It occurs to me that while we talk about sex a lot here, we’ve still got some fundamental gaps in our vocabulary, some essential disagreements that keep us talking past each other. For example, there’s a huge gap between what I mean when I say “union” and what that word means for some other people.
“Union” has long been used as a euphemism, even a synonym for sex. In other words, you don’t achieve union through sex; sex is union. Which is fine. But “sex” is also a big, messy word that (if you’re doing it right) includes lots of different actions and distinct moments.
So within sex, where and when and how does union occur? When we talk about sex, what exactly does union mean?
Here’s one answer, from a commenter in a thread at Leila Miller’s Little Catholic Bubble:
“The bodies become fully united at, well, to be blunt, ejaculation in the vagina, thus fulfilling the necessary requirements to allow the potential of reproduction to take place.”
Leila said something similar later in the thread, and that notion clearly underlies a lot of the Catholic Right’s thinking on sexuality. It was used in that thread to argue against the use of condoms; it’s also used to argue that gay marriages are impossible, because in them union is impossible, since two don’t become one in gay sex acts.
To me, that idea is at once too literal and too symbolic. Too literal because it defines union only in the most obvious, most physical way: in the genetic material of two parents coming together to form a child—which remember, doesn’t happen in the vast majority of human sexual encounters. It thus misses the subjective value of sex, the ways that everything besides the male orgasm brings a couple together.
Too symbolic because it doesn’t explain how union happens, especially when no child comes from the encounter. I mean, what happens: the semen comes out, and magically, the couple is united? This is the idea that Bill Lindsey calls the “union-cementing function” of semen, which he describes as “bogus natural law propped up by ludicrous science posturing as religious conviction and profound, serious moral insight.”
In fact, this definition, traditional though it may be, takes all of the meaning out of the word union. Think about it: it means that one-night stands are union, and inconsiderate sex from which only the man gets pleasure is union. It means that a woman’s pleasure, while nice, is not necessary for union. Chillingly, it means that rape is union. And it means that a loving, married couple having a transformative bonding experience is not union, if the man is wearing a condom. Leila says as much, writing, “There is no ‘one flesh’ union, no real intimacy, when the people uniting have placed a physical barrier between them!” And later, she says:
“[S]ex is about full union with another, becoming one flesh. It’s the closest we can get to another human being on this earth (and I’m talking conjugal union, not any type of sodomy). It is the mechanism that is so life-giving, so profound, that it brings new human beings into existence. To put a barrier between two people when they are ‘speaking the language’ of total union, is to lie. One does not make love by gearing up as if one is going to battle. It’s a contradiction. Using a condom in lovemaking is a contradiction.”
Those claims are absurd for anyone who has had unifying sex while wearing a condom.
Robert George at least tries to explain how union happens with ejaculation. He locates union in the idea that, in heterosexual sex, the two bodies are (together) trying to produce a baby. Granted, that is a form of togetherness. But he’s bedeviled by the fact that the female body actually isn’t “trying” to produce a baby in most sexual encounters. A woman is only fertile for a few days of each month, and even then only as long as she’s not pregnant, breastfeeding, or past menopause. And humans have sex during all of those times—much more so than animals with a marked estrus, or heat, period. So while it might make sense to say that for cows or dogs or horses sex “means” reproduction, that’s not the case with humans. We’re built differently.
What’s more, as Rob Tisinai outlines here, George is still defining union as dependent solely upon “what is happening between their bodies,” which, George says, is independent of any psychological factors, such as the couple’s thoughts and goals. So his definition of “union” stillincludes rape.
Now, I want to be clear: I’m not saying the Catholic Right, represented by the above commenters, is opposed to women’s pleasure—or still less, tolerating rape. I know that John Paul II said that, from an “altruistic standpoint,” men have a responsibility to bring their wives to climax. And he’s serious about that. But I do think that any understanding of sex that starts with the idea that union equals ejaculation-into-a-vagina is wrong right off the bat.
Which leaves the question: what is union in sex? Where and how does it happen?
I would say that it’s in the responsiveness of two bodies moving together—most of all, in the way that one partner’s arousal arouses the other partner and one partner’s pleasure pleases the other. That’s union. That’s two becoming one. Literally. Though it has a subjective dimension, it’s also objective, in that it writes itself on the body. It can be transitory, but it is real and, like grace, it can be transformative, too.
In “The Body’s Grace,” Rowan Williams writes:
To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners “admire” in each other “the lineaments of gratified desire.” We are pleased because we are pleasing.
Good sex embodies this mutuality. In good sex, desire, arousal, pleasure, and even climax are all reciprocal—by feeling those things, you inspire them in your partner. By inspiring them in your partner, you feel them in yourself. Again, that’s union. And this understanding of word, it seems to me, better clarifies what happens in sex, and why it’s good, and why we can talk about it as pointing to God’s presence in the world.