Sex and the Sacred
What’s the connection between sex and the sacred? They are two elements of life that many people think are far apart, or even in tension, but perhaps the reality is somewhat different.
Sex Replacing the Sacred
In his fascinating analysis of the sexual behaviour of Americans, Cheap Sex, sociologist Mark Regnerus observes that among women there is a clear correlation between being politically liberal and having a greater desire for sex, even when other factors (such as age and recent sexual activity) are taken into consideration.1 From this observation, Regnerus proposes a hypothesis:
More liberal women … desire more frequent sex because they feel poignantly the lack of sufficient transcendence in life. If sex is one of the few pathways to it, then it is sensible for them to desire more of it. (p.79)
In simple terms, Regnerus’ suggestion is that for these women, sex is a replacement for God.
To test this idea, Regnerus went back to his data set, the Relationships in America survey, to see whether the results would be different if they took involvement in religion (e.g. attendance at religious services, reported importance of religion etc.) into consideration. In doing so, he found that involvement in the religious has a far more significant influence on the desire for sex. Those who are more religious report less of a desire for more sex even if they are politically liberal.2 The evidence supports Regnerus’ suggestion: sex is often pursued as a replacement for the sacred. ‘In a world increasingly bereft of transcendence, sexual expression is emerging as an intrinsic value. Sex is the new opium of the masses’ (p.79).
It’s not hard to hear Augustinian overtones in Regnerus’ finding, and so I wasn’t overly surprised to find a similar idea when reading the chapter on sex in James K.A. Smith’s On the Road with Saint Augustine.
Reflecting on Augustine’s time at university in Carthage (about which Augustine himself observed ‘I was in love with love’) Smith writes: ‘Retroactively, he recognizes a hunger behind this, a hunger that stemmed from a certain kind of starvation. The soul’s built-in hunger for the transcendent, the resplendent, the mysterious was deflected to the sensual, the bodily, the reverberating shudders of climax. The inherent desire to give himself away settled for giving up his body. Ignoring infinite Beauty, he pursued finite beauties all the more. He traded the cosmic for the orgasmic’ (p.96).
Augustine reflects on his own desire for more sex and sees in it evidence of a greater desire, a desire for the divine.
Sex, Mission, and Discipleship
Sex and the sacred go together, and it strikes me that there are both missional and discipleship lessons to be drawn from this observation.
When it comes to mission, it’s easy for us to see the stark clash between the secular sexual ethic and the biblical sexual ethic as a barrier. Many of us, if we’re honest, feel ashamed of what the Bible says about sex and almost wish it said something different. We think that the Bible’s view of sex is something which makes the gospel sound unappealing to those who aren’t following Jesus.
But ultimately, the secular sexual ethic can never deliver on what it promises. In Walking with Saint Augustine, Smith quotes Russel Brand as an evidence of this fact. Reflecting on his experience of promiscuity, Brand acknowledged the experience of ‘this kind of ongoing seam of loneliness’ (p.97). What this candid admission reveals is that many people feel the fact that sex can never deliver what culture tells them it will; they experience this truth, and yet many don’t understand what they are feeling. Interestingly, Brand notes that it was his experience of addictions which helped him to spot the futility of looking to sex as a source of fulfilment.
In mission, we can help people understand why the things in which they are looking to find fullness of life don’t deliver, and we can point them to the only relationship which really can satisfy. As the god of sex fails to deliver what it promises, we can point to the God who created sex, the one who always delivers what he promises.
This link between sex and the sacred is also helpful when thinking about discipleship. The battle with sexual sin and sexual temptation doesn’t, for most of us at least, end when we respond to the gospel. As Christians, we are often slow to admit this and to talk about it, and when we do our focus tends to fall primarily on surface level behaviour management strategies (such as (guilt trip) accountability and digital restrictions and filters), rather than the roots of misdirected desire for the divine. For many of us, until we realise that sexual desire is something more than just the physical we will never learn to handle it well. If sex is often sought as a replacement for the divine, then deepening our connection with the divine will help us to manage our sexual desires.
So, sex and the sacred go together. Rather than replacing the sacred with sex, sex is designed to draw us to the sacred. Sex is about the sacred. Desire is about the divine.
- 1. The same correlation between political persuasion and desire for more sex is not seen among men, probably because, generally speaking, men have a greater desire for sex anyway. Regnerus notes that while some claim women’s sex drives are as strong as men’s, no population-based data has yet been produced which supports this idea (p.77).
- 2. Regnerus doesn’t state whether his data was restricted to women at this point. Given the observation that politics doesn’t have the same impact on men’s desire for sex as it does for women, it would be interesting to know how involvement in religion affects men’s desire for sex.