Ambiguity and [Un]healthy Sexuality in the World and in the Church [3]


Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (triptych), c.1515

“The World” here is defined in contradistinction to “the Church.” The fundamental difference for present purposes is that the Church recognizes the authority of God’s commandments respecting sex while the World follows its desires regardless of God’s commandments. People do not divide neatly in the World and the Church, but at the same time the distinction is more than theoretical. I am sure that there are atheists who eschew sexual whateverism and, for their own reasons, promote faithfulness within loving dual gendered marriage as the only ethical expression of sexuality; but I cannot think of a single person I actually know who fits this category today. The vast majority of those who remain unmoved by the sexual and ideological revolutions of the last century are the religious–and most major religions (including at least Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and Judaism) have historically spoken with virtual unanimity on the subject. Buddhism, of course, considers liberation from all desire and attachment the ultimate goal, and it therefore has perhaps an even less permissive stance towards sexuality than the other major religions.

While the nearly unanimous consensus of the world’s major religions is so strong an argument in favor of traditional sexual morality as to be, in my judgment, very nearly conclusive, I do not insist on traditional sexual morality for present purposes. What I insist on is that people must attempt to comply with a moral and philosophical system that is dictated by reason and conscience and not by desire. Desire must bow to Right (“as God gives us to see the right”), not Right to Desire. To the extent that a rigorous and conscientious atheist regulates his sexuality by the morality that seems to him correct and yet denies the authority of God’s purported commandments, he is outside the Church but also outside the World.

Relatedly, while I believe that the full flowering of human potential is possible only when a person has a correct philosophy, I do not aim to argue about correct philosophy here. The basis for my present judgment against the World’s sexuality is not that it has the wrong philosophy but that it follows no philosophy at all. What I require here is not correctness, but coherence–that sex not contradict its context but rather fit harmoniously within the lives and beliefs and relationships involved. 

Under the definition of healthy sexuality that I have given, addictive behaviors are not healthy; nor is anything that severs sexuality from a healthy relationship, violating trust or tearing one’s own pleasure at the cost of others’ safety; nor is anything that does violence to anybody else; nor is anything that attenuates the rich meanings that sex has when it does fit harmoniously within its context.

The utter ubiquity of pornography in the World is perhaps the clearest sign of the World’s poor sexual health. Because of course pornography does all of this: it attenuates all but the basest meanings of sex, makes the world less safe for everyone, does violence at numerous levels starting with the actors, then to the psyche of the viewer, and finally to the relationships of the viewer and the people affected by those relationships. It addictively severs sexuality from any whole human relationship, making those incredibly compelling images a privately consumable product–a bag of potato chips laced with arsenic. It does all of this in the misleading name of freedom of sexual gratification—misleading because what porn really does is not to gratify but to agitate, and not to free but to bind–an eye to a screen, a mind to a desire without fulfilment, a soul to a fragmented and virtual sexuality. “You can’t eat just one”–and yet no amount of porn will satisfy, until sexuality is bloated with calories but starved for nutrition, and the whole poisoned system languishes.

Related symptoms are the frequency of adultery, the looseness and casualness of sex among young people, and the vulgar, bawdy, sensationalistic treatment sex receives in the media. Mature consensual sex is not forced by rapacious irresistable desire any more than by an external rapist. It is neither rape nor self-rape. Such sexual intimacy embodies a trusting vulnerability and interdependence that is freely chosen—and such trusting vulnerability and interdependence inherently suggests the permanent sharing of lives, soul and body. Therefore, while I do not say that mature consensual sex can only happen within marriage, I do say that mature consensual sex already inherently suggests marriage–and this is surely part of the explanation for why every culture has a form of marriage. Surely sex is safest and most beautiful–and therefore most desirable from the perspective of wisdom–within a context where the understandings of the individual, the couple, and their society concur that the sharing is proper and good, guarded safely by unshakable commitment. 

This marriage-like state of trusting vulnerability and socially endorsed interdependence is of course the ideal and not always the reality–but the ideal is at least a true one. The trust, vulnerability, and interdependence that it calls for are sacred and demand reverence. Sexuality therefore cannot be paraded about in neon gaudiness or engaged in casually without offending due reverence and indeed doing violence. More often than not, the behaviors that follow from such attitudes do violence to actual people as well as to the true ideal that society must guard. Such violence includes the emotional violence of creating a powerful emotional attachment in another person and then discarding that person, only to do the same thing again the next week within another person’s body and soul. It seems like half of today’s pop songs lament precisely this kind of betrayal. And of course, casual sex may do more than to create a powerful emotional attachment–it may create a fatherless baby and a mother who is reduced to choosing between destroying the fetal life of her child, bringing it to birth and then giving it away, or accepting the much narrowed life opportunities that generally come with single motherhood. 

The neon gaudiness also does psychic violence to those who strive, either with or without success, to satisfy all of the culture’s criteria for desirability. The Darwinian contest is already stressful enough without it becoming incessantly center stage in a culture where constant gratification with any consenting partner is deemed a valid end in itself, and constant desirability to all prospective partners is therefore also a valid aim. Making oneself desirable was once considered vanity except to the extent that it aimed, by means consistent with modesty, at attracting a single suitable spouse–a vastly more modest scope for the contest, with an aim attainable for most contestants. That older way was healthier, as suggested by the burgeoning cases of mental health problems related to body image, to say nothing of the billions of dollars sacrificed annually to the idol of beauty, at whose altar thousands of women voluntarily lay their anesthetized bodies down each day below the knife. 

The relative healthfulness of the older way is also suggested by the relative freedom and openness with which an individual’s aesthetic appeal could be discussed in prior centuries without fear of appearing either mean or prurient. If the conversations in Jane Austen novels are any indication, polite company used to be unabashed in discussing with other men and women the beauty or plainness of neighbors and dancers, and could do so intelligently–perhaps because they attached no desperate importance to the judgment, and also perhaps because prurience had not yet entirely overtaken aesthetics in the cultural imagination of bodies. But we now have a society in which teenagers are allowed with few if any barriers to drool over movies of sex for hours at a time, ridiculously hyped up and stylized, but in which they hear hardly any non-sexual commentary on the aesthetics of humans and in which they will characteristically greet any suggestion of parents or grandparents engaging in intimacy with some variation on the theme, “oh gross.”

Finally, in a culture where there is no properly moral check on sexuality and where any particular moral system is suspect the moment it claims authority over anybody disinclined to submit, there is vastly greater risk of various forms of physical violence, such as child pornography and sexual servitude. It is astonishing that this culture, after promoting gratification as an end in itself and deriding moral restraints, can yet profess indignation and surprise when men, who themselves were probably sexually abused and exposed to pornography as children, engage in those few sexual acts (rape, incest, child abuse, possession of child porn, indecent exposure, etc.) that are considered criminal. As Josh has pointed out in a related essay, the World’s uncharitable response to these men (for most offenders are men) is “screw him”–let him rot in jail. And yet Thomas More’s quip about thieves would seem to apply: “For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make [abusers] and then punish them.”

To take sexuality out of its proper context—a harmonious and stable part of a life, a relationship, and a regulating philosophy bigger than the individual or couple’s life—is to make it parasitic, cancerous, violent, and ugly. While some manifestations of the World’s sexuality are uglier than others, it tends almost inevitably towards some degree of violence and ugliness by the very nonsubmission that defines it as Worldly combined with the lust for novelty inherent in the sexual imagination of a pornographic culture. At best this manifests as indulgence in illicit habits, and that is quite bad enough. At worst it results in unspeakable physical and psychic violence. And the World (with breathtaking hypocrisy) judges the Church for judging such a sexuality to be sinful, even as the Church alone extends charity to the vilest of sinners. 

Cancers very properly receive no mercy at the hands of surgeons. But surgeons cannot operate without the consent of their patients. For the World’s unredeemed, distorted, swollen, violent sexuality there is nothing but the pit of hell. Those who participate in it have a choice: stay with it in hell or bow down to the God who saves all his willing children from the hell of their small selves and evil imaginations.

But let me rephrase this in secular terms, for as I have said, I do not limit healthy sexuality to the overtly religious. The choice, rephrased, is whether to acknowledge and submit to the absolute claim morality has on our sexual choices, and to seek help rather than make excuses if one finds oneself unable to do so. My conviction is that the ultimate object of that submission and the ultimate source of any help is God, but others disagree. What I insist on here is that our sexual choices–including how we talk and think about sex, how we dress, and what websites we visit–influences our culture, our spouses and significant others, our actual and prospective children, and numberless other people. It is high time that the World admitted this fact, stopped acting like an insecure teenager, and started attending seriously to the moral duties implied by that influence instead of drinking herself silly with the hard liquor of desire unmoored from meaning. And because indulging sexual desire without moral restraint inherently tends towards violence, for the World to so indulge itself is for it to become drunk with its own blood. 

In the next post, I address the problems posed to healthy sexuality by the Church.

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