Contrary to the imagination of the average teenage evangelical, a good marriage consists of more than just sex. A husband and wife create a life together and a home economy out of the entirety of their lives. Their sexual natures that join together as part of this economy are not like a KitchenAid stand mixer that gets unwrapped at the bridal shower and used only after the wedding. Rather, the sexual natures of men and women color many aspects of our lives and our relationships regardless of marital status. Even if you’re the rare Christian who never “struggles” with sexual sin or longs for intercourse, there are still longings for intimacy that are, to one degree or another, often inescapably sexual in nature. If these aspects of our being, given to us by God as part of being created male or female, precede marriage and find fulfillment in things other than intercourse, how should we think about these affections for celibate singles within the Church?
Within marriage, it is widely recognized that one’s sexual desires must be tempered and disciplined even as one’s sexual affections takes on a greater range of expressions. You’ve probably heard the phrase “sex begins in the kitchen” or read advice addressed to men who want more sex in their marriage: Inevitably, “help out more with the kids and house cleaning” will show up on the list somewhere. These popular truisms generally underscore that, in marriage, serving one another is integral to laying a foundation for a healthy sexual relationship.
While this is entirely true and every married man would do well to ensure that he exerts himself in household labors so that his wife has enough energy to fully participate in intercourse, there is a deeper meaning to housework and sex. Both are ultimately part of a productive household economy and both draw on our domestic energies to fulfill the Creation mandate of Genesis 1:28. Marriage is ultimately creative as it is procreative and our sexuality is thus meant to serve this purpose of what we might call “home economics.”
Wendell Berry discusses this in his essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine”, where he draws a picture of modern marriage as the legal partnership between “two successful careerists in the same bed” who use their house as the place where they consume various merchandise, including one another. He scoffs at the idea of “sexual freedom” as a mechanistic maximizing of pleasure that disconnects bodies from souls and caricatures the modern ideal this way: “Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of ‘sexual partners’, orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex, which will be a great deal more abundant as soon as it can be done by robots.”
He contrasts this (quite popular) notion with one of a productive household—not productive for how much money its individual members can make but for what can be made in the home. In Berry’s more agrarian vision, this involves “economic independence and self-employment,” but by no means is this limited to a wife churning butter while the husband plows the fields. Rather, the overall goal is the health and well-being of families and communities, with each member of the community considered for their inherent worth as a person rather than what monetary value their labor can command in an industrial economy.
Sex, then, reflects in one way or another what we can create together, and within marriage procreation is the most public declaration of human sexuality. Elsewhere Berry writes, “Sexual love is the heart of community life. Sexual love is the force that in our bodily life connects us most intimately to the Creation, to the fertility of the world, to farming and the fare of animals. It brings us into the dance that holds the community together and joins it to its place.” It is in the making of homes and the conception of children that our sexual energies are put to use. While secular liberals and conservative Christians alike might bristle a bit at the idea that sexual love has anything to do with community life, most of us can agree that the scope of Scripture as well as the text of the Creation mandate link our sexual natures as male and female to the daily endeavors of life in the world.
For better or for worse, marriage transforms friendships, careers, church life, and (as previously mentioned) domestic pursuits. Those of us who are married make sacrifices in other areas for the sake of our spouse—or we are empowered do things we couldn’t do before getting married. Sexuality always requires disciplining our minds and bodies for the sake of creating and conserving; even the word “husbandry” carries with it the connotation of stewardship.
This seems all well and good for the married. But what about those who are celibate? Is the sexual passion that a husband pours into his labor for his wife’s sake and the affection that a wife pours into her cooking simply meant to be suppressed for the celibate? Should we forbid gay Christians from entering our kitchens if we want to keep our marriage beds pure? If our desire for intimacy often carries with it a tinge of sexual longing, can we lawfully pursue intimate relationships with other human beings only if we have purged any hint of eros from our words and deeds? If the entire household economy is an expression of the husband and wife’s love for one another, is that economy inaccessible to the unmarried?
I think not. If we accept that God’s creation of us as male and female reflects more than simply the mechanistic possibilities for intercourse, then we have to explore how—whether single or married— we can discipline our affections to cultivate every kind of human intimacy that they were created for. The popular, modern account of sexuality reduces our sex drives to an orgasm-maximizing industry, but the Christian account that only thinks of conception and bearing children (or some nebulous concept of “strengthening the relationship”) is equally reductionistic. Since intercourse itself represents only a tiny fraction of time that any married couple spends together and the rest of their sexual expression is either muted or directed into other labors, we must take stock of all of inborn desires and affections and cultivate those which connect us to Creation and to the God who gave us these passions.
It may seem that this is expanding the bounds of sexuality too widely, corrupting the basic desire for human intimacy (which is in turn a reflection of our desire for intimacy with God) with sexual longings. However, since we can say that our labor—particularly our homemaking—is an expression of married sexuality, can we not say the same for celibate singles? After all, we acknowledge that in marriage, the lines between eros and philia often blur—so, too, does not the love that singles express reflect different kinds of passion? What if eros is more than romance or genital acts? What if sexuality, like orality, is inherent in our physical nature but takes on different expressions based on our commitments?
It does not seem to helpful to try to demarcate between affections that are influenced by our gender or sexuality and those that don’t. Across different cultures and different relationships, holding hands or cooking a meal for someone can mean different things, and it may be helpful for singles who feel disconnected as they look from the outside in on the joys of sexual intimacy to recognize that most of the day-to-day intimacies and ubiquitous affections are just as accessible to them. (It may also be helpful to have more constructive advice for the question of reckoning with their longings for intimacy than “go take a cold shower.”)
While marriage is a uniquely fertile ground for the practice of home economics, we can find places for singles within our home economies if we are willing to expand our imaginations beyond the narrow scope of late modernity. As we do so, we may also find ways to push back against the romanticism which makes marriage the exclusive (and thus unsustainable) domain of love and intimacy. The private sanctity of the marital bond must invite the community around the married couple in and the physical passions of the unmarried must find satisfaction or sublimation in the labor of homemaking.
Where and how we direct our labor is important: it is clear from Genesis 1:28 that the gendered labor of culture making is linked to fruitfulness and bearing children. There are obviously non-sexual creative endeavors related to the discipline of one’s sexual desires—every married man can attest to some good books that got read while their wife was ill or away! However, we cannot lose sight of the procreative dimension to sex which was intended from the beginning of Creation because when we do, sexual expression (like any other aspect of our personality or character) inevitably bends towards the self and selfishness. This dimension, though often not fulfilled (whether in infertility or celibacy), gives us an orientation to pursue as we channel our sexual energies.
There are two primary ways in which I think celibate singles are uniquely positioned to direct their affections. The first is in being part of other families with children. Much ink has been spilled in recent decades about the importance of children growing up with both a mother and a father; while this is certainly true, such an emphasis belies the role that extended family and community play in raising children. The whole scope of human history and culture suggests that an isolated nuclear family disconnected from other significant adults on a day-to-day basis is something of an aberration. Children need godparents, friends, uncles, and aunts—biological or not—who cherish them and disciple in ways that their parents do not. In our cultural milieu, it is on families with kids to invite singles in (and singles will have to adapt to the challenges and responsibilities). In this way, the love that is expressed supports another couple’s procreation (as any married couple who has ever needed a date alone can attest!).
The second way in which celibate believers particularly fulfill the procreative aspect of culture making is in loving people who have been disconnected from their families. Whether it is orphans, widows, prisoners, or the mentally handicapped, so many people have had their ties of kinship stolen or overwhelmed by sin and death. Loving them back into fruitful communion doesn’t erase or replace unrequited sexual longings, but it does allow for intimate and familial bonds to form as those who have none are welcomed back into loving community.
I am not in any way suggesting that taking care of someone else’s child can substitute for the joy of having your own, nor that there won’t still be vast amounts of sexual energy that the average single person will have to simply deal with and suffer through. Intimate friendships are valuable, but they don’t magically obviate the biological desire for intercourse or the human desire for the emotional intimacy and steadfastness of marriage. (As Eve Tushnet says, friendship is not a consolation prize for the unmarried!) A person who is allergic to shellfish may learn to appreciate how great salads are, but their enjoyment of a salad doesn’t make lobster any less delicious or desirable.
Yet even as the painful struggle of gay Christians to find love within the Church exposes the idolatries of industrial sexuality and pseudo-Christian insularity, so the testimony of the singles who discipline their desires for the sake of their own salvation and the love of the fatherless can be an encouragement and a challenge to the body of Christ. Both of the previously discussed avenues of affection require pushing against other modern constraints besides just the imaginative boundaries of kinship as nuclear family and physical affections as exclusively erotic. Good husbandry requires attentiveness and proximity; the design of our neighborhoods and cities still reflects the priorities of comfort and privacy instead of community interaction. It is up to those of us who have homes and children to find ways to welcome and support those who bear the unique burdens of celibacy instead of turning Biblical norms into social castes but is a project of the local church to think about how to orient our lives such that close friendship and intimacy is easily accessible.
The sensuality of food and its relation to sex in marriage underscores the potential for those who do not partake in intercourse to sublimate their physical desires as they indulge their affections. The cultural mandate to be fruitful and multiply has a unique expression in married couples who conceive children, but it is not exclusive: the body of Christ can come together to make homes that are welcoming to all of God’s children and steward the gifts He has given us. As we all learn to discipline our desires, we will find that each of us has opportunities to nurture intimacy together as we cultivate fruitful labors.