On the Meaning of Sex 1: Your Students are Smarter Than You Think

[This is part of a series on J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of SexRead my Introduction here.]


Chapter 1 of On the Meaning of Sex is, really, a preface; the book’s argument starts in earnest in Chapter 2. So (sorry readers!) the real deconstruction starts next week.

But that doesn’t mean Chapter 1 is no fun to read! Here’s what happens in it: 1) Budziszewski tells us a story about where this book comes from (and makes a blatant mistake in the process); 2) Budziszewski reveals his literary ambitions; 3) Budziszewski lets us know who he’s writing for (and who he’s writing against) and 4) Budziszewski sets up a comparison with Dante’s Divine Comedy, but botches the analogy.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how all that goes down:

1. Let’s talk about Harris

Budziszewski starts with a story about a missed opportunity that haunts him and, now, spurs him to write On the Meaning of Sex.

Once, he tells us, he had a student named Harris, who said in class two things regarding sex in the novel Brave New World that Budziszewski found to be contradictory. Budziszewski wanted to pursue that contradiction, because he thought it illuminated a critical—maybe even a generational—misunderstanding about the meaning of sex. But class ended before he got the chance. 😦

What did Harris say?

First, Harris said the characters in Brave New World were “disgusting” because they produced babies without sex, on factory production lines.  Then, later, Harris said, “Sex doesn’t always have to mean something.”

Budziszewski insists that this is illogical:

“When Harris described his aversion toward the factory production of children, he seemed to be saying that it is wrong to separate procreation from the act of union. On the other hand, when he said that sex doesn’t have to mean anything, he seemed to be saying that it is all right to separate the act of union from procreation.  That is like saying you may take the seeds from the apple, but you may not take the apple from the seeds.  This, of course, is nonsense.  To sever A from B is to sever B from A.” (5-6)

Right away we’ve got flawed thinking. It’s not nonsense at all to say that you can have A without B but not B without A.  An example off the top of my head: my barbershop is on South Congress Avenue.  I have to drive down South Congress to get a haircut; I don’t have to get my hair cut every time I drive down South Congress.


This is simple stuff.  Now, maybe the nature of sex is different than the nature of driving down Congress: maybe it’s more like a dead-end road with only one business, a barbershop, on it. Maybe, in other words, there’s only one good reason (procreation) to have sex. But I don’t think so, and that’s not self-evident, and Budziszewski certainly hasn’t made that case. Especially not to poor Harris.

And, absent that case, Budziszewski has no reason to say that his student is being illogical. Because there’s nothing inherently illogical about this diagram:


In fact, it looks to me like a pretty clear-eyed depiction of human sexuality, given the fact that the vast majority of human sexual encounters don’t result in procreation.

The passage illustrates two things we’ll see again in this book: the first is Budziszewski’s tendency to use the language of logic without using logic. The second is his penchant for using his students as strawmen. There are plenty of scholars, like Tina Beattie and Christine Gudorf, who start from the same Thomistic basis as Budziszewski but come to very different conclusions. Rather than engaging their arguments, Budziszewski’s proving himself against nineteen-year-olds he’s put on the spot.

Which wouldn’t bother me so much—after all, Budziszewski intends this book for a general audience, not a scholarly one, and he has responded to scholars in the past—except that I don’t think he’s giving those nineteen-year-olds their due. Remember, I teach the same kids Budziszewski does. And I don’t recognize my students in Budziszewski’s depictions of them.

I even had a student named Harris a few semesters ago. He was a smart kid, and I’m sure that if you gave him a little time (not much!) he could find holes in Budziszewski’s “logic.” More on this later.

2. Budziszewski gets poetic.

Like I said, Chapter 1 is a preface. It echoes the classical literary tradition of beginning a book with an apology for the work that follows, emphasizing author’s unworthiness to tackle to work’s immense subject matter. Cervantes, for example, starts his prologue to Don Quixote by writing:

“Idle reader: Without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine. But I have not been able to contravene the natural order; in it, like begets like. And so what could my barren and poorly cultivated wits beget but the history of child who is dry, withered, capricious, and filled with inconstant thoughts never imagined by anyone else…”

This is what Budziszewski is doing when he writes of the “beauty of understanding” as a bird he hasn’t caught yet, when he says that the genesis of the book is a failure in his teaching. It’s a rhetorical strategy: Budziszewski is building an authorial persona that’s meant to be at once disarming (because he admits his faults) and authoritative (because it’s connected to a long literary tradition).

In Chapter 1 we can clearly see that Budziszewski wants On the Meaning of Sex to be more than just an argument. Or, to be more precise, he wants it to be an argument in the classical tradition. And in the classical tradition, poetry is the highest form of rhetoric. Readers, I’ll let you judge the book’s literary merits. I will say that, in general, the book is more elegantly written, more fun to read, than your average polemic. But the important thing is that, for Budziszewski, the persona he creates is a rhetorical tool. Part of the argument.

3. Writing “for” and “against”

At one point, Budziszewski mentions God, in a kind of sweet way: he says that he has come to understand God’s love through the love of his wife.


But then he writes: “There, I have uttered it, the forbidden word: ‘God.’ That will be quite enough to make some people dismiss this book as ‘religious’ and therefore irrelevant to their concerns.”


This is the world Budziszewski sets up. On the one hand, we have Budziszewski, the sweet, humble truth-seeker who has been afforded a glimpse of that rare bird, beauty, and now has a responsibility to share that glimpse with all of us. On the other hand, we have…dum-dum-DUM! …Atheists. Materialists. Relativists. Folks who sneer at notions of God. And, what’s more, this latter group is militant, and has all the power. They can “forbid.” They make writing this book “risky.” They force a young sociologist Budziszewski knows to circulate his studies secretly, because those studies violate the relativistic dogma of the academy. They show up at Budziszewski’s talks to “harangue” him about topics that he’s not even addressing.

Whatever, Budziszewski.

Two things:

First, Budziszewski’s authorial persona is already cracking. He wants to be likable, but he can’t help but be bitter when he writes about “some people” who disagree with him.  And he wants to come off as an uncertain searcher, but he’s starting off his “quest” with absolute certainly about who is right (he is!) and who is wrong. 

Second, we need to keep in mind that though Budziszewski is writing against this imagined group of all-powerful, materialist atheists, that’s not who he’s writing for. Instead, he’s writing for what he sees as a great middle between himself (and other right-thinking Christians) and those godless materialists. Those in this great middle, he thinks, live and breathe and think and speak the lies of the materialists (because the materialists have all the power). But deep down in their hearts, they know the truth—which, by the way, happens to be conservative Catholic dogma.

Harris, for Budziszewski, embodies this great, confused middle. What Budziszewski can’t imagine is that Harris, and others in that great middle, might disagree for coherent, logical reasons with both materialist atheism and his brand of narrow orthodoxy.

4. Not quite the Divine Comedy.


In that sweet reference I mentioned above, Budziszewski compares his wife to Dante’s Beatrice (Aww!). That’s an important reference, since On the Meaning of Sex loosely follows the structure of Dante’s Divine ComedyAt the start of Chapter 2, Budziszewski will drop us into the “hell” of contemporary sexuality. And, after his wife (Beatrice) appears, he’ll lead us to a consideration of heavenly grace in the book’s final chapter, “Transcendence.”

The problem is that this casts Harris as Virgil. Why is this a problem? Because Virgil is a teacher, a guide, and that’s precisely the role Budziszewski refuses Harris. Instead, Budziszewski tells us that On the Meaning of Sex is his way of (retroactively) teaching a lesson to Harris, or at least those like him:

“We say I things like ‘I didn’t know I knew that,’ ‘I thought it might be something like that,’ or, ‘I never thought of that, but somehow I knew it all along.’ It is too late to evoke that sort of response from Harris, but I would consider this book successful if even just now and then, it evoked that sort of response from a few of its readers.”

That is a missed opportunity. Because Budziszewski is right: there is a mystery in Harris’ two statements on sex, at least for someone who sees the world as a clear division between fundamentalism and relativism. Harris has a sense of right and wrong, and yet he doesn’t subscribe to Budziszewski’s conservative orthodoxy. How can that be? Maybe if Budziszewski had asked, instead of putting words into his student’s mouth, he might have learned something. 

Next week, Chapter 2: Let’s go to hell!

And (why not?), here’s another J Mascis video:



One thought on “On the Meaning of Sex 1: Your Students are Smarter Than You Think

  1. Pingback: “The Meaning of Sex” Ch 1 (LTCR): The Value of ExperienceQueering the Church | Queering the Church

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s