The meaning of sex

DAVID QUINN

We like to think we live in an age of honest talk about sex, but it isn’t true.

Jude Law and Cameron Diaz in The Holiday

What is true is that we are very willing to talk about body parts and positions and sexual pleasure. In this, the franker we are the better. Sexual frankness is supposed to be the mark of an open mind. It is supposed to be the mark of a mind that has thrown off the repressive shackles of the past. The more frankly you can talk about sex, the more liberated you are. Or such is the theory anyway.

However, what we don’t talk about are all the other things sex is about and since sex is about so much more than sex itself, this is nothing short of calamitous for huge numbers of people. What has lately made it painfully obvious that we don’t talk about sex in any honest way is the so-called ’debate’ we have been conducting around the issue of the age of sexual consent. Should it is 16, 17 or 18? Is it about protecting teenagers from themselves, or from predatory adults, or both? Is our job simply to ensure that teenagers are educated in how to make uncoerced choices in sexual matters, and then supply them with condoms and get out of their way? Is it simply wrong for teenagers to have sex? Is it wrong for anyone at all of whatever age to have sex outside marriage?

What has not been discussed in any of this is the all-important, decisive topic of what sex is about. What is it directed towards? Why does it exist at all? If we don’t answer these questions correctly then we cannot hope to come up with a theory of what true sexual fulfilment is. If we don’t even ask these questions, then we can’t even hope to begin the debate.

To put it another way, what is missing from practically all talk about sex in Ireland is whether or not sex has a purpose. So, does it?

Before proceeding, however, let’s remind ourselves of the promises made by the sexual revolution. The theorists of the sex revolution began with an extremely reductive and naïve view of human nature, namely that sex is our fundamental and most basic impulse, and that this impulse is directed chiefly towards pleasure.

They imagined our sex drive as a kind of raging river that had to be let run its course or else the consequences would be dire. They imagined that anything which thwarted our sex drive acted as a kind of dam. The water would build up behind this dam and sooner or later something would have to give. Either we would start to act out in all kinds of sexually inappropriate ways, for example, paedophilia, or else we would be condemned to radically unhappy, neurotic and repressed lives which would often express themselves in terrible, burning rage.

The sex revolutionists said the only answer to this was to allow the sex drive run its natural course by not seeking to thwart it in any way.


Theories of ‘free love’ grew out of this. Love was conflated with sex, and the supposed freedom of ‘free love’ lay in the belief that sex could be consequence-free. The Pill added tremendous impetus to this belief. For the first time in history you could have sex and be almost 100pc sure that no pregnancy would result. And if it did, there would always be the fall-back option of abortion. Furthermore, there would be no need to commit to your sexual partner. You would only stay with him or her until such time as your sex drive took you somewhere else.

In fact, ‘free-love’ wasn’t free at all. So-called free love can only come by suppressing other parts of human nature, parts that are in fact intimately and inextricably linked with sex itself. Free love is only ‘free’ if we suppress our desire for children and, in the ultimate irony, if we suppress our desire for love.


In fact, ‘free-love’ wasn’t free at all. So-called free love can only come by suppressing other parts of human nature, parts that are in fact intimately and inextricably linked with sex itself. Free love is only ‘free’ if we suppress our desire for children and, in the ultimate irony, if we suppress our desire for love.


The brute fact of life that the sex revolutionaries completely lost sight of is that sex creates in us an instinct to bond emotionally as well as physically with the person we have sex with and if we suppress this instinct it can only be at huge cost to ourselves.

Just ask Robert Hughes. Hughes is one of the best respected art critics writing today. Back in the 1960s he ‘swung’ with the best of them. He thoroughly believed in free love. Like his fellow believers he thought he had found the secret of human happiness. He now admits he found only misery.

He met another acolyte of free love, Danne Patricia Emerson. They became lovers. She became pregnant. Against the whole philosophy of free love they decided to marry. Hughes was content with this. He stopped believing in free love when he actually fell in love. But Danne did not. She continued to take lovers. This plunged Hughes into a kind of emotional Hell. He really, genuinely loved Danne and even though the sex revolution regarded disapproval of sexual infidelity as an outmoded convention, for Hughes the disapproval was instinctual, visceral, ineradicable.

Hughes decided that love, and free love, are not compatible. Danne appears never to have come to this fundamental realisation. Her life led her deeper and deeper into drugs. She died in 2003, aged 60, almost certainly a victim of ‘free love’.

What Hughes discovered is that sex directs us towards love. It directs us towards commitment. This is one of the key purposes of sex and it is one that should be made plainly visible to people.

What happens if we ignore the emotional signals sex sends us? What happens if we insist on pretending that sex is only about the sex act itself? Eventually one of two things happens. Either we become hardened and sex loses all ability to incline us towards love and commitment, or else we become embittered. We become embittered because we expected more from our sexual partners than they are willing to give. We thought sex meant something more than sex. But for our sexual partners, it was only about sex. Therefore one person’s emotional hardness causes another person’s emotional bitterness. That is what happens when sex and commitment are separated.

If they are separated for too long, then the possibility becomes very real that a person will never find a committed, loving, sexual relationship, that the opportunity will simply have passed by. In that case pursuing sex for its own sake will have caused a person to miss out on one of the greatest sources of human happiness. This is what happens when we are taught that sex is only about sex.


The latest romantic-comedy showing in cinemas is The Holiday. In it we meet two characters, Amanda and Graham, played by Cameron Diaz and Jude Law. Both are good looking, in their thirties, and single. They both have successful careers.


The sex revolutionaries tell us that children must be taught the ‘facts of life’. They are right. But they must be the correct facts. The facts of life, the facts of sex, are that to be truly satisfied we must know that while sex is certainly about sex, it is also about commitment, loving commitment. And it is about children.


One night, while on her holiday, Amanda meets Graham and they have sex. Neither knows what the act signifies emotionally, but they know it signifies something. They are not so hardened yet that it has lost the ability to emotionally incline them towards one another.

However, the sex revolution has taught them that sex often doesn’t signal commitment, or even emotional warmth. Therefore, Amanda and Graham aren’t sure at first where to take their relationship, such as it is. If, on the other hand, they lived in a world which teaches that commitment should come before sex, then there would be no confusion. Amanda and Graham would know that having sex signifies commitment. For a Christian, of course, marriage is the ultimate commitment, the ultimate context for sex.

If commitment, or better still, marriage, came before sex, then there would be far fewer emotionally hardened, or emotionally bitter people in the world today. There would also be far fewer children without fathers because if adults were committed to one another before having sex, the chances are they would be jointly committed to their children as well.

Speaking of which, children are why sex exists in the first place. Amazingly, we have forgotten this. The only reason human beings consist of a male and a female is because we reproduce sexually, not asexually. Sex directly us towards love and commitment. More radically, it directs us towards children, and most people are not complete (insofar as we can be complete this side of Heaven) without children.

However, the sex revolution also tells us to put off, or ignore, or suppress our natural desire for children for as long as possible. Sometimes for too long. A growing number of people find themselves in their late 30s unable to have children meaning they have recourse to various forms of reproductive technology instead.

It is a curious, not to mention tragic thing that the sex revolution which promised to free us from repression did so by ushering in new forms of repression. It said we would be free if we believed that sex is simply about sex but it forgot that sex is even more about commitment and about children. The result is that we have repressed these parts of what sex is about instead and the further result is untold misery for untold numbers of people.

The sex revolutionaries tell us that children must be taught the ‘facts of life’. They are right. But they must be the correct facts. The facts of life, the facts of sex, are that to be truly satisfied we must know that while sex is certainly about sex, it is also about commitment, loving commitment. And it is about children. Our culture ignores this because it has forgotten what sex is for. The cost of that forgetting is incalculable.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

David Quinn. “The meaning of sex.” The Irish Catholic (January 14, 2007).

This article reprinted with permission of the The Irish Catholic and the author, David Quinn.

THE AUTHOR

David Quinn is one of Ireland's best known religious and social affairs commentators. For over six years he was editor of The Irish Catholic, Ireland's main Catholic weekly newspaper. He has written weekly opinion columns for The Sunday Times and The Sunday Business Post. He has contributed to publications such as First Things, the Human Life Review and the Wall Street Journal ( Europe edition). Currently he is working freelance and contributes weekly columns to The Irish Independent, Ireland's biggest selling daily paper, and the Irish Catholic. He appears regularly on Irish radio and television current affairs programmes.

Copyright © 2006 The Irish Catholic


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