The McDonaldization of Sex 5: Sacred Sex (Sex and Christianity 14)

What is so insidious about McDonaldized sex is that it has completely flattened people's ability to see sexual relationships as the closest human beings get to understanding God's love. The biblical evidence is substantial: sex and marriage are used as metaphors for divine love in the Song of Songs, the book of Hosea and other prophetic books, and Ephesians, to name a few. Anyone who knows the Bible knows that there are many different, and often violent, stories about the manipulation of sex because of sin. Further, the patriarchs had multiple wives and concubines. It is all the more remarkable, then, that the model of sexual love between one man and one woman emerged as the primary analog for thinking about the relationship between God and the human soul.

For the skeptics out there who are reluctant to assign divine meaning to ancient texts, it's possible to approach the biblical evidence from an anthropological viewpoint as well. It would look something like this: even in the midst of polygamy and all kinds of sexual arrangements, still there emerged among these ancient people a reverence for one man/one woman sexual pairing as having a particularly special meaning, one that spoke of the possibility of eternal love between human beings. These ancient authors and redactors saw the sexual love of married people as pointing toward transcendence, toward possibilities beyond what might have existed in the ordinary experience of sex.

I find those possibilities compelling. Is it possible that entering into a once-and-for all, no-possibility-of-changing our minds, I-will-love-you-forever-and-you'll-do-the-same, promise to a person of the opposite sex can be an opportunity to see God face to face? Is it possible that eschewing temporary experiences of sex in favor of a lifelong promise to be faithful and loving to the other is fraught with meaning and a doorstep to eternity?

Let's be very clear about what's on the table: nothing less than an act of faith. Here's God's proposal: "if you choose to enter into a lifelong relationship with a person of the opposite sex, and choose to love that person in every moment of every day for the rest of your life, you'll come to know who I am and how I love the people I've created. It will demand all of you; it will demand sacrifice and conversion and transformation. It will demand forfeiting all your selfish desires but discovering beautiful shared desires. It will be a vocational call, summoning from you the difficult process of discerning when and how you will invite children into your world, care for aging parents, contribute to a community, reach out to others in need, build a future. Through it all, I will be with you to guide you, and you will find joy."

I find the image in the second story of creation in Genesis (2:4b-25) to be striking: Adam and Eve standing before each other, naked and without shame: no corporate products required for a relationship; no ad campaigns ramping up their libidos so they'll purchase things; no social messages about the inferiority of their bodies; no twisted expectations about what constitutes their success in life. They stand naked, man and woman, and perceive each other as equals, partners for each other through life, and they are completely at ease.

The story describes how sin enters the picture as the result of twisted desires. Adam and Eve fall prey to the serpent's suggestions about what they really want (the serpent is the mythological ancestor of advertisers), and their desires turn from each other to a false abstraction: being "like gods" (3:5). The perversion of desire is the paradigm for McDonaldized sex: one no longer desires a person and all the goods that accompany what it means to be a fully enfleshed human being—what the Psalmist describes as "little less than a god" (8:6)—and begins desiring some abstraction, like social capital or a sense of power. One is willing to substitute a small good (bodily pleasure) for an eternal good: the unfolding of divine love through the mediation of one's whole self in relationship to the other.

The McDonaldization of sex—the flattening of expectations in a sexual relationship—is not about desiring too much; it is about desiring too little. And with McDonaldized sex has come the near-absolute marginalization of a virtue that the ancients understood and that we mock: chastity. Very different from celibacy or abstinence from any kind of sexual expression, chastity is to sex what virtuosity is to music, or whatever we would call the ability in great athletes as compared to ordinary physical exercise. Chastity is a form of excellence in relationship, and involves all our faculties, all of who we are, including our sexuality.

12/2/2022 9:05:39 PM
  • Catholic
  • Culture at the Crossroads
  • Contraception
  • History
  • Marriage
  • Sacred Texts
  • Sexuality
  • Christianity
  • Roman Catholicism
  • Tim Muldoon
    About Tim Muldoon
    Tim Muldoon holds a Ph.D. in Catholic systematic theology and is an award-winning author and Catholic theologian of the new evangelization.