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 Sex and Love.jpgthrough 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!

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. makelovehappen March 2, 2006 at 12:31 am

    Matt: two characteristics that I like about your work are your way of finding goodness in strange (and perhaps un-orthodox ;) )places, and secondly in noticing the questionable subtleties.

    That being said, I was surprised to read your words: “Shame might have a useful function in helping us perform morally ethical behavior.” I get a mental image of a crowd of people ready to stone a woman for committing adultery. One advantage of such a situation would be that it could help people not to perform morally unethical actions. On the other hand, doing the “right thing” out of a fear of what other people will think is dubious and hypocritical.

    Suppose, for example, a lot of people are so concerned with what other people will think about them having an affair that they completely overlook / withhold the fact that they do not approve of it. Then when the temptation comes along they think, “Pleasure or popularity … heck, looking good to others is superficial anyway, I might as well give in.”

    On a more general level, this directly addresses how psychology relates to ethics (or is it a false dichotomy?). Perhaps someone who has reflected extensively on the book of John (such as yourself) would like to comment on the story of the woman caught in adultery and how Jesus might be allowing social mores to prevent immorality.

    At any rate, I enjoyed reading your words here as I often do with your work.


  2. MLH,

    Thanks for the kind words and the feedback. I appreciate both immensely!

    Historically, my intuitions have been firmly against shame. I am not at all interested in advocating living according to other people’s standards and having wrong motivations for “the right thing” is clearly misguided.

    However, not committing a wrong action because of the potential shame seems better than committing the wrong action. Adultery is a bad deal–not committing adultery because of the possibility of shame seems to be a better course of action than committing adultery. In this way, shame is only preventative–it is not meritorious in itself.

    Of course, if the motivation is not acknowledged, confessed, and eventually transformed into proper motivations then it doesn’t do much good regardless. For any potential adulterer who was stopped from acting by the possibility of shame, the deeper problems of a desire to have adultery would clearly need to be changed in order to be considered meritorious.

    There seems to be a difference, though, between preventative shame and shame ‘after the fact’ that is a response to unethical behavior. I’m for it as a preventative measure, but probably against it as a response, if only for Christians. I have a tough time understanding how people can NOT judge themselves by other people’s standards outside of a Christian framework. Some therapists that I have read have tried (David Schnarch’s ‘self-validated intimacy’) but I fail to see how accepting ourselves alone is satisfactory…

    I think you’re absolutely right about it adddressing the relationship between pscyhology and ethics. I probably won’t address the issue from the woman in John 8(?), since I don’t think it’s actually John’s words, but I will probably come close to this topic when I examine John 4. Hopefully that will be up this weekend.


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