Contraception and the Trivialization of Sex

The experience of fragmentation has shaped the artistic and moral sensibility of our epoch. World Wars I and II, and all the innumerable regional wars that followed have brought to modern consciousness a searing image of a world that has been shattered and ripped to pieces. Order has yielded to disorder, continuity has been replaced by discontinuity, cosmos has given way to chaos.

The Importance of Order

We now live in the atomic age, the age of anxiety, a post-Christian world in which God is presumed to be dead. Families are uprooted, industrialized labor is piece-meal, ethics is antinomian. University educators routinely teach that meaning, religion, law, and morality have all been deconstructed.

In the words of the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Prominent psychologists speak of our “collective death wish,” while philosophers harp incessantly about the problem of alienation. And sociologists decry the rapidly diminishing number of face-to-face relationships there are within society. Pope John Paul II diagnoses the contemporary climate as a “culture of death.”

 

If we were to seek a visual image that adequately epitomizes our fragmented world, we could not find a better one than Picasso’s 1937 painting, Guernica. In this large mural, Picasso depicts, as symbolic of the depersonalizing fragmentation of the modern world, the devastating effect of Nazi blitzkrieg on this small Spanish town. What artist captures more vividly the decomposition of the 20th century world? According to one critic: “In Picasso’s pictures we feel the real pain of the world’s coming apart, layer by layer, the world’s dematerialization and decrystallization, the atomization of the world’s flesh, the rending of all the veils.”

In 1941, four years after Guernica, Pope Pius XII addressed the judges of the Roman Rota on an important moral issue. He was deeply concerned about the effect a climate of fragmentation would have on attitudes toward human sexuality. In retrospect, one would have to agree that his words were remarkably prescient:

[T]here are two tendencies to be avoided: first the one which, in examining the constituent elements of the act of generation, considers only the primary end of marriage, as though the secondary end did not exist, or were not the finis operis established by the Creator of nature himself; and secondly, the one which gives the secondary end a place of equal principality, detaching it from its essential subordination to the primary end—a view which would lead by logical necessity to deplorable consequences.

Pius XII feared the fragmentation, “layer by layer,” of human sexuality. Therefore, he denounced the divorce between the unitive aspect of sexual intercourse that united husband and wife in a profoundly personal way from the procreative end that invoked God’s creative hand. He denounced procreation without personal love because it disparaged the physical and interpersonal dimensions of sexual union that God Himself had created. He denounced sexual union that negated the possibility of procreation for a more complex reason. As he stated, he feared the “deplorable consequences” that would eventuate if the secondary end of marriage—the good of the act of intercourse for the spouses—was no longer “subordinated” to the primary end which is to honor the generative implications of the sexual act.

By subordinating the secondary end of sexual union to the primary end, Pius XII was merely restating a long and firmly-held tradition. The Code of Canon Law, in the famous Canon 1013, states: “The primary purpose of marriage is the procreation and education of children. The secondary purpose is mutual support and a remedy for concupiscence.” He was not suggesting, nor did he hold, that one end is superior or more excellent than the other, but was simply indicating that the integrity of the marital act demands an ordination of one part to the other. To reject this order is to violate the integrity of the act. This notion of order, how one thing naturally leads to another, is what the modern world has great difficulty in comprehending. In an epoch of fragmentation, contraception, which separates the two ends of the marital act from each other, seems to unlock a door of freedom. How could “deplorable consequences” spring from an act of freedom?

St. Augustine defined peace as the “tranquillity of order.” Life itself is a series of orderly steps and stages. Putting one’s life in order is a minimal condition for a meaningful life. “It belongs to the wise man to order,” as St. Thomas remarks. Breaking up the natural order of things removes each element from its web of meaning. As order is disrupted, meaning becomes eroded. Marriage and sexual union between husband and wife are a matter of such incomparable importance that one must be extremely wary of what dire consequences or altered meanings might follow upon the disruption of its natural ordinations.

In farming, the order of planting, cultivating, and harvesting is established by nature and cannot be altered. To say that planting is subordinated to harvesting is to say that the latter fulfills the purpose of the former. But it is also to say that harvesting gives meaning to planting. Can one separate the two ends of marital union without radically altering their meanings?

Preposterousness

The common usage meaning of the word “preposterous” refers to something that is contrary to nature, or absurd. Its etymology offers an important additional insight to this meaning. Derived from the Latin words prae (before) and posterius (after), it literally means putting before that which comes after. Preposterousness, then, has to do with a change in order. It is, so to speak, putting the cart before the horse, or bolting the barn door after the animals have escaped.

Preposterousness in the moral domain has a particularly important ramification. When something that should be first is placed second that which should be first is not simply demeaned by being demoted to second place, but is in danger of being either lost or rejected. Placing man ahead of God initially demeans religion, but, as history has shown, leads to a rejection of God. A person who places money above honesty will soon become dishonest. If spouses do not subordinate themselves to each other, their marriage is heading for a separation or divorce.

The great problem in placing the secondary end of sexual intercourse first is the likelihood that procreation will be demeaned initially and subsequently rejected. But, in addition to this, the meaning of lovemaking would inevitably have to be re-invented. Such re-creation would inevitably be arbitrary and therefore subject to a distorted and possibly even perverse interpretation.

The Russian existentialist Nikolai Berdyaev had some insight into this problem when he argued that “If there were no childbearing, sexual union would degenerate into debauchery.” Max Horkeimer, the founder of the Frankfurt School of critical social philosophy had a similarly bleak prediction. He prophesied that widespread contraception would destroy romantic love and turn Romeo and Juliet into a museum piece. In hindsight, one must acknowledge that these points are well taken. While many have welcomed the “freedom” that contraception offers spouses, a goodly number of them have recognized a need to restore some measure of nobility and romanticism to the sexual act. As insightful an observer of the modern world as the surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, told a Time reporter that “The only way to make love is as a sacrament.”

Contraception signals the separation of love-making from baby-making. One is left to wonder about the deeper levels of separation that may result: act from meaning, and effort from moral justification.

Man is, according to the precepts of logotherapy, as well as the Judaeo-Christian tradition, a meaning-oriented creature far more than he is a pleasure-seeker. There is no pleasure that man enjoys that he will not ascribe some meaning to it in order to elevate its significance. But the very notion of meaning implies a relationship or correspondence that goes beyond what a thing is in itself. A word has meaning because it is a sign of an intelligibility that transcends the word as such. One is not satisfied in hearing a stream of words; one wants to know what meaning they convey. The activities within a baseball game are meaningful because they are subordinated to the goal of winning. It is the prospect of winning that gives the game its ultimate meaning, otherwise no one would bother to keep score.

Paul Tillich has pointed out that while the great anxiety of antiquity was death, and the chief anxiety of the Medieval Period was condemnation, the principal anxiety of the modern era is meaninglessness. This anxiety is a direct result of the fragmentation of the modern world and the preposterousness that results when the natural order of things is reversed. Unable to bear life in a meaningless world, people are compelled to invent meanings. Unfortunately, these fabricated meanings cannot offer real sustenance for human beings. They reduce everything to the status of a game. And while games can be refreshing diversions from the seriousness of life, they cannot nourish the inner spirit that seeks an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” There is an insuppressible kernel of philosophical instinct in all of us that inclines us to search for and be in love with wisdom. In his own self-indulgent way, Alex Comfort is right. The author of the mega-selling secular Bible of sex, The Joy of Sex, holds that sex is the most important human sport. But Christopher Derrick is right in an objective way when he states that “The case against Playboy and everything similar is that one’s attention is thereby fixed not upon sex, but upon sexual unreality.”

Fragmentation and preposterousness, therefore, lead to a flight from reality and a preoccupation with fantasy. Reality, of course, being the stronger force, will always be victorious when the two collide. On the dust jacket of a best-selling book that is a panegyric to the revolutionary potential of contraception, we find these words from a mortified young husband: “I married a lovely, sexy girl—then she turned into someone’s mother.”

People will age and die, beauty will fade, and children will continue to come into the world, planned or unplanned. That is the reality. With the advent of contraception, many actually believed that it would bring about a paradise on earth. In the words of one influential feminist, contraception and its kindred technologies “could undo Adam’s and Eve’s curse both to reestablish the earthly Garden of Eden.”

The Postpill Paradise

The phrase “postpill paradise” belongs to John Updike. It made its first appearance in his novel, Couples, which vaulted to the best-seller list within three weeks of publication. The year was 1968, the same year Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae.

The phrase, of course, is used ironically. The couples who inhabit the novel are obsessed with adultery. They are free, as citizens of the postpill era, to re-invent the meaning of sex. They respond to the challenge with unfettered abandon. For some, adulterous sex is an antidote to boredom, others use it for revenge, and still others to prove that nothing is forbidden to them. They are caught in the exquisite contradiction of playing the role of libertarian hedonists while seeking the joy and meaning of life. Joy, not surprisingly, eludes them. In the book, it has only a nominal existence. It is the name of a creek located in the mythical town of Tarbox, Massachusetts. So, too, are the virtues that could direct the dramatis personae to a meaningful existence. “Charity,” “prudence,” “hope,” and “temperance,” are the names of streets.

The life of a libertine is a demanding one. When sex means anything one wants it to mean, it becomes highly unlikely that a group of married couples will find their social circle an image of concord and mutual respect. One character alludes to the dilemma when he says: “We’re a subversive cell, like in the catacombs. Only they were trying to break out of hedonism. We’re trying to break back into it. It’s not easy.”

The postpill paradise is, needless to say, a nightmare. The novel has an apocalyptic ending, demonstrating that getting what you want does not necessarily mean getting what you need. The undistracted pursuit of pleasure can be an adventure in agonizing futility.

Contracepting the natural end of sexual union and deconstructing its basic nature should leave people not with an exhilarating sense of freedom, but a disturbing sense of meaninglessness. What would the meaning of eating be in the absence of both hunger and nourishment, and the presence of mere will? Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the popular sex education “expert” enjoins people to have “good sex.” But all she means by this maxim is high-powered sexual performance. Where does this leave those who are less than sexually athletic? Love, the nature of the relationship, and its respect for God’s plan, are all neatly factored out of the equation. The performance is the thing. But is this not the ultimate trivialization of sex? If you get a good swing at a baseball late in the game when your team is down by 15 runs, is the swing of any importance? Bereft of context, drama, and meaning, is it even worth the effort? Other observers of the sex scene were not blind to the fact that what some commentators were calling “liberation,” more closely approximated “trivialization.” Accordingly, one such observer notes:

Copulation-centered thought about human sexuality seeks, in the name of liberation, to turn us into sexual virtuosos. “So and so,” we hear people say, “is good in bed.” Skill in love-making is extremely important to acquire, but when we make it an end in itself and remove the spiritual and total commitment aspects, we relegate sex to the same level as “she plays a good hand of bridge” or “he plays a good round of golf.”

The removal of all natural meaning from sexual union cues the introduction of the sex manuals. These “how-to” books are based on the assumption that if there is one thing mates do not know how to do is precisely how to mate. The Kama Sutra, The Joy of Sex, and other comparable sex-instructions books, are found in plentiful supply in most bookstores. Even when they are not advising excursions in partner-swapping, in accordance with the maxim of Updike’s “couples” that the plural of spouse is spice, they may still not be for the faint of heart. As one philosopher warns, “[These] glossy manuals would turn the bedroom into a bordello. A wife is urged to do things that would have brought a blush to the cheek of an experienced courtesan.”

The attempt to maximize sex as an end in itself leads logically to its ultimate trivialization. In the game of “trivia,” bits of knowledge are considered trivial because they are dissociated from any overriding importance. But if all the importance of sex is compressed into how well it is performed, the inevitable outcome of many people will be what psychologists refer to as “performance anxiety.” Impotence and sexual anorexia are also the byproducts of too much emphasis on performance. Sex will be joyful, rather than jaded, when it is accompanied by a rich context of natural and human meanings.

Germain Greer, who once exhorted women to revel in their sexuality, after closely scrutinizing the casualties of the contraceptive revolution, now warms her followers that sex has degenerated into a social gesture that is as trivial as a handshake. She claims that contraceptive technology, instead of liberating women, has turned them into geishas who risk health and fertility in order to be readily available for meaningless sex. Taking the pill, says Greer, is like “using a steamroller to crush a frog,” and the intrauterine device turns the womb into a “poisonous abattoir.” A teenage girl with a packet of pills in her purse and a copy of The Joy of Sex on her bookshelf is a pitiable creature, according to Greer’s new perspective.

Betty Friedan, America’s elder stateswoman of feminism, also began singing a different tune to her legion of followers in a book she wrote 18 years after The Feminine Mystique. Having witnessed the negative side of contraception’s legacy of “sexual freedom,” she used The Second Stage to preach the importance of the family, an institution toward, which, she claims, feminists had been “strangely blind.” She notes that after two decades of the woman’s movement, too many women are facing economic misery as a result of divorce and are devalued in the workplace “and sometimes even replaced by other women who got into the men’s world and sometimes took away their husbands.” The Second Stage redirects the meaning of sex to bolster the relationship between husband and wife so that they are better prepared to be good fathers and mothers. The family, she declares, “is the nutrient of our personhood.”

Humanizing Sex

“It seems obvious,” writes Dr. Wanda Poltawska, ” that the incorrect hierarchy of values grows out of the essence of contraception itself, which calls attention to sex without perceiving the integral value of the human being.” The first task of sexual morality, then, is to allow the integral value of the human being to guide us along the path of humanizing sex. This requires a great deal of spiritual insight. For the typical citizen of our contraceptive society, who only too readily reduces relations between the sexes to sexual relations, this is no small challenge.

Henrik Ibsen is Norway’s most distinguished dramatist. A man of versatility, his influence as a thinker, in some ways, matched his influence as a playwright. He once stated that “The Bible speaks of a mysterious sin for which there is not forgiveness: This great unpardonable sin is the murder of the ‘love-life’ in a human being.” Putting the question of scriptural accuracy aside, Ibsen was pointing out that a violation of the natural intimacy between love and life constitutes a most grievous transgression against the Law of God. Love that does not promote life is sterile; to produce life independent of a source of love is blasphemous.

Malcolm Muggeridge, Britain’s premier journalist of the 20th century describes a dramatic “love-life” experience he had with “the person I most loved in this world, my wife Kitty.”

Kitty was desperately ill and her attending physician gave her only an outside chance of surviving. An emergency operation was necessary. Before the operation could take place, a blood transfusion was needed because Kitty’s blood had been severely thinned as the result of a long spell with jaundice. At the very prospect that he could be the blood donor, “an incredible happiness amounting to ecstasy” surged up within her husband. His blood count was taken and found to be suitable. Husband and wife were then united through a simple glass tube with a pump in the middle, and the health-giving blood began to flow from husband to wife. “Don’t stint yourself, take all you want,” Muggeridge shouted to the doctor, as he perceived the immediate and salutary effect the girl had in restoring life to her face. It was the turning point; from that moment Kitty began to recover.

Looking back on this incident, Muggeridge writes: “At no part in our long relationship has there been a more ecstatic moment than when I thus saw my life-blood pouring into hers to revivify it.” To give life is what love is for; its denial is the antithesis of love.

The moment of greatest ecstasy in their long married life, Muggeridge is telling us, was not specifically sexual, but that moment when intimacy between love and life was not only crucial, but transparent. Would it not be ecstatic if spouses could somehow perceive God’s creation of their new child after the climactic moment of their conjugal embrace? The ecstasy Muggeridge is relating is not the result of sheer physical intensity. It results from a deep and moving experience of the reality of the other person and the inviolable relationship of love and life that binds husband and wife in oneness.

Trying to maximize sexual pleasure would rule out the possibility of ecstasy because the partners are too preoccupied with their own individual satisfactions. In his insightful critique of modern secularism, Chance or the Dance?, Thomas Howard argues that the void of meaning that plagues the modern world makes ecstasy virtually impossible. The myth sovereign in the old order, he writes, was that each thing means everything. The meaning of the sexual act, surely, was not restricted to the mere experience of the act by its performers. Accordingly, “a man went into a woman in private and uncovered her and knew ecstasy in the experience of her being.” The myth sovereign in the new order is that “nothing means anything.” In the new order, we are fragmented, isolated, abandoned, and bereft of ecstasy, despite the exponential multiplication of sex manuals and self-help books.

Sexual morality dwells in the domain of interpersonal reality. It is not concerned primarily with the intensity of a physical experience, but with its personal quality. Even a handshake that communicates the intimacy of love and life can be more ecstatic than the congress of two sexual athletes. An example might help to explain this contention:

That Transcendent Touch

At 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989, Northern California was rocked by an earthquake that registered 7.1 on the Richter scale. The general public was made instantly aware of this calamity since it was broadcast “live” for the millions of televiewers who were expecting to watch game three of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. The city of San Francisco alone suffered billions of dollars in damages; 60 buildings toppled in the Marina district; in Oakland, a mile-and-a-half of Interstate 880’s upper roadway buckled; trees writhed and twisted in a windless sky; concrete walls rippled like tissue paper; automobiles were tossed about like toys. Yet no one cold fail to recognize that the greatest loss was registered in human terms—over 70 people were killed, another 1,400 were injured.

The single most dramatic evidence of the earthquake’s destructive might was the toppling of the upper roadway on the Nimitz Freeway. Rescue workers labored around the clock to save whatever victims of the collapsed freeway might still be clinging to life. “The cars up there,” exclaimed a shaken rescue worker, “were as flat as their license plates.”

As the days passed, hopes of making further rescues began to dim. But the rescue teams worked on, hoping to find some tenacious soul who could outlast all the odds that were stacked against him. And then a riveting story was released over the wire service. A voice had been heard, originating form deep within the rubble. Guided by this sound, rescuers painstakingly cleared away what must have seemed like a lifetime’s accumulation of debris until they came to the source of the voice in a trapped automobiles. An eager worker reached into the car and grasped the hand of the passenger. The hand squeezed back!

At this point we must allow ourselves the use of a little imagination. Let us cast our trapped passenger in the role of a politician who is heading homeward along the Nimitz Freeway after shaking hands with more strangers than he cares to remember. The handshakes were mechanical, perfunctory, meaningless. He was relieved to get away from the anonymous crowd of annoying well-wishers. But that was his role—to placate his constituency. Then the unexpected happened. The collapse of the upper tier of the freeway and, quite likely, of his life. After that, the endless, anxiety-ridden wait. Jonah is the belly of the whale. A man who shook hands promiscuously was spending what may have been his final hours praying for the touch of a human hand. His prayers were answered. A handshake, the gentlest of tremors, broke into his isolation and reconnected him with human society. It was a handshake that he would set apart from all the other handshakes he would ever receive. It was not the prosaic intersection of self-interest with idle flattery that was his accustomed experience. This handshake was the spiritually charged union of love and life. There was certainly love, a reciprocal love flowing back and forth between the courageous rescuer and the hopeful victim. It was a love that abounded with meaning because it successfully served the life to which it was subordinated.

Let us return now from the realm of the imagination to the world of facts. The news report was not true. The voice that was heard did not come from a live person but from the car radio. The hand squeezed back only in the over-heated imagination of the rescuer. Nonetheless, the story, even though fictional, is still a good one, for it reveals a truth that goes deeper than facts.

The central virtue of the rescue worker, more basic than his courage, hopefulness, and heroic altruism, is his openness to life. The fact that the life he sought no longer existed does not detract a single iota from the value of this virtue. Can we preserve this moral perception as we pass from the realm of heroic rescue operations in the aftermath of an earthquake to the realm of the conjugal embrace? Can we not cherish the notion that spouses who approach each other with the same uncompromising regard for the unity of love and life are any less heroic?

We are creatures who are made for meaning. The shades of boredom quickly descend on the artificial womb that we fabricate out of comfort and security. And what is boredom but the void that results when the dyad of love and life is no longer present?

To humanize sex is to give it its fullness, both with regard to space and time. Sex involves love, life, God, and community; it also has implications of commitment, responsibility, and implications of permanence. Contraception prevents sex from being everything it can and should be. But it also devalues what it excludes, making the process of restoring the integrity of sexual union most difficult. The danger, therefore, perdures, that sexual union will be perceived as trivial in its essence. Advocates of contraception initially wanted to improve love-making between spouses. That early optimism is nearly moribund at present, we need to recover something of that optimism, but restore sexual union to its proper human quality, not through technology, but through respecting the values that are inherent in sexuality’s immanent and transcendent reality.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor of philosophy at the University of St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, Ontario.

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholics United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

MENU