Henry the 8th’s father codified it for the first time in writing, but the concept had been around forever. Because Parliament was beginning to erode the rights of the King, he decreed that a king had the right to have sexual relations, and if his wife was not agreeable to him (beautiful, willing, etc.) he could choose to have sex with anyone he wanted; as long as he stayed married to his wife.
Of course, his son carried on this tradition, fathering children with a half dozen women, at least, and certainly carrying on sexually with over 100 different women during his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Much of his court followed suit, making formal what had been practiced informally for hundreds of years. Even Catholic priests were allowed to have concubines and sexual dalliances, the Church acknowledging the right of every man to have sex whenever he wanted to. The only exception was that this sexual congress had to be with unmarried women. A cuckolded husband could take revenge on the man who slept with his wife. A wife did not have the same legal right, though many women got their revenge anyway.
Today, though laws have changed, the basic belief is still with us. Most people, including Christians, believe sexuality is a basic need. And if sexuality is a need, then everyone should have sex. Religious groups claim that God has placed boundaries on sexuality, but no major religion denies that sexuality is a basic need and right.
But is this really true? Is sexuality as large a need as we have come to think it is? Let’s look at it from several angles and then piece together the truth.
1. Sexuality as a basic need. In his notorious “Hierarchy of Needs“, Abraham Maslow proposed several needs form the bottom level of the pyramid. These are so important that a person cannot live without them. They include air, water, food, sleep, excretion…and Sex! But if you look at the list carefully, you will notice something unusual. All the other elements are necessary for life. If you don’t breathe, you die. The same is true of food, sleep and water. But you cannot say that with sex; not by a long shot. There are people who go their entire life without sex. Some would consider these people outliers, but are they really? Estimates are that 2% of the human population has no desire for sex at all. Another 15% will never have sex in their life. Another 15% have had sex, but have chosen not to continue to have sex. If sex is a basic human need, then we would expect all those numbers to be close to zero. Therefore, sexuality is not a basic human need.
2. Sexuality as an Evolutionary Function. Jared Diamond in his paper “Why is Sex Fun” says that sexuality in humans no longer has the same evolutionary function as it does in the animal kingdom. Animals primarily have sex when the female is in estrus (when she is ovulating). Now, they may have a lot of sex during estrus, but it is primarily related to those times when pregnancy is most possible. But this is not the case with humans. We have sex when pregnancy is not possible, as well as when it is. Humans continue to have sex even when the possibility of pregnancy is long since past. And we do not seem to have sex only with desirable partners. If that were the case, only about 5% of the population would be having sex. And evolutionary models cannot explain homosexuality and recreational sex at all. So sex, though it is practiced by every species, is not primarily an evolutionary function either.
3. Sexuality as an Absolute Right. This is the one now where humanity is settling as the most logical category to place sex: It is now considered a human right. Whether a person is heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or transgender, those who advocate for human rights are saying that the right to be sexual, and to choose one’s partner freely, is one of the basic rights of civilized society. But even this distinction falls short based on the boundaries that all societies place upon it. For instance, the western world does not legally allow for polygamy. Nor do we allow professionals to have sex with their clients, people over 18 to have sex with those under 18, sex with animals and sex in a public place. If sexuality was an absolute human right, then all of these expressions of sexuality should be allowed. Because they are not, then all we can conclude is that sexuality is considered a human right, until someone decides there are limitations upon those rights. That means sexuality, though a limited human right, is not an absolute human right.
So, if sexuality is not a basic human need, not an evolutionary necessity and not an absolute human right, what is it? About all we can say is sexuality is a biological function, necessary for reproduction and continuation of the human race and certainly satisfies some of our desire for intimacy and fun. To say it is anything more than that is to go beyond the facts.
So why should we be concerned as followers of God about the definition of sexuality? I see four trends in today’s North American church that bother me , and which indicate we are not walking in the Spirit when it comes to our sexuality:
1. Making sex the most important virtue or sin. If sex was as basic a need as eating, then we could put the promiscuous person on a level with those who are gluttons. But often, we treat them as worse than a glutton, vilifying them to the level of the Scarlet Letter, ostracizing them from the community. We idolize virginity, when it is just an indicator a person has not chosen to become sexual, punish those who have chosen to be sexual, and do it all with very little logical reasoning.
2. Making sex too important in marriage. A number of preachers have recently bought into a trend of encouraging married couples to have sex every day for a week, or two weeks, or a month. They all claim that the marriage will be stronger at the end of that time. Baloney! As a counselor, I can affirm that having sex at a time when there are relational issues will only make the situation worse, not better. These ideas may have more to do with preachers who want more sex at home, and want their congregations to see them as more hip and culturally relevant; while still appearing to be biblical. There is no biblical precedent for telling married couples to have all the sex they can. That makes a mockery of sex, and places it too high in the hierarchy of ways to make a marriage strong.
3. Assuming everyone should want sex and telling them they should all be married. There is a resurgence of teaching on the Cultural Mandate – the idea that we are still commanded by God to go out and “multiply and replenish the earth”. This makes no sense at all. We are closing in on 8 billion people on this planet and telling people to marry with the primary goal of bringing more children into this world is criminal. I believe Paul’s focus in 1 Corinthians 7, telling people they should abstain from marriage in order to serve the Lord more completely, has been lost in our day. It should be found again.
4. Neglecting the Value of the Eunuch. In Matthew 19, Jesus has a discussion with the Jewish religious leaders about divorce. Though he emphasizes that divorce was never God’s intention, he also sees that people will opt for this route and he warns them of how it can divide their souls. Then, his disciples got exasperated and claimed that perhaps marriage wasn’t as good an idea as everyone thought. That’s when Jesus makes a pithy statement about sexuality. He tells them there are three categories of eunuch. (The English word “eunuch” means to be castrated, but the Greek word meant “asexual”, as in not sexual).
Here are three reasons why someone would not want to have sex. First, because they were born that way. I do believe that genetics affects our sex drive, perhaps even directs the object of our desires. Many people are born with very little, if any, sex drive. Second, there are some that become asexual through physical means. This most commonly means castration and was practiced in the courts of royalty to ensure there were guards looking after harems who were not sexual and posed no threat to the women. Some people are asexual because of hormonal imbalances and the results of cancer. Third, there are those who choose to be asexual. Jesus explains they do this in order to serve God.
Have we forgotten about this option? Not only have we forgotten about it, some have sarcastic nicknames attached to people who do not have sex. We certainly don’t tell people there is any virtue in abstaining for a lifetime or for a period of time. But both Paul and Jesus make it clear that asexuality is a clear and reasonable state for the follower of God. Though they both make clear that not everyone can accept it, it would be best for us to pull away from our sex-obsessed culture and realize for a moment there are virtuous reasons to abstain.