“Nick,” said my editor, fixing me with what I think was supposed to be a man-to man gaze, “it’s the Valentine’s Week issue.”
“I want you to write about something that gets you excited.”
Excellent, I thought, an entire column on Google Chat.
“I want you to write about sex.”
This is all because it’s Sex Week At Yale, otherwise known as SWAY, the best acronym since the British Interior Ministry created the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System. And as Sex Week Director Dain Lewis ’07 says, “Yale graduates are among the best and brightest minds in the world, but many of them still have no idea of how to ask a girl out on a date.” Of course, that could easily be because so many of us are gay.
On the face of it, this request seemed like asking Herod for a piece on babysitting. What did I know about sex? Or, more accurately, bearing in mind that my readership includes my family, my students, my professors and my priest, was I able to produce something interesting and yet totally free of embarrassing personal revelation? However much the editor batted his eyelashes at me, there was no way he was getting a blow-by-blow account of my current relationship.
Ergo, I was extremely tempted to outsource this task to people who knew more about sex, such as my family. I’m not kidding: During Christmas, I was the only member of the household sleeping in a single bed, unless you count the cat. And he’s been neutered.
Still, I have no desire to be outed as a columnar Benedict Arnold, so here goes.
Chesterton said “the first two facts which a healthy boy or girl feels about sex are these: First that it is beautiful and then that it is dangerous.” Probably he was being characteristically optimistic: First feelings are more likely to be those of Woody Allen, who famously cracked that “sex without love is an empty experience, but, as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.”
Although the two men have almost nothing in common — one a Catholic journalist who died in 1936, the other a Jewish filmmaker — Chesterton would have pounced on Allen’s remark and emphasized that sex is dangerous precisely because it is beautiful. To give an obvious example: Chesterton opposed contraception because he feared the divorce of cause and effect. He foresaw the great irony that, even as contraception culminated humanity’s triumph over nature, so “free love” would be nature’s triumph over humanity. When there was nothing to prevent submission to a “natural instinct,” the humanity was gone.
To put it another way, “he [for which read “mankind”] now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will.” Thus Benedict XVI. As the Pope also noted, “Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed.”
Yet this is almost the exact opposite of the case. The church has never truly hated sex — on the contrary, problems arose because it venerated and idolized sex to the extent that it became untouchable. It was the medieval Cathar heresy that hated sex, the Cathars who considered the world so foul that it mattered not who had sex with whom, or how. Of course it’s fun (in a sense) to track the thought patterns of Thomas Aquinas as he calibrates whether fellatio is worse than bestiality, but he was attempting to restore sex to the elevated position he believed it occupied. It is indicative that the marriage service contained (or contains, if you’re demanding enough) the vow “with my body, I thee worship.”
And this is what Chesterton meant. Sex is — can be — a mutually enjoyable physical experience, and is in that sense justifiable on its own merits. But to go beyond that into a world of intimacy and possession — in the sense of a mutual and simultaneous possession and surrender — suggests that it can be very dangerous indeed.
Being a historian, I should offer some evidence to support the theory. Well, to all intents and purposes, my sex life began in CCL. I don’t mean, of course, that I lost my virginity in CCL; I can hardly think of any location less erotic, with the obvious exception of the Art & Architecture Library. I mean that it was CCL where I met the man who can bear the motto Liht Mec Heht Gewyrcan — “The Light ordered that I should be made.” And yes, that’s a personal reference.
I wasn’t exactly innocent before I came to Yale, but I could never shake the feeling that sex seemed so purposeless. Maybe I’m just picky, maybe I’ve got Anglo-Catholic guilt (although that’s another column for another time), but let’s face it, there’s a great relief in not having to pretend that you can have sex by telepathy. Sex is a more meaningful experience when it stops being performative, when you can actually say “darling, I love what you’re doing, but you’re cutting off the circulation in my arm.”
Paradoxically, the meaning lies in the moments of “not-sex,” when the emotional intimacy transforms and exalts the physical intimacy. These are the moments when you feel the warmth of the beloved, or watch the light and shadow play across his/her shoulders, or when, as REM perfectly put it: “I count your eyelashes, secretly / with every one whisper ‘I love you.'”
And this is not something that happens overnight. In any sense.
Nick Baldock will be diving into the height of Victorian romance this week — he’ll be curled up with some tea and reading Shakespeare.