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Bringing Sanity to Sex: Part I

Sanity is to see what is (reality) and live in accord with it. If your grandfather thinks leprechauns are jumping in his butter dish and he gives them his butter knife to use as a springboard, then his sanity is defective.

He mistakes a hallucination for what is real and behaves accordingly. As he tells you about this phenomenon at the dinner table, you probably would invite him to become a citizen of the real world and see reality as it is and live in it.

Sexual sanity

I use this example to prompt the question, “Is there a real world when it comes to sex and our sexual powers?” In other words, is there a meaning to sex that is independent of what you or I make sex out to be? Is there a reality to sex, and thus to our sexual powers, that we ought to reverence and live in accord with? Is there a real world with regard to sex that we could invite someone to live in? Is there such a thing as sexual sanity?

If sex doesn’t have any sort of intrinsic meaning (a purpose independent of human contriving), then it would be impossible to be charged with sexual insanity. How could one be mistaken about the reality of sex if there is no reality about which to be mistaken?

But if sex does have an objective reality (intrinsic meaning and purpose) and we don’t make it up as we go, then how we relate to sex will determine our sanity just as much as does how we relate to butter dishes and leprechauns.

Drooling is not thinking

In order to determine if sex has an objective meaning (meaning and purpose independent of our intentions), we must do what modern man does not do: namely, think about sex.

I know what you’re thinking, “How can you say modern man doesn’t think about sex? Just watch the commercials—from shampoo to yogurt to cleaning supplies, everything is sexualized. Haven’t you seen Fifty Shades of Grey?”

No, I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, and, yes, everything in our culture is hyper sexualized. But this is not thinking about sex. I can’t put it any better than Frank Sheed:

The typical modern man practically never thinks about sex. He dreams of it, of course, by day and by night; he craves for it; he pictures it, is stimulated or depressed by it, drools over it. But this frothing, steaming activity is not thinking. Drooling is not thinking, picturing is not thinking, craving is not thinking, dreaming is not thinking. Thinking means bringing the power of the mind to bear: thinking about sex means striving to see sex in its innermost reality and in the function it is meant to serve (Society and Sanity, 107).

To think about sex is to ask, “What’s it for?” This is the first principle of intelligent use for anything. For example, if I don’t know what a microphone is for, I may be inclined to use it to hammer nails while building my house. But of course this would destroy the microphone.

Similarly, to intelligently use our sexual powers we must know their innermost reality and the function they are meant to serve. And as I’ve learned from my good friend Fr. Sebastian Walshe, a Norbertine priest at St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, California, to know the intrinsic purpose of sex is to know the proper activity of sex.

For example, the proper activity of a knife and its purpose is one and the same: to cut. Sight is the purpose of the eye, but it is also its proper activity. If an eye is defective and blind, then it isn’t acting (functioning) properly.

So what is sex for? What is its proper activity?

What’s pleasure got to do with it?

Someone might say, “Sex is for pleasure.” Although sex does involve pleasure, and this may be an individual’s subjective motive for having sex, it doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of reason as an intrinsic purpose of sex (nature’s ultimate goal for sex).

For starters, one can attain sexual pleasure in many ways:

  • A man can rape an unconscious girl whom he drugged at the bar.
  • A doctor can sexually abuse a woman who is in a persistent vegetative state.
  • The sports star can bed as many women as he can in order to gain the pleasure of conquest and bragging rights in the locker room.
  • The married airline pilot can sleep with stewardesses on his long trips.
  • As one woman said in an on-street interview that Catholic Answers conducted, “Someone could marry their donkey for all I care”—which, of course, implies certain types of pleasurable behavior with the donkey.

Anybody of good will recognizes that such behaviors are not appropriate human sexual behavior. Therefore, there must be something other than pleasure that makes for proper sexual activity—that is to say, sex must be for something other than pleasure.

Moreover, pleasure is not the ultimate purpose of sex anymore than pleasure is the ultimate purpose of eating or breathing. Have you ever experienced being suffocated? Not so pleasurable, was it? The pleasure of breathing serves the ultimate end (goal) of breathing: namely, to keep you alive.

Eating is also pleasurable, but it is clearly not for pleasure. Pleasure is subordinate to the intrinsic purpose that it serves—nourishment of the human body.

The same line of reasoning can be applied to sex. When we bring the power of the mind to bear on our sexual powers, we see that sexual pleasure is subordinate to the end (goal) for which nature intends humans to engage in sex: to reproduce. As the philosopher Edward Feser writes, “To emphasize pleasure would be to put the cart before the horse” (Neo-Scholastic Essays, 389).

The ‘baby-making’ meaning of sex

In his book On the Meaning of Sex, the natural law philosopher J. Budziszewski identifies two conditions that must be met in order for some Q to be the purpose of some P, and procreation meets both of them. First, it must be the case that P actually brings about Q. Do the sexual powers of male and female bring about children when used in sexual activity? Yes.

Second, Q must explain why we have P in the first place. Does procreation explain why humans have sexual powers? Yes. Without the begetting of children, our sexed bodies would be unintelligible. To put it another way, if we weren’t meant to reproduce we wouldn’t have sexed bodies.

This is not to say that procreation entails sex, since there are some species that reproduce asexually. Rather, the claim is that sex entails procreation. Procreation is that for the sake of which sex exists.

So, regardless of what man may use sex, and consequently his sexual powers, for—whether it is for the expression of romantic love alone or the giving of bodily pleasure in recreational activity—childbearing is sex’s own purpose (intrinsic purpose) and thus its proper activity. It is the end toward which sex is ordered.

Once again Frank Sheed puts it succinctly:

If we consider sex in itself and ask what nature had in mind in giving sex to human beings, there can be only one answer: sex is meant for the production of children, as lungs for breathing or the digestive organs for nourishment. . . . It would be monstrous to deny . . . that that is what sex is meant for, that is why we have sexual powers. The fact that man can use sex for other, sterile purposes of his own choosing does not alter the certainty that childbearing is sex’s own purpose (Society and Sanity, 110).

So, as we use reason to see what is there concerning sex and check our sanity, we can conclude that it has its own intrinsic ordering to procreation.

At this point many questions abound: What about the fact that a human baby, unlike other species in the animal kingdom, is unable to fend for himself for quite some time once he is generated? If sex is for the generation of children, then what makes it distinctly human, since non-rational animals engage in the same kind of activity? Aren’t you reducing sex to mere biology and mechanics by saying sex is for begetting children? “Where’s the love, man” (can you hear the hippie voice?). Why should I even respect the procreative dimension of sex when I can avoid it?

The latter question can be answered only after we answer the former questions, which will be the subject matter of my next installment.

Illustration: Detail from Song of Solomon 1:7 by Alba Lavermicocca

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