Various forms of revolt against sexual mores are not unique to modernity. What is new is the speed of the modern sexual revolution, as is the speed at which distressing social indicators like sexually transmitted infections, childbirth out of wedlock, abortion, sex trafficking [opens a PDF], and others have grown, and the intellectual gymnastics it takes to disassociate these indicators from the conviction that societies thrive when marriage is the promoted context for sex.

The modern form of the Catharsis Hypothesis is a kind of utopianism: "ah, wouldn't it be great if people could have sex without hangups or consequences? How happy we would be! Boo for Christians who hate sex!" The roots of this fictional world are ancient, but an early modern example is that of the artist Paul Gauguin, a bored stockbroker who beat his wife and dreamed of escape from the middle-class ennui of industrial revolution France. His paintings of places that appeared exotic to Europeans suggested that utopia, and his writing (especially the "autobiographical" Noa Noa) told of a place where the sex was free and the living was easy.

It was all a fiction. Today we can see in Gauguin a violent, lustful, frustrated misanthrope whose dreamy painting and exaggerated writing served his own economic interests, even as it shaped the imagination of many, including later artists such as Picasso and Warhol. And never mind that he was a racist exoticist to boot.

The problem with utopias is precisely that they elicit strong desires which themselves become compass points which lead us on a journey to nowhere. Sex among human beings is mostly imagination and only partly biology, so the way we shape imagination will impact the way we behave sexually. The major problem with the Catharsis Hypothesis is that in paying attention to outcomes or behaviors (like those Husbands Behaving Badly), it does not pay attention to input: the factors which shape imagination. Utopian sex in, false sex out. Advertising or porn, anyone?

The theologian Walter Burghardt once described contemplation as "a long, loving look at the real." (Opens pdf) Christian spirituality is not utopian about sex: it is realistic, meditative, careful, reverent. It recognizes that people imbue sex with meaning by practicing it in the context of married love: the hard life's work of coming to see a person of the other sex as beautiful in spite of flaws. It does not ignore the biological roots of sex, but recognizes that like other areas of our lives rooted in biology (eating, sleeping, experiencing illness, etc.), sex is made human by the ways we orient it toward goods we share with others. Sure, there's temptation: why would cultures proscribe adultery if it weren't a constant temptation? But ultimately there is great hope in the circumscribing of sex, the hope that in cultivating its expressions in ways that benefit others, there is the opportunity to discover in another human being something of the holy.

Read more from Tim Muldoon's series on Sex and Christianity.

  1. Part 1: Sex and Christianity
  2. Part 2: The Sexual Divide
  3. Part 4: My Kind of Feminism
  4. Part 5: Why Are Catholics Obsessed With Sex?