What’s Sex For, Anyway?

I began the previous post with the claim that many Christians struggle to accept queer identities or ‘lifestyles’ less because of specific biblical prohibitions than because of more basic assumptions about creation. One increasingly common example of such an assumption is a belief that the intent to reproduce is not only the primary but the only legitimate motivation for sexual activity. But, while this view has been fairly common throughout Christian history, and seems to be making a come-back over the past half-century or so (especially within the Roman Catholic Church but also increasingly within Evangelicalism), as we will see today, its justification from a biblical, Christian basis is far from clear.

There can be no doubt that reproduction is inherently related to sex. It is not my intent to deny this or argue against this — that would be foolishness. The question before us is not whether reproduction is connected to sex, but whether it is, in biblical perspective, the primary or sole justification for sex. And that’s a very different question.

The primary rationale for a reproduction-only argument among Christians is rooted in the Creation story, where the very first commandment given to Adam is to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth…” (Genesis 1.28). Certainly, this has always — and rightly — been understood to be primarily about procreation. In the Jewish tradition, for example, this commandment has been seen as a duty for all men of age to produce at least one son and one daughter. But, it does not follow that reproduction is the sole purpose of sex; and we also see this within Judaism: Even the more restrictive elements of the rabbinic tradition identify reproduction as but one of three legitimate reasons for sex, alongside pleasure and mutuality (what in Christian terms, we might call ‘communion’ between spouses). For this reason, sexual activity was affirmed within marriage even while a wife was unable or unlikely to conceive (e.g., while pregnant, nursing, and after menopause). Likewise, an early legal opinion promoting that a man divorce his wife after ten years of infertility was later overturned out of a desire to uphold the value of the marital bond. There is even evidence that inherently non-reproductive sexual acts, such as oral or anal sex, were permitted within marriages in medieval Judaism. (See Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s chapter on reproductive intent in Wrestling with God and Men for a fuller exploration of the Jewish traditions on sex.) In this more relaxed attitude towards sex within marriage, Judaism stands in contrast to the attitude that has dominated Christianity. The fourth-century Church Father St. Jerome stands for much of the Christian tradition when he asked incredulously of an opponent, “Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?” (Against Jovinian 1.19).

Why did Judaism and Christianity, coming from largely the same sources, draw such different conclusions? What do the Scriptures themselves say about sex? And where did the belief that sex is only ‘valid’ with procreative intent come from?

The Creation stories in Genesis 1-3 contain an origin story for gender, marriage, and sex, but not in the way the proponents of a reproduction-only, or even –primary, perspective might like. For they are introduced not as a solution to the problem of numbers, but to the problem of loneliness. We saw this the other day too, where the male and female aspects of humanity were separated in order to find a suitable companion and complement for the human person. Genesis 2 then ends with Adam recognizing that the woman is “flesh of my flesh” and the explanation “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” What’s sex for? According to Genesis 1-3, it’s for symbolically undoing the division within humanity — to restore unity and promote communion.

This communion is celebrated in sensuous detail in the Song of Songs, a lengthy love poem in the Bible in which the reader is invited to luxuriate in the desire, passion, and pleasure of both the male and female gaze upon their beloved. As Rabbi Greenberg notes, of the woman’s voice in the poem: “’My garden’ becomes ‘his garden’ in which he now pastures … The female body of the lover is both hers and his, a garden of their shared delights …. The senses that tempt Eve into disobedience in Genesis now saturate the poetry of love” (58). Absent from this biblical celebration of sex is any reference to reproduction.

Another common motif in the Hebrew Scriptures presents God as the husband of Israel and its people. But whereas in neighbouring cultures, such themes resulted in extensive fertility rituals, the Bible flips the image on its end and presents God not as the potent husband but as a spurned lover. The land’s fertility is conditional not on a successful cult, but on Israel’s faithfulness to her divine husband. This is to say that even in a fertility-heavy symbol, the focus in the Scriptures is on the relationship, the communion between husband and wife, rather than on the procreative consequences of sex acts. (See Rowan Williams, The Body’s Grace for more on this.) As this image of the marriage between God and Israel, and later among Christians, the Church, was more fully developed, it was used to highlight themes of celebration, joy, and intimacy; any ‘(re)productive’ value in the relationship is minimized to the point of existing only in subtext. One has to ask: If the primary point of marriage and sexuality is reproduction, why is reproduction not found when these images are used metaphorically for God’s relationship with the faithful? This is particularly important considering it is generally believed in Christianity that when it comes to the metaphors we use for God, it is the divine ideal that takes precedent and the human version that is actually the ‘metaphor’.

Even in stories about the birth of children, the role of the sexual act is generally minimized in favour of a focus on God’s power. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, among others in the Hebrew Bible, along with Elizabeth in the New Testament — all of these women conceive only after a long period of infertility, and many well after the onset of menopause. Hannah’s case is particularly interesting in this discussion, for her husband’s reaction to her apparent infertility is to highlight the importance of their relationship irrespective of children: “Am I not more to you than ten children?” (1 Samuel 1.8).

Turning to the New Testament, considering the importance Christians have historically placed on sex, the New Testament has surprisingly little to say about what it is for or about. However, in those rare places where sex and marriage are discussed, reproduction is noticeably absent from the discourse. When Jesus is asked about divorce, for example, he brings the question back to Genesis 1’s theme of communion: the two have become one. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul talks about husbands and wives surrendering ownership of their bodies to their spouse, with an additional recommendation for marriage to prevent lust from getting out of control. And, in the difficult passage in Ephesians 5 on husbands and wives as a symbol of Christ and the Church, Paul similarly puts the focus on the communion between spouses: “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body,” (5.28-29). Absent from these texts is any sense of reproductive imperative. As Rowan Williams summarizes the issue well: “[I]f we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm, however important and theologically significant it may be” (The Body’s Grace).

Indeed, proponents of the reproductive intent perspective have had to go to pretty awkward lengths to find biblical justification for their position. For example, the story of Onan from Genesis 38.8-10 has been a text traditionally used to oppose both masturbation and coitus interruptus on the grounds of “spilling seed.” — i.e., wasting semen. This was in fact the context for the quote from St. Jerome above; to his mind, Onan “was slain because he be begrudged his brother his seed. Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?” (Against Jovinian 1.19). The problem for Jerome is that this interpretation — common as it was — doesn’t fit the story. Onan was killed not for ‘spilling seed’ but for refusing to fulfill the responsibilities of a levirate marriage, in which a younger brother would marry a deceased older brother’s wife in order to continue the older brother’s family line. What we have then is an ancient example of eisegesis, reading meaning into a text rather than drawing meaning out of a text. This was common in the Church Fathers; since they interpreted the Scriptures based on the Rule of Faith — the teachings they had received — it came to follow that any interpretation that supported a traditional teaching was valid. And by the time Jerome came along in the fourth century, there was already a very firmly established sexual conservatism within the tradition, even within the bounds of marriage.

But if a rejection of sex for any reason other than procreation does not come from the Scriptures, where does it come from? The history of sexuality and attitudes towards it in the West is complicated and controversial. But I think it can be said without too much contention that at the time Christianity arose, the Mediterranean world was already in the midst of a conservative revolution in sexual ethics. In the first century BCE, for example, Roman society was experiencing anxiety about the dropping numbers of children born to the elite patrician families, and the Emperor Augustus implemented a series of laws designed to promote reproduction among the upper class. At the same time, philosophical schools that had long had a more open, though often suspicious, view of sex were becoming more ascetic in their approaches; the procreative intent argument, which had always been present in Greek and Roman cultures, but generally viewed as shockingly austere, began to gain more traction in this environment of increased skepticism towards pleasure. It’s interesting in this context that the earliest Jewish voices promoting ideas such as procreative intent or the ‘problem’ of ‘wasting seed’ were people like Philo of Alexandria, who were strongly Hellenized and influenced by Greek thought as much as Hebrew. The conservative shift in philosophical understandings of sexuality was particularly true of groups like the Stoics and Epicureans, who maintained their traditional beliefs about the need for personal restraint and balance in dealing with all of the bodily appetites, but were shifting their ideas about where they saw this balancing point being in a more restrictive direction. The rise of Neoplatonism, with its often dualistic — and therefore anti-body — worldview likewise shifted the balance of the wisdom traditions towards a greater focus on asceticism and a rejection of pleasure. All of these ideas existed within a mutually-reinforcing relationship with ancient medicine, which put forth such ideas as that men were hot and women were cold and so women couldn’t have too much sex or risk becoming too heated and thereby cease to be women; and similarly, men needed to be careful neither to burn up with too much heat nor risk feminizing themselves through excessive sexual activity. I think it’s most fair to say that the early Christians inherited and then participated in and pushed forward with this movement towards more restrictive sexual ethics. They took common cultural and philosophical beliefs about sex as a natural bodily appetite that needed to be managed carefully and put them into a framework that turned this universal struggle for ‘good living’ into a matter of spiritual life-and-death.

So where does this leave us? There is little — I would actually argue nothing — in the Scriptures to suggest that reproductive intent is a necessary component of a healthy and holy human sexuality. Whenever sex and marriage are discussed, whether in the creation story, the stories of the faithful throughout the centuries, or as metaphor for our relationship with God, it is the themes of mutuality, communion, and faithfulness that are highlighted. If we want a biblically grounded faith, these should be the themes we highlight when it comes to sex as well. At the same time, as Christians, our received traditions around sexuality have been shaped to an incredible extent by ancient Mediterranean philosophical systems. Much of what has been received as ‘Holy Tradition’ around sexuality and pleasure more generally, is nothing other than the common philosophical and (erroneous) medical beliefs of the Graeco-Roman worlds. We would do well to interrogate this inheritance and ensure that the story we are telling are more faithful to the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth than to these ancient philosophical systems — especially when they act to relegate pleasure and joy as things to be avoided, or are grounded in ridiculous pseudo-scientific claims.

For me, I love the fact that the creation story expands on the commandment to multiply and fill the earth with the description ‘be fruitful.’ For, of course, bearing good fruit is a common metaphor in the Scriptures for living a good life that produces goodness for the world and everyone in it. It therefore opens the doors to this commandment for everyone. While we tend to think of reproduction as something ‘everyone’ does, the fact of life is that it is and has always been far more complicated than that. If we insist on reproduction, not just as the meaning of sex, but as the meaning of life, it limits the field of living and God’s blessing to a small subset of the human race — basically, fertile females between the ages of thirteen and fifty and their fertile husbands. While a more generous and open understanding of what sex is for certainly does open the doors for a beautiful and holy life (including but not limited to sex) for queer folk of all stripes, it also does the same for all people who for whatever reason — of physiology, psychology, circumstance, age, or choice — are not going to be having and raising children. There is no doubt that having children is a blessing and a natural way of living out the commandment to be fruitful and multiply; but it is far from the only one. We are all under that essential human vocation, but we can live it out in many ways.

(For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.)

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