The Real Meaning of Sex

[Touchstone, June 2005]

On January 24, 2005, I stood on the sidewalk of Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., as the March for Life surged by. There was a small band of pro-choice counter-protestors, and I positioned myself just past them because I was curious about how pro-lifers would react to their presence.

Now, I’m a convert from pro-choice to pro-life myself, and I have a strong interest in getting the two sides to understand each other’s positions more clearly. I was one of the founders of a group called The Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, which sponsored ongoing dialogue groups in twelve cities and held two national conferences. So I have known and talked with many pro-choicers.

Just Say No to Sex

That’s how I knew that this small band of counter-demonstrators was not typical. They were holding up sheets of black fabric painted in white. The first read, “Post-birth abortion for George W.” The second read, “Pro-Choicers against Fascism.” The third read, “Just say no to sex with pro-lifers.”

There were about four or five men and two women, and they all looked to be in their twenties. As pro-lifers marched by, they chanted various things, like “Women’s liberation, we won’t go back.” Then they sang the following song, to the tune of “Jesus Loves the Little Children”:

Jesus should have been aborted
Mary wanted a career
Abortion is a woman’s right
So we won’t give up the fight
Until you Christian ** go away.

An older man in a pro-life sweatshirt stood near them. When a passing woman flipped the bird at the pro-choicers, he yelled at her, “Have a little class!” When a young man walked up and spat on the ground in front of the group, he stepped after him, shouting a warning “Hey!” Otherwise, he didn’t say anything; he just kept his eyes out for trouble. I sure admired that guy.

Then a young man who had already passed by came back to say something. Maybe he’d just thought of it, or maybe he said it to his friends and they told him to go back. He walked up to the group, looking nervous, and said: “You guys don’t even know the real meaning of sex.”

He turned quickly and walked away.

It took the group a moment to register what he’d said, and then they began to laugh. A young man said, “Yeah, well, at least we’re having more of it than you are.” One of the women said, “What does that even mean?!?”

I wondered the same thing. What did he mean? What is the meaning of sex?

I’m an old ex-hippie flower-child mother-earth type, so my first impulse in any question like that is to look at what nature appears to tell us. If you think of humans as part of nature, as animals like any other animal, what does it look like our body is designed to do? How is it designed to work?

For example, think about what the design of our bodies tells us about the foods we’re made to eat. The human body is a complex organism, and we can see that it’s designed to run on a complex kind of fuel. We know pretty instinctively which foods are good for our health, and which things we can tolerate but aren’t good for us, and which things humans simply can’t digest, even if other animals can. We have a sense of what our bodies are designed to consume.

Nature’s Meaning

So let’s set aside the idea that humans are different from or better than other animals and think of humans in their natural state. Whether we attribute extra meaning to humans or not, we are at least animals, sharing this planet with many other kinds of creatures.

From that perspective, the “meaning” of sex is pretty obvious. It’s reproduction. Every living creature has two primary drives: first, to sustain its own life (which includes seeking food, shelter, and safety), and second, to pass on that life to a new generation. Creatures reproduce in many different ways, but humans and other mammals do so by sexual reproduction.

It seems that the reason sex feels good is so we’ll want to do it, and be motivated to give birth to that new generation. It’s the same way with food: The reason our taste buds register some flavors as delicious and others as bitter is so we’ll eat things that are good for us and avoid others that might be poisonous.

These flavor preferences are something we’re born with; they’re not learned. Researchers have found that if they add a bit of sweetener to amniotic fluid, the unborn child will gulp it down more quickly. We’re designed to like sweets, I suppose so that our earliest ancestors would keep going back to those brightly colored, vitamin-filled fruits hanging so conveniently within reach.

It’s the same way with sex: It feels good so we’ll want to reproduce. But there are some interesting ways that humans are different from other mammals, even from other primates. For us, sex feels good at any time in the fertility cycle. Other mammals mate only during fertile periods.

What’s more, researchers suspect that only among humans is the female capable of orgasm. Of course, orgasm has nothing to do with conception; it’s not related to the reproduction process at all. So both men and women are motivated to have sex for reasons that other animals, and even other mammals and primates, don’t have. It looks like the “meaning of sex” for humans is something broader than simply reproduction.

You can see the same analogy with food. As far as I know, animals only eat what they need to, for the sake of nutrition. But humans eat for all kinds of reasons. We eat birthday cake, have a cup of coffee with a friend, munch popcorn during a movie. We eat for social reasons, or for comfort, or just out of habit. We don’t eat solely for nutrition. Likewise, we don’t have sex solely for reproduction.

Face to Face

This is shown by another way humans are unique. We’re one of the very, very few mammals able to have sex face-to-face. Seeing each other’s faces means something—not just during sex, but all the time. We are dependent on reading each other’s faces; in fact, we can’t resist looking at faces. We seem to be programmed that way.

Researchers have found that if a newborn baby is shown a set of different geometric shapes, his eyes will always go back to one that shows an oval with two dots toward the top—that is, a very rudimentary face with eyes. The baby will stare at those dots, those “eyes,” and ignore squares, triangles, and rectangles placed alongside it. Consider this: The baby has been in a womb all his life, and has never before seen a face. But the minute he comes out, he knows what to look at. We’re made that way.

There’s something about a human face that attracts the eyes of other humans irresistibly. In an audience, if one person turns around backwards and starts scanning the crowd, the other audience members find it hard not to look at his face. Advertisers know this, and in print ads will often cut off the faces of people, or cover or obscure their eyes, so that you’ll look at the product instead of staring at the faces.

Looking at faces meets a very deep human hunger. I think it’s significant that humans are one of the few animals capable of looking into each other’s faces during sex.

Sex is, if nothing else, about making a connection with another person, and that seems to be something that humans have trouble with. This seems to be the main way we’re different from other animals. All our lives we look at each other from the outside and have trouble figuring out what’s going on.

When a baby keeps his parents up all night crying, they’ll be frantic trying to figure out what he’s crying for. But animal parents don’t have any such difficulty; they understand their babies’ cries very well. When his girlfriend is crying, a young man may be totally baffled as to what’s going on inside her, or what he should do to help. This can be true even among people who love each other very much. We spend much of our time going through life looking at each other from the outside, making guesses, feeling confused, and feeling, basically, lonely.

Since sex is the most obvious, the most literal way we connect with each other, we have to think about what role it’s designed to play in this essential problem of loneliness. It’s not an external activity added on to the other things we do in life. It’s one of our most basic biological functions, and no matter how civilized humans get, it remains an activity that goes back to our most basic, animal selves.

From these clues, it looks like sex means something more to us than to most mammals, something that has to do with humans forging a deep connection with each other. The connection is not just physical or reproductive but involves the whole person. It seems that the “meaning of sex” is related to the profound human need to bond with another person in love, in trust, and to forge a relationship that will last for a lifetime.

Sex for a Lifetime

Let me say something about “for a lifetime.” That’s a leap. Why not just have a relationship for a little while? After all, it only takes a few minutes to conceive a child. Why should the father stick around at all? Most mammals don’t form families that include monogamous dad. Bambi never saw his father until he was nearly grown. Most mammals mate and then part, and the mother raises the child alone, or as part of a herd.

There’s evidence for why this isn’t best for human babies, however. It has to do with how very, very premature human newborns are, in comparison with the children of other species. A newborn deer struggles to its feet and goes over to its mother to nurse. But a newborn baby won’t walk for a year. He won’t talk for much longer, and can’t provide for his own food and safety for many years after that.

The scientist Stephen J. Gould referred to the newborn human as an “extrauterine embryo.” He meant that we’re born at a level of development that, in other mammals, would still be considered embryonic. It’s estimated that for a human to be born at the developmental level of other mammals, pregnancy would need to last, not nine months, but twenty-one. And even after birth, our development proceeds much more slowly than that of other mammals.

This heightened vulnerability means that a human newborn requires more intensive parental care than other mammals do, and for a much longer time. A single parent will find it very hard, as we well know, to provide both the constant care a newborn needs, and also the food and shelter that both parent and child require. This is a job that really requires two people, at least for the first few years.

You have to keep in mind that the task of reproduction isn’t finished at the moment of birth. If the single parent is overwhelmed and unable to provide care, and the baby dies, it’s as if reproduction never took place. The child must grow, in fact grow up to the point where it can reproduce itself in turn, or the species will become extinct. Two parents make it much more likely that a baby will survive, and it seems that’s the reason humans are among the few mammals—three percent—who mate for life.

Yet that still doesn’t answer the question. Why “for life”—why not just for those first few vulnerable years? Even if the child needs two parents for survival in the early years, he’d be self-sufficient enough to get along with just one well before adulthood. By the age of ten, let’s say, he’d be able to communicate, locate food, recognize danger, and so forth. Why should his dad stick around?

Sitting Together

Years ago, I was up in a theater balcony looking at the crowd below, and it suddenly struck me that there was a pattern all through the audience. This is one of those things that’s so obvious you don’t notice it.

What I saw was that everywhere a man and a woman were sitting next to each other. These couples were of all different ages; many had gray hair. Now, I can argue from nature that a newborn and a young child need father and mother to stick together. But why would this pattern continue decades after that, even till the end of life, when the children were long since grown? What makes people stick together when reproduction is over and done with?

I think that brings us back to the mystery of faces: the need to connect, the real “meaning of sex.” The initial impulse of sexual attraction is physical pleasure. It’s an inborn impulse, like grabbing a candy bar because it’s sweet. But deeper levels of resonance are also involved.

Humans are different from other mammals. We don’t just want someone for a night. We’re looking for someone we can spend a lifetime with. Humans are made to mate for a lifetime, because we find ourselves in a world that seems enormous, dangerous, and confusing. In the midst of it we feel so small, so insignificant. Sure we want to have sex, but even more, we want to be loved.

Here’s where I think my generation did the next generations a disservice. I was part of that hippie generation that very deliberately rejected the values of the older generation that came before us. Part of this was the “sexual revolution,” an insistence on sexual freedom.

I think that, for us, “freedom” had a defiant quality; we were rebelling against something. I think that for young people thirty years later, it’s a milder kind of freedom. It’s like the freedom to choose between cheese-flavored and barbecue-flavored tortilla chips. It’s a consumer freedom. It looks like sex is something you can select, take home, consume, and forget about.

But I think this seriously underestimates the deeper levels of meaning that sex has. Given the primal and complex role that sex has in the life of the human animal, it involves much more than just consuming pleasure. It’s tangled up with all the deeper issues of trust, security, and loneliness. My generation just dismissed all that, as if it weren’t there. As a result, we have not prepared our children to deal with it. The result is that they can get blindsided: You think you’re just having fun and discover that something bad is happening to your heart.

I heard in a news story once that archaeologists had discovered what they thought was the oldest song ever written. Know what it was about? It was about a young man grieving because his girlfriend didn’t love him any more. That’s the human condition. It wasn’t about sex; it was about love. We can’t just drive our bodies around as if they were sports cars. We have hearts in here too, and they keep getting bruised, whether we think that should be happening or not.

Abandoned Children

It was this breezy attitude toward the sexual revolution that lay behind so much of the divorce in my generation. That’s why so many of our children grew up without dads, or lived through their parents’ divorce (and why so many of their children will as well): because my generation decided that you can change partners when the mood strikes, that you can make a commitment, break it, and make a new one, and that the whole meaning of sex is consumer pleasure.

We abandoned our children. Now they’re growing up, and we haven’t given them much guidance about how to do a better job. Many young people are afraid of marriage because they’re afraid of divorce, and at the same time they really long for a safe, secure, happy home, even though they have no idea how to make one.

My generation has spread the idea that sex is about power rather than vulnerability. While there has always been a pattern of men treating women as conquests, the sexual revolution led women to think in the same way, that making men desire them was evidence of their power.

But that doesn’t have anything to do with love; it can even be the opposite of love. I recently read a review of a book titled Strip City, written by a woman, Lily Burana, who traveled across the nation working at strip clubs. She says that we’re living in an era of “sex-positive feminism.” She calls herself a “gender warrior,” and says that when she dances, she can feel “all the hearts in the room gathered into the palm of my hand.”

Well, that’s a lot of power. Yet she doesn’t feel tenderness toward those gathered hearts. The reviewer says that Burana “relished taunting men because she is revolted by their erotic neediness.” It’s a battle, for this “gender warrior.” Make war, not love.

Here’s something else. Burana says that her work represents new liberation for women’s sexuality. She says we live in a period when “the notion of female desire is being re-evaluated.” But does stripping have anything to do with the woman’s sexual desires? It looks like it’s all about male desire, provoking and despising and ridiculing that. Once again, sex means male desire. For women, stripping isn’t about a deeper understanding of their own sexuality, but about a substitute thrill: the experience of power. A power that doesn’t have much to do with love.

And it’s a funny kind of power. Dancers work in depressing places that stink of mildew and ammonia, exposing themselves to seedy old men. It’s no great achievement if you get a guy to look at your body. Any girl could do that. The dancers are all interchangeable, and nobody cares about their name or history or personality. Nobody looks at their faces. An ex-stripper once told me, “I had to ask myself, if I had all the power, why was I the only person in the room with no clothes on?”

Power’s Thrill

This world of strippers represents an extreme, but in many ways reflects the general assumptions in our culture about the meaning of sex. Instead of sex being about vulnerability, love, and sharing, it’s about the thrill of power. Sexual liberation doesn’t mean understanding women’s desires, but women laboring to provoke male desire, competing with other women in an endless cycle of “how low can you go.”

But men also have to be anxious about their physical appeal. We live in such a relentlessly consumer culture that we have come to see ourselves as competing products. The test is how much of a market share you can command, how many people you can stimulate to desire you. Both men and women have to present themselves as sexually desirable consumer items. In a culture that’s already visually saturated, we have become much, much more anxious about maintaining unrealistic standards of appearance. It’s all about market share.

But in real life, very few people have the kind of body they can be utterly, aggressively confident about. Most of us feel a little inadequate. We don’t go into a sexual relationship feeling like a conqueror, but feeling vulnerable. We don’t unveil a body that blasts the competition, but one marked by imperfections and sags and scars, parts that are too little and parts that are too big, things we feel worried about other people seeing.

We have to trust that the other person will love us enough that they won’t make fun of us, that they won’t make fun of us behind our backs to other people later on. It’s funny that we try so hard to dress in ways that will make people stare at our bodies, when what we really want is for them to look at our eyes.

It turns out that sex is not about power, but vulnerability. My generation failed to tell you this. We failed to learn it ourselves, and you see the result in our trail of shattered marriages.

Sexual Connection

I don’t know that I can give a short answer to the question of what the “real meaning of sex” is. I speak from a generation that made a lot of mistakes, and when I see how badly we’ve equipped our children to make sense of their own lives and relationships, it looks pretty sad. I guess the clue I would draw is that nature shows us that sex is not just for reproduction but also for that deep human connection we hunger for. It’s designed to be part of healing the essential human condition of loneliness.

This is why Christians have always had an interest in how to handle sexuality. This deep human experience of alienation and loneliness, our difficulty in connecting with each other in love, is an aspect of the shattering of our relationship with God. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that all religions recognize that there is something wrong in the universe, either with our relationship to God and each other, or in our perception of that relationship. We feel out of sync. Every religion tries to address that experienced disconnect by helping humans recover unity through prayer, meditation, serving the poor, or other means.

Christians believe that God took the initiative to repair the damage by coming to earth in human form. This means that he blessed and affirmed the human body, the body he made at the beginning of creation. He showed that it is possible for a human body to contain the presence of God.

In Christ we, too, can become “partakers of the divine nature,” as St. Peter says; we take on the presence of God like a coal takes on the illumination and warmth of fire. We live “in Christ” as St. Paul says, filled with the healing presence of God. Being bearers of God’s light means that we’re able to love each other and repair the tragic brokenness among the human race.

It is a sign, in fact a sacrament, of that union when two people unite with each other for a lifetime. We can’t love each other very well. We do so in spite of flaws and failures, continuing to offer active love no matter what. Offering this love changes the person who gives it, molding him or her into the image of God.

Receiving this love, even this imperfect love, changes the person who receives it, day by day restoring him to the likeness of God. From all we can see in nature, humans are designed to mate for a lifetime, so that even when you’re old and gray and nobody else in the world would find you sexy, you can still look over at a person who loves you just as much as he did when you were young.

The Mornings After

Everything you hear in ads and entertainment is telling you that your goal is to wake up next to someone gorgeous tomorrow morning. That’s the rationale of consumer sex. But I think what humans really want is to wake up next to someone kind, fifty years from tomorrow morning.

The decisions you make today, and tomorrow—and tomorrow night—will have everything to do with whether that happens for you or not. It happened for me. I have been married thirty-one years, and until the end of my life I’ll have beside me the man who fell in love with me when I was nineteen. If I get old and cranky, if I get breast cancer, if I get Alzheimer’s, he’ll stick with me, and I won’t be alone, and I’ll do the same for him. In this way we show the presence of God to each other, and grow into his likeness.


The Limits of Nature

Here’s a possible challenge: This investigation into “the meaning of sex” sticks close to what we can deduce from observing what happens in nature. But some mammals engage in homosexual activity. Isn’t that just as natural?

Let’s differentiate between two meanings of the word natural. The first, and the one I’m using, is “what we can infer from the design of Creation.” The second is “anything that occurs in Nature.” For example, it’s obvious that a person’s teeth are designed to bite and chew food. But, sure, they’ve been used in other ways: There was a time when a boy could impress his pals by using his to pull the cap off a soft-drink bottle.

When we consider other body parts, it’s likewise obvious that penis and vagina are designed to fit together, but they undeniably get used in other ways. Whatever people do with these body parts can be termed “natural” in that second definition, a label that appears to hallow whatever it touches.

But there’s a problem. If “natural” means “anything that happens,” there are absolutely no limits. Anything that anyone can think of doing with his sex organs has to be called natural—not just homosexuality, but pedophilia, necrophilia, rape, or any other thing humans do. A definition that permits the first type of activity but excludes the others can’t do so without acquiring more clauses.

But it’s worth asking another question: What is sex, exactly? What behaviors are covered by the term?

When the Abner Louima case was in the news a few years ago, I noticed that news stories kept saying that the police had sexually abused him (Mr. Louima was sodomized with the handle of a toilet plunger). But why was this categorized as sexual abuse, rather than just abuse? No sex organs were involved. What was sexual about it?

You could also ask: Was the policeman having sex with Louima? He surely didn’t think so. But if a homosexual couple do something similar in play, are they having sex with each other? Is the first unnatural and the second natural? Why?

One might object that the distinction is that these are acts of violence, not sex. In the animal kingdom and too frequently in human history, sodomy is not an act of sex (much less an act of love), but an act of domination. Yet that may still be, in a dark sense, sexual; the desire to dominate and humiliate another can be mixed up with some subterranean impulses.

And all of this is, sadly, very “natural.” Only the Nature we can infer from the design of Creation can guide us to freedom from the nature we dream up on our own.

Old Married Sex

My generation found out, to our astonishment, that sexual attractiveness does not last. Even the hottest stars of the 1960s are forty years older today. Even the hottest bods of today are going to be ten years older ten years from now. Ten years from now, there will be a whole crop of brand-new gorgeous young people who are ten years younger than they are. Every decade a new crop of beautiful twenty-year-olds will roll off the assembly line.

My generation somehow didn’t think that would happen. We thought we would always be the younger generation. We thought we’d always set the standard for what it means to be sexy and gorgeous. We made fun of old married people, the ones who got hitched, settled down, had kids, had mortgages, and thirty years later were having old-married-people sex with each other.

It turns out that, even if you make fun of people like that, you still get old anyway. The alternative is not staying young forever; the alternative is being just as old, and not having formed any lasting relationship, and going to bed most nights by yourself. You’re not having old-married-people sex; you’re not having sex with anybody.

Frederica Matthewes-Green

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

Marriage and Family