Ambiguity and [Un]healthy Sexuality in the World and in the Church [1]


Our actual experience of sexuality is full of ambiguities. There are at least three major sources of ambiguity that I can discern:

  1. The gap between reproduction itself and the bodily and mental processes associated with reproduction. 
  2. The slippage inherent in language.
  3.  Differing world views and philosophies of sexuality.

There can be no serious claim that sexuality lacks ambiguity, because intelligent people and cultures interpret it so differently. I am not an anthropologist, but I know just enough to know that anthropology furnishes precious few universals across cultures within the realm of sexuality. The few that do exist, according to Wikipedia’s page on cultural universals, include a prohibition on incest, some form of cultural dress code (sexual modesty is described as a “cultural universal” here), and some form of marriage. These universals are not nothing, and I do not wish to overstate the case. Clearly there are certain realities related to the reproductive function of our bodies that every culture and every individual must come to grips with–and this common pressure has created certain commonalities across cultures. But just about everything else related to sexuality has been subject to wildly different interpretations: among other things, the nature of gender, the nature of sexuality, the propriety of various sexual behaviors, the proper consequences that flow from the violation of whatever mores exist, and the moral and social obligations one owes to a sexual partner and/or spouse have been understood in dramatically different ways across cultures and even within cultures.

1. The gap between reproduction itself and the bodily and mental processes associated with reproduction. 

At some level, sexual attraction clearly has a reproductive “goal,” viewed from a Darwinian perspective or a Biblical perspective or any other reasonable perspective I can imagine. Yet people may actually grow up and get married without knowing how to have sex. While this is hard to imagine happening with anyone who grew up in the last 50 years, before that it was not at all uncommon. Thousands of women in the 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries went to their wedding nights completely ignorant of sex. And it’s not hard to understand why. The thing I experience when I see an advertisement featuring a beautiful woman in a skimpy bikini that was designed to stimulate sexual interest is not a desire for babies nor a desire for sex. In fact, it is hard to say exactly what I experience. There is a certain agitation of the nerves that draws my eyes back to the woman. There is a curiosity to know exactly how much skin is shown. There is a stirring of the blood. If I were to allow my eyes to be drawn back repeatedly and to dwell in a prurient manner on the shoulders, the cleavage, the small of the waist, the hips, the buttocks, etc., which are all intentionally proffered to my view by the nature of the costume, then I would experience a more intense sexual arousal: tightened throat, quickened heart rate, erection, etc. All of this is clearly sexual in some sense, but what exactly is the thing that I desire? Isn’t it merely the agitation itself? In my experience, at least, the thing I desire is not orgasm, much less copulation, much less impregnation, much less grandchildren. I mostly just want to keep looking–a desire that I try to resist without taking my monkeyish lusts too seriously. Yet grandchildren are nature’s goal. This vast gap between the nature of my interest in the woman and the natural “goal” of that interest is the space in which imagination and interpretation have free play to run riot and create almost anything. It is partly because of this gap that most people at some time or another experience various non-reproductive sex acts, such as anal or oral or homosexual sex, as equally or more desirable than coitus. 

2. The slippage of language

The thing itself, the word or other symbol that represents the thing, and the interaction of that word or symbol with whatever else exists in a particular mind are distinct and sometimes dramatically different.  I include within the category of “language” the unspoken languages of clothes and behaviors, which have the ability to “say” something within a given cultural context. The bikini debate is a case in point. What a bikini “said” was not always ambiguous. The inventor of the bikini, a French man (of course) named  Louis Réard, defined it as a “two-piece bathing suit which reveals everything about a girl except for her mother’s maiden name.” When he first invented it, he could not find any woman willing to wear it other than a nude dancer. He named it the “bikini” because this nude dancer modeled the new design four days after the US first tested an atom bomb on Bikini Atoll, and he wanted to associate his design with the atom bomb so as to enhance the media “boom”: as he told the press,  “like the [atom] bomb, the bikini is small and devastating.” While the unambiguous primary goal of the bikini used to be to show off a woman’s body in a prurient manner, and while it still retains that original meaning to a large extent (depending partly on the cut), it is now mainstream and serves multiple functions. Many girls grow up wearing bikinis partly for the convenience of the parents (since it’s dramatically easier to help a little girl use the potty if you don’t have to contend with a full torso length of sticky wet swimsuit). It is only natural that unless they are taught otherwise, they will continue to wear bikinis as youth and then as adults. Hopefully they do not choose a cut of bikini that shares its size and shape with lingerie. But regardless, while certain cuts of bikinis, at least, still send a message of prurient invitation, they send it less loudly than they used to, so that this particular message (even where the cut clearly announces it) can be drowned out by other potential meanings: the bikini can also “speak” of the woman’s confidence in her body, the desire for greater convenience in dressing, an even tan line, or the (dubious?) goal or allowing her body to be publicly appreciated in an aesthetic but non-prurient manner. These potential meanings were always there, but they used to be completely overwhelmed by the prurient invitation so that bikinis were unacceptable within the mainstream. That is no longer the case. Partly, that is because displays of sexiness itself are less “loud” than they used to be: more common and less noteworthy. This state of things arguably makes the skimpy bikini and other displays of sexiness to be found on every third advertisement, among other places, at once less immoral and more insidious than they used to be. 

In further illustration of this point, consider the representation of the mutant character Mystique in X-Men’s “Days of Future Past.” For most of the movie, she is naked except for blue paint. But the paint is layered so thickly over the essential areas that she is functionally wearing a bikini. It seems to me sufficiently clear that the commercial value of Jennifer Lawrence’s sex appeal was the driving consideration in this decision. (Not that she is presented as over-the-top sexy–but both Honest Trailers and How It Should Have Ended make fun of this element of her character.) Yet when Jennifer Lawrence explained why her character was naked, the explanation was (as typical for people in our generation) all about identity and self: while in the first movie, she was “struggling – like a lot of normal humans – with the way she looked, and she was covered up . . . this time she is Mutant and proud.” In a manner typified by Jennifer Lawrence’s statement, sex appeal is ubiquitously used–for its commercial or personal value to the user–but is usually hidden in plain sight behind sheer vails of other meanings. Pornography that acknowledges itself as such only removes the obfuscation of such vails—vails of other meanings or of equally sheer fabrics—that are thinly layered on top of similar images to render them acceptable for the PG-13 screen and the magazines featured in public libraries. Meanwhile, it is almost impossible to say out loud in polite company what everybody knows and what Sports Illustrated uses annually to great profit: skimpy bikinis, whether of cloth or of blue paint, are sexy—and are meant to draw sexual attention. We all know it, and we are not only allowed but encouraged to acknowledge it by purchasing a copy of the swimsuit edition and other advertised products, but we can’t acknowledge it verbally because the verbal acknowledgement would come across as judgmental, lustful, or possibly even harassing.

In these “bikini” paragraphs, I have ended up arguing both for ambiguity and for the absence of ambiguity. But I have not contradicted myself. Clothes, sexy or not, along with sexual and gender-related behaviors, really do “say” things—but they speak overlapping and often jumbled messages, with multiple voices and strong accents, so that their language is far more ambiguous even than verbal language. Yet most of us are able to communicate our intentions effectively enough when we want to—and we mostly also know how to hide behind ambiguity and obscure our meanings, for better or worse.

3. Differing world views and philosophies of sexuality.

This source of ambiguity hardly requires explanation, but it may be the most important. I will describe a particular worldview that by its nature tends to generate a particular way of understanding and interacting with sexuality:

  • What some call our bodies and our souls are both nothing more than so many atoms bonking against each other, captured ultimately in the purposeless stream of natural selection, from which alone arises the evanescent illusions of consciousness.
  • There is no beneficent entity to whom we can say “thank you” and from whom we can expect direction.
  • Our desiring a thing is all that constitutes that thing (or anything) as a “good”: in other words, the concept of “goodness” is ultimately incoherent and there is really only desire.
  • Social mores–or, in other words, the expectations of other people–exert no properly moral pull but are to be considered only as pragmatic means or obstacles to achieving one’s desires.

Obviously, if you accept all of these propositions–or even just some of them–then you live in a very different universe than I do, and your sexuality will look and feel different to you than mine does to me. And the variety of “universes” creates vastly different apprehensions of sexuality: is sex the fundamental act of male dominance over even the insides of women, as Dworkin has it? Or is it a sacrament, as Catholic theology posits? Is it the “little hell” that each person in a repressive culture has to pretend doesn’t exist, as Steinbeck’s narrator asserts? Or is it the “splendid instinct which writes our poetry, builds our civilizations, founds our churches—the very heart and soul of life,” as Jesse Lynch Williams’ character claims? Are the Freudians, the Foucauldians, the Franciscans, or the fans of Free Love the most correct about sex?

Any complete philosophy would entail a complete philosophy of sexuality that would fully account for the experience and behavior of Henry the VIII, of the Muria people who (unique among the cultures of the world, I believe) send their youth to live in sexual communes before marrying, and of every other individual and culture, as well as fully addressing the complicated relationships between sexuality, aesthetics, morals, psychology, culture, etc. Nobody has a complete philosophy–it would be too big to hold in a head or in a book or in a library–but we all have an incomplete philosophy as well as a philosophy of sexuality, incoherent and piecemeal as it may be, and our philosophies make a vast difference.

I believe that these three sources of ambiguity–the division of sexual desire’s immediate objects from its ultimate “natural” reproductive goal, the ambiguity of the various “languages” involved in sexual experience, and the differing world views through which we interpret sexual experience– account for why every individual experiences and understands sexuality differently from every other individual, and likewise each culture and subculture. They also explain why it is so difficult for “the World” and “the Church” to talk to each other about sexuality. In Part 2, I express what I think healthy sexuality means at a minimum, regardless of one’s worldview.

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