The Purpose of Sex (Excerpt)
Many proffer notions as to what constitutes the purpose of sex; what constitutes the divine telos of Eros. And in this, one must clarify the nature of Eros. In my youth, I recall with continentalist resentment, the European castigation of North Americans for reducing Eros to mere sexuality. Lamentably, they may have a point. A recent Atlantic Monthly article is reflective of a common American opinion (“eros, Greek word for passionate, sexual love”1). However, as Plato indicates in his “Symposium”; C.S. Lewis delineates in his “The Four Loves”; Nygren expounds in his “Eros and Agape”; and Shakespeare intimates in his sonnets; Eros extends well beyond its physical manifestation. It is desire and delight to be in the presence of and attached to the sublimely beautiful and excellent; however that is defined; but pristinely, at the level of mind, heart and character. From there, in the context of spousal lovers, Eros flows down to sexual passions. A decadent society is one that begins at a lower base of understanding and appreciation. It is a reason why I cannot be bothered going to Stratford (Ontario) for Shakespeare’s romantic romps. The scientistic may speak of sex in terms of sensory pleasure and physical well-being under the regime of an evolutionary Procreative Imperative, governed by the Selfish Gene. The psychological professionals may enumerate physiological/psychological benefits, sense of well-being, self-esteem, connectedness etc.
The largest institutions within Christendom, taking their cues more from Athenian philosophy and Roman Republican moralism than from Jerusalem, likewise promote a functionalist Procreative Imperative (and familial and communal health) as primary purpose, while giving a perfunctory nod toward “unitive purposes”; intellectualist language, which could only be posited by armchair onlookers than by experiential veterans of healthy conjugal love.
The artistic aesthetic will express or exploit humanity’s transcendent yearning to be united with physical beauty and to enjoy Eros in celebratory freedom. Disciples of Ayn Rand will reduce lovers to reflections of their self-worth; Mad Men and low-brow hip hop artists as adornments of success; even lower-brow PUAs, as measures of an infantile masculinity. And super-spiritual theologians will trumpet obscure abstractions that “God’s own glory is the ultimate purpose of sex, and all sexual morality must be measured by its ability to achieve that end.”2
There is direct correction between a person’s philosophical assumptions and his perspective on Eros, whether those assumptions are consistent and coherent or not. But there is also loose correlation between a person’s perspective and his walk of life and occupation. And one harm of the ever increasing technical specialization, (which serves the ‘System’ far more than the individual), and away from a more holistic classical education, is proclivity towards a myopic vision on life and on Eros.
If one esteems and hungers after true Eros; never marry a scientist! That may overstate the case. And it is not so much science and its epistemology that snuffs the Eros out of Eros. Rather, the philosophical pretentions with its materialist perspective, which predominate in scientific disciplines, undermine and destroy the beauty, the poetry and the metaphorical significance of sexual expression. If one perceives that our qualia (subjective conscious experience) are mere products, even spandrels of physiological processes in an uncaring and purposeless cosmos, one must excel in the existentialist art of self-delusion that the rubbing of flesh is anything more than the mere satisfaction of physiological urges.
Because of parental abdication of responsibility, I tasted my first knowledge of sex at eleven in the barren ugliness of scientific exposition of its plumbing mechanics. Chastity balls and ‘just say no’ campaigns cannot produce a greater anti-aphrodisiac to libido than the desolate sex, taught by technocratic wonks.
There is much to warrant in the procreative aspects of sexuality. For spouses, still in the exuberance of initial mutual passion; the idea of ‘creating’ a shared love child; albeit produced by the equivalence of throwing buckets of paint against a blank canvas; cannot help but further endear these spouses to one another. Perhaps sentiments, deemed perverted by the perverted; being a conduit by which life comes into being, is extraordinarily arousing. And if inculcated, one might even be able to look upon one’s child and recall the moment of pleasurable throb by which that child eventually came to be.
However, by exalting baby making, it thereby denigrates marriage and sex to functionalist duty for purposes outside of itself, whether for reasons of state or to ameliorate ecclesiastic pathologies. And history has already demonstrated the travesty of Romanist logic; with priestly prurient intrusion into the confidentiality of the private marriage bed; of penitentials condemning all but prescribed sexual positions on prescribed ‘holy’ days for prescribed purposes. And when healthy Eros is repressed, it re-emerges in deviant forms of sexuality.
It cannot be denied that a ‘Glory of God’ transcendence dwells within the Act of Marriage. But contained within obscurant pontifications by Evangelical theologians is an agenda, which neglects and circumvents the actual good of marriage, to achieve some overriding, nebulous moralist regime that governs sexual etiquette and decorum on the basis of their own personal disgust instinct.
One can speak of the contributions, made from each of these various vantage points that define our existence; the technical understanding of the mechanics that maximize the thrill, the free-spirited celebration of the poet and minstrel, the psychological benefits, and the transcendent. However, each in turn is insufficient explanation for the telos of Eros. Each, by itself, would bring forth debasement and desolation. For, Eros and its physical manifestation embody and require every element of being. Eros, like life, is holistic; requiring a unity of knowledge to even begin to comprehend.
THE TELOS OF SEX
It has been asserted earlier that marriage constitutes the highest possible relationship between conscious beings, a shadow copy of the love between the Trinity and that, sought between Christ and His people. Thus, to concentrate on attaining the optimal marital relationship, is to seek a living display of that pre-existing Divine glory. God’s own glory in marriage IS marriage in its pristine excellence, not some nebulous cause beyond, not seeking the adoration and applause of human Lilliputians.
And physical Eros, constitutes an essential and integral component of a fully erotic relationship and marital union; an integral part of that transcendent glory. It is neither cake alone nor icing on the cake; but a quintessential component of the cake proper. It is neither main entrée nor optional dessert of a seven course meal; but must be seen as a basic ingredient that flows through every course.
Some couples in history have boasted of attaining integrated union without physical erotic interplay. But I am deeply skeptical whether such can ever attain or retain the type of psychic connectedness that physical intimacy engenders. Eros demands total and comprehensive commitment in uniting with the person that one finds beautiful and excellent and good. In order to attain the highest heights of passion, whether they are spiritual, intellectual, psychic or erotic; it requires that one surrender the entirety of that which one is and has. One is all in; with nothing held back; with nothing outside the purview of the Other.
Sexual abstinence denies that. As does the pubescent wife and to lesser extent, the husband, who refuse their lover out of selfishness, revenge or misplaced assertion of feminist autonomy. They all do grievous violence to Eros and the marital relationship.
The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside of marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union.3
The hook-up culture separates the erotic from the emotive/psychological; reducing sex to a mere appetite to be filled, a constipated stool to be relieved of. And the porn culture simulates the psychic connectedness; positing liturgical forms of Eros, while denying its essence.
“Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”4 The potential benefit and intensity of the relationship is proportionate to the degree of commitment and investment. It is the difference between full body entwining and a coitus, using a “chemise carouse, a sort of heavy nightshirt, with a suitably placed hole, through which a husband could impregnate his wife while avoiding any other contact”5. With fewer points of sensual contact, the libidinous thrall is more local, less comprehensive and consuming, less exhilarating. The body sensual experiences thrill to an extent. But the body sensual is not consumed within the erotic experience.
In similar fashion, the intensity of an erotic encounter is also proportionate to that which one surrenders heart and mind; to the extent that one is genuinely psychologically integrated with the lover. In this, I am speaking to long term passionate experience. This requires lifelong, exclusive and comprehensive surrender of one’s whole being by both parties to the marital commonwealth. The relationship is the thing. Good passionate sex is mere corollary.
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A libidinous physical Eros within marriage is divinely and primarily intended to endear and psychically bind the couple in ever-tightening integrated interweave of two souls into one commonwealth; an exclusive and lush oasis and secret garden of psychic safety, peace, vulnerability, delight, intimacy and love in a dry and desolate land. And deep psychic affinity and affection intensifies those erotic passions in turn.
Sex becomes an important tool in restoring relationship breaches, a down payment promise that each shall do their part to doing whatever is necessary to improve the relationship. It reorients wandering spouses, who get too tangentially sidetracked on goals external to the marriage, back to their first love. It furtively accumulates a portfolio of pleasantly compelling memories to continuously endear and inflame one to another.
Though never reaching that Promise Land of deep psychic unity, I and others can attest of physical Eros’ pull towards that end. Physical and sexual nakedness and vulnerability can soften a deeply, even pathological, distrustful soul, and breed an initial if tentative disclosure of heart and mind. It is one reason why cavalier refusal of sexual advances does such violence to the conjugal relationship.
Not only does physical intertwining contribute to psychic interweaving, it provides a Montessori learning platform for depicting true relationship and teaching its principles; a physical copy and shadow of psychological union, (and by extension, things in heaven). The concrete and sensory elements become metaphorical allusions to relationship psychology. One flesh metaphor is deliberately intended to curry a singular identity in the couple, albeit with two different personalities expressing that singularity. The general tendency for women to require longer periods to rev up becomes a practical life lesson in patience in males. It is through conjugal relations that I learnt that “It is more blessed to give than to receive”6. The blessing (benefit) is in the act of giving, rather than a reward apart from the gift. Reorienting one’s mind away from the serving of personal needs to delighting in the delight of the Other (a.k.a. seek the welfare of the other), resulted in a quantum leap of arousal and satisfaction.7
For many a person, sex may provide the only moments of transcendence in their lives. Striking up conversation with a late-night TTC driver so long ago, I looked askance as the man boasted of working those long, menial hours for fifty weeks of the year, just in order to live like a king with his family on that two week vacation. But for many, men in particular, sex similarly provides the only brief moment of transcendence that gives them reason to endure the monotony and mundanity of mediocre subsistence. Despite its carnality, there is a searching for god.
One’s true nature can be disguised through the masking of persona. However, sexual intimacy, certainly over the long-term, reflects the character and attitudes of the person. To the psychologically astute, sexual interplay is more and more quickly revealing. The so-called alpha-male, who easily disposes of his women, will in the capacity of corporate manager, be similarly inclined to cavalier unconcern for his employees. The spouse, who holds little fascination in exploring the terrain of the lover’s body, is similarly disinterested in discovering the topology of the lover’s psyche. The one, who little honours the emblems of our femininity/masculinity, will little honour our femininity/masculinity.
And to the psychologically astute, sexual intimacy provides a barometer of the state of connectedness within the relationship. It is common truism that libido (i.e. frequency of sexual intercourse) declines in conjugal relations over the course of the marriage, largely because physiological factors. Or that the first flush of erotic excitement must invariably settle into a more monotonous routine as love matures. To suggest otherwise is to open up a can of worms; an uncovering of unpalatable truths. I would suggest that the erotic libido is largely in direct proportion to the loss of emotional connectedness between spouses. As the peaks in marital adultery in middle age attest (women in their 40s, men in the 50s), or the fact that sexually explicit romantic novels are largely bought by disenchanted wives in their mid-40s; sexual interest, in general does not decline. Arguments for this assertion are forthcoming later in the chapter.
To many religionist, especially in proportion to their spiritual zealotry, the assertion that sex and marriage as a good in themselves, denigrates their telos to less than lofty goals. As noted, Hellenist Christianity will point to family (children) and communal purposes; the theological amongst Evangelicals, to esoteric (and intellectualist) metaphors of spiritual realities. I suspect that many among the pew know a little bit better than their clerics.
I am challenge and confront those insidious and pervasive sentiments of the natural human religious mind, against which I myself long contended. The idea of sex and marriage for the primary purpose of the good of the couple appears to reorient the couple to baser and lower carnal and worldly desires. It raises fears of deliberately encouraging enslavement to those uncontrollable frenzies. Did not adulterous passion for Helen of Troy launch a thousand ships and destroy the Trojan civilization?
It appears to invite of idolatry; of rival loves and conflicting loyalties between God and spouse. Did not Adam choose Eve, partially because she sated his erotic desires? Did not Samson, David and King Herod rush headlong into folly, weakness and murder over a woman?
And for most of my adulthood, I was haunted by similar terrors; and by gargantuan efforts to bottle, thwart and disconnect from my will that seemingly overwhelming turmoil, churning within the soul. One does not need to know or inculcate Greek philosophy (Pyrrhonian skepticism, Epicureanism – ataraxia, Stoicism – apatheia) or Buddhism (upekkha). The ascetic inclinations come naturally, more so to males, terrified of losing control. To this also, I address later.
That family (procreation) and communal benefits occur as consequence of good erotic relations and the psychic binds it instills, ought to be deemed as by-products and corollaries; not primary aims. By bypassing the primary purpose of physical eros in conjugal union, one diminishes marriage’s worth and encourages agendas, external to conjugal sex, which interfere, diminish, denigrate and destroy the divine purpose.
The theological abstractions may be true. However, these abstractions are often exploited to bypass the good of the marriage and the couple. Furthermore, the God of Scriptures explicitly expresses intentions to scar on the heart these understandings through the experiential. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” One will have deeper and more engrossing understanding of the love between the Trinity or Christ and the Church if one fully surrenders to becoming the metaphor rather than intellectualizing it.
Even sex should not be performed with deliberate intent to curry the goals of psychically binding. The very act and attitude in seeking to delight the other, being delighted by the other and delighting in the delight of the other, ought to naturally succeed to causing the larger goal, as long as the hearts of both participants are near about the right places.
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To most, the extreme levels of commitment and nakedness that is demanded, and the vulnerable exposure to the Other, raises reasonable terrors and even scornful disparagement of this assertion. To invest all that one is and has in this era is a masochistic formula for martyrdom. The man-o-sphere is replete with such disparagements of beta males, who become prey to avaricious sluts and their sisters-in-crime, who prevalently preside over unjust family courts. To expose the genitals of one’s being to the Other, one is liable to suffer frequent kicks to them; often with the approval of the Other’s own conscience.
It is the wisdom behind Christ’s aphorism, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold”9. It is not only the accumulation of injuries that spouses and lovers do to each other that chill the relationship toward eventual separation or a desolate formality. It is not only the self-centered atomism of Westerners, who fear surrendering their autonomy for the good of relationship or any common cause. In this social milieu of rampant, if largely venial evils; both the victims of the evil and the next generation who witnesses it (i.e. pandemic divorce/separation), draw back into the turtle shells of their souls; leaving little exposed in future to the depredations by others. But sowing sparingly, they reap sparingly.
With these social dynamics, which lead toward alienation and loneliness, of a nihilist dullness and restlessness, and of despair of ever finding love; it is absolutely understandable why this Telos of Sex and Marriage is deemed too absurdly fantastical an aspiration and thus worthy of derision. I do not share Alan Bloom’s bewilderment and incomprehension as to why his students “distrust eroticism too much to think it a sufficient pointer toward a way of life”10. I distrusted it too; and found that distrust to partially result in self-fulfilling prophecy.
But I speak of life as it ought to be; not as it overwhelmingly is.
However, if there is no vision at all, the people perish. 11 All is psychic desolation, waiting for the ax to give merciful end. And modern Evangelicalism and the [visible] church of Christ, no longer offers the vision of the Glory of God in marriage. Worthless salt; they cry delay sexual intercourse until marriage. “It really gets good”, so they say. And the adage is true. But they can neither give proper reasons nor framework nor particulars as to their counsel, except that the Bible says so. And when one, such as Mark Driscoll, attempts to proffer a non-theological answer; they shout down in moral opprobrium, disingenuous sophistry and even rancid slander.
©COPYRIGHT John Hutchinson
1Emily Esfahani Smith, “Is Sex Still Sexy?”, Atlantic Monthly, May 17, 2013.
2Denny Burk, “What is the Meaning of Sex?”, Publications, accessed http://www.dennyburk.com/publications-4/ on May 12, 2013.
3C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1960, p. 96.
5Gordon Rattray Taylor, Sex in History, London: Thames and Hudson, 1954, Chapter 3 – Medieval Sexual Ideal.
7The hedonistic paradox is similar (pleasure/happiness cannot be acquired directly). Pleasure diminishes in proportion to one’s concern over one’s pleasure.
10Alan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, New York: Simon & Shuster, 1987, p 122.