We have been looking at the confusion inherent in the notion that marriage = love + commitment. Let’s examine it further by exploring the following: what human flourishing looks like, how sex is a part of human flourishing.
Everyone wants to be happy, even if most of us are not exactly sure what that means. We do know this, however: happiness is not found in things we can have and lose.
A tyrant can have everything the world has to offer, but will be the most miserable, fearful person in the world. Mother Teresa had nothing, yet is a model of human living. Happiness can only be found, not in possessions and pleasure, but in living as we are designed. This is especially important. We did not design ourselves, so we cannot just make it up as we go. Nor can we ignore the reality of our bodies. There may well be more to us than our bodies, but our bodies are nonetheless an integral part of our design.
Making sense of desires
All human beings experience desires. But we would hardly say that it is permissible to act on a desire just because we have it. We need to figure out how to act toward the right ends, using the right means, for the right reasons, at the right time and place. In other words, we have to figure out what desires are fitting for the kind of being we are, designed as we are, with the kind of bodies we have.
We never desire something unless we know about it. Even deeper than desires, we have fundamental drives toward certain ends even when we have no knowledge. A baby, for example, has a fundamental drive to suck as a way of taking in nourishment, and begins that activity right away. Some day soon, it will have experience of candy, and will desire it. Nourishment is always good for it; candy can be good, but not always.
We human beings have several fundamental drives; important to our current discussion is the drive to engage in sexual intercourse and care for our offspring who result. We cannot possibly be happy if we act against any of our drives, since to do so would be to act against our own design, and thus against our own fulfillment. So it is vital to figure out what this fundamental drive is designed for. To do this, we must do what any scientist does: we have to figure out what results from it, and then discover which results can be brought about in no other way. (An excellent article—from which I am borrowing a lot—is J Budziszewski’s July/August 2005 Touchstone article, “Designed for Sex.”)
Making sense of sex drives
The drive to sex is very powerful, but to deal with it in a properly human way, we need to understand its goal. If acted on, it can result in feelings of pleasure and closeness. Of course, we can get these feelings in other ways as well. But there is one result of sexual intercourse that is unique: children. As with many other animals, we have bodies which are so designed that neither male nor female can alone produce a child. Only by bringing together the two complementary parts of the human reproductive system are the elements in place to bring about the conception of a new human life. If we are completely honest with ourselves, it is this result that makes sense of our sexual organs, our sexual urges, and our sexual acts.
Making sense of sexual intimacy
The result of children is what makes sense of the feelings of closeness produced by our sexual acts. For we have a deep drive to take care of our offspring. This is a very long task, one that takes, not just a few years, but a lifetime, as we guide them not only to their own maturity, but assist them when they have children. It is also a difficult task—difficult enough when undertaken together, but positively overwhelming when attempted alone.
The task of children requires a total gift of oneself—love—to the other, and to the project: a gift of fidelity and trustworthiness, a promise of sexual exclusivity and dedication to the project over a lifetime. The right time and place to engage in sexual intercourse, therefore, is within the confines of a promise to exclusivity, fidelity, and openness to the new life that may come from their acts. Sexual acts outside of this arrangement do not make sense.
Next: How marriage came to be, and why its ancient yet ever-new manifestation, rather than “love + commitment,” makes sense.