There are those who think that sex is the be-all and end-all. I disagree. I think it is much more important than that. After all, we subscribe to a religion, or many of us do, with a God whose first command, whose prime directive, the law that precedes “Don’t eat that apple!” or “Love thy neighbor,” is “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” It sounds like a frat boy’s idea of the perfect god, and yet there it is, at the very start of our sacred literature. Moreover, he creates them, we are told, male and female; he creates them in his own image and likeness.
Surely then, this creation as male and female must tell us something about His image and likeness. What precisely, I cannot say, but I can say that it says something very important about sex.
And if that were not enough, He places this male and female pair in a garden, and one where the duties seem to be very light (thorns and thistles not having been invented yet) and consist mainly of attending to each other’s needs. Paradise indeed! And when they are cast out, they are cast into a world that breathes sex. All nature flowers in a grand display of stamen and pistil, a display that pleases our noses and delights our eyes. And as we breathe in the sperm of oaks and ashes, it makes those pleased noses sneeze and those delighting eyes water.
It is as if Mother Nature is forcing us to acknowledge that she is indeed a mother, and one still capable of having a good time. Everywhere, opposites attract. Indeed, we may be forgiven if we are led to believe that Mother Nature is a bit of a wild child.
If the Lord God and Mother Nature seem to command this attention to sex, then it might be natural for men to boast of their prowess with women, just as it is natural for women to roll their eyes when they hear such boasts, and roll them all the wider if they happen to know the man, in the biblical sense. But there is a strange thing about the object of the rake’s boasting, in comparison with all other human vices: it is a boast about delight given to another, rather than in pleasure taken.
In one sense at least, it is almost altruistic. And yet it would be a manlier claim if he could claim to have pleased one woman for a very long time. For the problem with such altruism, like all altruism, is that it excludes any intimacy, any real caritas; it is disinterested; but intimacy requires intense interest. And real love.
It is common nowadays to describe sex under two aspects, the unitive and procreative; the first has as its object intimacy and the other new life. But the older texts spoke of a third function, which they labelled, somewhat quaintly, “the satisfaction of the flesh.” Satisfaction indeed, and this function is foundational to the other two; who would bother with them if not for this? The pure delight of sex founds everything else. What a great system! I mean, do we have a great God or what?
Our altruistic rake may give pleasure, but he cannot give intimacy and is unlikely to want to give children, or take much responsibility for any he does give. All the proper functions of sex become disengaged from each other, and sex itself becomes less than sex. Failing at intimacy, the only recourse is novelty. The attraction of adultery is novelty, and there is actually a point to novelty. While it is possible to have intimacy apart from sex, it is difficult to imagine married intimacy apart from sex. But married love would seem to exclude novelty.
However, there is a real point to novelty, and one that must be acknowledged. For the same actions, endlessly repeated, dull the senses and kill all ardor. In truth, married intimacy is as much a physical exploration as it is social or spiritual. “But how can one maintain,” the rake might ask, “the same ardor for the same woman, and do so year after year, without some novelty?”
Given this difficulty, is not the harem or the hook-up a proper venue for sex? Surely, some novelty is called for, and so many men seek again to relive their first courtship in a new partner. Is this not as natural as sex itself?
Novelty and Intimacy
Perhaps we should ask, “Is novelty compatible with intimacy, or must we choose one or the other?” But in fact, we must choose both to have either; you must sleep with a new woman every night! How is this possible? Because there is always a new woman available, if you know where to find her. For the woman beside you is not the woman you married. The same person, the same identity, she surely is.
But as Heraclitus reminds us that you cannot step twice into the same stream, likewise you cannot step twice into the same woman. The stream moves on to change the river every day; likewise time and experience change the woman, not the least of which is the time spent with you, the experience you have together. And if she is not the same woman, you are not the same man. I am not (thank God!) the same man I was five years ago, or ten, or twenty.
But perhaps this will be the problem; perhaps one is disappointed with this new woman: “This is not the woman I married, not the girl I courted.” And indeed, she is not; she changed even between the altar rail and the marriage bed.
And if the change is not to your liking, are you not in some way responsible? If anxiety has changed her face, did living with you have nothing to do with that? If she has lost her figure, did bearing your children not figure in this? Has she grown bitter, and your life together not the cause? (Women will come up with their own list; it will be exactly the same but completely different.) It may be the case, and likely will be, that there are grievances on both sides, but her faults, real or imagined, can never be your excuse.
So there is always a new woman beside us, and one at least partially of our own making, as we are at least partially made by her. But it is naïve to think that we know her, or she us, just because we live together. To find her again, you must do what you did when you found her at first: you must pay court to her. Not always and not every day, for that would be a bore of a different order and would lose the element of surprise. But from time to time, you must rediscover this woman who is both the same and different from the one you married.
Intimacy and Sex
Intimacy, of course, is not the same thing as sex, but within marriage, passion serves as a proxy for intimacy. When one is lost, it is likely that the other is diminished as well. (Though of course, there can be other reasons.) There are serious reasons for treating our most playful activity most seriously.
The Great God has given us great gifts, and among them sex is one of the greatest. But corruptio optima pessima: the corruption of the best is the worst. We can abuse this gift in ways big and small. We can abuse it by searching far afield for something that is close at hand, if we would pay close attention. Instead of complaining about change, we accept it as both the challenge and the solution.
Change is part of the human condition, indeed, part of all things trapped in the order of time. Change can be either of growth or of decay, and with humans, this is a choice. There is little we can do about the decay of our bodies, but much we can do about the growth of our relationships. It takes work and attentiveness.
It takes love.
John Médaille is a retired businessman, an instructor in theology at the University of Dallas, the author of two books, The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace and Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective, and the author of many articles on a wide variety of subjects.