The Reality of Sex

It was my privilege to give a public lecture at the University of British Columbia recently on the question, “Why Are Christians Against Sexual Freedom?” I haven’t spoken on quite this subject before, so I enjoyed preparing for it partly so I could think about the question a little more clearly than I had previously. Here’s the gist of what I said, and I’ll be glad if you can clarify my thinking still further:

Some Christians Are, Indeed, Against Sex: Some Christian teachers have taught the superiority of lifelong celibacy. Some Christians have taken out their own confusions and frustrations and traumas on others by speaking of sex as a Bad Thing to be avoided if possible and endured if necessary. Yes, some Christians are against sex, so they’re certainly against sexual freedom. But that’s not all there is to say.

Christians Aren’t Against Sex: In fact, the very first chapter of the Christian Scriptures contains the very first command of God to the very first human beings, and it’s this: Have sex. Indeed, have lots of it (Genesis 1:28). The world, God says, is fresh and wild and good. It’s now yours to look after, and it’ll take more than you two (Adam and Eve) to do it. In fact, the planet will take a planet-full of human beings to bring it under cultivation (“subdue it,” “have dominion,” etc.). So (ahem) get busy.

Sexual relations are celebrated in an entire book of the Bible, The Song of Solomon, and celebrated so graphically that Jewish and Christian commentators throughout history have tried to distract us with spiritual allegories so that we won’t stare at all the eyes and hands and breasts featured therein. And, to be sure, sexual imagery sometimes is used in the Bible to depict the relationship of God and Israel.

No, Christians aren’t against sex.

Christians Aren’t Against Freedom: Indeed, the Christian religion is a religion predicated on freedom. Adam and Eve choose in the Garden of Eden, and we’ve been choosing ever since. Our decisions matter, which is why Christianity keeps telling us to make good ones, and especially the Most Important One of choosing to put God in the centre of our lives, where God belongs.

Christians Aren’t Against Sexual Freedom: Yes, often Christians have imposed their sexual preferences on everyone else when we had the political power to do so. We thought it was in everybody’s best interest to be compelled to act the way we thought everyone should.

Most Christians today, however, recognize the pluralism of our societies and the importance of letting people make free choices and sort themselves out before God. So most Christians are in favour of sexual freedom in terms of the criminal code and civil sanctions, even as we want to preserve the freedom of every individual or community to maintain its particular view as to what constitutes healthy and helpful sexuality.

So what are Christians against?

Christians Are Against Sexual Exploitation: Christians are against any exploitation, of course, so we’re against any action that victimizes someone in the sexual sphere as well. We’re against rape, but also against any other kind of coercive sexual behaviour, including sexual harassment.

We’re also against sexual exploitation of those too young to make a responsible decision regarding sexual behaviour, so we support laws limiting sexual relations involving minors. We also want to protect anyone else, such as those with mental or psychological difficulties that would keep them from making good decisions in this zone.

As for everyone else . . .

Christians Are Against Sexual Confusion: Our society is both crazy and conflicted about sex.

We’re crazy about it in the sense that we are preoccupied with it and exploit each other’s preoccupation with it. Consider your morning commute. Count the number of sexual messages you receive—from the music on your iPod or car CD player, from the radio, from billboards, from bumper stickers, from bus advertisements—between home and school or work. We don’t devote the same attention to, say, food, or politics, or anything.

But we’re deeply conflicted about sex, too. At one and the same time, our society repeats to us the contradiction that sex is no big deal and that sex is the most important thing in the world. Sex is recreational and sex is required. Sex is just another activity to round out a pleasant Saturday and sex is something without which you become pathetic and finally insane.

We ourselves become delusional about sex, and in this one crucial respect: We keep thinking that sex can be just what we want it to be, rather than what it is.

If we want it to be merely recreational, then that’s all it should be. If we want it to be romantically meaningful, then it’s now supposed to be that. If we want it to foster intimacy, then it should produce that result. If we want it to heal an otherwise shattered relationship, then it should have that magical ability.

Christian teaching, however, is more realistic than that. Indeed, it is literally “realist” in the sense that it sees sex as an actual something, a given reality that is not infinitely plastic but is instead a particular thing that we had better clearly recognize for what it is so we can deal with it properly.

We might buy a car and intend it to get us around and make us happy while it does so, without us having to fuss with it at all. But it needs gas, oil, maintenance, and other basic upkeep, and our preferring that it didn’t need those inconvenient and costly things won’t keep us from running out of gas or having the engine seize up in the middle of highway. It is what it is, and wishing otherwise don’t make it so.

Narcotics are great gifts to patients recovering from surgery and soldiers enduring battlefield wounds. But narcotics are killers if used merely recreationally. They are what they are, and preferring to believe that heroin isn’t addictive or that cocaine can be simply a “lifestyle enhancer” doesn’t change what narcotics inevitably, inexorably do.

Most basically, sex joins. Sex unifies. The second chapter of the Bible uses a pretty obvious metaphor for the first marriage: “the two become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Sex, that is, marries one person to another. Most cultures around the world recognize this fact (for fact it is). No matter how elaborate their wedding rituals, no matter the power of the vows they take and the pronouncements made over them, the couple isn’t truly married until they have sex. Sex joins.

What connects us therefore results in injury when we pull away, when the relationship ends. Couples don’t just “go their separate ways,” except in the sense of two parts of a fractured bone “going their separate ways.” Couples break up. They were joined, and now they’re not. And that’s trauma.

This principle explains why sex can hurt us even when it’s good, even when it’s really, really fun and exciting and mutual. I read of a man who testified that he and a girlfriend he was with for a number of months had terrific sex. But eventually they broke up and he later married someone else. He loved his wife then and loves her now, and they have several children together in a strong and happy marriage. And yet, he says, from time to time he is haunted by those memories—not just because the day-to-day, year-to-year life of marriage can’t be lived in the white heat of a brief fling or even extended courtship or you’d never get anything done around the house (!), but because that period of hot sex joined those two people in a way that simply couldn’t be easily walked away from and forgotten. Thrilling as it was then, it is a burden to him now.

Sex, therefore, is a particular kind of something, not whatever we prefer it to be. And the definition of mental health is dealing with reality properly as it is, not as we wish it were.

God tells us that sex is good and we are free to engage in it. God also tells us, however, that full-on, naked, total sex is reserved for the one relationship that is full-on, naked, and total: marriage. That’s the only context in which the mystical unitive power of sex can do its work without damage, namely, in the one relationship that is all about lifelong union.

Having sexual intercourse outside marriage, therefore, is like misusing Crazy Glue. You’re not supposed to pull apart what you’ve bonded together, and when you do, damage inevitably results.

The “sex only in marriage” rule isn’t, therefore, some weird, totally arbitrary rule God made up just so we’d have something to practice self-control on. No, it’s a frank statement of the way things are: the way we are and the way sex is. We ignore it or flout it in the same stupid way in which we ignore our car’s owner’s manual or flout our physician’s advice. We’re free to do it, of course, and we’re free to suffer the consequences.

Lots of questions about this important and complicated area remain, of course. I don’t pretend to have said all that needs to be said. And have I always practiced what I preach? No, alas, I’m a sinner, too.

But it seems to me that we do well to start here, at the most basic level of definition. Sex is a good thing. Amen! But it is a particular thing, not just whatever we want it to be. And we will enjoy it and benefit from it best if we both make the effort to understand it and then make the effort to use it properly.

That sounds awfully serious and adult and responsible, doesn’t it?

You got that right.

0 Responses to “The Reality of Sex”

  1. Kim Boldt

    An (good!) argument for the unitive power of sex. Well done. I’m wondering why the procreative aspect of sex isn’t mentioned. It seems to me our culture is at least as distorted about the procreative function of sex as it is about the unitive function. We hardly equate sex w/ babies anymore, at least not positively (unless you want one, and then there’s no limit). The procreative part of sexual reality is another given that our culture ignores – with horrific consequences. And what striking to me is that even among Christians, linking sex w/ procreation as if the two should go together (rather than being optional, like your car’s sunroof), is often deeply offensive. Odd, I think, when it used to be one of the most basic givens.

  2. Steve W.

    Great post! I work with teenagers and it’s great to get some more rational and realistic arguments as to why sex is a big deal (and a good thing) and should be thought of as such.
    As for the procreative aspect, Dr. Stackhouse mentions it near the start of the post when he writes:
    In fact, the planet will take a planet-full of human beings to bring it under cultivation (”subdue it,” “have dominion,” etc.). So (ahem) get busy.

  3. Brandon Blake

    Just wondering. In the ancient world, wasn’t marriage defined by the beginning of sexual intercourse? Today we have “common law marriages” (many of which break up because they have no support systems in place)–but one thing they are not, is promiscuous or casual. Ultimately we (the Church) should encourage such relationships toward marriage but that means getting involved in others lives. For some of us, that might be too much work.

  4. on the walk » the unitive power of sex

    […] John Stackhouse just posted a great article about sex.  In it he argues that part of our culture’s problem with sex is that we are not realistic enough about what sex is.  He argues that sex is something quite apart from whatever we may wish it to be and that even though many of us wish that sex were many different things and act as if it were many different things, it remains what it is. […]

  5. Jerry

    What do you think about second marriages, be it after a previous spouse dying or a previous marriage dying? Will the memories of the first marriage always be a “burden” or “haunting”? Or can they also be delightful memories of our past that resulted in painful change, like many changes in our lives?

    And if second marriages are embraced as a good thing, can second relationships (sexually active) also be embraced as a good thing?

    Also, apart socio-political advantages, is “marriage” just additional semantics to a committed relationship?

    I noticed you didn’t address the controversial subject of homosexuality.

  6. Glenn

    Excellent article! Christians Are Against Sexual Exploitation is a great point! I have also heard others place pre-marital sex in a social justice context. Many men are “players” with no plans to commit to the women they use, no plans to be a father to the children they create, etc. I’m not sure why the majority of evangelicals refuse to face this issue head on?

  7. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for these good comments. As for the questions on related matters, I’ll just say that I confined myself to make one basic point–which is what one post should do, right?

    Kim, for instance, pooh-poohs the idea that sex doesn’t have to go with procreation by linking it with car options. Well, brother, I think it’s not quite as easy as that. Genesis 2, for instance, makes no mention of kids in its description of sex as metaphor (and facilitator) of marriage. So I agree that procreation needs to be part of the overall understanding of sex, to be sure, but perhaps not in the “always” way you seem to indicate.

    Jerry raises a host of related matters, some of them more immediately relevant than others. I’ll just remark that, given my understanding that sex within marriage has a different, proper context than sex without, my guess is that the impact on second sexual relationships does depend indeed on the nature of the first. But I don’t have either experience or theoretical knowledge of this situation, so I shan’t comment further.

    As for homosexuality, I’m not making any special point about it because there is no special point to make about it in this context. The Biblical ideal of marriage is one man and one woman in lifelong commitment. Anything other than that covenant is the wrong context for sexual intercourse.

    Thanks to the others for raising a number of helpful complementary points.

  8. Jeff Loach

    John, I don’t think I can remember reading a more relevant, succinct and biblical explanation of the Christian view of sex. I trust it provoked much thought in the original audience, and beyond via your blog.

    Well done!

  9. Rev. C. Mark Ealy

    Thank you for this well-written article. I’m writing a book entitled, “Saving Our Genitals.” I am intrigued by how far away we have wandered from the natural function of sex as segue to spirit. When two people are attracted to each other, the attraction is really at soul level (although they usually think physical attributes brought them together). As their bonding deepens, a sexual union is a natural conveyor to carry them from the material level to the spiritual level. (I do not say this in a religious sense, but I mean from matter to non-matter.) Obviously, this sacred transformative union cannot happen with one-night stands. It requires time for development.

    The problem, though, is that we don’t live in a perfect system. Most of us come to the sexual table with a lot of brokenness. That brokenness comes from family traumas, problems in our communities and even abuse in our churches. Once we have been broken, some remediation must occur in order for us to “show up” appropriately at the table of sexuality.

    Everything that we do should show forth the Glory of God. Sex is no exception. And yet I know of very few people who feel comfortable praising God while having intercourse. We’ve got a lot of work to do…

  10. Houghton G.

    Dr. Stackhouse, no. 11. This is called the argumentum ex silentio, one of the weakest forms of reasoning. That the Scriptures do not mention procreation when they use marriage and sexuality as a metaphor might just be because until 1930, no one, and I mean no one questioned the intrinsic link between the two. (In 1930 the Anglicans defected from the consensus and were condemned for it by the mainstream press in the form of a Washington Post editorial–which indicates that there was virtual unanimity about sex being intrinsically oriented to making babies.) Did people before 1930s sometimes engage in sexual intercourse with the contraceptives (crude condoms, coitus interruptus) available to them? Yes. Did they consider it unusual and against the grain? Yes.

    And then there’s the explicit Scripture about coitus interruptus, you know, Onan.

    You are absolutely correct about the intrinsic personal union established by sexual intimacy. You just left out the other half of the intrinsic meaning of the sexual act–babies. Yes, I know that after menopause, babies are impossible. It still involves the baby-making system of our bodies and even if naturally terminated, the overtones of both baby-making and union-making are there.

    It’s odd, because your argument is that even though people try to suppress the unitive meaning so they can have casual and pre-marital and extra-marital recreational sex, the pre-marital flings come back to haunt people later, indicating an intrinsic unitive meaning in the sheer physical act. Well, even though people try to deny and repress the intrinsic baby-making meaning, it’s there. It simply is. Denial only makes things worse. You made the case for the unitive function but deny it for the procreative function.

    I’m sorry,

  11. John Stackhouse

    I don’t follow some of your arguments, Hougton G.

    The argument from silence is not conclusive, obviously, but for those who want to claim that the Bible clearly views procreation as intrinsic to sexual intercourse and marriage, it’s worth noticing that absence in one of the most basic texts regarding sex and marriage in the Scripture.

    The argument from Onan is irrelevant, since Onan was condemned for the particular sin of failing to provide heirs for his dead brother, not for coitus interruptus per se.

    The argument that everyone who had sex before 1930 with any sort of contraception considered it “unusual and against the grain” strikes me as a claim difficult to document (to put it mildly).

    The main thing, though, is that I freely grant that procreation obviously is linked with sexual intercourse. I never denied it is.

    My post instead focuses on the irreducible core of sexual relationship, that which is intrinsic to every sexual act, namely, the uniting of persons in the linking of bodies. Procreation is not part of that core, since sex can be engaged in by infertile couples, couples practicing birth control, homosexual couples, and so on.

    Thus to insist on discussing procreation whenever we talk about sex is to muddy the waters. I’m trying to make a basic, clear point, and I don’t see it being helped by adding this other matter to the mix.

  12. Houghton G.

    Let me try again.

    Even when infertile or postmenopausal couples engage in the sexual act it is their reproductive systems, not their digestive systems, that are set in motion. Period.

    The setting in motion of their reproductive systems produces physical, emotional and personal (uniting of persons) results. Conversely, the personal decision of a man and a woman to engage in the sexual act results in the putting into gear of the reproductive systems, not digestive systems.

    The fallacy in your reasoning is to substitute a procreative outcome for procreative meaning. Yes, the sexual act can be engaged in without resulting in procreation. But it cannot be engaged in without putting into gear the procreative systems. That our procreative systems are naturally sometimes infertile (and in some couples, by defect, always infertile–the exception that proves the rule) does not make them into digestive systems. They remain procreative systems even if naturally or by defect they do not result in actual procreation.

    One might think that, while the procreative meaning is never absent, the personal unitive meaning might on occasion be absent. Of course, you rightly point out that even in the limited personal unitive situation of sex without marital promise, some kind of unitive meaning remains and comes back to haunt the person later. That is quite clearly the sort of thing St. Paul meant by saying that even with a prostitute some sort of “one flesh” union has taken place.

    But what about rape? Is there any subterranean unitive meaning there? There is a very strong procreative meaning and it is the source of much of the emotional trauma (by no means all of the trauma) that accompanies rape. The female victim on some level fears procreative consequences.

    However, I would argue and you might agree that in a negative sense the rape victim’s feelings of being personally violated confirm the deep level of unitive meaning is present even there.

    So, could we perhaps agree that both the procreative and the unitive meanings are always already present, at least at a very deep level. Your point about the hidden unitive meaning is perfectly correct and I applaud you for making it. I just think you fail to see that the procreative meaning is just as much present. Which, of course, is what the Catholic Church has always argued.

    But so too did all Protestants before 1930. I’m sorry, but it’s eminently evident that a broad consensus on the intrinsic linking of sex and procreation existed before the campaign to dissociate them gathered steam (Margaret Sanger, the Anglican bolting from the consensus, in a very limited way, then the Pill in the 1960s etc.).

    Of course, there were plenty of people, mostly men, perhaps, but not excluding women, who wished fervently that sexual intercourse could be severed from its inherent procreative meaning–some out of a desire for consequence-free physical pleasure, others out of romantic (but warped because extramarital) unitive desires for a partner not their spouse. But that’s exactly why the world’s literature makes so much of such liasons–precisely because everyone just “knew” that sex and procreation were intrinsically linked, they found it so frustrating to desire that they might be separated.

    As an aside, your exegesis of Onan won’t really work. If sexual intercourse had not been intrinsically linked with procreation, then he would not have had to resort to coitus interruptus to avoid raising up an heir. Yes, he sinned because he did not wish to raise up an heir. But he must have desired the physical pleasure (and perhaps emotional, perhaps even unitive personal pleasure?) of sexual intercourse with the woman, yet it conflicted with his wish not to make a baby and heir for his brother. If all he cared about was not making a baby, all he had to do was abstain from sex with the woman. But because, for whatever reason, he wished to put his and her reproductive-sexual systems in gear while at the same time wishing not to procreate, he contracepted.

    Would God have struck him dead had he simply abstained? That way he would have achieved his (by your exegesis) goal of not raising up an heir. We’ll never know, since he chose to put into gear his reproductive system then blocked its outcome.

    But that’s the point. The obvious fact that sexual intercourse is intrinsically procreative (as well as intrinsically unitive) is demonstrated by contra-ception: precisely because we know that the act is inherently procreative, if we wish not to procreate (unless by natural female cycle, defect of infertility or by the natural process in which the reproductive cells x times out of y acts do not result in a baby) we have to take positive action to block the procreative outcome. That seems to me to be prima facie evidence that we know very well that the act has procreative meaning as well as unitive meaning. And this holds so much so that even if a couple are fairly sure the woman is in her infertile portion of the cycle they often will still contracept (if they don’t wish to become pregnant), just to be safe. Even those who practice “natural family planning” and who pinpoint the phases of the cycle very precisely know that it’s possible to be “surprised” and are ready to accept a baby.

    As you rightly pointed out, even when sexual intercourse takes place with limited personal unitive dimension (premarital sex, one-night-stands, emotionle

  13. Houghton G.

    Sorry, the last three lines were a leftover fragment. Ignore.

  14. Houghton G.

    I need to address this one paragraph better than I did:

    You wrote: “My post instead focuses on the irreducible core of sexual relationship, that which is intrinsic to every sexual act, namely, the uniting of persons in the linking of bodies. Procreation is not part of that core, since sex can be engaged in by infertile couples, couples practicing birth control, homosexual couples, and so on.”

    You left out one word. “Rightly”: “. . . since sex can be engaged in by infertile copules, couples practicing birth control, homosexual couples, . . .”

    “Engaged in,” to be sure. But “rightly engaged in”–ah, there’s the rub. You assume a priori that because such couples can mechanically put into gear their reproductive systems (which produces physical and other pleasures), they do so rightly, morally, naturally.

    But a man can put into gear his reproductive system by masturbating or doing the act with a beast. If he does, does he do so morally? Where to draw the line?

    Male and female reproductive systems are physically complementary. Their procreative meaning arises therefrom. At certain points in their lives, depending on cycles, their sexual intercourse can actually result in a baby, at other times, natural and healthy cycles mean the act does not issue in a baby but the procreative meaning is still present. Menopause is just one aspect of the natural cycle of the female reproductive system and for a man and woman after menopause, the reproductive meaning is still present in the joining of complementary reproductive systems intertwined with unitive meaning. (If they are deeply alienated, engaging in intercourse–because of its inherent unitive meaning, in this case contradicted by their actual alienation, is unwise because it will only deepen the alienation.)

    The other forms you mentioned (to which I added two more) involve one sex’s reproductive system set in gear without being complemented by the other sex (or in the case of bestiality, by a non-human, hence non-complementary system). They would be morally illegitimate because unnatural.

    This, of course, presumes that male and female human beings are complementary both fundamentally biologically and personal-unitively. You may dispute the latter; if the latter is not a fundamental truth then the way is open for legitimate solo-sex or same-sex.

    But these are the issues that need to be resolved. Simply to say that a man or woman can activate his or her reproductive system in all sorts of ways that sometimes can and sometimes absolutely cannot issue in a baby and therefore such activations are proof that procreative meaning does not lie at the core of the sexual act begs the question whether all activations of the reproductive system are morally licit.

  15. John Stackhouse

    A brief response to Houghton G.’s interesting further posts:

    1. If you refer to sex organs as “reproductive systems,” which you do quite consistently, then your point is made by definition! But I don’t think that’s the best way to put things, so refer to the items in question as sex organs, not reproductive organs–even though, of course, they normally function in both respects. Notice, however, that these are two respects, while your terminology (“reproductive organs”) allows for just one.

    I continue, therefore, to think that the primary function of sexual intercourse is to express marriage, and the secondary, but obviously related, function is procreation. It follows, therefore, that a sexual act that the couple decides will not be procreative is not intrinsically deficient by my account, but seems to be by yours. I expect you therefore have a view regarding birth control (namely, don’t practice it) that I do not share. Sexual intercourse can be a perfectly legitimate act whether or not that act is open to conception.

    2. As for my list of sexual possibilities beyond a fertile couple, my point was not a moral one–that is, not to legitimate these options–but rather to remark on the nature of the case: the “reality of sex” that unites, whether in fact the sexual union in question is morally correct or not. I have quite traditional views on what does and doesn’t count as morally correct sexual intercourse, but that’s not in question here.

    Thanks for letting us see, then, a quite different point of view, even if, at the end, we disagree.

  16. Houghton G.

    Dr. Stackhouse, your reasoning is a priori. You delink sexual intercourse from reproduction and thereby are able to label genitalia as “sex organs” and remove them from the reproductive system.

    But in the act of sexual intercourse, the entire reproductive system is activated. Period. Semen contains sperm. These cells’ have an intrinsic reproductive nature. The semen is designed to be deposited–unless artificially blocked or destroyed–in a female organ designed to conduce the sperm toward the woman’s reproductive cells. Yes, at certain points in the woman’s cycle or in the case of defective sperm count or motility reproduction does not result. But these organs are, prima facie, designed for reproduction not for digestion or excretion or sight. When activated they also have a second, equally important function, since male-female mating carries with it all the personal unitive aspects you enunciated in your original article.

    But simply be relabeling them “sex organs” you accomplish little. The starting point of our dispute is whether sex has an intrinsic reproductive purpose or not. I say it does. So you can relabel them as sex organs and I will insist they are, qua sex organs, reproductive as well as unitive. Since you say sex is not intrinsically reproductive, your relabeling works for you, but only because of your presupposition.

    So we are back to square one. To me, however, it’s pretty hard to argue that sperm cells are not intrinsically reproductive. And sexual intercourse involving males always involves sperm. Even in lesbian mutual masturbation a whole series of actions designed to assist the sperm to reach the point of fertilization are set in motion–even there it is the woman’s reproductive system that is involved, though unnaturally and defectively because of the absence of the male half of the process.

    Yes, we end up disagreeing. It seems to me, however, that empirical evidence supports my position whereas yours rests on an a priori, empirically false, assumption.

    But I won’t prolong this.


  17. Brandon Blake

    Let me see if I can add to the confusion 😉

    Both parties have admitted here that one can have sex without the procreation. Even if one does not artificially “block” the procreative process the use of the rythm method for birth control takes advantage of NATURE’S SCHEME and we normally don’t view this as having somehow cheapened love, procreation or parenthood. In other words, this has been a successful attempt to separate the sex act from the procreative meaning without intentionally doing so. Would you agree with this Houghton G?

  18. Eric

    Excellent post John

    Having worked for many years with couples in ministry, I think your point about the unitive power of sex cannot be overemphasized.

    We see it particularly in the primary given role of sex, procreative, when the one flesh produces One Flesh, A human being who is then quite literally, torn apart when parents ‘go their separate ways’

    Bodies are Worlds
    We are more than flesh and blood

    Thanks once more for this post

  19. Sheila Rivers

    Thank you for these observations. Glad to see such explicit
    ideals for married sex.


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