Sex Gone Wrong

On the dualism of degrading desire.

In the latest issue of The Atlantic we learn that the world of online pornography reveals eternal truths about men and women. These aren’t happy truths, and the needlessly prurient article makes them all the more miserable.

“Sexual aggression and the desire to debase women … are not, perhaps alas, deviant,” writes Natasha Vargas-Cooper in the article, “for sex can be a bitter, crushing experience [for women]. No matter how much power you think you have.”

According to Vargas-Cooper, sex-positive feminist hopes of women “inhabiting the sexual arena the way a man does” were “an intellectual swindle.” Male desire “is not a malleable entity” controllable through boundaries or education; male desire is “an often dark force streaked with aggression.” Consequently, the ubiquity of pornography does not create “brute male desire … not at all free of violent, even cruel, urges,” but merely reveals and normalizes “ancient male desire” for “emotionless, rapacious sex.” Sexual equality “cannot be achieved” given the “aggressive, hostile, and humiliating components of male sexual arousal.”

Male aggression cannot be eradicated, she claims, as it isn’t even deviant, and barely containable by “strenuously enforced norms” which are quickly disappearing given “moral nihilism” and “aversion to cultural authority” in contemporary life. Consequently, the author resigns herself to the “most frightening truths” facing women, for since the “most brutalizing aspects of sex are not physical” women are condemned to “intangible yet indelible wounds created in the psyche.”

For the moment, grant Vargas-Cooper her claim that male sexuality frequently or even intrinsically entails elements of power and subjugation—another article in the same issue of The Atlantic, “The Hazards of Duke,” gives ample reason to think so. Further, let’s grant her hard-headed realism about the “utopian pretensions” of sex-positive feminism—sex is dangerous business for women. If we grant those points, then it would seem that the ongoing brutalization of women is simply normal—male sexuality is naturally aggressive and hostile to women, no program of social engineering can alter this fact, and those social strictures which could provide some minimal containment of this hostility have vanished. If she’s correct, then we must steel ourselves to helplessly witness the ongoing, callous, normalized sexual brutalization of women.

I am unwilling to accept this.

My unwillingness to accept brutalization arises from adherence to the traditional understanding of sexuality and its rejection of body-self dualism. The correct linking of body to soul—to personhood—might just point the way beyond the hopelessness of Vargas-Cooper’s description. Since the normalized brutalization of women is unacceptable, this relief is worth seeking.

The article hints as much in its brief discussion of the relation between body and psyche. Pornography “actively conceals” even as it reveals, Vargas-Cooper says, since the images and performances of pornography always cover over the “common but annihilating emotions” of desperation and loneliness. While we cannot directly observe personal harms, actions of the body affect the person, as Vargas-Cooper correctly indicates, perhaps somewhat inchoately.

She rejects politically correct attempts to socially engineer kinder males as a “swindle” because in her view the “typical male psyche” is always based on “power and subjugation.” But she misses the real mistake behind such efforts, even though she hinted at the importance of the body. Any attempt to change male consciousness assumes the same division between body and personhood that underlies and is reinforced by the kind of sexual brutalization she deplores.

Humans are animals. We are bodies, not as an “extrinsic instrument” but as an “essential and intrinsic aspect of a human person,” as Patrick Lee and Robert P. George write in Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics. If the body is considered sub-personal, as an instrument of the person rather than an aspect of the person, it would seem to follow that sexual acts have significance only insofar as they impinge on consciousness, involve intention, or are granted meaning by the person, and if, as programs of education hope, we change intentions we thus would change the meaning of the act. If, however, the body is itself personal, so too are bodily sexual acts personal, with meaning revealed in the physical act and not merely in the intention—changing consciousness would not necessarily change the act.

Certainly the conscious and intelligent intentions of a moral agent are relevant to a sexual act, but the meaning and morality of sex is not reducible to consciousness without casting aside the personal meaning of the body and its acts, thus instrumentalizing the body and creating the conditions for self-alienation.

Whatever the conscious intention, all non-marital sexual acts involve self-alienation (the treating of one’s own body as mere instrument rather than as personal) or the use of another as an instrument, and thereby degrade one’s own personhood and/or the personhood of another. Since the body is an aspect of personhood, non-marital sexual acts of the body are intrinsically depersonalizing, and since it is wrong to treat a person as mere means and not also as end, non-marital sexual acts are wrong.

This is not to say that all sexual acts between married persons avoid alienation or instrumentalization of the body, for not all sexual acts even between married persons are marital acts. In the traditional view, marriage is a union of spouses actualized and renewed by sex acts of the reproductive type—that is, genital to genital intercourse of man and woman—and is actualized only through genital to genital unity of the reproductive kind.

The marital act is a personal bodily act which is in keeping with the integration of the whole person (for it does not in an act of self-alienation treat one aspect of the person as sub-personal), and in keeping with the integration of the one-flesh union which is marriage. One-flesh union is possible only with the comprehensive giving of one to the other and the mutual receipt of the other’s self-same gift, although comprehensive giving, so says the tradition, is possible only in the marital act which does not instrumentalize either spouse.

Sexual desire is incredibly powerful and volatile, capable of bringing great joy or enormous harm. Not only does the institution of marriage serve to regulate and order sexual dynamism into the stability of the household, but it allows for the integration of sexuality into a whole life, into a life incorporating the comprehensive union of spouses—body, mind, emotions, finances, work, religion, children, aspirations, fears, and loves. But while the institution itself brings about personal and social goods of order, there is no guarantee that the institution of marriage per se avoids sexual alienation or degradation of spouses. Indeed, Vargas-Cooper notes that the ubiquity of violent pornography allows “suburban dads” a “far easier time broaching subjects once considered off-putting,” with their wives.

If we are to take seriously the sexual degradation of women, and if the rather hopeless scenario outlined by Vargas-Cooper is to be addressed, then the situation demands a rather honest assessment of our current disorder. Male sexuality can indeed be aggressive and demeaning, but this simply cannot be fully addressed by altering the consciousness of men but only by altering their acts. Even if their consciousness could be altered, something Vargas-Cooper doubts, all non-marital sexual acts involve profound alienation and demeaning of the sexual partners, whatever their intention happens to be.

Overcoming the normalized brutalization of women requires a faithful recovery of the traditional understanding of the marital act, for that understanding forbids those acts which alienate and use the body, consciously or not, and allows only those acts in which women and men give themselves to each other in integrated and comprehensive ways. One might even say that the tradition teaches how to make love rather than merely to attain a degraded and brutalizing pleasure.

And that seems worth pursuing, for women as well as men.

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