The human experience is a sexual experience. As we are physical creatures, sexuality is interwined into the very essence of our being. On the other hand, sexuality is about more than physicality–it is about our human persons and our relationships with them.
Robert Firestone, Lisa Firestone and Joyce Catlett understand this. Their text, Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships, is an illuminating and helpful analysis of sexuality and sexual dysfunctions. They approach sexuality from a psychological standpoint, arguing that “sexuality is often limited or damaged in an individual’s upbringing, and the resultant emotional pain gives rise to long-standing psychological defenses. These defenses, both self-protective and self-nurturing, preclude personal vulnerability and interfere with full and uninhibited participation in sexual relating.”
In layman’s terms, Firestone et. al. argue that our formation affects how we interact with each other sexually. At the core of sexual problems is a learned attitude of defensiveness against intimacy. This defensiveness manifests itself through creating ‘fantasy bonds’ in our relationships–we trick ourselves into thinking that we’re experiencing genuine intimacy, when the reverse is true. This avoidance of intimacy, whether we are consciouis of it or not, is preserved through distractions (food, tv, blogging, etc.) that drown out the ‘voice process’ that is at the core of our relational problems. This ‘voice process’ is the experience negative or cynical thoughts about our selves or the other person–thoughts such as “Why should he like you?” “He has no real interest in you,” and similarly self and other-critical thoughts. The notion that learned defensive postures and attitudes are at the core of our sexual problems managed to be interesting and compelling. If only for these sections, Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships deserves a reading.
Perhaps the most provocative portion of their book, however, was the analysis of the relationship between our anxiety about death and our sexuality. Part of our fear of genuine sexual intimacy, they argue, is our fear of deterioriation and death. As we become aware of our physicality in sex, we become more aware of our transience–this fear of loss can cause us to revert to a posture of defensiveness toward the other person.
These defensive attitudes and therapeutic practices for correcting them are developed in the latter half of the book. Firestone et. al. spend the first half of the text explaining what ‘healthy sexuality’ and love are and highlighting the various factors that affect our sexual development–religious, famililial, biological, cultural, etc. While helpful (on some points), this first half was significantly less enjoyable and illuminating.
Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships is not without its problems, and those merit consideration as well. While I am appreciative to the field of psychology for informing us of the origins and influences of certain behavioral patterns, I am always on the guard against psychology stepping into a world that is not its own: ethics. In other words, while it seems appropriate for pscyhology (especially psychology that is statistically driven, as modern psychology seems to be) to tell us what is the case, it seems inappropriate for them to inform us of what should be the case. Such claims are better left to ethicists (or, God save us, theologians!). For instance, their conception of ‘healthy sexuality’ is so broad that it seems to include any possible sex act that is a “natural extension of affection, tenderness, and companionship between two people,” regardless of what two people they are.
Additionally, Firestone, Firestone and Catlett seem to have no sympathy for the oh-so-restrictive social mores of our past. They contend that such social mores have had a negative impact on our views of our bodies. They seem to think that any sense of shame associated with the body is necessarily bad, when, in fact, shame might have a useful function in helping us perform morally ethical behavior.
This rejection of social mores, in fact, seems to extend to the institution of marriage. Or rather, they would not have marriage be an institution at all but a private contract between two individuals. While they acknowledge that “restricting” (and I use the world loosely!) freedoms by entering into marriage might in some cases by worth the price, and that honoring commitment to another person is crucial, they are extremely sympathetic to non-exclusive sexual relationships. They quote in length a librarian who had such a relationship with her husband and then indicate their agreement with her. Her words:
I didn’t plan on having an open-ended marriage. It simply began to develop that way when I discovered that my husband loves other women besides me; that he’s not monogamous in the traditional way. This realization freed me from the obscenity of possessiveness.
Firestone et. al elaborates: “We feel that the best situation for individuals in a couple relationship is to sustain each partner’s freedom of choice and not limit the other by imposing unnecessary rules and restrictions.” By divorcing (heh) psychology from ethics, they have created a sense of ‘autonomy’ and ‘freedom’ that may breed short-term emotional pleasure, but that can only have a long-term degenerative and corruptive influence on the individuals.
Finally, while Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships is a work of psychology, it included occasional quotes from non-psychology areas including C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. For the non-psychologist (and hence someone who is not extremely interested in the numerous studies, etc) these were a breath of fresh air. Their ideas and analyses are interesting and thought-provoking enough that I would thoroughly enjoy a more popular-level explication of their work.
While not cheap, Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships is worth every dime. Even though I have profound methodological and substantial disagreements with Firestone, Firestone and Catlett, their work manages to be thoughtful and engaging. While the average Christian reader might be (rightly!) suspicious of some of their claims, there is much in their analysis of sexual problems (defensiveness and self-critical thoughts) that can be integrated into a thoroughly Christian worldview without compromise. On my journey to understand the intricacies of male and female romantic and sexual relationships, Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships has illuminated my path. I have no doubt it will be a text to which I will often return.
Update: typos fixed! Thanks, Tom!