Real intimacy comes from listening and being vulnerable, not having sex.
When it comes to sex, many men live in a fantasy. The problem with pornography and masturbation isn’t only lust, but that they build towers to the nonhuman. You learn to love a knockoff of the real thing. You get too comfortable with yourself and your individualism. When you finally face a real person, you become shocked by how much is demanded of you, how much more difficult and vulnerable a real relationship and real sex can be.
[Note: this essay was first published by Christianity Today and is reprinted with permission.]
Some people “do” sex like they “do” lunch and see it stemming from the same animal appetite. Sex is first reduced to biological instinct, then to a mechanical and inhumane act. Pills, tackle, and textbooks clutter the bed beyond recognition. The headlines are “multiple orgasms” and “simultaneous orgasm.” Sex becomes scientific; the how-to’s of orgasm, suddenly paramount. Behind it all, there’s a sadness. There is no truly happy “savvy bachelor.” Read the magazines they read. They are good only at making money and entertaining themselves, and everything and everyone falls into one of these two categories.
Playboy magazine epitomizes the savvy bachelor. He is charming and elegant, emotionally detached from the women he beds. After intercourse, he makes a post-coital martini and goes to sleep next to a passed-out bunny. In the morning he is miffed that she wants to eat breakfast, talk, stay.
By pretending that sex is emotionally and morally no-strings-attached, a person becomes an emotional prude. He uses sex to escape the commitment and vulnerability required in a genuine relationship. But when sex is severed from affection, marital jealousy, commitment, and the family, it becomes boring. Our savvy bachelor might have all the sex a person could hope for, but the heart cannot survive long when denied what it needs most. It breaks at the thought of inconsequence, of life and relationship without meaning. For all our tools and Kama Sutra and sexual fitness, we have given up relational and spiritual intimacy. We do not look into each other’s eyes. Again, look at the sexy magazines. Psychologist Rollo May once said: “You discover that they are not ‘sexy’ at all but that Playboy has only shifted the fig leaf from the genitals to the face.”
Before I had a girlfriend, I lived in fantasyland and had built a tower to the nonhuman. The view from up there was good, but it was not real. I didn’t have a real girlfriend until I was a sophomore in college. She was as shapely as a mermaid and loved Christ and cigarettes and good coffee—a powerful amalgamation—and all my stars seemed fixed in her orbit.
Her name was Jess, and she had already kissed a lot of boys. I was a 19-year-old who had never kissed a girl. We kissed for the first time after a techno party. I had covered my face in an invisible paint that glowed under a black light, and after all the guests left the paint slowly covered her lips and face. I thought kissing was like licking an ice cream cone, which is probably why she kept laughing as she taught me what to do, and a lot of what not to do, with my awkward tongue and teeth and lips. At sunrise I walked Jess home, grateful and covered in glow paint, surprised by how different she looked outside the thrill of the ultraviolet light. I hadn’t planned it that way at all, but real life is never quite like what we map out beforehand… especially people, especially kisses.
What I learned from my first kiss is that you have to listen. I sometimes wonder if love is the great iconoclast. True love rips apart whatever early images of perfection we might conjure. We can’t project our grandiose plans onto others. What you have before you is a real person, not an idea. That first kiss probably looked like a lion hunting on the Discovery Channel, oblivious to anything but its sated appetite. It wasn’t until I learned to step back, to listen, to put aside my assumed familiarity and acknowledge how unfamiliar I actually was, that I began to learn how to kiss. Listen.
As far as I can tell, listening is the key to healing the men who have become emotional prudes. It’s easy to think that we are good at loving until we actually experience love. We might have lofty ideas about sex and romance but our relationships reveal who we really are. They are a standard. They judge us. Until we learn to put aside the pictures in our heads and love the actual person in front of us, it doesn’t work.
Pornography, movies, and even too many Christian books about “courting” can put unrealistic ideas in our heads about what a relationship is really like. We can create a world of romance that doesn’t exist in real life. It might be flowery. It might look pure. But it is not real. Relationships hurtle us, sometimes against our will, into the most fundamental reality of what it means to be human. A man that’s fully alive can be a sexual prude, but he can’t be an emotional prude.
I believe God made sex interwoven with affection, the future, and death. Good sex is possible only in marriage, and marriage summons men to be emotionally vulnerable. Without the kind of vulnerability epitomized in marriage, sex becomes a matter of performance. The whole awkward-beautiful dance is turned into one big solemn production. We lose the natural grace possible only when we aren’t aware that we’re being watched.
Today’s culture might not produce many sexual prudes, but emotional prudes abound. The bachelor moves from one partner to the next, from one one-night stand to the other, a new body in his or her bed for every new phase of life. He sees your naked body as just like every other naked body. In marriage, however, not all naked bodies are equal. Here, husband and wife come to each other to make their bodies extraordinary, irreplaceable, and soulful. In marriage, men must give the gift of being emotionally open and attentive.
Read it in Christianity Today.