This is #2 in a series on sex and aging. If you have already read this preliminary disclosure, you may skip to the new material below the “more” button.
These posts are about why sex gets better when we become capable of leaving some things behind, and why this generally only happens as we age.
Now be advised: I’m going to write about sex and these topics openly, so if you are:
- under age (18),
- prefer not to read about this kind of thing, or
- want to read about it only as long as certain kind of words are (not) used or descriptions remain allusive and euphemistic,
please do not read this or other post(s) on sex or other adult topics!
Honey, what is Jesus doing in the bedroom bag?
For religious and philosophical traditions that consider the body, or “flesh,” to be inferior and corrupting to things of the spirit, it’s difficult to be sex-positive. In the West, Platonic philosophy combined with Jewish/Semitic tradition and tribalism through St. Paul and the early Church fathers to powerfully influence Christian views of sexuality and the body. Overall, it’s been pretty negative. Oh yes, there’s all that “your body is a temple” kind of thing in the New Testament (1 Cor. 6-7), but that’s the whole point of Paul’s remark: unclean things pollute holy spaces, like the Jewish temple, and one’s body, like a temple, should be a holy space.
And sex, especially in a temple, is decidedly unclean.
It would be charitable to say that Paul’s attitude toward sex was deeply ambivalent. He rather reluctantly recognizes in his letter to the Corinthians that some people will “burn” with lust, and his view is that marriage should be, among Christians, primarily a last resort for people who can’t resist it. Even in marriage, sex should be only a temporary outlet for those times that couples cannot remain celibate together. Veto power, he implies, over celibacy within marriage should lie (on an “as needed” basis) with the spiritually weakest partner in order to preclude sex from straying outside of marriage; if necessary, each partner should be ready to “submit” to the less than clean needs of the other and, as needs be, to divide their loyalties between serving God and accommodating the flesh.
It doesn’t take a therapist to figure out that this is a no-win situation for both partners: the one who feels more pollution-prone, and the one who feels more polluted. In fact, it’s a near perfect recipe for guilt, self-loathing, and mutual resentment. In a culture where self-fulfillment is prioritized, it virtually guarantees dishonest and destructive behaviors and practically underwrites a sex and addiction therapy industry.
Now, before some of you go off on me, I’m not saying that this is all there is to sexual relations and Christianity. Yes, there’s all those juicy metaphors in the Song of Solomon that practically beg to be impregnated by fertile imaginations. And yes, Paul’s attitude was (as with many things) colored by the fact that he thought God was coming back in a few weeks; his approach to sex and marriage could be seen as a short-term solution. But the fact of the matter is that his short-term solution has evolved into an historically persistent, culturally pervasive, deeply entrenched, and frankly toxic sexual subtext. And, whether you are religious or not, or Christian or not, really doesn’t matter much. One thousand nine hundred and fifty-odd years of influence has left its deep imprint on practically all our collective psyches and spirits to various degrees. So it’s no wonder that sex is such a spiritually thorny issue for some couples, and particularly those who really want to do the right thing by their beliefs.
In any case, as I’ve said in an earlier post on College Angst and the Cult of Virginity, the idea that sex is fundamentally bad and that enjoying it is worse may be somewhat effective for keeping young people from having sex, but it sticks with them when they become adults and follows them into the bedroom (and even into the marriage bed) where it continues to haunt them for some time. It is, I think, one of the major sources of sexual baggage for people’s sex lives, because if you buy into that kind of thing it’s really hard to enjoy something that is so damn (pun intended) fleshy. And because this baggage often comes as part and parcel of their religious tradition and upbringing, people often turn to religious solutions to try and negotiate with them. Nevertheless, some — perhaps many — of these people learn, in time, to leave both the baggage the solutions behind for their own good, and probably to the Lord’s great relief.
But in the meantime, negotiations can take desperate and amazing forms. Susan once knew a woman who needed to give a shout out to the Lord with a big “Thank you, Jesus!” every time she had an orgasm, whether alone or with her husband. Now, it’s bad enough that she had to call Jesus to the tub every time she masturbated, but the fact that she needed to create a threesome in order to have an orgasm with her husband really creeps me out. And what’s more, I hear (not literally, you understand) this is fairly common.
News like that that makes me feel so sorry for the Lord. Can you imagine how Jesus feels if not just one woman, but hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of them (not including the men!) depend on him to get them over the top? Can you imagine the pressure? I don’t think Jesus needs that – he’s got enough to worry about – and I don’t think we should need Jesus for that. I think that, if he’s up there, Jesus must be saying “Look, this is really your thing; do you think that you could just leave me out of it for once? If you’ve got to call on someone, call on Dad.” (To which Dad probably replies, “Hey, I’ve got enough trouble: Haven’t you heard all their ‘oh God, oh God, oh God’s?”)
Anyway, this woman’s husband eventually left her, and I can sort of understand why: by the time all you need is Jesus for your orgasm it’s pretty obvious that a) your partner is pretty irrelevant, or b) that there’s something about sex itself – or c) about sex with your partner him/herself – that you just can’t face.
I think it’s pretty much the same for some people who feel compelled to make sex into a form of worship. There are a myriad of books on how to sacramentalize sex (to make the unholy holy) or get God into bed with you, and while I’m not saying that sex and spirituality can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) intersect, most of what I’ve read and heard reminds me of versions of something that I heard over thirty years ago when I was about sixteen:
Back then I was a part of Young Life, a Christian youth organization. One summer our group took a trip to a really swank retreat, called Malibu, up in Canada. Part of the program featured a speaker whose purpose was to educate us about Christian sex. He gave us a “holding hands and kissing is a gateway drug to depravity because it introduces you to dark and irresistible forces that draw you ever downward in a spiral of making out, petting, heavy petting, oral sex, intercourse, and other acts too despicable to mention” talk. He sprinkled his talk with Bible verses made into commentary on specific sex acts, and what he did to the metaphors of the Song of Solomon bordered on interpretive BDSM. I don’t think many of us heard much else of what he said because we were either too shocked, or too turned on, to listen.
Eventually, however, he got around to expatiating the joys of sex within the firm boundaries of marriage and we calmed down a bit. The purpose of sex in a marriage, he proclaimed, was first to procreate, and second, to bring a married couple closer to God. We must have looked perplexed after all his sex swagger, because he launched into a defense that included telling us that he and his wife were never more fervent in prayer, nor closer to Jesus, than when they were having sex. He ended with a wish that we all could have the same experience, and he assured us that we could: if only we would maintain, or regain through repentance, complete purity until we met that special person who awaited us at the end of the long and difficult road of total abstinence.
I think we were supposed to be grateful; I know that we were supposed to be impressed. But all I could think was, “Man, you are one sick puppy.”
Now, I know that sex has long been incorporated into ritual practices and used as a means of elevating consciousness, but that’s not what this guy was talking about. You see, here was a guy so afraid of sex that he needed not only to pray away the fact that he was having it while he was having it with his wife,but it he felt compelled to foist his conflicted obsessions and inhibitions onto other people. Sex, for him, was so powerfully nasty that anything associated with it had to be thoroughly sealed off and double-bagged: by marriage within society, and by religion within marriage. And even then, even though he saw carnal pleasure erupting from practically every book of the Bible, he could only participate in it by making it into something else. I’ve always thought that he and his wife (if she was really of the same mind) must have had terribly repressive, or terribly kinky, sex.
But I have to admit that he was only voicing externally what many of people have internalized to some degree: namely, that sex is a dirty and dangerous, but necessary, evil. And even when it is channeled and constrained within a narrow set of relationships, purposes, or practices, it’s not really good: it’s just less bad. This script tells us that, for sex to be okay, it needs something or someone powerful to constrain it and keep us in check, or to force us into it and let us off the hook for any responsibility. This is a major motivation in fantasy and role play involving loss of control to authority figures whose benign authority turns to nefarious purposes (teachers, doctors, nurses, priests, nuns) or to bad people who force others to do good — I mean, bad — things (pirates, kidnappers, aliens). And it’s also at the root of some people’s need to be in the presence or possession of some otherworldly power on whom they can pin the blame (or credit) for sex.
It takes a while — sometimes a long while — to start to shed this kind of sexual baggage and to feel like it’s really permissible to enjoy sex with your partner that isn’t a means to something else. It takes time to realize that your enjoyment and experience of each other doesn’t have to be sanctioned by something beyond yourselves or scripted to someone else’s agenda in order for it to be wonderful, compelling, and okay. It takes time, but age teaches you that sex can be, and most of the time should be, an end in and of itself. And if you and your partner can be on the same page, that knowledge becomes mutually liberating as well as empowering. Along with experience, it’s part of the reason why sex gets better with age and why, if you’re concerned about that kind of thing, God probably appreciates older lovers.