I have been thinking a great deal about Augustine’s theology of sex in light of all the various scandals involving powerful men and their abuse and intimidation of women. I worry that we may be focusing on all the bad apples to the neglect of the bigger problem of how we think about human sexuality as a society.
Augustine basically said that sex is sinful. Actually, it is more complicated and nuanced than that (check it). The problem, he said, is not sex itself but the way sexual pleasure “activates” pride. The Augustine scholar John Cavadini put it well when he wrote:
To fault Augustine in this context for not realizing that “sexual pleasure” can enrich a couple’s relationship, or to assess Augustine’s views against our own more “positive” view, may be, with all due respect, to beg the question. For Augustine, the question would not be whether sexual pleasure can enrich a couple’s relationship, but whether there is any sexual pleasure possible without a taint of violence or complacency (“self-pleasing”) in it. The question would be, what are we taking pleasure from? Pleasure, as Augustine is at pains to point out, is an affair of the soul, not the body. The pleasure that satisfies lust, qua lust, is not the enjoyment, physical or otherwise, of the awesome beauty of another person as the creation of God, because lust is based on pride, and pleasure in someone else’s being as God’s gift to them is rather pleasure in humility. For example, can we say that any act of sexual delight is completely free from smugness, from self-admiration, from the slightest hint of “self-pleasing” in the mastery of the “skill sets” of popular magazines, in the thought that one is an accomplished, or at least halfway decent, lover? Violence includes the admiration of power or ability as power or ability. [Emphasis mine.]
Pride means we tend to treat other people like tools. They might be highly prized tools, but they are tools no less. We love others for what they do for us more than we love them for what they mean to God. To treat another human as a tool is a kind of violence, especially if the other person is a tool for self-gratification.
That is what happens during sexual climax. We might enjoy the closeness and intimacy of the encounter, but during climax we “use” the body of the beloved to maximize our own pleasure. That is where the sin happens for Augustine.
I should point out that Augustine was limited by his own sexual experiences (mostly with a concubine) and cultural context (raging patriarchy). Still, the relationship he saw between sex and violence might help shed light on our current cultural moment. After the Sexual Revolution, it became acceptable to seek sexual pleasure for its own sake. (That is not to say that people were not having casual sex before, but cultural ideals do matter.) Maybe when that happens, adults begin to act more like children, pursuing human beings the way a child might pursue a favorite dessert. Throw in the power-differentials of systemic sexism, and you have an environment ripe for predation.
Or at least that is my working hypothesis. I am interested in what you think. Please leave a comment or tag me on Facebook to help broaden the discussion.