How Critical is Sexual Desire to Human Identity? [Blogathon 8/12]

This post is number eight of twelve for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.  I’m responding to comments in the “Go Ahead, Tell Me What’s Wrong with Homosexuality” thread all day.  You can read an explanation of the Blogathon and a pitch for donations (even if you’re religious) here.

At one point in the discussion, Ubiquitous was expanding on Thomist philosophy and laid out a ‘prebuttal’ (of which I’m excerpting only one idea):

In a hale and mature adult human, eyes are for seeing. If the eyes see poorly or not at all, there is something wrong. We call this disordered.

In a hale and mature adult human, teeth are for chewing. If the teeth chew poorly or not at all, there is something wrong. We call this disordered.

In a hale and mature adult human, sexual passions prompt us to sexual activity. If we are prompted poorly or not at all, there is something wrong. We call this disordered.

I’m not sure it’s fair to say that if sexual passions don’t prompt us to sexual activity that there’s something wrong or disordered going on.  Especially for a church that values consecrated, celibate life.  If consecrated celibacy is a vocation, then is it meant to be a constant suppression of sexual appetite or does it represent a transfiguration of intimacy?

Jumping from tools and their functions to desires and their objects feels a little sudden to me.  A tool that doesn’t work is useless.  A person without a certain desire (for marriage, for sex, for physical work, etc) seems perfectly whole, but just not suited to every role or vocation.  I can imagine certain drives that are absolutely critical to fulfilled human life (companionship with others, for example), but I don’t know that I’d place sexual desire on that list.

Ubiquitous goes on to mention that only opposite-gender sex can serve “the survival of the species,” but I don’t know why everyone’s talents should be specifically directed toward that goal (or, even if that were the duty of every human, why queer folk couldn’t go into microbiology, and do their part there).

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • AshtaraSilunar

    Apparently skipping completely over the existence of asexuals. Less than one percent of the population, but still present.

  • anodognosic

    I’ve been struggling to express this idea that not everyone has to conform to the same platonic ideal of human flourishing, and I have to say, I love the idea of vocation as an expression of that. I think it perfectly encapsulates the diversity of lives that people lead and the purposes and meaning that they find in such varied things.

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  • The Ubiquitous

    For certain definitions of fulfilled. But it wasn’t writing about “fulfilled.” It’s talking about healthy. This is a biological understanding of sexual passions.

    • The Ubiquitous

      Are you doing more of that metaphysical backsliding, Leah? Because describing your teeth as “tools” rather than “part of you” belies a Gnostic/transhumanist understanding of the body.

  • The Ubiquitous

    And there was a prebuttal to this, (unless I’m completely hallucinating.)

    Especially for a church that values consecrated, celibate life.

    Yes, but inaction is a different kind thing than participating in a thing. If I have a desire to kill a man, this desire, though wrong, is not identical to actually killing him. Abstaining from killing him may be a good thing! Therefore, abstaining from action A can be a different kettle of fish than doing action A.

    Anyway, continent life for the sake of the Kingdom is a high good, if not the highest. But to do anything for the Kingdom is a theological reasoning which requires some basis in divine revelation. So unless you want to found your own psuedo-Church, Leah

  • drdanfee

    Well I’m coming late late late to this thread, but I agree at a gut body/spirit/mind level with this extreme Roman Catholic tunnel vision when it comes to genital anatomy as a closed summary of the rest of what empirically amounts to gendered, sexed human embodiment. Most of the traditionalist religious arguments I’ve heard or read so far … and I’ve been listening for 40 to 50 years by now? … actually seem to inferentially depend on the often unspoken, unexplored, and uncritiqued foundational idea that if you have a penis and testicles, then what ought to go on in your widely dispersed psychohormonal plus nervous plus muscle systems is a closed matter which we can fairly simplistically derive from religious revelation, tested as it were by a style of fourth grade questioning, as in, What should boys do with their penises now, and then later, when they are all grown up? Then the narrative seems to close down even tighter … typically claiming to rise higher into ideal and moral realms? … when we finally get around to adding the Central Nervous System into our now quite NON-simplistic reality of human embodiment/human nature. If the dispersed psychohormonal plus nervous plus muscle systems ought to be doing mainly only one thing and not much else when penises/testicles stand in for the now very high, very idealized reality? … suddenly we have just narrated presuppositionally so that embodied sensuality … the human ability to sense anything and respond sensately as enriched by emotional resonances (let alone explicated, let alone explicated, by thought, by intuitive reflections, by art) … has now almost completely changed into a definitive, closed, cannot be further investigated religious revelation that is narrow indeed. Back on planet earth, I know absolutely no opposite-sex-attracted man or woman who actually wants to be sexually intimate, let alone socially and interpersonally intimate, let alone married and parenting …. in the highly idealized and not so subtly changed story of What Human Sex Is that has now been fashioned and foisted upon us as a supposedly seamless, inevitable, compelling center of allegiance, understanding, and judgment. But all that is just me, I guess … and I imagine that the easiest reply from religious revelation folks might simply be that We Can’t Understand Faith from the outside inward; but have to submit to being hemmed in by religious revelation’s demanding embrace before we are allowed to say that all inquiry worth doing must always and ever begin with the religious revelation that now will do its best and better mystical works by piercing us through and through until all those pesky questions are rendered mute? My two cents still is, this whole alleged business of just knowing so finally, so completely … lock, stock, and two barrels … what is and is not okay for bodies with penises and bodies with vaginas/clitorises to do and not do as an inflexible, eternal God given frame that lets genital anatomy lock down all the rest of sensory life, interpersonal life, embodiment, and emotionally rich inner life … well it’s just too confident of its own grip on what having genitals ought/must mean, you see. Even human reproduction is much more an opening kind of business than a closing down, locking down kind of business. Getting sperm to fertilize egg is not all that difficult, unless you are an opposite sex attracted couple with infertility burdens. Raising healthy children is much more complicated, much less categorically black/white when it comes to parenting and children and adolescents and adult children with children of their own as key but not exhaustive iterations of our essential humanity. So far I hear darn little of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ pied beauty in this religious revelation case of tunnel vision the moment human genitals come into even imaginary view. I suspect that one of the starting wrong foot placements has probably to do with our legacy that body/desires are most likely to be innately sinful. Sexual desire, for example, is not always some essential form of rape and domination, mild to monstrous in overt manifestations/behaviors anticipating rape/domination consequences. On the contrary, in a world where men and women are of equal worth and much more equal autonomy and power, … another ideal, I grant you …. body/desire is essential to shockwave us far out beyond our ordinary selves in daily life in human society. Body/desire can break one out of the real modern moral traps which tend much more to consumerism, competition, externalized mores pretending to be objective truth of living … so that we end up giving ourselves to each other, and yes, that sometimes includes being sexually intimated in a great many different adult contexts. By assuming that all body/desire outside of adult lifelong marriage blessed by rituals of faith is essentially diminishing and demeaning, we get right off on the wrong foot from first page. Alas. Lord have mercy.