On Taking Sex Seriously

Photo by Flickr user Stew Dean

For a long time, the argument about the supposedly sexually repressive nature of Catholicism went like this: Sex is a powerful, beautiful, and deeply important part of human life; to ask us to deny our sexual impulses is to ask us to deny a transformative part of human experience. It’s a critique at work in some of the most important literature of the last century: it’s in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and in D.H. Lawrence’s oeuvre. It was what “Make love not war” meant when it was still possible to say such things without irony; a time when “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” was understood as tied to meaningful—even transcendent—experiences and before all three were rendered innocuous, and utterly free of intrinsic meaning, by that little adjective “recreational.”

In recent years, however, the critique has shifted. It says, in short, “What’s the big deal?” I recall reading the combox of a Catholic blog a year ago and, while I no longer remember either the blog or the post, I remember coming upon a comment that went something like this: “The problem is that you Catholics take sex so seriously.* It’s just not that huge of a thing.” The comment unsettled me, but it’s taken me some time to figure out why. In an unexpected turn of events, the Church is suddenly the D.H. Lawrence of the world. That is to say, it’s one of the last places you can find where sex is still understood as a potent and transformative part of being a human being.**

In his biography of St. Francis, G.K. Chesterton diagnosed what he saw as the dangers of his own age:

The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago. […] We know what sort of sentimental associations are called up to us by the phrase “a garden”; and how we think mostly of the memory of melancholy and innocent romances, or quite as often of some gracious maiden lady or kindly old parson pottering under a yew hedge, perhaps in sight of a village spire. Then, let any one who knows a little Latin poetry recall suddenly what would once have stood in place of the sun-dial or the fountain, obscene and monstrous in the sun; and of what sort was the god of their gardens.

Chesterton’s horror at the worship of sex in an ancient society which arranged even its garden landscapes around the potency of a phallus seems downright quaint now—not because we’re now “enlightened” enough to know that such explicitness is not “obscene and monstrous,” but because the Greeks and Romans still found sex, found somethingworthy of worship. Temple prostitution may—and should—strike the Christian as perverse, but one can’t help but say “But at least they had temples.” Even if sex, as Chesterton puts it, became a “tyrant” and crowded out anything else, at least its tyranny was still understood as “sacred.”

What we have now is something much darker than what Chesterton shuddered at: it’s not that we worship sex but that we’ve lost an understanding of what it even means to worship. That is to say, we’ve lost an understanding of what it would mean to consider anything—even our own desires—as something that transcends us, as something beyond a mere possession of the self. To worship is to recognize that there’s something beyond your self worth acknowledging. For the ancients to place a phallus in the middle of their gardens was, in quite a literal way, to take something that appears to be a possession of the self and to put it outside the self, to make it (again literally) larger than the self.

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Of Saints, Madmen, and Louis C.K.


I find the current cover of Rolling Stone difficult to look at. Louis C.K. just looks so damn vulnerable. Of course, he’s more or less built his whole career on that vulnerability. What makes his standup—and his FX series Louie—so compelling is his willingness to put on display, totally and fully and unabashedly, everything about ourselves that we generally want to run away from. He’s spoken frankly, obscenely—and hilariously, IMHO—about getting old, having kids, owning up to white privilege, and recognizing that we’ve all developed an increasingly vacuous relationship to the world.

In the Rolling Stone interview, he admits that “I don’t have a relationship with my dad, which is a bit uncomfortable.” On one episode of Louie, he jumps on a speedboat just to avoid standing up to his “dad.” He says the episode was in part about his strained relationship with his father, about “me making fun of my own not dealing with it.” Comedy, at least in Louis C.K.’s vein, is ultimately about an owning up to those things that we usually can’t bring ourselves to look at. But there’s something about the honesty that is, in itself, a breath of fresh air. It’s as though real beauty can exist only after we’ve exorcised all the shiny bullshit masquerading as beauty and taken a look at the whole unvarnished truth of our world. Towards the end of the discussion, the interviewer notes: “You do have that way of making life seem simultaneously beautiful and amazing and really ugly and horrible. Is that how you see the world?” He responds: “Yeah, I try to observe and report, and the more purely and without editorial I can do that, the better, especially on the show. Then what comes out, if you just show everything, all sides, is that everything is sad and happy and hilarious and depressing.”

Comedians love to talk about things that make us uncomfortable in our daily lives—sex, death, racism, violence. Why do we laugh? Freud suggests that, because jokes often invoke situations where we would need to repress feelings of desire or aggression, the conversion of these situations into “non-serious” scenarios causes us to laugh with relief in order to dispatch with the energy that we would normally need to repress our feelings.  The joke is a safe space for libidinal energy. I’m inclined to broaden this idea a bit to suggest that we laugh because we’re allowed, for a moment, to be free of all the effort we normally expend to look away from reality instead of seeing it as what it truly is. Coming face-to-face with the thing we fear—the truth—a certain weight is lifted off our shoulders because it is finally here, in front of us, and we can’t run anymore. Of course, laughter can also be a way of protecting ourselves from the full force of the truth; as we sometimes say when confronted with the absurdly awful, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

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