Sex has long been established as a first rate means of getting people’s attention, yet very little discussion takes place about sexual beliefs. Different ethical traditions, both religious and nonreligious, have diverse attitudes to sex, drawn in each case from different underlying beliefs about sexual relations. Some individuals even believe simply talking about sex in public is inappropriate – to such people, I advise not reading onwards, for here I intend to talk quite candidly about this delicate subject.
In the United States, sexual beliefs represent a particular volatile battleground where bitter conflict occurs between a traditional Christian approach, and what may be called Liberal sexual beliefs. (I shall treat the Liberal position as if it were a coherent tradition, while in actuality it is, at best, just a generalisation of certain opinions). Of course, a great many Christians support Liberal sexual beliefs, so these two camps should not necessarily be seen as disjunct, so much as distinct. Both belief systems have problems worth discussing.
The Liberal sexual belief can be summarised by saying: do what you like, with who you like, as long as it’s consensual. In other words, the Liberal sexual belief permits having sexual relations with anyone irrespective of their gender (or indeed any other factor), and in no way limits the options for allowable sex acts. I am a great supporter of some aspects of this belief system – especially since I believe where consent exists between two people, anything that does not cause significant harm is perfectly acceptable.
But the Liberal sexual belief system has a savage downside, which can result in the degradation both of sex acts, and of sexual partners. When people view the Liberal stance on sex as freedom to rut without consequence, it damages our society at a fundamental level, as anyone who has been a victim of involuntary sex can attest. By this I do not necessarily mean rape (which is inherently non-consensual), as one may find oneself unable to halt a sexual act already begun, even though it is not one’s conscious choice to be having sex, especially when drunk or a youth incapacitated by rampant libido. That the Liberal stance may also lead to a greater incidence of abortion is another mark against it.
However, there are equally problems with the traditional Christian sexual beliefs. These can be generalised as: have sexual relations only when you have formed a permanent relationship, and only with a partner of the opposite sex. Or, more tersely: no sex before marriage (often accompanied by the assumption that marriage is only allowable between partners of different genders). The essential problem here is not with the belief system itself – I happen to think that it is a wonderful thing when two people forge a strong bond, cement it with a commitment ceremony, and only then give their bodies to one another (although, that said, I see no reason at all to follow ancient Jewish customs vilifying homosexuality in the light of Jesus’ ministry of universal love). The problem is with the attitudes towards sex education that result.
Many people who ascribe to a traditional Christian stance on
sex are vehemently opposed to the teaching of contraception (or, for that
matter, masturbation) in schools. The logic proceeds on a line something like
the following: to teach contraception is to encourage sex before marriage,
therefore we must not allow it. There are three serious problems with this
view. Firstly, it denies freedom of belief by assuming that the traditional Christian
sexual belief can be imposed upon everyone, even against their will. Secondly, it
assumes that teaching the knowledge and skills of sex increases the incidence
of sex, while in fact countries with restrictive attitudes towards sex
education have been demonstrated to have a higher rate of incidence of both
sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy. Finally, it assumes that
married couples shouldn’t use contraception, an issue we shall examine shortly.
When a prohibition on non-procreative sex is linked back to the Bible, the story of Onan (Genesis 38) is quoted as justification, although interpretations of these verses vary considerably. In the tale, which is mentioned only in passing, Onan must fulfil his obligations under Levirate marriage customs – namely, he must marry his brother’s widow and give her a child who will become his brother’s heir – but instead he “spills his seed on the ground.” Religious conservatives use this story as evidence that any break from sex-as-procreation is against God, but it is well established that Onan’s sin was a selfish failure of his duty under the marriage customs of his people. Thoughtful Christians cannot help but wonder in this respect: if God had intended non-procreative sex to be sinful, why reference the subject in the Bible solely in such an ambiguous context, especially when the Ten Commandments provided apple opportunity for a more explicit directive?
Catholics have much clearer rules to accommodate. Through
the Papal mechanism of a single interpretive voice for its doctrines, the
Catholic Church has greater potential to adapt than Protestant churches
(which must generally ground their beliefs in the Bible), but in practice
the Vatican usually lags behind popular culture by about a century. It has tended to set
the stage for modern Christian sexual beliefs, since having a single Pope as spokesman
allows it to take a firm stance where Protestant Churches often must either remain
silent, or at least be unable to make a collective assertion of any
significance. With regards to sex, the current point of doctrine is the Humanae
Vitae encyclical, written by Pope Paul VI in 1968. Subtitled “On the Regulation
of Birth”, it not only establishes the Catholic Church’s position, it has been
vastly influential in Protestant sexual beliefs as well – as indicated by the
fact that many Protestants follow this teaching even though it is Papal and not
Biblical in origin.
Crucial to this doctrine is a prohibition on the interruption of procreation, except when this happens tangentially (for instance, a hysterectomy to prevent cancer). Sex is allowable for pleasure – it is seen as a great gift from God – but it is expected to occur within the sanctity of marriage. However, the encyclical claims that sex must “retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” Only one form of birth control is permitted: the rhythm method (in which intercourse takes place when a woman is least fertile), and this is justified as being a natural faculty, and therefore God-given.
It is important to be clear that the Catholic Church’s
position is not that people must breed constantly, like demented Christian
rabbits. As Pope John Paul II clarified in 1994: “when there is a reason not to
procreate, this choice is permissible and may even be necessary.” It is solely artificial
contraception which is denied, and this prohibition is accompanied by the
assertion that allowing such measures results in a lowering of moral standards
as a result of sex without consequence, and a danger of a man reducing a woman
to being “a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his desires.”
The Catholic Church, of course, holds its position within the general framework of the traditional Christian sexual beliefs, formulated mostly by the apostle Paul, that marriage should precede sex. Many Catholics view artificial contraception, therefore, as in effect encouraging adultery. While the idea that reducing the consequences of sex can be demeaning to women may have its merits, it completely omits the fact that many people will be engaging in sexual acts under the Liberal framework – not everyone believes that sex should be constrained to being between married couples. In this context, to not use contraception can be seen as demeaning to women. However, it is not unreasonable that the Catholic Popes constrain their concern to the behaviour of their followers, and not to alternative belief systems beyond their purview.
Since the Catholic Church cannot allow for extra-marital sex at all, it can have no viable position on the use of contraception in sex acts that occur outside of marriage (beyond considering it to be sinful). It follows that – even within Catholic doctrine – anyone engaging in extra-marital sex is free to use a condom or other form of artificial contraception – since they are already sinning in Catholic terms, they “may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb”. The Pope may be unable to say “if you’re going to sin by having sex outside of marriage, use a condom”, because to do so would be to endorse matters the Papacy opposes, but this is a logical conclusion in terms of integrating Liberal values into Catholic sexual beliefs (although not, needless to say, the position of Pope Benedict XVI).
Furthermore, I believe the Catholic Church’s position omits an important aspect of the facts of the matter, that once included would provide the basis for a reinterpretation of its doctrine, and a significant shift of position on the subject of contraception.
Tantra is a diverse collection of beliefs, including sexual
beliefs, found in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions. The sexual component of
this system – known as Tantric sex – is a set of meditative practices by which
a married couple can deepen their emotional connection. Tantra in this context
is practiced exclusively between couples,
and its goal is purely spiritual. However, part of the benefits that Tantric
couples experience is heightened sensual pleasure and, in the case of men, a
method of muscle control that permits more intense and sustained orgasms without ejaculation.
Ejaculatory control, like the rhythm method, is entirely natural – it is, in Christian terms, a God-given faculty – and it can be found in many cultures throughout history, including the aforementioned Tantric traditions, Taoist “sexual kung fu” and the Cherokee “fire breath” technique. By exercising conscious control of ejaculation, practitioners experience deeper, longer and more numerous orgasms (as can their partners), and also take conscious control of the procreative process; some Taoist commentators also claim the technique leads to longer life. (Of all these different practices, only Tantra is explicitly practised between couples, and thus Christians interested in Tantric sex should probably approach the topic from this angle.)
If God-given sexual faculties are allowable under Catholic doctrine, and they are as we see in the case of the rhythm method, then it is allowable to practice a form of “Christian Tantra” to serve God’s purpose (in Christian terms) of deepening the relationship between couples – and indeed there are many people who practice just such a system. But if “Christian Tantra” is permissible in Catholicism (which it certainly could be, although no Papal ruling exists that I know of) then it must follow that conscious control of ejaculation is allowable. At this point, can it seriously be contended that barrier-method contraception such as condoms are not permitted for married couples, when all humans have within them the capacity to perform “self contraception” by way of ejaculatory control? We are no longer talking about an artificial capability, but about enhancement of a natural one, which is usually allowable in Catholic doctrine concerning medicine.
Roman Catholic Christians must wait for new Popes to change the rules of the Catholic sexual game, but Protestants are under no such restriction. I can see no reason to presume that contraception is against God, given that (in Christian-terms) God provided us all the capacity to conduct contraception as part of a divine process for deepening the spiritual bond between couples. I suggest that Protestants give up their use of Papal doctrine in this respect, and focus on promoting those moral values they do care about – the formation of strong, loving couples, who may choose when and if to bear children according to the capacities given to them by God, the greatest of which are love and free will.
The rise of Liberal sexual beliefs has in part led to a
tendency for Christians of all denominations to condemn “free love”, and this
has in part made it easier for non-Christians to avoid thinking about their own
beliefs and behaviour in respect of sex. While I deny that contraception has
lead to the denigration of women in the terms claimed by the Catholic Church
(oral sex already provided a non-procreative option so why would contraception
be the critical factor?), I do recognise that the rise of sexual liberalism has
created an epidemic of shallow, empty sex that has hurt the self-esteem of both
men and women, and also increased the rate of incidence of abortion (something
no-one wants to see).
I suggest that the Liberal sexual belief system could also use something of an overhaul. Instead of focussing on mere consent, perhaps people should consider entering into sexual relations only when there is mutual respect? Instead of pursuing sex as conquest, seeking to engage with as many sexual partners as possible, perhaps people should consider entering into fewer relationships but of greater quality? Most importantly, since those who hold Liberal sexual beliefs have no restriction on masturbation, shouldn’t all such people learn to be the master of their sexual urges through direct, personal action, rather than being a slave to their uncontrolled passions?
We don’t talk about sexual beliefs often, if indeed ever, perhaps because we disagree so wildly about them, but as we go forward into the twenty first century we can’t afford to maintain this conspiracy of silence any longer. There are serious issues to be addressed, and we will not resolve them by trying to stifle discussion under a veil of ignorance. Let us teach sex education, and contraception, in schools – it need not be (as some Christians fear) against God’s will to do so, and the proven benefits of doing so – including fewer teenage pregnancies, and thus fewer abortions – far outweigh any prudish prohibition on doing so.