Go into any gym and you’ll see people improving themselves. The woman on the biceps machine is building strength in that muscle, perfecting her natural attribute by practicing a range of motion against resistance that will make her stronger in every circumstance where muscle power is required. Glancing in the mirror, she notices how her hard work is paying off not only in strength but also in the beauty of a toned and fit body.
Walk into a school of music and observe the man in his forties just learning the violin. He struggles a bit with tone and pitch, and his fingers still get sore from the strings, but he wants to be able to express himself musically in the mode that the violin allows. He devotes himself to practice so that he may be not just a man learning the violin, but a violinist.
The virtue ethics of Thomas Aquinas is about this kind of process. In this approach, virtues are defined as “perfections” of our natural capacities, not just for certain types of activity but for human moral life as a whole. Aquinas follows Aristotle, who noted that we “become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” The virtues together constitute a vision of what it means to be most fully human, to manifest the virtues present “inchoatively,” Aquinas says, in our nature. We measure our growth in virtue according to an ideal that is our own personalized spin on the particular excellence for which each of us individually was created: the woman in the gym wants to be strong and beautiful as only she can be. The violinist, while he loves to listen to Itzhak Perlman, wants to express the music that dwells inchoatively in his own soul. For Aquinas, virtues are the content of human flourishing, characteristics of people who more and more fulfill God’s hopes for us in calling us into being.
What happens when we apply this very traditional mode of ethical reflection to the questions of sexual ethics? What are the perfections of our character, the virtues resident inchoatively in our natures that may be developed in the context of sexual relationships? The morality of sex has long been the focus of Christian teachings-and prohibitions. But we cannot have a correct notion of virtues without a vision of the goal for our activity-the violinist had to hear an excellent violinist before he knew what might be achieved with some wood, strings, and a bow. I propose a three-fold end or goal, a telos, that might be a starting point for a new conversation about sex. I’d also like to sketch, in a very preliminary way, a few virtues of “excellent” sex-the character ideals that may be cultivated in our most intimate relationships.
First, some definitions: “Sex” is a biological category (male or female); “sex” also refers to the panoply of human erotic acts. “Sexuality” is a much broader term having to do with how we relate to others. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of...body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.” In other words, we are intrinsically sexual beings, and our sexuality permeates our self-understanding and our relationships with others, including our relationship with God. The sexual act, then, is one expression—perhaps the most focused and intense—of sexuality. It is in that connection that questions of sex reach beyond matters of biology and technique to include the realm of feelings, meaning, and desire. This is where sex becomes morally interesting, at the level of whole persons in our lives and loves.
Part of the challenge of thinking about ethics for sex and sexuality is the breadth of sexual experience and its meanings. Sex can be an emotionless transaction or a profound experience of loving union between partners. It can be celebratory or consoling. Sex can help us develop a deeper understanding of ourselves, our partners, and God. It can be tender or violently abusive; it can heal or it can deeply wound. Sex can signify acceptance and mutuality, or it can be a competition to demonstrate prowess, or it can be a seeking for one’s own pleasure unconnected to that of our partner.
Sex is the occasion of what is arguably the greatest pleasure the flesh is heir to. Sex is also the usual way we procreate, giving life to another person whom we hope will grow to love in turn. On one hand, sex can symbolize a close relationship between people—one question people ask to learn if a couple is serious is whether they’re having sex—and on the other hand, sexual intimacy serves to deepen a relationship that already exists by opening each person to otherwise unknowable aspects of the partner. Sex helps to create what it symbolizes.
Complicating the task of considering sexual ethics is an unfortunate historical fact: far too often in Christian tradition, sex has been regarded with suspicion or fear. Sex is such a powerful force in our lives that some have regarded it as needing very strict control, lest we be run by our desires. For example, Augustine views the unruliness of the sexual appetite as paradigmatic of the disordered state of humanity after the Fall. A corollary can be found in contemporary culture, where to some degree the whole category of sin has become conflated with sex—when an advertisement for a movie or book promises “sin,” nobody expects a graphic depiction of lying, gossiping, or cheating on taxes.
Christian ethical reflection on sex has tended to focus on what makes individual sex acts morally right or wrong. This view of sex that looks at acts objectively and tends to regard anything sexual as probably sinful has resulted in a rule-focused sexual morality generally expressed as lists of don’ts: Don’t masturbate. Don’t have sex before marriage. Don’t use contraception when you have sex in marriage. Don’t have sex outside marriage. Don’t have sex with someone of your own sex. Don’t abuse others sexually. I’m not dismissing these don’ts out of hand: some don’ts are of great value, some are less valuable, and some are grounded in bad biology, bad psychology, or bad theology and should be discarded. But to limit our ethical talk of sex and sexuality to the don’ts is a theological and also a spiritual error, not unlike limiting a discussion of Christian life to talking about sin.
Like the don’ts of sex, sin is an important reality (and many of those don’ts may be understood as sinful). But the first word in Christian life is not sin, but grace, starting with the grace of being called into being and called into love by God. A focus on grace and how we respond to God’s invitation to love will include serious consideration of sin, but will go much further in the direction of excellence, and will lead us to ponder the heights of what is possible in our lives. We center our lives as Christians on Jesus’ vision of human fulfillment in the reign of God and the love by which we devote ourselves to its realization. That vision calls us forward and helps us see what requires work in our current world. To bring this approach into the realm of sexuality means that we start with the hopes we bring to sex, the ideals we wish to incarnate in our loving. So, my topic here is not the don’ts (important as they may be) but the dos, a subject that has been less well considered in the Christian tradition.
We acquire virtues the same way an athlete or violinist gains skills-by attentive and reflective practice. We grow in virtues also through reflection on the experience of others, which is where the wisdom of families, friends, religious traditions, and other strong communities becomes significant. We may rediscover the value of the don’ts in a new way—or, in some cases, we may come to realize that some of the established don’ts belong to a vision of human sexuality that has more to do with outdated taboos than with our own Christian experience.
A goal we might seek in our sex lives, I suggest, may be described in three dimensions: a feel for incarnation, an ability for intimacy, and an eye for insight. I’ll describe each of them, but they work together like a trinity—three aspects of one reality. I invite you to examine this proposal in light of your own feelings, beliefs, understandings, and experiences.
Incarnation is a central motif of Christian anthropology. We speak of Jesus as God incarnate, but the very notion that God can be fully human, like us in all things but sin, is a bold proclamation of the ineradicable goodness of human embodiment generally—not just Jesus’ incarnation, but our own. We are not spirits trapped in matter; neither are we mere matter that has stumbled into self-awareness. Rather, Christian tradition holds that we are incarnate spirit, an indivisible body-soul-spirit composite.
When we are lost in sexual passion, there’s usually not a lot of thinking going on—we are taken up in our bodiliness. Certainly pleasure is one of the obvious ends we hope for in our sex lives: there is a huge array of sexual pleasures, and pleasure by proxy, as it were, when we delight in the delight of our partner. Some Christian ethicists, notably Christine Gudorf, regard mutuality in sexual pleasure as normative for a Christian sexual ethics.
Developing a feel for incarnation includes mutual pleasure, and goes further. A sense of our incarnate selves leads us to pay attention to our overall well-being—physical, emotional, and spiritual. Some models of Christianity have emphasized a body-denying asceticism that seeks to ignore the legitimate needs of the body in an attempt to become more wholly “spiritualized.” Now, a little asceticism is a good thing, but, as Thomas Aquinas observed, “to afflict the body immoderately...is to offer a sacrifice of stolen goods.” A feel for incarnation, then, calls us to be kind to our bodies for their own sake. A feel for incarnation also means that, contrary to social messages that reduce the worth of persons to their sexual desirability, we seek in our sexual relationships to grow closer to our partner in his or her totality. We are called to love ourselves and others as incarnate persons, not just bodies and not just souls. A feel for incarnation means we understand that we are bodies but not only bodies—and that our human dignity lies in the whole human person.
If it is incomplete to value people only or even chiefly for their bodies, it is also incomplete to ignore the beauty of the human body. A normal and holy aspect of our embodied humanity emerges as sexual desire, which cannot be wrong in itself, any more than hunger for food is wrong in itself. Lust, that bugaboo of traditional sexual ethics, is a corruption of sexual desire. Aquinas defined lust as being unreasonably driven by sexual desire. While he seems to understand this to mean simply an excess of desire, I would suggest that the essence of the unreasonableness of lust, and what makes lust wrong where sexual desire itself is not, is that lust seeks only the body of the other, instead of seeking the whole person.
For Aquinas, virtue is a mean between two unreasonable vices. One vice concerning sexual pleasure is lust. The opposite vice, Aquinas tells us, is insensibility, or lack of enough desire for sex. A feel for incarnation, then, means that we appreciate the beauty in the people around us, celebrate beautiful bodies (and imperfect ones), and seek in our relationships to perceive human beauty holistically—body, soul, and spirit.
Intimacy is a central goal of sex. Like the other dimensions of excellent sex, it’s a goal because it cannot be taken for granted, and because it is something that can deepen with attentive practice. Intimacy is not a yes or no question, but a matter of depth and degree. After all, people who remain sexually and emotionally contented in very long relationships tend to say that they continue to learn new things about their partners—they keep on growing in their knowledge of the other. Here we begin to see another kind of problem with a sexual ethics centered on prohibitions. In a minimalist, list-of-don’ts ethics, so long as you meet the minimal criteria for permissible sex, all guidance ceases. But a married couple not breaking any “rules” might still struggle with a lack of intimacy and fulfillment in their sexual relationship. What guidance could their faith offer them?
What the telos of intimacy in a virtue ethics does is not so much condemn or approve particular acts as remind us to keep an eye on the whole relationship, our entire sex life, and not to settle into patterns of stasis, boredom, or lack of care that fail to keep looking for ways to improve. It’s important to note that in virtue ethics, the ideal should invite and inspire us, not condemn or depress us. We’re not buff after one day in the gym—we need to work at it with persistence and hope. Remember the dynamic character of virtue ethics—it’s not about being perfect, but about taking steps and sometimes half-steps to get there, or at least get close.
Here is also where we can see how a virtue-based approach can reframe one of the traditional don’ts of sex, sexual promiscuity. It is the connection of sex to sexuality, to self and affectivity, that is at stake. A promiscuous person may find himself or herself dividing sex from intimacy, settling for sexual satisfaction that falls short of the deeper communion that sex can offer. Since we are all called to love deeply and wisely, and since sex can be a powerful mode of interpersonal communion, divorcing sex from its capacity to unite lovers can inhibit our ability to form deep sexual bonds, especially if we’ve developed the emotional toughness that allows us to express the body’s language of care and tenderness without its emotional correlates. A person who is unable to achieve emotional intimacy may use promiscuity as a mask, substituting the physical for the deeper body-spirit-soul connection that is the aim of satisfying sexual relationships.
Seeing sex in light of its end of intimacy also is an invitation for those who have chosen celibacy to look closely at their own ability for intimacy. As John Updike put it in his final novel, “Without the sexual need to negotiate, there is little to curb neurotic crankiness.” Those who live celibacy with integrity and joy are able to be open to deep human connection and its associated virtues without availing themselves of the natural training ground for such growth—we often learn the most, and learn most intensely, about negotiating the human needs, frailties, and delights of others in the kind of relationships that tend to be or become sexual. (Parenthood is another training ground for this kind of growth in virtue.) Even deep friendship—tself a fundamental grace, and, Aristotle holds, a means of growth in virtue—stops short of the challenges and rewards of sexual intimacy. Ask anyone married happily for a long time.
Intimacy as one of the three aspects of excellent sex is related to incarnation—sex expresses a personal reality, not only a bodily one. At the same time, it calls us to an emotional and psychological openness and vulnerability that can be far more challenging than just physical sex. One of the virtues cultivated in what Christian ethicist Karen Lebacqz called “appropriate vulnerability” is trust. A person who shies away from vulnerability will never know the freedom that can come through trusting another person with our bodies, thoughts, feelings, and desires. To be accepted by another in this intimate way in turn contributes to the third dimension of excellent sex, which is an eye for insight.
Insight means more than just perception; it implies a deeper level of cognition. While an observation like “she moved out” is a matter of objective fact, the evaluation “she doesn’t love me anymore” is a deeper awareness of a fuller—and more painful—human meaning behind the observed act.
Absent insight, incarnation and intimacy alone lack a rich aspect of human self-awareness that transcends the more obvious levels of bodily and psychic/emotional intimacy. It is insight that invites us to see the echoes of our relationships beyond the immediacy of partners to include family, society as a whole, and our relationship to God. Insight allows us to come to a better understanding of how sexual relationships have played out in our lives in the past, and how we might use that experience in present and future relationships. Insight calls us to cultivate the virtue of compassion for our own mistakes and those of others, and to be committed to what sustains stronger intimate relationships. Insight reveals connections that may not have been apparent and sharpens our vision of what might be.
Insight is especially engaged when we begin to catch the echoes between our sexual lives and our spiritual lives. Christian tradition has tended to associate spirituality with sexual abstinence, but to think of sex as opposed to spiritual excellence or as inhibiting spiritual growth is inconsistent with a true understanding of our incarnate nature. Shouldn’t such resonant aspects of our humanity have something to say to each other?
Indeed they do. The mystics of Christian tradition often employ language of sexuality to describe intense experiences of prayer. When Teresa of Avila, for example, describes union with God, it sounds a lot like sexual ecstasy; Bernini’s sculpture got it just right. The use of sexual imagery in describing profound experience in prayer isn’t coincidental: in both cases people are striving to express human self-transcendence in and with another, whether that other is a sexual partner or God. In both cases, one is lost in the other and never more completely found.
Another echo: While Christian tradition has sometimes idealized impartial, impersonal love of all as the ideal of imitatio Dei, I think that it is in our closest relationships, and perhaps most of all in intimate sexual relationships, that we best imitate the way God loves us. The Song of Songs is a steamy, erotic love poem, included in the Bible because it is an apt expression of God, who loves Israel with the urgent yearning of an irresistible lover. God, after all, throws his lot in with each of us, personally, individually (and not only communally), every day, trying to accept and navigate and respond to our human strengths and weaknesses, both the trivial and profound. God risks heartbreak with each of us, the way lovers risk and dare with each other, saying, “Yes, you, personally, are the one I want to be loved by and will be hurt by if you cannot, will not, or do not love me back.” The God of Israel, the God of Jesus is a jealous God, in that God is vulnerable to us, and invites us to love God as intensely and personally as God loves us. We learn how to do that partly from our direct experiences of loving God, but we also learn that by learning how to love well in any other realm of our lives.
The list of virtues for excellent sex, of course, doesn’t end with those I’ve mentioned here. The triune end of incarnation, intimacy, and insight is sought via a panoply of virtues, ranging from patience, humility, and forgiveness to honesty, attentiveness, and playfulness. And the wonder of it all is that it is exactly in the pursuit of excellent sex that we discover the particular contours and textures of the form it will take in our own lives, just as in each generation Christians incarnate the faith anew, responding to the voice of God as we and those who’ve gone before us have discerned it. In excellent sex, we celebrate that we were created by Love, to be love, and make love, in the world.