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Love and...
Marriage and the meaning of sex

December 23, 2003
by Jennifer Roback Morse

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has opined that "government creates marriage." Therefore, government can recreate marriage, if it so chooses, or if the Supreme Court orders the other branches of government to do so. But surely, even the Massachusetts high court would not be so bold as to claim that government invents sex. And the meaning of human sexuality is really at the heart of the conflict over the judicial attempt to recreate marriage in its own image.


So, what is the meaning of human sexuality anyhow? Sexual activity has two natural, organic purposes: procreation and spousal unity. Babies are the most basic and natural consequences of sexual activity. "Spousal unity" means simply that sex builds attachments between husband and wife.

Spousal unity is the feature of human sexuality that makes it distinct from purely animal sexuality. As far as I know, humans are the only animals that copulate face to face. Shakespeare described the sexual act as "making the two-backed beast." Both the Hebrew and the Christian Bible describe the sexual act as uniting the spouses in the most literal sense: "the two become one flesh." Two people become, if only for a short while, one flesh. Evolutionary psychology observes the survival value to spousal cooperation. Males and females who attach themselves to each other, have a better chance of seeing their offspring survive long enough to produce grandchildren. Science can now tell us how the hormones released during sex help to create emotional bonds between the partners.

Both of these organic purposes, procreation and spousal unity, have something in common: They build up the community of the family. Procreation literally builds the community by adding new members to the family. Spousal unity builds up the community of the family because it contributes to the stability of the marriage relationship.

But for many people in modern America, sex has little or nothing to do with building community of any kind. Sex is a purely private matter, in the narrowest sense of private. Sex is a recreational activity, and a consumer good. My consumption of this good, my enjoyment of this activity, is a completely private matter that should be viewed analogously with other goods and activities.

Many people celebrate the uncoupling of sexual activity from both of its natural functions, procreation and spousal unity. But by doing so, we have capsized the whole natural order of sexuality. Instead of being an engine of sociability and community building, sex has become a consumer good. Instead of being something that draws us out of ourselves and into relationship with others, our sexual activity focuses us inward, on ourselves and our own desires. A sexual partner is not a person to whom I am irrevocably connected by bonds of love. Rather, the sexual partner has become an object that satisfies me more or less well.


This difference in worldview is at the heart of the culture wars. One side believes the meaning of human sexuality is primarily individual. Sex is a private activity whose purpose is individual pleasure and satisfaction. The alternative view is that sex is primarily a social activity. Sex builds up community, starting with the spousal relationship and adding on from there.

A significant subset of heterosexuals share with homosexuals a common view of the meaning of human sexuality. Some heterosexuals believe they are entitled to unlimited sexual activity without pregnancy. (Pregnancy introduces an obvious third party into the sexual activity. The argument for sex as a completely private activity goes out the window when a baby appears.) Some homosexuals, particularly the professional activists, find it incomprehensible that sexual activity could be anybody's business but the two parties involved. So these activists can make common cause with heterosexuals who hold these views.

It is hard to understand the political alliances without seeing this. For instance, the average homosexual has no personal interest in the availability of either contraception or abortion. Avoiding pregnancy is not a particularly urgent matter for those who engage exclusively in homosexual sex. While there are some pro-life homosexuals, the vast majority of politically active gays and lesbians are deeply committed to the pro-choice position.

Seeing this difference in worldview also helps understand why it isn't unusual for people to become more conservative when they become parents. They might move from the lifestyle Left, like Harry Stein, (author of How I Joined the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy and found Inner Peace) or from the Libertarian Right, as I did. Whatever their political past might have been, many new parents become aware that very personal, very private actions have significant spillover effects to other people. Babies draw us out of ourselves in a new way.

The family creates a social sphere beyond the reach of either politics or economics. But this social space is almost completely hidden from us, even though it is literally right under our noses. Sexual activity and childrearing take place inside the private spaces of the home, far outside the reach of the public-enforcement power of the state. Therefore, the preferred political policies of the Left can't work very well in this sphere. Nor can contracts, the favorite tool of the Right, fully cover the necessary ground, either to regulate behavior inside the family or to define the family. Sexuality and the family are not simply special cases of political institutions, or of markets based on contracts.

The world view issue also helps us to see why so many heterosexuals have trouble articulating their discomfort with gay marriage: Straight people have already given away the store on the crucial issue of what sex is all about. Unilateral divorce has transformed marriage from a life-long covenant to contract renegotiated on a case-by-case basis. When gay people want to add on their claim that same-sex marriage is just as good as any other, straight people don't even have a vocabulary with which to respond. (How many gay people would be demanding marriage on terms that included fault-based divorce?)

Likewise, when gay people demand access to marriage in the name of equality, straight people are tongue-tied, because we have already redefined the social context of marriage in the name of equality for women. But equality is a political concept. Rights and entitlements are the vocabulary of politics. By contrast, human sexuality is about gift and gratitude: the mutual gift of self to one's partner, the gift of life that results, and the gratitude tinged with awe that is the only reasonable response to both. Using political concepts, such as equality or freedom, to describe marriage obscures this crucial connection between sex and gift.

We are going to have trouble understanding marriage, much less defending it, until we reopen this question of what human sexuality is all about. Is human sexuality an engine of sociability that calls us out of our self-centeredness? Or is it one more arena for the exercise of our self-centeredness? And if it is the latter, are there any automatic correction mechanisms that check our excesses the way market competition directs our self-interest into socially responsible channels?

We can construct, deconstruct and reconstruct our sexuality any way we want: it is our privilege as thinking creatures. However, human sexuality has a specific nature, regardless of what we believe or say about it. We are more likely to be satisfied with the outcome, if we work with our biology rather than against it. We will be happier if we face reality on its own terms.

The law of marriage is not the only social structure that creates the context for socially acceptable sexual behavior. But the law does play a key part. This is why it is utterly reasonable for the law of marriage to take into account the natural purposes of human sexuality. And it is utterly unreasonable for the law to treat all sexual unions as though they were equivalent.

Jennifer Roback Morse is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. She is the author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work.

This column first appeared in National Review Online. Used by permission of the author.

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