Lust, Language, and the Un-Level Playing Field

I suggested in a previous column ( “Robot Sex”) that contraception has changed the way people think about sex. Instead of a conjugal union between a man and woman open to new life, the word “sex” now often signifies any sort of sexual stimulation, even self-stimulation. Using this new parlance, you can, for example, say you had “virtual sex” with a “virtual woman.” Speaking this way, however, bends the language beyond recognition; it makes no more sense than saying I used my virtual hammer to drive a virtual nail. Try getting a job as a carpenter with that on your resume. 

When a person using a “virtual” hammer on “virtual” nails insists he is “building a house,” then he and an actual carpenter won’t be using the same language anymore. They won’t, for example, be able to sit down and share stories about “building things” the way, say, two carpenters, one who builds houses and another who builds furniture, will. The latter two understand two different sorts of “building”; the computer guy understands only a pale simulacrum of the actual thing. 

So too with what many people today consider to be “sex.” It’s merely an odd simulacrum of actual, full-bodied sex. I swing my little toy hammer, and I call it “hammering.” Is it? A real carpenter would say, “Get yourself some nails, kid, and then start building something.  That’s hammering.” Hammering, for a real carpenter, isn’t an end unto itself; it’s a means to some other end: to making something, like a house or a table. In a similar way, you can imagine an adult who’s had real sex, upon listening to the descriptions of what young people today often call sex – that sterile, contraceptive activity – saying: “That’s not sex, any more than play hammering is hammering. Use some actual nails, kid, and make something!”  

Modern people say odd things like: “What? Children? Why would they be involved in sex?” But that’s a little like saying: “What? Nails? Building something? Why would those be involved in hammering?” The actual carpenter could only scratch his head: “What are they teaching kids these days?”

I teach theology, and the questions I get asked most often have to do with Church teachings on sex. One often hears the criticism that the Catholic Church is “obsessed” with sex to the detriment of its other moral teachings. I teach social justice, and I would love to be asked about the Church’s teachings on private property and the universal destination of the earth’s resources. But students don’t. 

The Church isn’t obsessed with sex – it has a vast and rich moral tradition that covers everything from politics to the powers of the soul. It’s Americans who are obsessed. Indeed, “sex ed” is the only class any of my students have been given to prepare them for adulthood. There are no classes on “marital ed,” or how to finance a house, or get insurance. Naturally, the only thing my students think adults think about is sex: how to do it, when to do, and why can’t they do it when and where and with whom they want to do it.

           Bratz dolls: marketed to  “over-8s”

Most of the students (and plenty of adults for that matter) who ask me about the Church’s teaching aren’t exactly looking for moral guidance; they usually want to know how the Church can teach the crazy things she teaches. Not about the Trinity or the Incarnation or the Sacraments, of course – in such matters, people are permitted to believe in any crazy thing they want, whether it’s angels, Hindu gods, or UFOs. 

No, my questioners want to know how we Catholics can hold such outrageous ideas about abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage, and about these things they are much less tolerant of what they consider to be aberrant views. Tell people you believe in the plant god Vege-Nu, and you’re fine. Inform them calmly you think contraception isn’t helpful to a marriage, and you’ll be thought a dangerous lunatic in need of confinement and medical care.

When I’m asked such questions, I’m not exactly operating on a level playing field. On the opposing team, we have the big “front four” running interference: the constant spur of adolescent passion; constant media bombardment with images of easy-going, uncommitted sex;  the never-ending, relentless force of peer pressure; and a cultural environment that finds any and all expression of “moral” boundaries “uncool” and “unacceptable. And on the other side, me, with about four or five minutes before the attention wanders. And I’m supposed to keep these kids from scoring? 

Let’s be clear what we’re up against here: a well-funded intellectual and corporate juggernaut dedicated to making billions selling things to our children by detaching them from the boundaries and limits that families and wisdom traditions have traditionally imparted, so that they can goad their passions into uncontrolled bouts of purchasing life-style items that these young people are convinced will give them a certain sense of belonging within the largely “rootless” and “homeless” culture in which they currently reside.

If parents want teachers to be able to compete against the forces that threaten the welfare of their children, they’re going to have to level that playing field a bit. There’s very little chance of the Church getting even the most basic sort of hearing from adolescents who have never been required to curb their passions, have little or no experience of the real joys of civilized “adult” companionship, and whose minds and passions have been systematically skewed in favor of certain powerful, intellectual, and corporate interests insisting that, in the end, it all comes down to this:  People want what they want; why shouldn’t they have it?

Next time I’ll suggest why this is not the right question to ask, and why it’s a mistake to try to answer it.                      


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.