Editor’s note: News commentaries are intended to express the richness and variety of informed and responsible Adventist opinion on current issues. They do not necessarily convey the viewpoint of the Adventist Review editorial team or the General Conference.
ex is in the news.
Bruce Jenner’s transgender process has prompted nearly everyone on the planet to ponder the nature of human sexuality. To the delight of some and to the horror of others, Caitlyn, formerly Bruce, was named “Woman of the Year” by Glamour Magazine in October.
Prior to Jenner’s transition, Harry Styles, one of the singers in the wildly popular boy band One Direction made big news regarding his sexuality. While being interviewed with fellow One Direction member, Liam Payne, the two were asked what traits they preferred in a romantic relationship. Payne answered, “Female, it’s a good trait.” Styles responded, “Not that important” — for the person to be female, that is.
About the same time, the news media informed us that Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, the 8-year-old daughter of Hollywood stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, has decided she wants to be called John and will only wear boy’s clothing. The parents have decided to honor the decision and refrain from interfering with the child’s gender selection. “Gender neutral parenting” has, in fact, become a growing societal trend, the idea being that parents should leave their children free to choose whether they will be male or female.
On the academic front, over the last few years numerous articles in Psychology Today, the leading U.S. psychology magazine, have sought to persuade us that sexual fidelity cannot realistically be expected since human beings are merely evolving animals governed by no higher law than survival-of-the-fittest urges. Therefore, the reasoning goes, we are biologically compelled to copulate with whoever presents an opportunity for sexual gratification or reproduction, so don’t expect faithfulness.
In February of 2013, Dr. Christopher Ryan delivered a TED Talk titled with the startling question, “Are We Designed to Be Sexual Omnivores?”The talk was based on a book Ryan co-authored with Dr. Cacilda Jethá, Sex At Dawn, in which the authors contend that human beings are not designed by evolution for monogamy. Rather, they argue, we are “sexual omnivores” by nature. Promiscuity, they tell us, is as inevitable and amoral for humans as it is for chimpanzees.
In August, Vanity Fair ran an astounding article bearing the provocative title, “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse.’”
And it is.
Tinder is a phone app that has taken the dating scene by storm. In the palm of your hand you can now quickly browse through photo after photo of men and women within any chosen geographic radius. Swiping left on a photo means “no” and swiping right means “yes.” When two people both swipe right on one another’s photos, texted words can be exchanged and a “hook up” can be scheduled.
The men interviewed for the article express how Tinder has made it possible for them to “hook up” as often as they like for casual, non-committal sex with countless women. The women interviewed explained that Tinder has essentially eliminated the need for men to engage in long-term relationships, placing women in the no-win position of either submitting to the new system of sex-without-commitment or being completely passed over and resigning themselves to celibacy.
The article states: “In February, one study reported there were nearly 100 million people — perhaps 50 million on Tinder alone — using their phones as a sort of all-day, every-day, handheld singles club, where they might find a sex partner as easily as they’d find a cheap flight to Florida. ‘It’s like ordering Seamless,’ says Dan, the investment banker, referring to the online food-delivery service. ‘But you’re ordering a person.’
“‘Sex has become so easy,’ says John, 26, a marketing executive in New York. ‘I can go on my phone right now and no doubt I can find someone I can have sex with this evening, probably before midnight.’”
“So where is this all going to go?” the article ponders. “What happens after you’ve come of age in the age of Tinder? Will people ever be satisfied with a sexual or even emotional commitment to one person? And does that matter? Can men and women ever find true intimacy in a world where communication is mediated by screens; or trust, when they know their partner has an array of other, easily accessible options?”
These are rather heavy questions with frightening implications. The situation is so bleak that the article suggests we are faced with the “apocalypse” of human sexuality.
On Oct. 18, New York Magazine published an article reporting the results of a survey conducted regarding the current sexual habits of college students. The general state of affairs is what the article calls, “hookup culture,” which it defines as “meaningless sex with strangers.”
“The script, according to this ritual, is: First you [have sex], then (perhaps) you date. Or, more likely, you just continue to hook up, creating a long-term relationship — minus feelings, theoretically — out of a series of one-night stands.”
In other words, the cultural trend is toward sex without emotional intimacy or relational commitment. Having painted this rather abysmal picture, the article then insightfully observes, “It’s as if sexual freedom has become a burden as well as a gift.”
In other words “sexual freedom” isn’t actually free. It comes at a price, and a huge one at that. “Sexual freedom” is, it turns out, backfiring, and in the worst way imaginable: it is killing the human capacity for the moral dimension of love, gutting the sexual aspect of human nature of realities like trust, security and faithfulness. Sex is being reduced to a physical act minus commitment, and the result is that people are being left strewn along the way as hollow, cold, lonely human wreckage, longing for a quality of love that a hookup culture can’t give.
Everyone seems to know that sex has the potential to be something extremely beautiful or something really hurtful. In our innocent virgin state, all of us want it and all of us are afraid of it.
OK, so where do we go from here?
Well, as would be expected, the Bible casts a radically different vision of human sexuality. Whether you find yourself agreeing with it or not, you owe it to yourself to at least be aware of this alternative vision. And you may be surprised to discover that the biblical picture of sex isn’t a narrow view calculated to restrict, but rather, actually, it’s a larger view calculated for maximum liberation and increased pleasure.
One of two things is true: either we are mere evolving animals driven by nothing more than physical urges, in which case all our notions of moral faithfulness, trust and love are nothing more than illusionary cultural constructs, or we are creatures of the divine image designed for the most beautiful relational bliss imaginable.
Assume for a few minutes that the higher premise is true. What would that look like?
Two simple biblical statements convey the idea with clarity:
“God is love” (1 John 4:16).
“And God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).
In these two passages we have before us a super high level of explanatory power for all aspects of reality, and especially regarding what it means to be human. According to Scripture, the human being is, by divine design, a living conduit engineered to experience a constant incoming and outgoing flow of God-like love. And anything other than that is malfunction.
According to the biblical narrative, human sexuality was conceived in the mind of God.
Human nature, including the sexual dimension, has its architectural origins in the other-centered essence of God's character.
Track with me now.
The biblical vision of God’s essential identity is simultaneously simple and profound. With the declaration, “God is love,” Scripture would have us understand that God is both self and other, individuality and unity, distinctiveness and integration. Love cannot exist within a solitary self. Therefore, when the Bible says, “God is love,” this indicates that God is one and yet more than one. God is a relational unit, a social network, an intimate friendship. The Father is God, and yet the Father alone does not constitute all there is of God. Jesus is God, but not all there is of God. The Holy Spirit is God, but not all there is of God. Father, Son, and Spirit — each One an individual self living with total relational reference to the others — collectively compose the one Supreme Personal Reality we call God.
It was this God — precisely this God — who said, “Let Us make humanity in Our own image.” Once the creative act was completed, the image of God was composed of the man and the woman, two distinct selves, each one designed for biological and psychological union with the other. The male and the female were made with the sexual capacity to reproduce other others for the purpose of replicating their love, resulting in an ever-expanding series of relational circles in which other-centeredness could flourish as the essential reality of human life.
The sexual act was designed by the Creator to be the ultimate, life-giving expression of the divine image. The man was psychologically and biologically crafted by his Maker to be completely centered in the woman, and thus to be centered outside of himself. Likewise, the woman was engineered on all levels of her being to be centered in the man and thus to be centered outside of herself. Each was to locate their ontological center of gravity in the other.
Male identity was intended by the Creator's design to operate in its unfractured wholeness under the direct influence of the female identity, and female identity was to operate in its unfractured wholeness under the direct influence of the male identity. Each was to exist in perpetual motion toward the other, each to live with total reference to the opposite but complimentary attributes of the other. The man was to be shaped by other-centered interface with the woman and the woman likewise with the man. Maleness is not complete without total empathy with the female counterpart, nor is femaleness complete without living in total empathy with the male. The male identity and the female identity were each to be made complete by integration with the other.
Once we understand that human beings were designed for other-centeredness, something brilliant dawns: We realize that there is an ingenious divine rationale for creating the man and the woman different from one another and yet complementary in the way their bodies and minds are able to interlock with one another. Men and women are different by design — intentionally, deliberately different.
God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Genesis 2:18). The Hebrew might be rendered, I will make him a complimentary counterpart, so that the two shall compose a holistic “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
The idea here is that the man was only half of a masterpiece, half of a relational equation, half of God's image. Half, not the whole.
The total image of God is constituted in the union of the male half and the female half in order to compose a single relational entity. This is evident from a rather casual examination of the male anatomy and the female anatomy. In our physical engineering we see two fleshly puzzle pieces that fit together rather naturally. And in their fitting together, the two bodies constitute a single entity, or “one flesh,” capable of producing life.
The creation logic of the male-female design is simply this: The biological and psychological differences between maleness and the femaleness allow for other-centeredness to occur at the level of each one’s fundamental identity. He cannot be all he is meant to be by himself, in himself. She cannot be all she is meant to be by herself, in herself. The man is something the woman is not, and the woman is something the man is not. Each brings something to the relationship the other does not possess and must have in order to be complete and reproduce others who can expand the circle of life and love.
The interdependent design of their sexuality reveals that each one, to be whole, must be defined beyond self by means of intimate giving to and receiving from the other. His sexuality belongs to her basic identity, and her sexuality belongs to his basic identity (1 Corinthians 7:3-4). The moment this essential relational equation is disrupted, the human life-cycle ceases. The very possibility for otherness ceases and with it the possibility for the existence of love itself dies.
The point of our sexual identity is monumental in its simplicity and crucial in its implications: Sex is designed by God to be an experiential portal into other-centeredness.
That’s the whole deal in a nutshell.
Biological and psychological otherness, not sameness, is the design we see on display in human nature. If the two were the same — if each one was a biological mirror of the other — self-centeredness would be the only form the sexual relationship could take. Each would see in the other merely an image of himself, or herself, and the sexual act would be an act of self-love rather than other-love. The male and the female are, by intrinsic design, heterosexual counterparts. The distinction between maleness and femaleness was designed by God as the ontological environment in which the deepest levels of other-centeredness may occur.Difference, not sameness, is the inherent design of human sexuality.
Alright, then, it is undeniably evident that male biology and female biology are designed for union.
But why does that necessitate monogamy?
Why one man and one woman?
What’s the harm of experiencing multiple sexual partners?
Doesn’t more sex with more people necessarily equate to more pleasure and more love?
If the human being is merely the product of evolution and therefore nothing more than a biological survival machine, it logically follows that sex is simply an instinctual physical act that carries no moral significance for better or for worse. So then, when Dr. Christopher Ryan suggests that human beings are “sexual omnivores,” he is simply following evolutionary logic to its inevitable conclusion. In this context, monogamy can only appear unnecessary, prudish and at odds with satisfying our urge for sexual pleasure.
But if we humans were made in the image of a God whose core identity is self-giving love, then it logically follows that sex is more than merely an animal act. Far more, in fact. If we are creatures of divine origin, sex must be, potentially, a thing of extraordinary beauty and blessing.
But there’s a catch. Well, not really a catch … more like an inherent operational principle.
It is no secret that the Bible teaches, rather explicitly, that the sexual aspect of human nature is designed for expression only within parameters of monogamous, matrimonial love. And sex outside of marriage is unapologetically called “sin” in Scripture.
First, we need to grasp that sexual monogamy is not set forth in Scripture as an arbitrary religious rule, as if God is saying, “Listen up! There is no real harm in having multiple sexual partners, and I know it would be great fun, but thou shalt not, because I don’t want you having all that fun, and I’m God so you better do as I say, or else.”
Not even close!
There is a world of difference between an arbitrary rule and an inherent law. The first entails restriction for restriction’s sake. The second entails restriction only for purposes of protection and flourishing. Sexual monogamy is, in fact, inherent to the healthy operations of love. Committing to one sexual partner for life doesn’t lessen freedom and quality of life, but increases them.
We know from bonding science — and from simply observing how relationships flourish and how they fail — that sex is more than a physical act.
“Whenever a person is sexually involved with another person, neural-chemical changes occur in both their brains that encourage limbic, emotional bonding,” Dr. Daniel Amen explains in his book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. “Yet limbic bonding is the reason casual sex doesn’t really work for most people on a whole mind and body level. Two people may decide to have sex ‘just for the fun of it,’ yet something is occurring on another level they might not have decided on at all: sex is enhancing an emotional bond between them whether they want it or not.”
Sex creates a chemical condition in the body that basically communicates a message of monogamy. Said another way, monogamy is built into human sexuality as the natural desire and expectation. Once two people have had sex, if the relationship ends, there will be emotional pain because the sexual act is designed for the purpose of bonding them for life. By simply observing how human nature operates, science informs us that sex is, in fact, a whole-person event that possesses identity-shaping significance, taking in and impacting an individual’s total makeup.
And as sex generates binding, it’s all heading in a positive direction if we will follow through. As a powerful bonding action, sex merges a man and a woman together into a shared emotional environment of mutual security, trust and loyalty that makes love possible in an ever-maturing, increasingly sensitive form.
“What bonding science says is that the biggest factor in the quality of your sex relationship is the safety of your emotional connection,” said Dr. Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist and distinguished research professor at Alliant International University in San Diego, California. “First of all, bonding science says that sex is not just about pleasure and procreation. Sex is a potent bonding activity. When we have sex, or when we even think about our sweetie, we are flooded with a bonding hormone called oxytocin. And what oxytocin does is it reduces fear in our brain, and it has us open up and trust and it makes us feel safe. … This makes sense of the big surveys in the US that have found that actually the people that have the best sex and the most thrilling sex are those in a long term, happy relationships. … Arousal seems naturally to access our attachment needs, unless we’re working really hard to shut our emotions down and keep sex impersonal. The other thing we know from bonding science, is that securely attached and connected people who have this sense of emotional safety have better sex.”
In other words, sexual pleasure is maximized only when two minds are at complete rest with one another, which can only happen when two people possess the mutual security of knowing that each one is committed to the relationship for life.
The picture painted of human sexuality in Genesis is inviting. God creates the man and situates him in a garden the Lord names, “Eden” (Genesis 2:8), which means pleasure. Then God calls the man’s attention to the fact that “it is not good” for him to be “alone” (Genesis 2:18). After all, the setting is designed for pleasure. So the Lord creates the woman and perform the first marriage. Upon encountering the his female counterpart, Adam says, “‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:23-25). Here we are asked to contemplate a vision of one man and one woman together in an environment perfectly suited for innocent sexual pleasure.
Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, science is chiming in regarding the benefits of monogamy. We now know, not merely from biblical revelation, but from science as well, that the sexual union between a husband and a wife embeds the couple in the deepest levels of friendship human beings can know. The sexual dimension of the relationship is understood to be an experiential portal into an exclusive intimacy, and it is precisely the exclusive nature of the intimacy that grants the couple access to a realm of love that transcends all the other relationships they have in life.
Said another way, the human psyche is designed for exclusive sexual bonding. Optimal mental and emotional health are naturally derived from a relationship in which a man and a woman perceive in one another a mutual exclusive commitment. The beauty and brilliance of monogamy is that it ushers the couple into deeper and yet deeper levels of bonding security under the powerful influence of one another’s faithfulness. It gradually builds into the relationship layer after layer of trust that puts the couple at ease with one another. To be fully know and fully loved simultaneously is the secret of human flourishing. And that is exactly what monogamous love offers.
We are not built for serial dating and casual sex. In fact, sex without commitment injures us in a very tangible way by gradually lessening our capacity for trust. We are designed, rather, to experience lifelong faithfulness and relational integrity. It is in the nature of human sexuality to desire and expect monogamous devotion. Our very DNA cries out for it. At the deepest levels of our humanity we want exclusive commitment.
When someone vows sexual fidelity, we are gratified. If it is violated, we are emotionally crushed. And with each repeat of sexual bonding followed by unfaithfulness, something vital is deleted from our humanity. The capacity to trust, to believe, to feel perfectly at rest in the love of another person is compromised. By every broken vow, a deep breakage of spirit occurs. That is not to say that the ability to trust again cannot be restored. It can be. But not without hard work, not without the emotional labor of navigating suspicion, jealousy and the fear of unfaithfulness. The genius of monogamy is that it ushers the couple into more, not less, pleasure, and pleasure of a more elevated quality than can be known by means of short-term sexual relationships.
Well, monogamy, quite simply, allows an individual to feel so completely at home within the love of another human being that they become submerged in the happiness and wellbeing of the other without concern for oneself, without fear of violation or abandonment.
Sexual pleasure as an isolated physical act is a small, low-intensity pleasure in comparison to the massive, high-intensity sexual pleasure that occurs in the context of relational faithfulness with all its security-inducing feelings—fearless vulnerability, unbreakable trust, and a deeply-settled sense that each is fully accepted by the other. Sex with one person for life creates a psychological environment that increases the couple’s capacity for total-person flourishing, including a heightened capacity for sexual pleasure. Those who cycle through one sexual partner after another never make the journey far enough with one person to experience the extreme levels of pleasure — body, mind and spirit — that only opens up like a beautiful secret to monogamous couples.
If pleasure is the end-goal, casual sex is not the way to get there. Monogamy is. And yet, the reason that monogamy produces the highest pleasure attainable is precisely because the goal of monogamy is not pleasure, but rather faithful love for the other. Pleasure pursued as an end in itself diminishes. Faithful love pursued as an end in itself generates an increase of pleasure as its natural by-product.
There is a lot of wisdom in the intuitive pop proverb, “Don’t waste sunsets on people who will be gone by sunrise.” Monogamy isn’t the smaller view of love and pleasure. It’s the larger view. It’s the view that takes in the whole person and all their tomorrows. It’s the view that understands, by experience, that we are more than animals with physical urges to be satisfied, but rather that we are spiritual creatures with dignified, noble, majestic potential for real love that lasts forever …
because “God is love” and “God made mankind in His own image.”