In the next couple of weeks I will be teaching on the topic of sexual ethics. I am sure that sex is on the mind of many of you. In fact, I can say with confidence that it is likely to be on the mind of at least half of my male readers. There is an urban myth doing the rounds that men think about sex every seven seconds – a stupid myth really, especially if we take as a given another myth, that men are incapable of doing or thinking two things at once. Research does suggest, however, that “54% of men think about sex every day or several times a day,” women less frequently (see here). This variation is presumably a result of the difference between testosterone and oestrogen. Whatever the statistics, we think about sex a lot. No surprise, really, in a sexually saturated society such as ours.
Sex is certainly on my mind, and has been for some time. A few months into my hospital rehab my doctor ordered that I have a cat scan. He was worried that I had brain damage because the medical staff noticed a change in my behaviour and mood (for obvious reasons, broken necks and brain damage often go together). I was, ordinarily, an easy-going patient. While many people treat nurses like slaves, with demanding and aggressive attitudes, I think I can say (without being boastful) that I got on well with all the staff. Except, apparently, when the cat scan was ordered. I had shocked some of the doctors and the nursing unit manager with my seemingly out of character demands for a private room; insistent, aggressive, even angry (my apologies to those who bore the brunt of my attack). My family, and those staff who knew me better (Louise, Ally, Keira) understood that the issue was not brain damage. I can and do lose my cool. And after months without any sexual contact, I was longing for the opportunity to close a door and ravage my wife.
Well, it turned out that my brain was fine (or at least unchanged by my accident; whatever is wrong in my head it has always been that way!). I also was given a private room. Ravaging my wife proved more complex. Apart from the fact that so-called private rooms in hospital are not at all private, with nurses and doctors coming in and out almost constantly, spinal-cord injury and sex are not good ‘bedfellows’. This is not only because certain parts of the anatomy don’t work too well. Equally problematic is the blobby body. It’s hard to express passion when lying on a bed unable to move or when stuck in a clunky electric chair.
You would not be surprised to hear that the impact of spinal-cord injury upon sexual function is one of the most difficult things to try to come to terms with. On New Year’s Eve one of the younger men in hospital came to my room and broke down. A fit, strong and determined paraplegic, there was no doubt that he would succeed in life despite his injury. But he simply did not know how to face life without sex and orgasm. To be honest, I had no idea how to comfort him. So we shared a Scotch and then went and watched the fireworks. A depressing end to the year, but at least we could be depressed together.
Now, I have no idea why I’m telling you all this (am I mad exhibitionist?). I am sure you don’t need any more details. I’m also told the story is not all negative. Sex is not just penetrative intercourse (and even this is not impossible for many with spinal injuries), and intimacy and touch depend more upon love and commitment than upon simple bodily function. But I am motivated to encourage you to make the most of your opportunities and enjoy the wonders of the human body. As a Christian I am part of a tradition that has too often had horribly negative attitudes towards sexual pleasure. Indeed, the history of the church’s perception on these issues makes for depressing reading:
- Origen (c.185 – c.254) castrated himself.
- St Augustine thought that “nothing so casts down the manly mind from its height as the fondling of a woman.’ (See Thomas Aquinas’s citation and his own depressing attitude here).
- Following Augustine, celibacy became the norm for priests – the sacred and the “venereal” kept well apart
- the penitentials of the Middle Ages (rules for penance) had long lists of penalties for sexual sin, requiring fasting for nocturnal emissions, masturbation and many other things – see here
All very sad when you think about it. It also makes no sense when you consider the long Christian tradition of asserting that faith and happiness go hand in hand (see my earlier posts on the connection between virtue and happiness). It is beyond my capacity here to provide a theological defence of the joy of sex. But I can provide a personal one, since my injury and my loss gives me a unique perspective. Sex is one of the great pleasures of life, especially when connected to a committed relationship, since intimacy and love make for truly satisfying loving. There is also joy in the simple (and natural) experience of orgasm. This is something we shouldn’t be embarrassed about, although I suspect St Augustine still influences our culture (mostly for better but sometimes for worse). But I say, make the most of your time – wring all you can out of life. Enjoy yourself. Don’t take your sexual capacity lightly. This means you shouldn’t throw it around willy-nilly. The forgotten virtue of restraint is the enemy of true sexual pleasure. But it also means you should make the most of the opportunities life gives you. Celebrate life and love. Enjoy your bodies. You may not have them for as long as you think.