The Problem with ‘Recreational’ Sex

I am grateful to the Catholic faith that has led me, often despite my hesitation, deeper into reality, when so much about us is aimed at our abstraction, our losing what slender grip we have on real things and not ideas about things, or worse, words passing for ideas about things.

Recently, I was lectured by a woman defending the right to have an abortion, because, she said, “some people like to have recreational sex,” and they should not have to worry about pregnancy and childbirth in case the synthetic hormones fail, as they often do.

I thought about that phrase, “recreational sex,” and how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable it is, this pretense that a man and woman can unite in that unique act, and have it mean no more than if they were strips of Velcro stuck together for an afternoon.

Their bodies are more honest.  They prepare themselves in countless ways we are still discovering, to beget and to bear the child that may be the fruit of that union.  But in the abstracted minds of the players, there is no child, there shall be no child, there is nothing but “recreation.”

And that is an attempt to strain the act so thin, there is hardly any blood left in it, any real humanity.

It’s nonsense.  In fact, many a thing ceases to be what it is as soon as you say it is merely recreational.  You can pray at a ballgame or a picnic.  You ought to!  But though you pray as you are surrounded by good cheer and people relaxing, your prayer itself is not recreational, nor could it be without ceasing to be prayer.  If I am playing at prayer, I am not praying.

War may make a man feel more alive than he has ever felt in peacetime, as a wise old man once admitted to me.  But you cannot have a “recreational war.”  If it is recreation, it is not war, and if it is war, it sure is not recreation.  Unless you are a callous mercenary or a moral monster, you do not go to war unless you are in earnest.

You may meet your future spouse at a gym, or on a ballfield, or hiking up a mountain, and you may enjoy the great outdoors after you are married, but you cannot have “recreational love” unless it has ceased to be love.  Love will refresh you; love will make your leisure sweet; love is beyond the workaday world.

But if what you call loving is something you do simply because it is fun, you are not really loving at all.  You give away your smiles; they are cheap enough, but you do not give your heart.

For love, as Saint Paul says, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and greater love has no man, says Jesus, than to lay down his life for his friends.


Such thoughts bring us back to the fundamental question, “What are you doing?”  That cannot be answered by stating your intentions, your motives, your feelings, or your ideas, which are often just permission slips we hand out to ourselves to keep the conscience snoring away.

Suppose Bob is setting out a dish of kitchen scraps sprinkled with warfarin.  “Here, Butch,” he calls to the neighbor dog, “come get a treat.”  Do we really want to hear what Bob hopes to accomplish?  What spurred Bob to do this?  What he is feeling inside?  What his personal theories are regarding the souls of dogs?  Would we let him say, “This is just recreation for me.  I’m getting back at my neighbor Bill.  It’s a game.  He’s got me by four points, but this will put me in the lead again.”  Wouldn’t that make it worse?

Two young people passionately in love yield to their desires, though they are not married.  What they are doing is wrong by attendant circumstances, not wrong per se: were they married, it would be a good and glorious thing.

This we understand.  There is a heart to this sin, sin though it is, and though no good can come from the sin, the two might in a confused way be aiming at the good.  But two people not in love at all, not even feeling the spur of passion, making un-love for “recreation”?  That is hard for me to understand.

One of the reasons, as I’ve suggested, is that the Church turns my eye toward what is real.  What happens when the two embrace?  What may they bring into being?  What kind of creature will that child be?  What will be his relation to time and memory?

Why is it unfit for a being that recalls, imagines, provides, and hopes, to be begotten by – recreation?  To be born without a mother and father committed to one another for life?  To be born without a stable family, extended toward other such families in the present and backward and forward into definite families in the past and the future?

What is that being in the womb?  Not disorganized, like a wart; not inert, like an acorn on the sidewalk; not inanimate, like a crystal growth; not dead or merely alive in potential; not canine or feline or anything else but human, with all the powers of man latent yet unfolding with remarkable intricacy, exactitude, and speed; a child, our brother.

How mysterious and beautiful the child is!  The Church directs my eye and my soul toward that objective beauty.

Sin parades as “realistic,” meaning that it falls back upon man’s habitual ways of being absent from reality.  But all things hidden will be brought into the light.

Some of those hidden things will have been right in front of our eyes all along.  Nor will we say to our Judge, “Had we only known!”  We will confess the truth.  “I did know, Lord, but I did not want to know.  Have mercy on my soul.”


*Image: La Surprise by Jean-Antoine Watteau, about 1718-1719 [The Getty, Los Angeles]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek’s Marital Fidelity and God’s Fidelity

+Michael Novak’s Defining Marriage Down

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.