Christine Emba’s Socratic Sex Talk

The Catholic journalist’s debut book, ‘Rethinking Sex: A Provocation,’ aims to give her peers the space to question dominant narratives about sex and seek ‘the good of the other.’

Christine Emba, pictured here at a March 28 Georgetown University dialogue, sees her book ‘Rethinking Sex: A Provocation’ as a translation of Catholic ethics to a mainstream audience.
Christine Emba, pictured here at a March 28 Georgetown University dialogue, sees her book ‘Rethinking Sex: A Provocation’ as a translation of Catholic ethics to a mainstream audience. (photo: Georgetown University/Art Pittman)

Christine Emba’s debut book will likely not be appearing on the shelves of your local Catholic bookstore, nor is it likely to receive any bishop’s imprimatur. But that’s by design.

“I didn’t write this book for my priest,” Emba, an opinion columnist for The Washington Post, told the Register.

Instead, Emba wrote Rethinking Sex: A Provocation for her peers: fellow young adults who have come of age amid a climate of relentless “sex positivity” and yet are likely finding that today’s sexual culture is anything but satisfying.

Emba says the idea for the project began to take shape during the height of the #MeToo movement, when wider discussions about sex in America — whether among her friends or in prominent publications — revealed holes in the story of “carefree sex” that the mass media and the wider culture unremittingly tell.

“It felt like a malaise, like something was off about our sexual culture that a lot of people were realizing but hadn’t quite put a voice to,” she told the Register. “And that clearly wasn’t going to be solved by what we had been told would solve it: more freedom, more emphasis on consent, ever-growing permutations of consent.” 

Rethinking Sex aims to do exactly what its title suggests: provoke young people to question the societal assumptions they have been fed and start a conversation about what “good sex” might have to do with “the good.” In facilitating this dialogue, Emba writes less as an all-knowing oracle and more as a Socratic gadfly, unwilling to leave her interlocutors complacent with their unexamined sex lives.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Emba doesn’t offer her own proposal for what a better culture of sex might look like. Instead of the relativizing, objectifying and individualistic framework of consent and unmoored freedom, she offers a more robust and purposeful approach, suggesting that “willing the good of the other might be the better sexual ethic we’ve been looking for.” Call it “common good sex.”

If that kind of language sounds familiar to Catholic ears, there’s a reason for that. Although Rethinking Sex might not be shelved in the “Religious” section at Barnes and Noble, it’s undoubtedly informed, at least in part, by a decidedly Catholic logic.

This is nothing new for Emba. A convert to Catholicism during her senior year at Princeton University, her journalistic career has been marked by the often-unstated application of elements of the Church’s social teaching and anthropological vision to American politics and culture — detectable, perhaps, to her coreligionists but subtle enough to receive a hearing from her normie readership.

“I think it’s an interesting frame,” Emba told the Register. “Maybe not always obvious to the reader, sometimes not even obvious to me, but a backdrop to how I think through certain questions.”

Emba describes her journalism as “a vocation of telling the truth.” She aims to help her readers see “how day-to-day events and cultural trends relate to the common good and hopefully draw them closer to that.”

But to do this for a mainstream audience involves something other than simply regurgitating sections of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. In Emba’s words, it involves “translation” — a phrase she has used to describe her work before — making ethical claims legible to those who come from different backgrounds and hold different beliefs. 

Someone like The New York Times’ Ross Douthat might play this role more explicitly, serving as a kind of official liaison between the Catholic world and his liberal readers. But as a self-proclaimed woman of the left, Emba seems more embedded in the audience she writes for, her ability to translate effectively enhanced by her relatability.

“Working on this book was a lot of that process,” she told the Register.

It shows. From a Catholic perspective, Rethinking Sex is noteworthy literature not because of the “what” of its content but the “how” of its method.

With chapter titles like “Men and Women Are Not the Same,” “Sex is Spiritual,” “Our Sex Lives Aren’t Private,” and “Some Desires Are Worse Than Others,” many of the themes of the book will be unsurprising to anyone who has followed the Church’s post-sexual revolution social teaching. But what is remarkable is to see these themes explored in a book that has been discussed in the pages of The Atlantic and Time and is making its way into the hands of young adults who may have never even been to church, let alone grappled with Catholic sexual ethics.

Emba is able to make these inroads through a profound commitment to meeting people where they are at. This method of literary accompaniment comes through in Rethinking Sex in any number of ways, from her usage of the societal “we” when discussing sexual problems and proclivities to the employment of pop-culture references, feminist theory and existentialist thinkers to make her points. Emba makes moral judgments but is not judgmental — at least not of her intended audience (whereas “purity culture,” which Emba never quite satisfactorily distinguishes from the practice of abstinence more broadly, is a convenient punching bag).

Perhaps this method of accompaniment is most evident in the revelatory and often-sobering conversations Emba had with men and women about their sex lives, which provide the most compelling support for her overarching claims. The author says she connected with her interviewees through “shared intuitions” about the inadequacy of current sexual norms, but then also asked them honest questions (often ones that it seemed like they had never entertained before), “work[ing] with them to almost walk along the path to a broader understanding,” in true Socratic fashion. 

Emba is explicit in some of her countercultural views — perhaps especially with her indictment of a capitalistic logic that commodifies and privatizes sex (and all other relationships, for that matter) and privileges libertine autonomy, stifling our interdependence and leading us down sexual dead ends like pornography, dating apps and the hook-up culture. She also dips her toe into truly risqué waters, offering the ultimate conclusion that the solution to better sex might be “less, not more,” and even positively portraying those who have chosen to practice abstinence before marriage. 

In other areas, however, she walks to the logical edge of making radical moral claims — be it about the procreative purpose of sex or the normativity of sexual complementarity — but holds back from being explicitly prescriptive. Her Catholic readers might be able to complete the syllogism, but Emba refrains from doing so, perhaps out of prudence, perhaps because she doesn’t hold those convictions herself. Instead, she writes that the norm of “attention to the other … makes it our responsibility to seek out and form an understanding of what the good actually is.”

Of course, there are limitations to this approach. For instance, it’s fair to ask if Emba’s portrayal of “willing the good of the other” in sex, which is grounded more in an appeal to “radical empathy” than in the natural-law accounts of Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas from whom Emba draws the concept, is truly capable of putting her average reader on the path to escaping the Platonic cave of sexual relativism. After all, considering how one’s partner might feel in a sexual encounter won’t necessarily achieve “their good” if their feelings aren’t already attuned to it.

Another consideration: Emba’s description of how her own views and practices of sex have changed, eventually arriving at something other than “total abstinence” or “assimilation to mainstream sexual culture,” neither of which “coincided with [her] sense of self,” may make her relatable to her intended audience but could be read prescriptively by her Catholic peers — ironic, considering that Emba writes that “we define what sex means for those around us.” 

Emba says the Church’s understanding of sex — of which abstinence before marriage is a facet — is “a positive vision to strive for,” but someone attempting, however imperfectly, to live consistent with this vision may be discouraged in that effort after reading this book.

Then again, this might just affirm that Rethinking Sex isn’t meant for people who are already attempting to live a Catholic sexual ethic — it’s for people who have probably never heard of it. As Emba told the Register, her book isn’t a rewrite of St. John Paul II’s theology of the body catechesis, but an attempt to “reach beyond the sort of Catholic silo” to people who are clearly hurting and looking for something better.

Early returns indicate that Rethinking Sex is achieving that aim. Emba says a number of readers have reached out to share that the book has prompted them to rethink some of their own sexual habits. A young man told her that her chapter on the moral content of sexual desires helped him to see that pornography had habituated him to degradation and objectification.

“I’m happy for this person,” Emba said, “because he can take steps towards finding out what the good is and figuring out how to be that person.”

Emba’s hope is that the book creates the space for not only personal reflections on sex, but a wider societal conversation about our sexual norms. She believes this kind of approach is more likely to result in meaningful change than top-down legal strategies — such as bans on pornography — because conversation can help win people over “to not just do the good, but actually care about the good and love the good.” 

Emba maintains that she doesn’t have all the answers. But neither did Socrates. And while Rethinking Sex might not contain the fullness of the Gospel truth about sex, by providing readers with an opportunity to acknowledge our societal ignorance about what sex truly is, it may serve as a first step away from the false promises of a consent-based ethic and toward genuine sexual wisdom.