My colleagues in Unitarian Universalist ministry are blogging this month under the hashtag #SexUUality. Sex is a good topic for us liberal ministers. We have something important to say: that sex is fine, that pleasure is good, that consenting adults should be free to make their own decisions about what they do in private. We affirm relationships in which sex is simply not going to be for procreation, whether it be same-sex couples, older folks, people who can’t bear children or those who simply don’t want to. And we affirm the role of sex for pleasure in relationships where sex could lead to pregnancy—and we affirm the use of birth control to make those choices. We also are clear in our opposition to sex as a form of abuse or coercion, whether that be date rape, marital rape, under-the-influence rape, sexual trafficking or abuse of children. We believe in the right of human beings to their own bodily integrity, saying yes when they want to say yes, and no when they want to say no. Beyond that, we believe that sex has the potential to be not just pleasurable, but sacred, a form of connection and intimacy and communion between people who love one another and are committed to each other’s well-being.
That’s all important to say, and I trust my colleagues to say it. But I have another question, one that James Thurber and E.B. White framed as the title of their book: Is Sex Necessary? Sure, sex is good, but is it necessary? Of course there are people who are asexual, or celibate by choice, or celibate by chance, and they deserve full respect for their lives without sex. Not much question there. But what about people who are in intimate, committed relationships? For the sake of simplicity, let’s call these relationships “married.” I know there are still a bunch of states in the union where marriage is not yet legal for same-sex couples, and there are plenty of folks who are committed to one another for a lifetime without having a license, but for the sake of ease, let’s call all of these committed, intimate relationships “married,” without worrying about gender or legal status. Then I can ask the question: Is sex necessary in a marriage?
After all, we pretty much define marriage as a committed relationship between two people who want to have sex with each other. You can be committed for life to your parents, your children and your best friend and your dog, but you aren’t married to them. Marriage implies a certain kind of intimacy. Sexual intimacy.
Which seems a little silly, if you get right down to it. Surely if a couple lives together and talks together and raises children or pets or plants together and shares their finances and their plans for the future together they can be married without having sex. And surely there a plenty of couples who started out sexually intimate and then stopped, but still have a loving lifelong commitment.
Marriage, it seems to me, is about fidelity. Usually we think of that word as meaning sexual monogamy, being sexually faithful to a partner. But aren’t there other, at least as important, ways that people are faithful to one another? Couldn’t you have a fidelity of listening, of being there, of caring for one another through good times and bad? Is it not a choice to be faithful, to practice fidelity, when you promise someone that you will love them and care for them and support them in their deepest happiness?
But what happens when that deepest happiness includes sexual intimacy for one partner, but not the other? What happens when that deepest happiness for one person includes sexual intimacy with someone who isn’t that partner? What does fidelity look like then?
Frankly, I don’t know, and it isn’t for lack of trying. It seems to me there are couples who make it work, and couples who crush their own spirits or the spirit of their partner in trying. I think that sex should never feel coercive, never happen when it isn’t fully chosen by all parties. And I also think that it’s pretty reasonable for someone to expect sexual intimacy as part of their marriage, at least if that was a shared expectation when they entered into that covenant.
It isn’t simple. What if the husband in a straight marriage realizes that he is actually gay? What if one of the wives in a lesbian marriage realizes she is actually straight? Does integrity demand that the marriage end, or does integrity demand that the covenant of marriage carry on with some kind of fidelity that is not sexual in nature?
I don’t know. I wish I did. I have no answers, only a set of guideposts, questions that I think pertain to any intimate relationship, whatever the status of sexual connection might be.
Is it honest? Lies and secrets are fatal to any relationship. Whatever fidelity may be, it does not have room for hiding the truth or hiding from the truth.
Is it compassionate? Are both (all) people in the relationship truly invested in what is best for the other person, as well as what is best for themselves? Are both (all) people able to truly hear what is going on with the other person, without ego, jealousy, defensiveness or anger hijacking the conversation?
Is it faithful? Any marriage gets to define its own fidelities, and it is possible that sexual intimacy or even sexual monogamy is not the only definition of being faithful. But if it isn’t, there had better be something important and intimate and caring to which the partners are committed, and which they can hold to and depend on day in and day out, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.
Is Sex Necessary? I’m pretty sure that the answer is “It depends.”