So I guess my understanding of sex was best teased out when I read about Aquinas’ ordering of sex that eventually became official Roman Catholic doctrine and (I think) spilled over into other Christian denominations that emerged as a result of the Protestant Reformation. If I understand his thesis on sex, follows a Trinitarian structure that addresses the purpose of sex as ordained by God.
- Procreative intent: sex is to make babies, first and foremost.
- Unity of the couple: intercourse is meant to unify the monogamous couple
- Physical pleasure: orgasms are good, like other created things
Set up in this way, Aquinas makes some sketchy conclusions. For example, since rape can be procreative, it is less ‘sinful’ than masturbation, since at least the possibility of new life is present. This really angers many women (and men), with good reason. However, his ordering of sins into venial and mortal types insists that since rape is an act of violence, it is actually more damning than masturbation.
*Disclaimer: as I paint in broad strokes, I am aware I am leaving out massive nuance that would otherwise help us make more sense of Aquinas. My point is merely to articulate my experience of his ordering of purposeful sex. That being said, I may be making copious mistakes in my rendering. Feel free to correct me, especially if you are an Aquinas scholar. Cuz I’m not. This blog reflects entirely my own (limited) theological training.
The important thing for the point I want to make is the procreative intent. This expectation is most visible in my experience in the discussion of civil unions and homosexual ethics. In not being physically capable of procreation, same sex couples are assumed to be proscribed from any meaningful sexual engagement with people to whom they are sexually attracted. But this also leaves a huge hole through which sterile couples are lost, as well as post-menopausal women, etc. If we adhere strictly to the imperative of procreative intent, we preclude quite a few people from “Christian” sex.
What if Aquinas got the basic structure wrong? What if his order was out of order? After all, he was also quite mistaken about women in general (his take was that female cognition was a cloudy reflection of that of male’s). It might have been the fact that he entered the monastic life early that has kind of skewed his perception on sex (an act in which he reportedly never engaged, even after being locked in a room with a prostitute, a prank his brothers pulled on him shortly after he committed himself to the Dominican order).
**2nd disclaimer – I have had sex. Hopefully, I’m more equipped to discuss it in ways that reflect lived experience, which helps us reflect on this kind of stuff in ways that are less exclusively dependent upon speculation.
When I was reading about Aquinas’ sexual ethics, I couldn’t get out of my head the whole civil unions debate that erupted in Hawaii in 2009. Does Aquinas’ ethic boil down to “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve?” Of course it doesn’t. But it also doesn’t satisfactorily answer many questions raised by the discussion of (homo)sexuality. At least not for me, and not for a lot of folks I’ve spoken with then and now.
One thing that stuck out to me was that the procreative act of God was not itself the origin of creation. God did not merely make us first. God elected to make out of God’s love; motivation precedes the act. By this reasoning, I think that the proper order should be;
- Unifying intimacy (love)
- Procreative intent (conception)
- Physical response (pleasure)
This way, the inaugurating motivation is properly set before the act of creation itself (conception). God loved, God created, God was pleased. This legitimates post-menopausal women, sterile couples, and homosexual love (notice I am less concerned with ‘attraction’ than I am with real love. I can get into that later). Masturbation is still problematic (and this is my intent), but rape is cast down from its confusing Thomistic perch.
Aquinas also talks about things that are essential to an object and things that are accidental. For example, think of a green wooden chair. The material it is made up of and the paint that colors it are accidental to its nature, since those things do not “make” it a chair. Essential to its nature would be that it has four legs and a place to put your butt. Love is essential to sex, without it, you have rape (or variations thereof).
As we continue on the scale, we are talking about things that are not as essential to sex, but are still constitutive to it, like the readiness to accept children (including adoption, fostering, etc.). Not all couples are able to produce children themselves, but they are still able to have sex that is “good” in the biblical sense. What is of prime importance is that the sexual act (not simply penis-in-vagina acts, but others as well, in my thinking) unifies the couple in intimacy that exposes the other to being trusted and loved in all their bodily imperfections. Think about it, your sexual partner is gonna see you in your most unflattering moments, like your “O Face.”
Finally, and this is accidental to sex, is the physical pleasure. Why do I say this is accidental? Well, I think God did not have to be pleased at creation. The pleasure expressed was entirely voluntary. Had it not been such, it would have been mere platitude. God did not have to be pleased, but that God was shows us that the actual expression of pleasure is an expression of honest excitement at something done well. Even if either party does not experience orgasm does not mean that a mutually respectful and loving act of “good” sex did not occur. In refraining to call pleasure essential to sex, I hope to keep folks from thinking that without orgasm, sex is not good in the ethical sense. The result, very easily, could be that an orgasm becomes a kind of plumb line against which all acts of sex are measured (no orgasm? Must’ve been doing something wrong!). Instead, I think that there can be sexual intimacy exercised physically that do not result in orgasm.
So that is the really basic structure of my thinking. The next couple of blogs I write will try to follow the same pattern; love, procreativity, and pleasure. I share this publicly because, in those conversations that I am a part of, it seems that people simply aren’t talking about sex without drowning the discussion in sarcasm, innuendo, or ignorance. Instead, I think that by being honest about our beliefs, and being open to hearing from and being corrected by others, we can all benefit from the open conversation. Finally, and this is the absolute most important reason for my writing, I expect I will be kept accountable to my beliefs (or maybe I just really hope to be). It’s like Hauerwas talking about pacifism because he’s a violent son of a bitch – we need to be reminded to be the person we should be by our community. For the most part, I fail to be chaste. But that doesn’t mean I should throw up my arms in frustration, it means I need the support of others to be what I am called to be in the Church. We need to talk about chastity because most of us at our age are horny S.O.B.s!