The Spirit of Lust

image for vicesPart 2 in our Friday series on the vices.

The Greeks had a myth of the blind prophet Tiresias, who had been both man and woman, and so knew what sex was like from both perspectives. The point they were making is that we don’t know what sexuality is like for the opposite gender.

We should notice that when it comes to sex, it would almost make sense to use two different words for the two different roles. Man and woman do entirely different things with entirely different organs, stimulating entirely different chemical responses (issuing from organs that the other sex doesn’t even possess).

A friend who was recently married told me the best advice he got was just that sex is nothing like what you expect. The reason is that, in heterosexual relationships, the other person just plain isn’t like you, and so doesn’t respond the way you would expect. In most respects, we are both human – but when it comes to sex, we are like two different species.

Deep down in the spirit of lust is precisely the expectation that a person who is fundamentally different from us ought to respond the way we want them to respond. How self-absorbed! How irrational! How strange that we should be so foolish.

On one level, sex really is the same for man and woman. At the most basic biological level, sex is for the perpetuation of the species through procreation. That doesn’t mean every act should conceive a baby; it doesn’t mean there isn’t an awful lot more to human relationships, and especially marriage. It just means that we should realize: gosh, there really isn’t any sense to this particularly bizarre biological conjugation except that it gets our gametes together.

St. Thomas Aquinas notes an important, very practical consequence of this. On the biological level – and gee, what is more biological than sex! – sex is a complete waste of energy for the individual, but a necessity for the species. In other words, its entire purpose is social.

In fact, says St. Thomas, that explains why the sex drive is so darned strong: precisely because, unlike eating and sleeping, there isn’t any selfish reason for us to engage in this act.  Nature has to give us a big push in the back to make sure the species doesn’t die out. That push appears to have been strong enough. . . . Strong enough, ironically, that many people do it for nothing but pleasure – just like pigs.

That goes too, of course, for the bonding associated with sex. Human babies don’t thrive without a mama and a papa. Thus it’s built into both man and woman, on the most natural level, to stick together with the person we mate with. This caveman stuff, as if men just want to inseminate and run, is nonsense: a man’s DNA isn’t even passed on if he doesn’t make sure his baby survives to adulthood. In fact, bonding is so built into our sexuality that mating can also be used just to bond.

A consequence of that is that we should realize: every remotely sexual act – even a look that arouses desire – is naturally designed to make us bond with the other person. We weren’t made for casual sex. It doesn’t make biological sense for a species like us.

That’s a lot of biology. A couple words on spirituality. First, notice how irrational we are about this. Lust, all the great spiritual writers agree, is not the most important problem in the spiritual life. But it is a very good indicator of the Fall. We are not as strong as we think we are. Let lust – and for some people, its reverse image, which is the inability to summon desire when appropriate – just remind us of our desperate need for God’s grace. How foolish we are! We are not as strong as we think we are.

Second, a word on virginity. The propagation of the species is a very fine thing, with all the nobility of human parenthood. A very noble thing. And yet there are higher things.

The spirit of virginity is the spirit of living for more. Living to love God above all things – but living, too, for human relationships that transcend the propagation of the species.

That’s a spirit that married people need to live, too. Ironically, to give ourselves totally to our vocations, we must not let ourselves be swallowed up by our sexuality. We must all carry within us the spirit of virginity.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.