Joe Carter has some great thoughts on sex and Wendell Berry, most of which I agree with.

The central premise is taken from an essay that we’ve referenced ’round here before, namely that the divorce between the body and the soul mechanized the body and led to an industrialized approach to sex oriented around maximizing pleasure.

Most of Joe’s practical advice is right on the money.  But he goes awry when he hits #6:

6. Sex may be a joy and a sanctuary but it is also a marital duty. It is the primary physical method God provides in order to deepen and strengthen the union of a man and a woman. Forgoing sex for long periods of time can be a form of disobedience. If we are physically able, we should give ourselves to our spouses. We are the sole means by which they are able to properly meet that physical need. Denying our spouse food or sleep would be cruel and unjust. Withholding sex is no different.

Yes to a duty, and yes to the sinfulness of withholding sex.   Doing that reduces sex to a manipulative tool and destroys the integrity of the act.

But Joe is a little too quick to draw a straight line between sex, food, and sleep.  In point #2, Joe points out (rightly) that sex is a form of communication rather than strictly a technique.  But as communicative, it seems sex is a bodily act distinct from other bodily pleasures or needs.  Like all communication, there is an element of freedom in the act that suggests that sex is not motivated by the same laws that motivate us to find food–on which our material well-being actually does depend.

The point has practical ramifications, especially for single people.  If sex is a necessity along the lines of food, then we should expect us to have a morally licit outlet for it, regardless of our marital status.  While there might be a case that masturbation is licit, the easier way through is to reject the premise.  Sex simply isn’t a necessity in the same way that food is.

I’ll make the case for rejecting that premise theologically.

Sex often seems like a necessity because it is frequently tied to certain biological pleasures and urges which have a strong motivational pull, and because the propagation of the species depends (for now, at least) upon the act.

But if we stopped there, sex wouldn’t be a distinctly human form of communication.  But sex as a human act is best construed as an act of self-giving in which man–as man and woman–freely gives himself to the other and opens himself to receiving the gift of the other.  For Christians, the normative account is in the Garden of Eden, which suggests that sex bears witness to the order of creation.

But singleness points in the other direction.  It bears witness to the eschatological life (in which we shall neither “marry nor be given in marriage”) that was inaugurated by Christ in his resurrection.  Rather than destroying the order of creation and the goodness of sex and its pleasures, it establishes the biological on its properly human foundation:  the freedom to give ourselves to God, who then enables and frees us to give ourselves to others.  In that sense, the vocation of singleness not only disestablishes sex from being a need in the way food is, but points us toward the transcendent basis of marriage (and sex itself):  it is a union that is oriented ultimately toward God.

What does this mean, practically speaking?

Single people are, in fact, human.  My single friends tell me this is unfortunately still a question.  It shouldn’t be.  In fact, any church where singleness is not treated as a full and acceptable vocation within the family of God does not value marriage properly, for it rejects one of the primary witnesses to the church’s eschatological life and one of the primary witnesses to marriage’s transcendent basis.

Sex is good.  But it is not necessary.  And the distinction must be kept in mind, lest we unwittingly undermine the way in which sex and marriage witness to the reality of the Gospel.

Addendum:  My thoughts and language are heavily influenced here by JP2.  Just thought I’d mention that.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

16 Comments

  1. Like I told my teenage son during our “little talk” some time age – “Just try and hold your breath for more than a few minutes and you’ll see what I mean about ‘necessary.'”

    Reply

  2. An excellent post, Matthew. I’ve been going “round and round” about the place of sex and relationships and “necessity” with several Christian gay people who have taken offense at my suggestion that no relationship NEEDS sex to be “intimate and fulfilling”. The eschatological aspect of singleness (the beauty of virginity as the Orthodox call it) is the foundation of monasticism and it is a good thing that this is on the radar within the evangelical tradition nowadays.

    Reply

  3. >> But Joe is a little too quick to draw a straight line between sex, food, and sleep. In point #2, Joe points out (rightly) that sex is a form of communication rather than strictly a technique. But as communicative, it seems sex is a bodily act distinct from other bodily pleasures or needs. Like all communication, there is an element of freedom in the act that suggests that sex is not motivated by the same laws that motivate us to find food–on which our material well-being actually does depend.

    Sleep and food are necessary to life in ways sex is not, but I don’t think he’s saying they are the same in this regard, but rather that spouses are our “sole (legitimate) means” to sex and that is significant. Spouses, for most, are not the sole legitimate means to food or sleep, though he assumes for the comparison they are. Though he could have been more clear about that, this seems a minor quibble and I’m not sure I see any evidence that he is equating sex with food and sleep in ways you seem to think by that possibly inapt supporting sentence. But by basing an objection to the way he relates the three items in question in terms of their necessity to health and life, a point which I’m sure he wouldn’t dispute, doesn’t blunt his point that it would be equally wrong to deny sex for the reason of his I stated above. Seeing this through the lens of freedom and necessity I think misses his overall point, which you don’t seem to dispute.

    And about the “straight line” between the three, well that all depends on what you mean, but it seems like we should acknowledge here that the links between food and sex go way back to the ancients since both are appetitive. I know you know this, but I’m just saying. And this view has in no way been discredited since. In the appetitive sense, the most important one historically, they are considered to be motivated by the “same laws”, unless by “same laws” you mean biological need, but that seems the less interesting aspect of it, certainly for those who have a tendency to harp on the mistake of mechanizing man and/or nature. Regarding that, I think the best way to think about that (warning: Thomist ahead) is that nature was mechanized first, and when humans tried to fit man into this newly mechanized universe (as man must always fit in the universe) they mechanized him too or else he couldn’t be made to fit.

    Reply

  4. @S-P, thanks. As Chesterton put it (paraphrase), “Everyone gets married. He either marries a wife, the church, or himself, and the last is the only one that does not satisfy.

    @Mark, I take this line to be where Joe goes off the rails: “We are the sole means by which they are able to properly meet that physical need.”

    I didn’t suggest that my post blunted his point that withholding sex is wrong. If you re-read it, I specifically affirmed and emphasized that point.

    And I think even for some of the ancients, there are distinctions to be made between how sex and food interact. For Plato, for instance, sex is a particular sort of expression of eros. And for Paul, I think the difference is even clearer.

    –Matt

    Reply

  5. I think another way is to argue that, contra Berry, sex is not the conclusion of a marriage. Rather, it is a consummation of it. In other words, the joining that takes place at marriage is only completed when the couple carries out, so to speak, the fullness of that bond. Without a covenant, sex misrepresents the relationship between the participants. Premarital sex is a mutual dissipation of relational gifts that ought to find their expression solely in marriage.

    Because sexual relations are subsidiary to and derived from the bond of marriage, the “need” only arises within that covenant relationship. And it does become, for all practical purposes, a “need” that can be claimed by either spouse. There is certainly a good discussion regarding the whens and hows of that relational need, but I wouldn’t relegate it to merely communicative significance.

    “Then why do single people crave sex?” Well, because we are designed to be married. God intends us as a species to marry and to have sex, and also to have children. It is the normal case. The desire for sex should drive us onward to marriage and children. Instead, we have tried to jam it into a component of self-actualization, existing solely as part of a well-balanced individual life.

    Reply

  6. >> @Mark, I take this line to be where Joe goes off the rails: “We are the sole means by which they are able to properly meet that physical need.”

    If you replace “that physical need” with “physical aspect of that need” do you still disagree with him? We often don’t say “partly Q” when we say “Q”. This happens scores of times a day for most of us as we generalize, as we must, in normal communications. There is nothing I can see in his essay to make me think he is equating sex and food in ways you claim, and in fact a number of things he’s said that make no sense at all if he is equating sex and food like that, or fails to grasp the communicative aspect of sex.

    >> I didn’t suggest that my post blunted his point that withholding sex is wrong. If you re-read it, I specifically affirmed and emphasized that point.

    Yes I know you agree with him on that. I acknowledged that plainly. By what I said about “blunting” I was hinting that I think you are misreading him and I’d bet real money that you and he don’t disagree on anything that the article touches on. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried for subtlety.

    >> And I think even for some of the ancients, there are distinctions to be made between how sex and food interact. For Plato, for instance, sex is a particular sort of expression of eros. And for Paul, I think the difference is even clearer.

    You say the “difference is even clearer”? Who is denying that there is a difference? Joe? No. You say there are “distinctions to be made”? That’s an understatement. For Socrates, if not Plato, *teaching* was an expression of eros. There are sexual appetites, there are intellectual appetites, and there are a lot of others. The Greeks were all about distinctions, but so is Joe Carter if you’d stop putting words in his mouth. ;-)

    Reply

    1. Mark,

      “If you replace “that physical need” with “physical aspect of that need” do you still disagree with him? We often don’t say “partly Q” when we say “Q”. ”

      Yes. Because it identifies sex with the ‘physical aspect of that need’ (which I presume is a need for human connection?).

      “Yes I know you agree with him on that. I acknowledged that plainly. By what I said about “blunting” I was hinting that I think you are misreading him and I’d bet real money that you and he don’t disagree on anything that the article touches on.”

      That’s fine. But from the paragraph, it’s not obvious that he does agree with me–or at least has considered the nuances of the position. I realize Joe (as you say) is all about making distinctions…which is why I’m happy to let him have it when he fails to. As he is a friend, I also happen to know that he enjoys the repartee, and that he can take it.

      Reply

  7. < Yes. Because it identifies sex with the ‘physical aspect of that need’ (which I presume is a need for human connection?).

    So you think Joe’s expression “identifies” sex in the sense of an identity relation such that it denies the non-physical aspects? Wow. Isn’t that extreme? Especially since I don’t know of anyone with the possible exception of the most hard-core naturalist or materialist who would deny such a thing.

    I hope you aren’t offended by my frankness, but I had thought this a trumped-up disagreement to have something to write about. Since you’re only doubling down I could speculate on what metaphysical position is most likely to display an intolerance for such reasonable expressions for what is normally classical dualist understandings of physicality but I’ll resist the urge.

    >> I realize Joe (as you say) is all about making distinctions…which is why I’m happy to let him have it when he fails to. As he is a friend, I also happen to know that he enjoys the repartee, and that he can take it.

    So you think my concern is that he can’t “take it”? Absolutely not -I wouldn’t think so little of anyone. Reading someone’s views charitably is not done primarily to be polite, it is done for the sake of fidelity to the truth. And if you’re a friend, as opposed to an acquaintance, you should be able to tell me how you think Joe would respond to you, and if you can’t or won’t then raising your friendship here was entirely gratuitous.

    Reply

  8. “So you think Joe’s expression “identifies” sex in the sense of an identity relation such that it denies the non-physical aspects? Wow. Isn’t that extreme? Especially since I don’t know of anyone with the possible exception of the most hard-core naturalist or materialist who would deny such a thing.”

    Good heavens, Mark. My point is simply that if the need is “human connection,” sex is not a “necessary” component of that need. Joe seems to suggest that either the physical sex is a need itself, or that it is (as in your reformulation) a necessary component of it. I disagree with both claims.

    “I hope you aren’t offended by my frankness, but I had thought this a trumped-up disagreement to have something to write about. Since you’re only doubling down I could speculate on what metaphysical position is most likely to display an intolerance for such reasonable expressions for what is normally classical dualist understandings of physicality but I’ll resist the urge.”

    I am not “doubling down.” You simply haven’t persuaded me that my interpretation is wrong or even “uncharitable.” And to suggest that I’m “likely to display an intolerance for such reasonable expressions for what is normally classical dualist understandings of physicality” is so far off the mark it’s laughable.

    Besides, you also seem to misunderstand the nature of blogging. Someone writes something, has it critiqued, clarifies, etc. It’s how it goes.

    “Reading someone’s views charitably is not done primarily to be polite, it is done for the sake of fidelity to the truth. And if you’re a friend, as opposed to an acquaintance, you should be able to tell me how you think Joe would respond to you, and if you can’t or won’t then raising your friendship here was entirely gratuitous.”

    I think Joe would respond with the sort of openness and understanding to my reading of his post that you fail to demonstrate, and would suggest that he should have been a bit more precise in his language. I don’t think he’s written anything in the past 6 years–and I’ve read nearly everything he’s written–that explicitly addresses whether sex is a physical ‘need’ or not, so your I find your confidence that you know exactly what he would say somewhat overinflated.

    Which is to say, I don’t think he’d accuse me of being–as you’ve done–uncharitable at all. It would be helpful if you would produce some evidence that what I’ve written is an actual misreading of Joe’s post before you toss that out there.

    Matt

    Reply

  9. >> Good heavens, Mark. My point is simply that if the need is “human connection,” sex is not a “necessary” component of that need. Joe seems to suggest that either the physical sex is a need itself, or that it is (as in your reformulation) a necessary component of it. I disagree with both claims.

    Joe didn’t say sex was necessary. You claim he implies it. But I think I get it now. You are taking the term ‘need’ as implying ‘necessity’, aren’t you? But it doesn’t. Need does not imply necessity. Needs are not met all the time. And in the context here (for example celibacy) this need is channeled to another purpose and fulfillment. The monastics did this quite well. In fact I think we all do in some ways whether we think about it or not.

    So if two parapalegics get married the need of sex won’t get met, but they channel that need in other ways as we all do under God’s grace when we must. Joe’s advice was to average Christian couples and as such it is reasonable to interpret his words as limited to that context of how to meet the physical aspect of this need.

    Are we on common ground yet? I hope so. I hate conflict. :)

    Reply

  10. Mark,

    We’re probably close…except I really don’t understand how something can be a ‘need’ without it being necessary. It’s not necessary for human flourishing (since single people don’t have sex and flourish just fine), and while it’s “necessary” for the propagation of the species, that wasn’t really the context in which Joe was using the line.

    Hence, when you talk about “channeling” the need to something else, it seems like there’s something behind the ‘need’ that’s being channeled. On my account, that’s exactly right. The physical act of sex is simply one possible manifestation of a higher human good, but in no way do humans “need” to express that higher good (or even that higher need!) through that particular means. I honestly don’t think Joe agrees with my position on this.

    Does that make sense?

    Thanks for the dialogue.

    Best,

    matt

    Reply

  11. >> Hence, when you talk about “channeling” the need to something else, it seems like there’s something behind the ‘need’ that’s being channeled. On my account, that’s exactly right. The physical act of sex is simply one possible manifestation of a higher human good, but in no way do humans “need” to express that higher good (or even that higher need!) through that particular means.

    It makes sense. I completely agree that physical needs don’t need to be met physically, but they usually are and should be by married couples who are able. I’m not sure if there are any needs that cannot be met in another way than the normal one. I’d guess perhaps not. I didn’t see the article as disagreeing on that point, but I could be wrong. I think that most reflective Christian people would agree, but I could be wrong there too. There are even many non-Christians who get this many times, as they experience “common grace”. Sometimes they get it in deep and abiding ways that put us to shame.

    But that said, I am not at all blind to the reality that people do go very wrong about needs. Christians are convinced by our culture that childbearing is so good (as it is) that they think they are entitled to it and go sell their soul to the fertility clinic and don’t think twice about the consequences for the future children of others. People think that living is so good (as it is) that they don’t think twice about whether dying persons are more likely to experience an undignified death because of their desire to get a functioning organ. People feel entitled to children and entitled to a long life. And on and on. People indulging their desires (and don’t all strongly felt desires feel like needs?), whether considered needs or not, is a massive problem. I suppose if there was one person I could interview about fatherhood it would be Mary Magdalene. I think she must have been an expert beyond all. Is that even on topic? Oh well.

    The disagreement about Joe’s article seems like a minor quibble in the end. It prompts me to do some looking into what physical and social needs really are, and that’s a good thing.

    I enjoyed the dialog too.

    Mark

    Reply

  12. This article is phobic towards same-sex couples. Sex isn’t just between a man and a woman.

    Reply

    1. Only if all arguments that make same-sex relationships non-normative are grounded in fear. Which is not the case.

      Reply

  13. As far as a necessity of sex? Unless you consider madness as an option, yes, sex is necessary. It is as essential as food, water, air.Is it a greater or lesser need than these?
    Entitled to sex? This suggests using somebody, mutual or otherwise. This is pr edatorial.
    It seems people sort of dismiss some ideas as inconvenient or too complex to accept and understand. Kind of like ‘ you don’t believe all that philosophy stuff do you? . As if they miss the forest for the tree. The forest is complex and difficult to understand( if possible). Of course it’s complexity does’ nt hinder it’s enjoyabilty.
    Just because sex is unsatisfactory, and often perverted, does’ nt make it unnecessary. Let’s suppose, all things being equal, sex is’ nt necessary. What is sex? What does sex mean?
    It pains me, at this time, to consider sex as unnecessary. It is just my personal opinion, but this position seems unfeeling. I have no idea whether sex is rational, and I don’t care. I’m not going to go through life with my head in the sand. There is no substitute for sex, it cannot be “channeled” conveniently away or swept under the rug, repressed.

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *