You can’t study the history of sexual morality without realising that Christian churches are doing a really bad job today at explaining and justifying their stance on sexual behaviour. It’s perfectly possible to argue that sexual activity is best restricted to permanent, public and exclusive relationships (which I would see as the defining characteristics of marriage), but too many Christian moral arguments still end up relying on a view of marriage that is unrealistically procreation-oriented. (Leaving aside issues of birth control, it’s entirely plausible now to have marriages with 20 or even 30 years of post-menopausal sexual activity). And to label all non-marital sex as irremediably wicked also doesn’t accord with people’s own experiences. A Christian morality that isn’t grounded in a realistic account of humanity isn’t going to convince anyone.
So I’m always interested to read Christian discussions of sexual morality that do get beyond simplistic views of ‘married sex good, other sex bad’, and I came across an interesting take recently: Rowan Williams’ The body’s grace which is a speech he gave to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Association in 1989.
Like a lot of Williams’ writing, it’s not always easy to follow, especially, if like me, you don’t know all the literary sources he quotes. But at the centre of the speech is the idea of sexual activity as involving self-giving and mutuality:
my arousal and desire must become the cause of someone else’s desire
in sexual relation I am no longer in charge of what I am. Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in something like this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivialising them. But here we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, be perceived, accepted, nurtured; and that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable.
Williams sees this mutuality is inextricably linked to vulnerability:
for my desire to persist and have some hope of fulfilment, it must be exposed to the risks of being seen by its object.
He contrasts this with what he describes as sexual “perversion”, which he describes as:
sexual activity without risk, without the dangerous acknowledgement that my joy depends on someone else’s as theirs does on mine. Distorted sexuality is the effort to bring my happiness back under my control and to refuse to let my body be recreated by another person’s perception.
I want to write more at some point about what Williams thinks this idea of sex means in practical moral terms. But for now I want to go slightly sideways and connect up with some of my other current interests in story-telling and masculinity. Which is why you’re now going to get one of the first blog posts ever which discusses both Rowan Williams and Hugh Grant.
It doesn’t need much pointing out that most film romantic comedies nowadays are rather feeble affairs, and, in particular, the heroes of them are now so often nerds, or at best Hugh Grant. The physically inadequate and/or socially inadequate hero gets the heroine, who remains conventionally gorgeous. Why this asymmetry? You can’t just put it down to sexism, because if you go back a few generations there were some much more attractive romantic heroes in film (Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart etc). I think it’s because alpha males can no longer have risky sex.
Essentially, a romance is only romantic if there’s a possibility that the hero won’t get the heroine. In previous generations, there were obvious social barriers that could be used to stop even an alpha male having it too easy. He and she come from warring families, or different social classes, or one of them is already married, etc. (It’s noticeable that several of Leonardo diCaprio’s big romantic hits have been in historical parts). In the modern world, it’s hard to find an external reason why the heroine shouldn’t sleep with the hero almost immediately (unless it’s an action film and you can have a lot of explosions intervene).
In addition, an alpha male in a modern film, almost by definition, is also not allowed to be sexually vulnerable. He is supposed to be irresistible to women, he cannot experience the rejection of not being desired by the heroine. And so the romance, the mutuality, is promptly gone, because the risk has gone. The only men who are allowed to be shown as potentially facing romantic rejection, and thus driving an actual plot, are the beta males, the non-perfect. The sexual risk that is at the heart of a romantic/sexual relationship cannot be displayed on screen any more, at least not in the person of the alpha male: there is no more Cary Grant.