Continued from part 2 on natural law
To assess whether any particular sexual predilection is contrary to nature, we must first know the design spec for sexual activity. What was God’s intent or purpose when he made it? To what ends is it directed?
Although natural law theorists are inclined to focus on the telos of sexual intercourse specifically (viz. union and procreation), while other theologians want to focus on the purpose of marriage generally (especially viz. imaging covenant union with God), I think it is more helpful to steer clear of the ditches and focus on the design of sexual intimacy itself.
The main reason for this is that focusing too broadly or too narrowly makes it easy to miss key points. Focusing on the telos of intercourse confuses the purpose of the covenant sign with the purpose of a broader segment of life within the covenant; i.e., surely we should not suppose that because intercourse is the sign of the marriage covenant, that it is therefore only the sign of the marriage covenant and serves no other purpose. It also begs the question—or at least implies a presumption—against other forms of sexual enjoyment, which has yet to be assessed. By the same token, focusing on the (varied) teleology of marriage confuses the purpose of the covenant as a whole with the purpose of the sexual segment of life within it. There will certainly be overlap between these things, but they are not the same. To take a rough analogy, we should not focus on what a stomach is for, and then think we have exhaustively understood what eating is for.
So let’s take stock of the goals for marital sex acts. I’ll work from the most obvious, immediate goals to the more lofty, long-term ones.
Avoiding sexual frustration
This would be tautologous, except that we are living in a fallen world that doesn’t sync up well with the design spec as originally given. Hence, Paul’s chief concern when giving instructions about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 is for believers to avoid sexual temptation and immorality. On this side of the fall, a fundamental purpose for sexual activity between spouses is to fulfill the other’s physical needs so they are not tempted to fulfill them elsewhere. This is something they are required to do:
The husband must fulfill his obligation to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but her husband does. And likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does. Do not defraud one another, except perhaps by agreement, for a time, in order that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and then you should be together again, lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self control. 1 Corinthians 7:3–5
Of course, this doesn’t tell us what sexual needs themselves are designed for; it just establishes a useful starting parameter. But it is an important parameter because it sets an obligation between spouses toward each other, in which they must bear with each other’s weaknesses. If one spouse is especially keen on a particular kind of sex act—and assuming we can establish it as permissible; abominations need not apply—then the other spouse can’t very well say they’re fulfilling their obligations by giving themselves in intercourse, if they are withholding themselves in this other way. Intercourse may indeed mitigate sexual tension for a while, but it will not mitigate sexual frustration—nor ultimately temptation—if something else is not being given that the other spouse wants. When we are told to carry each other’s burdens, we aren’t told we can pick and choose.
Needless to say, the same consideration extends both ways. The one should not withhold, but the other should not demand if the withholding is due to genuine discomfort. It is probably not terribly uncommon for people with quite different sexual predilections to marry, and they are both commanded to bear with one another. Having established this, let’s consider some further criteria for doing so.
Proverbs 5:19, along with the entire theme of Song of Songs that culminates in Song 8:7–8, describes the intensity of sexual passion, encouraging intoxication and delight in one’s spouse. The focus is typically on the breasts or genitals; yet this is hardly exclusive of other body parts: while the sexual organs are often used as specific examples in Scripture, the overall endorsement is toward taking physical pleasure in one’s spouse generally.
There is notably no mention of procreation here; while it is a focus in other passages, it doesn’t receive the same intense and extended treatment that Song of Songs gives to sexual passion.
Throughout most of biblical history Canticles has been interpreted allegorically, in reference to God and his people. But it can only image this if the sexual passion it describes is real. Exegetically and logically, therefore, the primary referent of Canticles must be sexual passion.
Must this pleasure be mutual? This is not so much explicitly stated as assumed; however, as much as any couple should desire it, we have to concede that reality doesn’t always work that way. Mutual pleasure cannot be an inviolable requirement, since then sexual relations could often not (permissibly) get off the ground on the wedding night—and thus never thereafter either. Yet the breaking of the bride’s hymen was of critical importance in biblical times (Deuteronomy 22:13–17). Sometimes pain is part of the process; and indeed, I am skeptical of softness here, since I don’t believe God made mankind to mince daintily through manicured garden cloisters. [ D. Bnonn Tennant, Prelapsarian predation, part 3: wildness in Genesis 1–2 (September 2015).] Moreover, there is the question of what it even means to experience pleasure in your partner. It hardly makes sense to confine this to orgasm; one can enjoy one’s spouse in many ways, and often it is especially through causing pleasure in the other.
I think it best to simply observe that the pleasure of sexual intimacy is aimed at mutuality; then leave it to the couple to decide the timing and nature of how that plays out. While discomfort certainly isn’t the goal, being generally at odds with enjoyment, it may on occasion be necessary to achieving it. What should not be permitted is harm. To deliberately damage your spouse’s health surely violates a basic element of God’s spec that Paul takes for granted in Ephesians 5:28–33. This seems especially obvious in light of the next criterion.
At the broadest level, sexual activity seems to be the particular mechanism that distinguishes how husbands and wives relate to each other. This includes a physical and a psychological element. Sexual activity is therefore, at the very least, for bringing them together as a couple (cf. Genesis 2:24). That sex itself is the paradigm example of sexual activity surely implies this much: they become one flesh in a physical image of what love is: the complete onetogetherness of persons. [ D. Bnonn Tennant, What is love? Part 2: the nature of triune love (August 2014).]
From this, remembering the distinction between negation and contradiction, we can conclude that a sex act should generally be unitive with regard to the couple; and we can much more strongly conclude that it should not be divisive. Whether a particular act is permissible hinges, at least, on whether it promotes union or undermines it. Sex acts which are inimical to unity are not permissible.
The question of what exactly this unity consists in is worth exploring further, though I shan’t delve too deeply here. It must surely have a significant emotional component—which is important in a cultural moment that has made women’s feelings the arbitrators of just about everything in marriage, to an extraordinary degree: from the husband’s godliness to the legitimacy of the relationship itself. Obviously unity cannot be measured against a tyrannically fickle standard; it must conform first to the word of God. Whatever role feelings play, they should form a positive feedback loop between both husband and wife and Scripture. So while onetogetherness must rightly consist heavily in emotional unity, especially as regards sexuality, I think it is critical to emphasize that it does not start there; it starts with certain objective and covenantal patterns established in Scripture for how husbands and wives are properly to relate. Whatever a couple is feeling, if the husband is not loving his wife as Jesus loved the assembly, or if the wife is not submitting to him as the assembly submits to its Lord, then there is no objective onetogetherness; no real unity from God’s perspective.
Since intercourse is the paradigm of sexual activity, and leads naturally to reproduction, we can certainly say that sexual activity is for procreation. This, indeed, is the initial focus of the Bible for sexuality (Genesis 1:27–28).
However, in view of the brief logic lesson in the previous part of this series, we need to be careful here. Romanism is quick to infer that intercourse without the possibility of procreation is impermissible; but as well as distinguishing intercourse in particular from sex acts generally, we also need to distinguish between kinds of goals. Intercourse is for procreation in a long-term sense. It is a remote goal. But clearly union is the more immediate or proximate goal—as well as also being another remote goal. So we can certainly agree that it is the remote goal of the paradigm sex act to produce children. But it is equally both a proximate and a remote goal of any sex act to promote union. And a proximate goal of promoting union, in turn, is the physical pleasure of sex acts, and the psychological enjoyment of submitting to one another in mutual agreement (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:3–5; Ephesians 5:21). You see there is a logic in how I have arranged these criteria; each builds on the one before.
In line with the language of remote goals, it’s tempting to say that procreation is the ultimate purpose of sexual activity, with all others being proximate to it, since the Bible implies that once reproduction becomes unnecessary, sexual activity itself becomes redundant (Matthew 22:30). However, it is also true that marriage will become redundant at that point (cf. Colossians 2:17), and so sexual activity will thereby become unnecessary. It’s unclear that procreation is really the point here. (Some theologians speculate that sexual intimacy will thus become permissible between anyone; I doubt it.)
My point is not to deny the importance of procreation, but to observe that it is in a different category to the other goals I’ve canvassed. Not all sexual intimacy is oriented toward procreation, and to argue that it must be begs the question. Indeed, it produces absurd situations where any kind of sexual intimacy is impermissible between a man and his already-pregnant wife, for instance! Yet this would clearly violate the first three goals.
It seems we must rather take the first three goals as describing in broad strokes God’s plan for sexual intimacy generally, culminating in intercourse itself, for which the fourth goal is the apex. It would therefore be right to say that a fertile couple were doing something wrong if they only ever used sexual intimacy for their own enjoyment, with no intention of having children; but it would be a mistake to say they should never enjoy sexual intimacy that didn’t end in intercourse that could produce children.
A three-point spec sheet
While far from a comprehensive analysis, I believe this covers the major features of what sexuality within marriage is oriented toward. In assessing whether any particular sex act is permissible, we need to ask how it relates to the three immediate goals of avoiding temptation, providing pleasure, and promoting union. For the sake of cadence and whimsy, I shall refer to this three-point spec sheet as:
We should also remember that offspring are not to be despised either—but since this series is concerned with broader sexual predilections, I shall rely on you to keep that in the back of your mind from now on. Let’s move forward to look at some specific sex acts I’ve been asked about.