New Ways Ministry’s 2018 Father Robert Nugent Memorial Lecture

Cultivating Sexual Desire: Theological and Pastoral Reflections

Father Robert Nugent, SDS

On April 22, 2018, Professor Patricia Beattie Jung delivered the Father Robert Nugent Memorial Lecture, a series instituted by New Ways Ministry to honor the memory of one of its co-founders. Father Robert Nugent, SDS, who passed away on January 1, 2014. The purpose of the lectureship is to  address topics that were dear to Fr. Bob’s mind and heart: pastoral outreach to LGBT people and their families, theological developments in the area of sexuality, homosexuality and gender, building bridges of reconciliation between the LGBT community and institutions within the Catholic Church.  Professor Jung’s lecture was delivered at the Bon Secours Retreat & Conference Center, Marriottsville, Maryland. The inaugural lecture was delivered in 2016 by Rev. Charles Curran.

Patricia Beattie Jung

Patricia Beattie Jung is a Roman Catholic moral theologian who is currently a Visiting Professor of Christian Ethics at St. Paul School of Theology and the President-Elect of the Society of Christian Ethics. She has been teaching ethics for over forty years, at a variety of Protestant and Catholic institutions throughout the mid-west. Patti served as the co-editor of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics for many years and has published widely in the field of Christian sexual ethics.  Included among her books are: Heterosexism: An Ethical ChallengeGood Sex: Feminist Wisdom from the World’s ReligionsSexual Diversity and Catholicism: Toward the Development of Moral TheologyGod, Science, Sex and Gender: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Christian Sexual EthicsSex on Earth as It Is in Heaven: A Christian Eschatology of DesireProfessional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach; and Sex and Gender: Christian Ethical Reflections.

The text of her lecture is presented below. This lecture is largely drawn from parts of the concluding chapters of her book, Sex on Earth as It Is in Heaven: A Christian Eschatology of Desire, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2017.

CULTIVATING SEXUAL DESIRE: THEOLOGICAL AND PASTORAL REFLECTIONS[1]

 By Patricia Beattie Jung

There are five parts to my argument. (1) I believe God’s own love for us is passionate, and that our passions, including our sexual desires, can bear witness to God. (2) I then note that we have a limited, but very real capacity to shape our desires, including our sexual attractions. (3) I argue that as Christians we are called to embody just, mutually pleasurable, loving relationships. (4) Consequently, we need to unlearn all sexual scripts which deform desire, including erotophobic and heterosexist scripts erroneously sanctified by Christianity as well as the messages about what makes for good sex “promulgated” by internet porn (hereafter IP). (5) To unlearn the scripts given us by porn, we must turn away from the pursuit of novelty in many of its expressions (though my focus here is on IP) and lean into incarnate, steadfast sexual relationships wherein we can joyfully practice together with our partners other ways to spark desire for just, mutually pleasurable loving relationships.

  1. GOD LOVES US PASSIONATELY.

The Bible — from beginning to end — testifies to God’s relentless pursuit of intimate connection with us. For Christians this appears most evident in God’s decision to become incarnate, to become one with and dwell among us. God longs to be close to and delights in communion with us (and indeed with all of creation.) The erotic longings we experience – the desire to be intimately known and loved, as well as to know and love others – are passions built into us by God.  In fact, we image God when we reach out to each other. We have been created by God for precisely the delights of such intimacy.

To love God is to love ourselves and others as God does. The dance into which God invites us is deeply personal but it is not a pas de deux. It is not a private party between me and God. Our call as Christians is to love others, ourselves and God together. Self-love and affections for others do not detract from the love of God. On the contrary they mirror and spring from God’s own passion.

God continuously creates and stirs within us this holy longing for companionship. To be faithful to this Passionate God requires that we educate and nurture the image of God within us, by cultivating our passions, including our sexual desires. Why? In the language of the Second Vatican Council this is so because sexual activity can promote the “mutual self-giving” that bears witness to the Passion of God. [2]  We are called to befriend, not ignore, the sensuous attractions that fuel our connections to others. It is precisely because they can be so love making that our sexual desires should be cultivated.

  1. WE ALL HAVE A LIMITED BUT REAL CAPACITY TO SHAPE SEXUAL DESIRE.

Though we often pretend otherwise, most of us know deep down that we have never been overwhelmed by our sexual impulses but instead have chosen to act (or not) on them. We know we can keep our pants on (or pull them back up), no matter how hot things get. This ability to refrain (or not) from engaging in sexual activity is an important moral topic, but it is only tangentially relevant to what I want us to consider here: our capacity to shape, not only our behaviors, but the very desires from which they spring. [3]

“Now wait a minute,” I hear you thinking, “I am willing to admit I am responsible for my sexual behavior, but what turns me on seems quite spontaneous.  Isn’t what I experience as sexually exciting involuntary?” That is an excellent question. Let’s start with it.

Passions do seem to just happen to us. We sometimes find ourselves suddenly turned on; and at other times, we cannot get up (so to speak) for sexual activity. Sexual attractions are profoundly involuntary and that is what makes them passions in the technical sense of the word. There are physiological and evolutionary foundations for the broad spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities within our species. There are genetic as well as neurochemical factors at the base of our experiences of sexual desire over which we have no control. BUT our sexual feelings are not only spontaneous. Our feelings – including our sexual desires — are psychologically, socially and culturally constructed as well. And while these habits of the heart can become “written on our flesh,” they are not hard wired. We know this to be true because human emotions are not expressed identically across the ages or around the globe.

Consider anger. Like our sexual responses, anger too can spontaneously erupt into our lives. Though undoubtedly part of the “fight, flee or freeze” response built into our species, human constructions of anger vary considerably across cultures and the ages. According to the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, in ancient Rome the definition of masculinity was such that a “real” man would fly into a rage in response to the most trivial of “slights.” [4]  In contrast, among the Utka, an Eskimo tribe, any expression of anger by an adult (however legitimate by our standards) is viewed as deeply shameful. Not surprisingly one finds almost no anger among the Utka. The point here is that differing cultural narratives foster disparate experiences of anger.

Similarly, what is considered sexy varies tremendously across cultures and epochs. Courses in the history of sexuality and comparative cultural anthropology reveal widely different accounts of what is hot. These are set against assorted background judgments about sexual desire in general.  Some of these meta-narratives are profoundly erotophobic and treat all sexual feelings as morally repulsive. Some are profoundly heterosexist. Though I would argue that Christianity is not at heart anti-erotic, it must be admitted that many such sex negative scripts were frequently sanctified by church teachings. For many centuries theologians conflated all experiences of sexual desire with lust, and still today many within the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations mistakenly teach that all same sex desires are “objectively immoral.” These are serious, soul-crushing errors. Still we have some critical capacity and corresponding moral responsibility to deconstruct messages like these.

  1. WE SHOULD FORM OUR SELVES FOR JUST, MUTUALLY PLEASURABLE, LOVING RELATIONSHIPS.

For these reasons the proper schooling of desire is one of the central tasks of the moral life. Its cultivation is never neutral: desire is always directed toward this or that end.  Obviously then, the key question is this: what scripts for sexual passions should we sanctify? Toward what kind of connections should our desires incline us? Are there some experiences of sexual desire we should discourage?

What we experience as “hot” is constructed by many cultural factors, including our deepest religious beliefs. Mine are at the heart of this ethical argument. As a Christian I think we are called to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, in all we do — including in our sexual lives.[5] Minimally this means we must nurture desires that do not harm ourselves, our partners[6] or the wider community, and that in other important ways serve justice. It also rules out the unilateral pursuit of sexual pleasure, because neither my pleasure nor my partner’s pleasure alone will prove to be love making.  To be loving, sexual activity must be mutually pleasurable. [7]

  1. WE ALSO NEED TO UNLEARN SCRIPTS THAT DEFORM SEXUAL DESIRE.

Toward this end many teachers of the church are looking anew at the doctrines of creation and incarnation as well as at Christian beliefs about the resurrection of the body and the place of sex and gender in the life of the world to come, and the natural law arguments they underwrite. They are finding affirmations of human sexual desire that cry out for proclamation. We are building alternative narratives that affirm the body’s grace and the holiness of sexual desire and delight on these explorations, for GLBT and straight alike.

Warrants for such cultivation can be found throughout the Christian Bible and tradition. When properly interpreted, the scriptures reveal that queer and straight passions alike have been created good and that many of us have been called into “one flesh” unions.  Notice in Genesis that Adam does not exclaim “Viva la difference!” but instead identifies the foundation for sexual partnership to be our common humanity. When he exclaims “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!” he makes it clear that it is our shared humanity, not gender difference, that make human couples fit for each other. Similarly, there is no good reason not to interpret the Song of Song as inviting all couples – queer and straight alike — to revel in the sensuous delights through which God draws us into one another’s arms. Likewise, there is no reason not to apply to all Paul’s reminder in First Corinthians that spouses should sexually please one another.[8]

The same can be said of traditional efforts across the centuries to commend sexual pleasures. Aquinas’ conclusion that there is no (venial) sin attached to the sexual pleasures enjoyed by spouses should be applied to all. Similarly, the eighteenth-century declaration by Alphonsus Liguori, CSsR, the patron saint of moral theologians, that marital pleasure was not only permissible, but to be recommended should be applied to all. A century later Bishop Patrick Kenrick of Philadelphia taught that there was a positive obligation for spouses to pursue their mutual sexual pleasure. And the list could go on… When properly reinterpreted as applying to queer and straight alike, such traditions should be retrieved and applied to all couples in steadfast relationships.

An additional teaching relevant to our reflection on the cultivation of sexual desire comes from Thomas Aquinas. He taught that sexual “insensibility” was morally problematic.[9] Since he mistakenly presumed no or low desire to be quite rare, he paid scant further attention it.  But we know more about asexuality today.

In addition to its routine fluctuations, we know that the long-term waning of sexual desire is fairly common.[10] We now recognize that it is a global issue, not merely a Western problem, as was once presumed. We know that it is so unacceptable in our culture to be without sexual desire that women regularly “fake” interest and delight, and that both men and women often risk their health using powerful street drugs and pharmaceuticals in off-label ways to try and spark their sexual desire.[11]  We know that our libidos can be lowered by several things: depression, medications, stress, poor health, sexual betrayal, previous sexual trauma, addictive responses to pornography use, pain with sex, closeting and relationship dissatisfaction, just to name a few.[12] We also know that in regard to the waning of sexual appetites, there are more similarities than differences between men and women and between those who are queer and straight.[13]

I would be more nuanced in my judgment about asexuality than Aquinas, since we understand now that it is not a matter over which people have complete control. But I think many of us might well agree with his instinct that its absence is of moral concern, especially for those in sexual partnerships. We rightly miss not only the sensuous pleasures toward which it inclines us, but also the intimacy and love it fuels. For these reasons people often try to stoke these fires when they dwindle.

But as noted earlier, we need to think carefully about what to cultivate. In recent decades many theologians, myself included, have challenged the erotophobic and heterosexist narratives which condemn all experiences of desire and delight. To disconnect shame from sexual attraction, we must refute the cognitive beliefs upon which that link was built and replace them with alternative convictions. We can and must develop our emotional as well as theological intelligence. Thankfully, we are not completely at the mercy of such teachings.  We can become attuned to and critically reflect on the feelings of sexual shame that have been triggered by such erroneous teachings.

Many theologians are contributing to our unlearning of these mistaken teachings and the sexual shame they produce. For example, consider the July 30, 2017 homily of Brazilian Bishop Antônio Carlos Cruz Santos of Caico, in which he declared homosexuality “a gift from God.” He argued further in his sermon that like earlier, now disgraced, church teachings about slavery, church teachings that reflect sexual prejudices need to be reformed in light of modern understandings of sexuality and gender. This is very important work. I affirm this effort to unearth good news about sexual desire and delight, for straight and queer alike. I am proud to have contributed to it in some small ways.[14]  But I believe we also need to think together about what additional normative arguments we might want to make. What kind of same sex desires do we want to promote?

Anyone who is truthful knows that what we find exciting is not only at times deliciously wild, but also at times wounded. Like heterosexist, shame-producing narratives, other messages our culture sends about desire also need to be unlearned. They too misshape our sexual experience.

Obviously, we do not have control over what pops into our heads or moves our groins. We are not morally responsible for our initial spontaneous responses to others. But if these attractions last, then we have consented to them. They have become deliberate. If we begin to feed them through the fantasies we entertain, then we must take responsibility for them. If they are desires that will not incline us toward just, mutually pleasurable, loving relationships then we need to turn away from them. If we let them occupy our attention, we are not practicing what the tradition called “custody of the eyes.”

“So what? What’s the big deal?” You are saying to yourself. “Didn’t we just agree, we can keep our pants on no matter how hot it gets?”  Well yes – we can do that. But you and I know that it’s also true that we often don’t! [15] When we find ourselves aroused, we can and should step back from and make a quick judgment about what is exciting us. Not every message about sexuality sent to us is trustworthy. And if we discern an attraction to be morally dangerous, we can and should refuse to let it occupy our attention. Eventually, we might even come to see the object of our desire differently.[16]

What I have in mind here is very different from ignoring an attraction.  Repression may work in the short haul but buried — rather than transformed — attractions are notorious for resurfacing. They will catch us unaware, at the block party when we have had a bit too much to drink, or just when we are feeling tired, lonely, irritable etc.  I think in our culture the woundedness of sexual desire finds its clearest expression in the multiple ways dominance and submission (even outright violence) have been eroticized. Many of us find it exciting either to be objectified or to objectify others, to submit to or take control of our sexual partners.  I will argue shortly that desires such these are not what God wants us to cultivate. The challenge is how to eroticize alternative narratives for desire.[17]

I am talking about our desires because I believe the call to Christian holiness is an invitation to complete personal transformation that includes not only our actions but our emotions as well. God’s aim is to sanctify not only our sexual practices, but also our heart’s desires. God loves and claims us, every bit of us, including our sexual feelings. God aims to rid us not only of sexual shame but of cultural constructions of desires that do not serve justice and love. Jesus himself called attention to what he clearly saw as a deliberate sexual feeling in his Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:27-28)

Many Christians today ignore this passage. We like to pretend we are completely powerless regarding our sexual feelings. But the truth is we have some limited capacity to curtail the lustful gaze our culture often fosters (particularly through IP), just as we have a capacity to unlearn the shame-filled messages the church often still sanctifies. We are in this respect like jazz musicians: though we may find ourselves bound to a theme, we have lots of room to improvise.[18]

  1. THE PURSUIT OF SEXUAL NOVELTY DOES NOT FOSTER JUST, MUTUALLY PLEASURABLE, LOVING RELATIONSHIPS.

One common (but I will argue misguided) strategy to rekindle desire revolves around the pursuit of sexual novelty. The search for novelty sustains the hook up culture and finds expression in serial marriage. But I want us to consider its expression in the now ubiquitous use of IP. Many Christians – ordained, religious or lay, in sexual relationships or not, as individuals and/or as couples, queer or straight — are using porn to stimulate desire.[19]   I want us to think critically about this ill-fated strategy, particularly its formative impact on our desire.[20]

In my opinion viewing porn is not a very good way to cultivate desire and I will explain why.  But first, let me note that this strategy usually works, that is, IP generally proves to be sexually stimulating. Humans have known for a long time that novelty sparks desire.[21] Biologists tell us that new sexual partners are quite literally intoxicating—they activate reward centers of the brain which flood us with very pleasurable chemicals. This effect is short lived, but if we are on the net, we can move to a new virtual partner in literally seconds.  Without doubt, IP offers the possibility of sexual novelty in spades.

It should also be noted that today IP constitutes – like it or not – our national sex education program.[22] Young people report that much of what they have learned about sex, they learn from the net. One valuable aspect of this is that many same sex activities and relationships have been normalized as a result. This is valuable for everyone, queer and straight alike, but it may be especially good for younger members of the GLBT community who might well feel quite isolated in our still heterosexist church and homophobic society.

From a certain angle these features associated with the use of IP might be considered morally positive. However, I think we can and should develop better sex education programs and better ways to nurture desire. And there are other outcomes associated with the use of IP which make it morally problematic.

First, consider its complex relationship to abusive sexual activity. I recognize that estimates of how many porn videos explicitly eroticize violence vary widely.[23] And I also recognize that no causal correlation between the use of IP and sexual violence has been established.[24] But I think it is important to understand that one reason this correlation cannot be established is precisely because scripts that normalize sexual violence are woven deeply and extensively into the whole fabric of our culture. As columnist Frank Bruni recently reminded us, we need only consider film classics like Gone with the Wind to see how marital rape is glamorized by Hollywood or watch mainstream movies like Rocky to see date rape is romanticized.[25] Researchers cannot disentangle the impact of the use of IP from these other, deeply woven threads. Still, though we cannot identify its precise role in isolation from these other contributing factors, it remains reasonable I believe to conclude that at least some porn videos reinforce the eroticization of sexual violence widely embedded in our culture.

Second, consider what else IP teaches about sex, as well as what it fails to teach.  IP portrays sexual partners as always available for, and keenly interested in, sexual activity. It teaches that consent can be readily assumed, and that the best timing for a sexual encounter revolves around one individual’s schedule.  Additionally, the sexual preferences of partners are always portrayed as magically in sync. You will never hear a porn star say: – “hmmm, why don’t we shower up first?” Or even less likely, “This is just not doing it for me.”  I’ll admit such talk is not terribly sexy. But we need to learn how to give voice to, and ask for, what turns us on. If we truly believe mutual sexual pleasure because we believe it can be holy in just and loving relationships, then the importance of staying attuned to each other should be underscored. Otherwise, we will miss important signals. Catching these signals, not only about consent, but also about what might prove to be truly mutually pleasurable, is morally important. We need to learn how to listen each other into sexual speech if we want to cultivate sexual desire for just, mutually delightful, loving relationships.

IP doesn’t teach us this. On the contrary it portrays partners writhing in apparent pleasure, even though barely a word has been exchanged. Of course, there are other, nonverbal ways to communicate, but they are not captured by IP. Porn teaches that great sex happens quickly, often with no communication of any kind, frequently between total strangers. This is patently false. Porn not only fails to help us develop the communication skills that make consistently good sex possible. It teaches that such communication isn’t necessary.[26]

None of this should prove surprising. At its core the use of porn is voyeuristic.  In such encounters the viewer alone has the power to look away. While masturbating, the viewer has no need to communicate with, respond to, or please the other. What the use of porn schools us for are sexual experiences in which only one person matters and has any power. While it can be an important source of sexual self-knowledge and release, I think we might all agree that solitary masturbation is not sexually delicious.

Truly delightful sex isn’t solitary. Why? Sexual desire is such that we – just like the passionate God in whose image we have been created — want to arouse reciprocal desires in those to whom we are drawn. Like God, we not only want to connect — we want to be wanted in return. When we find someone attractive, we long for our feelings to be reciprocated.  Only a mutual relationship will prove truly satisfying. For this reason, the pursuit of novel partners — though obviously titillating — does not prove to be happy-making in the long haul. Social scientists confirm that all of us – across the sexual and gender spectrum — indicate the highest level of sexual satisfaction when we are in steadfast relationships.

The problem is committed relationships render us vulnerable.[27] Sexual desire opens not only its object but also its subject to risk.[28] Might this beauty find me attractive? Or will my interest in her be unrequited?[29] Maybe I will be rejected right off the bat, or perhaps dumped down the road, as the Beatles worried, “when I’m 64?” In the movie Call Me by Your Name[30] Elio Perlman’s father speaks to his son about the courage it takes to invest in a serious sexual relationship. He concludes by saying: “But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste.”

I invite you to reach the same conclusion. The church has mistakenly encouraged members of the GLBT community to feel nothing rather than be drawn toward a person of the same sex. I invite you to reject that false counsel; your sexual orientation is not evil. But don’t settle for shallow stimulation either. Don’t pursue hook ups; turn off your screens. These are a half-hearted waste of your precious life too. Do not let either erroneous church declarations or the porn industry teach you to “feel nothing,” rather than risk the heart break that accompanies investment in steadfast love relationships. With your beloved, make the time and space to playfully cultivate your sex life together.

Developing Our Erotic Imaginations Within Loving Relationships Is a Morally Good Way to Cultivate Such Desire.

Psychotherapist Esther Perel offers several practical suggestions to couples in this regard. [31]  (1) Give up the myth that the only good sex is spontaneous sex. Whatever spontaneity you enjoyed together early on is probably long gone. But premeditated desire can be sustained. (2) The flame associated with novelty doesn’t require that you buy new sex toys, try new techniques, or find new partners (virtual or otherwise) to add to the mix. It does require that you see your partner anew, with fresh eyes, once again, as it were, “from across the room.” This can only happen if couples give each other room to grow. We need to encourage each other to develop new competences, to become radiant, confident – and not incidentally hot — adventurers. Both clinging neediness and an unbroken diet of care taking kill desire. We need to “let go” of each other. Help each other launch into risky ventures, as well as provide the security of home in the comfort of one another’s arms. The secret to sustaining desire in a steadfast relationship is, Perel argues, finding a balanced rhythm here. (3) Couples need to understand that foreplay begins hours, days, even weeks before “date night.” We should pay attention to each other throughout our lives together, not just in bed. (4) We need to laugh and listen each other into better sexual communication. (5) In addition to physical privacy, good sex requires space in our imaginations that is private. When the time is ripe, leave everything about work, childcare, eldercare, the house and yard, politics, money worries etc. behind. Focus on and be fully present to each other.

Finally, I would add a sixth suggestion. We need to recognize that cultivating sexual desire for just, mutually pleasurable, love relationships is a holy practice. It is sacramental. God is calling us to delight in this good gift! Enjoy!

Footnotes

[1]              This lecture is largely drawn from parts of the concluding chapters of my book, Sex on Earth as It Is in Heaven: A Christian Eschatology of Desire, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2017.

[2]              Second Vatican Council, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” (Gaudium et spes) 1965: 49.

[3]              Currently, many people ignore the limited but real power we have over our sexual feelings. The GLBT community might well even be wary of such a claim.  Don’t people who commend reparative therapy make similar claims? Let me be clear: that is not where I am headed.  But I do want to explore our capacity to shape what we experience as arousing, and to suggest that we have a corresponding level of responsibility to school our sexual desires in morally good ways.

[4]              Martha C. Nussbaum, “Constructing Love, Desire, and Care,” in Sex,  Preference and Family: Essays on Law and Nature, eds. David M Estlund and Martha C. Nussbaum (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) 17-43.

[5]              Let me be clear here. Despite much romantic lip service to the contrary, I think there is very little cultural support for the notion that we should school sexual desire for love-making.

[6]           I have in mind here particularly their rights to sexual self-determination and bodily integrity.

[7]              Sometimes this can happen in a truly iconic way: when the other’s delight fires our own, we really become “one flesh.” But let me be clear here. I am not just saying sex should be fun for everyone involved. I think pickle ball is fun; it’s a lot of fun to play and even fun to watch.  But I think the notion that sex could ever really be just another pastime is an illusion, and a dangerous illusion at that. I see evidence for its dangers everywhere. When surveyed, many young people indicate that they do not perceive nonconsensual sex as seriously problematic. When sex is just a casual game – a matter of scoring — to begin with, then “what’s the big deal?” “Everyone breaks the rules when you can get away with it.”  Now, I know that good sex is playful. What I am trying to say here is this: sexual activity is such that we literally put our personal dignity and bodily integrity in another person’s hands. There is nothing casual about the respect this warrants.

[8]              1 Cor. 7:3-5

[9]           Thomas Aquinas identified “insensibility” as a sexual vice. Summa Theologica, II-II, Q 153, a.3.3.

[10]            I am aware that the classification of asexuality as a disorder rather than a difference is a matter of some controversy. Some with HSDD (hypoactive sexual desire disorder) do not experience this as distressing or in any way a loss. But a significant number of others do.

[11]         The impact of testosterone on erectile dysfunction (ED) is highly contested.

[12]         Some studies have associated the loss of desire with more egalitarian relationships and long term sexual exclusivity, but others argue vehemently that if the cultural script for what is sexy were rewritten, then egalitarian long-term friendship could well prove hot.

[13]            Men in general and male couples in same-sex relationships reported higher levels of desire than others.  Nevertheless, women overall reported slightly more satisfaction with their sex lives. Heterosexual men derived the least satisfaction from more tender, sensual erotic activities. The myth of “lesbian bed death” (that is, the association of lesbianism with less sex and less sexual intimacy) commonly thought to be true in the 1980s has been thoroughly debunked. “Sexual Desire, Communication, Satisfaction and Preferences of Men and Women in Same-Sex Versus Mixed Sex Relationships,” Diane Holmberg and Karen L. Blair, Journal of Sex Research 2009: 46/1: 57-66. Regrettably I was unable to find much data about desire within the trans community.

[14]         See God, Science, Sex, Gender. Patricia Beattie Jung and Aana Marie Vigen, eds. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010; Sexual Diversity and Catholicism. Patricia Beattie Jung, with Joseph Andrew Coray, eds. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001; and Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religions. Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt, Radhika Balakrishnan, eds. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

[15]            Some attractions were traditionally labeled “near occasions of sin” precisely because they are so very powerful. If we choose to linger over and feed that fantasy in which we betray a promise, we may well find ourselves sliding into an affair. If we spend a lot of time masturbating while watching internet porn stars engage in sex with people who look to be underage (even if in fact they are not), we may well find ourselves actually doing so. The human mind and our imaginations are terribly formidable forces.

[16]            This was beautifully illustrated in the movie, American Beauty.  In that film one of the lead adult characters, Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, found himself attracted to the teenage girlfriend of his young daughter. It was complicated but eventually he came to “see” her differently, to see how truly young she was, despite appearances to the contrary.

[17]            The potential for an individual to go completely against the cultural grain is probably not great, and certainly cultural narratives about basic emotions will change only very slowly.

[18]            God of course can work wonders beyond our imagination when are hearts open to transformation.

[19]            Since the arrival of broadband, IP has become ubiquitous. The extent of its usage is stunning: nearly 80% of men (and slightly more than 75% of women) between 18 and 30 years of age view IP once a month or more. 30% of these men are daily users.

[20]         There are many other important ethical issues associated both with the production and use of porn, but I will examine here only about one small aspect of it. I am not going to look at it as the multi-billion-dollar industry it is, at who is profiting and at whose expense. I am not going to try and define pornography, in a way that successful distinguishes it from what may also be sexually explicit and erotically arousing (though, as they say, I believe you and I can tell the difference between porn and erotica when we see it.) And I am not going to look closely at the risk of addiction IP use may pose, even though those so afflicted (8% of the men and 3% of the women) suffer the loss of desire and ED. (In 2015 that amounted to 30 million Americans.) I am not going to examine its association with the development of poor body image, unrealistic expectations about human bodies, child sexual abuse, snuff films, or sexual trafficking etc. These are all very important ethical issues worthy of serious ethical attention, but they are not on the table in this essay.

[21]         This so-called Coolidge effect is well established to only a slightly lesser extent in women. Both men and women exhibit renewed sexual interest, if introduced to new receptive sexual partners, virtual or not.

[22]            I just spent a week watching three of my very young grandchildren.  Because it was still freezing outside up North where they live, we went to see the newly released cartoon, Sherlock Gnomes. At its conclusion one lead character asks the other – “where did you learn to kiss like that?” – and the answer was: “from the internet.”

[23]            Some studies suggest only 3%, while others suggest up to 25% of what is found on the web may do so.

[24]         For example, when we control for divorce, no correlation can be established between porn use and rape. See Jane M. Ussher, Fantasies of Femininity: Reframing the Boundaries of Sex. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

[25]         In fact, the eroticization of sexual violence dates back to Valentino’s classic sheik films and to early pirate movies. “Romance, Rough Sex or Rape?” Frank Bruni, The New York Times, Sunday, March 4, 2018. Though Bruni doesn’t mention it, I would add to his list a “rape at gun point” scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which viewers do not know for several minutes is a highly eroticized “rape” fantasy voluntarily play acted by the couple.

[26]         Depending upon where it was produced, neither does IP normalize conversation about responsible behavior regarding STDs and reproduction.

[27]            This is why Lars (whom you might remember) had trouble relating to real girls. See the movie Lars and the Real Girl.

[28]            Unlike vision, human touch neatly embodies this reflexivity:  we cannot touch someone, without simultaneously being touched back.

[29]            Ethicists focus a lot of attention on how we might violate those upon whom we gaze. They do so with good reason. But it is important to note that we as subjects of desire are also at risk.

[30]         Based on the novel of the same name by André Aciman.

[31]            For more details, see Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, New York: Harper Collins e-books, 2006.