Allow me to share two stories.
Several years into our marriage, I noticed that our—how to put it delicately—“romantic encounters” were not quite measuring up to my pre-wedding frequency expectations for people in their 20s. I mentioned this at the time to Suann, my lovely bride, who said, “Don’t be stupid. We’re well above average.” We had this unprofitable conversation, in different settings but always with the same results, for several months.
It finally occurred to me, being a logical guy, that hard data have the power of irrefutable fact. Thus, while I seemed to drop the matter, what I actually did was graph our performance over a 12- or 13-week period. I recorded the relevant data points, and—I thought quite generously—deleted all legitimate null-set days from my calculations; not just days related to normal biology, but even those involving (frankly dubious) claims of “exhaustion.” I then, in a very reasonable way, presented the evidence to Suann.
I learned a lot. Mainly: Don’t do this. It does get results. Just not the ones you want.
Here’s my other story. Again, we’re a few years married. We have jobs and a one-room Manhattan studio apartment. Life is good and about to get better. I’ve just been accepted into the best film-making fellowship program in the country. This is the Big Career Move. We’ll live in L.A., Suann (of course) will find work, and I’ll do my fellowship. And we’ll be on our way to success and great times. Then Suann comes home from the doctor. She says, “I’m pregnant.” And I remember her watching me very carefully.
Maybe other men have had this experience: Time slows way down. The road ahead splits in two. Route A has a sign reading, “This is damned inconvenient, and it ruins everything.” The sign on Route B reads, “This is wonderful news, sweetheart; we’ll make it work.” Meanwhile, a little voice in my head squeaks: “Think before you speak, buddy. Consequences follow.” So I went—if not quite enthusiastically, at least convincingly—with option B. The whole thing took two heartbeats. And again, I learned a lot. Mainly: how to be a human being instead of a radically self-absorbed ego in pants; how, finally, to be a husband and a father.
Now, these two awkwardly personal anecdotes have something in common: sex. And as someone who’s now older and—if not wiser, at least more prudent—I want to recommend, to America’s intimacy-starved masses, the best two sex specialists I’ve read in decades. They’ve taught me a lot.
Neither, though, has anything to say about technique.
Writing in the wake of the 1960s, in his essay “The Ascendance of Eroticism” (included here), the Italian Catholic scholar Augusto Del Noce noted that society’s sense of modesty had changed so drastically in less than a decade that “the average person accepts, without any moral reaction, displays of sexuality that a few years ago were inconceivable.” He observed that modesty as a virtue was no longer simply ignored, but viewed as a repressive artifact of the past—“the dead trying to suffocate the living”—and therefore offensive and abnormal.
Thus, Del Noce wrote, in a world that refuses to assign any sacred purpose to the body or permanence to relationships, a world that sees the core of a good life as sexual happiness identified with maximum sexual appetite and activity, “it does not make sense to speak of sexual perversions; on the contrary, homosexual expressions, either masculine or feminine, should be regarded as the purest forms of love.” He also added that “the domain of free sexuality is the pure present,” repudiating the past and indifferent to the future. Thus, it’s not only infertile—children are a drag on personal liberty—but also alienating and a regression to sub-human “animalism.”
Put more simply: Frequency and partner variety have very little to do with enduring sexual happiness. In fact, they work in exactly the opposite way. As with so much else in life, too much of a good thing, at the wrong time in the wrong way, renders the “good” in it tedious and empty. Today’s sharp decline in sexual activity among the young has everything to do with the isolating cocoon of pornography and the collapse of any higher meaning in sexual relationships. Sex without love—real love, the kind that comes with obligations and unexpected burdens, but also unexpected joys—kills the taste for both.
The late Roger Scruton, my other favorite sexologist and sometime philosopher, added (here) that the beauty and power of human sexuality are nowhere more vividly embodied than in the face—especially in the eyes, where our subjectivity resides, just as it resides in the face of the Other whom we love and desire. And this is why, in a world committed to commodifying and pornifying nearly all of life in the name of “freedom,” the first victim is the human face. Erotic images in our time are a tool of commerce, and thus they
present the body as the focus and meaning of desire . . . [which inevitably leads] to a marginalization, indeed a kind of desecration, of the human face. And this desecration of the face is also a cancelling out of the subject. Sex in the pornographic culture is not a relation between subjects, but a relation between objects.
So where am I going with all this?
I’m writing this on the birth of our eleventh grandchild, our daughter’s seventh child. Suann and I will celebrate our 51st anniversary in December, a monument to her patience. Her eyes are still young. They never age. I still look at them, and into them, with gratitude, delight, and desire. So, I guess the lesson I finally did learn is: quality, not quantity.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.
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