Sex and Sexuality

Sex refers to “those biological distinctions which differentiate female from male. This form of the term is used broadly and can encompass the functional, reproductive aspects as well as the specific organs, hormones and structures that anatomically differentiate female from male.”[1] The organs that carry on the reproductive functions are known as primary sex organs and those that distinguish the sexes from each other but play no direct role in reproduction are called secondary sexual characters.[2] In other words, sex refers to the condition of embodiment that predispose and co-determine how we relate to objects, events, and persons. “Our sex, primarily male-female or female-male, highly influences the way we experience reality.

Thus, being primarily a man or a woman – which is due to both nature (sex) and nurture (gender) – co-forms the way we interact with one another and other realities as well.”[3]

Sexuality on the other hand refers to the spiritual, emotional, physical, psychological, social, and cultural aspects of relating to one another as embodied male and female persons. Sexuality, a still-evolving term, has to do with all the ways we try to reach one another at the level of the heart. It is the constantly burning fire within us that compels us to turn toward one another. In this sense, we are being sexual – expressing our relational energy as women and men – all of the time. Sexuality is a love energy and God wants us to be sexual – to be lovers and life-givers. God made us to be passionate – to be capable of feeling the fire of creation within every part of our being. Sexuality involves the whole person. Its voice calls out for communion from every fibre of our being. While sexuality is clearly a body energy with strong physical sensation, it cannot be confined to flesh. At the same time, it is a powerful force for emotional and spiritual union housed in a physical body. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for our societies and our Church communities is to maintain the both/and dimension of sexuality: It is both physical and spiritual. It is both wounded and good.[4] It is not possible to make a serious and knowledgeable commitment to a chaste and celibate way of life if human sexuality is not understood and properly appropriated in one’s life.

Being A Sexual Person

Human sexuality is one of our strongest God-given gifts. It emerges from our core and it is at the heart of our relationships with one another and with God. Because we are embodied selves, we are sexual. Sexual embodiment means that we manifest ourselves and relate to one another in a sexual way – primarily as a man or as a woman. Embodiment makes us humanly manifest ourselves to others as men or women. Embodiment also means being incarnated. It means our sexuality is psychological and spiritual. According to Kraft, psychologically, our knowledge of, attitude toward, and ways we cope with sexuality significantly influence our experience of and degree of healthy or non-healthy sexuality. Sexuality is also spiritual because sexuality embodies, explicitly or implicitly, the spiritual dimension.[5] Sexuality, in contrast to sex, points to a more dynamic aspect of personhood: to the interaction of sex and gender. Thus, sexuality or how we are sexual is contingent on sex and just as much or more on how we learn to be male and female. Femininity represents learned and sanctioned ways of being a woman. In the same way, masculinity is a mode of sexuality that a man learns in a particular culture. Although emphasis is placed on cultural learning, masculinity and femininity also include sex, and/or inherited factors – for instance, genetics, biochemistry, physiology, the brain, and so on influence masculinity and femininity. In the light of clinical and empirical evidence, both men and women are considered to be androgynous: within every man there is a woman, and within every woman there is a man. In Jungian terms, a man encounters and/or projects his anima and a woman her animus upon the other sex. Being a woman means that a person is a member of the female sex that incorporates male sexuality. It can be said that a woman’s femaleness is primarily in the foreground and her maleness in the background. The anima and animus are biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual forces.[6] Our experience of sexuality and the meaning we give it depends on our understanding of the structures and dynamics of human personhood. For example, an approach to sexuality that denies or excludes the spiritual dimension will give sexual experience a meaning radically different from one that includes the spiritual dimension. In the same way if the physical or psychosocial dimensions are excluded or minimized, the meaning of sexuality becomes fragmented. So we need a holistic view to sexuality.[7] Let us now proceed to understand three kinds of sexuality that would give a comprehensive view on the question of sexuality.

Three types of sexuality

Sexuality can be viewed from a threefold perspective: primary sexuality, affective sexuality and genital sexuality. But these three aspects of sexuality should not be confused. “Those committed to living celibately must develop an authentic spirituality of their sexuality in order to fully live the three dimensions of human sexuality.”[8] Let us look at them one by one in order to understand their full significance for a celibate chaste way of life.

Primary Sexuality

Primary sexuality deals with an individual’s embodiment or his or her mode of sexual existence – how he or she is present to and interacts with him/herself, others, to reality in general, and to God. It asserts that each person has an inherent propensity to be primarily a man or a woman.[9] Primary sexuality includes one’s attitude towards masculinity/femininity, response to stereotypes about men and women, comfort/discomfort with the other sex, degree of “at-homeness” in one’s body and the ability to function both psychologically and socially as man and woman. As part of primary sexuality we need to pay attention to the sexual differences, similarities, and complementarities between men and women. “Based on phenomenological and other research, one proposition is that women tend to interweave their experience and men tend to differentiate their experience. Due to innate and environmental focuses, women tend relatively more toward wholeness, internalization, and concrete care, while men tend toward categorization, externalization, and abstract principles.”[10] Usually a woman experiences reality as a network of many factors (objects, events, and persons) that she cares for; a man copes with the individual parts of reality. But these natural tendencies are not mutually exclusive. “Because we are (by nature and nurture) androgynous, we can do, more or less, actualize both sexual possibilities. The challenge is to realize both while remaining true to our primary sexual identity.”[11] In the area of sex and love women more often than men will seek to unify both of them. Men’s differentiated mode of existence explains their tendency to put various experiences in different categories. So indulging in genital sex without love or ongoing emotional attachment is easier for men than women. Since all people are androgynous, women can differentiate experiences and be task oriented; men can interweave experiences and be caring. In this sense, a man should strive to be more like a woman, and a woman to be more like a man, while retaining the ideal of complementarity. But we need to be clear on this point: neither the male nor the female mode of existence is superior; both are equal and essential. One without the other leads to fragmented and impoverished life and culture.[12]

Developmental psychology indicates that people, especially parents, positively or negatively influence what kind of woman or man a person will be and how he or she will function. Many men have been culturally programmed to distrust their feelings of affection and/or fail to learn how to be intimate. Women can actually be more certain than men about their sexual identity. This may occur because mothers usually spend more time qualitatively and quantitatively with their children; consequently, women can be influenced more by their own sex. Another aspect to primary sexuality is that there is spiritual element to it. A sexual person – male or female – is spiritual. Spirituality without sexuality dehumanizes the person. Our spiritual life is influenced by the fact of our being a man or woman. So we can say that in the area of primary sexuality we are challenged to become whole sexual selves, to foster optimum conditions that promote androgynous, sexual, functional, and spiritual growth.

Affective Sexuality

In the previous point we have seen that primary sexuality influences the way we perceive, think, feel, act, and interact. In short, our sex affects how we work, play, suffer, and enjoy. But, then, what do we mean by affective sexuality? “Affective sexuality refers to feelings, modes, and emotions (“affects”) that move toward or incorporate intimacy. It describes how we are affectively motivated to become closer to one another.”[13] Affective sexuality includes our ability to “feel all our feelings” including intensely erotic, angry and lonely feelings; ability to nurture relationships where there is warmth, belonging, intimacy, appreciation, emotional disclosure, recognition of competency; ability to nurture our inner life – to play, pray, imagine, dream, create. Affective intimacy can be an end in itself, or it can be in service to and part of genital behaviour. In other words, affective sexuality can stand on its own as a way of relating to another person, or it can be a prelude to genital activity. When affective and genital sexuality are considered identical, or when affection is seen as necessarily leading to genital sex, frustrating confusion and fruitless guilt are among the possible consequences. The primary way to determine if our affection is an end in itself or a means to genital sex is to examine our motives. How do we do that? The challenge is to be aware of one’s own as well as the other’s intensions. To prevent frustration, exploitation, or other pain, both partners should know their own and the other’s intentions. The best way to do this is to step back (physically, psychologically, or spiritually) and take stock of the situation. Outside a marital context, affective sexuality should be an end in itself; it should not be a means to promote genital activity. Whether we are single, religious, or priest or married, we need to love others and be committed to healthy and holy living. When their intimacy does evoke genital desire they need to set limits. They neither repress nor satisfy their erotic desires; they affirm their desires and freely choose not to promote them. Their saying “no” is based on a fundamental “yes” they made and their commitment to values. In this context we can say that chastity does not mean sexlessness; it is an experience of integrated (whole) and chaste (pure) loving sex. Chaste persons see and relate to others and self as whole beings, not as fragmented persons.[14]

Affective sexuality also includes an affective disposition. Affective disposition refers to a readiness to love everyone and anyone, anywhere, at any time, and as much as possible. This affective disposition can be expressed through thoughtfulness, respect, courtesy, compromise, genuine concern, warmth, understanding and compassion. The celibate, as with every person, must develop an affective sexuality, learning to be peaceful with one’s aloneness and becoming absorbed in the quest for one’s deepest self.[15] Otherwise he or she can behave in unchaste ways. For example, the priest who counsels the lonely, frustrated, and attractive woman may be unchaste if his apparent concern for this woman’s welfare may in fact conceal an attempt to satisfy his own needs. To probe her inner life, especially her sexual life, can satisfy his own needs while giving him a sense of being “holy.” Such countertransference is unchaste because it primarily serves the self and not others.[16]

Genital Sexuality

Genital sexuality could be defined as behaviour, thoughts, fantasies, desires, and feelings that activate the genital organs. It is our awareness of our genital stirrings, fantasies and urges and our ability to let them find their true centre – that place that authentically reflects who we are, our values, commitments and way of life. Everyone, more or less, has genital feelings; these feelings need not be acted upon in genital behaviour. Genital sex is one important expression – not the totality – of primary sex; that is, of being a man or woman. But genital sex has been overemphasised at the expense of others. Consequently, many are led to believe that they must gratify, alone or with another, their genital needs to avoid becoming frustrated, abnormal, or stupid. When we misuse or abuse genital sexuality, we violate ourselves. To use someone’s body merely for gratification is to mistreat that person. Healthy genital sex involves care for the whole person – body, mind, and spirit – and not “a body.” Genitality seeks more than self; it extends toward another. Genital sexuality urges us to seek union with others, and its healthy form lies in love. Sexuality is a sign that we are more than individuals, that we tend toward community. This unitive, transcendent movement can be considered the spiritual dimension of sexuality. Without the spiritual dimension, genital sex eventually dissipates into anxious emptiness.[17]

Now let us look into certain motivation for genital gratification. A common motivation for genital behaviour is to satisfy needs, reduce tension, and experience pleasure. Acting only for pleasure is never healthy, sometimes unhealthy, and always immature. Another motive for genital sex is to escape painful feelings. Tension and boredom also can move a person toward genital behaviour. The irony is that they produce more boredom and tension later. It is better to listen to these feelings and seek healthier ways to respond to them, ways that will help us become more aware of and responsive to others. Genital sex can also generate a feeling of being whole. And it can also fulfil a desire to be special. Sex can be used to control and conquer, especially when one feels inferior. Genital sex can be used to compensate for past deprivation. But it is an inadequate response. What we are looking for deep within ourselves is more permanent than immediate gratification. What everyone needs is an experience that fosters permanent growth in love.[18]

Certain Conclusions

These three aspects of sexuality – primary, affective, and genital – must not be confused. For example, a healthy affective sexuality demonstrates qualities such as warmth, tenderness, gentleness, sensitivity. A serious problem arise when one confuses genital and affective sexuality, believing that genital sex is the only way of being intimate with another person. As indicated before, those committed to living celibately must develop an authentic spirituality of their sexuality in order to fully live the three dimensions of human sexuality. The celibate’s deepest sexual hunger must be for human fulfilment developed over a lifetime of prayer and authentic friendships with others. Human isolation is dangerous, too easily leading to the fragmentation of such dysfunctional behaviours as pornography and sexual acting out. The basic need in a celibate’s life should not be genital sex, but rather intimacy, relationship, affirmation, and acceptance. Sexual maturity, therefore, is not a state to be achieved, but a process to be lived. Seminarians, priests and religious must live and love in the world. They must allow relationships to shape their understanding of God, and in so doing, they will be able to step outside their own limitations.[19]

– Prepared by Bhyju CMF.

[1] The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, 3rd Ed., 672-673.

[2] Cf. R.J.CAMPBELL, Psychiatric Dictionary, 7th ed., 663.

[3] W.F.KRAFT, Whole & Holy Sexuality (1998), 15.

[4] Cf. F. FERDER, J. HEAGLE, Tender Fires. The Spiritual Promise of Sexuality (2002), 29-40.

[5] Cf. W.F.KRAFT (1998), 15-16.

[6] Cf. Ibid, 17-18.

[7] Cf. Ibid, 19.

[8] G.D. COLEMAN, Catholic Priesthood. Formation and Human Development (2006), 46.

[9] Cf. W.F.KRAFT (1998), 25.

[10] Ibid, 25-26.

[11] Ibid, 26.

[12] Cf. Ibid, 27-29.

[13] Ibid, 37.

[14] Cf. Ibid, 38-46.

[15] Cf. G.D. COLEMAN (2006), 46.

[16] Cf. W.F.Craft (1998), 57.

[17] Cf. Ibid, 59-61.

[18] Cf. Ibid, 64-68.

[19] Cf. G.D. COLEMAN (2006), 46.