"Those people are disgusting," Harris blurted out, revolted. The class had been discussing Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the sci-fi dystopia in which the purpose of life is nothing more than the pursuit of pleasure, and meaningless sexual trysts are a regular form of pleasurable amusement.
Encouraged, Dr. J. Budziszewski quickly moved to affirm what he thought his student was getting at. "Sex ought to mean something," he said.
"No," Harris corrected him. "Sex doesn't always have to mean something."
Puzzled, the professor asked him what, then, had provoked the outburst. "The way they make babies—in factories, without parents," Harris replied. "The whole thing about 'decanting' them from glass bottles. That's what's disgusting."
And with that, class was over, Harris went on his way, and Dr. Budziszewski was left to mull over what had just happened.
Sexual Schizophrenia Observed
Yes, decanting children in glass bottles is disgusting; Harris's revulsion was well placed. But it didn't seem to register with him that his back-to-back expressions—"Sex doesn't always have to mean something" and "Producing babies in factories without parents is disgusting"—stood at direct odds with one another. For while the first asserts that it is okay for baby-making activity to be meaningless, the second palpably betrayed a primal loathing of meaningless baby-making. "Apparently," the astute teacher observed, "sex means something to us even if we don't admit to ourselves that it does."
Harris may have gone his way oblivious to his sexual double-mindedness, but the classroom altercation was not without effect. It moved the compassionate teacher to write On the Meaning of Sex; for Harris typifies not just his own generation, but a large swath of the population at large. Although we're not (yet) mass-producing humans in glass bottles, the decent among us know that something is wrong with the sexual landscape we see, but few can articulate exactly what is wrong or why. We need a more comprehensive understanding of sex, or, if you will, a philosophy of sex.
A Philosophy of Sex
When it comes to putting together a working philosophy, Budziszewski is a virtuoso. He launches the discussion in his book by pondering the question Harris's outburst raised: Does sex have to mean something? What follows is not so much an answer as it is a thoughtful, and at times painstakingly circuitous, treatise that, chapter by chapter, ruminates on various aspects of sexuality.
The chapter titled "The Meaning of the Sexual Powers" lays the foundation by establishing that sex is about more than what is merely physical. "We human beings really do have a design," and that includes a design for sex that is "not merely biological, but is also emotional, intellectual, and spiritual." It's a matter of natural law, and it is not arbitrary. "Some ways of living comport with our design. Others don't," he writes. "We're not designed for hooking up. We're designed for our bodies and hearts to work together."
This naturally leads into "The Meaning of the Sexual Differences," which explores the distinctive traits of maleness and femaleness. Obviously, the corresponding body parts of a man and a woman, when working as intended, result in the propagation of the species, but there's more to the complementarity than the physical. "The essential difference between men and women," the teacher writes, "the underlying reality that gives rise to all their other differences, is that men are in potentiality to be fathers, and women are in potentiality to be mothers." In other words, the male and female psychologies and innate dispositions, in addition to the distinct physiologies, operate in concert to continually regenerate the human race.
"The Meaning of Sexual Beauty" expands on this observation, and here Dr. Budziszewski— a man—writes about women in tones that express something akin to wonder: "All those things about a woman that arise from this difference, such as warmth, tender-mindedness, and sensitivity to the emotions of others, are signs of this potentiality. The more fully they are developed, the more intense and beautiful her womanhood, and the deeper its complement to manhood."
He takes great umbrage both at the base notion that a woman's beauty is all about man's lust for sex and at pop culture's penchant for equating "beautiful" with "sexy." This equating of beauty with sex appeal "is the outward sign of the inner reality of mutilated personality, spoiled honey that attracts wasps instead of bees."
Made for Something Greater
Because sex is so powerful and its beauty so fragile, it must be vigilantly guarded. In "The Meaning of Sexual Purity," Budziszewski sets forth the so-old-it's-radically-new, chivalrous concept that it is for woman to guard her purity, and for man to guard, not purity, but her: "For him the great question is whether . . . he will defend and protect secret places, or trample and vandalize them."
Sexual purity can be summed up succinctly, "For unmarried persons, continence; for married ones, faithfulness"; but the chapter, like the rest of the book, isn't about rules. It's about seeking to understand how we are made and the part sexuality plays in the grand human design, which is actually a saga of relationships, sacrifice, and faithful love.
"The Meaning of Sexual Love" expands on that thought by distinguishing genuine, selfless love from "enchantment," the ephemeral, emotional experience of infatuation, which is at heart self-serving. It is in the nature of love to bind itself, and this explains why sexual love must be circumscribed by mutually bonded self-giving. For love that does not bind itself is not love; it is something else. Far from being a "bondage," this voluntary self-donation opens the way to a deeper, richer, fuller mode of living. We are not confined, but rather enlarged as we're drawn out of our suffocating self-absorption toward sacrificial love.
It is a lofty concept, but there is still one more hill to climb. The final chapter, "Transcendence," points beyond human love to the greater love of which human love is but a dim shadow: "The supernatural purpose of mortal love, and the cause of its sweet sorrow, is to awaken in us the longing for that greater love which alone can give us all that we long for."
Marriage, sex, and committed love, with all of their life-creating and life-perpetuating potential, are meant to draw us out of ourselves and toward our Creator, who alone is able to satisfy every human desire with good things and make us whole. "Mutual and total self-giving, strong feelings of attachment, intense pleasure, and the procreation of new life are linked by human nature in a single complex of meanings and purpose. For this reason, if we try to split them apart, we split ourselves."
The dual purpose of sex—procreation and marital unity—is firmly rooted in natural law, and everything works out better when our sex lives are cultivated accordingly. But alas, we dwell in a valley of destruction. "Errors about sex cause such terrible suffering," Budziszewski writes. "The worst is the suffering of those who no longer know they are in torment, for it is simply a lie that everyone is happy who believes himself happy, a slander that nobody is suffering unless he thinks that he is." When sexual behaviors and attitudes that are contrary to the human design are indulged in, they produce vandalized souls and a numbed populace that is blind to its sexually split personality.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Harris's revulsion was telling him something. And he was right in a sense, though not in the way he thought. Sex doesn't have to mean something; it does mean something. The great good news is that its meaning can be both comprehended and apprehended, and we can yet find satisfaction when we think, act, and live in ways that accord with our design. •
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