The Meaning of Sex
Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green · March 18, 2011
Audio length: 1:16:11
Frederica delivers a speech at UC-Santa Barbara (sponsored by The Veritas Forum) titled "The Meaning of Sex."
Speaker 1: Welcome to the Veritas Forum. Engaging university students and faculty in discussions about life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life.
Frederica: I want to start off at… it’s something that happened to me. Something I’d experienced that got me… somebody tonight at dinner said, “Why would you fly around the country giving talks about sex?” Actually, it was something that I observed when I went to the March for Life in Washington, DC a few years ago. A lot of years, there aren’t counter protesters, but there were some this year. It was a small group, I guess four or five men, two women, I think.
They were young people and they were just standing on the sidewalk as the prolife marchers went by and they had their protest signs. This was when George W. was still in office and one of the signs said, “Post-birth abortion for George W.” Another one read, “Pro-choicers against fascism.” The third said, “Just say no to sex with pro-lifers.” They were holding up and they were making noises and trying to irritate the marchers.
Most of them didn’t really see them or hear them because there were so many people, but then they started singing a song and it did attract attention. The song was to the tune of Jesus Loves the Little Children, and the first line was, “Jesus should have been aborted. Mary wanted a career. Abortion is a woman’s rights so we won’t give up the fight until you Christian blanky blanks go away.” That doesn’t even rhyme so… among the other flaws in the theology and the philosophy of this little song.
It was sort of designed to be provocative, and it provoked people as people were walking by. What I noticed was there was… maybe this guy had sort of assigned himself to stand there from the beginning, there was a guy wearing a pro-life t-shirt, he was an old guy and he was standing kind of right next to them so the marchers would come pass them and then he was there, and if a marcher turned toward them, like somebody step forward and spit on the ground in front of them and he would step out and say, “Hey, don’t do that.”
People come up and insult them or something. He would make them stop and just go on with the march and ignore them and leave them alone. A lady flipped the bird at them and he said, “Have a little class.” Then I noticed there were some people that had gone by and this young man came back, like walking really fast and a little bit nervous. I didn’t know if he just thought of something he wanted to say or maybe he said it to his friends and they said, “You should go back and say that.” He walked back up and he said looking nervous, “You guys don’t even know the real meaning of sex.” Then he walked away very quickly.
It took the little pro-choice protesters a minute to recognize what he had said and then they started to laugh and one of the men said, “At least, we’re having a lot more of it than you are.” One of the women says, “What does that even mean? You don’t know the real meaning of sex.” I thought that’s a good question. I started to think, “Well, what is? What does he mean in saying, you don’t know the real meaning of sex. What is the real meaning of sex?” I probably look like what I am, which is about… in the 1970s, I was a flower child, hippie, earth mother, feminist type, and never strayed very far from that in the intervening years.
My first impulse when I think a question like that is to ask what does nature show us. If you think of humans as being just a part of nature. Whatever else humans may be in addition, we are animals, we are mammals, and what does just the natural state of our bodies tells us? How is our body designed to work? By analogy, you could think about what does the design of our bodies tell us about what our relationship to food ought to be.
There are foods that humans can eat, there are foods that really aren’t good for you but you can eat anyway, and there are things that other mammals could but we can’t digest, we just couldn’t eat. I remember hearing once, there was a Swedish performance artist that ate a car in very small pieces, of course, but over the course of several years, he ate a car. It’s not recommended. There are things we’re not really designed to eat.
Taking that analogy that we are at least animals even if we may be something more, what is the meaning of sex is pretty obvious. The meaning of sex is reproduction. Every living creature has these two primary drives. There’s a drive to stay alive, you’ve got to find food and shelter to protect yourself, and the second is you have to pass on that life to a new generation. Creatures reproduce in many different ways and humans and animals, mammals do it by means of sexual reproduction, and it seems like that’s the reason it feels good is so you’ll want to do it, so then you’ll want to have another generation and that’s how the human race goes on, generation after generation down the centuries.
It’s the same way with foods, I think. Foods taste good because they’re healthy for us. It’s the reason that we’re attracted to sweets, I think, is so our caveman ancestors would keep going back to those brightly colored fruits that are hanging from the trees so conveniently within reach, it all seems like it’s kind of planned that way somehow. If they found that this desire that humans have for sweets is so fundamental that if they inject a sugar solution into the amniotic fluid of an unborn baby, he will start drinking the amniotic fluid faster, so we have that craving for sweets from the very, very beginning.
I think it’s the same way with sex. As I said, I think it feels good, but so that we’ll want to reproduce, but there are some interesting ways that humans are not necessarily like other animals. Even like other primates, there are ways that we’re different. For us, for example, sex feels good at any point in the fertility cycle and this doesn’t seem to be true of many animals, they mate only during the fertile cycle. What’s more, researchers suspect that only among humans is the female capable of orgasm.
The first time I heard, I didn’t know that only among humans, not among any other animals as far as we know. You can kind of make the analogy again with food, that although animals probably eat what they need to and as much as they need to. Humans eat for all different reasons, so sex isn’t only about reproduction, just as we have birthday cake. It’s not because of the nutritional value of the eggs that are in that cake. You’ll drink a cup of coffee for a lot more reasons than just being thirsty or you’d pop a bag of popcorn when you’re watching a movie.
We eat for social reasons. We eat for comfort reasons. We eat for a sort of ritual reasons like that birthday cake, and likewise, we don’t have sex only for reproduction, it means something more to humans than just reproduction. I think this is shown by another way that humans are unique, that is we’re one of the very, very few mammals that are capable of having sex face to face. I think that seeing each other’s faces means something, not just during sex, all the time. There’s something about face that there’s a mystery about the way that we are cued to read faces, created that way. We can’t resist looking at faces.
Researchers have found… I used to be a natural childbirth teacher, that’s why I keep telling you about research on babies. Researchers found that if you had newborn babies within 24 hours of their birth, they set up an experiment where the baby would be propped up and they would show him two pictures simultaneously, and then they would see which one his eyes went toward, which one did he stare at more frequently, and they would give him complex pictures, simple pictures, different colors, no matter what the choice was, if one of the choices was basically just an oval with two little dots at the top, like the most primitive form of the face, he would stare at those two little dots.
He had been in a womb until that point. He had never seen another face, but babies are born knowing that they need to look at faces and they need to make eye contact. I just think there’s a mystery about that. We do that automatically, if we see a person, we try to see their face. If somebody in this audience turned and started looking backwards, everybody sitting back of that person would just be automatically drawn to looking at his face. There’s just something about it that attracts us.
I started noticing that some advertisements too, that a lot of times, the advertiser, the art designer will either cut off the face from the nose up or they’ll put something to obscure the eyes because if they don’t do that, you’re going to look at the eyes of the model instead of looking at the product. They want you to remember the product.
Looking at faces, I think, meets a very, very deep human hunger, so I think that there’s a significance, it’s another one of those clues that humans are one of the few animals that are capable of looking into each other’s eyes, looking at each other’s faces during sex. Sex as there’s nothing else, it’s about making a connection. Making a genuine connection is something I think humans don’t seem to be very good at, it’s something we have trouble with.
It seems to be the main way that we’re different from other animals. Other animals understand each other even if they don’t get along, they understand each other pretty well. The lion and the mouse do understand each other even though they’re not going to be friends, not for awhile anyway, but we find it hard to understand even when we try very hard. All our lives, we feel like we’re on the outside looking in, looking into other people’s faces and trying to understand what’s going on inside of there.
If a baby is up all night crying, her parents will be frantic trying to figure out what the problem is, what do they need to do to help her feel better? Animal parents don’t have any problem recognizing why their babies are crying, they understand their baby’s cries. When his girlfriend is crying, the young man might be totally baffled and frustrated, he doesn’t know, she’s not able to explain it very well yet something’s wrong and you don’t know what to do to make her stop crying, but it’s one of the most miserable moments in a young man’s life.
The feeling that you can’t understand and there’s nothing you can do perfect, that’s the truth so don’t feel guilty about it because you’re not going to be able to understand, there’s not much you can do about that. It’s sort of true though of most of our relationships most of our lives, we keep making guesses as to what is going on in other people. There really is a lot of loneliness, I think, for all the fun we have and all the laughter we have, and the good conversations we have, I think there’s a feeling of isolation that most of us carry around that I think becomes more and more heightened as our culture atomizes us and separates us from each other.
This is just one of my hobbyhorses but when I see advertisements pushing, pushing, pushing this idea of you’re the rebel, you color outside the lines, you think for yourself, you march to a different drummer, you know that theme is loneliness, loneliness, loneliness. It’s “Separate yourself from others and declare that you’re different from everybody else and you’re this original.” The reason I do it is so you’ll buy something. That’s all they want, they want you to buy the iPad 2 because all your dorky friends have that old iPad that’s no good anymore.
It’s “Buy the green one this year. Green is the in color. If you still have the blue one, that’s no good.” Prove what an individual you are, buy what’s in fashion. It’s just crazy, it’s not even logical, but we fall for that and I think that our culture, especially the economy and the advertising culture induces us to think for yourself. Think for yourself as this isolated, solitary rebel, and then we wonder why we feel so lonely.
Sex is the most obvious. It’s the most literal way that humans connect with each other. I think there is something about the role that it plays in this essential problem of separation and loneliness. Sex is not an external activity that gets added on to the other things that we do in life. It is one of our most basic biological functions, no matter how civilized humans get, sex is always going to remain an activity that goes back to our basic, our animal selves.
It looks like sex is meant to mean something more to humans than it does to most mammals. Somehow it concerns the need to make a deep connection with somebody else. The connection we need is not just physical. It’s not even just reproductive, it involves the whole person. It seems that the meaning of sex is related to a profound need to bond with another person in love, in trust, and to forge a relationship that can last a whole lifetime.
I have to admit, there’s sort of a logical gap there like why a lifetime? Why isn’t an evening enough? Why isn’t a couple of months enough? Why a lifetime? That’s a lot to ask. Why not have a relationship for a little while if the simple purpose of sex is reproduction. Conceiving a child only takes a few minutes, why should the father stick around. Most mammals don’t form families that include a monogamous dad. Do you remember the movie Bambie? Bambie doesn’t even see his father until he’s almost grown.
Most mammals mate and then they separate and the mother raises the child alone or relatives as part of a herd, and there are reasons this wouldn’t work for humans. It has to do with how very premature a human newborn is compared to other mammal babies. A newborn deer, little baby Bambie struggles up to his feet and he goes over to his mother to nurse. A newborn human is not going to walk for a year. He’s not going to talk for much longer than that. If it was a matter of him providing for his own food, and shelter, and safety, it would be much longer than that that he’s be capable of it.
David Brooks has a new book called the Social Animal, and then that he proposes these two characters, Erica and Harold, who meets and fall in love, and they’re attracted to each other, and he says, for Harold, as soon as he sees Erica, he could look her over and she looked very attractive to him sexually and he claims, this is because if you have this proportion hip size to waist size and so forth, all these things are indicators of fertility and you’re primed to think that’s what sexy looks like.
For Erica, it takes more time. She can’t make an instant decision just from looking at Harold. He says, “Erica was more guarded and slower to trust than Harold was.” That is in part, because when placed to seeing them could pick their mates on the basis of fertility cues that were discernible at a glance, placed to seeing women faced a more vexing problem, human babies require years to become self-sufficient, and a single woman in that environment could not gather enough calories to provide for a family. She was compelled to choose a man, not only for insemination, but for a continued support.
It’s kind of in a nutshell because the human baby is so weak and helpless, it’s more than a one-person job. She needs the dad to stick around to ensure that the baby will survive. Brooks says, this is why actually research scientists have found that women are not as quick to have sex as men are. Who knew? Thank God for the scientist who can actually do these experiments, but he says various research teams have conducted a simple study. They hire a woman to go up to college men and ask them to sleep with her. More than half the men say yes. Huh. Then they have a man approach college women with the same offer, virtually zero percent say yes. They had to do a survey to find that out.
The thing that complicates reproduction for human mammals is that our babies are born so much more undeveloped. The scientist, thus Stephen Jay Gould, referred to a human newborn as an extra uterine embryo, an embryo outside the uterus compared to other mammals. Human babies are born still at the level of development that would be considered embryonic for another mammal. It was estimated that if a human baby was going to be as complete as other mammals are at birth, pregnancy would not be nine months, it would be 21 months, and if pregnancy was 21 months, I think we’d have a lot of women declining to go through that. Everybody would be a single child, I think that would be the answer.
Even after birth, human development goes much more slowly than it does with other mammals, so this heightened vulnerability means that a human newborn requires more intensive parental care than other mammal babies do and for a much longer time. A single parent is going to find it very hard as we know. A single parent finds it very hard to provide both the constant care a baby needs, and also the food and the shelter that both the parent and child need. It’s a job really that requires two people, at least for the first few years.
Reproduction isn’t complete when a baby is born. If the baby died, it would be as if reproduction never took place. In fact, the child has to grow up to the point where he can reproduce himself in turn to truly say that another generation has taken place. Two hands-on parents make it much more likely that will happen that the child will survive and that’s the biological reason the humans are among the very small percentage of mammals, about three percent of mammals that mate for life, but that still doesn’t answer the question why for life? You could say, maybe for 10 or 15 years but why would it have to be for an entire lifetime?
I think that’s a very good question. Rather than explain the why, I just want to say, I think that nevertheless, people do mate for life, it happens a lot. It seems to be the preference of the human mammal when it is possible to do so. Sometime years ago, I was up in the balcony at an event and as I was looking down, I saw a pattern that I had never noticed before though it’s an obvious one. It’s one I’ve seen forever and ever. It was that everywhere in this audience that was waiting for an event to begin, it was two people sitting next to each other, almost always a man and a woman and they were the same age. If he had gray hair, she had gray hair.
It was these little pair of bonds sitting, waiting patiently for the concert to begin, and it was touching in a way. It was touching to me to see the determination which humans make these pair of bonds, why do they do this? I can argue from nature there’s a reason that a newborn child needs a father as well as a mother. Why would parents stick together for decades? Even after the children grow up and they move out, what’s the point? Why be together then? What makes people stick together when all the requirements of reproduction was complete?
I think that brings us back to that mystery of faces and they need to connect. The initial impulse of sexual attraction is physical pleasure. It’s obvious. It’s an impulse that we’re born with. It’s like you crave sweets so you got a candy bar, but there’s more to it than that alone. Humans are different from other mammals. We don’t just want someone for a night. We’re looking for someone we can spend a lifetime with. Humans are made to mate for a lifetime because we find ourselves in the midst of a world which is enormous, dangerous, confusing, often hostile.
In the midst of it, we feel so small, and with our consciousness and their self-awareness that many other mammals, most other mammals seems to lack, we’re so aware of that danger and meaninglessness, or meaningfulness of life. I think we’re grappling with more anxieties and more loneliness than other animals do, and so we need that. We need that connection with the other person. Sure we want to have sex, but even more than that, we want to be loved. I think that is the underlying, the thing that we’re looking for, through that sexual connection.
This, I think, is where my generation did your generation a great disservice. I was part of that hippie generation that championed at the barricades of the sexual revolution and deliberately rejected the values of this stuffy older generation, and part of that was that insistence on sexual freedom. I think that this freedom for us have had a defiant element like we were challenging the stuffy morals of generations before us. I think that for you, it’s more like a consumer freedom. It’s like, “Do you want the cheese-flavored potato chips or do you want the barbeque-flavored chips?” It’s, “Let’s sample everything on the market.” A consumer freedom, it seems like something that you can select, and stay calm, and consume, and then forget about.
It was this breezy attitude towards sex that lies behind so much of the divorce among couples in my generation, that’s why so many of our children live through their parent’s divorce or grew up without one parent entirely because my generation decided that you can change partners whenever the moods strikes you. You can make a commitment and then break it, and make another one, and that the whole meaning of sex is consumer pleasure. Now, the children of those unions are growing up and we haven’t given you much guidance about how to do a better job. Many young people are afraid of marriage because they’re afraid of divorce, and at the same time, they long with all their hearts for that safe, happy home. That secure home, and they have no idea how to create a home like that.
Sex involves much more than just consuming pleasure. It’s tangled up with all of this deeper stuff. These issues of trust, and security, and loneliness and my generation just dismissed all of that as if it wasn’t there. As a result, we’ve not prepared our children to deal with it, and the result is that you can get blind-sided. You can believe the advertisements. You can think you’re just having fun and then you discover that something bad is happening to your heart.
The other fallacy that my generation communicated was that sex was all about power. Getting other people to desire you. We live in such a relentlessly consumer-oriented culture that we begin to see ourselves as products that are on display, and the test is how much of a market share you can demand. How many people you can simulate to want you? This affects not just women, I mean, historically, it affects women most, but I think both men and women today feel a lot of pressure to present themselves as sexually competitive consumer items.
As our culture becomes ever more visually saturated, we become more overly anxious about maintaining standards of appearance that are increasingly unrealistic because it’s all about market share. In real life, very few people have the kind of body that they can be utterly aggressively confident about. Most of us feel at least a little inadequate. We don’t go into a relationship feeling like a conqueror but feeling vulnerable. We don’t unveil a body that blasts all the competition, but one that is marked by imperfection and scars, and sags, and parts that are too level, and parts that are too big, and things we’re worried about other people seeing it.
We have to trust that the other person will love us enough that they won’t laugh at us. They won’t make fun of us behind our back to other people later on. It’s funny we try so hard to dress in ways that are going to make other people stare at our bodies when we probably want them to just look in our eyes with love. It turns out that sex is not about power, it’s about vulnerability. At this point, we approach something of a mystery. It seems there’s a shallow sexual experience and a profound sexual experience.
It’s possible that you treat sex just as something you do with the body only, and that can provide some transitory fun, at least until your body starts to get older and not as attractive. There is a limit and that we’re all getting older and the time is coming when your body is not going to attract others anymore, and then what?
Garrison Keillor once did a story about a friend of his he said named Jim. He said that Jim sent him a letter saying that he’s a married man, he was tempted to start having an affair with a woman he worked with. The woman was giving him a ride to a conference and he was thinking, maybe there would be an opportunity for them to flirt or begin the affair while they were out of town together. In this part of the letter, he says Jim is writing about waiting on his front lawn for the woman to come pick him up.
His letter said, “I thought, so this what adultery is like? It’s simple. I sat down on the front yard under our Spruce tree and waited for her to pick me up. I believe that men and women can part for many reasons, including the lack of love and appreciation. I left my parents for my wife because she appreciated me and they didn’t. Twenty years later, I sit in my own front yard, waiting to join a woman who appreciates me more, but in five years, or six, or eight, will I go to a higher bidder? What happens when I’m older and my grade falls? Who do I choose when I’m old and can’t run fast and nobody chooses me? I sat there in the front yard and thought, so this is what adultery is like? It’s just horse trading. As I sat on the lawn, looking down the street, I saw that we all depend on each other. I saw that although I thought that my sins could be secret, that they would be no more secret than an earthquake, all these houses and all these families, my infidelity will somehow shake them. It will pollute the drinking water. It will make noxious gasses come out of the ventilators in the elementary school. When we scream in senseless anger, blocks away, a little girl we do not know spills a bowl of grave all over a white table cloth. If I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard an intersection and somebody’s child may be hurt. A sixth grade teacher will say, what the hell, and eliminate South America from geography. Our minister will decide, what the hell, I’m not going to give that serving on the poor. Somehow, my adultery will cause the man in the grocery store to say, the hell with the health department, this sausage was good yesterday, it certainly can’t be worst today.” He concludes his letter saying, “I just leave the story there. Anything more I could tell you would be self-serving, except to say that we depend on each other more than we know.”
The happy ending, I think, to Jim’s letter, he doesn’t want to be self-serving and saying that he resisted that temptation. We depend on each other more than we know and it affects more than just that relationship. Somehow, it’ll make noxious gasses come out of the ventilators in the elementary school. There’s more to it than just passing pleasure. There is security, there is love. If two people feel safe within a bond of commitment, they can risk a profound vulnerability to each other, not just of their bodies but of their hearts, and in that environment, sex becomes one element of an organic shared life that day by day, year by year, grows deeper.
As the couple’s shared life increasingly deepens, sex is both an expression of that mysterious unity, and it’s also a means of creating it. Within that bond, sex really can make love. The term making love actually has a literal meaning, and it doesn’t matter that you’re going to get older and sag, and wrinkled. By the time you get there, the interweaving of lives is so complete that love is no longer an emotion but it is a force and it is strong enough to hold you up. Decades of love, decades of making love will do that, and it’s no wonder you wouldn’t know about this. Who’s talking about this? Is this going to be an advertisement? Is it going to be in the movies? I don’t think so, this is a secret power, and maybe that’s one of the reasons it is so powerful, it doesn’t really get talked about in public very much.
This hidden power is not something that really could be detected publicly, that hidden is part of its essence. It’s not something that you pick up in a random sample of married couples, of course. There are plenty of bad marriages out there where this isn’t happening, but good marriages still exist. The secret process of loving interchange of love making is going on. You could pass one of these couples on the street and not notice a thing. It’s a secret, a private thing, but it is there.
A few years ago, the feminist author, Naomi Wolf wrote, she gone to visit a friend of hers named Ellana. They grew up together so she was like a friend, a playmate when they were children, gone to college together, but Ellana had gone to live in Jerusalem as an orthodox Jew and she has a husband and a family, so Naomi Wolf went over to meet her, and she wrote this essay, she was thinking about her hair. She had waist-length, wild and curly golden blond hair. When she met her, Ellana was wearing a head scarf that completely concealed her hair, and Naomi Wolf asked her, “Can’t I even see your hair?” Ellana said, “No. Only my husband,” she said with calm, sexual confidence, “Ever gets to see my hair.”
In their home, Wolf got a glimpse of their bedroom. It’s a place only reserved for her and her husband, even their children are not allowed in their bedroom. Wolf wrote, the sexual intensity in the air was archaic and overwhelming. It was private. It was a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than anything I’ve ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated west. You might be thinking you would like to find a way to have that profound ever deepening sexual experience.
It requires two things. First you must be secure with your beloved. You must feel secure with the one you love. You must feel confident that the one that you love is going to go on loving you no matter what happens. That the gift of your body and the gift of your sexuality will never be rejected, never be ridiculed, never be abandoned. Second, you must persuade your beloved that you offer the same in return, that you will be there, you will never reject, or ridicule, or abandon. You will be there, loving and faithful for a lifetime. You could see that the power in this kind of sexuality comes from being concentrated into the relationship, restricted to that private space rather than being scattered and defused in the external world.
It’s hard to do that when the consumer culture is continuously bombarding us with the images of naked and half naked women and the context of Ellana’s life as Wolf says, her husband does not even see another woman’s hair. If a husband is reserving all of his sexual intensity for his wife, she will feel secure enough to invest all her sexuality and how that’s where the power comes from. They’re able to trust each other and sex is no longer a matter of their bodies alone. The souls begin to mingle as well.
When I read about Ellana’s husband who’d confined his eyes to her body only, I had two thoughts. One was that, I thought there were a lot of women who wish it could be that way for them, too. I think one of the mistakes, I mean, both had turned out to be a bad thing, but also it was erroneous was those of us who were pro-sexual revolution 20, 30, 40 years ago, part of the old feminism that I was involved with was, we were trying to rewrite the story on what women are like, and what women want, and how women act, and what women are capable of. Looking back at it, a lot of it was just copying men, if you look back at a movie from that era though, the women who are business women are wearing suites with little ties and carrying brief cases.
It took awhile for us to figure out that women can do things their own way. They don’t have to be exactly like men. One of the things was that we… you know, male chauvinist pigs made fun of women who stayed home to take care of their children, and so they’re just stupid housewives. We feminists said, “They’re stupid housewives. I’m not going to stay home with my kids. I’m going to have a career, and we thought of the career as the most important thing in your life.” Thank God, what happens when you have a baby, is that the most important thing in my life? But baby, it just blows your circuits and you become totally obsessed with, and thank goodness for that.
Our theory that we were just to have our children raised by these communes while we went to work every day, we didn’t really want to do that but once we started having babies, we realize that really isn’t what we want. One of the things we said, women are exactly like men was that, we thought about the male sexual drive and we thought women must have exactly the same drive, and we’re just persuaded not to act that way because of these oppressive ideas of feminine daintiness and modesty, and reserve, and all of that, and it’s just a game, and we should just admit that we have just as much sexual desire as men do and we ought to sleep around as much as they want to. We ought to want to that much.
I think that was news that men accepted with great enthusiasm actually. It certainly set their idea of what their ideal sexuality would be. I don’t think that women have ever completely warmed up to it and we seemed to have created a culture where women are expected to be sexually available and not care, and accumulate all these different experiences pretty much the way that men do. I think that biologically though, we have this thing that’s been engraved in us over the generations, over the millennia, that you need to have a guy who’ll stick around because you want to reproduce.
We think it’s a sex drive, but that’s like the sugar coating. It’s really a reproductive drive. That’s what our bodies think is going on. I think this causes a lot of tension for women because something their body is telling them on a profound biological level is not really how they’re allowed to act, and I know that they say the pendulum swings back and forth, it wouldn’t surprise me if they came one day when women began to band together and say, “Now we want to resist this expectation that we are sexually available all the time. We want to recover some of that right to hold ourselves back.”
The other thought that comes to mind about men is that porn can really screw things up. I think about Ellana’s husband who sees no other woman’s body except her body. That means that for him, a standard of what women’s bodies are like is based on the body of an actual woman, a real woman. If you must, any other time in history, if you were a caveman, if you were 19th century, running a railroad, almost any other time you lived in human history, you’re ideas about what women’s bodies are like would be formed by the real bodies of the real women that were surrounding you in your immediate experience, but today, there are so many artificial airbrushed unreal images available via online porn, mostly, and these function like and artificial ingredient, it’s like corn syrup. It blends in with all the other input there, but it changes your overall expectation of what normal is.
Real women don’t look like that, I mean, almost never. Even the ones that look like that don’t really look like that. I can pretty much guarantee you that I know a lot of men struggle with an addiction to porn and they hate themselves and they wish they couldn’t do it. What I encourage, that feeling of trying to resist. How difficult it can be to resist is a whole other issue but if you’re feeling like, “Well, what’s the harm in it?” I can pretty much guarantee you that watching a lot of porn is going to have a damaging effect on your marriage one day, just like eating food that is laden with corn syrup is going to damage your ability to be sensitive to natural foods and to what is truly healthy food. It just is going to have a long term effect.
Men and women, on the other hand restrict their sexual experiences to each other, even what they fantasize about, what they think about, what they look at. That relationship, everything gets funneled into that relationship and it grows deep and strong, they invest deeply in each other and the sex that they experience is not merely physical. It blends together their hearts and their souls well. You may never heard about this possibility. You many not never heard that this can exist, is no surprise and the entire consumer cultures, they keep saying is based on the easy exploitation of sexual images, and that is so incompatible with this kind of profound bond.
This knowledge was already being lost when my generation was growing up. We failed to pass on to you this ancient secret and we failed to learn them ourselves. You’ll see the result in the shattered marriages in my generation, perhaps even that of your own parents. My generation did find out to our amazement that pure physical sexual attractiveness does not last. That even the hottest movie stars of the 1960s are almost 50 years older today. Time, you know, who knew time was so weird. Even the very hottest bodies today are going to be 10 years older 10 years from now.
Ten years from now, there’s going to be a brand new crop of college freshmen, and you’re going to be 10 years older. That wheel is going to keep turning every year, a brand new batch of beautiful 20-year-olds are going to roll off the assembly line and you will become more and more last year’s model. Somehow my generation thought that wasn’t going to happen. We would always be the younger generation. We thought we set the standard for what it meant to be sexy and gorgeous. We made fun of old, married people who… the ones that got hitched and settled down, and had kids, had mortgages, and three years later, they’re having old married people sex. We had no idea of that was like, obviously.
It turns out that even if you make fun of people like that, you get old anyway. There isn’t an alternative of staying young forever. The alternative is to be just as old but not having formed any lasting relationship and going to be all by yourself, and you’re not having old married people sex, you’re not having sex at all. What’s the real meaning of sex? The clues I would draw from biology and nature so that sex is not just a physical matter, it’s not just for reproduction, its part of the answer to our deep hunger to bond with another person, to feel safe in love for a lifetime.
Sex is one of the means of healing, that essential healing condition of loneliness. I can go further by bringing some insights from my own spiritual tradition and I have tried… from most of this talk, you were promised Jesus and sex, and so far, it’s only been sex, and when does Jesus come in? I always feel that I want to build a good solid case that people who weren’t Christians can at least see my point even if they don’t agree with it. That isn’t to tell the whole story. I happen to be an Eastern Orthodox Christian that we would say that the deep human experience of alienation and loneliness, our difficulty in connecting with each other, is an aspect of the shattering of the human relationship with God, and I expect that it’s safe to say that all religions, not just Christianity, have this one thing in common. They all recognize something is wrong.
Either something is wrong in our relationships with God and with each other, or something is wrong in the way we perceive those relationships, but we do feel somehow out of sync, not really at home in this world, and every religion tries to address that with… trying to heal that disconnect by calling people into serving the poor, or meditation, or prayer, some other means like that. Christians believe that God took the initiative to repair this damage by coming to earth in human form, he took a body. He didn’t just send a list of instructions, didn’t send a list of laws. He actually came, and he came in a body. He blessed and affirmed the human body, the body that he himself created at the beginning of time. He showed that it is possible for human bodies to bear the presence of God like the burning bush was able to bear fire.
We can take on the presence of God. We are made to bear the presence of God, the same way that a lump of coal can take on the warmth and the brilliance, and the illumination of fire. We are made that way. We are made to bear the presence of God. As Saint Peter says, “Become partakers of the divine nature.” Saint Paul said, “We live in Christ. The life of Christ within us, filled with the healing presence of God. We become bearers of God’s light to others.” It means that we are able to love one another to repair the brokenness among the human race, and every married couple who endures in love is a testament to the possibility of healing that tragic loneliness that does afflict us all.
It is the sign, in fact, it is the sacrament of that union when two people unite with each other for a lifetime. We don’t love very well. We don’t do a very good job of this. We do it in spite of flaws and failures, we do it one day at a time, we continue to offer active love no matter what life brings our way, offering this love changes the person who gives it, molding him or her into the image of God and receiving this love, even when it’s imperfect, changes the person who receives it. Changes day by day, restoring him or her to the lightness of God. From all we can see in nature, humans are designed to mate for a lifetime, so that even when you’re old and gray and nobody else in the world would think you’re sexy, you can still look over at one person who loves you, loves you now just as much as they did when you were young.
Everything you hear in the ads and in the entertainment and they keep telling you, your goal is to wake up next somebody gorgeous tomorrow morning, and that is the rationale of consumer sex. What I think what humans really want is to wake up next to somebody who’s kind, 50 years from tomorrow morning. The decisions that you make today, tomorrow, tomorrow night can have everything to do with whether that happens for you or not.
I’ve been married now for 37 years. Until the end I’ll have beside me the man who fell in love with me when I was 19. If I get old and cranky, if I haven’t already gotten old and cranky, if I get cancer, if I get Alzheimer’s, he’s going to stick with me and I’m not going to be alone, and I will do the same for him. In this way, we are able to show the presence of God to each and together we grow into the brightness. Thank you.
Okay, do I think that a person needs to have sex with a partner in order to have a full profound loving relationship with him?
I don’t think that having sex is necessary. I think you can have a very profoundly loving relationship. Currently, it’s one of the other flaws of our ages. We tend to reduce everything to sexuality and we’ve especially lost sight of the kind of love that there is between two friends of the same sex, We tend to suspect homosexuality, suspect gayness anywhere that appears, but there really is a very long tradition of very strong friendship between men and men, women and women that was not sexual at all. It should be alert to the possibility that not all forms of love have to be sexual.
Speaker 3: How do you know, I’m sure this is on a lot of people minds tonight, how do you know that you are the right union or the right relationship?
Frederica: How do you know that you’re in the right union or in the right relationship? That is a very hard question, I wish I had an answer, I wish… if you use this formula at 87 times five and number of letters in his name, I wish there’s a way to know for sure.
There is a couple of transition points that when you are first attracted to somebody, the sexual attraction is a large part of it but after you’ve been together for a little while, it’s switches over, it really does change into a different kind of love and it becomes… you become more loyal to each other, you become more on the same team with them and you’ve got a feeling that it’s the two of you going through life together. The friendship elements become more strong.
What I’m saying is if you’re starting out and you’re saying sometimes I feel attracted to this person, sometimes I don’t, he’s got some habits I don’t like. If you’re really unable to tell, there does come to a point where you could just make a decision. If you make a decision and commit yourself… I long have a theory, I wouldn’t want to be totally put to the test, that really any two people that decided to be in love.
Think about how many arranged marriages there is now and they’re very good marriages sometime, that if you put mind to it you could love someone, and make a good marriage. Sure, there’s somebody who’s abusive or crazy or something like that. I think there is an element of that, that has to have making a decision, making a commitment and then sticking to it, perhaps too much expecting lightning to strike or some magical falling in love type thing to happen. Sometimes people end up waiting for a very long time.
Here is something that is totally not spiritual topic or anything. When you leave college, it is so much harder to meet people. It is so much harder, you’re in an environment here where you are surrounded all the time with people whose birthday is within four years of your birthday and they’re all going to college, they’re all college students, they all have interest like you. You watch the office, you’ll end up in an office. Think, what are your choices there?
Keep that in mind. Your most boring class you look around if this school or it’s the office which would I take? The alerts of the possibilities that are around you now, don’t put it off forever.
Lindsey: Thank you for Ms. Mathewes, I do appreciate it. My name is Lindsey and I have a big question that I want to ask in a series of small questions, not to many. First of all, I’m not a Christian, so I do appreciate people who are Christians a lot. I could come here and enjoy listening to people who may have different perspectives but still are civil and turn that relationship and I’m actually nervous to ask this and I’m not really a nervous guy, anyone who knows me. My heart’s beating really fast.
Frederica: I can attest to it.
Lindsey: I guess I feel the main point is from what your conversation is, and the framework of Christianity is sex just isn’t about reproduction, why then does Christianity limit it? That’s my big point and under that, there are so many things because I’m a gay man, so Christianity limits physical sex between two men. I have a friend who’s into sex who was born sexual more of a question mark. I have friends who changed genders and what not, and sex is so limited and if sex is just about reproduction.
Certain sexual positions even in a heterosexual Christian couple just don’t promote reproduction. Those are some things I have questions about and I guess the main point really if sex isn’t just about reproduction, because you touch on a lot of things, and it seems more of intimacy which gets people to have a fulfilling relationship, those everlasting bonds. The intimacy between two people, and sex to me is a expression of that intimacy. That seems that’s what propels people to have those long lasting relationships.
I guess the first question is in your mind… I heard your stand but maybe I was just… your voice is really soft and I just wasn’t able… I could have misheard it but it seems to me that sex isn’t just about reproduction. If so, is it limited to anything. If it is limited, why?
Frederica: Okay. Thank you for asking that question and I do appreciate that. You would have felt nervous and I’m glad that you did. I’m glad you went ahead and asked.
There are different opinions within Christianity of course, and I’m sure I can’t do an adequate job of really representing the Roman Catholic view, but I think there’s… puts more emphasis on reproduction being the essential purpose of sexuality and so that you’re not supposed to use contraception for example because they believe that, that is refusing the essential role of reproduction.
You can go by the calendar, you can try to avoid times when you’re fertile. You should not be doing anything that is really rejecting fertility or creativity, I think it’s going to encompass in that whole view. That’s not really a view that I take or that my church takes. I think most of the Evangelicals, Protestant, mainline Protestants don’t really takes that point of view.
If you read it, they can make a good case and it really has a beautiful logic to it but it’s not persuasive finely. I would say that sexuality, there is a fundamental proof to the reproductive aspect, just like digestion is a fundamental truth to eating. You shouldn’t eat things you can’t digest. There is an element of that at all times but just as I said earlier sometimes we eat junk food, sometimes we eat when we’re not hungry, we eat for comfort, we eat for social reasons.
People, any married couple knows, you end up having sex for a lot of reason besides I really want to get pregnant again. There’s a lot of other reasons for it, it serves… human are just so multi-faceted. If it feeds so many other needs and satisfy so many other hungers that we have.
I’m not criticizing positions or use of contraception or anything like that. I have been talking about gays or about intersex or something like them. I’m not even trying to address that. I’ve been talking about heterosexuality and I guess one of the main things I’ve been trying to aim on is to talk about the male, female union and solutions for profound loneliness and what can occur there. I’m not saying that it can occur to somewhere else, but I’m trying to point towards something that I think most heterosexuals are not aware of, just because we live in a garbage culture that is showing us as, you, as a gay man know, heterosexuality is shoved at you constantly.
Lindsey: Amen to that.
Frederica: It’s around all the time. Yeah. It’s a debate and adequate and shallow kind of heterosexuality. I can criticize it as well. That’s just talking about biology and nature and things like that, talking about my faith in our church, the Eastern Orthodox Church. Just like you go back in time, we’ve got Catholics and Orthodox, and they both go back to the year zero and then they split in the 11th Century. They’re both very, very ancient churches.
There has been a history in my church that are certain spiritual disciplines that enhance your ability to pray and enhance your ability to tune in to the presence of God and assimilate the presence of God and one is fastening. We still spend Wednesday and Friday, we have vegan diet. We have a vegan diet for several other fast periods like lent during the year.
There are things that help, that there are certain prayers that help. My most recent book is about the Jesus prayer. I’ll give you a push for… Lord Jesus Christ, son of God have mercy on me. His father realized you keep repeating that and it just it blows your mind. It just opens your mind to the mind of God.
One of the things that we found is that sex should be confined within heterosexual marriage. That is not something that a gay man is going to be able to do. It doesn’t answers the questions that you have. Throughout the history of our church, gay men have struggled, they have been prayed for, they have gone back into gay relationships and then found their way out of it again. There is a realistic attitude to the fact, I think, that none of us can control what are our desires are.
I don’t believed that homosexuality is chosen by any means, and I think it’s the same as any of us, that we all attracted… even heterosexuals are attracted to blonds or brunettes or tall people or short people or something like that. If somebody said to you “You like red heads?” “Yes” That’s an abomination, God hates people who are attracted to red heads.
There’d be nothing you could do about it. You can’t tinker with you mind and change those thoughts. At the same time, we would say if you want to grow in union with God, the wisdom over the centuries for us is that being actively gay is going to hinder you. It’ll be like not fasting. It will be like not saying the prayers. It will be just a stumbling block, it will slow you in the process to union. You can say, I don’t believed in Christ, I’m not interested in union. That’s fine, you don’t have to the keep my fast if you’re not on the same journey I’m on, obviously.
I think there’s a limit to how much we would could actually say to you about that. What I would wish that I could have a chance would be talk to you about Jesus Christ and about the beauty of my Lord Jesus Christ and how he saved me. Words fail me for how much I love him. That’s where I would want the conversation would start.
If you would say, I can buy that, I want to follow Jesus but I cannot stop living as a gay man, this is my life, then that would be a conversation we could go on having for years. It’s not a “slam the door in the face” of anybody. The faith would be the primary thing. I sometime saw a distinction between the seizures like we have the big explosive confrontational…. controversial issue. It’s different for me than the pro-life issue because somebody is dying every time there’s an abortion.
That is a matter of life and death, that is something I feel very strongly about but it’s not like when gay men have sex. It’s not killing a baby. That is not something that harms me. I don’t have any reason to stop you, except that I would like to see you saved and the angel wisdom of my church, if that’s going to slow you down. A part from that, I wouldn’t say that I hate you or I’m repulsed or you have to suffer right away. The talk about the Lord would be the thing that would have to come first. I hope that it helps. Thank you.
If I can, I’m going to tell very briefly the story of my conversion because I was… in college, I was anti-Christian and I went out of my way to debate Christians and tried to destroy their faith and say, “every religion has a dying and rising God,” if you believe that’s fairy tales and all of that.
I have an experience shortly after I got married. I was hitchhiking around Europe, right after I graduated from college, and I was in a church in Dublin. I was calling myself a Hindu then. I’d rather Hindu prayer at my wedding. I’ve tried everything, I’ve been all around the food court, the spiritual food court. Even if you’re Hindu and you go to Europe, you have to go in churches, so I was walking around inside the church. There was a statue of Jesus, and so I was looking at it and I was just evaluating it as an artwork and thinking the folds in the drapery are not really done that well, the fingers are pretty good. That’s graceful, just like looking at it as a statue.
Then I realized that I had fallen to my knees and I could hear a voice. I heard a voice inside. I didn’t hear anything with my ears but it was like there was a radio in my heart and it had been there all my life and I didn’t know it and it was like the dial snap on, and this voice filled my awareness and it said “I am your life.” It said “You think your life is your history and your personality and the things you’ve done and that is not your life. I am your life.”
It said “You think your life you participate in the life force.” One of my phases was they thought the life force is God and that your heart beats and that your breath goes in and out. “That is not your life, I am your life. I am the foundation of everything else in your life.” I got a feeling, shaky, scared. I had no idea what had happen to me. It was undeniable, it was so much bigger than I was.
When things like this happen in a movie, it goes all foggy and the voices on the soundtrack was like, “weew” and they say “Did that really happen?” This was like the opposite, this was like the realest thing, it was like a brick in face, it was like my whole life was a fall, except for that moment. It just shattered. It was frightening and thrilling and everything and addictive. Ever since then, I just love my Lord Jesus so much and I want to be near to him and that is the most important thing to me and it’s not really transferrable to another person but I can bear witness to it, at least I can tell you what happen.
Still, I got up and I thought, I guess I’ll be a Christian instead of a Hindu but all religions are really equal, it doesn’t matter which one you choose. It took me a while to come around the classic for sanity and I’m glad I did, that God isn’t real proud. He’ll take people on any terms you can get them and I’m so grateful that he saved me that day. Sorry, go ahead.
Speaker 4: I wanted to continue a bit on the topic that the gentleman that was over there was discussing. I have to say that I came here prepared to ask my question in a certain way but I was struck by, I guess how moderate your opinions are on issue of homosexuality in comparison to other Christians that I’ve encountered.
I must say that when I read the Bible, the Bible is much harsh on this on the issue of gays and lesbians that it seems to be and with that, let me just quote the Bible. I brought the Bible with me. Leviticus 20:13. If a man also lying with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed abomination and they should be surely be put to death, their blood shall be upon them.
Now, I guess my question is seeing that the Bible not only recommends, it commands that you kill me for being gay, that what it says. How do you reconcile your seemingly more moderate views on this issue with what the Bible says, because the Bible clearly says that you should kill me for being gay and a lot of Christians around the world and they see what’s going on. In Uganda, they killed the gays that is about to pass there.
With the influence from Evangelical Christians in the United States, there are millions of Christians that take that verse of Bible very seriously and thousands of gay people across the world are being killed with this verse from Bible in their minds. Basically, how do you reconcile with your more moderate views with the more extreme views presented in the Bible?
Frederica: This is a question of about how you interpret the Bible or what role has the Bible have in the full life of a Christian or of the church. I’m trying to remember, was there any time that homosexuals were killed in America? Do you know… ever in Europe even…
Speaker 4: If you look at Matthew Shepard…
Frederica: He sort of as policy… when has any church literally imposed that law and actually killed homosexuals?
Speaker 4: In Europe, a lot of the witch burnings and things like that, many gay men were also burned in those events also during the colonization of the Americas and Africa, where cultures are previously much more tolerant of homosexuality. Gay people were killed in the process of colonization too, as a demonstration that this isn’t going to be tolerated now. In the history of Christianity, it has been an issue.
Frederica: How do you interpret the scriptures? How do you know which scriptures to take literally and which not to? For example in Leviticus, there’s also stuff about you can’t eat milk and meat together at the same meal. I don’t think Christians had ever followed that law. There are some laws that we do follow and some we don’t.
There is no Bible reading without Bible interpretation. Everybody who reads the Bible interprets it and usually, people clump together behind a particular interpreter like Luther or Calvin or somebody else like that, who tells them how to interpret it which you take literally and which you don’t, which are laws you have to enforce and which are some of the things and I don’t know what God meant then. It doesn’t apply to us now. That’s it. I don’t look at the bible as something or every single verse has the same value as every other verse.
I’m not adequate to judge on my own but I stand in an ancient tradition. Within my tradition, going back to 1st Century but being primarily Eastern, it’s African, Middle Eastern, Asian it’s not a European tradition. Although, I don’t recall the Roman Catholic’s killing homosexuals at any point in their history or ancient churches now.
Within my church, there’s always been an understanding that these desires are not chosen and that they’re painful and they’re difficult and it looks like this is the only chance you have for a long lasting loving relationship with someone else. That deserves tears, if nothing else. It deserves to be taken seriously because it’s genuine pain. If you’re not interested in union with God as my church understands it, then when I think about it is really doesn’t apply to you.
It would do no good. If my goal is for you to be converted and to become to the lord Jesus, I don’t want to kill you, you’d be dead. You have to be alive and you have to be attracted by love because of the love of Christ is what draws you in. In the meantime, however you need to live, it doesn’t hurt me, it’s not something that I’m not going to try to prevent. If you were to come to me and I say, I want to attained the presence of Christ within and learn how to reserve and hear that voice every minute. I want to learn how to live in the life of Christ. I say, you got to try this fasting and try these prayers and try celibacy. Try that, it’ll help.
If you don’t want that, then it doesn’t really apply to you, God bless you. I know it’s a hard question to ask and I’m glad you did. Anyway, my short answer, I hope I was clear enough is it all depends on how you interpret the Bible and you’re assuming that you would say… it says in the bible we have to interpret literally and we have to enforce it. I’m saying, no, we all interpret the bible in different ways. In my tradition, this is how we look at a verse like that. We just don’t look at it very much. It doesn’t have any lasting applicability for us. It’s not a law that we enforced when those things would just pass over. Thank you.
Speaker 2: We don’t want to be sensitive to you this time but there have been a lot of questions texted in. We hope you guys can continue this conversation. We’re going to have one more question.
Speaker 5: Thank you for your time, Frederica. A lot of us in this room are unmarried or are not going to be married for a long time or may never be married. I hope this pertains to the previous two questions too. I just wondering if you could say a little bit more about the meaning of sexuality for the single person, in relation to your tradition maybe even specifically.
Frederica: The meaning of sexuality for those who are not married and who may not marry for a long time and not be married after, what’s the role of sexuality? In my Eastern Orthodox tradition, sometimes I wish we have a different word for it, we called it “the passions.” It doesn’t mean I feel passionate about this cause and it doesn’t just mean sexual passion. It means rather the impulses that drive us and sometimes sort of drives us crazy, that drive us places we don’t want to go that we feel out of control. There’s a word there where passion is related to passive and in fact, in Greek, pathos means suffering. The passion of the things we suffer from and our sexual desires are one of our passions that it has a right way that is meant to be applied, that talking about a milder subject, it’s like we know the things that we’re supposed to eat that are healthy for us. You don’t want the celery sticks, I bought a Snickers for today. Walking around the airport, I could buy anything I want and give me Snickers. That’s an example of the passion of gluttony that still drives me in a lot of ways.
There is a right use for food and for healthy foods, there’s a right use that biologically harmonious use for sexuality. For those of us who don’t find that union in this life, it is a really heavy burden, so there. It is really heavy and what my church would keep calling you to and saying, we have so many companions for you, so many who had lived their entire lives in celibacy. Calling you to let that intense passion be transformed into intense prayer and to intent love for God and a master in control over your body, so that you have control over all your passion. It’s not just sexual and eating but also anger or selfishness or pride, vanity.
By conquering one of the passions, you begin to get power over all of them. The passion of the teaching in my church is that a passion like anger or if you have short temper that can be converted into a desire to serve God and zeal for the service of God, so that all of our passions can be converted into something that can serve God if it is not to be exercised physically in this life. It is an extreme burden to put on you, the Russians call it a podvig. It means a difficult form of fasting that only a real spiritual giant can handle. That’s was celibacy is.
The difficulty of it would be commensurate with the results and with the blessing. I think we need to never minimize how hard it is to control sexual desires though and how much harder it is when you feel like the whole culture is pushing you all the time with all these images, and telling you this is what makes you desirable as if you were sexually desirable. It’s not a healthy environment to live in. We’re living in all this air pollution in terms of what comes in to our eyes and our ears.
God formed your body, knows you, and it knows the use and the intents for it, and knows who he intends to be your mate, if you do mate in this life. My prayers go with you as I hope yours go with me, that you will find that one that you were meant to save yourself for and that you will find that old, old marriage, you’ll get to enjoy old marriage sex one day. Holding out for it. If God has called you to celibacy, then he will crown you with victory in that way. Thank you.
Speaker 1: For more information about the Veritas Form, including additional recordings and a calendar of upcoming events, please visit our website at veritas.org.
Frederica: This is Frederica Mathewes-Green. You can reach me through my website, frederica.com and transcripts of this podcasts are gradually being posted there as well. My speaking calendar is handled by orthodoxspeakers.com.