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Keeping Quality in Sexual Experience

by Peter A. Bertocci

Dr. Bertocci is Borden Parker Bowne professor of philosophy, emeritus, at Boston University. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 8, 1976, pp. 1096-1102. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


"What Iím really looking for is a girl who will give me a beautiful sexual experience. I donít want only relief of my sexual tension." A college junior blurted out these words in a question-and-answer period after a talk I gave before a college audience. I had challenged the view that there is no longer good reason for "inhibiting" oneís sexual desires with a convenient partner. Living in the age of the pill and other dependable contraceptives, this young man assumed that people like me are still "hung up" on the old morality. I should come into the modern age, see that pregnancy and venereal disease can now be avoided, that "sex without guilt" is possible at last. But his trouble was not with the old morality. It was with partners who could not meet his standards for beauty in sex.

My 30 years of speaking on four times 30 college campuses had already taught me a lesson: to challenge the "new sexual morality" is to open oneself to the charge of being "puritanically" blind to the fun in sex. But I also have learned that many young people are eager to think about the question: How do we, as human beings, keep quality in our sexual experience?

So I asked this striking, earnest young man to tell me why he thought he was not realizing what he called "beauty" in sex. "What," I pressed, "is standing in your way if you and your consenting partners have no sexual hang-ups?" After a moment he conjectured: "Oh, it must be because they all want to be serious. But I donít see why I canít go to bed with a girl and have a really beautiful experience, even though I have no intention of taking her seriously in any other way."

"What makes you think beauty is easy to come by?" I asked. "Assuming that thereís nothing amiss about your sexual adjustment to each other and that you and your partner have a certain sexual expertise, why do you think that you, on your terms -- no commitments! -- can find what you call a beautiful sexual experience?"

I cite this interchange because it points to the direction in which the real sexual revolution must go. For, in a day when our new knowledge about contraceptives and sexual technique is supposed to pave the way to the pleasures of sex without anxiety and guilt, people are experiencing a gnawing disappointment, a new anxiety. That anxiety springs from blindness to, or neglect of, other factors in human experience that are now surfacing in questions like the one this young man was asking. In an earlier day it was assumed that young and old alike needed no "sex education" because, after all, persons would do "what comes naturally." But in our day it has been assumed that once we make it clear that sexual sensitivity is nothing to be ashamed of, once persons know how to protect each other by using proper contraceptives, once we can remove inhibiting fears of unwanted pregnancy, then there is nothing important that needs to be learned in order to find "natural" satisfaction in sexual experience.

Beyond Technology and Technique

I wish to be emphatic here: any "real revolution" must not minimize individual medical guidance as to the contraceptive least likely to endanger a personís health while protecting against pregnancy. Physiologically speaking, persons in our day can indeed be freer from fear. Of course, we do need to be concerned about the problem of venereal disease still with us and about the side effects of contraceptives. But considerations of bodily health need not keep the well-informed from reducing their sexual tension and increasing their sexual pleasure. Nevertheless, the real revolution will spring from the realization that quality in sexual experience is rooted in what we have known for ages, that persons never live by technology and technique alone. They live by meanings and values.

What I have to say is not intended for persons who are willing to settle for quantity of sexual pleasure. Persons who decide to settle for quantity may argue that like players in any game -- say, singles in tennis -- they can have a good experience with their partners without any commitment to each other beyond the game. However, I am challenging the assumption they often make: that we can or should guide our policy by sexual pleasure, by "the pause that refreshes," by a discreet catch-as-catch-can, but no other commitment.

It is time to stop being silenced by those who roar that "sex is fun," that anxiety and guilt are created only by outworn custom, and that all we really need is better technology and better technique so that we may "enjoy" each otherís bodies more. And it is time to do so in the name of those who, like our young man, are still haunted by anxieties, because they think they can continually neglect the other realities of their beings as persons.

Sex Out of Context

The basic reality I have in mind is this: there cannot be quality in the sexual experience when we try to close it off from the rest of the meanings and values that we as persons prize. Recently a college sophomore wrote: "We came as freshmen, with our pills -- some of us just in case we should want them, some of us out of principle -- to be free to experiment. Well, here I am. Iíve had my orgasms. So what?" No worry about pregnancy was bothering her; she knew the pleasure in the release of sexual tension. Nevertheless, her "So what?" is too poignant to disregard, especially in the age of the pill.

I suggest that our knowledge of technique and technology must serve our deeper wisdom: sexual experience has a way of running down when two persons are united at the pelvis only. Somehow that union, is not enough; a new vacuum is created. Perhaps by finding a different body, a new technique, one can fill the void for a while. But does this search for variety, which can become no more than a process of sampling, give a person quality?

Even well-mated partners in marriage know that if they look upon each other as "someone who can provide me with the setting I need for beauty," something goes wrong and sex becomes "routine." Oneís mate cannot be transformed into a convenient pleasure-machine, even with quiet "consent," without consequences. The recent slogan for this maladjustment is well put: persons do not want to be treated as sex objects -- and this includes males! What, then, is required if we are to reach beyond sexual pleasure as such to sexual pleasure as a sustaining and creative factor in our lives?

Part of the sexual revolution we really need is sex education -- not simply information about physiological facts that we can display on screens for persons from age three to age 70. Sex education must connect such facts to the values that persons live with and for as they become more aware of the difference between being gratified and being satisfied. It is the pursuit of meaning that makes sex a -- not the -- source of renewal as persons who care for one another find in their sexual experience a symbol of their union and mutual concern. Why neglect in the sexual area what we know to be true in other areas of our lives? We breed hostility and aggression, we undermine self-confidence, when we say to each other: "I donít want to be responsible for you, but I want you to respond to my needs. I want you to act so that my comfort and pleasure will be assured, but donít expect me to care for you beyond this transaction."

Now someone may properly ask: But suppose that two persons "consent" to sexual pleasure without entangling alliances -- whatís the harm, if they communicate at this level and take their chances? The answer will depend upon what is meant by "harm" and "communicate." And, of course, other factors in the lives of the two persons (and of others affected) need to be taken into account. But I will not be pushed into considerations of individual circumstances when what concerns me is a matter of policy aimed at keeping sex creative. I am concerned here not with patching up personalities by means of sex, but with what should determine policy, both within and outside of marriage.

But I should still, in my reply, persist that persons who have sex "just for the fun of it alone" are assuming that they will not be hurt even in their pursuit of fun when they try to rip sex away from the values that make up the sturdy fabric of human existence. In any case, whether sexual experience becomes creative or destructive depends on the context of the other values. The great seduction is to think that one can use anotherís body and emotional responses as if one were using his or her coat, a thing that can give warmth but can be laid aside as it becomes burdensome.

Can it be that we are neglecting the fact that no other human experience calls for so direct and intimate an involvement of another personís body in response to oneís own? Can we grant that another personís body (with attendant emotional response) should be -- in principle! -- used for nothing more than fun? Are we willing to grant that it is good policy for persons to condone even a "more genteel" form of prostitution -- the art of making oneís body responsive to anotherís need but nothing else?

Renewing the Sense of Unity

I can only barely convey the context of meaning and quality without which sexual expression becomes a ritual of decreasing satisfaction in the lives of persons. When one shares oneís body, when one shares anotherís, as part of the give-and-take, as symbolic of the frustrations and appreciations that both face together in all areas of life, then sexual experience becomes a way of saying what we all need to say and to hear: "I care!" In persons who care, the sexual experience is more than a series of unstructured ecstasies; it is a varied yet continual renewal of their sense of unity. The undeniable pleasure of harmonious orgasm takes on many qualitative meanings as two caring persons, in commitment to each other as persons, can share and risk. For they trust each other to each other in as many dimensions of their lives as possible.

The revolution we need is the one that we learn from the real divorces -- legal or not -- that married persons undergo. Technique and technology will not keep them from the divorce that takes place when they do not live at home with their values. Persons who live in the same house but pass by each other in their values become estranged; their sex life runs down; it becomes perfunctory because they have nothing more to say to each other.

Nothing can produce hate faster than marriage -- all the more because persons want so much with each other. It takes courage to marry, the courage to face failure in the attempt to nurture the kind of love that becomes the courage to forgive. What those who think of marriage as a trap, as an "artificial social arrangement," overlook is that the real artificiality takes place when persons seek the joys of union without the risks of marriage and of growing love.

Yes, marriage can create hate; it can break lives; but it also becomes the crucible in which sex and love remain creative as persons join to make something of their lives together. Marriage creates new love. Persons who enter wedlock are saying to each other: I want this so badly that I want you and others to hold me to my high resolve when the easy thing to do is to quit. Married persons can and do often undergo the agony of failure. But they also know the unique, creative ecstasy of union as they refuse to be parasitic upon each other, or upon others. Incidentally, many of the critics of monogamous marriage, who favor alternate modes -- "see how many marriages are on the rocks" -- fail to note how many of the alternate routes fail.

The sexual revolution we really need will be built, then, on a better sense of what happens even in marriage if sex is to remain creative. Let those who are creatively married now speak loud and clear. For they can tell us whether sex can stand still and isolated, whether it has the same quality in the tenth or 20th year of their marriage as it had in the early years. Their answer will invariably go something like this: "We were not always successful sexually, and we have had to learn much about each other from each other. Marriage has tried our very souls. Yet we have found new depths in ourselves as we move along the vast stretches of everyday and routine values on our hopeful way to broader horizons. Of course our sexual experience has had its high and low points; but we wouldnít go back from where we are now. In our commitment to love -- yes, in our courage to marry -- we have learned something about quality in living."


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