[Written in response to a sincere and respectfully asked question at a recent forum I attended.]
The anatomical challenge
David R. Weiss, November 5, 2010
“But what about the biology? I mean, anatomically we’re just designed to ‘fit together’ in certain ways.”
At one level it’s a perfectly understandable question. And the fact that some animals fit themselves together in same-sex couplings of sorts doesn’t settle the issue any more than the fact that some animals like to eat their young says anything definitive about infanticide. But at another level it’s a question that showcases how much tunnel vision can control our thinking about these matters.
So how do I respond to this sincere anatomical skepticism about the legitimacy of same-sex sexual activity? I offer two responses.
First, regarding the concern that same-sex sexual activity can’t be “procreative” and therefore can’t be what God intended, I suggest that we’ve allowed our view of “procreative” to be narrowed down to mean biologically reproductive and then employed it in a way that is neither honest nor fair.
Whether mean-spirited or innocent, this is a charge we don’t make against the legitimacy of sexual activity in opposite-sex marriages where biology, age, or the use of birth control makes conception unlikely. We don’t tell childless couples, older couples (not even those meeting and marrying, or re-marrying, late in life), or couples who choose “to wait” (not even if that choice lasts a lifetime) that their sexual activity is an offense to God because it isn’t biologically procreative. We recognize that sexual activity plays a fundamental role in nurturing intimacy and sharing love in these relationships quite apart from bearing children.
Simply being a relationship that doesn’t help reproduce the species is not a cause for judgment. Indeed, given the stresses that human population is exerting on the planet today, those who forego reproduction may be worthy of our moral praise.
But I do think it’s appropriate to expect that our sexual relationships be procreative. I do think that part of the gift of sexual pleasure is that it should foster energy that flows beyond the couple, energy that is “procreative” because it actively cares for creation. In some relationships that means bearing and raising children. In others it means adopting and raising children or blending families.
In still other cases it may mean that the relationship strengthened through sexual activity is procreative in a host of ways that run the gamut from civic involvement to service organizations, from household recycling to other forms of living lightly on the planet, from working with youth or elders to working with persons with special needs. All of these are procreative activities, and while none of them requires a sexual partner, each of them can be a worthy outlet for the energy and joy that is fostered in a sexual relationship.
So when the standard of “procreative” is used in a biological sense to judge same-sex relationships in a manner not used with reference to opposite-sex relationships it’s simply unfair And when understood in a larger and more honest way (the goal—even biologically—is not just to reproduce the species, but to actually raise and care for children, a task that requires investment in communities and ecosystems as well) same-sex relationships can be just as procreative as opposite-sex ones.
But that stills leaves us with the “anatomy” issue. Here’s how I think about that.
In the rest of our lives we rarely believe that things can only serve one purpose or be used in only way; in fact, we often view “multifunctional” as an asset. And in every eco-system, both plants and creatures have features that serve multiple roles. So why do we think that there is only one way to use a penis or a vagina during sex—and that that single way is determined by biological reproduction rather than any other legitimate goal of human sexual activity.
Why did God give me a mouth, with lips and tongue? Is their only purpose to taste and eat? Do I misuse them when I employ them for speech or singing? Do I misuse them when I employ them to kiss?
Clearly nipples on women are there to funnel milk into an infant’s mouth. So why do I have a set, when I will never produce milk or nurse a baby? And why do both male and female nipples have such sensitivity to touch? Are nipples “off limits” during sex? If a husband touches (or kisses) his wife’s nipples has he misused the anatomy of either her nipples or his lips? Would the reverse be true if she were to touch or kiss his nipples? Is that a misuse of anatomy?
I could go on, but I hope my point is clear. We don’t limit our mouths, our lips, our tongues, or our nipples to the most obvious and “anatomically-defined” uses. We take it for granted that the same mouth that eats (of necessity) and speaks (in hope of communication) might also legitimately kiss (in expression of love).
There is no reason to think that our genitals are any less open to use in different ways. Therefore the ethics of our sexual activity should not be driven by the assumption that what “works” anatomically for me should be definitive for everyone else. In a relationship sex is about touching the other person and being touched by them in ways that honor the person, offer pleasure, build intimacy and love, and give moments of transcendence.
Sex may also be biologically reproductive, but in the rich-with-meaning life of human beings this is an “add on.” We wouldn’t judge any particular sex act as “deficient” simply for failing to conceive a child. But we would find most sex acts at least “problematic” if they were devoid of honor, pleasure, intimacy, love, and transcendence. These qualities are what make sex between two persons a gift of grace.
Whether the anatomy of two persons in love is the same or different is not the issue. And whether I use any particular body part exactly like you do during sex is not the issue. We live in an era when the marketplace tempts us to see sex in terms of conquest, momentary passion, mere physical pleasure, or self-indulgent fantasy. The anatomical—and ethical, and religious—challenge for all of us is to use our anatomy (from limbs to lips to fingertips, and everything in between) as creatively and as tenderly as possible to be a gift of grace to our partner.
The issue isn’t biology or anatomy. It’s mercy, justice, and love.
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David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology,” David lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and is a self-employed speaker and writer around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and at https://tothetune.wordpress.com.