In a strikingly vulnerable 2018 New York Times article, author Courtney Sender casts a light on today’s impoverished sexual norms by describing her own disappointing experience.
Her date, a connection through Tinder, requested Sender’s consent for nearly everything. Kissing. Undressing. Touching. “Are you okay?” he would ask. “Can I do this?” In Sender’s words, frequently pausing to ask permission venerated sex to something humanizing and hallowed. Consenting, she writes, was a “beautiful thing he was teaching me, that we could be fully human to each other, checking in, honoring yes and respecting no.”
Until it wasn’t. After a few brief encounters with what seemed to be a caring, empathic individual — Sender never heard from him again, leaving her “devastated.”
The aspirational virtues we seek in relationship — commitment, trust, sacredness, beauty, honor, and respect — frequently risk betrayal by less noble aims. She wanted love; he wanted insurance. She ends the article desirous of something else — something more:
“I wish we could view consent as something that’s less about caution and more about care for the other person, the entire person, both during an encounter and after, when we’re often at our most vulnerable.”
Sender’s honest reflection is more than a cautionary tale. Her experience is consistent with a broad array of voices longing for the “something more” of sex. These experiences are well documented in Christine Emba’s recent book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. In sum, our modern approach to sex is not working. The result is “harrowing dates and lackluster encounters” that leave us dissatisfied, depressed, repulsed, or even traumatized. “If this is ordinary,” writes Emba. “Something is deeply wrong.”
Engaging in first person interviews, statistical trends, and cultural analysis —Emba documents the dissatisfaction experienced — not for a want of sexual expression, liberation, or consent — but as a function of it. She writes:
The unhappy stories my friends tell, the stories the college students and young adults I interview tell — these are not stories that are primarily about consent, about whether someone said yes loudly enough or had a clear no ignored. Rather, they’re about care or the lack thereof, about the responsibilities we have to each other. They’re about the gulf between the relationships that people are seeking and the ones their social climate puts on offer. They’re about what sex means — or at least, what it should mean (Italics hers).
Sex and Meaning
Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul references the expression “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” — a statement implying all appetites are equivalent. This is a dangerous and inadequate view, says Paul. Two millennia later, his warning is just as relevant. “[M]odern sexual liberals have mainstreamed the idea that sex means nothing, or at least not very much,” Says Emba. “[In their understanding] sexual desire is a physical, biological urge that is pleasant to fulfill.” Theologian Sarah Coakley notes that sex and sexuality are often just associated with “genital acts.” The presumption is that our sexual urges are predominantly constitutive of our sexuality, and moreover, that unsatisfied sexual urges are harmful or unnatural (making celibacy seem, in Coakley’s words, “monstrous”).
In a sexual landscape drained of moral significance and dominated by modern, individualized assumptions — it is unsurprising that “consent” emerges as the criteria for establishing boundaries between sex that is good and sex that is bad.
On one level, this makes sense. An unwanted advance is objectionable for just that reason: it is unwanted. Revelations from the #MeToo movement, for example, exposed a vast network of persistent and pervasive sexual misconduct across all sectors of society and has given voice to the otherwise silenced victims of abuse. Shining a light on acts of violence and harassment has uncovered the magnitude of the problem, establishing a new normal. Perpetrators are exposed. Awareness is heightened. Legislation is altered.
In such an environment, the presence of consent, it seems, is required to resolve what is appropriate and what is unauthorized in matters of sexual activity. More specific, lawmakers have emphasized “affirmative consent”— a “conscious, voluntary and mutual agreement among all participants to engage in sexual activity.” Put differently: “yes means yes” and “no means no.”
Solutions are not relegated to legislation alone. Years ago, a spate of mobile apps such as Consent Amour or The Consent App arose in the marketplace as a technocratic solution to anything from questionable sexual hookups to the prevention of assault. Prior to a sexual encounter, the apps allow couples to sign a digital agreement rendering a legal artifact should a future dispute arise.
If avoiding legal disputes or preventing sexual assault accusations are the dominant aspirations in our relational culture, then perhaps legal reform and smartphone consent apps are appropriately prioritized.
But is this what sex means? Is there not more? This is a fascinating element of Emba’s book. In her interviews, which were primarily with women, when asking what attributes would ideally characterize a sex-positive environment, she heard words like listening, care, empathy, connection, and even transcendence. In other words, sex is not just inconsequential recreation or the satiation of an appetite. Further, the line between appropriate and inappropriate sexual norms is not simply drawn where consent is present.
Beyond someone’s religious commitments, there seems to be an inherent belief that sex is something more. We desire something more.
Permissibility and Design
In Matthew 19, the Pharisees interrogate Jesus regarding the legality of divorce. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” Jesus responds by pointing to the Creator’s intentions, where male and female will leave their respective families, and “the two will become one flesh” — not to be separated since they are joined together by God.
Predictably, the Pharisees are dissatisfied with his answer. “Why then,” they ask, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus responds: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”
What is happening here? The Pharisees are asking Jesus a legal question. Is divorce permissible? Jesus responds by pointing them to God’s design. Again, the Pharisees ask about permissibility. And again, Jesus redirects them to God’s design.
Like a good Rabbi, this is Jesus’ way of saying: “You are asking the wrong question.” This was not a matter of determining what was permissible; it was a matter of what was intended. It was not this way from the beginning. Jesus was less interested in quibbling over what was, and was not, technically admissible. Instead, he redirects his listeners to the very essence of what it means to be in relationship. Fullness, soul care, and self-sacrifice — not self-protection. Put differently, in the Christian faith tradition, there is something more to love, relationships, and sex than what is on offer in our modern cultural moment.
Like what? There is much to say about the “something more of sex” — but two primary considerations are worthy of our attention.
Sex is Embodied
On one level, this statement appears obvious. Sex is a bodily activity. Yet, we often understand our bodies dualistically — vehicles we happen to have (i.e., we are a soul; we have a body).
Alternatively, the Christian tradition rejects the idea that our bodies are extrinsic to personhood and advances the self as an integrated being where internal states such as thoughts, desires, and feelings correspond to our physicality. Sex is not just something we do; it is also an act that does something to us. Sexual activity is intricately woven into a nexus of physical, spiritual, relational, and emotional ways of being. “Intimacy,” says Emba, “makes claims on us…we can’t leave ourselves.” Attachment hormones like Oxytocin and Vasopressin, for example, are released in the body when couples have sex. For this reason, Lauren Winner states that when we sleep with someone, our bodies “make a promise.”
So, there is a biological argument pointing to the “something more” of sex. But there is an ontological argument as well. Christianity teaches us that we are created beings that inhabit a created order. Contra Bertrand Russell’s famous quip that humans are an “accidental collocation of atoms” — Christianity understands human personhood as fundamentally teleological (“For we are what He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” — Ephesians 2:10, NRSV).
Our bodies and their properties have a directional character, an understanding which is captured in the classical understanding of “eros” — the root of our modern notion of eroticism or sexual desire. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes tells a story about eros by describing humans as once being spherically conjoined only to be split in half by the gods. Thus, eros is the drive to be reunited with our other half and realize wholeness once again. Or, as Rebecca DeYoung summarizes it, “[O]ur sexual urges express our desire for completeness.”
Here, Plato presents eros or erotic desire as having a divine quality. Moreover, says Sarah Coakley, early Christianity was “enormously drawn to the Symposium’s vision of ‘desire’.” In sum, our bodies are more than biological machines; our desires are more than biological urges.
As a society, we know too well the horrors that occur when we instrumentalize others and treat them as things and not persons. Is there not a cost when we treat our own bodies as things? Sex that is reductively recreational, instrumentalized, dis-attached, emptied of meaning, and self-focused belies the truth that we are embodied beings and that sex strums a complexity of strings across our multi-dimensional personhood. Even if we do not cognitively assent to the “something more” of sex — our bodies will.
Sex and Love
Whatever else we might say, our understanding of sex will invariably accord with how we define the concept of “love” — an expression that is ubiquitous and multifarious in its modern usage. Love is often understood as a favorable emotional reaction or a positive state of mind towards someone or something. Yet, we know that emotional reactions can be fickle and unpredictable. An acquaintance once described his (shallow) rationale for breaking off a marital engagement. Specifically, his fiancé no longer “gave him butterflies” when they were together. The justification was, at best, silly. We know that robust and praiseworthy relationships hardly rely on the flimsiness of “butterflies” — but on unwavering commitments. Further, if love is a mere feeling or emotional reaction, then it can be separated from its appropriately lived expression. Rabbi David Wolpe has made the point that husbands who abuse their wives often have “favorable emotions” toward them.
Love is also used to convey what could be described as niceness — that is, the unqualified acceptance of someone’s idiosyncratic preferences. Put differently, to love someone is to nonjudgmentally accept and celebrate their expressive individualism. But again, when interrogated, this notion of love is problematic. Love that is uncritically accepting ironically carries more of the characteristics of indifference than a classical understanding of love. CS Lewis calls this “sentimental kindness.” He writes: “I do not think I should value much the love of a friend who cared only for my happiness and did not object to my being dishonest.” Or, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “Sentimentality names the assumption that we can be kind without being truthful.”
Love as a positive emotional reaction or sentimental kindness sounds pleasant enough — but these are hardly characteristics that inspire our hearts, compel our deepest commitments, or bubble up in our most durable stories.
In contrast, the Christian tradition has advanced a more demanding definition of love. Here, love exists for another’s good. Appealing to a readership who has found sex to be anywhere from dissatisfying to traumatizing, Emba turns to Thomas Aquinas’ classical understanding of Christian love: “The choice to will the good of another.” Relatedly, sociologist Christian Smith characterizes love as “Self-expenditure for the genuine good of others.” Describing Augustine’s complex understanding of love, Scholar Paul Camacho suggests that “love is a dynamic relationship with a good that exceeds the self.”
The driving characteristic of this kind of love is its directional orientation toward the other. It is a movement of the soul (what Augustine would call “delight”) outside of the self. As mentioned, such a love is demanding. “Niceness” and “kindness” are admirable characteristics of any relationship — but they do not necessarily obligate us. But to deeply love another (parents, friends, romantic partners) is to assume responsibilities and undertake actions that inhere to the obligations associated with our relationships. Here, Emba helpfully quotes Wendell Berry: “Seeking to ‘free’ sexual love from its old communal restraints, we have ‘freed’ it also from its meaning, its responsibility, and its exaltation.”
While the experience of love undoubtedly tugs on our heart strings and is rightly associated with our emotional self — it is worth noting that “willing another’s good” need not solely rely upon strong emotional attraction or romantic ardor. That is, deep and mature love does not rise and fall proportionate to our fluctuating and sometimes capricious feelings, sentiments, and desires.
This classical understanding of love has an important implication for our current relational landscape. Specifically, it sees the other as a person and not an instrument (one of Emba’s interviewees calls it “accounting for the soul”). Moreover, self-giving love values the other for the sake of the other. To paraphrase Moral Philosopher Josef Pieper, to love someone is not to desire them, it is to desire something for them.
Sex matters. But it matters because others matter.
Something More and Something Less
The “something more” of sex is love. Self-giving love. Sacrificial love. Love that wills the good of another. Love that is demanding and obligates us. Love that connects and binds us.
While this understanding of love and its sexual correlate originates from within the Christian faith tradition, that does not exempt the church from its own complicated history of disordered sexual teaching or practices. One need not look far to find harrowing stories of sexual abuse and assault within the church. In addition to abuse, some churches have been guilty of teaching a kind of “sexual prosperity gospel,” commit your ways to the Lord, and sexual thrills will follow. Moreover, generations have experienced the harmful consequences of wayward purity culture teaching. “Rather than emphasize the gift of sex within marriage,” writes Katelyn Beaty, “purity culture typically led with the shame of having sex outside of it.” Further, much of this teaching has unfairly placed the onus of sexual conduct on women (i.e., they are primarily responsible for controlling the lust of their male counterparts). Among other things we might say, these teachings and practices delegitimize the church as a source for moral guidance in matters of sexual ethics.
Related, while it is important to emphasize “something more” to a culture that reduces the meaning of sex, it is also important to emphasize “something less” to a culture that paradoxically elevates sex as all-encompassing. As Emba writes, “I think many of us want something more from sex than what we have been willing to acknowledge: pleasure, yes, but also closeness, mutuality, and even a sense of the sacred.” However, she writes, “It’s also likely that we have been asking too much for it: self-definition, self-actualization, total fulfillment.”
The endgame of life is not sex or optimized sexual experiences. This is a false narrative. For the person of faith, our greatest relational aim is participation in the life of God. It is in God that our desires and deepest longings do not come back void. Augustine, who was no stranger to the world of sexual desires and delights, helpfully states this in Confessions: “[Y]ou have made us for yourself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you.”
Over two decades ago, Fox aired “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” a one-time episode whose title played on the otherwise popular series “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The name of the show summarizes the premise: a rich bachelor, Rick Rockwell, entertains 50 potential spouses-to-be and whittles them down to a final bachelorette. During the nationally televised “courting” process, Rockwell is hidden behind a veil, leaving contestants with little information other than knowledge of his wealth. The show, hosted in Las Vegas, ended with signatures completing their union.
Predictably, the marriage was annulled not long after the show aired. Unpredictably, however, was Rockwell’s reaction. “I thought that if I meet the right person . . . we’ll get to know each other and we’ll build a relationship together based on mutual respect and love and compromise,” he confided to NBC. Later, in an interview with Larry King, Rockwell was asked if he expected “only good things” after the show’s marriage finale. “I had. I really had.” He responded.
What Rockwell desired is admirable. Who doesn’t want respect, love, and “good things” from their romantic partner? The problem was that he sought to realize those goods from a show called “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” — a shameless mockery of the institution of marriage and the seriousness of its commitments. His reach for a more demanding vision of love extended far beyond the show’s limited grasp — an outcome not indistinct from the misguided contemporary stories we tell ourselves about love, romance, sex, and relationships.
The aspirational relational virtues articulated by Rick Rockwell, Courtney Sender, and those who filled the pages of Emba’s book are not unlike the characteristics we long for today. We yearn for love that is more demanding, obligatory, self-giving, and soul-caring. But as their stories remind us, our cultural scripts often lead to unsatisfying experiences that leave us wanting and profane the goodness of love, sex, and relationality.
This is not an occasion to wag a finger. Nor is it a moment to lament and lambast eroding cultural norms. Rather, we have an opportunity to narrate a different conception of love and sex. Or, in Paul’s words, to point to “a more excellent way.” Emba writes: “In some ways, sex is a paradox. It’s the experience that situates us most completely in our bodies and the world, but it can also be the experience that gives us our sharpest taste of something beyond it. And often a sense of something more is what we really desire” (Italics hers).
Amen. There is “something more” to sex — an embodied biological, ontological desire for connection that finds its highest correlate in self-giving love.