Where do we turn for wisdom about our sexuality?
On the one hand, applying any sort of guardrails to our sex drive calls to mind a list of oppressive “don’ts” drafted by finger-wagging church people. This “sex is dirty” attitude is clearly not healthy.
On the other hand, popular culture often seems to take it too far in the other direction. The attitude of “if it feels right, do it” feels reckless and self-serving.
Here are some lessons I learned through my dating years and early marriage that helped me develop a healthier, more holistic view of sexuality.
Sex is good
Even Scripture recognizes what a powerful force sexuality is in our lives — in fact, the Bible begins and ends with sex.
God’s first command to humans in the Bible, immediately after proclaiming them to be made in His own image and likeness, is to “be fruitful and multiply.” And then the very last chapter of the Bible (the Book of Revelation) shares a vision describing heaven coming down to earth as “a bride adorned for her husband.” That’s right: the Bible compares the apocalypse to wedding night sex. I bet they didn’t teach you that in your religious ed classes!
There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to beauty. In fact, there would be something wrong if I didn’t find beauty in beautiful things. God made us to be captivated by beauty and it is good to delight in the beautiful things of the world — including the beauty we see in one another.
Our culture has learned that sex sells, however, so it wields the power of this gift of beauty for profit. Our faith tradition has always had a strict moral code when it comes to sexuality — not because sex is bad, but because sex has such awesome power. And with great power comes great responsibility (or so the Spiderverse tells us).
Sex is Godly
Superheroes aside, sexuality is kind of a super power. Here’s what I mean.
If you were raised as a Christian, two of the first things you probably learned about God were that God is 1) our creator and 2) our savior. Through our sexuality, we get to participate in both of these aspects of God’s life.
First, sex is creative. Sex is the way God built into our bodies the ability to create a new being with an immortal soul. It’s no wonder that the primary image of God in the Bible is one of a loving parent — usually a father but also a mother in a few places. (My favorite one is where Jesus compares himself to a chicken.)
Second, God is also our savior. He came to us and united himself to us by taking on our humanity in the person of Jesus. Then Jesus gave his entire self as a gift to us through his ministry, death, and resurrection.
Through sex and marriage, two people unite themselves in the flesh, which is the same offering Jesus made when he united himself to us — a total gift of body, mind, and soul. Spouses give themselves completely to each other for better or worse, in good times and in bad. They lay down their lives for each other, day by day, walking together as companions who share everything together — even the unknowable future.
In short, sex teaches us how to love like God loves — by giving our entire selves in a loving union and bringing new life into being through that union.
In my marriage — and even in my previous dating relationships — recognizing this creative and unifying power of sex has helped me to see sex as so much more than a desire to be repressed or indulged. It has a beauty, purpose, power, and sacredness.
See the whole person
When I was a teenager, I spent the whole summer watching pretty girls in bikinis as a lifeguard at my neighborhood pool. I literally looked at people in swimsuits all day. It was an interesting position to be in as a 15-year-old Catholic boy.
I had recently begun taking my faith journey more seriously and these words from Jesus were often in my mind: “Anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart.” Over the course of the summer, I developed a way to help me look without lusting.
I would do this by reminding myself to see the *whole* person. When I’d see an attractive woman, I’d try to tell myself something like, “Her body is beautiful but she’s not just a body — she is a person with an intellect, emotions, imagination, hopes, dreams, insecurities, and wounds. She deserves to be cherished and loved. She was once a little kid. She will one day be an old woman. She has a mother and a father. She may someday have a husband and children and grandchildren.” Then I would pray a Hail Mary for her. Somehow, it’s hard to objectify someone you are praying for.
This little ritual helped remind me that the woman’s true beauty was much more than a pretty face or shapely figure. She is a daughter of God — and in some sense, a sister to me. I was still attracted to her. She was still beautiful. I still saw her while scanning the pool. But I was no longer lusting after her or objectifying her.
I’ve continued to use this little monologue whenever I’ve struggled to see the whole person in other situations. It reminds me that my sexual desires are not just an itch to scratch or a hunger to be satisfied — or a tiger to keep locked up. Rather, these desires can motivate me to recognize the beauty and goodness in another person.
Chastity > abstinence
Seen from this perspective, what our faith tradition understands about sexuality is so much bigger than just “abstain from sex outside of marriage.” Where as abstinence is simply not having sex, chasity is a virtue that helps us grow in reverence for the great power and gift and sexuality:
the power to make a complete gift of oneself to another;
the power to receive another person completely in return;
the power to form a life-long bond and partnership;
the power to create a new human life, body and soul.
For the chaste person, sex is an awesome gift and responsibility that mirrors the creative and self-giving love of God. Chastity is the discipline with which we protect that gift and direct it toward our integration and true freedom.