This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
One of the most common condemnations of non-standard sex — from homosexuality to masturbation — is “that’s not what those body parts were meant for.” Genitals and sexual desire were supposedly designed for reproduction, and reproduction alone: by God (as the argument most commonly goes), or by evolution (as the argument occasionally gets made). To use these parts/ desires for any other purpose is dangerous at best and sinful at worst.
Okay. Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether there even is a God, much less one who purposely designed the human body to fulfill his divine plan. The most common counter to this accusation is that it doesn’t get applied consistently. Not even by people who do believe in a God who created our bodies. As Dan Savage once pointed out: Our noses weren’t “designed” for us to rest our glasses on — and nobody gets their knickers in a twist over that. Off-label uses of our bodies are ridiculously common. I could come up with them all day. Our feet weren’t “meant” for us to operate the pedals of a car. Our mouths weren’t “meant” for us to play the harmonica. Our heads weren’t “meant” for us to display giant novelty foam-rubber cheese wedges and other oversized signals of allegiance to sports teams. Our hands weren’t “meant” for us to type on computer keyboards. (Boy howdy, were they ever not. My recent tendinitis flare-up is evidence enough of that.) And that doesn’t stop anyone from doing these things.
So why should sex be an exception? No, our mouths and assholes weren’t “designed” for sex, by God or by evolution. So what? We use our bodies in lots of ways and for lots of purposes that they weren’t “designed” for… and nobody considers that immoral. Computers and harmonicas and giant novelty cheese wedges are seen as acceptable and even positively neat. Why is anal sex somehow a perversion of the natural order?
A good argument. And one I frequently make myself.
But today, I’m going to take it a step further.
Off-label uses of body parts and biological functions aren’t just acceptable and morally neutral. They are some of the most beautiful, honorable, and deeply treasured parts of the human experience.
Human beings took our animal need for palatable food… and turned it into chocolate souffles with salted caramel cream. We took our ability to co-operate as a social species… and turned it into craft circles and bowling leagues and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We took our capacity to make and use tools… and turned it into the Apollo moon landing. We took our uniquely precise ability to communicate through language… and turned it into King Lear.
None of these things are necessary for survival and reproduction. That is exactly what makes them so splendid. When we take our basic evolutionary wiring and transform it into something far beyond any prosaic matters of survival and reproduction… that’s when humanity is at its best. That’s when we show ourselves to be capable of creating meaning and joy, for ourselves and for one another. That’s when we’re most uniquely human.
And the same is true for sex. Human beings have a deep, hard-wired urge to replicate our DNA, instilled in us by millions of years of evolution. And we’ve turned it into an intense and delightful form of communication, intimacy, creativity, community, personal expression, transcendence, joy, pleasure, and love. Regardless of whether any DNA gets replicated in the process.
Why should we see this as sinful?
What makes this any different from chocolate souffles and King Lear?
Rigid moralists — of the “don’t use your asshole for sex, that’s not what it’s meant for” variety — are often fond of talking about “what separates us from the animals.” Our self-restraint, our ability to delay gratification, our ethical judgment… these things supposedly make us finer and more noble than the animals, those base creatures who live only to eat and avoid predators and produce the next generation.
I, for one, don’t think anything separates us from the animals. We are animals. We tend to forget that. And in fact, recent research is showing that many non-human animals also have ethics and the ability to delay gratification and whatnot. We’re not as unique as we like to think.
But I do think we’re special animals. I do think we have abilities that make us different from other animals. And at the top of that list is our ability to take our animal instincts, and transform them into pursuits and achievements that have nothing whatsoever to do with their original functions of survival and reproduction — pursuits and achievements that serve no purpose but to create meaning, and connection, and knowledge, and joy.
Sex is most definitely one of those pursuits.
It deserves as much respect as any other.