A Beautiful Thing: Sex and Sexual Ethics

Two weeks ago, I put on a suit and walked to a wedding ceremony. When the best men starting walking up the aisle, I began to realize how special this event was. No other parties or ceremonies could replicate this intensity of emotion. When the bride began to walk, I started to cry. I understood that they wouldn’t be the same after the wedding. From then on, they would be man and woman, “one flesh.”

In my last article, “The Good Life,” I proposed that we have biological and spiritual ends and that the good life consists of fulfilling those ends morally through our relationships. This model challenges us to ground our ideas of sex, gender, and marriage in the biological reality of the two sexes. By doing this, we acknowledge that humans are a unity of body and mind, in which the body is as much a part of a person’s identity as their mind. Ultimately, this view concludes that sex is biologically determined, gender is how one expresses one’s sex, and that marriage is a comprehensive union of two persons.

A fundamental truth about being human is the reality of sexual difference imposed by nature. To be human is to be one of two. One is born either male or female, with one sex opposite to, but inseparable from, and complementing the other.

Gender is how we communicate this fundamental truth of ourselves to others. This communication begins from the first days of birth with colors corresponding to an infant’s sex. In this sense, gender is social in that particular gestures expressing gender depend on culture. However, these sets of gestures correspond to the two sexes.

Gender norms can be good or bad depending on the particular set of practices. Regardless, gender norms are inescapable because of sexual differences. From sexual differences emerge emotional, mental, and social characteristics that come almost innately to a child. History teacher Matthew Polazzo mentions this when he talks about his own children, who are naturally drawn to either masculine toys like cars or feminine toys like dolls, with almost no guidance from him. In short, gender flows from sex.

However, this view is disputed by those who believe that gender does not flow from one’s sex but is rather entirely social and psychological. A transgender person’s sex, for instance, may be biologically male, but her gender is female. Moreover, some also propose that a person’s gender truly represents them and thus a transgender person should be treated just like any person of the gender with which they associate.

This view believes that persons are simply consciousnesses. The body is just the medium through which the mind communicates—the body is the car and the mind is the driver. Under this view, the body is not counted as part of someone’s person, but rather an accidental medium.

If persons are simply minds then it makes sense to support transgenders as they are attempting to express who they really are as persons. This support can even go to the extent of using medicine and technology to hinder the sexual development of a transgender’s body.

However, this view violates a foundational tenet established in “The Good Life,” that humans are a unity of body and mind. A human is not a mind inhabiting a body, but rather a unity of the two. Our bodies are not merely instruments our minds use but a fundamental aspect of our personhood.

Take, for example, the act of seeing. Seeing is a bodily act that is carried out by animals. We, however, as more than animals, do not just see or sense, but also use that data to gain understanding and self-awareness. The mental act of self-awareness is not truthfully possible without the biological sense data. In this way, human beings are unities of body and mind. To treat the body as merely a vessel and not essential to identity is to degrade human personality, which is what transgenderism does.

The disastrous effects of such degradation are evident from the high rate of suicide among the population. A study by the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden looked at a group of 324 sex-reassigned persons in Sweden, a place accepting of transgenders, from 1973-2003 in comparison to a control group. The study found that sex-reassigned persons had substantially higher rates of death from cardiovascular disease and suicide, and higher rates of attempted suicide compared to the random control group. In short, a misunderstanding of the importance of sexual difference and a duality of mind and body is not only philosophically faulty but may have practical, harmful effects.  

Instead of using technology  to stop the progression of sexual development and artificially gender a person to his or her preference, we should aim to align the mental and emotional state of the person with his or her sex. In some cases, this just requires letting puberty take its course and letting the child develop. In other cases, one must hope that psychiatric care and therapy can help mitigate the torment the person is facing.   

Now with an  understanding of sex and gender as they relate to one individual, it is fitting that we consider the sexes in regards to marriage and sexual acts. A balanced understanding of sex and marriage requires these ideas to be put into the context of relationships and love.

First, marriage is a union of persons. When a man is romantically in love with someone, he longs to be connected with his beloved at all aspects of his personhood: emotionally, mentally, spiritually, bodily. Marriages should preferably be couples who long to be united in this way. Marriage, therefore, should not be thought of as a stepping stone but rather as good for its own sake.

Moreover, since personhood is a duality of body and mind, a marriage consists of not only emotional and mental union, but also biological union.  In the act of coitus, a man and woman become one biological unit, which participates in the kind of acts that produce children.

This biological union makes marriage qualitatively different from other relationships. Particularly, marriage can only be between a man and woman because only a man and woman can become a biological unit.

Claiming that a same-sex couple can be considered married is to once again prize emotion and mind over the body. In this way, same-sex marriage commits the same mistake as transgenderism. It considers biological reality negligible or even fungible. Just as transgenderism disregards biological sex and prizes the mental gender, same-sex marriage disregards sexual union and prizes emotional union. One could say that these views make humans out to be gods who use their minds and sheer will to overcome nature. Juxtaposed to this conception, the view of marriage proposed here is that of comprehensive bodily, spiritual, and emotional union. Marriage  achieves this by making sexual union the bedrock, or root, of the relationship. From this root, the unique emotional, mental, and spiritual union emerges  as the marriage progresses. From this comprehensive union, the marriage is naturally fulfilled by the raising and caring of children.

The raising of children comes naturally to the spiritual and biological oneness of marriage. This does not mean the purpose of marriage is to have children, since that would reduce marriage as a means to an end. Rather, because of the loving, comprehensive relationship present in marriage, spouses are able to fully realize the life producing acts of sex.

We can now apply our understanding of loving relationships and marriage to the broader realm of sexual activity.

First, like marriage, sex should be treated as something good in and of itself, not as a means to an end. As such, sex for the purpose of pleasure is immoral as it reduces sex to a pleasuring act. Surprisingly, sex for the sole purpose of having children is immoral for the same reason. This is not to say that we should not feel pleasure during sex or desire children, but rather that sexual acts should not reduce sex to that end.

We could say that sex is a sign or symbol of affection, which would not reduce sex. However, this modern view is guilty of the same flaw of transgenderism and same-sex marriage: it disconnects emotional and biological reality. Sex is a symbol of affection, but only because it is an act in which persons become biologically united. To disregard sex’s life-producing role, or to use technology to hinder it, is to fight our natural ends.

It is only marriage that realizes the biological and mental aspects of sex. Marriage treats sex not as a means to pleasure but as the foundation for a comprehensive union. Moreover, it is within marriage that sex’s natural, life-producing effect can be properly realized, as marriages are apt for childrearing. Sexual acts are only moral in the context of marriage.

These conclusions map out a strict ethic which sounds draconian to our modern ears. Many of us wish to be autonomous and for sex to only require consent. Many of us wish for homosexuals and transgenders to be able to express who they are. These desires come out of a sense of freedom and compassion for others.

However, our good intentions do not change the morality of their acts and beliefs. As such, we should not even encourage neutrality towards these views as we cannot be neutral towards immorality. As I elaborated in, “Renewing America Part 2,” adopting liberal social views harms the poorest in our society by absolving them of any moral direction. While the richest can afford to navigate a world of blurred moral lines, the disadvantaged cannot. Not proclaiming the goodness of marriage and the immorality of non-marital sex increases the rate of single-parenthood. Children then raised without their parents have a high risk of staying in poverty and becoming single-parents as well, perpetuating the cycle. Therefore, taking a stand for the views espoused here is not only taking a stand for morality but also for the poor.

Ultimately, when we commit to a view of humanity as both mind and body we not only get a view of gender, marriage, and sex that takes into account human biology, but also allow that biology to blossom into a beautiful structure of intimacy. Yes, this structure places a great deal of restrictions on what we can and cannot be, but these restriction arise from a comprehensive understanding of human dignity and purpose. It is only from this understanding that I can say the couple I watched two weeks ago became one.

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