Do private sexual relations impact society at large?

October 21, 2018

By Elishama |


The argument is made that if homosexual partners love each other what is wrong with them finding pleasure in the sexual expression of that love, especially if they are in a “committed, long-term relationship”? The crasser version of this argument is, whatever two (or more?) consenting adults wish to do sexually is nobody else’s business, as long as no one is hurt.

One may respond to this argument from historical experience. Past and present experience has already demonstrated just how much effect private actions can have on the moral fabric of society. We have witnessed this with pre-marital sex. While originally presented back in the 1960s as solely a private matter between consenting adults, the eventual repercussions of its growth and social acceptance on rates of illegitimacy, the moral demeanor of adolescents, the stability and esteem of marriage, the acceptance and prevalence of contraception and abortion, on the psyches of children conceived outside wedlock (and often raised without their biological fathers), on state welfare programs, on civil law, on the courts, etc. have been beyond calculation. So while many argued pre-marital sex a private matter of no concern to others, its effects sure extended into the public realm and affected the common good and so is the concern of everyone.

This privacy argument has recently been reformulated into a directed question, ala Svend Robinson, along the following lines: “What difference does it make to you if my partner and I get married? How does it change your life in any real way?” This is as clever as it is naive or disingenuous. Why? Because it attempts to distract from the issue of objective moral norms and the common good, and even dismiss such concern if one cannot show direct personal negative consequence. Demonstrable self-interest (i.e. personal harm) is the only criteria it accepts. This is the criteria of a radical individualism and subjectivism. Used consistently such criteria could end public debate on any number of moral issues (e.g. “What difference does it make to you if the man down the street is sleeping with his daughter?” “How does it change your life in any real way if the U.S. invades Iraq?” “What difference does it make to you if companies start cloning human beings?”). The simple answer is, two men openly sleeping together may not have a direct and immediate impact on me per se, but this does not determine whether it is right or not. And given sanction of law it will make a difference on the sexual mores and institutions of our society. The common good should be of common interest. The recognition of same-sex marriage, for example, will be saying to all our children that a husband/wife or mother/father are merely optional for the family – and schools will be forced to teach that. Since public acceptance of homosexual relationships will affect the society in which we live it will have repercussions on me and my posterity. Private actions can have profound public consequences and that is of concern to me and should be to everyone.

But it is not only society at large that is affected. The participants who are sexually acting out are affected too. As G. K. Chesterton observed, “There is in sex a fury.” While at one level enchanting, sex easily becomes an obsessive craving (especially in men) or means of power (especially in women) that can coarsen one’s character and corrupt the way one thinks and behaves. Poet Robert Burns spoke from experience of the potential ill effect sexual license can have on the person: “It hardens all within/And petrifies the feeling.” Homosexual relations may make the partners happy at one level but at another cause serious harm to their character and personality and cost society dearly both financially (e.g. AIDS) and in its proper regulation of the sexual impulse. There is truth in the old Chinese adage: Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.

What is being popularly assumed today – that makes the case for the morality of homosexual relations seem tenable – is that sex is an autonomous matter, that everyone has a right to a sex life, that any type of sex act enjoyed between consenting partners is acceptable, and none of this has ill effects on one’s character or on society. We have addressed the issues of privacy, character and society. On the rights issue it needs be said that sexual relations are not an absolute right but, like most rights, a conditional one: based on right use, proper disposition and appropriate circumstance. Human rights are not subjectively based or civilly bestowed. Human rights flow from what it is to be a human being. Sexuality in human beings has an intrinsic nature and purpose. It is in seeking to fulfill that purpose that rights and responsibilities flow. Since sex is naturally ordered to procreation, as we have explained, then procreative-type genital acts are its rightful expression. The reason for this becomes clearer when we realize that the procreation of human beings, existentially speaking, is not the same as the reproduction of animals. Human life has nobility and worth that transcends that of mere animals. Since our sexual power can bring forth human life it too is imbued with a more transcendent significance than animal sex. How we treat our sex faculty, then, effects the way we look at the power of sex (i.e. as a means of participation in the creation of new human life) and the product of sex (i.e. the fetal human being). Since children need a stable environment in which to flourish, then the proper venue for sexual relations is within a committed, exclusive, and permanent marital union. Placing before the impressionable young the notion that pre-marital sex and deviations of the sexual act are as acceptable as marriage and conjugal love undermines the very basis of a stable and healthy society – the family – and perverts human sexual expression. Our society is a living testimony to this truth. Many people’s sex lives have become unstable and disordered; having gone from the permanent and procreative to the transitory and pornographic. The reverence for the sex’s power to procreate human life, and the human life thus procreated, has been denigrated by contraception, abortion, in vitro fertilization, and new forms of eugenics.

The generosity and sacrifice that is required if young couples are to marry and undertake the task of raising a family requires every support from the community at large. Anything that separates sex from the context of marriage and family undermines the difficult ideal upon which we all ultimately depend. And the acceptance of homosexual partnerships as equal to heterosexual marriage effects that separation in the most comprehensive way.

Homosexual sex is obviously deficient from a procreative perspective. Is it also deficient in terms of the unitive aspect? What can be said of the love between two homosexuals? First, love is not the same thing as sex. Love does not inevitably or rightly always lead to sex. There are different kinds of love. A person who loves sports does not necessarily want to have sex with athletes. Friendship is a form of close interpersonal love that does not necessarily involve sex. Friendship is possible between any human beings. The love between homosexual persons may be real in terms of being a true friendship but when that friendship seeks to express itself sexually it misuses the purpose of sex in a parody of conjugal love and distorts the type of friendship natural to those of the same sex.

To understand why it is a distortion of their friendship let us use a different example: The paternal love of a father toward his daughter is natural and good. It can be affectionate and even be considered a type of friendship. But if the father has a strong sexual attraction to his daughter as well then he needs to recognize that this desire is deviant and, no matter how intense or even mutual, refrain from acting on it. It is contrary to the nature of true paternal love. Sex is a primal urge and can seek gratification by disordered means. Incest is a disordered means, as is homosexuality.

Even an exclusive, permanent homosexual relationship, a rare thing in itself, could not achieve the authentic communion proper to true spouses. This is because the authentic communion of spouses is only made possible by a commitment to the real goods of human love and sexuality. Homosexual acts are not true bodily unions, being anatomically incompatible for coitus. But even the coital union of bodies is not the fullness of conjugal union. It is meant to express the union of two personalities. When into the coital union of bodies all the shared life and shared love of a man and a woman are poured then you have the sexual union in its fullness.

Why is this so? There is a one-to-one completion inherent in conjugal love that is possible only for couples of opposite sex. A man and a woman represent, each of them, half of human nature: each needs the other for completion. Homosexual partners represent the same half of humanity, lack the natural complementariness of a man and a woman, and so cannot bring each other to completion. Their sexual acts are therefore never truly unitive. Homosexuals cannot therefore claim sexual relations as a rightful and necessary expression of their love. The giving of the bodies sexually is meant at once to symbolize, express, and help effect the giving of the selves. This is also why the giving of a self and the receiving of a self, the union of personalities, belong in marriage, and precisely in marriage that is monogamous, faithful and indissoluble. They are not always found in marriage but they are not easily had outside of it.

Some will protest do we not want homosexual persons to be happy? Of course we want all people to be happy. But that is not all that sex is about or what love means. People can be apparently happy while engaged in immoral conduct like adultery. Happiness is often misunderstood, just as love is, as simply a state of emotion. It is not. If it were then no one could ever really say he is happy except in reference to his emotional state at a particular moment. Objectively, happiness involves a life possessed of certain basic material goods that allows one comfort and good health, a moral life possessing virtues that give harmony between one’s actions and what is really good, an intellectual life in possession of truth, and a spiritual life united in love with God. You can see the difference between this state of being and a person whose life is in flux and bother, driven by disordered passions, caught up in vice and rationalizations, weighed down by guilt or resentments, indifferent to or angry at God. Both persons can experience moments, maybe even prolonged occasions, of emotional jubilation but only in the former case is his state of happiness not dependent on it nor reducible to it.

As for love, if it were merely a feeling, a mood, an engaged couple could never honestly vow their love to each other. Moods by their very nature are fickle while vows are steadfast. Only love understood as a self-donating commitment to another and a concern for his or her wellbeing can be vowed. Love keeps in mind the other person’s ultimate good. Such love is demanding, self-sacrificing. It should also take into account the common good of all. For love of a particular person never permits one to ignore or undermine what is in the best interest of others including society as a whole. We must love our neighbour too.

This leads to a final but important point. The sexual instinct does not exist just for the good of the person but also for the good of society. The sexual difference between men and women is in view of their sexual union; and their sexual union is in view of having offspring. The act of procreation is the only biological function of man that is for the common good of the race rather than simply the private good of the individual. The continuation of the human race and the healthy formation of its new members requires above all things an ordered framework of life. Yet these goods are entrusted to sex, which of itself makes for chaos. How to reconcile these two irreconcilables? This is what marriage does. The critics of marriage have simply not realized how incredibly difficult, and how totally necessary, is the reconciliation it effects. In marriage sex loses none of its strength, but it serves life and love. This is why sexual behaviour cannot be left to personal whim but needs to be regulated by moral law; both divine and positive. Both Church and state law should reinforce the natural tendency of most human beings to indivisible marriage. Good moral and social conditions depend, to a large extent, on the normalcy and indivisibility of marriage. State acceptance and support of pre-marital sex, cohabitation, and homosexual relations undermines the stability and normalcy of marriage.

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