Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Why Sex is Important

One response to Gov. Spitzer’s sex scandal is, “It’s just sex. Why is it so important?” Well, it is just sex, and it’s important, because sex is important in our culture way beyond its role as one of our basic, and perhaps strongest, appetites. Often, sex is also a surrogate for our deepest, unconscious, unexamined emotions. This is, of course, Freud 101, but what is usually not recognized is the church’s complicity in keeping sex and the related emotions unexamined. For 2000 years, the church has been urging the renunciation of sex in favor of “purity.” For example, in Galatians 5:19-21, Paul lists “the works of the flesh,” which he links to death. The first three are fornication, impurity, and licentiousness. Thus, unsanctioned sexual activity takes pride of place in his list of vices which continues with apparently nonsexual activities, such as idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, and anger among others. Paul here seems to imply that the sexual sins lead right to all the other vices. Although all these are bad, the sexual ones may be at the root of the others, leading ultimately to separation from the Spirit.
Whether this interpretation of Paul is correct, the church has certainly acted as if it were. Peter Brown in his book, “The Body and Society” has documented that the church, from Paul right into the Middle Ages, opted to make sex and contact with sex one of the main benchmarks of the hierarchy of the Christian life. Celibacy for men and virginity for women took on great importance. Even today, as the Spitzer scandal demonstrates, there is zero tolerance in our culture for sex outside of the culturally permitted norms.
Now, this is not to say that sex should be or can be without consequences. The power of the sex drive militates against this idea, because sex without mature and conscious internal control can lead to some or all the nonsexual sins Paul deplores. However, instead of urging mature self-control in sex, the church; and, by extension, “Christian Civilization, has demanded that we “just say no” to sex.
But renunciation does not eliminate the appetite for sex or sexual activity. Instead, it makes guilty hypocrites of essentially everyone who tries, and generally fails, not to feel sexual, think about sex, or have sex. Of course, hypocrisy frequently leads to denial, deception, and lying, as in Gov. Spitzer’s case. Apparently, illicit sex was for him the response to a sex drive, which he couldn’t resist but which he thought he could handle. It seems as if renunciation did not work for him. How much better for him – and for us – if our culture could have allowed him to deal effectively with the issues represented by his unsanctioned sexual feelings.

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