Unraveling Sex

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SEX. What is it?

Not the literal definition, I know that, thank you very much. And I hope if you’re reading this, you do too.

In the more philosophical sense, what is sex? What is its purpose? And the all-consuming question: is it a need or a desire? Over the next few posts, I’d like to attempt to tackle those questions. Or, at least begin a dialogue. Something so fundamental to who we are as humans, and our existence, cannot be easily summarized in a few hundred words.

Is it sacred? Is it free? Is it dirty? Is it casual or is it serious business?

“Sex is Free”

One of the cornerstones to the 1960s Sexual Revolution was that sex should be freely enjoyed by everyone. It promoted sex without constraints, without boundaries of relationships (i.e. marriage), without expectations that there would be a further commitment. Coupled with the advent of The Pill, it seemed that sex and momentary pleasure could finally be separated from responsibility or consequences.

In society’s mind, we came to view sex as an act that could be wholly separated from any of the moral, social, or physical restraints by which it had been defined. We were free to give and receive sex as we interpreted it. If you wanted it to have significance, then it could. But if you wanted it to be casual, then you were free to do that as well.

By setting sex ‘free,’ we thought we had set ourselves free.

“Sex is dirty. Sex is sacred”

Swinging the pendulum to the other extreme, the Church (and by this I mean Catholics and Protestants) have often come off as portraying sex as this dirty thing that you save for marriage. You don’t talk about it, you don’t think about it, and then magically, sex is meant to transform into a wonderful and sacred experience, primarily for producing children. Partner enjoyment seems to be a secondary benefit, if at all.

I’m exaggerating slightly, but if you were to ask today’s youth what impression they’ve been given, I’d say I’m fairly close. Some of you might now be sputtering that in fact official Church teaching (i.e. Theology of the Body by Pope John Paul II) is very positive about sex, sexuality, and the body. I realize that. I’m referring not to what should be taught, but rather to the current impression and image.

The former understanding of sex demotes it to a purely physical act.

By doing so, it also dehumanizes the individuals involved by reducing them to the sum of their physical desires, stripping them of any emotional or even spiritual aspects. If we are merely bodies made up of physical matter, then sex is no more significant then a game of tennis. Fun, exciting, and great exercise, sex won’t affect us on any deep level.

If that were true, then those having the most sex with the greatest number of people should be the happiest.

Yet John Marshall Townsend, a professor at Syracuse University, author of What Women Want—What Men Want and Associate Editor of Archives of Sexual Behavior, has done numerous studies with results that seem to fly in the face of this notion that sex is purely physical and therefore free. Townsend's studies seem to indicate that women who engage in casual sex typically express feelings of emotionally vulnerable, in addition to anxiety about their partner’s willingness to commit. Having more partners doesn't drive those feelings away, it actually makes them worse. This is true even among women with liberal sexual morality.

The latter view of sex as dirty and then magically sacred sets individuals up as angels.

Sex is either a desecration of the body or so elevated that it must only serve a high purpose of procreation. To be enjoyed physically is to somehow devalue us as humans, making us carnal beings controlled by physical desires. It offers an understanding of sex that seems both unattainable and out of touch with our reality. People are having sex all the time and as of yet, I don’t know any of them that have erupted into flames.

Both understandings of sex are wanting, because they inadequately describe us as individuals.

One denies that we have the capacity to be impacted on a deeply emotional and spiritual level, the other denies our very real physical existence.

How then, are we to properly understand sex?

Tune in next week for the answer to that question, or you can sign up here to get it delivered directly to your Inbox.

Photo courtesy of mybrownbaby.com