Buffered and porous sexuality

Buffered and porous sexuality

There is no easy way to talk about what I’m about to mention, even anonymous I’m trying to be light on the personal details of the issue. Yet recently I’ve been challenged by my view of sex as one that is arguably sub-Christian. I think my view is one that many Christians in and in a way many outside the Church share, to the Churches shame. That is one in which we have essentially sundered the link between sex and new life. Procreation has become an opt-in measure, not the natural by-product of sex and this is as much a change of the mind as a change in our bodies and practices.

For years I realised that I had come to view sex as something in and of itself to no absolute end. I held marriage as the natural and right place for such a thing but sex within that was about shared union and mutual enjoyment, not life. Biologically I knew what was meant to take place, but I was also aware of the barriers we had put in place to stop biology taking its natural course. The reason deep down was economic and arguably selfish. We told ourselves we could not afford children and wanted to pursue careers and lifestyles that were not possible as parents. We did not want the responsibility.

When we changed our mind on this my idea of sex changed too. It became scary, to be honest, it became something potent and powerful in a way which was bigger than either of us that was beyond our control. The idea of choosing this responsibility also seemed somewhat inane and cheaper than the idea of just embracing the fact that sex for many people in history was always like this. I realised, to use Charles Taylor’s terms that sex is an inherently ‘porous’ act and we had been living with a ‘buffered’ imitation of such things. That is not to denigrate ‘buffered’ sexuality but really to explain that ‘porous’ sexuality seemed so much more powerful. It changed you physically but it changed you in coming to terms, climbing and overcoming that mountain that parenthood presents. To choose it, to bottle it and put it on the shelf for a rainy day seems artificial and manufactured, not authentic in the same way.

We are emotionally invested in the choices we make, and we make them for our own reasons. Our autonomy is really important to us in today’s age and it is something taken from us with pregnancy. It follows its own course for good or bad and you cannot help but worry your way through it because it is in many ways out of your hands and totally in God’s. We are unwillingly dragged into becoming porous people for a time as life grows outside and yet within us. We are so desperate to bring a measure of control and agency over the whole experience but you realise in some ways pregnancy, like life, isn’t about you ultimately. You are a passenger as much as the child in a way. The fate of all of you on that journey is still, even today, uncertain. I feel uncomfortable writing about this, mainly because I am a man, sex doesn’t affect me in the same way as a woman. At a personal and a societal level I realised the opportunities a buffered sexuality has afforded women in the developed world. Yet I am not a eunuch and I live in a society that has been shaped by this sexuality. In many ways, this society is safer, tamer, freer but it is also made of plastic rather than earth. Mary Eberstadt in her book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’ places the decline in faith in line with the decline in the family. Having a family is expensive both in time and money today, people in my generation don’t have stable jobs, especially in London. Relationships are less stable too. Yet we have just enough disposable income to distract and entertain ourselves. You could even argue that as a society now are more promiscuous that pragmatically people increasingly see marriage as a bridge too far in terms of finding an avenue to gratify their sexual desires. This buffering of the self and the tumultuous environment we find ourselves in arguably don’t lend themselves to faith. This is arguably cultural as well as religious decline. Our culture is not sustainable if we need to import the children of other nations because we cannot meet the needs of our own society. To replace the generations that are now unborn because of our lifestyle choices. We should not be surprised if they look at our culture and see it as impotent. Maybe this is too strong,

At a personal and a societal level I realised the opportunities a buffered sexuality has afforded women in the developed world. Yet I am not a eunuch and I live in a society that has been shaped by this sexuality. In many ways, this society is safer, tamer, freer but it is also made of plastic rather than earth. Mary Eberstadt in her book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’ places the decline in faith in line with the decline in the family. Having a family is expensive both in time and money today, people in my generation don’t have stable jobs, especially in London. Relationships are less stable too. Yet we have just enough disposable income to distract and entertain ourselves. You could even argue that as a society now are more promiscuous that pragmatically people increasingly see marriage as a bridge too far in terms of finding an avenue to gratify their sexual desires. This buffering of the self and the tumultuous environment we find ourselves in arguably don’t lend themselves to faith. This is arguably cultural as well as religious decline. Our culture is not sustainable if we need to import the children of other nations because we cannot meet the needs of our own society. To replace the working generations that are now unborn because of our lifestyle choices. We should not be surprised if they look at our culture and see it as impotent. Maybe this is too strong, maybe not.

At a personal and a societal level I realised the opportunities a buffered sexuality has afforded women in the developed world. Yet I am not a eunuch and I live in a society that has been shaped by this sexuality. In many ways, this society is safer, tamer, freer but it is also made of plastic rather than earth. Mary Eberstadt in her book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’ places the decline in faith in line with the decline in the family. Having a family is expensive both in time and money today, people in my generation don’t have stable jobs, especially in London. Relationships are less stable too. Yet we have just enough disposable income to distract and entertain ourselves in small ways. You could even argue that as a society now are more promiscuous that pragmatically people increasingly see marriage as a bridge too far in terms of finding an avenue to gratify their sexual desires. Even the church is loosening its sexual mores in the face of this. This buffering of the self and the tumultuous environment we find ourselves in arguably don’t lend themselves to faith. Faith isn’t the only thing that suffers from this but our culture too. Our culture is not sustainable if we need to import the children of other nations because we cannot meet the needs of our own society. That we need to replace the generational gaps in the labour market that lie unborn because of our lifestyle choices. We should not be surprised if the new arrivals look at our culture and see it as impotent.

As a Protestant, I realise now maybe I sound more Catholic on this matter but I think they are right in this and we have simply no voice of any conviction on this. Yet I think, to be honest, this is the downside of having churches localised to a particular nation, culture or time. The ever-quotable G.K Chesterton once said that tradition is the democracy of the dead that refuses to be overthrown by those who happen to be living (paraphrased). Yet people say that something like 80% of Catholics use contraception in the West and I completely understand why. At the same time, however, I increasingly think that they are wrong to do so. Despite all the struggle and challenges, it might present to us. We want our lives to be safe, we want to be in control but that isn’t life as intended. Maybe this is naive but I’m wondering if the accepted societal wisdom isn’t right on this. I understand choice, I understand autonomy, but I also understand that this might be idolatry.

The basis of society

The basis of society

For a long time I thought of myself, or rather the individual, as the basis of society. Like pixels on a screen make an image individuals en masse make a society. I didn’t really think the church had a great deal to say on this matter, to my mind it was something so basic that it went unchallenged. God made the Man alone in the beginning and we all ultimately live and die alone before God. Yet whilst God did make the Man alone, this wasn’t good, it only became so when out of his side God made Woman.

It is in the dynamics that emerge between husband and wife that I am now beginning to believe form the basis of society. It is the first point in which the interior world of the individual moves beyond itself and engages with the interior world of another at its most comprehensive degree. The world of ideas becomes incarnated in the physical interactions of a husband and wife, more so, it is the most basic unit that is self-perpetuating. The presence of children ensures this society continues and the means by which they are raised communicate what is collectively held of value and importance. In fact the catechism of the Catholic church describes the family as.

The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honour God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.

Catechism of the Catholic Church #2207

An individual in their interactions with others may form something approximating society yet it is not self-sustaining. Nor does it hold the special intimacy found between husband and wife, parent and child. If we boiled everything back and some tragedy struck England it is the family through which everything begins again. What the parents pass on to their children defines the shape of the subsequent society.

Looking at the issue from another perspective, we have the individual and we have contemporary society-at-large, a family of families. The individual alone, something only possible more recently, is subject to the values and expectations of the society they find themselves in. The family is the most basic institution where the individual might flourish and work out there own vision of the world, to create their own culture. As a result the family can be the foundation of resistance, it stands between the individual and overbearing external authorities. It creates space for new culture to emerge. Just as it is the most basic unit of society, a healthy family enriches even the largest society. To lose the family is a loss of the bedrock of individual liberty. Other institutions; formal societies, guilds, religious institutions, unions, orders, organisations and corporations do this too but none in quite such a foundational way as the family. The extent to which these groups facilitate the family or oppose it collectively determines the ultimate flourishing of the individual in any given society. Likewise these things can lead to the flourishing of the family and help unite separate families together to form the bonds that make increasingly large scale societies successful. This is why the assault on these institutions, ultimately all rooted in the family, is the hallmark of authoritarians who seek to impose their own will upon a mass of individuals.

When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale

G.K Chesterton, Heretics

On the subject of the individual, Charles Taylor in his work A Secular Age highlights the shift in where we find meaning as integral to the rise of the individual as a form of ‘buffered self’. Prior to secularisation we found meaning inherent in the world around us but the secular mind places it as something generated within the mind. With the shift in posture from an communal self to a individualist self it follows that our association with any institution or external influence is progressively questioned and negotiated. Does this now mean that society is found in the mind of the individual? So if the family was once the basis of society, has it now become the individual? Can the basis shift?

Yet for the buffered self, if meaning is generated within the mind, can one mind reach out and genuinely touch another? Or is it simply giving itself the impression that such a thing is occurring? For the buffered self its a subject always open to debate, a lingering doubt. Could such a private mind be driven to create a sustainable society? Its more reasonable that the buffered self can inherit a society, rather than found one. Yet even then its inherent doubt will over time contribute to the renegotiation of public institutions to the point in which they cease to exist in any ‘meaningful’ sense. Even the language used in such a setting becomes increasingly contentious as people can no longer agree over the very meaning of words. During such times a society either eventually becomes possessed by more robust visions of society or it becomes increasingly authoritarian in an effort to maintain current social arrangements. Something I think we are seeing in the West.

Considerations of the individual aside it does nothing to address the inherent creative nature of the family. The individual will expire, family will not but instead changes over time, children becoming parents who give rise to their own children. The individuals can transmit beliefs but if they have no vision for the family it cannot be considered sustainable.

The individual is often put forward for the basis of society as opposed to that of the family. However I would contend that the individual is most enabled when emerging from the context of the family. As a result the healthy society is only guaranteed by, among other things, the promotion of the family as its most basic constituent unit. From this individuals are taught a vision of the world and find, in the words of the catechism above ‘initiation into life in society’. That life might take the form of meaningful work and participation in organisations that reach across families as necessary and form nations. Yet we should never forget it all started with the union of a husband and wife.