“Can we live without sex?”
In and of itself, that question seems pretty simple. But when we start breaking it down, things become a little more complicated. What are we talking about here when we say “sex”? What is sex? What counts as sex? What doesn’t count as sex?
Furthermore, what do we mean when we talk about living without it? What does living without sex look like? Is living without sex even possible? Is living without sex even good?
1. Can we live without sex?
When thinking about the first problem—“What is sex?”—in one sense, it’s easy to think, “Oh, come on; we all know what that means!” But I’m not sure it’s quite that straightforward. Most of us would agree that sexual intercourse is clearly sex. But what about all the other things? In the language of the time I grew up in, what about “first”, “second” and “third base” (whatever those are)? Are they a part of sex? Some things—many things—that we do with our body are clearly on view when we talk about “sex”. But for other things, context matters, circumstance matters and intention matters.
Perhaps a better way to define “sex” is to say that it’s the way we use our bodies to incite sexual arousal or intimacy between ourselves and other people in order to provide sexual gratification—whether that be to ourselves or to others. This definition is helpful, I think, because it focuses more on intent, purpose and motivation than on a specific list of what is classified as “sex” and what is not. It helps us understand sex in such a way that urges us to look not simply at what we do with our bodies (especially what we do with our sexual organs), but why we do those things—or why we long to do those things.
This means it’s also important for us to locate ourselves in the conversation. As we think about the question, “Can we live without sex?”, we bring certain perspectives, lived experiences and histories to it. Some of us have never had sex. Others have had it, but aren’t having it any longer. Some currently have regular, active and pleasurable sex lives, while others experience difficult, frustrating or even painful sex lives.
But just as we acknowledge that there will be lots of different perspectives coming to this question, there is one particular perspective that needs to overarch all of those: God’s perspective. I write this as someone who is persuaded from the Bible that God’s good gift of sex is one he has given to be received and enjoyed within the particular and exclusive context of marriage, that one-flesh relationship between a man and a woman. Their sexual relationship serves the intimacy of their committed, covenanted union. Furthermore, it’s the way God works to bring new human life into this world—within the context of that union.
So God’s purposes will guide our consideration of the place of sex in our lives. God’s intentions will speak to us in whatever situation we find ourselves—whether we are married or single—whether we are having sex or not—whether we’re glad we’ve had it or now we’re regretting it—whether we have ever had it or whether we have not.
2. Can we live without sex?
But of course the question, “Can we live without sex?” doesn’t only ask whether we can live without sex, it also asks whether we can we live without sex. Again, lots of different people will bring different perspectives to that aspect of the question. But in this article, I want to consider two that are particularly significant to us Christians.
The first is one that Christians have wrestled with throughout all of church history—the question of whether it’s realistic to live without sex. Way back in the 4thcentury AD, St Augustine talked about how his sexual longings caused him to delay becoming a Christian for as long as he did: he says they used to murmur softly in his ear, saying, “Do you mean to get rid of us? Shall we never be your companions again after that moment … never … never again?”1 Fast forward 1,000 years or so to Luther, who said that unless a person was specifically called by God to be single, they must marry, because otherwise they “will be bound to commit heinous [sexual] sins without end”.2 Even as recently as 2016, the well-known pastor John Macarthur taught that singleness “leads to sexual sin at a rampant level […] [because] you’ve got all these people with these pent-up desires and they are about to explode”.3 It does make you wonder whether living without sex is really truly living.
The second aspect revolves around the idea that a life without sex is deficient and abnormal. In June of this year, I was listening to an episode of Louis Theroux’s podcast where he was interviewing the actress Miriam Margoyles about her use of sex in her comedy: she said it works well because, “Nearly everybody, unless they are terribly unfortunate, have had it, are having it or hope to have it”.4 Louis responded by quoting a French poet: “Of all the sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest”.5 For Theroux and Margoyles, the thought of a life without sex is terribly unfortunate and strangely perverse. But are they right? Can a life without the experience of sex—or the experience of sex again—be a truly enjoyable life? Is life without sex a good life?
3. Living without sex now … in light of the past
a. Two revolutions of the past
CS Lewis once wrote that “Every age has its own outlook … it is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes”.6 Our age is no exception: we live in a time and a culture with a particular outlook—and a very particular outlook on sex. So as we think about whether life without sex can be good, we need to do a bit of digging so that we understand what we think about the connection between sex and the good life, and why we think these things. To do that, we need to start in the past—in particular, with two pivotal revolutions of the past: the Industrial Revolution and the Sexual Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution
Many of us would be familiar with that old Sinatra song:
Love and marriage, love and marriage,
they go together like a horse and carriage.
This I tell you, brother:
you can’t have one without the other.7
This sentiment—that romantic love is the glue and foundation of marriage, and that they necessarily co-exist and don’t make sense without each other—seems like an obvious truth to us today. But this perspective on marriage, love and, by implication, sex, would have seemed very strange to most people living in the West just a few hundred years ago.
Prior to the late 1700s, most people did not have the luxury of marrying for love. Marriage wasn’t primarily seen as the public announcement of two people’s intense and committed romantic feelings for each other. This meant that most people didn’t see sex to be the pinnacle or ultimate expression of that love. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that people didn’t enjoy sex. They did! And it’s not that romantic love didn’t exist. It did! But before the Industrial Revolution, love and marriage (and sex) didn’t go together like the horses and carriages they actually used back then; you could—and often did—have one without the other.
Before the late 1700s, the household of a husband and wife was not primarily seen to be a haven of romantic affection. Instead, the marital household was the centre of economic production. The household was a unit—a collection of people bound together to help each other survive and, hopefully, thrive in society. It was also a unit that helped society more broadly survive and, hopefully, thrive. This meant that, back then, the home was not your refuge from the workplace; it was your workplace. It was where you produced and sold goods, bartered or purchased other goods, and just generally made life work. Your spouse was not so much your soulmate as your workmate.
But then the Industrial Revolution dawned, new technologies were created, factories were built, and the household increasingly lost its place as the economic centre of production in society. People left home in the morning to go work in factories all day. And as this happened, marriage and the household became increasingly privatised: they moved from being primarily outward-looking—towards the society around them—to being primarily inward-looking—towards themselves. The historian Stephanie Coontz writes,
By the end of the 1700s […] individuals were encouraged to marry for love. For the first time in five thousand years, marriage came to be seen as a private relationship between two individuals rather than one link in a larger system of political and economic alliances. The measure of a successful marriage was [… now] how well a family met the emotional needs of its individual members.8
As marriages became increasingly central in meeting people’s emotional needs, sex in marriage was gradually elevated to become the ultimate and physical expression of those needs being met. And so over time, sex came to take on an almost other-worldly significance.
Now again, of course that is not to say that love didn’t exist between spouses before the Industrial revolution, nor that sex with your spouse wasn’t thought to have been delightful and special back then. It’s not even to suggest that romance and wonderful sex ought not to find a fitting home within marriage; just look at the Song of Solomon. But the point is that this romanticised trinity of marriage, sex and love—a trinity designed to provide ultimate fulfilment toour emotional needs—really only came into existence about 200 years ago. Yet it profoundly shapes us today—Christians and non-Christians alike.
The Sexual Revolution
There is also another revolution—a much more recent one—that has also had a very significant impact on our thinking: the Sexual Revolution of the last century. When we think about the Sexual Revolution, we tend to imagine hippies in bell-bottoms, dancing through the park, holding up “Free love” signs with one hand and making peace symbols with the other. That’s one picture , but it’s incomplete.
Just as the massive changes to the way people thought about marriage, love and sex at the end of the 18th century were largely driven by the development of new technologies and new industry, so was the Sexual Revolution of the mid-20th century largely driven by the development of new technologies. In particular, the development of and easy access to the contraceptive pill, and the legalisation of and easy access to abortion, changed the way Western society thought about sex.
Until the middle of the 20th century, having sex meant you had to be prepared for certain consequences—especially if you were a woman. The pill and abortion changed all that. It became much, much easier to separate sex from marriage—sex from having a family—sex from societal expectations and pressures. That’s precisely why hippies could advocate for “free love”, because sex became about freedom. It became about an individual’s freedom to experiment and express themselves sexually as they saw fit. Here is how one author describes it:
Instead of bringing with it the usual expectation of childbirth and raising a family, the intimacy of the sexual relationship was sought in isolation and sex became about something else [… it] increasingly became about expressing “me”—a part of my identity. Divorced from family, sex has been recast to serve the me-culture’s pursuit of pleasure and need for self-identity.9
b. One conviction in the present
So here we stand as a contemporary society today, hopelessly and endlessly confused about the place of sex in our lives. On one hand, societal changes after the Industrial Revolution have shaped the world’s thinking about sex so that we see it as an essential and ultimate to our humanity. This was re-emphasised to me as I read an article about Victoria’s recent lockdown restrictions: at the time, the rules stipulated you couldn’t travel further than 5 km from your home, you couldn’t visit other people’s homes, and you must be in your home between 8pm and 5am—unless you had an “intimate” partner who doesn’t live with you. In that case, you could travel to their place wherever it may be as often as you liked, to spend as much time as you liked with that person. As the article’s author wrote,
By and large, people who live alone do have close personal relationships: they have friends and family members that they love, with whom they are emotionally close, with whom they would value sharing a hug, a meal, a movie, or a pot of tea. But if these relationships are not “intimate,” then they are not permitted in Victoria right now.10
If we need to be persuaded that our society sees sex as essential to the good life, we need look no further than what we prioritise as essential during a pandemic.
On the other hand, however, the Sexual Revolution has turned sex into something extraordinarily common and routine: we should seek it wherever we can, try it with whomever we want, enjoy it as often as we want, and have it without being overly concerned about its consequences. What matters is me and my personal choice: I can use sex to determine who I am, who I want to be, and who I want the world to know me as. It’s about my freedom.
Sex is either the way in which someone else fulfills me, or the way in which I fulfill myself—or it’s both of these at the same time.
This means we have one contemporary conviction about sex: we see it as ultimate. We are convinced that sex is essential to the good life—a life worth living. This also means that we see a life without sex as not only terribly unfortunate, but also strangely perverse.
But that’s the world; what about us? How do we Christians think about the goodness of life without sex? The good news is we haven’t completely bought into what the world is selling; we still tend to place a high value on sex as a good gift from God, designed for his purposes and his intentions. We don’t generally see sex as common. We are largely appalled at its commodification.
But the world’s confusion about sex as being essential for the good life has affected us Christians more than I think we are prepared to admit. On one hand, the romanticisation of marriage and sex has found a safe haven in evangelical Christianity today, and if you need convincing just how loud the Christian voice has become on this topic, head down to your nearest Christian bookshop and browse its aisles on marriage and relationships. But on the other hand, we’ve also breathed in the air of the world around us when it comes to sex as being a life-giving force for personal fulfillment. In his excellent book, Divine Sex, Jonathan Grant puts it this way:
[In the world’s eyes], we can achieve personal fruition only through full, free, and honest sexual expression. Self-denial is seen as a form of self-harm or an unhealthy incursion on our self-identity. As a result, even as Christians we may begin to wonder why God and the church would want to deprive us of these essential needs. This demonstrates the grip that our culture’s vision of sexuality has taken on our imaginations [… and ] the frustration, disappointment, and anger that so many believers experience in this area. Why would a good God lead me to this lonely pit? It’s a familiar narrative that I’ve heard from many Christians over the years.11
If sex is so ultimate—if sex is so good—then why would a good God lead me to this “lonely pit” of a life without it? Is a life without sex really and truly one that we can describe as being a good life?
4. Living without sex now … in light of the future
The past 200 years or so would have us answer a resounding “no” to that question. But what about the future? What answer does it give to us in the present?
In Matthew 22:23-33, the Sadducees try to corner Jesus into admitting that this whole resurrection thing he’s been going on about is just a load nonsense. To do that, they present him with a hypothetical example of a woman who has been married seven times, and then challenge him to tell them which one of these men she will be married to in the resurrection. You can almost picture them thinking, “Ha! Try and get yourself out of that conundrum Jesus!” But of course, they are doomed to fail: in verse 29, Jesus looks at them and says, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”. In the future—Jesus’ future, the future we will share with him—we resurrected human beings will not be married to each other. The reason for that is not only because the purposes of marriage in this creation will not carry over to the next creation, but because in the new creation, the ultimate purpose of human marriage will have been fulfilled.
In passages like Revelation 19:6-9 and 21:1-3, we read about the long-awaited eternal marriage between Christ and his church—the heavenly marriage to which all earthly marriages are a mere shadow. When that marriage finally happens—when we collectively as God’s people are intimately, finally and eternally united with our saviour—human marriage will no longer be part of our human reality. And neither will sex.
As we look at how the Bible speaks about Jesus’ resurrection body and as we look at passages like 1 Corinthians 15, we discover that in the new creation, we will be perfected—but we will still be embodied. We will still be physical. I will still be me; you will still be you; we will still be human men and women relating to each other. But because we won’t be married to each other, we won’t be having sex with each other. Your future—my future—our future together—is eternal life without sex. And you know what? It’s going to be a good life. It’s going to be the best life.
But what does life without sex in the new creation have to do with our lives now? We’re not there yet. We’re talking about the future, but we’re still in the present. We live in the overlap of the ages—the now, but not yet. We live in this creation, where marriage and sex continues to be part of God’s good purposes for us. So what does living without sex in the future have to do with how we think about living without sex here and now?
Well, in heaven, we’re going to be our most fully, perfected, holy, authentic human selves. But as fully, perfected, holy and authentic humans, we will not be having sex. This means we must not hold sex to be an essentialpart of what it is to experience true humanity.
God’s future teaches us that we must not see sex as ultimate—as something we must experience if we are truly to live the good human life. It insists that we not treat something that won’t even exist in heaven as being something that is ultimate on this earth. I love this quote from the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann:
To live in anticipation [of God’s future] means letting one’s own present be determined by the expected future of God’s kingdom […] the anticipation of the kingdom of God is not yet the kingdom itself, but it is a life which is determined by that hope.12
A life without sex now is not yet life in the kingdom of God itself; that’s yet to come. But a life without sex now can and should be a life that is determinedby that future hope. A life without sex can and should be given dignity and value in light of that future hope. A life without sex can and should be seen to be a truly good life in light of that future hope—a future hope that is ours in Jesus Christ, a man who lived completely without sex, but who lived theultimate good life.
Life without sex: is it a good life? The hope we have in Jesus Christ answers with a resounding “Yes. Yes, it is.”
1 Saint Augustine, of Hippo (354-430), The Confessions of Saint Augustine, translated by Maria Boulding, New City Press, New York, 1997, viii.xi.26.
2 Martin Luther (1483-1546), “The Estate of Marriage” (1522), Luther’s Works Vol 45, translated by Walther I Brandt, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1962, pp. 17-22.
5 The quote is often misattributed to Anatole France; it was said by Remy de Gourmont in La Physique de l’Amour: Essai sur l’Instinct Sexuel, 1903, chapter 18.
6 CS Lewis, “Introduction”, Athanasius: The Incarnation of the Word of God, translated by A Religious of CSMV, Macmillian, New York, 1946, p. 4.
7 “Love and Marriage”, lyrics by Sammy Cahn, music by Jimmy Van Heusen, Barton Music Corporation (ASCAP), 1955.
8 Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From obedience to intimacy or How love conquered marriage, Viking, New York, 2005, pp. 145-146.
9 Guy Brandon, Just Sex: Is it ever just sex?, Inter-Varsity Press, Grand Rapids, 2009, p. 20.
10 Stephanie Collins and Luara Ferracioli, “Sex under lockdown, but not friendship? The discriminations of intimacy”, ABC Religion & Ethics, 17 August 2020: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/sex-under-lockdown-but-not-friendship-victoria/12564864. Accessed online 11 October 2020.
11 Jonathon Grant, Divine Sex: A compelling vision for Christian relationships in a hypersexualized age, Brazos Press, Ada, 2015, chapter 8.
12 Jürgen Moltmann, “The Liberation of the Future and its Anticipations in History” in God Will Be All in All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann, edited by Richard Bauckham, T &T Clark, Edinburgh, 1999, p. 286.