What is Sex For?

So many of the pressing social issues of our day revolve around sex. Which begs the question: Why do we have sex? Why does it exist? Author Todd Wilson examines that issue, and several others, in the new book Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality.

In the companionate view, sex is primarily for pleasure. Sounds good, right? The pleasure of sex serves to intensify the feeling of emotional connection you have with another person, so we might say sex can help you feel more in love. According to our culture, this is the purpose of sex—pleasure.

You’ll notice, however, that this purpose is very oriented to the individual. It focuses on what we get out of it, and has little to do with the joining of two lives in a one-flesh union. It also doesn’t have anything to do with making babies. In fact, any talk of procreation or making babies is explicitly excluded from our culture’s understanding of sex. If you want evidence for this, take a close look at the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Embedded in this ruling is the claim that marriage has no intrinsic connection to procreation and thus to children. On this view, marriage begins and ends with the interests of the partners, irrespective of any children who may come from that partnership. 

Sex has become so casual, so commercialized, so cheap, that it forces us to ask the most basic question: What is sex for? Does sex have any purpose beyond instant gratification? Does it have any higher meaning than, as advertisers would have it, to entice you to buy a new Cadillac or pick up a case of Miller Lite on your way home from work?

The Blessing of Sex

In Genesis 1, we discover the architecture for human sexuality, and find that God has given humanity an amazing gift. He created us in his image, not as single, solitary individuals, but as a sexually differentiated pair: “Male and female he created them” (1:27). Two creatures who are alike in value and dignity, yet not alike in their bodies. 

Then we read that having created them sexually differentiated as male and female, “God blessed them” (1:28). We could call this the blessing of sex, because it refers not only to the blessing of sexual difference as male and female, but to the blessing of our sexual powers: God has given us the marvelous and mysterious ability to unite two lives in a one-flesh union—to create new life. That’s power indeed.

Of course, with every gift God gives comes a corresponding call to use that gift to glorify God and bless others. Which is why God moves immediately from blessing the first human pair to calling them to a particular kind of action: “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’” (1:28). At the heart of a biblical vision of sex is the bold affirmation that sex is a blessing. In our culture, sex may be viewed as a blessing because it feels good. But in the biblical vision, sex is a blessing not because of the pleasure it brings but because of the purpose it serves: to unite lives and to create life.

When Sex Is Severed from Its Purpose

Our culture has separated the act of sex from the purpose of sex. We have severed the connection between sex and its power to unite lives and create life, so that now, virtually everywhere we look, sex has been severed from both the institution of marriage and the blessing of having children.

How did this happen? The reasons are complex, but technology is one of the culprits. In particular, reproductive technologies, especially birth control, gained widespread acceptance in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and assisted in severing the link between the act of sex and the purpose of sex. In fact, this was one of the primary goals of the sexual revolution. Though it was euphemistically called “free love,” in reality it meant consequence-free sex, or sex apart from commitments and children.

So how well did “free love” work out? Well, it hasn’t been free. Our culture has paid the price, or more precisely, our children have paid it. We’ve had to bear the cost of “free love” with broken marriages and children growing up without the blessing of having a father and mother in a family. Another result of severing sex from its dual purpose of uniting lives and creating life has been the trivializing of sex. By robbing sex of its power to unite two lives and make life, we’ve turned sex into something far less powerful and profound than what it really is. It has become another recreational activity—a hobby, a consumer good, a plaything. As a culture, we’re quickly growing bored with sex, even as we’re gorging ourselves on it. Something has gone ludicrously wrong.

Even as we trivialize sex, we idolize pleasure, and sexual

gratification becomes a god. What is the multibillion-dollar-a-year porn industry other than the idolization of pleasure? Let’s make no mistake about it, sexual pleasure is highly addictive. The god of sexual pleasure has become a slave master—a demanding and unforgiving one that controls and destroys lives and relationships.

When we disconnect the act of sex from its purpose, we also end up marginalizing children. When sex is simply a means for our personal pleasure, we see children as a problem, an inconvenience. Children are a “mistake” as we pursue our own agenda of pleasing ourselves. This mind-set threatens the well-being of children, who continue to come into this world, regardless of our wishes or desires, as a result of the act of sex. We call these “unwanted pregnancies,” which is a euphemistic way of saying we want the pleasure of sex without the responsibility of creating new life. These are unwanted children, and the most blatant response to these so-called unwanted pregnancies is the blight on our national conscience known as abortion.

But that’s not all. When we divorce sex from its purpose, we treat our body, or someone else’s body, as though it were just a tool, something to be used by us or for us. This instrumentalizes the body in a way that distances us from it and disintegrates our sense of self. We inflict damage on ourselves without knowing it, using our bodies as instruments for pleasure rather than revering them as part and parcel of who we are.

In ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle described a slave as a “living tool.” This understanding of a person was roundly rejected by Christianity. How demeaning for a person created in the image of God to be seen as little more than an instrument for sexual pleasure! By divorcing sex from its God-given purpose, we harm ourselves and make it even harder to enjoy sex as a healthy experience of uniting lives for the sake of creating life.

‘Safe’ Sex

This is why the Bible insists that sexual activity should take place only within the context of marriage. Many people today, including those in the church, see the restriction of sexual activity to marriage as outdated—a puritanical limitation on our freedom. But the Bible teaches this, not to limit our joy of sex, but to increase it. We believe that sex is only for marriage, not because Christians are killjoys, but because we have a realistic and exalted view of the power of sex. 

Sex isn’t a toy or plaything; it’s a sacred and sovereign power. When something is powerful—think of a downed power line or a loaded gun—you aren’t careless when you handle it. You understand that it can kill or harm you if you aren’t careful. Sex is a powerful creative gift, something God gives us for good purposes. But if we misuse it and are careless, it can profoundly harm us.Our sexual capacities are far too powerful to be used anywhere outside marriage. They need the safe and stable environment that comes with a “till death do us part” commitment. We need the uniting purpose of sex to safeguard us against the awesome procreative power of sex.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that has bought into the myth of “safe sex.” But here’s a news flash: there is no such thing as safe sex. Sex is too powerful ever to be safe. In the words of essayist Wendell Berry, “Sex was never safe, and it is less safe now than it has ever been.”

Our culture often assumes that because something is good, it must be safe. The hope is that sex will be simple and uncomplicated, free from consequences. “Yes, hook up with whomever you like, and don’t worry!” But mere sexuality takes sex seriously and offers a realistic answer—graciously, yet honestly. “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ’Course sex isn’t safe. But it’s good. It’s God’s blessing to us, I tell you.”

Public Consequences

When we acknowledge the procreative power of sex, we realize that sex cannot be simply reduced to a private act between consenting adults. Sex is an intrinsically public act. Why? Because it has massive public consequences. What are those consequences? One word: children.

Many teenage couples have learned this the hard way. What begins as a fun high school romance turns into something more serious when a girl realizes she is pregnant. What they thought was something special and intimate, to be shared just between the two of them, has become something profoundly public and visible—not just to their parents or their families and friends or their classmates and teachers, but alsoto the son or daughter whose precious life they have inadvertently summoned into existence with their sexual powers—a child who no doubt will want to know one day when and where he or she came from. That’s a public impact.

Sex isn’t the same as trimming your toenails, taking a shower or flossing your teeth—all of which, I think you’ll agree, are best done in private. Sex is like these other acts because it is done in private, yet it is profoundly different because it has a power these other acts do not. You can never entirely sever sex from its public impact or significance. 

Incidentally, this is the primary reason the state has any interest in marriage. If sex were like trimming your toenails, it would be ridiculous for the state to legislate on this activity. But it has the power to bring forth other human beings—members of the state who are granted certain rights as such. The state doesn’t attempt to regulate our friendships; you don’t need to go to the courthouse to sign a friendship certificate. But you do need state recognition when you get married, for the simple reason that marriages make babies, and therein lies the future of the state.

I hope you can see now why the state should have no interest in the sexual lives of same-sex couples. To put it bluntly, what two people of the same sex choose to do in their bedroom can have no lasting public significance because it cannot bring forth children. Of course, if that were the only concern we faced on this issue, it would be far easier to agree. The push we see today is not for allowance of private acts but for public recognition that seeks to redefine marriage in a way that discounts the procreative power it has to produce children.

Let me also say that this is why we want to promote, wherever and however we can, a strong marriage culture, both within the church and in our society. Marriage is the one institution that weds together the procreative and uniting purposes of sex in a powerful union.

And when that happens, husbands win, wives win, and, most of all, children win.

 

Taken from Mere Sexuality by Todd Wilson. Copyright © 2017  by Todd A. Wilson. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com. 

Originally published in the May 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.
© 2018 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.