Thou Shalt: Sex beyond the List of Don'ts

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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 ltzhak 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. 1 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. …