The Good of Sex

What is it that we most want from sex? We want the admiration, trust and love – the will to do us truly good – of a truly good person of the opposite sex, whom we love and trust and admire, with whom we have pledged before God and man our utmost mutual loyalty, even unto death. If we have that, then the consummation of any given sexual act is an accident – is not of the essence of what it is we most desire. Furthermore, only if we enjoy the essential aspects of sex can we possibly be satisfied of our sexual urges. A sexual act that lacks those essential properties is a simulacrum, that cannot satisfy; that cannot but leave us somehow empty, and craving more.

What are those essential properties? They are all mentioned in the second sentence above, but each deserves a word or two.

First, another person must be materially involved. Lacking that, sex is only imaginary. Not only is solo sex incapable of satisfying us, it cannot but frustrate us all the more. It is not even fake. It is like pretending to eat a ham sandwich that isn’t really there. Hungry men starving in the wilderness dream of food. Sometimes, I have heard, their dreams seem so real that their mouths water, and their stomachs grumble in preparation for digestive work. Likewise with solo sex. The body may respond as if real sex were at hand, but it has been hoodwinked. Thus fooled, it will gripe and ache and itch far more than if the dreams had never gained purchase on its life.

Real sex requires the participation of another person. That person must be of the opposite sex. Homosexual acts are radically, essentially, incorrigibly defective, in that they cannot possibly achieve the end of sex, for which it is provided to us in the first place, and toward which the very cells of our bodies are without exception throughly ordered: the conception of new souls. Millions of achievements of that end have in the first place furnished the occasion of our own lives. Without such achievements, there would be no humans at all, or any human sex.

Sex, properly so called, is essentially ordered to the generation of children. Whatever we do with our genitals, then, it must be ordered toward that end to qualify as sex in the first place. As not involving more than one sex, homosexual acts fail to pass that threshold of real sex. They are fake sex. They are like eating what is not food: cellulose mixed with aspartame.

Real sex, then, must involve another person of the opposite sex. But real sex is not ipso facto good. It may or may not provide the essential good of sex, for which we long. To get the good of sex – to get truly good sex – more is needed.

Good sex requires the participation of a beloved. We must admire and respect her – being myself a man, I’ll use the feminine pronoun – as truly good and admirable (and admirably beautiful); and that admiration and respect must be so strong and wholehearted that we will to dedicate our very life to hers, and to her good, even unto the loss of our own. Sexual acts with women we don’t love in this way are real enough. But they are not quite good, for they are not quite complete. They cannot ever satisfy; just as eating candy cannot sate our hunger for nutritious food.

Yet more even than this is needed for good sex. Our beloved must requite our love, and to the same degree. Few things in life are more painful than unrequited love; few things more wonderful than to find our love requited, and our loyalty reciprocated.

Finally, if sex is to be really good the love that is complete enough to supply it must, if really and utterly good, therefore also be grand and brave enough to declare itself boldly before all the world, and for all time. It must be expressed formally, in words of love that permanently seal the bond thereof. Anything less than a permanent seal betokens a love that, as conditioned upon certain future states of affairs, is less than utmost, and that can therefore only defectively satisfy our sexual longing. The seal must be also a matter of public record, an agreement with the whole people to keep a formal commitment to love on into an unknown future, whatever its hazards and adventures. A merely private agreement, that wants recognition by the wider world, is shy of the complete bravery called for by true love.

The perfect love we desire is the utmost love of a wonderfully good person to our own true good, a love that declares it shall be not at all restrained, or therefore limited, by considerations of this or that worldly factor or affection; and we cannot feel that another person is indeed that wonderfully good without willing in turn to make ourselves that same commitment.

Good sex, then, needs marriage.

And not just any sort of marriage, either. Good sex needs sacramental marriage. The lovers must consecrate the formal public bond of their love to God, and must understand their agreement to sacrifice themselves for each other as a sacrifice to the Most High God, and to his high purposes. Man and wife must pledge their lives to each other under the form of a solemn vow to God almighty.

It turns out that this marriage vow to God is not quite possible to those who have not also pledged their lives individually, and superordinately, to his service. An implicit pledge of devotion to Truth is the forecondition of any other promise; and all promises invoke and reiterate that prior pledge. Indeed, the marriage vow *just is* such an individual pledge of fealty, to the Holy Order of Matrimony, equivalent in its way to the initiatory vows required of those ordained to other such orders – those, e.g., of knights, monks, and deacons, of kings, prophets, priests, and bishops – wholly dedicated first to God, whatever the details of their temporal missions and offices. Matrimony is a religious order, like those of any monk or nun. Indeed, it is a most ascetic order, as severe and rigorous in its way as the Trappists or the Carmelites, because it calls continually for an ever renewed and deepened death to the old self and its petty fond wishes, in favor of a radical spiritual poverty, an unstinting obedience to the Good, and a terrific openness to the future of the world, and to the demands of eternity.

A marriage is to be a church. It is a gathering of two souls, at least (or, God willing that it should happen to fulfill his original and ultimate purpose for the Matrimonial Order in general, of a few more infant souls) in his name; and so he is present there. The Body of the marital animal, a new social organism of man and wife, is to be an ikon of the Body of Christ, and a representation of the marriage and unity between Christ and his Body the Church.

So then is sex the material element, the host as it were, of the sacrament of marriage. Where it effects that sacrament, it is a type of epiklesis, by which God is besought, to which he responds, and in which he then dwells. It may be, then, a medium of grace, and embody Christ, as it were a cell of the Church. And this embodiment, once effected, and provided it is not profaned, may continue unabated, whether or not the sacrifice of the marital altar is ever again consummated (although, as with the Eucharist – which is the Wedding Feast of Heaven – repetitions of the holocaust proper to that altar are never vain, but are, rather, altogether salutary and laudable); just as the host, once consecrated, is ever after the God himself.

None of this, of course, is to say that the essential elements of good sex all (mirabile dictu!) properly assembled and celebrated can be relied upon to conjure transcendently wonderful sex. No human celebration is immaculate, nor are any human enterprises completely successful. It is to say, rather, that great sex as the godless reckon it is not the true point of sex in the first place, so that those who seek it as the end of their motions with the opposite sex are sadly misled. The greatness of good sex lies not in sexiness, but in goodness. If you’ve got the goodness, why then you’ve got the fat meat of it. The sexiness of sex, then, will be gravy.

35 thoughts on “The Good of Sex

  1. Pingback: The Good of Sex | Reaction Times

  2. Good sex, then, needs marriage.

    The greatness of good sex lies not in sexiness, but in goodness. If you’ve got the goodness, why then you’ve got the fat meat of it. The sexiness of sex, then, will be gravy.

    That’s just a great way of redefining what good sex is. By way of analogy with regard to food, it’s just like saying never mind that the food tastes bad but it’s all good as long as you’re eating.

    Too much sophistry here.

    Let’s just try to keep this simple.

    Firstly, sex and marriage are two separate things. I don’t have direct line to God but it appears to me that the sexual restrictions placed on humans may have to do more with the regulation of human relations rather than improving the quality of our sex lives. It’s becoming apparent that issues related to sexual access and family stability on a societal level may be more important than individual hedonic satisfaction. Telling people that marriage is the only way you’re going to have a good sex life is, in my opinion, easily refuted, undermining both marriage and Christian competency with regard to sexual matters.

    Secondly, empirical observation refutes you. People have reported very enjoyable sex in situations of adultery, fornication and in all other combinations of moral vice. Good sex deals primarily with hedonic satisfaction and therefore good sex primarily deals with hedonic elements of the act, not specifically its context. Many a divorced couple have had great sex but terrible relationships.

    Keeping it real.

      • Conversation is sonorous – or can be – but it is not about sonority. Likewise is sex pleasant – usually – but not about pleasure. The post is about what sex is about. It’s right there in the title.

        Bruce Charlton yesterday posted a trenchant essay about the typically modern error of thinking that life is not inherently meaningful – not, i.e., about something other than itself, and the pleasures and pains it occasions. To think that sex is about pleasure is to fall into this error – into idolatry, and likely into addictive obsession with a fetish. And like any pursuit of the Good where it is not to be found, that can easily end in despair.

    • If it’s bad – bad food, bad sex – then no matter how nice it feels, it’s bad.

      Food and sex that are truly good are usually going to feel good in the bargain.

    • To think that sex is about pleasure is to fall into this error – into idolatry, and likely into addictive obsession with a fetish.

      And to think about sex without reference to pleasure is to fall into asceticism. The trick is to try and strike a balance between the two. Furthermore, taking away the hedonism from sex also attacks its fundamental carnal nature which, in turn, attacks the nature of gender polarity.

      • There’s a world of difference between saying that sex is not about pleasure and saying that sex has nothing to do with pleasure. You seem to be taking me to mean the latter, but I don’t, and haven’t said anything like it.

      • There’s a world of difference between saying that sex is not about pleasure and saying that sex has nothing to do with pleasure.

        Sex is mutlidimensional, and any assessment of the “Good of sex” must look at it from its hedonic dimension as well. Sex is fundamentally about pleasure, just as it is about union and procreation. Arguing that sex is not for pleasure makes the pursuit of sex, even within the marital union, teleologically suspect. True, there is a good tradition of this ascetic approach in Christian culture.

        Let the moral angst begin.

      • Arguing that sex is not for pleasure makes the pursuit of sex, even within the marital union, teleologically suspect.

        Why? Why should the fact that the pleasure of sex is not the final end of sex make pursuit of sex teleologically suspect? This does not follow at all.

        Is eating for pleasure? Is conversation for pleasure? Are beautiful landscapes for pleasure? Is learning for pleasure? To be sure, all these things occasion pleasure, or can. But is that all that they are for?

        Well, of course not. I mean, sure, being as such is pleasant, and God makes us because he is pleased to do so. But nevertheless, we don’t eat only in order to experience the pleasures of eating (unless we are seriously disordered), but to nourish the body. We don’t converse only because conversation is fun, but to learn from each other, and about each other, and about the world. And so forth. The pleasure of these activities helps to motivate them, of course. But that is not what they are about.

        Being as such is pleasant, and being as such is beautiful; and that pleasure and beauty suffice to warrant creation. But to be is to be ordered toward some end, so that no created thing is just about itself.

        What moral angst? You speak for yourself.

      • Kristor:
        What you don’t appreciate is how much slumlord really, really wants to not get the point. He has made it his personal crusade to try to undermine the traditional understanding of the telos of sex, etc. He is constantly lecturing trads about how they’ve gotten sex wrong all along, so the sexual revolution is really the fault of trads, etc. He has blog posts about how Humanae Vitae gets the telos of sex wrong too, so you are in good company. That his arguments all depend on willfully misunderstanding the meaning of concepts like telos is something he will never concede.

        You can talk to him until you are blue in the face, and it will do no good. He is too personally invested in the idea that he is just so much smarter than the Church and the natural law tradition.

      • slumlord wrote:

        The natural law tradition which Humanae Vitae sought to uphold was right in upholding the traditional principle that coitus should not be privated but wrong in its understanding of what constituted a privation. In asking men to conform to the laws of nature they were asking men to conform to the understanding of the laws of nature as understood in the medieval period, not the laws of nature as understood by modern science. The document has the remarkable distinction of being right in principle but wrong in application due to an error of fact.

        See, so the Church and the natural law tradition have the telos of sex all wrong because SCIENCE!

      • But nevertheless, we don’t eat only in order to experience the pleasures of eating (unless we are seriously disordered)

        Obviously never had a Mars Bar because you craved the taste of it, even though you didn’t need the calories. Yet another sin to add to the ledger.

      • @Amateur Psychiatrist.

        See, so the Church and the natural law tradition have the telos of sex all wrong because SCIENCE!

        Paging Galileo.

  3. This might help: “Eros Defiled: The Problem of Sexual Guilt.” By John White. In my considered opinion, this is the very best text I’ve read — and I’ve been around a very long time — on the subject. Inter-Varsity Press, 1977.

    For example: “Our bodies were designed for freedom. Freedom can be found in sex or in any other area ONLY when we fulfill the purpose of our creation.”

    If you haven’t read this book, you should.

    Is there some reason that the people on this website try to outdo one other with esoteric and high-sounding jargon, which serve only to obscure your message?

    I’m getting a little tired of it. You people are sounding more and more like “liberal scholars,” whose verbosity and arcane nonsensical phraseology is intended to elevate their own “superior” status/intelligence, while muddying whatever ideas/thoughts/perspectives they might be trying to convey — or not to convey, come to think of it.

    RC Sproul had a saying, and here I paraphrase, since it was 25 years ago I heard him say this: “If you want to reach people, you have to put the candy on the lower shelves.”

    Otherwise, you’re here only to challenge others as to who can be the most erudite, intelligent, and superior brahmin.

    Or, maybe I should comment elsewhere, where ordinary English can be understood, English that is not laced with obscure and esoteric references.

    • Yes, it took some consideration on my part, but authors here enjoy intellectual discussions like I enjoy ice hockey. This is what they like and they will do as they like here and if you don’t like it you are free to leave. As to its usefulness, I believe the style here is useful. It is an unfortunate fact that most people only mouth high sounding platitudes they cribbed from their professors or anyone else they’ve been told is the smartest person in a room. Why not cater to these posers, out do them on their own terms, and win them over to Christ? And of course it is never too late for even the most erudite heathen to be impressed and won over by a respect for God’s people and a robust systematic theology. You say you are old. Many young people in our universities have never ever heard about Jesus other than being told that his followers are absolute mouth breathing imbeciles.

      Some people really do like classical music and can tell the difference between good wine and cheap wine.

    • Thanks for the criticism, Debra. I’ll try to bear it in mind. You’re not the first to complain to me about the vocabulary I use. While I’m aware that it can be difficult for some readers, I consciously decided a while ago that in writing for those who are reading on the internet, it makes little sense to use a more common word that is not quite right for the purpose; that it is better to use the right word even if it is Greek, and trust that the readers who don’t understand it will go ahead and right-click on it to get the definition, and then perhaps in the process learn about a few unexpected things, and even make a few further connections of their own.

      Working at it that way is better – more edifying, and more salutary – for the understanding than not. I know from my own experience that when one struggles to understand the technical terms in which theology is expressed (not just by theologians, but in Scripture and in the basic documents of the Church, such as the creeds), it can be very difficult at first, but then as one’s facility improves, concepts that had seemed *absolutely impenetrable* at first (like the Trinity) begin to make a lot more sense.

      I’ve read too many pop sites that, in trying to be helpful, and explain theology and its implications for our social life in vernacular terms, get things quite wrong. This is tremendously confusing for readers. It is a disservice. It can even be scandalous.

      • Part of what I enjoy about reading Zippy is the way he tends to follow an idea wherever it leads, right up to the wall where its trail stops in a dead end, and then smash right on through that wall to reveal an unsuspected close connection to another, quite different concept.

    • There’s something to be said for “putting candy on the lower shelf”, but I think there are already a great number of Christians who are trying (with varying success) to do that. My experience and understanding of Orthosphere is largely that it is not a place of “milk” for the faith, but of “meat” (per 1 Corinthians 3) and it has never struck me as particularly evangelistic in its mission.

      I actually very much enjoy that I DON’T always understand everything, as it gives me an opportunity to do more research and possibly discuss here in the comments, and more is learned that way. Being just a bit out of my depth challenges me to learn more, do better, think more critically, and I can’t imagine I’m the only one who feels this way. Moreover, since the contents of the discussion are as sophisticated as the vocabulary (if not, occasionally, more so), there is no indication, to my mind, of the contributors engaging in “puffing themselves up” by use of a thesaurus – i.e. “This’ll show how smarts I is!”

    • There are actually people who appreciate a website that does not dumb down its vocabulary and sentence structure. Think of him as a missionary to the intellectual class, those who love learning purely for its own sake. Christianity is too often explained in the most shallow terms, which leaves the few who crave a thorough exploration totally unfed.

      The English language has an enormous vocabulary to express very nuanced ideas clearly.

      The more I struggle to be brief, the more unintelligible I become.

      – Horace

      Sometimes, the best choice is the rare word, provided one’s audience is willing to grow. Then one can express an idea in one word instead of a sentence. This is not arrogance; it is efficiency.

      If you want simplistic, lower shelf writing, go to patheos. As for me, I prefer to be introduced to these obscure and esoteric references that expand my understanding. It is bland to be only in the company of my generation, their ideas, their words.

      • Unlike Kristor, it seems that I can’t make myself understood even when I try. My family has had the Mormon missionaries come by a few times, and as much as I admire those guys, this evening I thought I would try to evangelize them. So I launched into what was going to be a defense of classical theism’s identity of God with His divinity against LDS errors, but after a minute my wife cut me off and one of the poor kids told me he didn’t understand half of the words I’d just used. As a teacher, I felt terribly embarrassed and was much less trouble thereafter, although at one point when they were talking about Joseph Smith’s restored priesthood, I got in a minute’s discussion on the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist and its priesthood.

        I did promise to read the Book of Mormon when I get a chance, which I’ve been meaning to do anyway. As they were walking out, I said something that I hope made sense. “If there was no Great Apostasy, then we belong to the Church Jesus Christ founded. Think about it.”

      • Hah! I had the same experience once with a young Jehovah’s Witness who came to my door about ten years ago. He was extremely articulate and well read, and of course polite. I remember I kept saying things like, “Oh, we believe something like that, too, with the slight difference that x, which prevents the problem of falling into heresy y – which is good, because y ruins the whole shooting match!”

        I think I managed only to confuse him. We parted earnestly blessing each other.

  4. After having 5 children I have found that sex is only the act of impregnating a woman. Everything else outside of attempted impregnation is mastirbation to me, although fluid swapping has shown to have some beneficial effects for the woman and I have not been convinced that it is sin to engage in sterile sex acts with the wife. Also, I have found that there is some good in sex when a woman climaxes, and that is something important to me as a husband.

    Nothing about sex so affects my passions (the one Kristor mentioned in his opening paragraphs) than my beautiful feminine wife excited to be impregnated by lucky ol’ me!

  5. Kristor, I am glad to see that in your reply to slumlord, you gave him the word-count he deserves.

    In my own experience, after observing my wife’s first pregnancy and the agony and the ecstacy of her giving birth, I would agree (with Earl, I think) that any other supposed purpose of sex rather pales before it.

    But I’ll have to say, Earl, that these two sentences seem to contradict each other: “Everything else outside of attempted impregnation is mastirbation to me… I have not been convinced that it is sin to engage in sterile sex acts with the wife.”

    • Committing sin (or not) and committing sex (or not): two different things. Also, I’m not Catholic.

      How the heck did masturbation get an I in there? Dang smartphone ain’t so smart!

    • Kristor, I am glad to see that in your reply to slumlord, you gave him the word-count he deserves.

      That’s what I like about you Bill, you’re consistent.

  6. How the heck did masturbation get an I in there? Dang smartphone ain’t so smart!

    It’s all right. I knew it was probably the phone’s fault.

  7. Pingback: The Good of Sex: a Gedanken Experiment | The Orthosphere

  8. Also, I’m not Catholic.

    I don’t quite follow – if it is a sin, and the Catholic Church identifies it as such, then it is sinful for anyone, Catholic or not. If it is not sinful, and the Church (for sake of argument) “gets it wrong” then wouldn’t it be nonsinful for all (except perhaps the sin of disobedience for a Catholic)? Are you saying you believe the Church is wrong on act X, and therefore it is not sinful for non-Catholics, but sinful for Catholics because of disobedience?

    • I am sympathetic to the natural law claim that malplaced semen is ethically significant. I am however not convinced or convicted that it is a -sin- to malplace semen, since I am a sola scriptura/divine command theorist when it comes to ethics and sin. Sin to me is a specific list of things I’ve found clearly described in scripture. Liberty (sexual or otherwise) is taken when I have no conviction that I am sinning and I have some clarity on the matter being licit and when I find it is not unprofitable.


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