Miscellany 46: Sex: The Bad, the Good, and the WEIRD
What is sex for? In all seriousness, that’s a central question for our culture. Is it just is a recreational activity that also just happens to be useful for making children if and when we want them? (The only difference between the secular and the Christian view, much of the time, is that Christians view sex as a recreational activity only for the married.)
No. It’s more than that – and I think that many of the problems in our culture come from the attempt to take some aspect of sexuality and ‘enjoy’ it out of context, unmoored from marriage… and from children.
Consider, for instance, pornography: the attempt to isolate sexual stimulation from human relationship entirely (let alone a marriage!). This intriguing short article on “Japan’s love affair with pornography” notes that “porn-saturated Japan has a notoriously low-level of sexual activity, even among married couples. And in recent years young people are also losing interest in sex. This is a country where pornography is everywhere and available to children. Could there be a connection?”
At the risk of sounding old-fashioned (that worst of contemporary sins!) let me be clear: pornography is degrading and its use is sinful.
The (seeming) good.
Even what seems good to the secular world has its problems. Contraception breaks the natural connection between sexual activity and childbearing; marriage has become primarily about emotional satisfaction — and increasingly, so has childbearing. The Wall Street Journal notes that America is experiencing a “Baby Bust.” Sharply declining fertility rates, well below replacement level, means that serious economic and social problems lie ahead. What happened? A number of cultural changes, but most important was that, in the author’s words, “the combination of the birth-control pill and the rise of cohabitation broke the iron triangle linking sex, marriage and childbearing.”
(As a side note: I find it interesting that the author of the article uses the technological, instrumental metaphor of an “iron triangle” to describe the way that the union of a man and woman in marriage will naturally bring forth children – unless their natural fertility is interfered with through technological means! A little backwards…)
How, then, can people be encouraged to have more children? Tax incentives? Better benefits? But “France… hasn’t been able to stay at the replacement rate, even with all its day-care spending.”
The WSJ author eventually comes up with a few suggestions for avoiding “demographic disaster”: reform of Social Security, and ideas to reduce housing costs and college costs, but the real insight is tucked into the middle of the article:
“There have been lots of changes in American life over the last 40 years that have nudged our fertility rate downward. High on the list is the idea that “happiness” is the lodestar of a life well-lived. If we’re going to reverse this decline, we’ll need to reintroduce into American culture the notion that human flourishing ranges wider and deeper than calculations of mere happiness.”
But if sex can be compartmentalized and consumed as a product or relational experience — as porn, the hook-up culture, and contraception allow it to be — then it’s no surprise that children are viewed as a lifestyle accessory, to be had if, and when, and in the quantity desired.
And the WEIRD.
Now consider this interesting article from The Atlantic, titled “Where Masturbation and Homosexuality Do Not Exist.” Toward the end of the article, the author notes that research findings about human sexuality (and other aspects of human nature) may very well be skewed by the WEIRD nature of the populations from which the studies drew their samples: “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic” societies. For the WEIRD today, sex is fundamentally recreational, hedged off from fertility by contraceptive technology and decoupled from marriage by the rapid change in sexual norms of the last fifty years.
But the WEIRD are not the only people in the world. The article gives an overview of the work of anthropologists Barry and Bonnie Hewlett, who studied the Aka and Ngandu people of central Africa, and made some very interesting discoveries. “Married Aka and Ngandu men and women consistently reported having sex multiple times in a single night. But in the process of verifying this, the Hewletts also incidentally found that homosexuality and masturbation appeared to be foreign to both groups.”
What’s more, “while the individuals the Hewletts interviewed… made it clear that sex is pleasurable for these folks, and something that brings couples closer, they also made clear that babies are the goal of sex. Said one Aka woman, “It is fun to have sex, but it is to look for a child.””
That’s an important point, and one that’s often missed in discussions about contraception, marriage, and children. The deep connection between sex and childbearing doesn’t make sex less fun. It makes it more important; it gives the proper context, from which all the other benefits can spring naturally and rightly.
It’s worth thinking about.
Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith. Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.