Few topics are as polarizing as sexual ethics. In Sex, Tech, and Faith: Ethics for a Digital Age, Kate Ott claims that conversations in this realm too often focus on advocacy and prevention policies that fail to equip people to engage in holistic, healthy sexual relationships that are faith-informed and inclusive of the diversity within human sexuality.
Pulling from her experience in queer studies, womanist and feminist ethics, and Christian sexual ethics, Ott provides an opportunity for Christians to question the ethical ideas derived from behaviors and relationships that may have disconnected them from self and neighbor. Instead, she offers a more holistic Christian sexual ethic based on erotic attunement and the values of curiosity, creativity, flexibility, and care.
In our rapidly evolving technological world, Ott understands that such conversations must address both sexual ethics writ large and those concerns that are particular to the digital age. The purpose of her book is to inform and invite the reader “to consider their own Christian digital sexual ethic” (12).
While the church too often responds to pornography with shame-cultivating mantras, silence, or blanket criticism, Ott distinguishes between digital pornography that promotes mutuality and other forms of pornography that show violence, sexism, or racism. She calls for nuances that distinguish between lust and the enjoyment of sexual pleasure in a non-exploitative and consensual way. Ott contrasts consensual sexting that affirms sexual attraction and desirability with the power dynamics of gender inequality and exploitation that sexting can be used for. She explores how the theology of incarnation can deepen our erotic attunement through self-awareness that honors the humanity of others. By discussing both the positive and negative effects that various forms of digital pornography have on sexual embodiment, Ott equips the reader to make their own decisions.
Ott highlights how most current online matchmaking apps fuel false promises in ways that perpetuate harm and limit flourishing. She speculates about a future where, due to climate or societal factors that limit human interaction, human connection may become more digital than physical. After explaining how a variety of apps and algorithms work, she discusses their effect on masturbation, partnered sex, and nudity. Ott explores how the Song of Songs fosters erotic attunement, a values-driven approach to sexuality, and mutuality in ways that connect sexuality and spirituality. By discussing how a variety of dating apps can trap us in stereotypes that lead us to neglect the erotic across our relationships, Ott fosters the awareness necessary for readers to navigate online matchmaking apps in sexually and spiritually holistic ways.
In addressing how theology can lead to sexual abuse, Ott shows how the embrace of penal substitutionary theory of atonement, combined with gender-specific glorifications of self-sacrifice and suffering, have led to centuries of oppression and violence toward women and anyone else who heterosexual men wield power over. Instead, Ott calls for sexual ethics to be developed through the Christian values of love and personal accountability in order to transition beyond heterosexist theologies of patriarchy and dominion. By specifically challenging theologies of power and asking the reader to consider alternatives that promote resistance to violent power, Ott addresses the theological root of abuse and fosters a curiosity for planting something new.
One of the new technologies Ott considers is virtual reality (VR), casting it as an alternative experience rather than an escape from reality. Introducing the reader to such orientations as digi-sexuality and to technologies like teledildonic devices, Ott explores how identities and technologies can both connect or disconnect us from incarnational sexuality. She sees VR as an opportunity for people to explore their sexual orientation and gender identity. Though for Christians to embrace VR, the belief that sexual exploration is morally wrong must be deconstructed. To do this, she looks to theologies of creation, living as our fullest selves, and loving one another by encouraging everyone’s welfare. By seeing holistic sexuality as an intertwining of our online and offline realities, Ott provides a vision for the future of sexuality where every person can flourish.
Ott roots our creation of robots and our desire to be in relationship with them in a theology that views humans as co-creators with God. Inherent in the creator-to-creation relationship is the question of hierarchy and control. So Ott discusses the nature of consciousness, relationship, and love in order to explore the complexities of the future of technology and sexuality.
One strength of the book is Ott’s commitment to fostering curiosity in a way that expands the possibilities for conversation. At the end of each chapter, she provides a summary with action steps and questions related to the chapter topic. At the end of the book, she includes a youth study guide so that teenagers and young adults can explore holistic, faith-based sex education in community with an adult leader. The study provides a summary of sexuality education, digital technology, theological engagement, Scripture texts, questions, exercises, and additional links for each chapter. Another strength is how Ott equips and liberates the reader to develop their own digital sexual ethic. Nowhere in the book does she prescribe what conclusions the reader must draw.
Perhaps one limitation of the book is its brevity, which leaves the reader wanting more. Ott admits this, stating that each chapter could become an entire book regarding both the technology or the theology it covers. It would also have been helpful to discuss how the evolving patriarchal sexual ethic of Scripture affects current static patriarchal views of sexuality, and how recognizing this dynamic may free Christians from many of their assumptions about sexual ethics.
Sex, Tech& Faith is a bold and beautiful book that required a lot of courage, curiosity, and creativity to write. It probably will not be well received by Christians of a more traditional mindset. But for Christians who are looking for a faith-informed, technologically aware, shame-free, values-driven exploration of holistic sexuality, it is a book that will open the heart, mind, and body to a sexual ethic equipped for the digital age.
Kate Ott is professor of Christian social ethics at Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey, and lecturer in practical theology at Yale Divinity School. A Christian feminist ethicist interested in the formation of moral communities, she is the author of Christian Ethics for a Digital Society and Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, and she lectures and leads workshops on technology, sexuality, and professional ethics for teens, young adults, parents, and religious leaders.
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