Does Sex Have Meaning?

A Review of J. Budziszewski's On the Meaning of Sex

By Fr. Mark Perkins

Editor’s Note: We publish the following book reviewadapted from an essay written for a theological anthropology course at Trinity School for Ministry with Marc Cortezin response to the inclusion of J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex in ISI’s $3 book sale.

My friend says the poisonous residue of purity culture makes her miserable. She says, every year, that this is the year she will move beyond her toxic upbringing and learn to love and accept herself for who she is. The piling up of these yearly pronouncements suggests the cure is not taking, the residue remains, the damned spot endures. Could it be, I think but no longer say, that the fault of your unhappiness is not as much in your upbringing as in your nature — more precisely, in the gap between your nature and your choices? Could it be that happiness has a definite shape and a specific content which we creatures are not free to reshape or revise?

J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex (ISI Books, 2012) is a brief, elegant, and emphatic argument in the affirmative. The consistent thread throughout the text is a defense of traditional wisdom. Specifically, he advances a robust and unflinching elaboration of gender differences and gender complementarity grounded in natural-law arguments, oriented towards a Christian eschatology, and supported with reference to contemporary science. But in every chapter, save perhaps the last, the whole edifice of argument could be distilled down to a short sentence: “Your grandparents had it right.”

This comes with costs. Some are trivial — at times his illustrations are, for want of a more academic term, dorky — but others are more serious. Budziszewski presents a straightforward choice between the nihilistic and narcissistic way of the world or the traditional way of wisdom. This is ultimately a false dichotomy. There are options other than Aristotle or Miley Cyrus. Still, On the Meaning of Sex does not purport to be a comprehensive evaluation of philosophies of sex, and it does highlight the live options for most young Americans. Whatever its other weaknesses, On the Meaning of Sex is a beautifully written book. In the face of a culture that uniformly treats bodily reality as arbitrary, it affirms the fundamental meaningfulness of sex and sexuality. I cannot imagine all of the high school students I taught wanting to live out the images of sexuality it presents — procreation and union, motherhood and fatherhood, kings and queens, hidden castles and knights in shining armor — but I can believe that this book would make them want to want it.

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After an introduction primarily concerned with what it means for anything to mean anything, each of the next five chapters highlights a different element of sexuality: sexual powers, differences, love, beauty, and purity. All of these hint towards the climax of his book: a final chapter on “Transcendance.”

Budziszewski begins his argument about the enduring meaning of sex with the sexual act — not sexuality more broadly — which turns out to be a brilliant rhetorical move. Starting there grants a concreteness to the text and, for the young people whom he wishes to reach, a degree of urgency, perhaps. It is also the case that his argument for the meaning of the sexual act convinces to a degree that his arguments for the meaning of gender do not — at least if one can separate the two, which Budziszewski is convinced one cannot do. More specifically, he begins with twin statements from a student, “Harris.” In discussing Brave New World, Harris declares, on the one hand, that “Sex doesn’t always have to mean something,” and yet he also deeply objects to the non-sexual industrial-production model of procreation. For Budziszewski, “This, of course, is nonsense.” If procreation should not separated from sex, then sex should not be separated from procreation. “To sever A from B is to sever B from A.” One could quibble here: all my children resulted from sex, but not all my sex resulted in children. But Budziszewski’s greater point is about the integrity rather than arbitrariness of meaning, the fixedness of human nature, and the shape of human freedom. We are made in a certain way for certain ends. Sex, Budziszewski claims, is for procreation and union: two become one, and from that union potentially proceeds a third person. To “free” sex from those ends severs us from our nature, which empties rather than liberates — per Katie Roiphe, “the sudden realization that nothing we do matters.” (Or, as another commenter put it, “Millennial sex is a joyless mimetic spamming of half-remembered porn tropes.”) The sexual revolution, he concludes, has exhausted itself. “Having finished revolving,” he concludes, “we arrive back where we started. What your mother — no, what your grandmother — no, what your great-grandmother — told you was right all along. These are the natural laws of sex.”

Having established the meaning of the sexual act, Budziszewski shifts in the third chapter to the meaning of gender. After a dialogue considering the origins and meaning of striking consistencies within gender roles and expectations across cultures through time and space, Budziszewski argues for pervasive, essential, and essentially dualistic differences in the sexes that can be perceived through brain science and biology, though his claims from the latter are disputed. Difference, he stresses, need not mean inequality — but it does mean difference!

The various admittedly sweeping generalizations he describes signify but do not themselves constitute the essential difference between the sex. (Historian John Lukacs: “Generalizations are like brooms — they’re meant to sweep.”) He identifies that difference through a succinct exercise in definition: “a woman is a human being of that sex whose members are potentially mothers,” while a man “is a human being of the sex whose members have a different potentiality than women do: the potentiality for fatherhood.” (For Budziszewski, a good definition should explain what something is through relation “to other kinds of things. It identifies the broad category to which they belong… along with the essential characteristic that distinguishes them from other” things within that category.) This dual definition anticipates the common critique that only women are defined by motherhood, whereas men are not likewise defined by fatherhood. He also rejects the idea that the inability of some women to bear children changes the basic definition, arguing that potentiality need not be reflected in actuality. Nor is Budziszewski’s argument merely biological, for better or worse. He affirms that motherhood may also be exercised psychologically or spiritually. Indeed, Budziszewski takes motherhood and fatherhood as linked to and indicative of a whole range of sexual differences, involving gender roles, attitudes, and orientations towards the world. Two images guide his explanation for how these differences relate in marriage: the father and mother operate as king and queen, or as the chair of the board and the chief executive officer. (To explicate the latter, he turns to 1 Timothy 3:4 and 5:17, where “we find [St. Paul] using a curious pair of words — a very, proistemi, and a noun, oikodespotes — one of them for what a husband characteristically does, the other what a wife characteristically is.”) Budziszewski’s argument about sexual difference is less convincing than his prior claims about the sexual act. His generalizations run the risk of elevating one aspect of personhood into the fundamental reality — and he risks elevating late modern realities about work and home into perennial truths — particularly in his writing on career and home. Still, is it possible to draw a line between the sexual act and sexuality? If sex means procreation and union, how can gender not also be rooted there?

The final three topics all flow from premises established in relation to the sexual act and gender differences. The next chapter defends marital love (which he calls “erotic charity,” oddly) as one instantiation of the theological virtue of charity. Charity is “not a feeling but an activity of the will” which “can be promised” because “it is something that one decides to do.” It is the desire that someone exist rather than not exist, which in turn means the desire for her flourishing. Marital love, then, is charity “particularized toward a single person of the polar, complementary sex.” It requires wholly giving of oneself to another — a giving that does not spend but rather enlarges oneself, in the same way that giving knowledge to another person does not empty oneself of that knowledge. Within marital love (which is a subcategory of charity) exists another subcategory, “romantic love,” which he claims is also an orientation of the will — yet one that cannot be chosen and which not all marriages, happy or otherwise, will reach. (Whether this amounts to a profound paradox or simply an internal contradiction I cannot quite parse.) Romantic love is the true reality of which “enchantment” or infatuation is a shadow — and it is that shadow which our society falsely sees as the basis for marital love. Further, while marital and romantic love are oriented towards union with one person, that union cannot be a complete turn inward or it will sour and rot, because its natural outcome is outwardly directed in procreation.

Sexual beauty, the subject of his next chapter, he defines as the kind of beauty which attracts one to the true goods of erotic charity: union and procreation. Much of his chapter rests on a distinction between true beauty, which he somewhat strangely describes as “fully humanized” sexiness, and a sickening twist on it, “depersonalized sexiness,” which instrumentalizes human bodies. In describing one young man’s preference for girlfriends who are “a little bit trashy,” he says that such a woman seems sexy to him not “because of her sexual beauty” or even “despite her lack of it,” but rather “just because of her lack of it.” Her attractiveness to him, that is, consists in her openness to being used as an object rather than being cherished as a person. (Whereas Budziszewski generally seeks to incorporate the perspectives both sexes, in this chapter he here examines the matter strictly from his own male [and heterosexual] perspective).

The idea that sexual beauty finds an end in marriage provides the ground for his final topic, sexual purity. Purity, he claims, is not “merely negative,” — the absence of something — but is a positive good. He describes the demands of charity using two images, each of which applies to both sexes despite having a primary connection with one. First, sexual purity is a castle to be defended. Second, sexual desire is a horse to be guided and mastered by a knight in shining armor (the rational soul) and accompanied by a robust lion (ardor). As Budziszewski admits, these images would no doubt strike most today as more than a little ridiculous.

Edvard Munch -- Head by Head (1905)

The whole concept of sexual purity is often portrayed as fundamentalist, shame-based misogyny. Almost all of my friends who have left the Church — the women especially but often the men too — cite “purity culture” as among the most toxic elements of their evangelical upbringing. At the Christian school where I taught until recently, the dress code was perennially among the most contentious issues for students. Female students identified — correctly, for the most part — that “modesty” only applies to girls. The boys’ attire is addressed as a question of professionalism. Consequently, female dress is uniquely sexualized. Many a student, moreover, has voiced the “pretense” described by Budziszewski: “so long as the intention is clean, the act itself is modest.” Budziszewski offers an apt thought exercise: of a woman who, with no intent to provoke, nevertheless strolled naked through downtown. He frames this as a matter of charity: “Even if her intentions are pure, her conduct isn’t. Why? Because she has no respect for the efforts of others toward purity.” Unfortunately, Budziszewski does not consider the equal and opposite extreme, which is the tendency in Christian circles to place all responsibility for male sexual desire at the feet of women, with all of its disturbing and destructive consequences. The truth of the matter is that lust may be provoked in a thousand ways; even the burka could not account for them all. So how do we acknowledge the rightful demands of courtesy and charity without excusing boys and men? How do we decide which modesty-related demands are reasonable and which are not? Budziszewski is far too silent on these questions.

He does, thankfully, address and reject the idea — somewhat common in the evangelical circles in which I grew up — that lust is determined not by its content but by its object. In that model, the question is not whether you are objectifying and depersonalizing but simply whether the object of your lust is your wife. As Budziszewski rightly notes, the disorder of our sexual desires will not be remedied if we treat marriage as “a way to blow off steam when the pressure inside the boiler gets too high.” Such an approach reduces one’s wife to “a stream-pressure vent” and is thus not made any less disorderly and destructive by virtue of objectifying one’s own wife and not someone else’s.

Part of Budziszewski’s silence stems from his failure to face the misogyny that has frequently been part and parcel of the traditional views of gender which he extols. But another aspect is simply a result of the nature and scope of the book. At the start of most chapters, Budziszewski describes a kind of dialogue in which he, playing Socrates, interrogates the meaning behind the glib pronouncements of various unfortunate Glaucons. His interlocutors are usually his students, and at times these exchanges resemble a strange inverse of the “Christian student DESTROYS atheist professor” memes that inexplicably remain popular. Still, the dialogues ring truer than the memes — there is nothing inherently improbable about a philosophy professor exposing the incoherent and ill-conceived impulses and assumptions of the young — and they are much softened by Budziszewski’s evident empathy for his students. (“The final motive for writing such a book is that my eyes are so full of the pain I see around me that if I did not have the relief of writing, they would be full of tears instead. Errors about sex cause such terrible suffering, in our day more than most.”) These exchanges also enable Budziszewski to interrogate his readers, asking them to consider whether they might not carry around with them similarly unexamined incoherences. At the same time, they have their limits. For one thing, arguments from the half- or mal-educated hardly serve as the best expressions of opposing views. Yet Budziszewski knows this, claiming that his book “is about the meaning of the human realities related to sex, not about the bitter objections some make to these meanings.”

Rockwell Kent -- The Lovers (1928)

As a result of this framing, many premises of his argument are left unstated or underdeveloped. It is hardly fair to object that Budziszewski wrote the kind of book he did and not another, but it is fair to say that his argument frequently lacked nuance. Budziszewski’s view of sex difference draws upon an Aristotelian conception of a universal human nature, of which each of us partakes and in which we all participate. But is this universal nature gendered, androgynous, or something else entirely? “Manhood and womanhood,” he affirms, “reflect the same human nature, and with equal fidelity and dignity, but they reflect different facets of it.” Later, however, he asserts the existence of “the universal essence, womanhood” along with “manhood.” Budziszewski firmly believes that these two essences equally participate in the universal human nature, but the language of essences suggests a distinction that almost establishes two separate species. This question becomes more pressing when we consider what it means to be made in the image of God, especially the God who is Our Father.

Although we are “jointly made in His image,” he also declares that “God is the Father from whom earthly fathers take their name.” From whom do earthly mothers take their name? Does this mean that men somehow bear the image of God more perfectly? Budziszewski would certainly say no, but whether he could do so coherently is not clear from what he has written. Nor is it clear how sex relates to the Incarnate Christ — how the maleness of Jesus matters. What would it mean to say that the male humanity assumed by God the Son was “inwardly aimed at becoming” a father? The Roman Catholic recourse to the Blessed Virgin Mary as an exemplar for women, while certainly true on its own merits, is objectionable and insufficient if our Lady is pressed into service as supplying for women what the Father and the Son provide for men.

Therein lies the book’s greatest weakness — insufficient attention to the implications of Christology for sexuality. Christ is not absent — our sexuality is a sign of “the union that the Bridegroom intends with his people, the final consummation, the Marriage that leaves nothing to be desired.” All love points to the God Who is Love, and marital love in particular signifies the “eternal burning union of Three Persons… a flashing finite glimpse of how Three might be infinitely One” (143-144). Still, the humanity taken up into the Godhead at the Incarnation seems an afterthought, a deeply problematic flaw in the overarching argument.

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As serious as the book’s insufficiencies are, Budziszewski nevertheless mostly accomplishes what he set out to do. He presents a winsome and compelling argument in defense of traditional wisdom — the kind of argument which does not so much persuade as make the reader want to be persuaded. When, in his final chapter, he reveals the Transcendent, the Divine Love to which the sign of sexuality points, the reader may indeed ache for the consummation of the Beatific Vision, for the wholeness and eternal satisfaction thereby promised. Our frail human love cries out for the divine. Union and procreation, created goods though they be, cannot satisfy the very desires they arouse. Sexual powers, differences, love, beauty, purity — all point beyond themselves to the Creator, who made us with the need for others so that we might eventually see our need for Him. It is the Designer of sexual desire who makes sense of sexuality. It is in Him that the infirmities that afflict our nature will be healed.

I suspect that all millennials have friends like mine: “liberated” from “purity culture” and enslaved to their appetites; unchaste; miserable. Their faces and their grim stories haunted my reading of Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex. These friends long for the day when they cease to feel the misery of their unchastity. I dread that day, for that is the day when all hope would seem lost. So long as they sense their misery, they know — even as they refuse to know — that they are incomplete, and no created good in this world can complete them.

Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar.