As a Catholic priest, I am seldom taken seriously when I speak or write about sex. Invariably the reaction is: “What can you know about it, you don’t have sex!” I welcome that comment because it betrays the very attitude towards sex that I want to challenge, namely, it identifies sexuality with having sex. That is dangerously false and few things are as bad for us emotionally as that idea. Yet popularized Freudianism has given us this idea. It has made us believe that real love and friendship, at least of the heterosexual variety, depend upon having sexual relationships. In brief, it has made us believe that we cannot be whole without sex. Without sex, it is believed, we will end up sterile, dried up, old maids, “that way.” Without sex, our friendships and loves will be “platonic,” anaemic and unreal. Concomitantly, we nurse the idea that having sex is a panacea for all loneliness and emotional frustration. Sexology is too commonly a substitute for soteriology, meaning, happiness and sadness are identified with a fulfilling sexual relationship or its absence.
Because of this we suffer emotionally. When sexuality is synonymous with having sex, then, save but for brief moments, we live in much frustration and restless dissatisfaction. For all kinds of reasons we cannot sleep with everyone we feel drawn to and since friendship and love have become too much linked to sex, we are constantly torn between infidelity and frustration. The tragedy is not just that there is so much sexual and emotional infidelity around, but that, because of this, there is so little heterosexual friendship and love around (even within marriage). It is no accident that in our culture it is easier to find a lover than a friend, just as it is no accident that, in our culture, virginity, celibacy, chastity within deep friendships, and periodic abstinence within marriage are considered to be unrealistic or even positively harmful. Yet our deepest hungers and longings are for heterosexual relations beyond having sex. The ache is for men and women to come together as more than lovers.
This is not surprising. Sexuality is a huge thing. Our aches are multifarious. The word sex comes from the Latin secare, a word which literally means to cut off or divide from. We experience ourselves, at all levels, precisely as sexed, as cut off, divided from, as unwhole. We ache for consummation, for a reuniting with some wholeness. For this reason sexuality is always more than simply having sex. It is a dimension of our self-awareness. It is our eros, that irrepressible demand within us that we love and that energy within us that enables us to love. Through it we break out of the shells of our own egos and narcissism. Through it we seek contact, communication, wholeness, community, and creativity. Through sexuality we are driven and drawn beyond ourselves.
The sense of being sexed, cut off, is as present in us as our heartbeat. It permeates every level of our personalities and colors all of our relationships. We are charged with sex. Physically, psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically, we ache for union with something beyond ourselves. Maleness aches for femaleness, femaleness for the male. Sex colors all. Yet, having sex is merely one specific expression of our sexuality. It is simply one part, albeit a poignant one, of a much larger reality which we call sexuality. It is our contemporary inability to understand this that lies at the root of our obsession with sex. Around us, like an infectious virus, floats the idea that our personalities will expand or shrink depending upon whether we are having satisfying sex or not. However, if sexuality is the drive for community, family, friendship, love, and creativity, then whether we sleep alone or not is not so important. Community, family, friendship, and creativity, are. We can live with sex or without it, but we cannot live without community, family, friendship, and creativity. Our lives become warmer, more meaningful, and more whole when these are there.
Conversely, we grow colder and become bitter, sterile, and dried up when they are absent. Our irrepressible longing is for community, family, friendship, and creativity. Sexuality is the hunger and energy for them. Having sex must always be understood within this context. It can help or harm. It helps when it fosters community, family, friendship, and creativity. It harms when it blocks them. Given the contours of our personalities and our social lives, it appears impossible that, outside of a relationship of love, permanent commitment, and marriage, having sex can foster community, family, and friendship. Experience tends to bear this out. Severing the tie between sex and marriage has not translated into more friendship, more community, more family, and more love. We are lonelier than ever. There is sex of the groin and sex of the heart. The former is full of dissatisfaction, exploitation, superficiality, schizophrenia, and ultimately, boredom (since, as W.H. Auden remarks, “all of us know the few things man as a mammal can do.”). The latter is full of friendship, romance, and passion. It is sex of the heart that cures loneliness and creates family, community and friendship. We need, again, to learn the differences between sexuality and having sex.