PART 2: WHAT IS A HEALTHY SEXUALITY?
Plato’s Republic gives what I think is a true pattern of “healthy” humanity, although I disagree with him on certain details. The true pattern is that each part fits within a harmonious whole and plays its proper role. For him, this means that the belly (symbolic of the lower passions such as hunger and sex) and the heart (symbolic of the higher passions like ambition and patriotism) are both under the direction and control of the mind, the seat of pure reason, which itself serves the Good.
Strongly influenced by Plato, Augustine holds out a similar pattern: our loves must be correctly ordered, with love of God most dominant and everything else falling into order below that.
Plato and Augustine both depend on some highest entity as an ordering principle: reason/the Good or love of God. Here, if I want to say anything that will apply to both the “Church” and the “World,” irrespective of one’s worldview, I cannot assume any consensus about what that highest entity is. For the health of the full person, we do, in my opinion, require higher commitments than mere desire to inform and order our lives. For purposes of this essay, I will simply posit that whatever the ordering principle or set of principles, our sexuality should fit within the whole as a contributing and harmonious part. That does not mean that there can be no remainder after subtracting out sexuality’s contribution to the ordering principle. But the remainder, if any, must not sabotage the ordering principle. Thus, healthy sexuality entails a moral system that regulates sexuality.
Healthy sexuality not only fits within the whole of an individual life as a contributing and harmonious part, but also within a relationship. To be a fully coherent part of a healthy relationship, the coming together of two bodies should mirror the coming together of two lives, two minds, two souls. Physical intimacy should arise from and nurture a lasting emotional intimacy. The giving of oneself and the receiving of the other sexually should be only one aspect of giving and receiving in a relationship marked by mutual grace, gratitude, and sacrifice.
Much of what I have said about healthy sexuality can be summarized in one word: integration. Integration is a popular concept in brain science today. And while the triune brain model is not strictly scientific, it is roughly accurate to say that we have a “reptile brain” (primal instincts that keep us alive), a “mammal brain” (social emotions) and a “human brain” (reasoning and judgment). A mind is most healthy when most integrated within itself and with the body–when each of the different “brains” and the body are pulling in the same direction and with the human brain in the driver’s seat, ideally, but at least taking cognizance of each other–mindful of what is happening and recognizing the other “brains” as valid components of the self. Sexuality has a potent ability to unite our reptilian, mammalian, and human natures, but it does this best when integrated harmoniously within a whole life and a whole relationship and a whole philosophy.
Sexuality should have a strength and force proportional to the strength and force of the other parts of the whole–but as long as it is proportional, the stronger and more forceful the better. A physical therapist will tell you that where one muscle begins pulling joints out of alignment due to its disproportional strength, the ideal solution is not to weaken the muscle but to strengthen all the others. Muscles should be strong, but only with a proportional strength. So with sexuality.
To sum up: to be healthy, sexuality should be a contributing and harmonious part of a whole life and a whole relationship, thereby integrating sexual desire with emotional intimacy and ultimate purposes that are even bigger than the couple. It must serve that which is higher than itself, but should be as vigorous and robust in itself as is consistent with this service. A healthy sexuality can be a blessing to the individuals and communities where it operates; but too often sexuality is at war with peace, with reason, with wholeness, with health, with social order, and with anything that deserves the name of love, doing its own things for its own inscrutable reasons, an island severed from the continent, reckless of its wreckage. The Church and the World both have problems with unhealthy sexuality, though different problems. The next post will address the World’s problems.