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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.

Comments

pandemonium_213
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.
marta_bee
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?
ithilwen
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.

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