Book Review: On the Meaning of Sex by J. Budziszewski

Through these modern times, sexual attitudes have lessoned. The attitudes are littered with hedonism, individualistic goals, and simple activities that one does. The idea of taking sex seriously such as expressions of forming a union, procreation, saving oneself before marriage have slowly lost popularity. Indeed these latter attitudes are often seen with ridicule and disdain. Enter Budziszewski’s book where he makes a compassioned argument on why we have lost our (sexual) way and that our once sexual seriousness needs to come back, or else our virtues will be lost or forgotten. Does he succeed?

Not my image

In many ways, I can see what Budziszewski is getting at. Our culture is definitely different than it was in the middle of the last century. Budziszewski mainly blames this on the sexual revolution in the 60s. Yet, throughout the reading, I always asked myself, “so what?” So if this generation’s attitude toward sexuality is different, does it mean it’s worse? Budziszewski thinks it is, but I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why.

He starts with an example that he gives to his class when they read Brave New World where the characters have sex without any sort of consequences. Most of the students, unsurprisingly, say that there is nothing wrong with that. A student however, disagrees and states that the way that babies are made is disgusting because in the book, babies are grown and not made naturally. However, the same student still exclaims that there is nothing wrong with meaningless sex because sex doesn’t mean anything anyways. This confuses Budziszewski. I’m not sure why because it makes sense to me. Budziszewski’s confusion embarks him on a journey on how this student could suggest that sex is meaningless, yet also find babies made in factories disgusting. Thus, Budziszewski offers a suggestions: the student is actually confused. The student was disgusted because it’s wrong to separate procreation from the act of union. Thus, sex must mean something. Here, I think he’s giving himself too much credit. One can still hold on to the student’s disgust, yet find sex meaningless. How? Because one can be disgusted by the result of sex, but not the activity of sex itself. The disgust isn’t really a disgust at the separation of procreation and the act of union; rather, the disgust is at the notion that babies are made in factories. Suppose by some weird accident, procreation just became utterly impossible. We would be the last generation on earth. I think most people would find this appalling, deep despair, or utter anxiety. But disgust? I’m not so sure about that.

Throughout the rest of the book is Budziszewski’s argument that sex does mean something. I’ll be focusing on chapter two since that is where the meat of the argument is, but let’s just say that it’s filled with natural law, classical metaphysics, and Kant’s notion of freedom. Along the way are presumptions about gender norms, heteronormative familial-monogamous norms, and anything outside of these views are non-virtuous.

So then, what is the meaning of sex?  Procreation and forming a union.  These two, however, are not mutually exclusive for they are biconditionals, meaning that these two are together and must be together, otherwise there’s something unnatural about the sex act.

But wait?  What about the pleasure from the sex act?  The purpose of sex isn’t for pleasure, pleasure is the side-effect.  In the same way that eating is for nutrition, there is also the side effect from eating.

This is all fine and good, but why not just say that it can be both?  There isn’t much nutritional gain from eating dessert, drinking soda, or gorging ourselves on a Thanksgiving meal.  Why do we do it?  Mainly, for pleasure.  I would say that we are overdoing it, but to call it unnatural is going too far.  Like food, sex should also be in moderation.

So why are procreation and formation of union biconditionals?  “[P]rocreation requires an enduring partnership between two beings the man and the woman, who are different, but in ways that enable them to complete and balance each other.  Union, then, characterizes the distinctly human mode of procreation” (p. 25).  Thus starts the heteronormative basis.  Going from the other direction, by forming a union through sex, the act intrinsically opens up the possibility of new life.  But what about those who don’t want children?  Budziszewski responds that giving to each other wholly is part of the mechanism of potentially bringing a third person into being.

I’m scratching my head at this argument.  Even Aristotle would say that if you take an acorn away from soil, it can’t fulfill its potentiality, even if it is a potential oak tree.  Thus, those who take precautions to not have children (either permanently or temporarily) have ceased the potentiality.  I think Budziszewski’s response would be: “but then that’s unnatural.”  To which I would say there’s some weird question-begging going on.

The man and woman by themselves are incomplete.  Thus we have singlism and heteronormativity again here.  They need each other in order to be united.   If not, we are treating ourselves and others as tools, we substitute the form of a union for the real thing, or we break up the biconditional.

One thing that has a strange argument deals with the argument about body actions and bodily sex (call this “A”) and how they lead to feelings and attachment (call this “B”).  Budziszewski argues that body actions pertaining to sex produce feelings of union (30).  In other words, A causes B because that was part of the design.  Yet, if people complain that the relationship didn’t last, it was because people have detached A from B.  But wait, if A causes B, how is it possible for A to be detached from B?

Another argument Buziszewski claims is that spouses exist for motherhood and fatherhood.  This means no sex until procreation.  As soon as they have a child, then their (meaning of) existence has been fulfilled.  Yet, he allows sex if the couple are infertile.  I know there have been many arguments trying to show how this works, but they’re not adequate.

Next, having children changes us to be less selfish.  Children “are the necessary and natural continuation of the shock to our selfishness which is initiated by matrimony itself” (31).  But this just simply isn’t true.  Surely there are fathers who don’t care about their children, even abuse them.  The same is true with the mother.  Moreover, it’s true even if they’re both married to each other.  There is nothing necessary about it.  It would be nice, but there are instances where people stay within their selfish ways after having children.

This ends his main chapter about the meaning behind the sexual powers.  As you can gather, there’s a lot riding on this chapter and it would have been nice to make this chapter have more metaphysical umph to it.  Alas, there are more unanswered questions than Budziszewski gives.

Continuing on, Budziszewski looks at the nature of men and women, arguing that there are real, essential differences between them by basing it on empirical science.  After that, he takes on an Aristotelian/Thomistic account of the body and argues that men and women need each other because each of them have a lack that the other sex necessarily fills.  Indeed, they need each other in order to be.  Each sex has his or her own virtues that only that particular sex can have.  But I’m not so sure.  How do we know this isn’t just a reflection of our culture?  Maybe people behave this way because this is what is expected due to their culture.

So what is a man and a woman?  “[A] woman is a human being of that sex whose members are potentially mothers” (54).  Ah, a possible reply is that if she’s not a mother, then has she not fulfill her potential?  Budziszewski responds that we shouldn’t confuse potentiality with physical possibility.  If an infertile woman can’t have children, she still has that potentiality as a woman.  What?  How does she have that potentiality if she is physically incapable of having children?  If that potentiality is gone, even if it’s deemed as a loss, the logic of this entails that the loss is because she has lost part of her womanhood.  Such a tragedy if one holds onto such a view!  A man is a potential father.  Both mothers and fathers have an entelechy where they are called to fulfill their potentiality, namely to have children.  By the way, this is why women tend to choose careers that make it easier for them to have children.  The thought never occurs to Budziszewski that it’s maybe because our culture has discouraged women to embark on such lofty careers.

The next segment becomes really metaphysical.  He connects love and marriage.  How so?  It starts with charity, which “exults in the sheer existence of the other person” (70).  It is to delight in the good of the other’s existence.  A mode of this is erotic charity which is to say that it pertains to a single object.  In other words, strict monogamy.  The last thing is romantic charity (or romantic love) which is a mode of erotic charity.  Erotic charity is a promise, while romantic love is not.  Rather, romantic love is an attitude of the will.  Love is to be reborn again and seeks something beyond them.

Beauty is objective.  Sexiness is a mode of beauty.  Woman’s beauty deals with her humanity, her womanhood, and her unique personality.  Part of woman’s essence, as you recall, is the potential to be a mother.  Fulfilling one’s potential makes that thing noble and beautiful.  Therefore, becoming a mother makes one beautiful.  Doesn’t this suggest that women who don’t have children are less beautiful?  It seems that way.  Budziszewski defines sexiness where one can say to a woman: “this is a nice person to love, marry, and have children with” (99).  Thus, sexiness is just the outward appearance of what is beautiful on the inside.

To be pure, one must not fornicate nor commit adultery.  The presumption is that this means that one must avoid any action.  However, Budziszewski argues that one is actively doing something.  This is where Kant comes in where one is free by engaging in positive freedom.  One engages in not doing the act so that one can order one’s desires.  Budziszewski offers two analogies.  A castle with a garden, and a fable about a lion, horse, and man which has the same characteristics of Plato’s allegory of the man, lion, and three-headed beast.  Again, the key is one must order one’s desires.  The virtues behind this are decorum, modesty, and temperance.  Ok, but why marriage?  What about a committed relationship where the people involved aren’t married?  Through this reading, I didn’t see strong connection.  Why does marriage have the highest point on this relationship hierarchy?  Indeed, we have the pill.  Budziszewski responds by saying that the pill has made everyone worse off because it has caused more out-of-wedlock births.  But this is begging the question:  why is that bad?  If it’s because they’re not married, then we’re going in circles.

Finally, the book ends with transcendence.  What does all of this lead to?  Where is it all heading?  You can guess where it leads to: God.  “[H]uman love makes sense only in the light of divine love” (139).  This is because human love is imperfect, yet it seeks for perfection.  This is because our mortal love seeks for immortal love.  All perishable things aim for imperishable things.  But why not say that we project mortal fatherhood upward.  Because, Budziszewski replies, “it is the other way around” (143).  Sigh.  In the end, this God is pointing toward the Trinity.

So what can we say with this book?  This will resonate with those who are already within this tradition.  But for modern students, especially adolescents, this will seem outdated.  I suppose this book is helpful for those who want to take a look at the traditional view of sexual ethics.  So far, it’s much more compelling than other arguments.  It starts with a somewhat secular view, but you can see that it leads to some sort of religious end.  Would I recommend it?  Perhaps if you are curious about what traditional sexual ethics has and whether it has any merit.  It’s something to know about in order to see the vast array of what traditional sexual ethics has been.  Perhaps this ethic will still continue, or perhaps it will be a relic in the past.  Or perhaps it’s just a reflection of one’s age.


About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Children, Culture, Gender, Love, Marriage, Natural Law, Relationships, Sexuality, Values and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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