The Sexual Revolution, fueled by hormonal contraception, has basically turned the Judeo-Christian understanding of sexual responsibility on its head. As Pope Paul VI had noted in his encyclical letter, Humanae vitae, by “freeing” the conjugal act from its connection to pregnancy, contraception separates the act from any implication of a long-term commitment. This move changes the way we think about responsibility in the arena of human sexuality, not just a little bit, but fundamentally.
In making this claim, I’m not pretending that the world was a place of Edenic purity in the time before the Pill and that only once the Pill appeared on the scene did sexual sin cross anyone’s mind. Everyone knows that’s false. But, in the past, recreational sex carried real and significant social risks, and people knew what they were, and the fact that there were a variety of barrier methods available for use before the time of the Pill didn’t change this fact very much.
Barrier methods were clumsy and clinical, and tended to interject themselves in an unwelcome way into the spontaneous event of the sexual encounter. So-called coitus interruptus was inherently unreliable and, additionally, seriously counter-instinctual. In the Judeo-Christian West, moreover, abortion, even at the time hormonal contraception was coming into the cultural mainstream, was still seen, generally (and correctly), as a grave evil, and its association with Nazi-sympathizing eugenicists like Margaret Sanger hadn’t yet been conveniently forgotten. So, before a really convenient and reliable form of contraception became available, casual sex meant that one took the risk of having to make a commitment after all, because sex between a man and a woman, if you do it enough times, tends to lead to children.
The pill meant, then, that it was finally possible to sever this necessary connection between sex and commitment. “Responsible” sex now meant contraceptive sex rather than marital sex. Recognizing that condoms, however unsatisfying they were, still remained the only method of reducing the spread of disease between those who entertain a plurality of sexual partners, the phrase “unprotected sex” gradually insinuated itself into our social vocabulary. It meant approaching sex without the aid of those technologies that could provide some reasonable assurance that the act, once enjoyed, could be left behind, no strings attached and with no undesirable consequences.
The phrase “unprotected sex” thus represents a brazen abomination from the perspective of any conscientious Christian or Jew because it reveals the inner diabolical logic of the Sexual Revolution. The phrase “unprotected sex” implies that “protected sex” is morally normative—the baseline condition—and that we’re acting irresponsibly when we negate that condition. From this perspective, contraception is seen as something therapeutic, which alone can finally make sex what it was always meant to be.
But in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the sexual encounter between a man and a woman is just about the last interpersonal event in which we ought to seek protection. The whole dynamism of the act involves relishing in mutual vulnerability. A careful phenomenological analysis justifies this claim. The sexual act involves providing another person access to our most delicate body parts, allowing the other to approach and to touch as we trust that, in this radically unguarded state assumed in the presence of this particular person, no harm will come to us. This is especially true for women. A woman in a sexual encounter with a man literally opens herself to his approach, allowing him to enter into her body, and in doing so, provided the act is permitted to proceed according to nature, receives him so completely as potentially to bear a child by him, altering her life forever.
This is what Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II) meant when he spoke about the “nuptial language of the body” in male-female complementarity. The sexual act is a statement made in this language, and, in the hypothetical context of absolute purity, we could say that it would suffice to constitute a vow. In the fallen world, as we can plainly see, human beings often lie or distort the truth, which makes publicly spoken words, offered in a moment of sobriety before witnesses, a necessary guarantor of honesty in the recognition of a marital promise, but even so, the sexual act itself means, in the nuptial language of the body, what the marital vows mean in the language of the mind.
The insinuation, once again, that sex is somehow correct when vulnerability is diminished flies in the face of what’s phenomenologically given in human experience. But even worse, it flies in the face of the biblical view of the humanity.
In the Garden narrative (Genesis 2:4–3:24), we encounter two variants on the word for naked in Hebrew. Prior to sin, according to the Masoretic text of the Old Testament, the man and the woman experience a form of nakedness in which they could approach one another in complete trust and openness, hiding nothing and reserving no part of themselves from the other (Genesis 2:25). This form of nakedness is indicated by the use of the word, arummim ( עֲרוּמִּ֔ים). After the fall, however, when they come to see reality through the Serpent’s eyes, they see one another differently from the way they’d seen each other before. They put fig leaves on as loincloths, to cover one another with a barrier against visual and physical access, and they hide among the trees of the garden (Genesis 3:7–8). When God approaches them after their sin, the man distances himself from both the woman and God, saying, “the woman, whom you put here with me, she gave me the fruit that I ate from the tree” (3:12). The nakedness they experience in this moment appears as the first consequence and the indisputable evidence of their turn away from God and one another in sin (3:11), but it was different from the nakedness they’d known before. It was the kind of nakedness from which one needs to be protected (Genesis 3:7, 10-11): the nakedness, for example, of a rape victim, indicated by the use of the word errummim ( עֵֽירֻמִּ֖ם).
The conjugal act between a man and a woman when entered upon according to the biblical norm bespeaks commitment and a pledge of fidelity. It represents, therefore, an invitation to vulnerability and a desire to surrender oneself to the other in absolute trust, with the promise never to withdraw what’s being given then and there. In this radical and dramatic mutual self-offering, there’s no room for “protection.” We’re being called back to the garden in that moment, to the safety of purity, where we can be naked (arummim) with one another without shame or fear of regret (cf. Genesis 2:25).
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