On World Sexual Health Day (September 4th), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) made a statement that reads like the gospel of modern sexual ideology. In four hundred words, it captured all the mainstream instincts about sex: identity and sexual expression, self-care and self-actualization, bodily autonomy, and freedom from having unwanted children via access to birth control and abortion; all while decrying the twin bogeymen of “stigma” and “discrimination.”
People will have different reactions when reading the UNFPA statement. Those who lean right of center and/or those who are religious may be suspicious of UNFPA’s distillation of sex down to nothing more than autonomy, consent, and pleasure. But even those who reject the assertions made by UNFPA may not be able to use simple words to defend the truth and counter them. On the other hand, liberal thinkers and perhaps most young people probably won’t be fazed by the philosophy presented in it, or at least they will be unable to discern its fallacies.
In either case, for those who want to deepen their understanding of human sexuality, it is worthwhile first to highlight what the statement gets right about human sexuality—but also to refute its errors, which can lead to devastating harm.
The UNFPA statement calls sexual health “an integral part of human health,” describing it as an essential part of “holistic well-being—physical, mental, emotional—that enables a person to fulfill their potential and enjoy life.” A perfectly reasonable statement, to be sure, and a universal one at that: surely everyone seeks to attain this level of well-being. The statement also correctly argues that sex impacts more than just our biology, and that sexuality is an important part of who we are.
Then, UNFPA speaks about “caring for ourselves and each other, and celebrating our bodies’ capacities, including the capacity for pleasure.” Again, the importance of caring for oneself and others within the context of sex is obviously a good concern. UNFPA defines “caring” as maintaining “a place of safety from which we can express ourselves, explore and connect with others,” and ensuring consent, which they explain as the right “every person has … to decide if, when and with whom to have sex.” This is certainly right: sex should provide connection and be pleasurable, safe, mutually respectful, and freely chosen.
UNFPA then links the concepts of “caring” and “consent” to bodily autonomy. Insofar as bodily autonomy means that no one can impose a sexual act on another (which is abuse), respect for bodily autonomy makes sense.
For UNFPA, these concepts—sex as integral to well-being, and the importance of caring for others, consent, and bodily autonomy—exhaust the moral significance of sex. Their statement therefore implies that sex is nothing but a physical act between two bodies. It’s a view that accords with many of our modern instincts: after all, if we should be free to determine our life’s course without judgment from others (as long as our choices maximize pleasure and don’t harm others), our sexual activities will be treated accordingly.
But can sex be distilled so simply? Is it merely another form of self-expression, akin to the clothes one chooses to wear? Can the very act that brings new life into existence be so easily isolated from its relational aspects? Most importantly, is doing so actually beneficial to our wholeness and health?
What Sex Is
In a world where people find themselves more connected yet lonelier than ever before, UNFPA’s view of sex as a merely physical, pleasurable act between two consenting individuals encourages isolation from the other, even in this most intimate of spheres. While the UNFPA statement does not expressly say that sex can be as quotidian as, say, eating an apple, it implies the validity of a view that says: “Yes, I can engage in this intimate physical act with you for my own physical pleasure and perhaps yours as well. And I can do so while emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically keeping you at arm’s length.”
It is a view that belies the reality that sex is a physical, emotional, spiritual, and metaphysical connection between two people, denying the fact that they are never more uniquely vulnerable in every way to one another than when they are engaged in sex with each other. In fact, in failing to give that vulnerability its due, especially women’s relative physical weakness (compared to the average man) and their potential for pregnancy, this view of “sexual health” not only puts both men and women at risk for spiritual and emotional harm, but also perversely puts women at unique risk for physical harm.
Sexuality, while certainly able to provide individual fulfillment, can only be fully understood when its potential for procreation is not only acknowledged, but celebrated as a good surpassing that of fleeting pleasure. The highest good of sex is its potential fruit: that is, the creation of another eternal soul. It is this very potential that elevates sex above any other activity that two people can engage in together. While two individuals can certainly collaborate to create beautiful, awe-inspiring things, even the loveliest work of art pales in comparison to the creation of an entirely new soul.
A second, yet equally important role of sex is its power to bind two human beings not only at the moment of intercourse, but also over time. “We are healthier when we know our own bodies,” says UNFPA. But the way of “knowing” they propose is shallow, centered around nothing but figuring out how to maximize a fleeting experience of pleasure for oneself—giving little (if any) credence to the intimate knowledge of the other that makes for the most satisfying sexual encounters, and which can only happen over time in committed relationships. (The word “intimacy,” after all, comes from the Latin “intimare” which means “to make known.”) Even apart from the biological mechanisms that serve to bind a couple together during sex, the reality of choosing to make a repeated, loving, vulnerable gift of the whole self from one person to another (and only with one another) cannot help but to strengthen their bond.
A third and related feature of sex is that it reflects our need for relationship. Human beings are designed to be in relationship with one another. As The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford Medicine puts it succinctly: “people have an innate (and very powerful) need to form and maintain strong, stable interpersonal relationships.” This reality is perhaps best exemplified by data that demonstrate that the most “thickly” connected among us (i.e., married mothers) are the happiest women in America. It is also why fleeting, casual sexual encounters cannot fulfill our deepest needs for strong, stable relationships with others.
UNFPA promises that its vision of sexual health “enables a person to fulfill their potential and enjoy life.” Yet clearly, true sexual fulfillment lies not in casual encounters, but in the most loving, committed sexual relationship possible: marriage, and more specifically, in marriages where there is a total gift of self, where children are welcomed responsibly and lovingly by both their mother and their father. That is the only context in which sex can be truly fulfilling—indeed the only context in which sex is ordered toward true fulfillment—even when no children result because of natural infertility.
UNFPA’s vision of sexual health rests on a thin sense of psychological well-being, completely centered on the self. It gives the world a blueprint to create a flimsy facsimile of the fulfilling (total), secure (faithful), and fruitful relationships that the faithfully married already enjoy without a global government agency telling them how to do so. UNFPA’s vision of sexual health cannot provide anyone the tools for cultivating the lasting, committed, and selfless relationships that human beings require for true health and happiness; its vision leads instead to violence and emptiness.
Sex and Contraception
UNFPA also fails to present a holistic understanding of sex in touting its “work to ensure access to contraception.” Contraception allows humans to thwart their normal, healthy procreative potential, and therefore to withhold a key piece of themselves from one another in what should be the most intimate of acts. Contraception therefore has played a role in reinforcing the idea that sex is solely for pleasure and self-fulfillment. Together, contraceptives and abortions transform sexuality into a wholly materialistic act, utterly incapable of producing the expansive vision of health that UNFPA promises; in fact, they destroy the health of contraceptive users and the lives of those who are conceived and “unwanted.”
In contrast, our research among married couples who have practiced natural family planning (NFP) found that it greatly enhanced the strength of their relationship over time. Unlike contraceptive drugs and devices, NFP doesn’t interfere with one’s spouse’s natural fertility, but works with a woman’s body and implies a shared commitment between the spouses to postpone or achieve pregnancy, either by abstaining from sex during times of fertility, or engaging in sex during times of fertility. While more challenging in some ways than using contraception, NFP leads couples to trust each other more, and to feel more strongly united—both inside and outside of the sexual act. NFP also gives couples fruitful insight into each other’s bodies, fertility, and emotions, fostering respect and empathy for one another. Compare this with the notion promoted by the UNFPA of “caring,” which is distilled down to obtaining the consent of one’s partner, and perhaps also helping them achieve physical pleasure.
Can UNFPA’s conception of sex, steeped as it is in the tenets of the Sexual Revolution, ever result in the “mutual trust and respect,” or the creation of “a place of safety from which we can express ourselves, explore and connect with others,” that it so readily promises?
Reality shows how this model fails to achieve the safety it promises, despite an enormous public health apparatus to promote safety and disseminate its supposed linchpins (condoms, contraceptives, and abortions). Despite nearly universal access to contraception and sexual education on condom use, the growth of STDs is alarming and keeps rising. The CDC reports a 45 percent increase of gonorrhea since 2016 and a 54 percent increase in syphilis cases. Despite modern technology designed to treat these diseases, new diseases like monkeypox continue to show that certain sexual acts are high-risk. At a global level, we continue to witness the growth and harms of AIDS. In short: “We’ve forgotten the harsh lessons about our bodily limits that HIV/AIDS taught us, and instead we embrace a sexual ethic of non-judgmentalism and autonomy,” as Jean C. Lloyd wrote on this website about the monkeypox crisis.
Therefore, despite the UNFPA’s emphasis on consent as a “core” part of sexual health, the organization defines the concept much too narrowly for it to provide any real safety and protection—especially for the most vulnerable. As Timothy Hsiao explained here at Public Discourse in 2015, true consent implies not only full knowledge of an act’s consequences and risks, but also knowledge of the other’s good and the will to participate within it; in other words, an understanding of the meaning and moral truth concerning sexuality. As the fallout from the sexual revolution and hook-up culture has demonstrated, anything less is harmful to the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being of both participants. It is little wonder that some feminists are beginning to disavow the ways sexual revolution has harmed us, especially women.
Unfortunately, many organizations and institutions (both private and public) are involved in turning the ideology presented by UNFPA into policy and services—including USAID, IPPF, Marie Stope International, and essentially every organization listed in FP (Family Planning) 2030’s list of “Commitment Makers.” Despite the clear damage wrought by the Sexual Revolution, these organizations doggedly attempt to make its tenets work by always refining and pushing, sometimes imposing, the healthcare funnels they create to manage population health. No matter where in the world they deploy their services next, it always starts with birth control, STD healthcare, and abortion, and eventually leads all the way to artificial reproductive health (including surrogacy). And despite what may look like good intentions to some, all of these organizations fail to realize that it will only be when sex is acknowledged as not merely a pleasing pastime, but a unifying act by which new life can be created, that it can truly be “healthy.”