It’s clear that we now face a problem, but where do we go from here? Is there any way to adjudicate between these wildly divergent ends for which sex can
be used? On what basis can we judge what constitutes a proper, or improper, use of sexuality? For this we must delve into the very nature
of sexuality and see if we can’t determine what role sexuality plays in a human life.
However, we must first note an important distinction: sexual activity belongs to the broader category of Eroticism. Eroticism is the genus subsuming all actions that cause erotic pleasure. I use the term erotic pleasure not to be tautological, but to differentiate this kind of pleasure from other kinds such as gustatory pleasure or intellectual pleasure; a distinction that is elaborated below. Eroticism has a number of different aspects, including: erotic aesthetics, erotic stimulation, and erotic fantasy. Eroticism subsumes actions as diverse as masturbation (auto-eroticism), erotic dreaming, cunnilingus, and sexual intercourse. What then is the connection between eroticism and sexuality? Sexuality, as its name suggests, is differentiated from eroticism because it involves members of the opposite sex. Sexuality is a species of eroticism: while all sexuality is erotic, not all eroticism is sexual.
In light of this new distinction we shall have to rethink our original question, as it seems that we now have two questions: we now have to ask about the purposes of both sexuality and eroticism. Let us begin, then, with the broader category of eroticism and then once we have discovered its purpose, we can refine our inquiry and discover the purpose of sexuality.
Let us begin with the central concept of eroticism: erotic pleasure. To understand erotic pleasure, it’s best to begin by noting that eroticism has been colloquially called sexuality throughout history. Erotic pleasure arises through genital pleasure or the anticipation of genital pleasure, where by genitals I mean the penis, vagina, anus, and breasts. Erotic pleasure can come from any other part of the body as well, but only insofar as the action causes the anticipation of genital pleasure.
The lack of terminological precision between sexuality and eroticism has led to a number of confusions, such as the classification of auto-eroticism (masturbation) as a sexual activity, when it is necessarily a solo activity. Furthermore, as we shall see, this lack of precision has led to the attack of homosexuality as an “improper” use of sexuality. This, of course, is a ridiculous claim because homosexuality is not sexual at all, although it can clearly be erotic.
The primary concern of erotic aesthetics is a healthy (i.e., well-functioning) body and its erotic potential. While erotic stimulation involves the physical pleasure of these erotic bodies, erotic aesthetics involves the pleasure that results from their contemplation. Erotic pleasure also comes from looking at people qua erotic bodies, or insofar as their bodies have the capacity for erotic pleasure. For it is clear that the capacity for pleasure in a well-formed body is far greater than the capacity of a corpulent body, especially with regard to the aesthetic enjoyment. The control of one’s body that comes from athletic exercise, in any of its myriad forms, gives rise to a much greater capacity for pleasure both through greater bodily control – giving one a wider range of erotic activities – and through increased muscular tone, which increases one’s physical sensation of erotic pleasure. Thus having a well-formed body is doubly beneficial with respect to eroticism.
Erotic fantasy takes both erotic aesthetics and erotic stimulation into the realm of imagination. Instead of being concerned with actual stimulation, it is concerned with possible stimulation. Instead of being concerned with the contemplation and enjoyment of physical beauty, it is concerned with the contemplation and enjoyment of imagined beauty. Erotic fantasy is limited only by one’s capacity for imagination and one’s preferences; it is a world that knows no other limits.
Eroticism plays a large role in a natural human life: it is, quite literally, part of who we are. We are erotic, and sexual, beings. Our bodies are adapted for this: eroticism is a natural and fundamental human need. A life without eroticism would be an impoverished life. But, eroticism is not something that everyone can do equally well. One’s erotic potential depends on one’s body. Eroticism is, furthermore, a way for us to celebrate our bodies.
Our current culture operates on the erroneous assumption that there is some sort of mystical split between our “true selves” and our bodies. But the fact is that we are beings of unity; there is no schism between our minds and our bodies. While this supposed schism has allowed our minds to be glorified, and rightly so, it has led to the denigration of our bodies. Eroticism gives us a proper way to celebrate our bodies through the pleasure they give us. It is vitally important that we appreciate the values in our lives and eroticism is, par excellence, the way to appreciate our bodies.
Now that we know that the purpose of eroticism is to celebrate our bodies, it is time for us to turn to our initial question: what is the purpose of sex? Unlike eroticism, sexuality is not about bodily pleasure; at least, not solely. As we’ve already seen, sexuality is differentiated from eroticism by being between two people of the opposite sex. Now, if this distinction is to be more than merely semantic, we must find its cause. This cause, if it is to be distinctive of sexuality, can only lie in the interplay of men and women. Thus, we need to analyze men and women qua sexual. We need to analyze masculinity and femininity.
Masculinity and femininity are concepts that relate to the fundamental metaphysical difference between men and women; they are concepts that have their origin in basic human physiology. Yet masculinity and femininity are much more than a simple difference of genitals: while being male or female is sine qua non to be masculine or feminine respectively, it is not sufficient. There is something else needed for masculinity and femininity, something which only arises in certain circumstances. However, before we can undertake the direct analysis of masculinity and femininity, we must understand both their physiological origin and their origin in human nature.
It is a metaphysically given fact that all humans are naturally either male or female; to be otherwise it to be a damaged case. At the risk of being painfully obvious, we must begin our physiological investigation by noting that males have penises and females have vaginas and that sexual intercourse is when a penis is inserted into a vagina. At this point one of the two participants must take an active role and cause the penis to penetrate into and out of the vagina. It is important to note here that no matter which partner is the active partner, the male is always in the penetrative role and the female is always in the receptive role. Yet, however important physiology is for our analysis, we must look to human nature if we are to understand masculinity and femininity.
Human nature is a vast subject, but we don’t need to understand all of human nature in order to analyze masculinity and femininity. The first, and primary, thing we need to note is that people naturally desire perfection. Now perfection is a term that is almost always used incorrectly: although its connotations are well known, its denotation is not. Perfection is simply being complete and without flaw with respect to its state of existence. So, for example, a perfect game of bowling is 300 of 300 points, not 195 or 315, and those 300 points were all scored following the rules. In the biological realm, to say that an X is perfect is to say that X is a complete and full member of its kind without defect. So an acorn is not perfect until it is a full-grown, mature Oak, but not one blighted by disease. A kitten is not perfect until it is a full grown, mature and healthy cat. Perfection does not mean that an individual exactly conforms to some mystical archetype or platonic form! This type of flaw or defect is judged in terms of the fundamental nature of the thing. For example, the fundamental nature of a sphere is its distinctive round shape, so a flawed sphere would be one that was not completely round. For a human, then, since our fundamental nature is that of a rational animal, a flaw could be either in terms of our animality or rationality. Human perfection involves both one’s body and mind. There are many factors that contribute to human perfection, but here we are going to focus on just one of these: sexual union.
All humans have a natural desire for the company of other people; yet, no one desires company qua company, but rather insofar as the other party is good and the interaction is beneficial. Indeed, a human life lived without any human interaction would be impoverished; such a life would be bereft of the pleasure of interaction and the opportunity for development that comes from interacting with good people. Worse, though, is the fact that a human cannot independently achieve complete happiness. This point necessitates justification, but for brevity’s sake, I must say only that no matter how psychologically healthy, no matter how successful, and no matter how intelligent, a person who was alone would always feel this aloneness and his happiness would be incomplete because of it.
The paradigm of the reciprocal beneficial relationship is friendship; but, this must be limited to the class of friends who truly desire good for each other and not those that are merely using their friends for their own pleasure or to accomplish their own ends. Beyond friendship lies romantic relationships, which are essentially the best kind of friendship combined with passion, greater intimacy, and eroticism. Either a true friend or a lover can meet one’s need for companionship, although there is a level of connectedness that can only be achieved with a sexual lover and it is this connectedness that we need in order to be perfectly happy.
A sexual relationship provides more than companionship: it provides a level of intimacy beyond friendship and erotic relationships, because it is unique in that provides an avenue for unification. How does it do this? Why sexual relationships and not friendships or erotic relationships? In a proper sexual relationship, you have a man and a woman who love each other, who trust each other, and who are committed to each other. When these lovers engage in sexual activities, the man’s masculinity actualizes itself in response to the woman’s femininity, and vice versa. It is both the presence of the other lover and what kind of person they are that allows this actualization; their loving relationship creates the bedrock upon which the union built through their sexuality will rest. Being in a loving relationship is necessary to achieve the level of openness required for unity, but in order to achieve this kind of openness, the lovers must truly want to become unified.
Once all these conditions have been met, sexual intercourse goes from being just intensely pleasurable to a divine experience of all that you hold dear and a union with your lover who represents your values and who is your highest value. Sex becomes unifying for you and your lover; for a brief ecstatic moment in time, you become one. Thus, sex lets us celebrate our lives in a way that is not otherwise possible; it lets us celebrate our achievements, our values, our bodies, and our lovers – all in a moment of perfect ecstasy.
Finally, we can answer our original question: what is the purpose of sex? The celebration, not just of one’s body, but of a good life.