’s partner and oneself, then sex cannot center more on one person or the other in the relationship. There is a problem if sex becomes about only one person’s pleasure or needs. Rather, knowing and learning one another in a relationship where neither is the primary gatekeeper or gate opener is healthy. Seeking to know a partner’s voice and sharing one’s own voice in safety and freedom, as the couple in Song of Song models, enables healthy sexual knowledge.
Second, the Shulammite models healthy sexual embodiment. Sexual embodiment concerns a person’s comfort with her or his body during sexual encounters.19 Because body image plays an important role in sexual pleasure and function, researchers argue that people who are distracted by concerns about their physical appearance experience lower levels of sexual pleasure, arousability, assertiveness, responsible condom use, as well as ambivalence in sexual decision making and sexual risk taking.20 In cultures where women are valued largely based on physical appearance, they can “experience their bodies more as observers than as actors, focusing on how their bodies look on the outside rather than on how they feel or function.”21 Unhealthy sexual embodiment leads to a disconnect from one’s body and contributes to silence in regard to one’s own needs, eventually leading to sexual dysfunction.22
The Shulammite woman, however, is confident in her sexual embodiment. While the daughters of Jerusalem wonder what her male counterpart sees in her (7:1), the Shulammite woman is not insecure. She asserts her beauty in spite of the fact that she has worked in the hot sun, weathering her skin and hands. Daphna Arbel argues that it is with pride and confidence that the woman proclaims: “I am black and beautiful, daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar” (1:5).23 Renita Weems similarly suggests that the Shulammite woman has overcome the physical stereotypes and biases that sometimes cause physical insecurity, prompting the reader to “examine our prejudices against women on the low end of the economic totem pole who have to do day work, menial work, and back-breaking labor to pay the bills.”24
The Shulammite woman also exhibits healthy embodiment by showing no signs of shame concerning her sexuality. Historically, Christians have tended to view the body as an enemy instead of a gift, and this overemphasis on the dangers of embodiment “tends to result in anxiety, shame, and objectification of others (seeing others as commodities to be used for our own purposes or as frightening obstacles to our own right living).”25 Combined, these realities create unhealthy purity cultures that contribute to unhealthy perceptions of sex and sexuality.
Popular Christian author and blogger Sarah Bessey describes a disturbing experience with purity culture that exemplifies a danger I often hear from young women in my own ministry. Bessey was nineteen years old and “crazy in love with Jesus” when she heard a preacher speak about the importance of staying sexually pure for marriage. As an illustration, he passed around a cup of water and asked everyone to spit into it. Bessey describes how some boys hawked their worst into the cup while everyone laughed. She writes that the preacher then
held up that cup of cloudy saliva from the crowd and asked, “Who wants to drink this?!” And everyone in the crowd made barfing noises, no way, gross! “This is what you are like if you have sex before marriage,” he said seriously, “you are asking your future husband or wife to drink this cup.”26
Bessey was not a virgin, and she shares how it took her years to overcome the shame of that well-intentioned talk about sex. If women hear messages that their bodies are polluted—or another theme of purity culture, that they are stumbling blocks for men—then women may struggle with unhealthy sexual embodiment. After all, years of sexual shame and repression cannot and do not instantly disappear when people get married. It should also be noted that some women hearing such messages had no choice in their own virginity status because their first sexual experiences were those of molestation and rape. Thus, when talking to women of any age about sexuality, pastors in particular and the church in general must discuss how to make healthy sexual choices without resorting to judgment, shame, or stereotyping. The Song of Songs offers a powerful and positive model of healthy sexual embodiment that is absent of shame and refuses to adhere to unhealthy patterns and outcomes of purity culture.
Lastly, the Shulammite woman models healthy sexual agency. In unhealthy sexuality, women do not initiate sexual relationships or assert their needs and desires.27 Instead, they are unknowledgeable and passive, yet available. Acceptance of these norms interferes with women’s sexual agency and subsequent sexual health.28
Because of their exposure to traditional femininity ideologies that undermine agency, women need models of healthy sexual agency. The Shulammite woman provides healthy examples by taking sexual initiative in ch. 8 of the Song. Here she awakens her lover under an apple tree (8:5) and speaks freely of kissing him and leading him to the privacy of home (8:1–3). She is uninhibited by the stereotypes traditionally attributed to women who initiate romantic and sexual activities.29 Phyllis Trible points out that the Shulammite woman’s agency exemplifies what it looks like when there is no male dominance, no female subordination, and no stereotyping of either sex. Specifically, the portrayal of the woman defies the connotations of “second sex.” She works, keeping vineyards and pasturing flocks. Throughout the Song she is independent, fully the equal of the man. Although at times he approaches her, more often she initiates their meetings. Her movements are bold and open.30
The Song of Songs paints a picture of a fully egalitarian sexual experience that does not allow for objectification of either partner. It is a broken and unhealthy sexuality that makes dull objects of life-filled humans created in the image of God. The Song celebrates a relationship in which both partners know and are known, not as objects or tools for the other person’s pleasure, but as fully respected and dignified human beings who mutually and consensually give and take. Neither the Shulammite woman nor her lover wields exclusive power. For example, ch. 5 and ch. 7 demonstrate that both partners take turns initiating intimacy. When he initiates intimacy in ch. 5, she initially hesitates, saying, “I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them?” (5:3 NRSV). She is tired and has already settled in for the night. Later, however, she regrets her hesitation and runs after him. Then in ch. 7, she is the one who invites him to the garden to see if the blossoms on the vine are open (7:12), a thinly veiled sexual metaphor. Sex can become a tool for abusive power when one partner must always initiate and the other partner always holds the sex key. It is important for sexual health and agency that both partners sometimes initiate and that both have the freedom to decline. Both should have moments of running after the other, not only sexually but emotionally and spiritually as well. The Song of Songs models this mutuality and healthy sexual agency for both partners, because both have the ability to initiate sex, consent to sex, and decline sex, while still being honored and cherished in the relationship.
The Song of Songs is an “exceptional text,” as it provides ancient—yet profoundly relevant—insight into an intimate relationship in which there is an “absence of dominance and hierarchy” and a “blurring of boundaries and distinctions.”31 However, many still see sex and religion as fundamentally incompatible. I regularly read the Song with college students in a Bible course I teach. While many students appreciate the discussion, a few still insist that sex is not an appropriate topic for Bible class or even for the Bible itself. Some even vote for removing it from the canon. I often overhear at least one student say, “That was awkward,” as they walk out of the classroom. It is ironic that “locker-room talk” is forgiven in our sex-saturated society but talking about sex in Bible class is uncomfortable. The fact that we can be surrounded by sexual talk and images in every aspect of culture but feel like we must pretend sex does not exist when we pray, open the Bible, or walk into a chapel testifies to the failure of the church to engage in the reality of sexual experience in a healthy way.
The solution to this problem will have to be multifaceted, but a good place to start is to teach the Song more often. It instructs us the most when we simply let the poem say what it says and do what it does, which is celebrate sexuality in a spiritual context. It educates us about God and Israel, and about Christ and the church. It also helps us imagine a fuller definition of intimacy—physical, emotional, spiritual intimacy. The Song of Songs offers a counter-balance to the stories in scripture about women who are “scandalized for their sexuality, confined to procreation without fulfilling sex, and forgotten because of their submission to repressive gender roles.”32 In the Song, however, women find permission to initiate, enjoy, and long for the erotic. The Song proclaims that sexual intimacy, a central human experience, is appropriate religious conversation for God’s people.
Because of the prevalence of traditional femininity ideologies that have subjugated women and shamed them for their sexuality, and because of unhealthy sexual narratives in our daily news, it is vital to teach an alternative spiritual narrative. The Song is an example of lovers who talk about sex and intimacy in a healthy mutual exchange. Women who are overcoming teaching, language, or experiences that have sexually disempowered them can be encouraged by the sensual and passionate Shulammite woman who takes initiative, for she seeks her lover, she is responsive to him, she wants intimacy, and she is intimate. She illustrates that healthy communal relationships—friendship, conversation, and support from other women, including her mother—are central to her health. Wise and self-aware, she teaches about the mighty flame of her sexuality and is knowledgeable about her own body, her lover’s body, and the natural world. She also makes it clear that for her, love is more important than wealth or status. As she talks about kissing, touching, tasting, and smelling her lover, the Shulammite woman does not use crass or vulgar language, exemplifying how it is possible to speak unapologetically and appropriately about healthy sex and intimacy. Put simply, she, together with her lover, models a remarkably healthy, equitable, sexual relationship for a world in dire need of such examples.33
1. David A. Fahrenthold, “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation about Women in 2005,” Washington Post (Oct 8, 2016).
2. See, for example, Editorial Board, “Editorial: A National Moment of Reckoning for Abusers and Creeps,” Chicago Tribune (Nov 17, 2017).
3. Resources I have found useful include Lauren Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006); Lauren Winner, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (New York: HarperOne, 2016); and Rob Bell, Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality (New York: HarperOne: 2012).
4. Robert Alter, Strong as Death Is Love: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. W. Norton, 2015), 4.
5. John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament (Bristol, 1765), quoted in Tremper Longman, Song of Songs, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 34.
6. Also important are interpretations that bridge the divide, as is the case in many places in this issue of Priscilla Papers.
7. Jonneke Bekkenkamp, “Into Another Scene of Choices,” in The Song of Songs: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, ed. Athalya Brenner and Carole Fontaine (Sheffield: JSOT, 2000), 86.
8. World Health Organization, Defining Sexual Health: Report of a Technical Consultation on Sexual Health, 28–31 January 2002 (Geneva, 2006).
9. When I first began to recognize a need for resources regarding healthy sexuality in young women, the following article began to shape my response to emerging adults in the university setting: Nicola Curtin, L. Monique Ward, Ann Merriwether, and Allison Caruthers, “Femininity Ideology and Sexual Health in Young Women: A Focus on Sexual Knowledge, Embodiment, and Agency,” International Journal of Sexual Health 23, no. 1 (2011): 48–62.
10. Curtin et al., “Femininity Ideology,” 49. Cf. H. Amaro, A. Raj, and E. Reed, “On the Margin: Power and Women’s HIV Risk Reduction Strategies,” Sex Roles 42 (2001): 723–49; G. L. Fox, “Social Control of Women through a Value Construct,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2 (1977): 805–17.
11. Curtin et al., “Femininity Ideology,” 49.
12. Curtin et al., “Femininity Ideology,” 50.
13. Curtin et al., “Femininity Ideology,” 49.
14. K. A. McClintock, Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 12.
15. McClintock, Sexual Shame, 12.
16. Renita Weems, “The Song of Songs,” NIB, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 5:364.
17. Iain M. Duguid, The Song of Songs, TOTC (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2015), 24.
18. Curtin et al., “Femininity Ideology,” 56.
19. Curtin et al., “Femininity Ideology,” 51.
20. Curtin et al., “Femininity Ideology,” 51.
21. Curtin et al., “Femininity Ideology,” 51.
22. Curtin et al., “Femininity Ideology,” 57.
23. Daphna Arbel, “My Vineyard, My Very Own, Is for Myself,” in The Song of Songs: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, 93.
24. Renita Weems, What Matters Most: Ten Lessons in Living Passionately from the Song of Solomon (West Bloomfield: Warner, 2004), 51–52.
25. Glen G. Scorgie, Simon Chan, Gordon T. Smith, and James D. Smith III, eds., Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2011), 746.
26. Sarah Bessey, “In Which I Am Damaged Goods” (Jan 29, 2013), http://sarahbessey.com/in-which-i-am-damaged-goods/, emphasis original.
27. K. Greene and S. L. Faulkner, “Gender, Belief in the Sexual Double Standard, and Sexual Talk in Heterosexual Dating Relationships,” Sex Roles 53 (2005): 239–51.
28. Curtin et al., “Femininity Ideology,” 54.
29. Arbel, “My Vineyard,” 95.
30. Phyllis Trible, “Love’s Lyrics Redeemed,” in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 161. See also Longman, Song of Songs, 66 (“The implication of a canonical reading of the Song is that the book speaks of the healing of intimacy . . . one of the most remarkable features of the Song is the confident voice of the woman as she pursues relationship with the man. The man responds in kind, and it is fair to characterize their relationship as egalitarian.”) and Arthur H. Lewis, “Equality of Sexes in Marriage: Exposition of the Song of Songs,” Priscilla Papers 11, no. 2 (Spring 1997): 45 (“As an Old Testament scholar, I am concerned to point out the equality of the bride with her husband in this story mainly to correct the common idea that in a biblical view of marriage the man must be the aggressor or initiator, and that he should always exercise a more dominant role.”)
31. Alicia Ostriker, “A Holy of Holies: The Song of Songs as Countertext,” in The Song of Songs: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, 49.
32. Renita Weems, Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 168.
33. Robin McCall, “‘Most Beautiful Among Women’: Feminist/Womanist Contributions to the Reading of the Song of Songs,” RevExp 105 (Summer 2008): 420.