On the Meaning of Sex: A Series Introduction

(This is J Mascis, not J Budziszewski, but I couldn’t find a Budziszewski music video)

There’s a thing that some of my favorite bloggers do, where they take a book and, over a series of posts, engage its arguments chapter-by-chapter, sometimes page-by-page. Fred Clark at Slacktivist has been going after Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind series for a solid ten years; other classics of the genre are Libby Anne’s ongoing series (at Love, Joy, Feminism) on Debi Pearl’s Created to Be His Helpmeet, and Rob Tisinai’s takedown of Robert George’s article “What is Marriage?” at his blog wakingupnow.com.

I want in, so I’m going spend the next few Wednesdays in this space reading J. Budziszewski’s 2012 book On the Meaning of Sex.


First, some full disclosure: Budziszewski is a professor of Government at the Greatest University in the World. I don’t know him, although his office is in a building where I spend a lot of time. We probably pass each other in the hall regularly, but I couldn’t pick him out of lineup.

Now some background: why this book?

Budziszewski is a scholar in the natural law tradition, and On the Meaning of Sex is the book where he puts his reading of natural law to bear on answering questions about sexual ethics. It’s a topic he’s tackled in other places (extensively, even, in his Office Hours column for young adults), but On the Meaning of Sex puts a lot of pieces together.

As such, it offers an opportunity to work on one of the main projects of this blog: reclaiming the term “natural law” from the religious right, and putting it back to work for a genuine ethics based on actual observations of real human nature.

Now, I know most of my readers know what “natural law” means, but I want to make sure everyone does. Here’s how Budziszewski defines it: “the basic principles of right and wrong that are true for everyone because they are rooted in the very nature of the created human person, and knowable to everyone because we are endowed with conscience and the power to deliberate.”

Basically, a natural law approach to life means trying to discern the right way to act by observing nature.  That’s it. It’s as old as Aristotle and the basis of most of our scientific knowledge. As Noah Millman argues in a post I highlighted here, it’s what drives the field of evolutionary psychology, and what’s behind books like Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn.

But most people who take a natural law approach to life don’t call it that, in large part because the term has been taken over by folks like Budziszewski and Robert George, folks who use nature selectively to justify their religion’s teachings on sex. Here’s what Tisinai writes about George:

 He thinks we can use reason to discover morality (and in fact, his article’s argument is intended to be purely secular, with no appeal to religion), but the conclusions derived from reason have to match truth as revealed in the Gospels and interpreted by the [Catholic] Church, or they are flawed. That shapes his approach to “What is marriage?” because he knows the answer before he begins; his job is to develop a rational basis for defining something that has already been eternally defined in a higher realm.

That could apply, word-for-word, to Budziszewski. And, as Tisinai explains, those predetermined conclusions violate the spirit of inquiry that’s supposed to characterize natural law. Yet the religious right has claimed ownership of the term “natural law” to the extent that they regularly say that those of us who support gay rights or contraception are somehow defying human nature. And they get little or no pushback.

So how did this happen? How did “natural law” become synonymous in the public mind with reducing all of human sexuality to a pair of restroom signs? With the idea that sex must always, in all cases, be open to procreation? That masturbation is immoral? Even though studying nature doesn’t support any of those ideas?

Reading On the Meaning of Sex will help answer that. And, through the course of this series, I’ll try to track the book’s argument as fairly as I can, though of course I’ll highlight its blindspots, errors, and ugly implications.

Most of all its ugly implications. Because On the Meaning of Sex is, in some ways, a pretty book. An normal guy can pick it up and find himself nodding along with its explanations, as long as he only thinks about the ways he is average or normal. But where it doesn’t offer answers—in fact, where it completely falls apart—involves the ways that a person might fall outside of the average, normal category. And we all do in some way or another. Let me repeat that: we all differ from the norm in some way or another.

At its base, Budziszewski’s argument is that normal is good, and that, when it comes to gender and sexuality, the way most of us are is the way all of us should be. That means that Budziszewski finds tremendous value in the difference between male and female, but no value at all in individual differences, at least not in differences that move us away from gender ideals. To the contrary, those differences, for Budziszewski, are deficiencies.

Of course, Budziszewski doesn’t actually say that last part—which is wise, since almost nobody actually believes, for example, that a woman with an analytic mind or strong biceps is actually lesser than a woman who doesn’t have those things. Or that being naturally nurturing makes a man less good than a non-nurturing man. But these are the inescapable implications of Budziszewski’s argument.

Last year, another thinker on the Catholic Right, Anthony Esolen, wrote a much-criticized essay for Public Discourse in which he said:

I understand there are men who have not attained the healthy masculine nature I hope my son will attain. I don’t make fun of them. I don’t wish them ill. I count some among my friends. I extend to them my tolerance of a state that is at least a significant falling-short of a natural good.

Putting aside Esolen’s generous(?) tolerance, his point is clear: being a non-masculine man is bad. No matter how moral, honest, charitable he might be, a man who doesn’t “walk and talk and work and play and fight and laugh” like a man isn’t as good as a man who does.

The terribleness of that argument ought to be apparent, but Esolen is just stating outright what Budziszewski only implies. So a central aim of this series will be to tie those two positions together, to show how Budziszewski’s argument leads to Esolen’s. Sometimes it seems as if Budziszewski wants to evade those connections, to escape the meaning of On the Meaning of Sex. I don’t intend to let him.

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