The Separation of Church and Sex

Masturbation is liberation. In light of the fact that God appears to be hidden and silent, what could be the (non-question begging) foundations for proscribing sexual behavior?

Sex seeks to hijack the mind and body to a very particular agenda (reproduction), and patriarchal religious institutions seek to hijack the mind and body to a very particular agenda as well (the perpetuation of the power structures of the patriarchal religion itself).

So when somebody masturbates, or uses the pill or a condom, or engages in same sex acts, the hijacking of the body and mind by reproduction and religion gets subverted. It is no longer reproduction or religion that are in the driver’s seat, but the mind. It governs its own body, hijacking sex and religion to purposes of its own.

This is healthy; it is in accordance with natural law (Walt Whitman’s, not Thomas Aquinas’s). Sexual liberation is mental liberation; it makes all things new.

Dance. The powers that be hate that. There’s a reason that rock music, psychedelics, dancing, and nudity accompanied the 1960s counter-culture. To shake off the shackles of the conformist mind, it is a good strategy to shake the body; to break out of the mental box of external agendas like reproduction and religious prohibition (Blake’s “mind-forged manacles”).

Imagination precedes essence. This is obviously not what theologians mean by following “natural law,” but behold, it is good. If there ever was a natural law, this is it: imagination precedes essence. Evolution has placed in humans a desire for self-determination and subversion of the given through imagination. It’s our evolutionary superpower; our eagle’s wings and claws. It’s how we’ve come to dominate the planet. We don’t do what our oppressors (natural or human) tell us to do. Our imaginations precede essence.

Sex and politics. The independent mind combined with sex can be a politically powerful tool for subverting the agendas of centralized power (think Aristophanes’ Lysistrata–women who act up are dangerous). Thus two lesbians are not just indulging in a “disordered” and private lust when they make love, but a political act–an act against patriarchy; against a historic injustice that has, for millennia, restrained the flourishing of women. They are saying no to the chains that men have placed on them.

There’s a reason, in Orwell’s 1984, that Winston Smith seeks to subvert his oppressors, not just by keeping a diary, but by pursuing a sexual affair.

And so Blake says, “One law for the lion and ox is oppression,” and, “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.”

Sexual liberation is among the fairest of joys, and the foundation for the highest natural law–the law of the free human mind and body. What is ethical and decent is to free mind and body; to leave these to the individual’s conscience, not generic religious or Thomistic “natural law” proscription.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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14 Responses to The Separation of Church and Sex

  1. Linuxgal says:

    To be honest, I’m not thinking about patriarchs when I have lesbian sex, it harshes my mellow. And I disagree that it’s my mind hijacking my body. The way I was born, the way my brain was wired, the molecules of a woman work, and the molecules of a man don’t. So it’s still my body in charge, right?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Linuxgal:

      Good point about the body being in charge. I was just thinking in terms of why the body wants to do what it wants to do in the first place. Whether it’s with regard to eating or sex, evolution made these behaviors pleasurable for supporting an agenda: survival and/or reproduction. Humans have this imaginative capacity for figuring out how to hijack the agenda away from weight gain and reproduction with, for example, things like sugar substitutes and condoms. You get the pleasure without the unwanted consequences.

      I think of homosexuality as just a variation in human sexual behavior along a continuum of sexual behaviors (from completely gay or lesbian to completely heterosexual). There’s a whole lot of behavior in between (that is not directed to making babies) over the course of a lifetime. The behaviors all evolved to bond couples, etc, but we don’t have to make babies every time we feel sexual desire. Humans can dodge the unwanted pregnancy consequences by engaging in homosexual behavior, oral sex, etc. These aren’t unnatural. We follow the body’s desires; we just avoid the consequences in terms of pregnancy. That’s what I meant by “hijacking,” but I was not sufficiently clear. : )

      • Linuxgal says:

        I agree that humans can do those things which are unnatural to them, especially when they are young, since youth is about exploring everything that life has to offer, but over the course of a lifetime not very many people deliberately override what feels natural to them to do, and the ones who do are very unhappy. We see this in many women who set aside childbirth in lieu of a career, until it’s too late.

  2. Mikels Skele says:

    Property plays an important part here as well. The control of sexual desire is an aspect of the control of reproduction, hence of the disposition of inherited property. Of course, other things, like status, can also be inherited.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “It is no longer reproduction or religion that are in the driver’s seat, but the mind. It governs its own body, hijacking sex and religion to purposes of its own.
    This is healthy; it is in accordance with natural law (Walt Whitman’s, not Thomas Aquinas’s). Sexual liberation is mental liberation; it makes all things new.”

    Hmm. So you’re saying anything the mind decides to use sex for is OK with you?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Whoa dude. Sounds like you want to perpetuate oppressive patriarchal-narrow mindedness!
    Who made you the boss of evolution?

  5. Anonymous says:

    In other words, how can you (in a non-question begging way) proscribe, say inter-generational sex on the one hand, and maintain that the mind hijacking sex for other purposes of it’s own is healthy?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I don’t think I can proscribe incest. I think I can prefer its proscription–and hope enough creatures of my species agree with me to make laws around it. But that doesn’t mean that evolutionary variation has a presumption of unnaturalness or irrationality about it if it diverts from a golden mean or average. We have to just democratically take things on a case-by-case basis, and hope for the best. I wish there was something more firm to ground morality on, but God ain’t talking. Human flourishing and empathy is what I vote for.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Please explain why you would prefer to proscribe something you just described as “among the fairest of joys, and the foundation for the highest natural law”.

    Are you a bigot?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Because I recognize that Dionysian energies, though wonderful–who would want to live absent passions, including sexual passions?–can escape the order of society on its way to other good purposes.

      This isn’t about evil competing with good, but competing goods. Sex “is among the fairest of joys.” It’s a good, and where it interferes with other goods, or is deployed to an exploitative, non-consenting, purpose (pedophilia, incest, etc.), democratic societies can and do interfere with such abuse.

      Two lesbian women making love do not interfere with other societal goods, and are enjoying their own sexual inclination. It’s only where there’s a conflict of goods that pragmatic “refereeing” comes into play.

      And there’s no obvious way to make the public and private realm harmonize in any event. These are calls grounded in competing and contingent passions. (How much time should one spend on art, masturbation, television watching, and love making as opposed to, say, working for Greenpeace?)

      You want more ground for decision-making than democratic pragmatism, but theists question beg as well. How do you know, for example, that God is moral in the first place? It’s not enough for God to exist, you’ve got to have evidence that God actually acts or desires moral outcomes of the sort you, as perhaps a Catholic, advocate.

      Is there any evidence that this is the case? I would say that both evolution (a contingent process of creation) and Auschwitz make it highly unlikely that one can have confidence in knowing what God wants and why. A God allowing or willing the Holocaust to advance some greater “good” is hard to square with a moral God. What could plausibly justify a good God letting Auschwitz happen? That would be means-ends justification (the ends justifying evil means). If you can’t answer the Auschwitz question, it’s hard to imagine that you’ve got some other aspect of God’s mind figured out–such as what God wants surrounding the use of the penis. And as Hume famously noted, no “ought” follows from any “is.”

      After Auschwitz, simply justifying a moral claim with, “God wills it,” gets one nowhere. It doesn’t ground the why any better than democratic pragmatism (“the voters will it”).

  7. Anonymous says:

    I see. While it is “the foundation for the highest natural law” certain people who exercise this basic freedom will be arrested if you have your way. It seems that you’ve changed your mind about this. Now the “highest natural law” is your opinion.

    BTW, how do you determine what is “exploitative” and why?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Anonymous:

      You’re catching me out on my use of the term “foundation,” suggesting that, for morality of any sort to make (non-question begging) sense at all, God needs to exist, God needs to be moral, and the individual must use intellect to rationally orient to the will of this moral God.

      But in my view, all three of your premises are in question after Auschwitz, so appeal to moral foundations, whether theist or atheist, is question-begging.

      I think therefore that the one thing each human has with regard to morality are inner constituencies to balance. In substitute for foundations, what we really have are constituencies (competing goods). Society, of course, also consists of balancing constituencies.

      Individuals have a sense of conscience and intuition (given to them from their tribal evolution) surrounding fairness, not stealing from other tribal members, not stealing a mate from a close relative, disgust at the thought of incest, etc. This is part of the one’s inner constituency.

      We also have reason and calculations of deferred gratification. These too are constituencies.

      What you’re asking me for is a North Star for orienting the inner city and the outer city (akin to Augustine’s City of God).

      I can only say that a combination of reason, passion, and democracy will arrive at better morality than authoritarian forms of inner and outer organization.

      And the proof is in the pudding: since the Enlightenment, democracy has brought about far, far better and moral societies (less resort to torture, war, oppression of women, etc.), than, say, Catholic Spain ever achieved (whether we’re talking about Torquemada’s or General Franco’s).

      Would you rather live in Catholic Spain under General Franco or the United States under Barack Obama?

      Sex is a constituency in one’s inner city, as are sexual constituents in the outer city (the gay community, etc.). A good governor listens to competing constituencies, keeps an open mind, and can change direction in a pinch (if a constituency is starving for attention; if the balance isn’t right).

      The North Star is human flourishing (which would include such things as not being exploited, having freedom and range of speech and motion, the enjoyment of owning property, seeking out personal meaning, etc.), and a recognition that we’re contingent beings with competing impulses to things like passion, risk, reason, privacy, excitement, and public action. One size doesn’t fit all in every instance and circumstance.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Please.
    You have written a wonderful piece extolling the virtues of individuals, hijacking evolution with their mind and subverting their oppressors.
    I am asking for a clear explanation in light of your argument how you can then condemn some forms of alternative sex (and please don’t use condemning language to describe it). What interest do you or society have with what people do in the privacy of their own homes? What other “goods” are being competed for? Please be specific because it sounds to me like you’re saying “goods” are your own personal preferences or should I say demands.

    “Individuals have a sense of conscience and intuition (given to them from their tribal evolution) surrounding fairness, not stealing from other tribal members, not stealing a mate from a close relative, disgust at the thought of incest, etc. This is part of the one’s inner constituency.”

    It sounds to me that you are the one clinging to God (just substitute “God” or “religion” for “their tribal evolution” above or “nature” for “inner constituency.) You explain that it is “natural” to hold some sexually liberated practices in disgust. That is why I ask if you are bigot.
    We better obey “tribal evolution” or it’ll get us huh? Isn’t that exactly the type of thing wrote this post in opposition to?

    I’m not asking you for any grounding of morality. Why are you foisting one on us all?

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