Other Husband & Wife Articles

Sex Gets Attention
By Pia de Solenni

Sex.  Mere mention of the word or anything related to it can provoke a variety of reactions both good and not so great. Faithful Catholics are no exception to this rule. But some reactions seem extreme. On the one hand, I understand this because we are a sex-saturated culture. We know more about sex, especially as it relates to other people’s lives, than most of us ever want to know.

However, it seems that there’s also room for a reasonable and healthy discussion. When I endorsed Greg Popcak’s book Holy Sex, for example, I recommended it for engaged and married couples. For most other people, including priests, the information is probably more specific and technical than they would ever need. But it could be incredibly useful for married couples. As it is, good resources for married people are few and far between.

Case in point: when I was engaged, I was given several sex books as a joke. Some joke. They were depressing. Absurdly, in a post-feminist age, women are expected to satisfy not only the sexual desires of their partner, but their own. They aren’t supposed to expect a reciprocal concern from the man. This stands in stark contrast to the mutuality and shared love that marks the Catholic Church’s vision of marriage.

In The Joy of Sex, for example, the authors recommend introducing a third person to marital intimacy when things get a little dull. From this perspective, sex has little to do with marriage. So, for those who hold a more integral view of sex, other legitimate resources are necessary, hence my praise for Popcak’s book. He provides a comprehensive presentation of the Church’s teaching on sex and marriage, including its theology, psychology, and physiology. His is a welcome alternative to many of the popular resources available.

The nature of sex and marriage sometimes requires discussion of personal details. Despite, or perhaps because of, their intimate nature, these questions need clear and frank responses, especially when they are matters often discussed and misrepresented in popular culture.

Every once in a while, I hear engaged or married couples complain that learning natural family planning involves discussions that are too intimate. If fiancés and spouses can’t have these conversations, they’ve got bigger problems than NFP and marital intimacy.

Yes, sex is sacred and holy, but C.S. Lewis gives good advice when he reminds his readers that sex can still be fun. He warns, "Don’t go incensing the bed." Besides, if sex weren’t pleasurable, then God’s work of creation wouldn’t get much cooperation from humanity. It’s not unlike eating. Food gives us pleasure that entices us to consume the nutrients our bodies need for existence. While pleasures can be abused, they are also an indication of the way God intends nature to work.

Speaking of sexual pleasure, St. Thomas Aquinas maintained that the physical pleasures of sex before the fall would have been greater because the body, uncorrupted by sin, would have had greater sensibility. But the pleasure would have been in conformity with our intellects instead of obfuscating our rational nature. In other words, we wouldn’t have had the tension that St. Paul addresses when he advises that it’s better to marry than to burn.

Aquinas compares lust and concupiscence to gluttony. The glutton is someone who just wants the experience of eating. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what’s eaten or how it tastes. It’s all about consumption. Similarly with sex, lust and concupiscence are tied up with the experience or consumption of sex rather than with the self-giving of sex. It’s a little like the difference between an alcoholic who drinks Nyquil or vanilla to obtain the effects of alcohol and a wine connoisseur who is happy to enjoy a glass of good wine.

Catholicism stands in stark contrast to other religions which denigrate or despise the body. The body, after all, is created by God and must therefore be good even if it suffers the effects of original sin. Our bodies were sentient before the fall and we were meant to experience everything through the union of body and soul. Depending on particular situations and relationships, the body will be involved in different ways. For spouses, the experience of one’s own body and the other’s body in the sexual union points toward the deep union between Christ and the Church. Marriage between husband and wife imitates this union and strives towards such perfection.

Obviously, this short column doesn’t allow space to probe all the aspects of sex. The point is simply to illustrate the need for articulate and appropriate discussions. After all, if a Doctor of the Church considers it appropriate to discuss the nature and pleasures of sex, I take that as a good indication that related discussions have a place in our lives.

Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian and cultural analyst who writes from Seattle, Washington. She can be reached via Facebook and Twitter. (Her website is getting a prolonged makeover and is currently offline.)