Jacqui and Rob are 20. They have known each other for three years and feel themselves to be very much in love. They have decided to take a flat and live together as they are both full-time students with only part-time casual jobs. Rob’s parents in particular are sad and upset. They have explained many times their point of view, which is that sexual relations are an expression of a permanent, exclusive and public commitment. Rob admires his parents and is sorry to hurt them but does not feel ready for the commitment of marriage, though he wants to be together with Jacqui. He feels his parents’ position is a little narrow, as many friends see absolutely no problem with people who care for each other entering into a sexual relationship. ‘After all,’ he says, ‘”it’s no big deal. We see it every night on television.’ When his parents lament the popular culture which makes it so difficult for young people to either refrain from sexual relationships until they are married or to be willing to commit themselves permanently in marriage to someone they love, Rob gets defensive. He reminds them that Church and community attitudes in the past caused much anguish, especially for young women who found themselves pregnant and were shamed, ostracised and often separated from their children. He is also quick to point out that he and Jacqui do have values, which include equality, friendship and a commitment to partnership, and that sexual expression of affection is natural and normal.
- Should Rob and Jacqui marry?
- What has changed since Rob’s parents were married?
- What is the influence of television and popular culture on sexual relationships?
- What are the underlying issues here?
Finding The Facts
A brief study from Aberystwyth University provides and introduction to the genre of soap opera and its audience while short report from the BBC comments on how soap operas have become the most significant educator of young people about sexual matters. An Irish study on television has much to say about the sociological impact of television in general, less about its specific impact on sexual mores. Each of these sites convey a sense of how attitudes, in particular attitudes to sexual behaviour, have been deeply influenced by the media, particularly television.
- According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, what messages are being sent to television viewers about the meaning of sexual behaviour? Would these messages, even those that the Kaiser Foundation finds positive, be compatible with the Christian interpretation of sexuality? (See Understanding the Tradition.)
- Having read some of the articles referred to, identify three major ways in which television has influenced changes in society’s view of sexual morality.
- Critically watch an episode of a soap opera or sit-com, noting its narrative, how it ‘constructs’ its world, the issues it deals with, the relationships it depicts and who and what is approved and/or disapproved. Use your observations to discover the program’s particular philosophy of life, what its values and message are and what it has to say about the meaning of life, good and evil, etc.
- Interrogating TV Drama, a subsection of the Irish study mentioned above, provides some excellent questions which could be adapted to help in developing a critical approach to how television shapes attitudes to sexuality.
Apart from a consideration of the impact of media, it is helpful to look at the kind of pre-conceptions and attitudes which determine the way the average Australian of no particular religious affiliation thinks about sexuality. Some philosophies and religions (including Catholic Christianity) emphasise the role and purpose of sexual activity within certain clearly defined relationships. Others advocate freeing sex not only from the context of procreation and monogamous relationships, but even from any emotional commitment, and assigning to it no more significance than is attached to other physical functions like sneezing or eating.
An introduction to the history of western thought about sexuality can be found on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy site. It begins rather controversially with brief references to what are generally considered aberrations of sexual behaviour but soon settles into a discussion of how the ways we think about sex in the Western world have emerged. It also represents a secular attempt, from both a moral and a ‘non-moral’ point of view, to evaluate the meaning of sexuality and its contribution to a good and/or virtuous life. It makes an effort to be even-handed in its assessment of the work of major contributors to thought about sexuality (including Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas). A shorter article on love from the same source and one on sexual morality provide some useful definitions.
A discussion of the meaning of sexuality would not be complete without reference to the theories of Sigmund Freud. A site from Purdue University introduces Freud whose idiosyncratic views on sexuality and the human personality, though widely contested, greatly influenced twentieth century thought. The Church is rightly wary of theories that imply that human beings are somehow not responsible for their actions but are at the mercy of ‘primal’ urges. However, it is open to the tremendous contribution psychology and the social sciences have made to how human sexuality is understood.
- Who have been the most influential thinkers about sexuality in the West? Can you outline their points of view? With whom do you find yourself most in sympathy? Which points of view challenge your own pre-conceptions?
- What do you think of the distinction Alan Soble makes between moral and non-moral behaviour? Is any behaviour morally neutral?
Exploring Sacred Texts
Without a doubt, the Bible has had an enormous impact on how the Western world perceives and regulates human conduct. References to sexual matters in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) present a startling range of sexual behaviour and imagery to its readers and reflect an evolving understanding of the meaning of sexual love. The patriarchs, typically, were polygamous and the key value of sexuality in those early times was fruitfulness: the need and desire to produce many sons and daughters to carry on one’s name and pride, to help in the tasks of maintaining life and to be a support in old age.
The Kings of Israel and other leaders often have colourful sexual lives, even religious heroes like David and Solomon. However, one of the key Davidic stories (David and Bathsheba) indicates a progression in the understanding of sexual attraction and its moral expression.
The prophets frequently represent the love of God for Israel in terms of the passionate relationship between lovers. Then there is the ‘Song of Songs’ which is an extended poem celebrating the sexual joy of lovers. Though often interpreted allegorically, it seems originally written simply to celebrate love and physical attraction.
The core scriptural writing on the meaning of sexual attraction and union is the account in Genesis 2 of the creation of man and woman. This text, which expresses the fundamental relationship between man and woman, their mutuality and essential equality, forms the basis of Jesus’ words on marriage and hence is also the basis for Christian reflection on sexual relationships.
Of course, there have been many interpretations of this text, some of which have served as justification for the subjugation of women within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. A stimulating but quite demanding article by Phyllis Trible addresses the question of whether Genesis 2 is patriarchal and outdated or, in fact, a seminal text full of meaning for understanding the relationship of man to woman and of humankind to God.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his followers not simply to outward observance of the Law but to inner conversion as well. Consequently his followers are not simply to refrain from committing adultery but to maintain clean hearts as well. Apart from this teaching of Jesus, the New Testament does not have a great deal to say about sexuality, probably because the early Christian writers believed that the extraordinary events they had witnessed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus would be imminently fulfilled by his coming in glory. Hence matters such as sexual relationships and the conduct of married life were only of relatively minor concern to the New Testament writers. Nevertheless, Paul mentions sexual morality in three of his letters: Corinthians, Romans, and Colossians. Each of these warns against disordered, self-indulgent and exploitative sexual behaviour.
- How do you understand the range of sexual behaviour portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures? Is it possible to see a development in the understanding of human sexuality and the relationship between men and women within these scriptures?
- What does a careful reading of Genesis, Chapter 2, tell us about man, woman, God and sexuality?
- What do Jesus’ words during the Sermon on the Mount imply for a Christian understanding of sexual morality?
Understanding the Catholic Tradition
Christianity has long been characterised as a religion which distrusts human sexuality. However, Christianity has, at the same time, stood firm against heresies (such as Manicheanism, Gnosticism, Puritanism) which have denigrated fleshly and human aspects of life. At no time has the Church taught that the body or sexuality were evil. Yet the fact remains that a certain sense of unease with the sexual aspect of human life has often been characteristic of Christian tradition and practice.
A little history sheds some light on this. Christianity came to birth within the Hellenist culture of Asia Minor. In contrast to Semitic ideas about the human being which did not distinguish between body and soul, Greek thought about the body and sexuality was strongly dualist. In simple terms, there was thought to be a divide between matter and spirit. Matter pertained to what was earthly and transient, unstable and unreliable, while spirit pertained to God, to what was holy, sacred and immutable. So despite the fact that faith in the ‘Word made flesh’ (an article by Ronald Rolheiser, entitled ‘Incarnation Honours the Flesh’ explains the significance of the Incarnation) is at the heart of Christianity, its emergent theology began to express Christian sacred truths in terms of the culture which surrounded it.
The virtue of detachment from the flesh and human passions was seen as the pre-eminent way to holiness. Hints of this way of thinking are detectable in the writings of Paul but were further developed in the writings of the early Fathers of the Church. Rather unfairly, St Augustine has long been regarded as the originator of this distrust of sexuality. A biographical outline by James O’Donnell will introduce you to this giant of the early church. It is true that both the philosophical setting of his time and his own personal history made Augustine wary of sexual passion but his perspectives were much more subtle than some simplistic outlines of his views suggest. Moreover the many problems, personal and systemic, arising from the sexual revolution of the latter part of the twentieth century indicate that naïve romanticism about human sexuality is also misplaced.
A wonderful essay entitled ‘Friendship and Desire: Augustine Reviews Will and Grace’ (the American sit-com centring on the lives and loves of a gay man and a sexually active but unmarried young woman) shows in a particularly amusing and deft way how Augustine’s reflection on the tension between human ‘will’ and God’s ‘grace’ informed his thought on human relationships. At the same time the essay reveals the deep humanity and psychological insight that make Augustine seem uniquely modern among the ancient writers. Towards the end of this essay reference is made to the attitudes of Thomas Aquinas to relationships between the sexes.
St Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval philosopher and theologian, supported the Augustinian position on sexuality and marriage in that he taught that sexual love is to be expressed only within marriage and oriented first of all to procreation. However, Thomas also asserted that the friendship and affection which characterise the love between husband and wife constitutes ‘a very great good’ within marriage.
Theology of the Body
Surprisingly, it was not until the mid–twentieth century that the Church recognised the equal importance of this unitive dimension of sexual love alongside the procreative function. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae speaks well of the deep friendship that is symbolised and deepened by sexual love in marriage. John Paul II wrote at length on this too. Christopher West, who deeply admires the Pope, introduces some of his ‘Theology of the Body’ on his site while a very accessible article addresses a common question: Why is the Catholic Church so hung up on sex?
Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarises the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, which is built round an appreciation of:
- the dignity of each person
- the sacredness of human life
- the mutual and total self-giving, one to another, symbolised by the act of sexual intercourse
- the fidelity and permanence in relationship implied by this total giving.
This vision and understanding of sexuality challenge, and are challenged by, many attitudes and practices of the present day, including those portrayed in soap operas and situation comedies, where other values and other views of the meaning of sexual activity are dominant. Some of these are discussed in a helpful way by Jesuit Fr Richard Malloy in an article entitled Just Sex: Giving young adults what they truly want.
- The Church has always upheld the value of exclusive, faithful and permanent sexual relationships. What other worthwhile values does present-day society insist on within relationships?
- Read Cathleen Kaveny’s essay again. What values of Augustine does she see reflected in the situation comedy Will and Grace?
- What are the challenges to contemporary views of sexuality that Catholic teaching presents? Use the Tug for Truth thinking routine to explore both views.
- How different are the values of students from the four dot-pointed values from the Catechism? What possibilities exist for drawing parallels between the values held by the Church concerning sexuality and the values of young people concerning sexuality?
Respecting Other World Views
A brief background to the sexual ethics, especially attitudes to pre-marital sexual relations, of several other major faiths is given in an article on Chastity in the New World Encyclopedia.
Within Hinduism, sexuality and the erotic are seen as being important, integrated elements of the human existence. The Hindu approach to sex is briefly outlined in Hinduism: Beliefs about Love and Sex and another article on premarital sexual relationships amplifies this.
An article entitled ‘An Islamic Perspective on Sexuality’ gives an introduction to Islamic attitudes to sexuality. Further comment is provided in an article entitled ‘TV and Sexual Content In The Light Of Islamic Morals’.
An article entitled ‘Buddhist Sexual Ethics’ on the Buddhanet site provides a Western perspective on Buddhist attitudes to sexuality. A rejoinder in the same online magazine provides a different interpretation.
- What elements of similarity do you find in the sexual attitudes of the major religious traditions? How do they differ?
Examining Personal Experience
As almost all of us have grown up in the era of television and been exposed to hundreds of depictions of sexual situations, we are all in the position of being virtual ‘experts’ on this topic.
What effect do these stories have on the formation of our own ideas about sex and relationships? Do we, like Jacqui and Rob, see them as simply setting out how sexuality is understood and expressed in society nowadays? Do we sense that they challenge views of the meaning of sex that we might have received from family, society or our own particular religious tradition, and do we think they deserve to be accorded the same respect? Do we take the view that soap operas and sit-coms simply exploit human fascination with sexuality for ratings and profit and should not be taken too seriously?
If TV does not influence how we think and behave sexually, what does?
- Find out the facts.
- Broaden your perspectives.
- Explore the sacred texts.
- Understand the tradition.
- Consider other world views.
- Review your personal experience.
Articulate your own response.