“ The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.“
– Genesis 2:23-25
““I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit. Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.“
– 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Sexuality most broadly understood is the experience of the reproductive capacity internally and interpersonally. There are many dimensions to this including the biological, the psychological, the interpersonal, and the spiritual. The biological dimension stems from the universal principal among living organisms that reproduction is necessary for the continuation of species. Notably, reproduction can occur either sexually or asexually, with more complex organisms including humans reproducing sexually. Sexual reproduction has numerous advantages over asexual reproduction, including genetic diversity that allows a specie to adapt better to the changing environment, such as new diseases and predators. Sexual reproduction also necessitates social interactions, which in many species have become highly complex. The end result of sexual reproduction is the birth of a new offspring that is a union of the genetic material from the male and the female parents, which in many species is cared for by one or both of the parents for a period of time. The biological imperative to reproduce has resulted in many inborn traits that foster the procreation of the next generations. The sexual drive is one of the most powerful impulses in all species, which impels organisms to seek out and mate. Species such as the male praying mantis and salmon literally give their lives in obeying their internal reproductive drive. Sex, however, serves more purposes than simply reproduction in many species. For instances, in several primate species, sex, including homosexual behavior, is used to create social bonds and to promote peace, as well as seemingly just for mutual pleasure. Furthermore, sex is also used individually for pleasure, as masturbation is frequently observed in many species including primate species.
The pattern observed in the animal kingdom is amply displayed in human sexuality as well. The sexual drive is one of the prime internal drives, as recognized by theorists such as Sigmund Freud. The desire to find a sexual mate takes up a significant amount of our time and energy, and the sensual pleasures derived from sexual experiences are some of the most intense known to man. The reproductive aspect of sex was viewed as particularly important in agrarian societies where large numbers of offspring were necessary for their work capacity, as well as for defense and continuation of the family estate. Although the modern Western society increasingly views offspring as liabilities rather than assets, the underlying drive to engage in sexual behavior, which is encoded into our genes, remains undiminished. Sex has increasingly been viewed as a tool of social bonding and personal pleasure divorced from the reproductive capacity, as exemplified in the sexual revolution of the last century and the current dialogue on homosexual relationships. A study among college students showed that people generally have four motivations for sexual activity, including physical attraction, as a means to an end, to increase emotional connection, and to alleviate insecurity. In addition to sex with a partner, masturbation is nearly universal with one study reporting 95% of men having masturbated in their lifetime, and it is often joked that the remaining men lied about not masturbating. While masturbation was at one time viewed as unhealthy, the medical community currently views masturbation as a healthy expression of one’s sexuality that reduces stress, improves mood, reduces blood pressure, and decreases prostate cancer risk, among other benefits, and these health benefits also apply to sex with a partner. Compulsive masturbation, however, is a type of addiction that can have detrimental health effects.
Much of human sexuality is driven by biochemical factors that promote and reward sexual behavior, with testosterone produced in the testes, progesterone and estrogen produced in the ovaries, and oxytocin, prolactin, FSH, and LH produced in the hypothalamus. The sexual response cycle is an exquisite balance of biochemical factors that allows for sexual excitation, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. For instance, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated to dilate the blood vessels in the penis to allow for an erection, while the sympathetic nervous system is activated to expel semen from the penis in orgasm. The inherent sexual energy in a person does not require association with an external source to become manifest. For males, erections occur every evening during REM sleep cycles, which is most often noticed as morning erections, and it has been theorized that the regular involuntary erections keep the vasculature and penile tissue healthy. Nocturnal emissions of semen can also occur which has the function of clearing the reproductive system of unused reproductive materials. Oxytocin has been noted to be a particularly significant hormone released during sexual activity. It is called the “love hormone” because it fosters a sense of trust and attachment with those in one’s proximity at the time of hormone release. There is an evolutionary benefit to such a response since the pair bonding encouraged by this hormone during sexual activity is likely to result in a lasting bond between the pair, which improves the environment in which the offspring will be raised. Oxytocin is also released in large amounts during childbirth, which promotes uterine contraction but also encourages bonding between the mother and the infant. Hence, the sense of love and bonding that occurs during sexual activity is in significant respects due to biochemical factors, revealing us to be biological beings who do not have complete mastery over our emotions and attachments.
The level of biological involvement in human sexuality is unsurprising from the biblical perspective. One of the mandates God gave to all of His creation at the beginning of time was for life to expand through reproduction. This mandate is literally encoded into our genes, as the instinct to reproduce is universal from the most simple life organisms to the pinnacle of God’s creation, namely human beings. The expression of this mandate is most aptly stated in Genesis 2:23-25, where it is noted that a man leaves his parents and unites with his wife to become “one flesh”. This is figuratively true in sexual intercourse in which a man and a woman become physically joined through the insertion of the penis in the vagina and is literally true in the offspring being the actual union of the genetic material from each parent. I find it to be interesting that these verses suggest a reason for the sexual union is because a woman was taken out of a man, so that the sexual union in some sense represents the restoration of the complete human being. Perhaps asexual reproduction might have been possible except for the fact that Adam required human social companionship. The need for this companionship reflects the character of God who is communal at His core with the eternal Trinity. Furthermore, Adam’s union with his wife presages the union of Christ with His bride, namely the church. So in this context, sex can be viewed as a God given capacity to connect with another human being in order to be one with them in body, mind, and spirit, which in the natural course of things would lead to the creation of a new being that is a union of the two parents. In this ideal setting, there is no shame in nakedness for two are one, as Adam and Eve experienced.
With this understanding of the ideal nature of sex, we see many verses that warn us to flee from sexual immorality. It is puzzling though that the precise boundaries of “sexual immorality” is never expounded explicitly in scripture, aside from the Old Testament laws that have uncertain applicability to the post-Christ world. Many have understood 1 Cor 6 teachings on sexuality as proscribing any sex outside of a heterosexual marriage. Such is a plausible reading; however, given the lack of express condemnation of all extramarital sex, one must take a broader view of scripture to arrive at an understanding that is consistent with the gospel message. Such broader reading allows one to see that sex is always viewed as a spiritual act of union in scripture. Whether this is called “marriage” (in the sense of a legally sanctioned life commitment) or not, what is clear is that the act of sexual union implies a union between two persons in a fundamental sense that is coupled with a promise of enduring fidelity. This is indicated in the 1 Cor 6 passage quoted above, which indicates that the act of sexual union with a prostitute implies oneness with the prostitute. The need for sexual abstinence until consummation with our spouse is also implied in the example of Christ and the church in which the bride is portrayed as a virgin and Christ is beholden only to His future bride. Hence, scripture rejects the notion that sex can be viewed simply as a physical act of mutual pleasure devoid of the spiritual, emotional, and relational bond that it signifies and reinforces. Indeed, our biology reaffirms scripture’s view of sexuality. Oxytocin, as previously described, is released during sexual intercourse and reinforces trust and bonding. Humans are irresistibly compelled to form a deep bond with whom they have sex, and such a bond necessarily carries a promise of fidelity and love, which is broken when sex is used simply for mutual pleasure without an enduring commitment.
The discussion thus far on the significance of sexuality from a biblical perspective seems to leave little room for expression for those of us who are not married. Certainly for homosexuals like me for whom a God sanctioned partner is not practically feasible, is a life of sexual repression the only possible recourse? As with many things, I believe the answer is partly yes and partly no. As noted above, sexuality involves not just the interpersonal encounters resulting in sexual intercourse; rather, sexuality also involves the inherent capacity of sexual function that every person possesses and experiences. This is expressed unconsciously through sexual excitation, often without any sexual stimulus, and sexual release for instance in nocturnal emissions. This can also be expressed consciously through masturbation. Many Christian traditions have taken a negative view of masturbation despite the absence of any direct scriptural teaching regarding it. The passages that counsel against premarital sex do not apply to masturbation since there is no element of oneness with another being nor the fidelity and trust that accompany that oneness. The most relevant teachings concern lust, including the admonition that even looking lustfully at another person is akin to adultery. Admittedly, most instances of masturbation likely involve pornography and lust and would thus be sinful. However, masturbation without pornography and lust is possible, as the inherent sexual energy within a person can be utilized for enjoyment of the sexual sensations. With such a practice, I believe masturbation can be experienced as a gift of God. This is particularly important for people who are single and do not have an outlet for their sexual energy, which if not released in a healthy way can lead to increased levels of frustration, which can engender more lust and sinful sexual activity. Finally, sexual energy can be used as a force that draws us towards another person as long as such attraction leads to platonic expression of affection rather than sexual expression. This can undoubtedly be a challenging task, but I believe a rich life of faith requires us to stretch and test ourselves in order that we may grow in holiness and the likeness of Christ who did not shirk from the messiness and the beauty of real life.