Saturday, May 31, 2014

Intimacy and Human Need

Recently, the Salt Lake Tribune sponsored a live on-line discussion with a panel consisting of Kendall Wilcox, Ty Mansfield, and Karen Penman (the mother of a transgender son).

The talk was too short to get into any depth discussing key issues, but there was one statement by Ty that I've been thinking a lot about since. I'm paraphrasing here, so you can go to the link above if you want to listen to the full statement in context. Ty said that "intimacy" is a "human need," but "sex" is an "appetite." This statement was made in the context of a larger discussion about health and happiness and sexuality. The implication, I think, was that people do not need sex in order to be healthy and happy. But they do need intimacy.

If I had been a member of the panel, I would have asked Ty what exactly he means by intimacy. I would also have asked him exactly how it is that adults are supposed to meet needs for intimacy outside of the kind of partnership or companionship we generally understand marriage to be. Family is the social unit through which individuals in our society (and as far as I can tell, individuals in any society) experience intimacy.

Friendship can and does meet needs for intimacy. But the scope and the depth of friendship is necessarily limited. Unless we're talking about the kind of friendship that spouses have with each other. Friends can and do provide intimacy that can't always be provided by a spouse. But as I have experienced it, friendship is a kind of supplemental intimacy. It doesn't really work as a primary source of intimacy. In order for intimacy needs to be adequately met for most people, intimacy needs to be something you come home to.

I'm trying to imagine, for instance, how, if the Church prescribes celibacy for an entire class of people (namely, gay people), what, concretely, will the Church do to ensure that those individuals' needs for intimacy will be met. Would families in the Church be willing to adopt celibate gays? Invite them into their intimate family life as family?

The Book of James springs to mind:
If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. (James 2: 15-17)
Doesn't the Church in essence say to its gay brothers and sisters, its gay sons and daughters, "Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled" notwithstanding it does not give us those things which are needful?

Now, that is not the only thing I found troubling about this statement. I found it equally troubling to hear sexuality reduced to an appetite. And I found it puzzling to suggest that just because sex is "an appetite," we can therefore dismiss the notion that human beings have a legitimate need for sex. After all, when someone uses the word "appetite," my mind generally goes to the subject of food. But as we know (as the Book of James reminds us), human beings can't be healthy without food. If sex can be dispensed with in a way that food cannot, then I would not describe sex as "an appetite."

But lets go back to Ty's statement. It seems to me that what he was saying is that intimacy is a need while sex is an unneeded want. Ty wants to divorce, at all costs, sexuality from intimacy.

But that, to me, seems to be the primary way in which sexuality is distorted in our culture. Sex is distorted in our culture primarily by being commodified. Pimps and prostitutes literally sell sex. Pornography is another form of commodified sex. And movies and fashion magazines and underarm deodorant commercials all commodify sex in varying degrees. And the mentality that allows sex to be commodified in any way at all is the mentality that says sex and intimacy are two different things. Banishing sexuality from intimacy makes sexual promiscuity inevitable. It demands sexual promiscuity.

The institution of marriage is the primary bulwark against the commodification of sex. Paul acknowledged this in the negative statement that "it is better to marry than to burn" (1 Corinthians 7:9). But God acknowledged it in the positive statement that "it is not good that man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18). What marriage qua social practice teaches is that sexuality is best practiced within the framework of committed intimacy. What marriage teaches is that sexuality without intimacy becomes meaningless. And meaningless sex is the kind most susceptible to be commodified.

I must take issue with Ty by suggesting that sexuality is a necessary form of intimacy. Sexuality -- which includes the very important component of attraction -- drives human beings toward intimacy. Sexuality creates family. It creates family only secondarily through the production of offspring that comes about when sperm and ova unite. It creates family primarily by creating the stable social bonds that form the framework for social care-giving. Two individuals form a family through the bond of sexual intimacy, and that family unit, in turn, is empowered through the emotional and social needs that intimacy meets to care for children (including foster and adoptive children), for aging parents, and, more generically, for the neighbor, the needy other. The bond created through sexual intimacy pre-dates the production of children, and it continues long after children are grown and gone and forming families of their own, and it always, with or without children, is a key building block of society.

Divorcing sex and intimacy makes no sense in any reasonable analysis of human sex drives and how those drives relate to human sociality. Or, divorcing sex and intimacy makes sense only as a form of special pleading necessitated by homophobia. It is necessitated by the denial of the social and intimacy needs of gay individuals. (As is the denial that gay individuals actually exist. But I assure you, we do exist.)

American sociality will continue to be distorted so long as we deny the reality of human sexual diversity, and as long as we refuse to see the ways in which different kinds of sexuality, and the different kinds of family that diverse sexuality produces, actually create flexibility and strength within our social systems. Strong, stable, celebrated gay families, in other words, will make our society stronger and more adaptable and more flexible. And perhaps the celebration of same-sex sexual intimacy within the bounds of marriage can even strike a blow against the commodification of sex that is one of the primary banes of our civilization.

Some of the most profoundly spiritual moments of my life have been moments of physical intimacy with my husband. How could the communion of tenderness, intimacy, vulnerability and physical joy not be profoundly spiritual? I have experienced those moments as a blessing from God, and I have felt God blessing those moments, blessing that communion. Out of that blessing comes gratitude, and profound desire to give back, to make the world a better place.

It is in those moments of transcendence that that kind of intimacy allows that I understand the divine purpose behind sexuality, and I understand that, yes, human beings need the full spectrum of intimacy for which God has designed us.


Catherine Russell said...

Another group of people deprived of intimacy are those without partners of any kind. "Single" people are seen as a sub-class in our culture. Widows and widowers are also in a category unto themselves, often having experienced intimacy, but then grieving for the loss of what was. Another group are silent and invisible in our Mormon culture: married and incredibly lonely, caught in the legal arrangement wihtout intimacy in their sexual expression. Often their sexual expression is glossed over as his "right" according to his "needs". Part of this viewpoint is influenced by the #yesallwomen dialog in the Twittersphere. We all hunger for genuine, safe, vulnerable, and deep intimacy. Yet it seems it remains elusive at best. Our culture has surely corrupted what is meant to be exquisitely fulfilling.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Thanks, Catherine.

I've long been aware of how difficult it has always been to be single and Mormon for whatever reason. When I was a kid, one of our close family friends was a single sister who experienced incredible anguish and loneliness. She frequently came to my parents for emotional support, and I witnessed her heartbreak and sense of isolation first-hand.

The other category of loneliness you describe we almost never discuss, much less acknowledge, which makes it doubly painful.

Ironically, those kinds of loneliness are frequently trotted out as arguments against gay relationships. Being gay is compared to a disability, and we are told that our relegation to life-long, compulsory loneliness is tragic but unavoidable.

Rex Tremendae said...

A beautiful post that expresses many of the same concerns I make in my own post about this subject. You, as usual, have said it all much more eloquently and level-headedly. Thank you!

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Thanks, Rex!

alan said...

Banishing sexuality from intimacy makes sexual promiscuity inevitable.

Except that promiscuity does not necessarily equal an absence of intimacy, as there are plenty of people who have multiple sex partners over the course of their lives and make every time "count" as a genuine connection. Throughout the animal kingdom, there are creatures who are sexual with one another as a way to connect, rather than fulfilling some "selfish appetite."

I see the separation Ty is making as part of his (and others') long campaign to take the "sex" out of "homosexuality" to make it okay for a single gay people. Rather than focus on the "homo" as different and therefore wrong, the focus is on sex generally, which requires making generalizations about sex that cannot stand to reason...and, in fact, contradict Church policy about sex, which is that it is for "strengthening the bond" between those in a marriage. I think you're right to ask, " now we have a bunch of accepted single gay people. Now what?"

I talked about in my Dialogue essay, of how the Church moved from sex is for intimacy with reproductive intent, to in the 1980s, sex is for intimacy with or without reproductive intent, and without it, it's harder to justify the position against homosexuality.

During his career, Dean Byrd made the case that the "homo" part of homosexuality is what has to be focused on, unless the Church wants to eventually accept same-sex intimacy as normal. Regarding in Quiet Desperation, Byrd scathingly wrote a decade ago:

"Whether or not it was intentional on the part of the publisher or the authors, the book has an underlying theme and effect of 'sensitivity training'...It begins the journey from tolerance to acceptance (suggesting that homosexual attraction is so strongly compelled by biological factors that it is indelibly ingrained in a person’s core identity, and is therefore not amenable to change). From acceptance, there is only a short distance to celebration as we have seen in society in general."

Ty may not think so, but I think in the long-run he is doing work for the Church to eventually come to approve of same-sex intimacy, by working through the various contradictions the Church has created to maintain the faulty logic. I guess I'm just annoyed of how the process of getting there includes the propagation of more contradictory thinking. In some ways, I think the old guys at the top do know how this works as a policy/propaganda issue, but they're running out of cards to play as the greater society simply calls out the Church's policy as bogus heterosexism... the brokenness of it just becomes more and more transparent.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Alan - I see it more as a process of working through possible ways of approaching this issue. It's taking time, but each iteration yields more understanding.

To me, Ty's admission that people need intimacy -- even though he's trying hard to deny the role of sexuality as an important form of human intimacy -- seems to be moving the conversation forward.