TITLE: On the Meaning of Sex
AUTHOR: J. Budziszewski
AUDIENCE: Christians looking for a thorough treatment of human sexuality that aligns with the historic Christian faith to defend against modern views of sex and gender.
With all the controversy that surrounds differing views of human sexuality these days, a resource like Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex is invaluable. Let me start by saying that the first 95% of this book fails to mention God or the Bible (that’s by design) yet argues for the historic Christian view of human sexuality. I say this as a compliment; it shows that the Christian view of sexuality is not some dogma that has no basis in reality. In the book, Budziszewski argues that reality points us to the Christian view of sexuality, and does so in ways that are understandable, even though these are inherently difficult subjects to apprehend.
What’s great is that the book aims to break down what used to be an easy concept to understand — human sexuality — into pieces that build up a perspective on the sexes that convincingly aligns with reality, tradition, and the Christian faith. He breaks the discussion down because any discussion of human sexuality will lead into questions of sexual differences, family, beauty, purity, and other subjects. Budziszewski explores these concepts in a traditional, yet thorough manner.
He comes from the point of view that the sexual revolution has failed to bring about the freedom and happiness it promised:
This isn’t what my generation expected when it invented the sexual revolution. The game isn’t fun any more. Even some of the diehard proponents of that enslaving liberation have begun to show signs of fatigue and confusion. Naomi Wolf, in her book Promiscuities, reports that when she lost her own virginity at age fifteen, there was “something important missing.” Apparently, the thing missing was the very sense that anything could be important. In her book Last Night in Paradise, Katie Roiphe poignantly wonders what could be wrong with freedom: “It’s not the absence of rules exactly, the dizzying sense that we can do whatever we want, but the sudden realization that nothing we do matters.”
He questions the ubiquity of sex and its meaninglessness in our culture; or at least its sole meaning of pleasure. And so he begins the task of describing meaning and purpose of sexuality; differences in the sexes, sexual powers and purposes, and how they relate to beauty.
He takes the unpopular view that men and women are inherently different. Recalling a discussion with a student in his class:
“But men and women aren’t different.”
“Then why do you think every culture supposes that they are?”
“Oh, I know the sexes end up different everywhere,” she said. “But that only happens because boys are raised differently than girls.”
“Let me be sure I follow you. You don’t deny that some sex differences are universal—”
“—but you say they aren’t natural. The only reason for them is differences in how boys and girls are brought up.”
“Let’s think about that. To produce the same differences between boys and girls everywhere, those differences in upbringing would also have to be the same everywhere, wouldn’t they?”
“Yes. Boys are always raised differently than girls.”
“And yet you think these differences in upbringing have no basis in human nature.”
“Right, because they don’t.”
“If they have no basis in human nature, then why are they universal?”
“What do you mean?”
“If they are merely arbitrary, wouldn’t you expect them to vary from culture to culture?”
“No, because cultures influence each other.”
“You mean cultures that raise boys and girls differently influence other cultures to raise them differently?”
“Why shouldn’t it be the other way around? If it’s all because of culture, then why don’t some cultures raise boys and girls the same, and influence other cultures to follow them?”
Carissa dodged the question, instead protesting an opinion I hadn’t expressed.
“Aren’t men and women equally human?”
“Equally human, sure, but not the same. Complementary variations on the same musical theme. Different voices singing in polyphony.”
“Tell me one fundamental difference between men and women,” she demanded.
“That’s easy. I could never bear a child. A woman can.”
“Not all women. Aren’t some women infertile?”
“Sure, but you’re confusing essence with accident,” I said. “A fertile woman can bear a child, but not even a fertile man can pull off a feat like that.”
By now Carissa was thoroughly exasperated. Hurling down her trump card, she exclaimed, “I know men’s and women’s bodies are different, but in their brains they’re just the same.”
“In their brains,” it turns out, men and women are different after all.
According to neuroscientist Larry Cahill, the differences are marked, pervasive, and consistent. The cliché that variation within each sex is greater than variation between the sexes is simply false. Moreover, the contrasts between men and women are evident not just in a few extreme cases, but across the whole distribution, and they involve not only the activity of the brain, but also its organization and development.
Arguments like these get fleshed out in the pages of this defense of traditional view of sexuality.
Lastly, the arguments do not simply get lost in a theoretic vacuum. The implications of such views turn toward love and romance, family and purity:
The distinctive thing about sexual love is that it desires the joining of polar, corresponding bodies; in the ancient phrase, the two become one flesh. This difference sets sexual love profoundly apart from all other loves, because our bodies are what individuate us.
And interpreting sources such as Dante’s La Vita Nuova and Song of Songs, he describes the qualities of sexual love and romance between spouses:
Here begins the new life. Dante wrote, “In the book of my memory, after the first pages, which are almost blank, there is a section headed Incipit vita nova, ‘Here begins the new life.’” Though perhaps not as dramatically as in Dante’s case, such is the experience of all romantic love. It is not a new phase of life, but a new life altogether, as though the lover were a newborn person, beginning again.
For most lovers, the new life announces itself more gradually, like the whisper of wind at fresh dawn. The sense of its newness deepens; the longer it endures, the newer it is. This new life may not even be noticed while it is coming to be. Its arrival may be seen only in retrospect, after it has come. The memory of life before love becomes dimmer; waking life seems to begin with the beloved. We see then that what is most eminently true of divine love10 is true in some measure of all romantic love: One must be born again.
Although the book may feel like subjects get dragged out and expressed too casually, I find it to be readable and accessible to the average reader though it contains philosophical content. It essentially aligns with the views expressed more theologically in works like John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, but does so without needing a background in theology and philosophy.