The Power of Sex – Reflections on ‘An Education’

Spoiler alert! If you think you may yet see the film or read the book then don’t read this blog post! If you have seen the film, please add your thoughts to mine…

Carey Mulligan shines in the central role in An Education. Set in the early 1960’s the story is centres on a wide-eyed innocent (but not naive) 16 year old Jenny who is struggling with the conventions of the day and the expectations of her parents. She is aiming for Oxford but is not entirely sure why when her world is turned upside down by a relationship with an older man, David, whose friends and lifestyle seem overwhelmingly glamorous.

Jenny is full of joy and curiosity,  such an endearing blend of courage, self-confidence and innocence that even in her moments of fool-hardy rebellion against ‘the system’ you can’t help cheering her on and thinking that she might have a point. Perhaps there is more to life than ‘an education’.  In the end though, even though she seems magnificently in control of her choices, she is cruelly manipulated. These days almost every film contains a sex scene even if it’s just a hint that sex has taken place and this film is no exception, although it is not explicit in terms of what you see (the film is a 12) it is explicit over her feelings and expectations. I found it achingly sad. It’s poignancy lingered over me for several days. Eventually I figured out why: rarely does a modern film do justice to the power of sex but  I think this film does.

It also raises interesting questions as to who is to blame when all this boldness of youth is crushed against the realities of a grown up world. The innocent parties, Jenny and parents, come across as either  head-strong or endearingly stupid.  Her father is pathetically impressed by a fancy car and man who can find his way into London to attend classical concerts. Her teachers try to warn her but were so offensive in their appeal it’s not hard to see why she doesn’t listen to them. David, clearly the baddie, is  ambiguously portrayed as tender and generous.  Maybe the only person to blame is Jenny herself? Perhaps the story teller’s point is that we all make our own mistakes and those mistakes either make us or break us.

So is having sex outside of marriage always a mistake?

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is set in the same era. It focusses entirely on the wedding night of Florence and Edward, both virgins. Neither of them have had the benefit of sex education, both of them are far too terrified to talk about ‘it’ before-hand and the whole agonising night of fear, misunderstanding and disaster leaves, even morally straight-laced vicar types like me, contemplating the benefits of promiscuity and shouting ‘Oh for goodness sake, just get on with it!’

In another recent film based on a true story The Blind Side the foster mother of the black teenager tells him when he gets to college that ‘if  you get a girl pregnant out of wedlock I will personally come up here and chop off your penis’. As a ‘Bible Belt, Christian, Republican’ you get the feeling she means it but even so it isn’t a prohibition against sex per se so much as a warning against ill-advised procreation.

These examples don’t help me answer my question: is having sex outside of marriage always a mistake? Should we just take it for granted that unmarried people will have sex without making any judgements about whether that is a good thing or a bad thing? I’m drafting this blog post in London where every underground escalator has at least one abortion clinic advert. A tidy solution to a tiny problem? or an indication of  immense heart-break?

It’s hard to find positive portrayals of healthy married sex in films. Julie and Julia shows a delightfully passionate marriage between Julia Childs and her diminutive diplomat husband. But for a really positive take on the benefits of abstinence you have to go back to the 19th century. I’m sure the words sexual intercourse do not feature in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but the whole plot hinges on the power of sex.  Lydia elopes with ‘Wicked Mr Wickham’ and her wanton licentious behaviour damages by extension the reputation of all her sisters. I watched the final episode in the BBC dramatisation recently and was struck by the closing scenes. Lizzie and Jane, the two virtuous sisters stand at the altar with Darcy and Bingley their respective husbands to be and, while the story so far is reviewed, we are treated to almost the entire preface of the 1662 Marriage ceremony:

DEARLY beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony… an estate which is … honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites. We are then given the three reasons for marriage: First, It was ordained for the procreation of children. Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication. Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other…

Forgive me for sounding old-fashioned but aren’t we meant to feel that it’s rather wonderful, these chaste lovers sharing their first kiss in the carriage that drives them away from their own wedding?

Contrast that to a survey mentioned in today’s Metro: American university students apparently have two one-night stands for every date they go on and these liaisons, usually under the influence of heavy alcohol use, are ‘the standard way young people interact with one another’.  Surely that reduces sex to being a soulless shadow of all it can be?

If we create a scale of sexual activity with  Lizzie Bennett and Mr Darcy at the top then this cross-section of the American student population surely comes somewhere near the bottom? My big question is ‘where on that scale is the moral line drawn?’ Above such a line we have sex that builds society and benefits individuals and below that line we have  a potentially destructive force.  Some would deny that such a line exists and say we have no right to judge.  The huge majority of ‘decent’ people I know would put serial monogamy above the line regardless of their marital status. The challenge for Christians is that God does draw the line at the public commitment of matrimony. Promises to ‘love, cherish and obey’ come before leaps under the sheets. 

And it’s not because Christians are joy killers who are scared of sex. Quite the reverse, it’s because the Christian faith/God/the Bible expresses such a high view of the power of sex that  the sanctity of marriage is declared to be the ideal safety zone for the powerfully dynamic gift of sex. Now we should feel neither smug nor dejected depending on whether our own behaviour puts us above or below the line.  Heaven knows, the vast majority of us fall well below the line on virtually all of God’s standards, that’s the whole point about forgiveness: it’s essential!   The point is whether or not we believe the line to be there? If it is, then our mistakes, if that’s what they are, don’t have to break us, in God’s amazing grace they can make us.