Sex and the Sacred

Douglas P. McManaman
June 11, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

There are a number of clues from the darker side of sexual deviancy that can help us to understand something of the meaning of the sexual act. For the most part, we can estimate the relative value of two things on the basis of a person's reaction to their loss or damage - one reaction might be rather nonchalant, the other quite passionate. For example, we would expect a person who owns a Mercedes to be far more upset that his vehicle has been damaged by vandalism than he would be were his vehicle a 10-year-old domestic. In the same way, consider how rape crisis centers describe the trauma women experience as a result of rape. The trauma is shattering; rape victims are shamed, they feel alone, they are plagued by nightmares, flashbacks, and their perception of the world is radically altered - the world no longer appears as a safe place. Their ability to trust others has been seriously compromised; some victims no longer even trust themselves. One's sense of self-worth has been significantly diminished; many blame themselves and feel "dirty". In short, the violation that rape is reaches to the deepest region of the person, a violation that seems to permanently affect their ability to enter into intimate relationships with others.

What this points to indirectly is that sex concerns the deepest regions of the human person; it has a depth that is not characteristic of eating and drinking, for example. You might recall an incident in your childhood when a bunch of friends got together and held you down and forced you to eat spinach, because they knew you hated spinach. It might very well be an unpleasant memory, but it hardly carries with it the profound traumatic impact that a victim of rape will experience. The sexual realm touches the deepest and most mysterious region of the human person, and so in this light, it is set apart. The Hebrew word for sacred is "Kadosh", which means "set apart". The evidence suggests very strongly that the realm of the sexual is set apart from other areas of human activity. And of course, what is set apart is not to be handled casually. And many people, despite the levity with which sex is currently treated culturally, still guard this area of their lives as a result of an intuitive sense of its sacred, mysterious and deeply personal nature.

Another clue that indirectly points to a significant aspect of what makes the sexual act meaningful is that which increases sexual arousal for the violent sexual deviant. The goal of the rapist is not merely the pleasure of orgasm. His goal is to control, humiliate, and instill fear. If, for whatever reason, he cannot instill that fear, if his victim remains humanized as a result of some clever strategy on her part, that is, if she cannot be reduced to a timid and quivering animal, he feels no excitement. He has failed to achieve his end. In other words, it is the effects of his own hatred that delights him sexually.

At the opposite end, what makes the sexual act meaningful for those who are psychologically and morally healthy is the love that permeates the act. The goal is not to reduce the person to something less, but to expand the person to something more, to allow the other to know he/she is loved. In other words, what makes the sexual act meaningful is not the pleasure of orgasm; rather, the pleasure of sex is increased as its meaning is increased, and what makes the sexual act meaningful is something intelligible, not sensible. Meaning is intelligible; it signifies, it communicates an idea to another. It is that communication that renders the act more or less meaningful.

The mysterious and personal depth of the sexual renders this gift dangerous. This danger lies especially in the fact that self-love is difficult to temper. The love of pleasure is ultimately the love of self - I love something for what it does for me . To love things for the sake of the self is normal, but to love a human person principally for what that person does for me is abusive. Moral and psychological maturity is achieved only through the habitual tempering of the passions, and sexual passions are especially vehement; thus, they tend to be difficult to moderate, at least when we're young. Self-love is not in and of itself a bad thing, but inordinate self-love is, and the important point to become aware of is that self-love is inordinate for most of our lives. Moral, psychological, and genuine spiritual growth moves in the direction from disordered self-love to an increasingly selfless love. The relationship between these two loves is in some ways a zero-sum relationship: as one increases, the other decreases. The more a person loves himself inordinately, the less he is able to love selflessly, and vice versa. Human beings are creatures of habit, and a habitual orientation towards the self makes an orientation towards the other, for the sake of the other, much more difficult. And that is why marriages between the morally immature tend to last a short time only; for marriage is difficult, because it presupposes an ability to love selflessly - the demands of marriage require it. Genuine love is only channeled through virtue, such as patience, perseverance, magnanimity, humility, equanimity, justice, temperance, etc., but the successful cultivation of virtue does not happen overnight, but is a life's work, and it must begin early.

What this implies, among other things, is that sex becomes meaningful and contributes to the strength of the marriage relationship to the degree that the two persons engaging in the act are people of high moral integrity. At the very least we can agree that it makes very good sense that the sexual act be reserved for a context that is secured, to the greatest extent possible, against the casual and flippant use of it; it makes good sense to protect this mysterious and profound realm of one's own person against the devious who wish to use a woman as a means to an end (or use a man as a means to an end), who too readily say "I love you" with a love which is usually little more than a momentary expression of intense love of self. We would take this further and argue, contrary to what most people seem to believe today, that the only context that provides that security is marriage. Moreover, the very act of sexual union is itself a marriage act. Sexual union is not an act of mutual masturbation; it is an actual joining of persons, a joining of two into a one flesh union, which is precisely what marriage is, and of course it is ordered to the conception of new life. This latter point is the reason that the sexual act has profound social implications; for the emotional health of a child depends on the mental/emotional health of his/her parents. The child learns to love through his relationships in the home, in his family. If he knows that he is the fruit of their marital union, that he was loved into existence, and if he knows that the family in which he is born is oriented towards him and his siblings, he can begin to love himself without a wound that spawns emotional disorder. Should that context be disrupted, his sense of himself is inevitably affected.

At the risk of oversimplifying a highly complex world, I will dare to say that at the root of all our social problems is disordered passion, the unwillingness or inability to moderate the passions in accordance with reason. A good number of people, it seems, have more or less resigned themselves to being governed by the movement of their passions. The only thing holding them together, as the pages of a book are held together by the binding, is the legal infrastructure of their society, the laws of the land and the threat of legal repercussions were they to deviate from that law, not an awakened conscience in whose light one sees clearly the requirements of natural law. That light has been dimmed by the impulses of passion freed from the constraints of reason and the directives of prudence.