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The Puzzle of Sex

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Almost everyone is directly affected by questions involving sex and sexual ethics - yet few are aware of the background to current views on topics such as sex before and after marriage, sex as procreation and fulfilment, homosexuality, sexual abuse, rape and contraception. This new edition offers added and up-to-date material discussion burning current issues in a thoughtful, reflective and challenging way.

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Published 19 September 2013
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EAN13 9780334048145
Language English

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The Puzzle of Sex
New Edition
Peter VardyCopyright information
© Peter Vardy 2009
First published in 1997 by Fount Paperbacks, UK
This Second Edition published in 2009 by SCM Press
Editorial office
13–17 Long Lane,
London, EC1A 9PN, UK
SCM Press is an imprint of Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd (a registered charity)
St Mary’s Works, St Mary’s Plain,
Norwich, NR3 3BH, UK
www.scm-canterburypress.co.uk
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the
prior permission of the publisher, SCM Press.
The Author has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as
the Author of this Work
Acknowledgement of sources:
Adam Butler, ‘The Wall’, in A. Dodds, The Hospice Book of Poetry, St Helena Hospice, 1992. Used by
permission.
Dale Grant Stephens, ‘Eye to Eye’, in Let Your Heart Talk, Heart Talk Publications, 2003. Permission
sought.
Raymond Carver, ‘Company’, in All of Us, Harvill, Random House Group Ltd. Used by permission.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
978 0 334 04205 1
Typeset by Regent Typesetting, London
Printed and bound by
CPI Bookmarque, Croydon CR0 4TDContents
Introduction: The Sexual Challenge
Part One: The Puzzle of Sex – A Developing Understanding
1. The Creation Stories
2. Women and Sex in the Hebrew Scriptures
3. Jesus – A Scandalous Figure
4. Men, Women and Sex – The Early Christian Tradition
5. East and West – Different Christian Perspectives
6. Reformation Thinkers
7. Old Wine in New Bottles – The Basis for Sexual Ethics Today
Part Two: The Puzzle of Sex Today
8. Psychological Perspectives
9. The Sexual Revolution
10. Contraception and its Social Effects
11. Transactional Sex
12. Love and Marriage
13. The Old Gods Return
14. Sex and Becoming Fully Human
15. Infidelity, Adultery and Betrayal
16. Homosexual Relationships
17. Bringing the Threads TogetherD e d i c a t i o n
To Anne Vardy
with grateful thanksIntroduction: The Sexual Challenge
Is underage sex wrong? Much depends on how ‘underage’ is defined. In Britain and the United States the
age of consent is 16, in Vietnam 18, in Madagascar 21, in Spain 13 and in some countries in the Arab
world a girl may be married and have sex once she has had her first period (which can be at the age of
10). Adultery is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia yet in the West it is common and scarcely raises any
public comment. Homosexuality is widely accepted in parts of San Francisco, in Sydney’s Kings Cross
area or in Brighton and Hove in England – in other parts of the world it is punishable by death. Sex on the
internet is increasingly common and sexually explicit magazines are available on the shelves of all
Western newsagents.
Is sex on the internet wrong? Websites such as Second Life have boomed in popularity in recent years
and the first divorce has taken place with one partner citing her husband’s adultery through his avatar with
a female avatar on the internet. Sex is meant to be one of life’s great pleasures and many magazines and
television programmes are devoted to either sex or helping people make themselves sexually attractive. In
schools, ‘health’ programmes teach young people how to avoid the risks associated with sex, often
divorced from any wider moral or psychological considerations. Implants are now being used by teenage
girls to avoid the risk of pregnancy instead of having to ‘bother with’ condoms or ‘the pill’ and a vaccine
is being increasingly given to 12-year-olds to avoid infection by the HPV virus during adolescent sexual
activity. Meanwhile, the rate of marriage is declining with more couples choosing to live together, yet at
the same time the divorce rate is rising.
Sex is at once routine, simple, straightforward and yet complex. It can be both beautiful and
devastating. The beauty of a flower is directly related to the need to pass on its genes through the
assistance of insects, bees or butterflies. Male animals fight each other in order that their genes can be
passed on rather than their competitor’s. They engage in hugely complex and demanding displays to attract
females and invest much of their energies in the process, often shortening their lives as a result. Sex is the
means by which almost every individual plant and animal reproduces, the very process by which species
evolve and by which life on earth continues to exist.
The link between sex and reproduction invests a bodily action with a profound significance, for
individuals and for society in general. Sustaining the young requires huge investment both in terms of
parental time and of resources. The selection of a sexual partner has, therefore, profound significance.
The ability to control the rate and type of reproduction determines the success of an individual and
ultimately of a community. From the earliest times individuals have been interested in controlling their
own fertility, being discriminating in their choice of partner.
Historically human beings, and particularly those who have an education and/or political power, have
liked to play down the importance of ‘base instincts’ like sex in their lives, claiming that human beings
are potentially unique in being able to ‘rise above’ animal needs and desires to behave on a ‘higher,
rational level’. However, experience teaches that the power of sex can undermine humanity’s idealistic,
rational vision of itself. Because of this, sex has often been viewed with suspicion and has been seen in
negative terms particularly, it must be said, by religion. Religion has always been aware of the power of
sex and, generally, with some exceptions as in parts of Hinduism, it has been looked on negatively, as an
unfortunate necessity in perpetuating this temporary and unsatisfactory world. Sex must be directed
towards reproduction and then kept firmly under control.
Sex has disrupted and distorted the orderly working of communities when unleashed from its tight
bounds. Greece went to war with Troy because of the beauty of Helen and the sexual drive that drove
King Priam’s son to steal her away from her Greek husband. The Hebrew Judge, Samson, was
overthrown because of consequences arising from his sexual behaviour – he failed to live up to his
celibate calling as a Nazirite prophet, was attracted to a foreign prostitute rather than a good Hebrew girl,
spent time trying to please her rather than engaging in productive work and ended up humiliated and dead.
Choosing the right sexual partner for your son or daughter was a central concern of monarchs in the
Middle Ages. It could ensure peace and stability or could foster ambitions in terms of expanding territory
or undermining a troublesome neighbour. A bad match could lead to the end of a dynasty and disastrous
civil war. The association between sex, sin and suffering was made early in human history. It was the
accepted interpretation of the story of the Fall in Genesis well before the time of Jesus which made it all
the more significant that he was born of a virgin and remained apparently unmarried. By the time of the
renaissance, images of Adam and Eve in the Garden typically showed the serpent in highly sexualizedfemale form suggesting that female beauty aroused the bestial nature of men and thus prevented them from
fulfilling their potential as rational beings in the image of God and in harmony with God. In some versions
of Islam, women are told to keep their bodies completely covered to avoid providing temptation for men.
Today, the link between sex and reproduction has been largely broken due to modern methods of
contraception, particularly the pill which was developed by Dr Gregory Pincus in the early 1950s and
which, it is estimated, one hundred million women use today. The impact of the link being broken has
been described as a revolution and this is a fair description. The practical and political significance of
sex has altered. If large numbers of children and consequent investment do not necessarily result from the
sexual act, society (in the form of politicians, the law, religious authorities and families) becomes less
concerned with controlling it. However, that vacuum was soon filled by media and advertising agencies
who seized on the potential of sex as a means of controlling people, though in a different way and to a
new end. Sex is now used overtly to sell every commodity and people are encouraged to enjoy sex in
quantity as well as quality from earliest adolescence. The use of sex in this way is legitimized with
reference to science, albeit a twisted, distorted and very selective version of science. Sex is said to be
‘natural’, and human beings like other animals are said (in the words of Richard Dawkins) to be ‘the
1lumbering robots blindly programmed to pass on the selfish molecules known as genes’. All efforts to
control fertility and to influence the outcomes for individuals and societies therefore seem futile or
insidious. Human beings should enjoy the now, take advantage of contraception which may reduce
possibilities and delay the inevitable, allowing everyone to ‘eat and drink for tomorrow we will die’. The
ideas that actions and choices may have a long-term significance beyond producing higher or lower
amounts of personal happiness, that our lives may have a purpose other than to pass on DNA, is being
eroded.
Unfortunately, while sex may not always result in visible, practical consequences, the human psyche
has not evolved to accept that sex is so trivial. Freud famously argued for the important role of sexual
development in psychological balance and while his insights are unfashionable among therapists today,
few would deny that sexual experience has the ability to shape and damage us on a profound level,
whether or not it results in children.
Nevertheless, scientists such as James Watson, the discoverer of the DNA double helix, are now
calling for a further separation between sex for pleasure and for the more serious business of
reproduction, which should be undertaken in the laboratory. The measurable advantages of helping people
to make rational choices about the number and type of children that they have, or of controlling who may
or may not reproduce, of giving evolution a helping hand, have long been the subject of speculation.
Science-fiction writers, such as Andrew Niccol in Gattaca (1995), find it a topic which taps into the
public psyche as the story of Frankenstein once did, but eugenics were discussed seriously by the
politicians of the Third Reich who wished to ‘purify’ the population, and before that by Victorian British
as a way of improving society and avoiding the catastrophic famine predicted by Malthus. While many
people may shrink from handing the business of making babies over to doctors and politicians, this future
may be closer than is commonly thought.
The reality is that the separation of sex and reproduction has created an unprecedented opportunity for
sexually transmitted infections which in turn increase natural infertility and necessitate artificial fertility
treatments, many of which enable greater choice and control in reproduction. One in nine 17-year-old
girls have Chlamydia or, in the case of boys, are carriers of the virus. If left untreated in girls Chlamydia
may lead to infertility in later life. Sperm-counts are falling across the Western world for reasons
unknown but possibly connected to diet, lifestyle or the preponderance of female hormones from the
contraceptive pill in water supplies. One in seven 30-year-old couples will not be able to have children
naturally and IVF or IVM will be needed to help them to reproduce if they want children.
PreImplantation Genetic Diagnosis is becoming increasingly common for those who have IVF and offers
seemingly endless possibilities to reduce the incidence of genetic disease or to ‘improve’ the outcomes of
pregnancy in other ways.
Further, overpopulation is the biggest threat that the world faces. It drives the need for energy which in
turn drives the consumption of fossil fuels, the release of carbon dioxide and climate change. It drives up
the demand for food, which causes prices to rise, the gulf between rich and poor to widen and
radicalization, fundamentalism and violence soon follow. The Chinese government took radical action in
enforcing a one-child policy. Although regarded as inhumane it could be seen as expedient when the
population of China tops 1.3 billion, more than 20% of the world’s population. Since 1979, the policy hassucceeded in reducing the fertility rate to 1.7, equating to population growth of -0.4% in real terms, though
the population of China is still expected to grow, peaking in 2030, ten years before the Indian population
which uncontrolled is running at a fertility rate of 2.8, surpasses it. Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis
(or cruder forms of selection such as the abortion of female foetuses) is increasingly common in both
China and India as a means of controlling the sex of offspring. Individuals would much rather invest
resources in income-producing boys than in expensive girls – particularly as boys are expected to support
their parents financially when they grow old whereas girls leave the family home and have no
responsibility for their parents. The gender-balance in some regions has been seriously affected in many
areas, and the social and human side-effects of economic decisions are acutely felt as there will be few
women to ‘go round’.
The availability of contraception seems to make purely political preaching about the value of
exclusive lifelong marriage hollow and many religious authorities have accepted that sex for unitive and
procreative purposes can be separated – the first step to accepting sex outside marriage and to confusion
as to how to regard and what to do with children born of acts whose intentions were purely unitive. Those
who have not accepted the separation of sex and reproduction preach against the use of contraception, but
in a milieu in which marriage is not regarded by many as sacred and where people are encouraged by
others to see personal fulfilment in terms of physical gratification the arguments against sex for pleasure
seem weak.
None of the issues are straightforward and possibly no subject raises such strong opinions, objections,
or sensitivities as sex. Many still consider it in some ways dirty, a subject which should not be discussed
at all – while others can talk about little else. Any book that seeks to understand and help the reader think
through the puzzle of sex faces a daunting task. It needs to have a clear sense of history, since all
intellectual and cultural ideas have their origins in the past, and it needs to understand modern
developments in psychology, modern understandings of physiology and the complexity of religious,
philosophical and psychological attitudes to sex. Above all, perhaps, any study of the issues needs to be
clear and balanced without imposing an agenda. Sex is, above all, intensely personal and relates to the
lives of every person – including those in old-age homes where sexual activity is increasing due to the
advent of drugs such as Viagra and Cialis.
In order to understand where we are at any moment in history one needs to understand the past that has
brought us to this point. Goethe said that ‘Anyone who cannot draw on three thousand years of history is
living from hand to mouth; it is the only thing that separates us from a naked ape’. His point is that
understanding the historical background to culture, values, ideas and prejudices is essential for anyone to
decide how to think seriously and well about contemporary issues or to try to chart a way forward into the
future. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of sex, where values and attitudes are passed on from one
generation to another without necessarily being examined. Different cultures develop varying attitudes to
sexual ethics without necessarily interrogating these or thinking deeply about how these attitudes have
developed or whether they are still appropriate. In almost any society religious attitudes to sex have had a
profound influence. In order, therefore, to understand the present we must understand the past. The
German philosopher Hegel made this clear – he was the first to write a philosophy of history showing
how ideas in the past have developed through a tension between dialectically opposed positions to bring
us to where we are today. A series of opposing positions form a thesis (a particular view) and an
antithesis (an opposed view) which seem irreconcilable and incompatible but, over time, these
incompatibilities are resolved and a new unified view emerges which unites the seemingly irreconcilable
positions and develops a new thesis which in turns gives rise to an antithesis and so the process
continues. Tensions between views, therefore, are creative and out of intellectual tensions time produces
new insights. When one looks back in history, one needs to understand these developments in order to
make sense of the present. In doing this, it will become clear how many errors have been made and what a
devastating effect these have had on countless millions of people – nevertheless there was a real wisdom
in some ancient ideas and this needs to be preserved.
In Part One of this book the development of understanding about sex and sexual ethics will be traced. It
is this background that modern ideas reacted against and which, for many, still provide the main
alternative to the dominant contemporary understandings. In Part Two, the issue of whether the traditional
insights into sexual ethics still have any application will be evaluated using the latest understanding of
psychology and physiology before moving on to engage with sexual practices, attitudes and ethics in the
contemporary world. It is possible to read Part Two without Part One, but this would be to omit the
background which has informed and shaped modern culture and not to engage with the mistakes of thepast.
Notes
1 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.Part One: The Puzzle of Sex – A Developing Understanding1. The Creation Stories
Within European thought, many attitudes towards sexual relationships depend, even if indirectly, on the
Bible. Yet, the Bible was written by human beings. There is no suggestion in Christianity, Judaism or
Islam that the books of the Bible were written other than by human beings who were telling their story of
God’s interaction with the world. The biblical stories are complex and sophisticated accounts which
were given great thought. It is easy to read them far too simplistically.
The same phrases can occur again and again in the biblical accounts, albeit with slight shifts of
emphasis in different settings. It is essential, therefore, that the reader of a text should pay attention to the
context and should seek to understand what the writer wishes to say. What cannot and must not be done is
to take a few words of text out of the context in which they are placed. It is also important to recognize
that any reader brings their own presuppositions to bear on the text and these influence interpretation. The
idea of anyone having a total lack of presuppositions is nonsense – we are all the products of our
experience and our own individual perspectives. We cannot be completely neutral. The biblical accounts
have been used in different ways by many groups, often to serve their own interests.
If one is going to try to avoid imposing one’s own prior convictions on the biblical material, it is
essential to take the text seriously. The more people wish the Bible to ‘speak’ to them of God, the more
they have an obligation to try to understand exactly what the Bible is saying. Nowhere is this more the
case than in the area of sexual relations where a few key texts are often quoted out of context and with
limited understanding.
The New Testament has surprisingly little to say about sex – and this particularly applies to the
gospels. The Hebrew Scriptures speak of sexual matters in more detail although the relevance of these
comments today is a matter for debate. However, prior to tackling the specific references to sexual
behaviour, a more general theme needs to be dealt with at some length – and that is the relation between
men and women. The biblical story of creation is the starting point as it has been highly influential on
future relationships between men and women but, also, Jesus is recorded as drawing on the creation story
in support of his views on marriage while some epistles recall either the creation of Eve or her sin.
The Genesis accounts of creation
In their opening chapters the Hebrew Scriptures contain two creation stories which are entirely separate.
They come from two different traditions and two different authors and were placed together long after the
original stories were passed down by word of mouth in an oral tradition that would have extended over
many centuries. The first of these stories is contained in Genesis 1.1–2a and the second runs from Genesis
2.4b to 3.24. Both accounts owe a great deal to the creation myths of neighbouring, more developed
cultures in Babylon and possibly Egypt. The first story is dated by scholars around the sixth century BC; it
was probably written about the time of the exile into Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem. The
second account is held to be earlier, possibly from 1000 to 800 BC. Both stories seek to explain not just
the existence of physical phenomena but the way things are and both explore the relationship between men
and women.
1. The first creation story (Genesis 1.1–2.4a)
The story which appears first in the Bible has men and women being created together on the sixth day,
apparently as God’s final act. The crucial passage is:
Then God said ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the
fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every
creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God
he created him, male and female he created them. (Gen. 1.26–27)
The Hebrew word translated ‘man’ here is adam, a word which elsewhere means earth, creature of the
earth or more generally mankind. The word is not necessarily singular and not necessarily specifically
gendered – the implications of the translation ‘God created man’ are not necessary to the original text and
it might be more helpful to render the passage ‘Let us make human beings in our own image, after our
likeness’.
Many misunderstandings have arisen due to a failure to recognize this. Human beings are given