I grew up thinking sex is dirty.
I really did.
Going to well-intentioned Catholic schools my whole life, it’s unfortunate to admit that my only encounter with the sphere of sexuality in the classroom always went hand-in-hand with countless negative connotations. The dangerous effects of pornography, premarital sex, cohabitation, and “the pill” were common topics of discussion.
Here’s the problem:
If a child’s only encounter with the sphere of sexuality is a discussion on pornography, we are creating a culture that normalizes and equivocates pornography with sex.
Sex, then, becomes something that is only associated with dirt and sin.
Taboo. Off-limits. Dark. Violent. Abusive. Manipulative. Self-serving. Secular.
What would it look like if it became “okay” to talk to our children in a positive way about sex? I would argue that the topics of discussion would be utterly transformed from the taboo to the treasured, from the manipulative to the marital, from self-serving to self-giving, and from the secular to the sacred. Isn’t that the message that we really want our children to come away with?
Dietrich von Hildebrand certainly thought so.
After a Theology of the Body class my senior year in high school, I quickly realized that all of the “dirt” that comes to be associated with sex is only a small sliver of the story. The full picture was much more radiant. But I didn’t exactly know where to turn next in order to continue to learn about sexuality in a restored light. Whether it was attending Theology of the Body conferences, women’s retreats, or talks hosted by my University, I kept finding the same superficial answers: sex is good and that’s why distorting it is bad.
But why is sex so good? What makes it so unique in the realm of human experience?
Fast-forward to the present day: being involved with the Hildebrand Project has quickly helped me to learn that no topic is off-limits for serious philosophical and spiritual analysis!
That means getting real about sex.
While sex is certainly a physical act, Hildebrand points out that the sex act is essentially deep. By the very nature of what it is, sex transcends the sphere of the physical and “involves the soul deeply in its passion” (1). Other physical acts, such as eating and drinking, clearly do not involve the entirety of the person in the same way that sex does. Thus it is “characteristic of sex that in virtue of its very significance and nature, it tends to become incorporated with experiences of a higher order, purely psychological and spiritual. Nothing in the domain of sex is so self-contained as the other bodily experiences” (2). With pornography, then, the problem lies in the fact that sex is portrayed as something merely physical — a function which terminates in pleasure.
When sex is abused or not responded to justly, “it wounds [man] to the core of his being” (3). This is because “sex occupies a central position in the personality” (4). Sex must be so intimately tied to man’s very being because of the unique unity of body and soul in man. For this reason, “every disclosure of sex is the revelation of something intimate and personal” (5). When something so fundamental to the very identity and existence of a human person is portrayed as being mysteriously taboo or abhorred, children will grow up confused as to how to integrate their sexuality into their personhood, or even see their very selves as being something dirty and wrong as their bodies naturally grow and mature through puberty.
The simple truth is that “sex is always extraordinary” (6). However, this “characteristic extraordinariness assumes diametrically opposite forms” (7). What this means is that man is faced with a choice as to whether or not he is going to give the just value-response to the realm of sexuality. One of two extremes can happen: either sex is something mysterious, free, and tender, or it becomes something “sinister and oppressive; in an atmosphere where it is difficult to breathe” (8). While this is certainly the same point that all of my well-intentioned middle school teachers meant when I was growing up, notice that Hildebrand’s approach is radically different from theirs. If you do not first undertake the project of establishing the positive importance of a thing, how is one supposed to grasp the privation of it? Hildebrand is meticulous in spending page after page detailing the importance and beauty of rightly ordered sex before daring to mention the possibility of distortion.
This is why we shouldn’t remain silent about the nature of sex. It’s really okay to talk about sex. In fact, I would argue that it has the potential to be transformative in the formation of human persons. Thus, “sex can indeed keep silence, but when it speaks it is no mere obiter dictum, but a voice from the depths, the utterance of something central and of the utmost significance” (9).
There is power and freedom to be claimed in uttering the truth about sex. And I think it’s time to claim it.
1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity, 4.
2. Ibid, 5.
6. Ibid, 16.
9. Ibid, 5.
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