Saturday, July 07, 2012

Book Review: On the Meaning of Sex by J. Budziszewski

J. Budziszewski, author of Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law, What We Can’t Not Know, and The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction, takes on one of the most important, yet most confused issues of our culture: sex. We live in a culture in which sex is inescapably everywhere. From innuendos to full blown ads, it’s hard to not see or hear something sexual. Worst of all is the fact that more and more people seem to misunderstand the real meaning and purpose of sex as they engage in sex for mere fun or hook up overnight to forget about problems with the boyfriend/girlfriend. Is the purpose of sex merely pleasure? Or is it something else? In his powerful and timely book On the Meaning of Sex, Budziszewski explores not only the meaning of sex, but he investigates human nature, masculinity, femininity, and the ultimate transcending power of sex.

The first chapter title is taken from a discussion Budziszewski had with one of his students who remarked that “sex doesn’t have to always mean something” (Budziszewski’s emphasis 2). In other words, Budziszewski takes his student’s statement to mean that one could “separate our meaning for sex from the meaning for sex” (6). But if this is the case, then, according to Budziszewski, there cannot be any meaning to anything since we can just arbitrarily assign and separate meanings. “Language,” as Budziszewski puts it, “would be pointless” (7). Another issue is that sex is an intrinsic part of our human nature and we’re only free to the extent that we fulfill our nature. It’s not something that we can just throw away.

The opening of chapter two is filled with brief hypothetical scenarios that serve as illustrations of the effects of the sexual revolution. Some of these include the rampant increase of the amount of STD’s, broken homes, and the “hooking up” phenomenon. Despite the fact that so many people are hooking up and having “friends with benefits,” Budziszewski points out a simple, yet profound truth—namely, that “we aren’t designed for this sort of thing” (20). Both male and female pay a price when engaging in this sort of relationship. “Sex,” Budziszewski writes, “is like applying adhesive tape; promiscuity is like ripping the tape off again. If you rip it off, rip it off, rip it off, eventually the tape can’t stick anymore” (20). What promiscuity does is it goes contrary to our design; a design that runs much deeper than just biology, but spiritually, and emotionally, as Budziszewski points out.

Before he can present what he takes the meaning of sex to be from a natural law perspective, Budziszewski cites three of the most common objections. First, he notes that some would object that there aren’t really any ends or purposes intrinsic to the object. But surely, one can see that the intrinsic purpose of an eye is to see, right? The purpose of the heart is to pump blood? The author argues that if we can find out the purpose of these things, then surely we can find the purpose of sex. Secondly, Budziszewski presents the commonly raised is-ought problem. Briefly, he responds that this is false because we can see that “if the purpose of eyes is to see then eyes that see well are good eyes” (22). Thirdly, he raises the point that some object to purposes by saying that a purpose or end is something that a person ascribes to an object. However, the author clarifies that when one uses “purpose” or “end” of an object, it “signifies something is ordered or directed to an end” and that the mind merely picks up on this order (23).

Now, Budziszewski presents the shockingly simply truth about the meaning of sex. He writes,
What then are the natural meanings and purposes of the sexual powers? One is procreation—the bringing about and nurture of new life, the formation of families in which children have moms and dads. The other is union—the mutual and total self-giving and accepting of two polar, complementary selves in their entirety, soul and body. These two meanings are so tightly stitched that we can start with either one and follow the threads to the other. (24)
Budziszewski does go into detail as to what it means for something to be the purpose of something else. But why is procreation and union the purpose and not, say, pleasure? This is a question that’s commonly raised, and Budziszewski does bring it up. He uses one very powerful counterexample to demonstrate why pleasure cannot be the purpose of sex. He draws an analogy between eating and sex. Essentially, if the purpose of eating is for pleasure, and not for nutrition, then it follows that anyway of eating is good (24). He cites the ancient roman practice purging between meals as an example. One can see why pleasure will not work. The role that pleasure plays in sex is to “provide a motive for using these powers [sexual powers]” (24).

The family, more specifically the rearing of a child, is an integral and monumental part of the procreative and unitive purpose of sex, and this cannot be separated (as we see happening with same-sex marriage).

With regard to the unitive meaning of sex, Budziszewski beautifully explains:
We join ourselves by doing what? By an act which is intrinsically open to the possibility of new life. In other words, whenever I give myself sexually, I am doing something that cannot help but mean that happy chance […] Now for two persons to give themselves to each other totally is to give what they are wholly; what they are wholly includes their bodies; and into these bodies is written the potentiality to bring a third person into being. […] Mutual and totally self-giving, strong feelings of attachment, intense pleasure, and the procreation of new life are linked by human nature in a single complex of meaning and purpose. For this reason, if we try to split them apart, we split ourselves. (27-29)
He sums up the themes of the chapter by saying that (1) our sexual design must be respected and followed; (2) there is purpose and meaning to sex; (3) procreation “required marital and family life (33); and (4) there is a reciprocal relationship between the spousal bond and these other elements.

In Chapter three, “The Meaning of Sexual Differences,” Budziszewski tackles a topic that’s flung all over the place by LGBT advocates and feminists. He touches upon the core of human sexuality—masculinity and femininity. Are they equal? Are they different? If they’re different how so? Budziszewski first presents four truths, the first of which he calls the “duality of nature” (40). Simply put, the duality of nature is the thesis that manhood and womanhood both represent different sides of human nature (40). He clarifies how many people can misconstrue this notion. On the one hand, some may take this to mean that “because the sexes are different, they must be unequally valuable,” and on the other hand, some may think that “because the sexes do have equal worth, they must be exactly the same” (40).

The second truth is the “duality of path,” that is, that men and women both start from and end at different points in the development of their nature (40). This truth specifically highlights the fact that men and women are indeed different. The third truth is the “body and soul unity” (40). Here he briefly discusses the Aristotelian conception of body and soul, which is that man is made of a composite of “physical body and rational soul” (41). The last truth is that which Budziszewski calls the “polaric complementarity,” and basically this is the thesis that while men and women are indeed different, they are nonetheless a complementary pair who “completes what the other lacks, and helps bring the other into balance” (41). Denying any of these truths, Budziszewski claims, will lead to problems.

Love and sex is a big topic and so often confused in society. But Budziszewski courageously tackles it in the chapter “The Meaning of Sexual Love.” He starts off bold by claiming that love is connected with marriage because the nature of love is such that it is wedded (pardon the pun) to making promises and being committed (68). Readers will immediately think of marriage vows, and it’s precisely this that Budziszewski focuses on at the beginning. He analyzes the vows and what’s inherently involved in making such a vow. He immediately points out that love is not just a feeling. “One cannot promise to have feelings,” he writes, “one cannot even promise to have sexual feelings” (69-70).

The first part of love that Budziszewski starts with is that of charity. This, Budziszewski asserts, is at the foundation and is “not a feeling but an activity of the will,” that is, it is “something that one decides to do, and it can be promised” (71). The next level of love is erotic charity. Budziszewski lucidly explains that erotic charity is “ a mode of [the will found in charity], particularized toward a single person of the polar, complementary sex, and consummated by the joining of their bodies into one” (72). The last level, which is a mode of erotic charity, is romantic love. To illustrate the three levels so readers can get a visual representation, Budziszewski provides a diagram of three ovals. The largest oval is charity. The second oval is located inside of the first and it is erotic charity, and the last oval, romantic love, is inside the second oval.

Now, while charity and erotic charity can be willed, romantic love cannot (75). What’s even more interesting is that there’s a fourth oval that is outside to the right, next to the big nested oval. This oval is labeled enchantment, and Budziszewski notes that enchantment is the feelings that are often confused with love (76). The rest of the chapter is spent exploring these four interestingly related puzzle pieces of sexual love.

His next chapter proved to be very interesting. Here Budziszewski explored the meaning of sexual beauty. So, for example, the idea of “sexiness” and what qualifies as “sexy” and beautiful is investigated in this chapter. Sexiness, Budziszewski argues, is “an outward sign of the inward reality of the beauty of womanliness itself” (101). He pinpoints the fact that sexiness is indeed tied to the expression of human nature, i.e., a female who expresses her womanhood. Sexual beauty is an objective reality that cannot just be thrown on anything.

The following pretty much sums up the point that Budziszewski attempts to make in this chapter: “Pretty looks are suggestive of the grace of womanliness, but a pretty girl who lacks the grace of womanliness seems less and less beautiful over time, because the thing her prettiness indicates turns out not to be there. […] Womanly beauty is an entirely real thing, not just in the eye of the beholder but in the woman herself” (103).

This sort of view has been almost completely lost in today’s culture, and Budziszewski highlights this at the beginning of the chapter by commencing with a dialogue between two women who exchange compliments. One woman asks the other what she thinks the meaning of sexy is. The woman responds by saying it means attractive or desirable (91). While there is some truth to this, Budziszewski points out that it doesn’t end here. He thinks it’s a mistake to confuse the desirability as being the sexiness. He puts it this way, “On the one hand, the fact that the power to be moved by the beauty of the other sex can change into sexual appetite doesn’t show that it is the same thing as sexual appetite. On the other hand, this passive potentiality, this possibility of turning into sexual appetite, is also a real fact” (96).

Although the chapter is short (about 15 pages or so), one would benefit greatly from this discussion since it’s a topic that’s rarely addressed.

In the chapter on sexual purity, Budziszewski uses a lot of beautiful metaphors to try and explain the concept. While the metaphors are extended and are explained in detail, the main point that Budziszewski contends for in this chapter is while sex is good, it is only proper only when done with “the right person, for the right motives, in the right way, and in the right state, which is marriage” (111), and respecting these boundaries is a part of being sexually pure. To be sexually pure is to respect these boundaries and to ultimately respect the meaning of sex (136). Budziszewski advances the view that sexual purity is more than just a negative prohibition, a “thou shall not” so to speak, but is actually the pursuit of something good and beautiful (111). Sexual purity is not just something for the unmarried life, but it has ramifications for the married life as well. He correctly points out that many times the culture views sexual purity as the “thou shall not” commands and the point about virtue is entirely missed.

The final chapter is the shortest in the book, and in it Budziszewski finally wraps up is package and tidies up the bow. Somewhat similar to C.S. Lewis’s argument from desire, Budziszewski notes how sex, pleasure, and happiness seem to point to something greater, namely, something that can fully satisfy the human heart. He notes a few problems that bring this longing to light. First, he contends that we fail “human sexual love” because we’re imperfect at loving (140). This imperfect love must be measured against a perfect standard, namely—God. Furthermore, the relationship and union of the family—father, mother, and child—is a reflection of heavenly love and union. Budziszewski writes, “But what if the One God is an eternal burning union of Three Person? Is this so hard to believe? Don’t the husband, the wife, and the living love between them provide a flashing finite glimpse of how Three might be infinitely One?” (144). God, he contends, is the measure of love because God alone is love, and God alone is the only one who can satisfy man’s longing.

In a world where so much confusion about sex and marriage drowns out the screams of help coming from lost teenagers and adults who abuse the sexual powers, Budziszewski’s book is truly refreshing. He presents a clear view of sexual ethics that’s grounded in the natural law tradition. The only drawback was that the book wasn’t long enough. In other words, it would have been great to have Budziszewski expand some areas and really explore this topic deeper, and give fuller treatments of arguments and objections, but other than that this book is phenomenal since Budziszewski presents just enough to support his case.

Much of what’s said in this book will be either new to modern ears, more specifically teenagers, or it will be dismissed as outdated and religious. Because of this when some of the contentions of this book hits the ears of contemporary culture, i.e., those outside of traditional and conservative circles, reactions may range from utter shock to repugnance. But the fact that this book might cause such a reaction is actually an argument to reinforce the claims made in this book, i.e., that culture has lost what the meaning of sex is, and Budziszewski’s book presents a wonderfully engaging case to reclaim and present the natural law view of the meaning of sex.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer David Rodriguez is a student at San Diego State University and is majoring in philosophy with a minor in biology. His primary philosophical interests include ethics, philosophy of religion, epistemology and medieval philosophy. In addition to philosophy, David has a keen interest in theology and medieval history. He is currently concerned with pursuing a career in bioethics. His webpages are and Ad Dei Gloriam.


Adrian said...

"while men and women are indeed different, they are nonetheless a complementary pair who “completes what the other lacks, and helps bring the other into balance” (41)."

You...complete me :-)

Christ Follower said...

great review !

Unknown said...

Indeed, the author did a fantastic job going by his well researched arguement on what is and what is not as related to sex and sexuality. Also, I must commend the reviewer too for not missing out the valid points from each chapters of the book. This is a book I can recommend for all who seek to understand the meaning and purpose of human sexuality.

Ebenezer Akinrinade

Post a Comment

Thanks for taking the time to comment. By posting your comment you are agreeing to the comment policy.

Blog Archive