In his essay on “The Pleasures of Eating,” the folk philosopher and farmer Wendell Berry says that after delivering a lecture on the decline of American farming and rural life, someone in the audience would invariably ask what city people can do. “Eat responsibly,” Berry would reply.
...by restoring one’s consciousness of what is involved in eating; by reclaiming responsibility for one’s own part in the food economy. One might begin with the illuminating principle of Sir Albert Howard’s The Soil and Health, that we should understand “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject.” Eaters, that is, must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used. This is a simple way of describing a relationship that is inexpressibly complex. To eat responsibly is to understand and enact, so far as one can, this complex relationship.
Berry argues that eating is an agrarian act and that something valuable is lost when we subscribe to the industrialized, consumerist view of sustenance. Although his essay is about food, his words could be applied to another method of fulfilling a physical need: sex. In fact, he draws a similar parallel in his discussion of “industrial sex”:
It is odd that simply because of its “sexual freedom” our time should be considered extraordinarily physical. In fact, our “sexual revolution” is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as a idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of “freeing” natural pleasure from natural consequence.
Like any other industrial enterprise, industrial sexuality seeks to conquer nature by exploiting it and ignoring the consequences, by denying any connection between nature and spirit or body and soul, and by evading social responsibility. The spiritual, physical, and economic costs of this “freedom” are immense, and are characteristically belittled or ignored. The diseases of sexual irresponsibility are regarded as a technological problem and an affront to liberty.
Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of sexual partners, orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex, which will be a great deal more abundant as soon as it can be done by robots.
I was reminded of Berry’s insight because of the release of the new film, 50 Shades of Grey, which epitomizes and promotes this view of industrialized sex. Too much has already been written about the stupidity and vulgarity of the novel, so I won’t waste time rehashing why no Christian should engage with that pornography. Instead, just as Berry offers advice on how to recover the pleasures of eating from consumerism, I want to offer a few modest suggestions for how Christians can recover sex from industrialization:
1. We should continuously point out that the term pre-marital sex is an oxymoron. Because sex and marriage both perform the function of uniting a man and a woman into one-flesh, engaging in sexual relations is ontologically indistinguishable from marriage. Even when the tongue claims otherwise, the body understands the promise being made during intercourse. Saying “I do” with the body may not carry the same consequences as it does in a marriage ceremony, but the effects on the soul are similar.
2. Some people will claim that there is something valuable to be gained by having multiple sexual partners before settling down for lifelong monogamy. These misguided souls completely miss the point. Sex is not a technique to be mastered but a means of communicating. Sexual intercourse is a non-verbal expression of profound commitment, openness, and trust. Having multiple sexual partners as a means of preparing for marriage is like mastering the art of lying in order to become a paragon of honesty.
3. The bookstores are filled with books and magazines that offer tips and advice on maximizing pleasure, providing multiple orgasms, and other ways to have “better” sex. This desire to improve and be more productive is a hallmark of industrialized sex. But there is no objective standard by which sex can be measured against. “Good” sex is not found by following a formula that will lead to the efficient maximization of sexual pleasure. Sex cannot be measured by the number of orgasms per hour (OPH?) or any other idealized unit of measure anymore than a good conversation can be measured by the number of words spoken.
4. Sex may be a joy and a sanctuary but it is also a marital duty. It is the primary physical method God provides in order to deepen and strengthen the union of a man and a woman. Forgoing sex for long periods of time can be a form of disobedience. If we are physically able, we should give ourselves to our spouses. We are the sole means by which they are able to properly meet that physical need. Denying our spouse food or sleep would be cruel and unjust. Withholding sex is no different.
5. Although sex is not tied to the Gregorian calendar, it is cyclical, often following the natural rhythms of the female body. The husband’s desire should, therefore, be respectful of the woman’s physical and hormonal cycles. Her body is the means by which God chose to bring forth new life and the vessel he chose to enter the world in physical form. A woman’s body is not a machine for delivering pleasure but a mysterious and precious creation. Husbands should always keep that in mind.
6. Having sex can lead to having children. Industrialized sex views this as a potentially unfortunate hazard that should be avoided. The Christian view, however, is that children are a gift from God. Deciding to have a child is a decision that should be made prayerfully and with God’s guidance. But sex should never be completely stripped of its conceptive role.
7. While it should not need to be said, pornography has no place in marriage. Sex is intended to be viewed from the place of a first-person participant, not a third-person observer. One of the reasons pornography becomes addictive is because it leads to the attempt to fulfill an impossible desire. When observing porn, a person shifts from an I-Thou relationship to the place of the Other, forever outside, waiting to be invited in. That invitation never comes, leading to an endlessly frustrating search for fulfillment that can never be met.
8. Most of what gets classified under the category of sex has nothing to do with sex at all. Fetishes, sadomasochism, dominance and submission, etc., are always about something else (usually power) and never about intimacy and communication. Sort out your psychological issues on your counselor’s couch, not in your marriage bed.
9. A last bit of advice for young people: You may foolishly decide that you need to “make your own mistakes” rather than rely on the hard-earned experience of those who have gone before you. You may even be able to avoid most of the more blatantly detrimental aspects of sexual sin. I certainly did. I never suffered much of anything from my sin—except for loss. I lost one of the most valuable gifts God gives man: the ability to give myself completely to the person I love enough to spend the rest of my life with.
You can’t build a fire in your lap and not get burned (Proverbs 6:27), and you can’t have multiple sexual partners and not become desensitized to the beauty and intimacy of marital intercourse. Anyone who tells you that sex outside of marriage causes no harm is a liar and a fool. They may try to convince you (as they’ve tried to convince themselves) that they have lost nothing of value from their sexual engagements before marriage. They are like the nearsighted who have never had their eyesight corrected and think they know what 20/20 vision is like. Trust God rather than their foolish counsel.
But what about those who have already gone down that path? Turn back and be reconciled with God. In Christ there is redemption and the hope of restoration. We can, in time, find healing as God replaces our shame with his grace. We can even gain back some of what we have lost.
However, if you haven’t yet stumbled, don’t throw yourself in that pit of despair. Believe that God knows best and that there is a price to be paid for violating his design. Whatever simply pleasures you may immediately gain from sexual sin, it’s never worth the risk of losing the true intimacy you have with God or that you will have with your future spouse.
10. Christian couples are not only joined in union with each other but are united within the body of Christ. We belong not to ourselves but to each other. The church, therefore, must take an interest in the sexual needs of couples just as it would in the other spiritual and physical needs. The church needs to be particularly watchful for potential abuses within ongoing relationships and the damaging distortions of our sexual culture on marriage. To paraphrase Berry, sexual beings must understand that sexuality takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably a theological act, and that how we have sex determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.
The Bride of Christ can best do this by showing how we reject the industrialized view of sex. By our example we can show the world what can be gained when they exchange the dominant culture’s fifty shades of sexual degradation for our Creator’s beautiful vision for marital sex.
*I address this article to Christians because non-believers and those from other faith traditions may not necessarily share my understanding of the role and nature of sex. While there may be some overlap of agreement, the presuppositional attitude of most non-Christians would be so foreign to my view that it would be impossible to offer suggestions for a general audience.