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The Purpose of Sex?

A few days ago I saw a news article about how a group of bishops in Canada were encouraging people to reorient how they think about sex. They were, interestingly enough, talking about heterosexual sex, not the homosexual variety that is so often bashed by Christian clergy.

And truth be told I don't necessarily disagree with the basic point: that as a culture we can be a little obsessed with sex. I would add that what we are really obsessed with is controlling other peoples' sex, but I'll leave that point aside. :^P Where the bishops lost me was their insistence that even married people should be focused on procreative sex. They stoop short of saying no anal sex, oral sex, or anything of the kind, but they seem to say that those things should take a back seat to actual procreative sex - vaginal, heterosexual intercourse, presumably without contraception and only between fertile adults. Why? Because procreation is the natural purpose of sex, and other kinds of sex is less than ideal.

I'm familiar with this argument. It's what people usually have in mind when they call homosexuality unnatural. Of course, being familiar doesn't mean that I agree. Quite the opposite. But first things first, the argument itself. As I understand it, it rests on two assumptions:

  1. If something's unnatural, it's immoral.

  2. The natural purpose of sex is to procreate.
    (...... So sex that isn't at least trying to procreate is unnatural.)

Which through the magic of logic proves that any kind of sex that can't lead to procreation is immoral. If you accept the assumptions, and that'a a big if. Aquinas argued for the first one, pulling from Aristotle. He basically said that because the world was created by God, and because to create something you necessarily had to create its causes and the way it affects other things (Aristotle 101), God had to design everything in the world with a certain purpose. Going against that's pretty much the definition of sin. And of course that's wrong.

I'm a Christian. And a medievalist. Even I don't buy that, in the wake of Hume. there's serious philosophical work to be done there, no doubt, and Godspeed to the philosophers working on natural law metaphysics. Because it's a point that really needs to be proved before you apply it to anything, especially a case that affects so many people as this charge that certain types of sexuality are unnatural.

But my skepticism about point #1 is nothing compared to my problems with claim #2. Speaking purely as a Christian - because it's usually the Christians who make this claim, and because Aquinas's argument in defense of #1 depends on a uniquely religious worldview - let's consider this idea that sex is wrong when it can't be procreative.

Jesus had a lot to say in the Sermon on the Mount about the way we should view acts versus emotions behind the acts.

  • You have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not commit murder' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Mt 5:21-22, NASB)

  • You have heard that it was said, '(AK)YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Mt 5:27-28)

The last half of Mt 5 is full of these "You have heard it said... but I say unto you"s. Theologians even have a special name for them, the antitheses. I picked out these two because they show that we are expected not just to control our outward acts but also our inner emotions and longings. I know that changing emotions is long, hard work if not outright impossible. It's what's required, of course. And it's what New Testament Christianity typically emphasizes. I'd say Christians often go too far, saying that heart-conversion is all that's required and good behavior doesn't have to follow. But be that as it may, the Christianity I was raised in always taught that the truly important thing, the kind of thing that made something right or wrong, was the spiritual side of things.

Except with this one thing. Odd, that. With nearly every other issue I can think of, what makes something right or wrong is how it affects the soul. Christians typically appeal to "human dignity," not to the fact that a fetus might be suffering bodily, when condemning abortion. Gender equality is supposed to come from the fact that "there is neither male nor female, for you are one in Christ." Poverty is wrong again because of an assault to human dignity. Of course contemporary Christianity usually falls short of that ideal. No question this is a huge failing. But in every other case I can think of, Christians who challenge a position do so on spiritual grounds.

Except when it comes to sex. Sex is all about making babies. Perhaps it's no accident that this is the one position where Christians usually quote not Jesus or Paul, but Moses.

There are other possible purposes for sex. Purposes like bonding individuals to fulfill our natural (that word again!) inclination toward social living. Or finding philia love, true friendship. Or developing a help-meet partnership, to use the Biblical phrase, because burdens are lightest when shared and that sharing is most complete when two people are bonded in every way possible. Or simply forging a bond that is physical as well as spiritual, honoring the fact that humans are not purely spiritual but have bodies as well.

And the great thing about these other purposes? They're open to the infertile. To the post-menopausal. To the homosexual. To those who for whatever reason can't provide a good home for a child.


Full disclosure: while I consider myself heterosexual, I'm not married or in anything resembling a serious relationship, and I'm okay with that. It's not the kind of relationship I'm driven to develop at the moment.

So why is sexuality so important? Because love matters. In all its many varied forms.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 11th, 2011 01:19 am (UTC)
What I find interesting about those who are most vocal about the notion that sex is ONLY for making babies are usually those who are most vocal that everything in the Bible is to be taken literally.

And yet the notion that sex is ONLY for making babies is nowhere said in the Bible. We are told that "adultery"-- i.e. violating one's vows of faithfulness to cleave only to one is wrong.

But we are not told that not making babies is wrong.

Feb. 12th, 2011 10:45 pm (UTC)
Catholics aren't generally Bible-as-literal advocates -- they mostly let the church scholars decide how to apply revealed truth in everyday situations -- but they're consistently big believers in this procreative-sex-is-best (only?) argument. Is one major reason why I can't be Catholic.
Feb. 15th, 2011 02:00 am (UTC)
Playing devil's advocate, there is the sin of Onan (Genesis 38), where Onan is criticized for "spilling his seed" rather than impregnating his brother's wife. There are a million ways of interpreting this and I don't necessarily think this is referring to any old masturbation. But one could say this is a Biblical precedent against sexual activity that you know can't possibly lead to procreation.

That said - yes. I quite agree. It's a strangely unbiblical thing to get caught up on. If it is in the Bible, it's nowhere near as explicit as other Biblical injunctives. Like for example loving your neighbor, attending to your own sins rather than another's, and not shunning the sinful.
Feb. 11th, 2011 01:20 am (UTC)
It drives me crazy that people are supposed to be sexual beings but with all these caveats. Sex is different every time. It can be playful, it can be serious, it can be damaging, it can be healing, etc.

I also think that limiting sex to one thing is problematic. We use our hands for all kinds of different activities. Why can't one "act" symbolize different meanings as well?

(I am also thinking of breastfeeding and how people get all hot in the pants about a woman breastfeeding in public but they think nothing of a woman practically showing off her naked body in a skimpy swimsuit).
Feb. 15th, 2011 02:21 am (UTC)
Your point about breastfeeding is very well put, because it showcases how the same thing (breasts) can be used for two different purposes in different contexts. I quite agree - sex can mean different things in different situations.

I am pretty conservative in my views on casual sex, but that's just because I recognize that sex is powerful (at least for someone with my upbringing). I'm not in the wait-until-marriage camp or anything, I just recognize that sex for a lot of people (me included) would involve a lot of emotional trust you don't want to give to just anyone. But I get that not everyone would view it that way, and I certainly think it's the height of hubris to think I can define an experience like this for everyone else!
Feb. 15th, 2011 03:03 am (UTC)
The thing I think about casual sex is that sex does link you to someone and it can cloud your judgment about a relationship. I think that sex is powerful for most people, whether or not they are willing to admit it.
Feb. 11th, 2011 02:13 am (UTC)
Sex as purely procreative in purpose and the designation of any other type of sex as "lesser' fly in the face of human evolutionary biology.
Feb. 15th, 2011 02:32 am (UTC)
I know you're off to your conference, but I'd be interested to hear more about this. I had always heard that sex-as-procreative came from the fact that any other kind of sex would be biologically counterproductive. Is there an evolutionary advantage to having some sex be non-reproductive?
Feb. 17th, 2011 10:44 pm (UTC)
I'm not Pande, so forgive me for replying, but the answer to your question is clearly yes. Take a look at bonobos for a good example - they have sex CONSTANTLY, because they use sexual contact as a way of reconciling after quarrels and diffusing tensions within the group. A group-living animal can't afford to have its group destroyed by tensions between individuals within the group spiraling out of control, so all that bonobo non-procreative sex is quite functional, even if it's not making any babies. The process of evolution often takes a behavior and adapts it to serve more than one important function. Another good example is eating. In humans, eating generally serves more than one purpose. It provides nutrition for our bodies, but we also use it as a way of reinforcing group bonds (the family meal, communal feasts, routinely serving food at parties, etc.). If eating was just about getting nutrition, we wouldn't spend so much of our eating time in the company of others. Most other animals fight over food; they don't share it. Think of how odd human society would look if the social aspects of our eating were non-existent, and we ate only to get calories! But using food consumption for more than one important purpose is evolutionary thrifty; since we have to eat anyway in order to keep our bodies alive, why not kill two birds with one stone and couple eating with another critically important function? We eat to be social AND we eat for the calories; the two are not mutually exclusive. Eating's not simply one thing.

Sex in humans serves at least two purposes: production of young, and reinforcement and strengthening of the pair bond between the couple. Since without that strong pair bond the young human would die, all that non-procreative sex is ultimately just as important in the evolutionary scheme of things as the rare baby-making sexual event! Sex in humans, like eating, is about more than one thing simultaneously. Most of the Bible-thumpers simply don't seem to understand that.
Feb. 11th, 2011 03:24 am (UTC)
I agree with all of the above and have nothing much else to add, not now anyway.
Feb. 15th, 2011 03:12 am (UTC)
*grins* Thanks for letting me know you agree.
Feb. 12th, 2011 10:42 pm (UTC)
I happen to be in a long-term committed monogamous relationship that has produced offspring. How dip-shitty myopic would it be of me to tell everyone who isn't me that they shouldn't get to experience orgasm every once in a while? Good grief, classical (Thomist) metaphysics!
Feb. 15th, 2011 03:13 am (UTC)
Where is Facebook's "like" link when you really need it? I agree, completely.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )



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