Bad art and bad sex matter for the same reason that bad religion matters. A brain can get used to anything. Once we’re used to something, it starts to seem okay. That capacity to normalize failures is why there are people who think that child abuse is “just discipline,” a Big Mac is “good food,” a rotting shark is “good art,” and hooking up with a predatory stranger is “good sex.”
The same pattern of brain damage happens to the millions of people like me who were hurt as children by certain forms of religion. We were given a self-accusing moralistic lens through which to look at ourselves and our lives. We began to see everything in terms of right or wrong rather than in terms of beautiful or ugly. Everything we did carried a false moral obligation. Bad sex wasn’t bad because it was ugly or degrading. It was “wrong” in the sense that it could get you sent to hell!
Worse, we were utilitarians always looking for some “greater purpose.” Marriage couldn’t just be marriage, it had to be a “picture of Christ and his church.” Having a family wasn’t good enough. A family had to be a way to “reach the world for Jesus” as a “witness.” Sex couldn’t just feel good; it had to be about “the marriage bond.”
Like abusive religion, bad sex is just another kind of brain-changing conceptual misuse of art. You can survive a crap art show or two or being groped by a scum primate now and again as well as survive fumbling teen sex, but if you go looking for strangers to grope you, perpetuate teen ineptitude into adulthood, or feel moral guilt for normal sexual activity, your brain will eventually change in ways that will harm you in the same way and for the same reason that, after seeing enough shows of Jeff Koons, we eventually just give up and accept his High Kitsch as High Art. It takes a conscious effort to resist the prevailing spirit of the age we find ourselves in.
Sexuality isn’t in some sort of special category. Food made without love for food is garbage. Religion made without love for people is soul-destroying. Art made without love for the art materials is a disrespectful, iconoclastic slap at our generous and welcoming planet. And sex without love becomes a miserable, brain-numbing experience of supreme mediocrity.
If we allow our experiences to be trivial, disrespectful, small, guilty, and meaning-less, that is how our lives will feel in hindsight: meaning-less. If education is only for getting a job then it is meaning-less. If sex is either only for having babies at one extreme or at the other extreme only for having an orgasm, we’ve missed the best there is.
The point is that, whatever we do, from sex to art to family, we must understand that it’s intrinsically worthwhile. Life is a series of small, “unimportant” experiences that either add up to one big nothing or else add up to one big something.
The greatest crime against ourselves is to delink our experiences from the exercise of empathy. There are no shortcuts. Sex is an art form, and the best is what we should be after. That means we have to be patient. Good sex takes time to learn just like learning to draw. Good sex is not a “ready-made.” And good sex is something that can’t be isolated from the rules of life that apply to everything else—like keeping our word, not betraying people, and not hurting their feelings.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace