I’m my previous article on sex and sanity, I asked whether there is such a thing as sexual sanity. That is: is there an objective reality about sex (an intrinsic meaning and purpose) that I would need to respect and live in accord with in order to be sexually sane?
We saw that the answer is “yes.” Sex has an intrinsic ordering to the begetting of children. Regardless of someone’s personal motive for engaging in sexual activity, procreation is the natural end of sex. But is this all there is to sex? It would seem that this view reduces sex to mere biology and thus is guilty of a sort of “physicalism.” Perhaps this charge would have force if producing children were the end of the story for human sex. But it’s not the end. There’s more.
There is another purpose of sex that is intrinsically bound up with making children (the procreative dimension), namely, spousal union or friendship (the unitive dimension). There are two ways to see this intrinsic connection. The first sees the spousal friendship as finalizing the procreative dimension in as much as it makes sex a human reproductive act. The second way shows how the unitive is bound to the procreative for the sake of rearing the children produced by the act. Let’s start with the first and see how the unitive makes sex properly human.
Not Like the Animals Do
The natural end, begetting children, follows from the animality of human beings. It is our sexed bodies—our reproductive organs—that order sexual activity toward procreation. This is something that we have in common with other animals. But we know that human sexual activity is different than animal acts of reproduction. No one in their right mind refers to two dogs “making-love” and female horses don’t gird themselves in lace nighties to enhance the experience. Just like ranchers don’t put Barry White music on with dim lights and lit candles to create ambiance in the barn for the breeding of their horses.
So what is it that transfigures or elevates reproductive acts in a human being and makes them distinct in the animal kingdom? What is it that makes sex properly human?
Let Reason Be Your Guide
We can begin to get a glimpse of the answer by considering other human acts. Consider, for example, the act of going to the bathroom. We wouldn’t think much if Dorothy’s dog, Toto, relieved himself as they were walking along the yellow brick road. But what would your thoughts be if Dorothy decided to join him in such a relief session?
My guess is that you would be repulsed by such behavior. It would be as unreasonable as the woman who defecated on a poster that was supposedly of Mexico’s presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto during street protesting in 2012. This is not how humans go to the bathroom. Defecating must be done in a reasonable way (in private and preferably on a toilet) in order to be properly human.
Another example is sight. When Dorothy looks at a tree with Toto her dog along the yellow road in Oz, they both perceive a tree. But they do so in essentially different ways. Toto sees only a particular thing with a certain shape, different colors, and a particular smell.
When Dorothy perceives the tree, she not only sees everything Toto sees, but she sees it as a tree. The difference is, Dorothy is able to abstract the essence or nature of what the thing is and form the universal concept of treeness. She is then able to judge that the object before her is a tree, along with the other trees in the forest, and reason to certain conclusions about trees, namely, they are material and subject to corruption, etc.
Notice that Dorothy’s power of sight is radically transformed by her rationality. Although there are aspects of her power that she shares with Toto, it is essentially different because it’s fused with reason. As the philosopher Edward Feser explains, “A human visual experience is a seamless unity of the rational and the animal…we (unlike non-human animals) conceptualize what we receive through sensation” (Neo-Scholastic Essays, 395).
Another example is the act of eating. All animals share the drive to eat for the sake of self-preservation. But we all have an innate awareness of what is appropriate human behavior when it comes to eating.
I’m sure at some point in your life, at least if you’re a male, while sitting at the dinner table, your mother scolded you and said, “Son, where are your manners? Stop eating like a pig. You weren’t raised in a barn.”
Such a reprimand implies that there exists a standard of eating that elevates the animalistic inclination to that which is appropriately human (mainly, table manners) What might that be? Reason.
Far from being merely an animal activity, eating for humans is infused with rationality. Philosopher Paul Gondreau from Providence College describes the human dimension of eating as follows:
[E]ating serves a profound human function, indeed, it becomes an art, in as much as we prepare our meals with the highest of nutritional, gustatory and even aesthetic quality in mind, we observe proper etiquette when consuming our food, and, typically the preferred occasion of shared human fellowship, mealtime satisfies deep social (i.e., rational) needs (“The Natural Law Ordering of Human Sexuality to (Heterosexual) Marriage: Towards a Thomistic Philosophy of the Body,” in Nova Et Vetera, English ed. Vol. 8, No. 3 (2010): 553–92).
Just as there is a seamless unity between the rational and the animal in human visual perception, there is a seamless unity between the rational and the animal in human eating.
Human Sex is More Than Animality
What the above examples show is that our animal sentient inclinations become human if integrated into that which makes us human, namely, our rationality. This is the key to figuring out what makes human sex properly human.
For sex to be genuinely human, it must be integrated into that which is unique and noblest in us, namely, our rationality, which involves knowledge and love. And where is knowledge and love united but in friendship, interpersonal communion (stress on personal).
The bodily union between man and woman that is ordered to begetting children, therefore, finds its human perfection in the “indivisible union of souls” (Summa Theologiae III:29:2) that exists between spouses. St. Thomas Aquinas calls this spousal friendship a domesticae conversationis consortium—a “society of domestic fellowship” (Summa Contra Gentiles III, 123). He elsewhere refers to it as a “conjugal society” (ST Suppl., 41:1).
To get a bit metaphysical for a second, you might say that the unitive dimension of sex (spousal friendship) is to the procreative dimension what the rational soul is to the human body. Just as the rational soul makes our bodies human bodies as opposed to animal bodies or vegetative bodies, the spousal friendship (communal living) makes our procreative inclinations properly human—integrating them into the rational part of our human nature.
The human transformation that the unitive dimension provides to the procreative shows how sex is another human act in which there is a seamless unity between the animal and the rational
The Rest of the Story About Sex
What this analysis shows is that sex has yet another dimension and it is intrinsically united to the procreative, namely, interpersonal communion of knowledge and love (the unitive or “love-making” dimension). The procreative dimension flows from our sexed bodies and the unitive dimension flows from our rational souls. Paul Gondreau puts it succinctly:
Human sexuality, in its primary ordering to procreation as owing to the body, is at the same time ordered essentially to personal, unitive love as following upon the (rational) soul. By means of the unitive dimension, in other words, our sexuality participates in the rational dimension of human life (article cited above).
Therefore, to see what is there for human sex (to see reality) is to see both the procreative and unitive aspects. And sanity would demand that we live in accord with it.
Union for the Sake of Children
The unitive dimension not only flows from the procreative in as much as it integrates human sex into what is noblest in humans (rationality), it also flows necessarily from the procreative in as much as it is necessary for rearing the children that are brought about by the sexual act.
Unlike other species in the animal world, nature has not provided human infants with the ability to care for themselves. Nature has ordained them to be radically dependent on others for their needs, and for a very long period of time.
The needs for human offspring go beyond the mere physical. Because humans are rational animals, children also depend on others for what Aquinas calls “the training of the soul” (SCG III, 122)—that is, attending to the emotional and spiritual needs of the child. Children’s minds need to be formed in what is true. Their wills need to be directed toward what is good. They need help in learning how to live in community with others.
So nature ordains procreation not just to the generation of new human beings, but also to the formation (rearing) of such new human persons that allow them to fulfill their nature as rational animals.
It is here where the union between husband and wife comes into play. Nature ordains that both man and woman be needed for the child to come into existence and to be reared.
For example, nature has ordained the mother to be the nurturer and the father to be the protector and provider. There is not much the mother can do to protect and provide for herself and her children when she is nurturing a child within her womb, and any other children she may have previously given birth to. So nature pushes the father into a situation where he has to provide and protect the woman and the children with whom he has had the children.
Both parents are also needed to bring their children to full maturity as members of the human race. Humanity is not a one-way street. Both sexes are needed for a full human education. Frank Sheed explains,
Humanity is not man or woman, but both in union. A child brought up by a father only or a mother only is only half-educated. He needs what the male can give him and what the female can give him. And he needs these two not as two separate influences, each pushing him its own way, so that he moves on some compromise line that is neither, but as one fused influence, wholly human, male and female affecting him as conjoined not as competing influences (Society and Sanity, 105-106).
Children need models of both sexes and the model of the relationship between them. Anything less is a half-human education.
What’s the Bottom Line on Sexual Sanity?
The objective reality of human sex is procreative and unitive. Just as a human being is both body and soul, human sex is both procreative and unitive. Nature has made it so that both aspects are essential to human sexuality.
Our sexed bodies are ordered toward the begetting of children. But because we’re human, the procreative end necessarily involves an interpersonal union of knowledge and love. The unitive dimension of sex tells us that sex is for union with another person. But the procreative dimension tells us that sex is for a union between a man and woman.
Therefore, the objective reality of human sex consists of its ordination toward the end (goal) of a heterosexual union of knowledge and love, namely, heterosexual marriage. I call this heterosexual union “marriage” because the other essential characteristics of exclusivity and permanency are embedded in the procreative and unitive dimensions. I intend to draw these aspects out in a future post.
But suffice to say that sexual sanity sees the procreative and unitive dimensions as essential to the act. To say sex by nature involves one without the other is as contrary to reality as saying a human being is only a body or only a soul. Both body and soul belong to the nature of a human being. Both procreation and union belong to sex.
If we should direct our grandfather into the real world concerning butter dishes and leprechauns (see previous article), then shouldn’t we also invite people into the real world of sex? I don’t think our culture is so far gone that we should let it be, as one might do with his grandfather whose insanity is so deep that he can’t be brought out of his false world. Reason may be dormant in our society, but I am confident that it can be reawakened.