An Atheist’s Take on Sex and Monogamy

An Atheist’s Take on Sex and Monogamy July 18, 2013

sexsymbolsSome people seem to think that the most important thing about you is what you do with your genitals.  I disagree.  On the other hand (heh), it’s not inconsequential, either.  Hang with me for a bit here and I’ll try to explain what I mean.

Like most men, I’ve given sex a great deal of thought.  When I was a Christian, I was told two memorable things about that:  1)  That’s bad, somehow, and 2) Women don’t think about sex or want it nearly as much as men do (more on that later).  I was told that thinking a lot about sex (or wanting it often) is bad because it represents skewed priorities. There is an (albeit unspoken) acceptable level of sexual desire and interest above which anything else is considered unhealthy and even immoral.  This prejudice goes back many, many years for Christianity, and it is rooted in a dualism that almost certainly arose from its Greco-Roman philosophical context.

Of all the ancient gods, Yahweh seemed inordinately interested in what happens to the penis. Reading back through the Old Testament, there’s quite a lot of talk about what you should and shouldn’t do with it and even what it should look like.  In fact, the shape of the male member was so important to Yahweh that it became the national identity marker for the people of Israel (that and eating kosher).  But somewhere between Jesus and Paul this changed.  Jesus suggested we shouldn’t be so concerned about what kinds of food we eat and Paul went on to say it didn’t matter how you wore your Johnson (turtleneck vs. crew cut).  But neither of them released their grip on the subject of sex itself.

I find this ironic, because it was Jesus himself who introduced a major paradigm shift by suggesting that what goes into your body doesn’t make you unclean (try telling that to a young Southern Baptist who has just broken her True Love Waits promise).  Apparently this logic only works for one orifice and not the others.  You would think that by extension this would also mean what you put your body into likewise doesn’t make you unclean.  But to hear Paul talk, it sounds like what you do with your genitals permanently alters you and can even determine your eternal destiny.  I find this terribly inconsistent.  The best explanation for it that I can come up with is that Paul (who was more influential in early Christianity than even the historical Jesus) absorbed the dualism of his cultural surroundings and developed a kind of self-denying asceticism which looked down on sex itself as a distraction from the things of the spirit (to see what I mean, check out 1 Cor. 9:27 and 1 Cor. 7:32-35).

Looking back it seems that for most of the church’s history, the Christian view of sexuality was formulated by unmarried men.  You start with Jesus and Paul, but then over the centuries after that you have priests and monks dictating how the church thinks and talks (or doesn’t talk) about sexuality.  I suppose it’s no wonder then that, for most of Christian history, sex has been treated like a necessary evil.  Some early theologians even taught that sex was the original sin (despite the fact that the first command of Yahweh was to “be fruitful and multiply”).  The leaders of the church were expected to be celibate both because it freed them from the concerns of caring for a family and because it theoretically kept them from indulging in the more fleshly pleasures of this life (we can thank Paul for both of those concerns).  Obviously if they were to be consistent with that thinking, like the Shakers of the 18th century the Christian faith would have just died off long ago.  Instead the church developed a purely functional attitude towards sex:  You gotta have it or else we’ll become extinct, but you should only have it in order to keep that from happening.  Outside of that purpose, all other sex is illegitimate.

Whatever the origin of this awkward uncomfortability with all things sexual, this has lately become one of the things which evangelicals have been working to overcome. There has even been a movement towards a relatively sex-positive Christian culture wherein pastors and bloggers are becoming more open about their own sex lives, more openly and deliberately celebrating the marital bed (always within certain proscribed constraints, of course…and no, I don’t mean those kinds).  Usually that takes the form of the obligatory periodic Facebook or Twitter reference to one’s “smokin’ hot wife,” but for some it even extends to writing whole books about sex or even preaching sermons from on top of a bed relocated right onto the stage of the worship auditorium.  While some of these attempts are positively cringeworthy, we should at least be happy to see them taking baby steps toward undoing centuries of bad form on the part of the Christian church.  They’ve got an awful long way to go, I’m afraid.  But it’s a start.

Most of these overtures toward celebrating sex have come from ministers hoping to reclaim some of the cultural relevance that the evangelical church has been losing over the last two or three decades.  Consequently, even those forays into “Christian sexuality” have been male-centered, adhering quite faithfully to traditional stereotypes about male desire versus female disinterest in sex.  I was once informed by a locally popular Christian counselor that women just don’t think about sex as much as men do.  He further opined that women aren’t visually stimulated in the way that men are, and that the only ones who report otherwise have been misled by “the world” into thinking incorrectly about themselves and their own desires.  After suppressing no small admixture of laughter and contempt, I challenged his facile generalizations and asked what percentage of women he believes masturbate on a regular basis.  “Fifteen, maybe twenty percent” was his answer.  My response:  “I see…and you read this where?”  The subject was quickly changed and I was subtly faulted for bringing it up in the first place.

As you can imagine, anyone coming out of this context into a wider world will carry a great deal of baggage where sexual norms are concerned.  It can take years to work through the personal issues you come away with, and some may never shake the ghosts of their upbringing.  Few things can pile on guilt as effectively as the moral expectations surrounding sex.  How to raise your children “right” might come in a close second—it’s hard to say.  But leaving the Christian faith opens up a world of questions for which there aren’t neat and tidy answers.  How should we view sex?  What kinds of sex are healthy, and what kinds aren’t?  Is monogamy the only way?  Is it the best way?  And what about same-sex relationships?  On and on it goes.  Incidentally, there’s no way I could do all those questions justice in one single blog post.   I should also point out that this post is entitled “AN atheist’s take” and not “THE atheist’s take” because there’s no such thing as THE atheist’s view on anything.  And I mean anything.  Having said that, I would like to address two of those questions and see where it goes from there.

IS MONOGAMY NATURAL?  AND IS IT THE BEST WAY?

I ask “Is monogamy natural?” not because I think that’s the right place to begin, but rather because that’s the way the question is often framed.  The answer depends on what you mean.  Biologically speaking, I see nothing which limits a person’s sexual partners to one individual.  There is no apparent intelligent design which dictates that one male and one female should be partnered for life.  On the contrary, among all animals we seem biologically wired to want the most sex with as many different partners as possible.  Some animals can only conceive during a brief season of the year, while human are ready every single month.  The sheer number of sperm produced by human males is astounding.  We seem genetically wired to want and seek coitus on an almost daily basis.  I could go on and on about this but I don’t want to get sidetracked into a biology lesson.  Biologically speaking, our bodies are aroused by members of the opposite sex (or of the same sex, or both) without reference to marital relationship or monogamous commitment (and that goes for males and females alike).  Quite the opposite, since novelty lies at the heart of much sexual stimulation, one could argue that the most “natural” thing is to have sex with as many new partners as is possible.  From a physical standpoint, monogamy is not natural at all.

But of all animals, humans are the most complex.  While a wolf may growl, grunt, bark, or howl, a human will learn and use thousands words in his or her lifetime, combining them in ever-changing and more complicated arrangements.  A bird may sing dozens of songs comprised of a long series of single notes, but humans will compose and orchestrate entire symphonies which can last hours and use dozens of instruments designed to simultaneously play complex and varied chords, each in harmony with the other.  And while our bodies naturally heal themselves of many diseases and afflictions, modern medicine and technology have enabled us to improve upon nature in so many ways that it’s no longer merely a question of what’s “natural” for us.  Sometimes nature can be improved upon.

When we become angry, the “natural” thing to do would be to grab a stick and bludgeon our opponent until he is unconscious.  The physiological precursors to this are still there: the raised blood pressure, the increased heart rate, the clenched fist, even the bared teeth.  Sometimes it even makes us feel better to go and hit something if we can’t resolve our differences through dialogue and mutual understanding.  But we have developed very sophisticated and civilized systems of conflict resolution in order to prevent brutish violence from ruling our species as it does so many others.  One could argue that these methods aren’t “natural,” but they are preferable because they move us toward a way of life which better fits what we want to see.  They are more humane, as we like to say.

A similar argument could be made for monogamous relationships, couldn’t it?  One could argue (as many have) that long-term commitment to one other person brings certain benefits (especially for the raising of children) which could not be gotten any other way.  I believe there is a good deal of sense in that, although I personally see no reason why “one person only…for life” should be the default.   Coupling in general seems quite natural to our species (both hetero- and homo-), but there are many kinds of coupling, each carrying its own strengths and weaknesses.  Besides lifelong, exclusive monogamy, there is also serial monogamy.  In addition, you’ve also got open monogamy (sometimes called “monogamish” relationships) as well as polyamory, and even fully open relationships.  I think that each should be considered on its own merits, taking care that we do not simply carry over all the prejudices of our religious upbringing, regurgitating them with automatic imitation.

As a grown man finally removed from the religion of my youth, I now see that the Christian faith did me a great disservice by piling so much guilt on me (along with every one else) about sex.  It was bad that I wanted to experiment with it as a teenager; it was bad that in college I could hardly keep my hands to myself.  Come to think of it, “keeping my hands to myself” sounds like something else that was off limits according to my Baptist upbringing.  Sexual desire, according to Christian teaching, is supposed to be for only one person for life.  And in order to act on that, you must first commit to a legally-binding contractual relationship with that other person and there can be no expiration date excepting only that moment when one of you dies.  Forgive me, but is this really the best we can do?  And should we really be allowing 21-year-olds to make lifelong commitments to anything?  I don’t know about you, but I cringe at what I believed when I was 21 years old.  I hadn’t even figured out who I was at that age.  Sometimes I think offering a lifelong commitment at that age is false advertising because we don’t even know yet what we are committing ourselves to—we are still in the early stages of becoming who we will be.  A person will change and grow in many different phases over the course of his or her life, and as long as the husband or wife can flex and change alongside his or her spouse, this can work fine. For many it will not.  For those who make it work, more power to them!  I know many people who have remained happily married for the duration of their adult lives, even amidst major life changes.  When that works, it can be quite beautiful.

Surely there is value to a steady, stable home in which children can grow and mature with the assurance that both parents will be there—together—to support them as they grow up.  In our tribal past, the nuclear family was likely less crucial because of how interconnected all the members of the tribe and extended family were.  But today in suburbia we have cocooned ourselves into “bedroom communities” which are often separated from our extended families by thousands of miles, and from our next-door neighbors by privacy fences and closed doors.  In such a disjointed environment, the nuclear family becomes significantly more important, which I guess partially explains why modern American conservatives have become so “focused on the family.”  In time, they’ve even learned to superimpose this modern family structure on the Bible itself (which is a real trick since you can hardly find anything comparable in the Ancient Near East).  They easily gloss over the polygamous relationships of several key figures in the Bible, and they don’t seem to notice the disdain for marriage and family which both Jesus and Paul seem to have harbored (Luke 14:26; Matt. 12:46-50; 1 Cor. 7:32-35).  Sometimes I think I get why they’re trying to do this.  My contention, however, is that they are piling too many expectations and limitations on the institution of marriage until it becomes something which many cannot live with for very long.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

We need some fresh thinking about both marriage and fidelity.  Personally, I do not feel that sexual exclusivity should be so central to our relationships as it has become in our culture.  There is tremendous social pressure from centuries of momentum, moving like a train on a track in only one direction.  But this train is starting to derail, and it’s time to think a little more deeply about the nature of relational commitment, and of the centrality of sexual contact within that commitment.  There are other ways of viewing love, marriage, and sex.  I think we could benefit a great deal from being more willing to openly talk about these things without being so quick to judge one another for our choices.

I know of some couples (some married, some not) who spend almost all of their free time together, and who primarily focus their sexual energies on each other (for this does in fact bring a kind of intensity and intimacy which only a long-term commitment could bring). But they also reserve the right to occasionally “play around” when the opportunity arises, perhaps on a business trip, or during a night out on the town with friends. Parameters are set, and certain boundaries are always maintained.  They know what their limits are because they’ve discussed them with each other and have reached a mutual understanding with one another about what they need from each other. Expectations are clear, and feelings are protected because one thing they all agree on is that they love and care for one another, and that they will not do anything which harms the other or makes him or her feel less safe.  Personally, I think this is fantastic.

Couples who dabble in various form of “openness” will deal with insecurities, but that’s nothing new.  Exclusively monogamous married couples deal with the same issues.  The main difference is that while many of them will have to lie and cover up their “extracurricular activities,” couples in other kinds of relationships can be more open and honest about what they can expect from each other in this department.  As long as expectations are clear and all parties involved share a common understanding, there are so many more possibilities out there.  Many of them can enrich and even stabilize the primary relationships in ways you might not automatically expect.

As I’ve argued, humans are complex, and at times our emotional connection to sex can be very powerful, although frankly at other times the connection can be virtually nonexistent. Oh, and by the way, you know that spiel that youth ministers always give about sex being like super glue, somehow mystically fusing people’s souls together?  Forgive me, but that’s total B.S.  It’s my observation that the people who believe that are people who have only had sex with one person their whole life.  Sex can be deep, moving, and passionate, or it can be playful, lighthearted and pure entertainment. Sometimes it is tender and intimate; other times it is raw and primal.  It’s all good.  Seriously. Just like anything else we humans do, we tend to make the most of it and find ways of pushing it much farther than our evolutionary cousins ever could have understood.  

Time will tell how these arrangements measure up against the exclusive monogamy model, although first we will have to decide what determines whether or not a relationship has been “successful” in the first place.  Some would surely like to use the monogamous model as the yardstick (He who dies with the same spouse wins) but who says that’s what we have to do?  Others would say let’s do whatever is “best for the kids,” but again, who gets to determine what that looks like?  It seems to me that consistency in the home is a good thing for everyone involved, assuming a certain amount of healthy relationships are in place there already.  But that doesn’t mean you have to pile on every expectation that goes along with 20th-century evangelical Christian wedlock.  Let’s be a little more open minded here.

What do you think?  How does this all strike you?


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