Preface: I write this as a Catholic who is speaking about sexuality to other Catholics. In doing so, I affirm my adherence to the teachings of Roman Catholic Church. If this is not your perspective, I understand that. But to keep the commbox from straying too far afield, I will be monitoring the comments and censoring those that are clearly not intended to engage either myself or others on the level of the presumed principles of the audience; I will also apply censorship against those who engage others in an ad hominem manner.
This is continuation of The Body Problems series, examining the challenges and sins connected in various ways to human sexuality. I will begin each of these posts with a reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to serve as a content and/or trigger warning for those who may, for various reasons, not want to read a discussion of these issues.
Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death. (CCC 2361).
The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech. (CCC 2338).
This body problem comes at the request of a friend. Recently, we were talking about The Body Problems I was working on, and the various wounds we see in our own lives that hinder both ourselves and others from accepting the fullness of grace offered by the Holy Spirit. Through the course of our conversation, Winston,* told me more about his own history, and asked me to explain to him
“How is it that one can be in as intimate an embrace [as during sex], and yet feel absolutely isolated and alone?
Now, in this case, Winston was not speaking of sex in the context of long term relationship, or with a close friend, or in one of the many ways that is closer to something like a natural marriage, This sort of situations differs from others, involving a different magnitude and realm of psychological and emotional toll when experienced. Moreover, he was also not speaking of the one night of passion from early-00s television, nor was it the one night of “nothing on Netflix” that characterizes conversations from Girls to Juno.
This body problem constitutes something of a middle: a one-off encounter, but with a casual friend with whom there was at least something like a friendship, transformed by the unique cocktail of sexual impulse infused with liquor, desire, and religious doubt that many young adult Catholics face as they stand on the precipice between what they have been told and what they want to hear.
In order to truly address this, we have to look beyond the particularly bodily aspect of this problem. It’s a personal problem, particular to human persons because we are embodied. To borrow from Scruton’s Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation, it’s uniquely personal because it deals with the problems facing bodily interpersonal communion, since
The rational being is a personal being characterized not only by his ability to reason but also by his possession of a first person perspective, responsibility and the rich interpersonal emotional life which those entail.
I cannot know the sound of another’s heart, as The 1975 says they do, in a purely Epicurean manner. Another’s heart, in the sexual act, as elsewhere, as well as his body, serve to reveal his person and his intentionality in the act. Likewise, my heartbeat, my body, my intentionality are the means by which my individuality is expressed in the world; they are me expressed.
In sex, we cannot avoid finding the other’s person as revealed through and within their body. Though Sartre may quote Descartes and suggest that “the soul is more known than the body,” this is only possible when I know this soul embodied in this body. The human person is identical with this embodied soul, though by the term “person,” we mean something more than the phrase “embodied soul” implies. This sounds philosophic, but it really is common sense. When I see Peter’s face, I don’t expect him to be Phil or Clarke. When I read Phil’s paper, it is his expression of the internal word—it lacks the puns to be Clarke’s, or the political emphasis to be Peter’s. And when I hug Lauren, I certainly hope that I did not mistake her person for Luke; although they are united in marriage, they yet still remain distinct persons. To kiss hypothetical-Tom is certainly not to kiss any of the aforementioned individuals, much to our great collective relief.
Sexual desire seeks to discover the other in this world as concrete and present, as one who can manifest a unique first-person perspective here and now, ideally (if this person is an object of my sexual desire) as a perspective that has intention of a similar sort towards me. In its most integrative sense, sex demands both that the other be this person and that she be here. Not merely here in her soul and intention, nor in her body alone, but that her intention, her soul, her person become fully present and authentically revealed through and within her body.
For this reason, a kiss is not sufficient if I merely kiss your lips while you sit frozen—rather, when I kiss you, I am demonstrating my intention towards you through my body, revealing myself in a uniquely interpersonal and embodied way, and seeking the same revelation of intention and person within your body.
Sexual desire is not love, simply. Nevertheless, love, both amor concupiscentiae as well as amor benevolentiae, has a unique claim to the expression of sexual desire. We do not love in the abstract; we do not love a generality. I love this individual, and I only know this individual here and now because I encounter him in all his bodily and ensouled individuality. To express love towards the other is to acquiesce to his embodied personal existence in the world and wish him well.** To do so through the expression of sexual desire fuses this well wishing of the other with his embodied revelation of self.
So returning to our body problem. In the light of all this, how is it that one can be in as intimate an embrace [as during sex], and yet feel absolutely isolated and alone? Perhaps the answer is more intuitive than its philosophic grounding suggests. In the words of Frightened Rabbit:
Can you see in the dark?
Can you see the look on your face?
The flashing white light’s been turned off
You don’t know who’s in your bed.
It takes more than f***ing someone you don’t know
To keep warm.