Where Logic Meets Love

Answering Some Questions about Sexuality

Friday, May 18, 2012

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Answering Some Questions about Sexuality | Faith Permeating Life

My next post, about defining sexual behavior, is ready to go, but since Queen of Carrots took the time to ask a bunch of follow-up questions to my last post, I wanted to take an opportunity to answer those questions first.

I don't pretend to have the definitive answers to anything, but I can always do my best!

How central is sexuality to personhood?
Answering this requires defining "central," "sexuality," and "personhood"! Are you talking about sexuality in the sense of being sexually attracted to other people, or in reference to sex and/or gender, as discussed in the post? I think in either case, there's no one answer for everyone. For some people, their identification as a man or woman is very important to their self-identity, and for other people, it's not. Same with sexual orientation or any other inborn trait. To me, this is like asking, "How central is race to personhood?" Because of the culture in which I live, I tend not to think about the fact that I am Caucasian as being central to my identity, but I know many people for whom being African American is extremely important to their identity. It wouldn't make sense for me to make a blanket statement about one aspect of a person always or never being central to their identity.

Is sexuality something people are, or something they do?
I think this may be addressed better by my next post on what sexual behavior is, but there are multiple aspects to this question, and again it comes down to the definition of sexuality. I was born attracted to men and not women, and that would have been true for me even if I lived in a cave by myself for my entire life. My "sexual orientation" is something I am; my "sexual activity" is something I do. I am sexually active with one individual, my husband, and if he died, I would no longer be sexually active (unless I remarried), but I would still be straight.

Is everyone entitled to a legitimate sexual outlet? Is it a necessary part of being human? (What about the disabled, disfigured, or just plain unlucky?)
This question is tricky because to say yes implies that we have an obligation to find sexual partners for everyone, and I don't think that's the case. I think the question to be asking is the flip side of this -- is there a legitimate reason to deny a group of people the ability to have a sexual partner? It's one thing if someone does not attract a sexual partner because they are (disabled, disfigured, unlucky), it's another thing completely to say that people who are (disabled, disfigured) should not be allowed to have a sexual partner. And I don't agree with that.

Are these cases where someone's biological sex is unclear more like being bad (or good) at math, or more like being born missing a foot? And why?
Well, in the case of either math skills or birth deformities, I'd say these things matter only to the extent that they are a disability (they prevent a person from doing something they want or need to do) and/or a handicap (they cause a person to be judged, labeled, looked down upon, etc.). After all, neither the fact that I can't speak Martian nor the fact that I'm missing a third ear have any impact on my life or anyone's opinion of me, so comparing those things to each other or to anything else would be meaningless. So if someone is born without any genitals, for example, you might say that that is a disability in that the person may need to have surgery in order to urinate. But it is a handicap if that person lives in a society that expects people to be clearly male or female, so the person may be discriminated against in school, employment, and so on. If a person is unsure whether to use a male or female restroom because they have both or neither traditional "parts," I don't think the question to be asking is "Is this similar to not being able to solve a math problem or not being able to walk?" The question to ask is "How can we make sure this person isn't going to be harassed or physically harmed if they make what someone perceives to be the 'wrong' choice between these two socially constructed options?" If the person can safely use either restroom, then the "problem" disappears altogether.

What is sexuality for? Why are we this way and not some other way?
I'm pretty sure every Christian, gay child has at some point in time asked God, "Why did you make me this way?" As far as I know, God hasn't provided a clear answer, so I don't feel qualified to try to answer this myself.

Is there such a thing as normal human sexuality?
Alfred Kinsey attempted to answer this question with his research. What he found (to the best of my understanding) was essentially that what we tend to culturally consider "normal" sexual activity looks completely different than "average" or "typical" sexual activity. So if by "normal" you mean "typical," then yes, I think it's possibly to make statements about what most people do, but that doesn't mean that people who don't do certain things are "abnormal" in the sense of being wrong. Case in point: Mike and I are not "normal" for practicing NFP, if you define "normal" as what most people do.

Another way I've seen this question approached, particularly from a Christian standpoint, is by asking what is "natural." This gets tricky because the general implication is that there is one specific way of having sex that is "natural" for everyone, and I don't think that's the case. I'd say it would be "unnatural" for a man who is only sexually attracted to men to have sex with a woman -- that would go against his nature. So if what you're asking is "Is every person sexually aroused by the same actions/people/whatever?" the answer is no. And if you're asking, "Should every person be sexually aroused by the same actions/people/whatever?" that seems like a strange question -- I think it's hard enough 1) determining what sexually arouses you and 2) communicating that to your spouse, without trying to conform to same standard!

Do you think all loving, committed relationships are OK? Multiple simultaneous partners? Closely-related partners? Why or why not?
I have a hard time finding any reason to condemn this threesome, and I think the author explains well why having multiple partners isn't for everyone but that doesn't make it wrong for everyone either. There are cases (such as adultery) when having multiple partners seems wrong to me, but that's because of the deception, unfaithfulness to commitment, etc., not solely the fact of having more than one partner. And I learned more about consanguineous relationships from Life as a Reader, such as this post. My experience has been that arguments against these kind of loving, committed, consensual relationships are more often than not based on prejudices, misunderstandings, and lack of experience knowing anyone in one of these relationships. I know my previous judgments were.

Is it always unloving to ask celibacy of someone else? (What about, for instance, someone who is only attracted to children? Would it be wrong to expect them to be celibate?)
Again, I'm not sure this is the question I would ask. The first question I would ask is: Does this type of relationship pose serious harm to either of the people in it? And the second question is, is it appropriate to legally prohibit this kind of sexual relationship? A loving same-sex relationship does not pose serious harm to either party. An emotionally abusive relationship is harmful, but is better prevented (in my opinion) through education and counseling than through attempting to define and legally prohibit such a relationship. However, a sexual relationship between an adult and a child almost unilaterally causes harm to the child (with some exceptions, such as consensual sex that is legally statutory rape between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old), and it is to some extent the law's obligation to protect minors, so therefore it makes sense to make this kind of relationship illegal. So now if you're talking about an individual who is interested in a sexual relationship that is illegal, it is not unreasonable to prevent this person from being in that kind of a relationship. If that is the only kind of sexual relationship they're interested in, then by default preventing them from having that kind of relationship would mean they would be celibate. But the emphasis is on the relationship, not on the person; I see a difference between requiring a person to be celibate because of something inherent in them, and prohibiting a specific kind of harmful relationship.

What do you all think?

14 comments:

  1. Wow, heavy questions! Some of them would be fairly impossible to answer. But I agree with your answers. When it comes to sexuality you can't really make general rules of what is considered normal, as normal is different to a lot of people. And you can't really tell people how to have sex either, although I'm pretty sure some people believe everything should lead to 'the act' of producing children and that sex is icky and wrong. To them a lot of things would be abnormal.
    Heck, some people are even asexual and are neither aroused by men or women and therefor sex has no importance in their life. But to most of us, gay or straight, it's pretty important because it creates a really special connection with your partner. Then again, some people just do it because it's fun. If it wasn't meant to be fun, we would be like most animals and just have sex out of necessity. No foreplay and fetishes and all that if we were made that way.
    But we weren't, some people like the typical stuff, others are quirky and like to experiment with dress up and toys and whatnot. Some people go way further than that even, it's a personal thing. Nothing wrong with that, as long as both adults enjoy it and do it willingly.

    Willing being the key, whenever someone is harmed or is unwilling, sexual acts are wrong. It may be an urge that you can't stop, but a sensible person should then try and find help. Not easy, but it's the thing to do. That would be referring to the question about adults attracted to children.
    Cheating is always wrong. If some people want to be in an open relationship, well that's their choice. But it's important all parties are aware, otherwise it's just wrong.

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    1. I didn't directly mention asexual individuals but I was trying to keep in mind when answering these questions that not everyone experiences sexual attraction, to anyone. So thank you for bringing that up, and for sharing your thoughts on these questions.

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  2. I appreciate the thoughtful answers. I appreciate the racial analogy, that makes a lot of sense.

    Maybe there's a deeper question here, though, that I'm still not getting to: What is sex for? Why does sex exist in the world?

    The impression I get from your writing is that you would answer "sex exists so that people can have pleasurable ways of expressing a close relationship." In that context, it makes sense to say "anything consensual is fine."

    But I'm not sure that tells the whole story.

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    1. Well, "What is sex for?" a really big question. Because I know you come from a Quiverfull background, I would imagine that you are used to the message that "sex is for procreation," so thinking beyond that could understandably be challenging.

      I know I'm harping on definitions a lot, but I think clarity of language is so clear when we're having discussions about topics as big as sex, marriage, sexual orientation, or gender. When you ask, "What is sex for?", that could mean:
      -Why did God make sex the method by which new life is created?
      -Why is sex pleasurable for humans but not for most creatures, and what does that mean (if anything) for how and when we have sex?
      -Because sex can produce children, does that mean that it should only happen in order to produce children?
      -What is more important: How and between whom sex takes place, or the individuals' motivations and intentions for engaging in sex?
      -Does God look favorably or unfavorably upon specific kinds of sex (e.g., oral sex), specific kinds of sexual relationships (e.g., a man and a woman), specific motivations for sex (e.g., desire for orgasm), specific intentions for sex (e.g., wanting to create a child)?

      If the reason for sex you mentioned is not the whole story... what do you think is the whole story of sex?

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    2. First of all, despite my background, I was not raised to think sex was just for procreation--in fact, at my bridal shower my late mother's best friend gave the devotional and emphasized how important it was to learn to get full pleasure from the experience. In front of the little girls and everything.

      And I'm very happy to spend time on definitions--that's why I'm a lawyer. :-D

      Anyway, let me try out an analogy that (like all analogies) will undoubtedly break down at some point, but is close to my thinking right now. Eating. Eating exists so that we can obtain nourishment. Eating is pleasurable so that we will do it and obtain nourishment. Eating is something we share with animals and yet derive vastly more pleasure from and interest in.

      Yes, there are now, thanks to modern science, other ways of obtaining nourishment. And there have always been ways to eat and not retain nourishment. And there are disordered appetites, both genetic and habitual in origin. But that does not sever the deep, fundamental connection between eating and nourishment.

      That does not mean that it is wrong to ever eat something less than perfectly healthy. Or that everyone has to eat the same diet. Or that pleasure has no place in eating. Or that I'm going to tell a complete stranger that their diet is wrong.

      But I think it does mean that severing the pleasure of eating entirely from its central purpose in nourishment is going to lead us to abusing eating--using it for purposes that will ultimately be harmful to us. I don't think, for example, the ancient feasts where they stuffed themselves and then went and threw it up and stuffed some more were a proper use of eating.

      I don't think you can reduce the purpose of sex to just procreation. But I don't think you can leave procreation out, either. If I were to try to put it in a sentence, I think it would be, "The purpose of sex is to create and maintain a deep bond within which future generations can be conceived and nurtured."

      This doesn't mean I need to stand in judgment on other people any more than I judge other people's eating habits. But I also don't feel a need to endorse behaviors that I strongly suspect are taking the severing too far. Motivations matter, absolutely, but I don't see why "how and between whom" is necessarily rendered irrelevant by motivations. I don't see one or the other as being more important.

      Really, the only reason I have an interest in this topic--because I don't give a hoot what other people do in private--is because I have children and for them everything I do and say is setting a pattern for "what is normal." How we eat, what we eat, how we talk about eating. How my husband and I interact, how we talk about love, marriage, procreation.

      I'm also bothered by the sense that authenticity becomes the watchword of sexual morality. I don't believe our sexual desires are so simple or so trustworthy. Much is innate, but much is also learned. Our brains--and in consequence our desires and actions--are highly malleable by our culture and our own choices. Sooner or later for nearly all of us, authenticity is going to be at war with fidelity. So I'm bothered by conversations where authenticity becomes the ultimate trump card.

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    3. I like your analogy to eating, and I think we mostly agree. As I wrote about in my post on premarital sex, my views on sex are not "do whatever feels good." Where I think we disagree is that your focus is on the problems of severing the pleasure aspect from procreation, whereas my focus is on the problems of severing the pleasure aspect from a committed, loving relationship focused on service to one another. I think your example of the banquet aimed at stuffing oneself is a reasonable analogy to something like a sexual orgy, where it is solely about satisfying one's own personal pleasure. We see problems with that for different reasons, though, I think.

      People generally point to Song of Songs / Song of Solomon for an example of how the Bible celebrates sex, and I see in there a representation of having deep respect and love for one another. There is no mention of procreation. I believe that although procreation can happen from sex, it is not a necessary component of having God-glorifying sex. So I see nothing sinful, for example, in the fact that Mike and I are avoiding pregnancy indefinitely; sex is still a gift we can give to each other and a way of expressing and celebrating our commitment to one another.

      By "authenticity," I take it you mean "an individual's desires," based on what you said. And I think you're very right that there are things that are innate and things that are learned, and there's a danger in placing too much emphasis on "whatever feels right to that person." I think this is why (as was mentioned in comments on the previous post) there is such an emphasis on sexual orientation as being an innate aspect of an individual that cannot be changed. And again, this is why I seek multiple sources of truth to guide my understanding of the world. If we know, for example, that people who commit sexual abuse often were sexually abused themselves and that many of them can be taught through counseling to have more healthy sexual relationships, then we have evidence that this is an aspect of sexuality that is learned. But if we also know that there has yet to be credible evidence produced that extensive counseling and a deep desire to change can fundamentally alter someone's sexual orientation, then it makes sense to conclude that this is something innate.

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    4. I don't think that procreation is a necessary component of sex, or I would have ten children instead of four. And be dead or in a mental institution. ;-)
      But I can't get away from the thought that without the need for procreation, sex would not exist in the world. Does that mean anything at all for how we view and use sex? I think it must. Love and commitment yes, but I have many committed, loving relationships in my life. Only one of them is also sexual.

      I'm curious to know what you see as the scope of love and commitment. What if one person no longer feels loving or wishes to be committed, but the other still does? Is the obligation on the one who no longer feels it to cultivate, or on the one who still does to release? What if both have committed, but neither feel loving any more? What if one discovers previously unexplored sexual interests the other cannot satisfy?

      I also still have trouble with the idea that because something is innate and even unchangeable means it must be good and natural. My husband's feet are seriously deformed. It's innate--genetic. There is nothing that can be done about it--surgery only makes it worse and there is no treatment. But it's not good or desirable. It's not the way feet are supposed to work.

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    5. I do think that procreation plays a role in "how we view and use sex," if by "we" you mean "humanity." So I would not want us moving toward something like Brave New World, where all procreation happens in test tubes and is completely separate from sex. I just think there's a difference between celebrating the ability of sexual intercourse to create new life and believing all sexual relationships must have a procreative aspect; that is, viewing sexual relationships not leading to procreation (like my own) as somehow wrong or suspect.

      This, like with the black-and-white boxes of biological sex, is where I often see arguments break down regarding same-sex relationships, because so many people (in my experience) speak as if there are two options -- opposite-sex couples whose sexual relations always can and do lead to children, and same-sex couples whose sexual relations cannot lead to children. If those were truly the only two options, then I could understand (though disagree with) people assigning good/bad moral judgments to each. But there's a whole can of worms when you talk about the possibility of procreation as a necessary component to a "good" sexual relationship. What about a woman born without a uterus? Is she "allowed" to have sex? Or one born with a uterus but whose uterus was removed due to cancer? A man who produces no sperm? People seem to be way slower to judge the sexual relationships of opposite-sex couples for whom it is equally as impossible to conceive as same-sex couples, which to me says this has less to do with a deep linkage between procreation and sex and more with people's personal discomfort with same-sex couples.

      When I talk about a loving, committed relationship, I'm talking about a relationship that has all three kinds of love mentioned in the Song of Songs -- rays, ahava, and dod -- friendship, commitment, and sexual passion. I believe that sex is meant to be experienced between people who have all three of these kinds of love for one another.

      I explained my personal beliefs on marriage and commitment here. For me, a commitment is a commitment, a promise, not a pledge of one's current feelings but a pledge of one's future fidelity. To me, commitment means that even if the rays, ahava, and dod die in your relationship, it is possible to bring those feelings back again if you both put the effort in, and commitment is the obligation to mutually make that effort. But honestly, I can only speak of my own view of the commitment I made to my spouse and what I see as the ideal version of commitment. Would I tell someone whose spouse was abusive or whose spouse had essentially checked out of the relationship emotionally and sexually that they had an obligation to stay married? No, I probably wouldn't. To me, commitment doesn't trump personal safety or health.

      Good and natural are two different things. Natural is simply what occurs without intentional interference from people. Good and bad are judgments placed on something, and generally this is either because we believe there is a divine judgment (i.e., God says this is good or bad) or because, as I mentioned above, it functions as a disability or handicap. Your husband's feet, like my polycystic kidneys, are abnormal and are "bad" to the extent that they cause problems. If my kidneys were just weird but never had the possibility of affecting my health in any way, there would be nothing "bad" about them, similar to the (also genetic) fact that I have unconnected earlobes. So I don't think that because something is innate it is necessarily good or bad. But I have a much harder time believing that God holds divine moral judgment about something that is innate than about something that is within our control.

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  3. I guess I don't see it as a matter of boxes, but as a matter of center and edges. Or like editing a graphic--if you zoom down to the pixel level, you will have a very hard time seeing where one objects ends and the next begins. Step back and you can see the whole picture. There are some areas that are fuzzy. But there is still a picture. I think you are still completely missing what I am saying about the connection between procreation and sex. I will try one more time. :-)
    Sex would not exist if it were not for procreation. The human genitals were designed to interact in a certain way because of this ultimate purpose. Heterosexual intercourse that does not lead to babies is still using those organs in the way they are designed to interact, expressing a connection between the sexes that reflects the reason for which these organs and desires exist in the first place. It's like the difference between eating cake (maybe not the healthiest choice but still food) and eating chalk.
    I don't think God judges anyone for who they are. Or for their innate desires. The question for all of us is, what do we do with those desires? How do we act upon them? (And I do believe God in his judgment knows our weaknesses.)
    I can't make that call for someone else, or dive down into the pixels and tell which one falls on which side of the line. But like I said, my main concern is what I teach my children about the big picture.
    We were watching "Holes" the other night and stopped and had a conversation with them about interracial relationships. If this is the same thing, I don't want to be on the wrong side. I should be telling them when they play wedding that they might marry a boy or a girl--it's up to them. I should be countering their self-selected diet of traditional fairy tales with ones that depict same-sex relationships. Our conversations about sex should not be primarily in the context of "how mommies and daddies make babies" but in the context of "how adults show their affection for each other."
    I'm trying. I'm in a church denomination that leaves it to individual conscience and a state that has full marriage equality. I have no problem with other people making their own choices. I am happy to love and accept anybody, to believe that same-sex relationships can be as loving and committed as my own. I believe that God's grace reaches down through all our weaknesses and shines even in our limitations. Maybe someday I will be persuaded that it is just the same thing. But so far--I'm not.

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  4. I'd say sexuality is not a necessary part of being human but, according to modern psychology and medicine, it's significant for living a happy and healthy life.

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    1. It's definitely not necessary -- just ask any asexual person -- but I'd say having a healthy sexuality in terms of having control over one's body, being respected, having open communication with your partner -- that makes a big difference to one's happiness and health.

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  5. I'd love to see you address the topic of sexuality and relationships after rape. I really respect what you've said so far and want to know what you think.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words about my post. I feel like I am very unqualified to talk about sexuality as it relates to rape, as I thankfully have not personally experienced that. But the issue of consent and sex, generally, is actually something I've been thinking about, and I may seek some other perspectives on the issue so I can address it as accurately as possible in the future. Thanks very much for your comment!

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  6. I believe sex is for relating in marriage and children are the by product. But sex is important in itself as it is the glue that helps hold a couple together. It brings a closeness that nothing else can, the ripples of which enrich the marriage. It can cause a lot of problems if it is diverted outside of marriage but used properly it is heavenly while at the same time being very earthy and almost crude, but it is lovely.

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