Some thoughts on the Debate – 2 – The Glorification of Heterosexuality

The more observant of you will have noticed that one of the pictures on the header of this site (refresh a few times to see them change) is myself reading a book by Jonathan Mills, entitled “Love, Covenant and Meaning“. This book was recommended to me by Nathan, one of the commenters on the Covenant website.

Mills’ basic thesis is this – Western christianity has been diseased by the romantics, and that in that process we have lost sight of what marriage is all about. That change in perspective fundamentally damages our ethical basis and leads us not only into all kinds of faulty reasonings about sexual attraction, but also in our approach to how homosexual people should approach relationships.

Mills begins by explaining how before Rousseau, western civilization didn’t have romantic novels. Oh yes, we had novels with sex and adultery and other forms of misdemeanour, but they were all about men and women who were happily married, had a bit of a dalliance, and then came to their senses and returned to their spouses, or who didn’t return and everything was utterly shameful and disastrous. This was because until the romantics, western society viewed marriage as primarily a social construct, created for the benefit of men and women. You got married to have children. You got married to provide stability to society. You got married to provide stability to your wider family. It was a bonus if you actually fancied the person who you got married to, if you experienced love at first sight.

Mills argues that this was the Biblical picture. When you explore what the Scriptures say about marriage, they very rarely describe it in terms of romance. The New Testament never uses eros when describing love inside marriage. The focus is on learning to love someone and growing in that learning to love. Yes, sex and sexual attraction plays an important part (and is rather useful when trying to produce another generation of humans), but it was not the driving force behind the reason to get married – it simply came as part of the package.

The romantics changed all that. What the romantics did was elevate sexual desire and romantic attraction to the forefront of the reason to get married. Now you didn’t find a wife to make sure your family was well connected, now you found a wife because you fancied her.

This is, dare I say it, the guiding moral today. We enter relationships far less on the basis of whether, on consideration, they will be socially, intellectually and emotionally beneficial to us; we enter relationships often because we are hot for the person we are now connected to. Sex has been moved from that thing which seals the contract of marriage to that thing which has no relationship whatsoever with the contract of marriage. It is the mainstay of consideration around relationships, the one factor that is always present and assumed to be so. The moment one begins going out with someone, one is making judgements as to when sex will happen. The first night? After a few weeks? A few months? And why not make such considerations, because the reason you went out with them in the first place was because they were attractive.

And this way of thinking has become predominant in the church as well. Even in solidly conservative churches, the single men and women discuss who they fancy and why. We glorify heterosexual attraction and we celebrate it’s consummation in marriage. Boy meets girl, boy and girl are Christian so they heroically keep their pants on till the wedding night when boy and girl, finally married, now get to have it off and undertake the activity whose desire has been present in their relationship from the beginning, because he asked her out as he thought she was hot.

And while that may be a caricature, it’s a good caricature. We use the language of heterosexuality to describe our relationships says Mills, and then we justify eventual sexual union on the basis of “well I’m a boy who fancies her and she’s a girl who fancies me”. And this seems all very well, but then say Mills, then we meet our gay friend who says “well I’m a boy who fancies him and he’s a boy who fancies me”, and all of a sudden we declare that sexual desire isn’t the be all and end all of relationships, that while heterosexual desire is a justification for entering into a life-long union, homosexual desire can never be. And our gay friends look at us as though we’re bigoted homophobes who want the sauce for the goose but not for the gander.

And they’re right aren’t they?

But it doesn’t stop there argues Mills. Because we have made heterosexual desire of the leading, if not the prime factor for getting married, we then make the logical jump to assume that if one doesn’t have heterosexual desire one shouldn’t get married, or one should at least seek to nurture heterosexual desire before one does get married. “Gay men can’t get married” is what we implicitly say, they’re not capable of it because they aren’t attracted to women. “Well let us marry each other then”, comes the reply, and when conservatives respond with cries of “Oh no, that won’t do” then we are rightly criticised (again) for having one moral standard for ourselves (life-long union on the basis of sexual desire) and one for another (the denial of life-long union on the basis of sexual desire).

It wasn’t always like this argues Mills. In the past “homosexual” men have married women, loved them, raised families and generally got on fine. The reason they could do this was because they didn’t live in a society that obsessed about sexual identity. There wasn’t gay or straight, there were only men and women. Men got married to women and had children with them, because that’s what everybody did. They may not, from a 21st century perspective, have particularly fancied their wives, but then many of the “straight” men around them weren’t in that situation either. It’s not that they didn’t sexually desire them, it’s just that they didn’t obsess sexually about them day and night.

Here’s what Mills wants us to understand:

Of course, in defending the validity of marriage for “homosexuals”, I do not have in mind men who are having venery with men whilst also being married. That is as wrong as committing adultery with women. When I argue that “homosexuals” may marry, I have in mind men whose veneral desires remain entirely or mostly focussed on men yet who have never become involved in venery with other men, or who have succesfully settled (one day at a time) into refraining from such venery … I don’t think a man lacks that capacity for marriage and family life merely because his sexualness, if liberated, would drive him towards venery with all attractive men, rather than with all attractive women. Such a man has no reason to fear that the love and meaning he and his wife have in their marriage is actually bogus. And no one else has any reason or right to deem his marriage bogus either.

Mills’ argument is very simple – remove the consumation of specific sexual desire as a key driver for marriage, and you will destroy not only the sociological barriers to traditional marriage for men who are sexually attracted to other men, but also you will remove the argument from the pro-gay camp for recognising and accepting gay unions. This is because the glorification of heterosexual desire has led us down a road that has inadvertently justified many sexual relationships outside of marriage. Without the glorification of heterosexual desire, other sexual desires cannot necessarily be protected by the state in the way that heterosexual desire currently is. If marriage is about man and woman, not about heterosexual and heterosexual, then the need for legal guarantees over the union of homosexual and homosexual vanishes. Marriage, Mills argues, is not ultimately about hitching up with the person you fancy -  it is about forming a union between a man and a woman that benefits them, their family (to be and already existing) and society.

That though may be the reason why many in the pro-gay camp will not like what Mills is saying, because he calls on them to lay down the rights that they assume come alongside the experiencing of certain emotions, and instead embrace the traditional forms of societal structure. Mills’ argument removes the attempt to justify any form of relationship based on sexual desire, as that isn’t what the Scripture says is at the heart of (intimate) relationships. Instead Mills (and Jesus?) calls on society to die to its own wants (sexual and otherwise) and to turn to God’s plan and society’s betterment.

I’m not sure many people (unlike your author) want to hear that.

Posted in Secular / Christian, Sexuality, Wholeness Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
  • Blair

    Nathan,

    thank you for your comment – I like your style and warm constructive tone (don’t mean to sound like a creep!). I basically agree with you about gender complementarity but haven’t the time to say more now! Thank you also for the bit about self-disclosure – I wasn’t expecting full self-revelation but just curious about where you might be coming from (I’m a gay Christian by the way).
     
    in friendship, Blair

  • William

    Nathan,

    Thank you for your courteous reply.

    It sounds as though you’re in a similar position to Fr Oraison, who had many years of experience first as a doctor and then as a priest, confessor, counsellor and psychotherapist. I don’t know whether he’s still alive.

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  • John

    Some of the discussion here seems to hinge on a false idea of love. Love is not a feeling. Love is something that you work for day in and day out that is born out of commitment between people. The love of a marriage ultimately stems from the marriage vows. The claim that a homosexual man can’t love a woman is ludicrous in this light. Homosexuality is an attraction to members of the same sex. It is based on feeling-be it sexual or otherwise. True love comes out of commitment and not feeling (ever wonder why many arranged marriages seem to work well?) Also, homosexuals often claim that you can’t learn to be sexually attracted to someone you aren’t attracted to. This again is preposterous. How do people continue to be sexually attracted to their spouse when they are in their 60s but fell in love in their 20s? It is because a holy sexual attraction (and not a sinful one) is caused by and is not the cause of the love one finds in a marriage. Mills is exactly on target. The notion that a feeling of love must predate marriage is not only unbiblical but is the reason we see both the influx of homosexuality in our day and the high number (50%) of marriages ending in divorce. Divorce occurs because a “love” the feeling was the reason for the marriage and when that feeling drops off the marriage ends.

    As to your reader talking about Paul saying that people who cannot suppress their sexual desire should get married meaning that we should marry because of sexual desire. This isn’t what Paul is saying. He is saying that if you really can’t wait, go get married so that you aren’t sinning. This does not mean that this is the reason for marrying generally, just that if you aren’t able to not sin unmarried than for goodness sakes don’t stay unmarried.

  • John is exactly right.
    Love is not a feeling. It is a determination backed up by a committment.
    This is why the Bible commands us to love one another. How could you command a feeling?

  • ryan

    “How do people continue to be sexually attracted to their spouse when they are in their 60s but fell in love in their 20s? It is because a holy sexual attraction (and not a sinful one)”

      Never heard the phrase “when you get to my age, they all start to look good”?  Not sure that sexually attraction in the way you describe is somehow induced by a holier attraction, instead of the common reality of men’s tastes changing with age.

      And I would many – most?- evangelical women of my acquanitance *would* want love to be a (if not the ) foundation of marriage. Curious if marriage preperation material produced by evangelical churches (e.g. the H.T.B. one) adress this.  

  • And I would many – most?- evangelical women of my acquanitance *would* want love to be a (if not the ) foundation of marriage.
    ———————

    Well yes, women in particular would want that (paging Dennis Prager)!

    Love is the foundations of marriage, but what is it?

    It’s a commitment so therefore the commitment is the foundation, not a feeling. The feeling follows the commitment.

  • Marie

    When I was younger I approached relationships like I was buying a house. It involved ticking off a list of characteristics and qualities that would be most suitable. I met a great guy who ticked off most of the boxes but I couldn't kiss him. It just seemed totally unnatural to me. I tried to keep that relationship going and wait for attraction to develop but it just wasn't happening. He became increasingly frustrated and I realised I was being unfair to this guy. If I found kissing him repulsive how would I have sex with him when we were married? I have since kissed other men and I can tell you it just feels wrong.

    The first time I kissed a woman? It really was the cliché of fireworks went off. It was nothing but lust but when I think of marriage I know that I cannot do that to a man. In order for me to be sexually active with a man I would have to totally go against what feels right to me. It would feel morally wrong and dishonest. And that is part of my point. If you consider yourself straight how unnatural would it be for you to be married to someone of the same sex and have sexual relations with them?

    I think you would be hard pressed to find any sort of sensible non-religious person who would marry simply based on sexual attraction. We all want the full package which is more than just romance and sex. And to take that even further maybe the reason gays want to marry is not just based on “I'm a boy who fancies him” but based on a much deeper relationship. After all is the only difference between a man's feelings towards his wife and towards a female friend, the fact that he has sex with his wife? Of course not. Why would we assume that is any different for a gay man or woman?

    What about Song of Solomon? It seems to me that's God's desire for a marriage relationship should involve sexual desire and pursuit that is partly based on that. Has that been way overemphasised in today's culture? Yes. But that doesn't mean its not important.

    I also would argue that gay men probably didn't get on fine in the old days. Many married men engage in gay sex regularly. It's a well known fact in gay circles. It's probably not a well known fact to most straight women because its covered by secrecy. How much more so would that have been the case in the past? Are dysfunctional or adulterous marriages really better than gay ones? Because that doesn't seem like the answer either.

  • Jon

    Mills' commentary is utter tommyrot…self-serving, disinegenuous tommyrot. It's false historically, culturally, religiously—in every sense. He sounds like O'Brien in "1984," boasting that "we shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work on it already."

    Only if Christians choose food because it is unpalatable, clothing because it goes against the wearer's taste, and a spouse because he or she is emphatically unattractive, can his remarks attain even an iota of respectability.

    Has Mills forgotten the prevalance of adultery in a culture of love-free marriage? Did he ever hear tell of it? Did he know that Abraham and Jacob were both bigamists? Yet marriage didn't change for "thousands of years." Uh-hunh.

    Poor heterosexuals; they have it so tough, forced to marry the people they just so happen to also be attracted to—a pure, amazing, and undesired coincidence. And then the ungrateful homosexuals (in quotation marks) go ahead and give them grief by stubbornly refusing to show the world How Sacrificial the Choice of True Love Can Be.

    Alas for wicked, evil sexual attraction, obviously not put there by God. Alas for the sweet fruit that surrounds the seed. The birds should "choose" to propagate apples out of altruism. The sweet flesh is bad. Pleasure in all its forms is irredeemable and evil.

    You play right into the hands of neo-pagans, who ascribe to the Church a flesh-hatred that is not actually there.

    Mills has also forgotten about Courtly Love, and the tradition of Ovid…both of which push his "romantic" paradigm over the Infinite Cliff of Bad Scholarship. Even on a factual academic level, he's full of it… historically uninformed.

    And if not for liberal, evil, selfish, pleasure-loving America, this blog would be in German. But truly, who cares?

    On a more hopeful note: if you want to build a credible anti-gay-sex case out of the Bible, the first thing you must do is accept that all women are in the laity, by divine decree (see I Corinthians and I Timothy); also, you must accept that divorce does not exist. Then, and only then, you may "bind up heavy burdens for other men's backs" by quibbling over "arsenokoitai" and "malakoi." You reject the plain sense of the New Testament. Shame on you.

    The hypocrisy of the above posting reeks all the way across the Atlantic.

    • A teensy bit angry John?

    • Sibyl

      Jon, You are welcome to your opinion, but you do not have the right to dictate anyone else's.

      We are Christians and Christianity is a people and civilization or Kingdom built on God's Word and will as our guide. Behind and reinforcing that, we look to the tradition or consensus, past and present, of the whole church, and behind that we look to the Judaic Law, and behind that is natural law and God's created order, as proven by nature, biological science, medicine and mental health practice, research, CDC and crime statistics.

      Scripture's witness is consistently against homosex practices and the rest of the list confirms Scripture. Our feelings, desires, physical responses, our senses, self-concepts, perceptions and even our conscience are changeable and unreliable. Christians put our trust elsewhere, on the eternal Father GOD, His Son, our Savior, His Word and Holy Spirit.

      God is the only I AM, the unchanging eternal Identity to whom we must conform. There is no separate 'sexual identity or orientation' with God. We get our new identity when we take on the new orientation – the new person in Christ that grows and increases in us as we worship, feed on the Bread of Life and grow in the Christian life.

      So, we are talking about two separate and opposing paradigms and spiritual and physical realities.

      And, two opposite outcomes.

      Jesus gives us no choice. "You are either with me or against me, gathering with me or scattering." Either all in or all out. It's our choice.

      Scripture allows no exemptions, no exclusions, no special categories. God's way or the highway. God is able to save us and change us.

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