Sex, semiotics and society

The conception of the Virgin Mary, aka Joachim and Anne making love. vatopaidi.files.wordpress.com

[A plenary indulgence if you make it through this opening quote into my post. It’s a long post, but really fun to write for me! Or text…]

Jesus was a sign-maker of a disturbingly revolutionary kind. And Christian culture echoes his sign-making. This communal sign-making is, for Christians, the most authentically basic bit of culture. Is it just another bit of human culture? Yes and no: for here, we believe, the true myth is performed, the fullest meaning is made.

On what grounds do Christians affirm the ideal of lifelong monogamy (and also the ideal of chastity)? Is it that God dispenses a few non-negotiable rules, one of which is the wrongness of casual sex? No, the legal paradigm is inadequate; it doesn’t help us through the inevitable grey areas.

The Christian should approach the question of sexual morality by means of communication, sign-making. The sexual impulse invites us to semiotic anarchism: casual sex hints at huge meanings that we don’t mean; it is not safely “meaningless”, but is meaning-shaking. Miraculously, the tables can be turned on the semiotic anarchism of sex: a disciplined approach to it (which does not deny but affirms its goodness) is perhaps the loudest communicative tool available to us. Sex is redeemed. — Theo Hobson

[semiotics is the study of how cultural “signs” work]

A friend a few weeks ago asked me a really seraching question that I will do injustice to its sophistication here. He asked me, what is so wrong with pre-marital sex if the couple intends genuine love and feels the need to make certain, as they do in every other area of their relationship before marriage, they are sexually compatible. I mean, there are horror stories out there about couples who marry and find out in sex they just don’t jive. What makes a sexual act before marriage so — or always so — sinful?

I have been trying to respond for weeks, but part of my response ended up being a voice-to-text while sitting in an airport terminal waiting on a flight. It certainly drew interesting looks from other travellers who clearly found what I was saying into my phone a bit off-beat, shall we say. It’s certainly only the seed of an argument, and as a single brief post does not attempt to say everything necessary, but I thought it decent enough to post so I edited it into a respectable form for you here.

My main point in the text was to correct the American cultural over-emphasis on the experience of personal fulfillment in marriage at the expense of its broader social meaning; or the over-emphasis on erotic love at the expense of the demands of justice, etc. It teases out an intuition I have had for years but never took any time to think about in a focused way.

But I left it’s “text feeling” as much as I could, because that’s how it started. My hope is that it will help you, as it did me, to think ‘outside of the box’ on the likes of marriage, sex, contraception, abortion. In no way does this post intend to malign the beauty and heroism that can be part of single parenthood, nor mar the dignity of victims of divorce who struggle in its wake. Grace is everywhere. Rather, it is intended to reflect on the full meaning, beauty and implications of sex & marriage as the church says God intended it…in the light of which we all fall short, and require His everlasting mercies. That said, the church’s teaching always remains the fullness of beauty which mercy longs to reveal in all.

+ + +

I am writing this as a voice-to-text, stream of consciousness, so pardon any mistakes as we go!

I’ve been thinking about our conversation about various rationales for sex before marriage. I am waiting on my ride here in Des Moines, so here’s to entertaining the audience before me! Here it goes:

First, at the core of Catholic teaching on sex is the 2-fold meaning of the sexual act: unitive and procreative. Unitive=sex is good because it bonds the couple, knits them together and allows for the building and expression of intimacy and love and passion for each other.

Procreative=sex is good because every sexual act is oriented toward reproduction, conception, cooperatively (with God) bringing about a new human life made in the image of God. And here’s a key: each of those meanings strengthen the other, which is what makes every sexual act intrinsically *marital*.

The unitive meaning spiritually, psychologically, biochemically solidifies, seals and cements the marital union in mutual self-gift (which is in itself an end of marriage) SO it might serve well as a fortress, a garden, a home, a safe space and stable playground within which pro-created children can come into existence, grow, flourish, be sent on mission and return to that same safe space when needed.

I always imagine that the (theological) reason the sex drive is *so* powerful is because God placed in it His awesome command: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). No wonder it’s so hard to contain and restrain, with that kind of apodictic divine command surging in my body! But that command was issued to a married couple, created “male and female”, by a God who also said, “that they may be one as we are one, Father” (John 17:21). Monotheism, monogamy and monogamous sex go together.

Even after the age of fertility, or with couples who are infertile, the sexual act remains oriented toward this same 2-fold end as children grow, grandchildren are born, new family members are added, adopted, welcomed into the Playground. On that last point, I’ve known couples who, though they could not have children themselves and did not adopt, were very engaged in social justice/charity outreach work, or offered tender maternal and paternal support to other families that flowed out of the fruitfulness of their own married love. i.e. their marital bond was fruitful for neighbors. The marital union needs to remain a solid and binding force in the extended family, church and society needs unitive cement to keep it fiery, dynamic, tender, passionate and unshakably stable as a center of family unity.

The love of each spouse for the other, so intensely beautiful in itself, also always exists for the sake of “communion” — in fact, the Sacrament of Matrimony is called a “sacrament of service to communion” because it exists in service to the extended family, the church and all of society.

And so sex has profound import in society. Sex binds strong a stable and permanant bond on which the social order depends, is built. Social order, social flourishing, social justice require such a binding stability, unwavering commitment to others’ welfare – which grounds of justice – as well as requiring the nuclear ethic of love and intimacy that originates in marital union. Sex can never simply be about orgasm, personal satisfaction. Every sexual act is massively sign-ificant. Every sexual act is also a social act, a familial act and, in an extended sense, a political, economic, cultural, etc. act. Because all of these things are interconnected, interwoven into the primal fabric of marital love, which serves as the foundation and stable center of human solidarity.

We share the powerful sex drive of all animals because we are rational animals, called to integrate all of the beauty of animal life into the beauty of the image of God that was stamped into homo sapiens at a certain moment in history. Biology is clear that the sex drive is so powerfully implanted in every living being to ensure propagation of species (procreative meaning). Biology also testifies to the unitive meaning, as sex creates powerful affective, biochemical bonds between man and woman. ESPECIALLY for the woman who bears the burden of child bearing and rearing, and requires the man to rightly raise the children.

It’s quite telling that those who engage in sex outside of marriage often intentionally sever the unitive meaning from its procreative meaning (contracept, abort) precisely because they recognize – even if only seeing it as a raw biological datum – that the sexual act is ordered toward a permanent bond made visible, incarnate in each family-making child born to them. Children conceived outside of marriage suffer an injustice because they lack the safety of the permanany, stable social bond (marriage) that should welcome them into a world of justice and love where they can grow up sorrounded by the full image of God, male and female, living in the image of His love, faithfulness, justice, kindness, patience, longsuffering, et certera.

Statistics testify powerfully to the link between children conceived out of wedlock and the breakdown of social order and the proliferation of social injustices. Sex indulged in apart from its deep-structural meanings, sex reduced to conceptions of fulfillment defined by radical autonomy and pleasure-defined utilitarianism, now dominate Western culture, stripping sex of its power to express the beauty of personhood, of communion made in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God.

A SECOND POINT: as far as the question of having to experiment with potential partners first, or the challenges of having sexual relations for the first time after the wedding day and not before. Really? Come on! If you accept that cohabiting is also wrong by an extension of this logic — since cohabitation mimics the total sharing of life that is marriage (including sex) — you will also realize that after the wedding day a HOST of surprises await the couple as they learn about each other up close, day in day out, and have to slowly figure it out. The art of human love is complex, messy, progressive, requiring growth and learning and communication, and seeking counsel from experienced couples who’ve been through it. This reminds me of a gentleman from India who, speaking about arranged marriages in India, said to a priest I know:

I see you’re surprised about this as an American, and wonder how someone could ever have a loving and happy marriage if they did not fall in love with their spouse to be and choose to marry. Okay, let me share an analogy that might help you see my perspective. Think of marriage as a pot of water and culture as a pile of sticks. In your culture, marriage is a boiling pot of water steaming with passion, while your culture is a pile of cold, wet sticks. In our culture, marriage is a pot full of cold water, while the wood of our Sikh culture is ablaze with fire. So, while your boiling water sits atop the cold and wet sticks, it warms the sticks for a brief time but eventually the water cools and turns cold. When our cold pot of water is placed on our tight-knit culture burning with passion for lifelong marriage, the water slowly warms eventually to boiling. While both systems have their problems, from what I’ve seen of the state of American marriage, I’d choose our fire over your boiling water.

Also an acceptance of the fact that “great sex” in marriage means many things to many people, and is never going to match a culture that hyper-idealizes sex and links it with self-pleasuring hedonism (e.g. Cosmopolitan magazine) and not to selfless love, self-gift and sacrificial love.

“Marriage is not for me.” Because marriage is NOT essentially about the couple’s personal fulfillment, but about providing a stable foundation for just social order rooted in unifying love and self-gift. Sex always is understood to be the handmaiden and servant of this primary good. As I said, every sexual act is a marital act. Extra-marital sex has disastrous social consequences, many or most of which are not seen and felt by the couple fornicating. Short term gain, long term pain, you might say.

Extra-marital sex is sinful because it assaults justice and charity, exalts personal satisfaction above the common good, commits an injustice against children conceived outside of marriage (or banned from existence by contraception or abortion) and strikes at the foundations of a just and stable social order — a culture of life and a civilization of love. Extra-marital sex is more akin to masturbation than is the two-in-one-flesh marital act that images the divine-human covenant that binds humanity as one indissoluble family.

Something like that. That’s a stab. Gotta go! God bless!!

I sent this text to a priest I know, who has worked for years as a prison chaplain. Here was his text back to me:

Your linking sex with justice-charity-stability is brilliant and truthful. Faithfulness and trust creates the bond that allows sex it’s generative, intimate force. Covenant is the biblical expression of social bounds that allows life to flourish. I love your remark on how faithful, marital love creates the life ethos for children to play and encounter the goods of communion.

I might add that in most cases I’ve experienced, those with multiple partners have experienced a diminished capacity of trust. A cynical jadedness emerges regarding intimacy. This isn’t a fact so much as it is observed through wisdom.

As you know, I visit multiple incarcerated men every week who came from frivolous sexual relationships. Our nation’s great evil of slavery obliterated familial and marital customs for so many generations which continues to reap so much devastation. I have little tolerance for those who espouse sexuality as experimental. It is indeed an issue related to social justice

I will end with a song that I believe ties together beautifully my emphasis here on both the social-familial and personal-intimate dimensions of sexuality in marriage — Duet, by Penny and Sparrow.

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you

2 comments on “Sex, semiotics and society

  1. Nos says:

    Wow wow wow + + + + + + +, 35 years and counting . May our good GOD bless me and mine for another 35… wonderfully insightful thank you good dochtah… P.B.W.Y.A.A.

    • Thank you for your 35 years!!! Wow wow wow. And for appreciating this piece, which captured my theological imagination almost more than anything else I have written. Per a fellow professor’s encouragement, I will work on turning it into a full length article when I have the space away from administration that allows me to think that long. Say a prayer for that if you would! Peace brother!

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