What is Sex?

By Paul Fahey                                                                                        Thursday, October 17

A large reason for my writing this post is due to an ongoing court decision in my home state of Michigan where two women are suing the state because they think that our constitutional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman is wrongly discriminatory. There was the real possibility of same-sex “marriages” being legal in Michigan yesterday afternoon, but thankfully the judge postponed his decision. Please pray for Michigan and the sanity of our country.

What is sex? It’s a serious question. As a culture we are constantly thinking about sex, talking about sex, viewing sex, idolizing sex, addicted to sex, politicizing sex, and, yes, even sometimes having sex. Yet, do we ever stop to think about what sex is? What constitutes “the act of sex” and what doesn’t? At first glance this may seem like a silly question, but how we answer it has widespread personal and social implications.

According to those who worship total personal liberation (feminists, moderns, liberals – a large portion of the secular west falls under this umbrella), the act of sex is simply defined as anything that I want it to be. An article from Slate titled, Is Lesbian Sex “Real Sex”? demonstrates this belief. Beneath all of the emoting and red herrings is the premise that “penis-in-vagina” sex is merely a cultural preference and that the almighty individual can define sex as he or she pleases. We are a society that worships the will. Whenever I desire or feel that an action is “good” or “acceptable” then it simply is. My will creates reality.

However, when one actually looks at the organs involved in this most coveted of acts, a different definition emerges. Without reiterating your high-school anatomy textbook, the reproductive organs, like any other organ, are there to perform particular actions. As your heart’s function is to pump blood and your stomach’s function is to break down food, the function of your reproductive organs are to, you guessed it, reproduce human beings. From this biological perspective, “penis-in-vagina” sex is not merely a cultural preference, but a definition. The act of sex is any action which allows these organs to function in a manner that can reproduce human beings.

Not sex.

The implications of this biological definition quickly become clear. Not just any action, even if it involves the sexual organs, is actually sex. Gay sex, lesbian sex, oral sex, etc. would not qualify as actually being sex. All sex acts, to be sex acts, must respect the procreative integrity of the reproductive organs.

“But,” some might say, “sex also brings about pleasure. So why can’t we define sex as any action that achieves this kind of pleasure even if it does not allow these organs to function in a manner that can reproduce human beings ?” This question, essentially, is about divorcing one primary biological aspect of sex (procreation) from the act as a whole. To respond, let’s apply this question to a different biological action – eating. The action of eating is primarily concerned with providing one’s body with nutrients. However, eating also produces unique and lovely feelings of pleasure. What happens when a person “eats” in a manner which divorces the action from its nutritive aspect but still maintains the pleasure that comes from eating? Usually this kind of “eating” involves forcing one’s self to vomit after overindulging on tasty food. Without the nutritive aspect can we even call this action “eating”? We don’t. We call it an “eating disorder” because that is precisely what it is. When applying the same standard to sex, any act that divorces the procreative integrity of the reproductive organs from the sexual pleasure is, in fact, disordered.

Not eating.

To that, one might ask, “Do infertile couples actually have sex or are their actions disordered as well?” In other words, does an infertile couple engaging in sex respect the procreative integrity of the reproductive organs? Once again, if we apply the eating analogy, the answer is quite simple. Is throwing up from the stomach flu the same as shoving one’s fingers down one’s throat after over-indulging? The end result is the same (losing one’s lunch), but there is a clear distinction between the two actions. The same goes for the infertile couple. While the end result is the same (non-procreative sex), one act respects our bodily integrity, and the other does not.

Therefore, when talking about same-sex “marriage,” the debate is not about personal liberté or égalité. Rather, the debate is about whether the State should publicly sanction and monetarily support disordered sex or whether the State, society, and the individual have a vested interest in maintaining the biological definition of sex and discouraging disordered acts? Professor Anthony Esolen from Providence College sums it up quite nicely:

“Before we ask whether a man and a man may mate, we must notice that in fact a man and a man are incapable of mating. There has never been such a thing as a man marrying a man, and there never will be. There can only be the pretense, just as a man in drag can only pretend to be a woman. At base, there is nothing at all to debate. What is up for debate is whether we should pretend that something exists which not only does not exist but can never exist, and whether this act of make-believe will conduce to the common good—to stronger marriages, families richer in children, fewer divorces, fewer births out of wedlock, fewer abortions, a more wholesome public square, the withering of pornography, more harmony between men and women, more understanding between the generations, children who retain their innocence till the threshold of adulthood; fuller churches, men and women motivated less by pleasure than by what is good and noble; a world in which a young person would be ashamed for the shameless, and in which there need be no laws against public filth, because custom alone would more than suffice.”

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and catechist. He has a BA in Theology with minors in History, and Catholic Studies and is currently studying at the Augustine Institute for a MA in Theology.


7 thoughts on “What is Sex?

  1. It must be nice to be a cisgender man. You’re constantly being reassured by the church and modern society that your self is the best self. Also, taking your food analogy further, if we all ate for purely nutritional purposes, cookies never would have been invented. Eating the occasional chocolate chip cookie instead of a piece of celery is not the same as having a binge-purge eating disorder.

    • You are correct, that is, if eating was purely for nutritional purposes. However, that’s not what was being said. Just as procreation is a fundamental aspect of sex that one does well not to divorce from the act as a whole, so too is nutrition a fundamental aspect of eating.

      Also, cookies, for what it’s worth, do have some nutritional value.

  2. Bulimia, the eating disorder described here, still involves the person with the disorder taking in food. Eating is still accomplished by a bulimic, it is digestion that is not accomplished. Thus the analogy used here is not a very good one. While I do agree that marriage is, by the Church’s definition, exclusive to one man and one woman, I have to say that the analogy used points more towards this: if there is a sexual intent, it IS sex but without the possibility of procreation just as when a bulimic intakes food, he is still eating but without the possibility of digestion. Both can be seen as disordered. This analogy I feel, while expressing a different point, expresses the nature of gay/lesbian sex; yes, it is still sex but it is, as you said, disordered.

    • Good point, thank you. However, while maybe I was too nuanced, I believe I address your concern. I state that eating must involve nutrition in order to be defined as eating, one’s body only receives nutrition through the digestive process, thus I implicitly included the digestive process within the broader act of eating. The bulimic chews and swallows, but since his/her body does not receive any nutrition, the bulimic does not actually eat. However, this is something that I should have clarified more. Thank you.

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