On marriage as a ‘cure’ for lust

My earlier post on sexual purity resulted in a suggestion that I read Douglas Wilson’s Fidelity, which I have found rather thought-provoking. I damn with faint praise when I say it is on the whole one of the more sensible books I’ve read on the subject. There are, however, a number of things which I find troubling about the way Wilson approaches and addresses the issue. One particular disagreement is with Wilson’s view – common to most Christian books on purity – of the sexual component of marriage as a “cure” for sexual sin.

Speaking of lust, Wilson calls “a satisfying sexual relationship” the “specific help offered to married men in Scripture… A man who does not have the gift of celibacy, and who is struggling to maintain his purity should get married at the first opportunity.” Later he writes, “Suffice to say for now that masturbation should not be considered as a ‘cure’ for lust in the same way that a good marriage is” (emphasis mine).

In fairness to Wilson, I should note that he clarifies that “getting married is no automatic solution to the problem of lust” and warns husbands against thinking that “marriage simply means free sex.” However, despite these caveats, Wilson and most Christian writers offer a view of sexual satisfaction within marriage that seems most analogous to a fellow with a desperately full bladder racing against time to find an acceptable spot in which to relieve himself.

My objection to this perspective stems mostly from its tone and emphasis, but I believe it is a significant distinction nonetheless. To begin with, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that such an attitude demeans the wife, both on the abstract and the individual level, by directing such a single-minded focus toward her role as a means of sexual satisfaction. More broadly, one’s view of marriage is similarly distorted and diminished when it is viewed primarily as the holy way to have sex.

Now, the counter-objection could be raised that it is true that a man should derive sexual satisfaction from his wife, and that marriage is the proper framework for such a relationship. Yes, but. A piece of the truth taken in isolation can be treacherous. (It is absolutely true that belief in Christ is necessary to escape spiritual death, but an understanding of faith as nothing more than eternal insurance is vitiated to the point of falsehood.) A blinkered view of marriage and the wife which puts primary importance on sexual fulfillment (a primacy that is affirmed implicitly through emphasis, even if never explicitly) offers a similar danger of magnifying a part to the severe detriment of the whole.

A final problem with this view of marriage as a “cure” for lust is its defeatism. In essence, the unmarried man is exhorted merely to fight a delaying action, taking as few losses as he can, until he is able to duck out of battle by way of the church aisle. “Just try not to fall” is the mantra, and the loftiest goal, of the pre-marriage years. Whether or not this is the view of those Christians who proclaim that marriage is a cure for lust (and I suspect that Wilson, for one, would strongly object to such an interpretation of his comments), I believe it is the understanding of the vast majority of the young Christian men who hear them.

The outcome of such a view is twofold. First, and most obvious, is the young man who either stops trying or doesn’t try at all. Faced with such a daunting challenge, he acquiesces to the apparently inevitable. The second result is less clear cut. This is the young man who is more open to compromise, willing to toss little tidbits to his lust to keep it from devouring him before he can escape into marriage. A quick glance where he shouldn’t, a little soft-core pornography, going a little too far with his girlfriend: the sort of “realistic” accommodations one makes to ease a fight that will soon be over. If you know the enemy is pulling out tomorrow, why spend overmuch effort preventing a minor advance today?

Beyond the obvious results of pain and corruption, the tragedy of such a view of sexual purity is what it leaves out: the possibility of real victory and true growth of character borne of the battle for purity before marriage. Like all of creation, our sexual dimension is a corrupted good. Good as originally created, corrupted by our fallenness. Our task on earth is to restore, by the grace of God and as far as we can, our entire beings (sexuality included) to the Rightness – right orientation to God, man, and all creation – that was our original birthright.

In the sphere of human sexuality, the basic outline of the Right is clearly defined. As I wrote in my previous post, “The divine rule as regards sex is fairly simple: It is a good which is to be enjoyed within the bounds of a marriage between a man and a woman. In other words, when humans were invented as sexual beings, that was how sex was supposed to work; what it is designed to be. For a properly-functioning human creature – either male or female – this is what is best. What is natural. What offers highest joy and highest pleasure, in the fullest sense of the words. Anything else can only be corruption and diminution, because that is all that evil can offer.”

Of course, the human creature can be taught to love anything, in sex as in anything else, a fact to which the astonishing variety of fetishism bears ample testimony. And in sex as in anything else, if one wants to learn to love the good, one must choose it. Consistently. Of course, the corruption of our sexuality means that such choices will be difficult – more so for some than for others. Yet, there is hope in the fact that each choice against what is not good is correspondingly a choice for what is good, reducing the draw of that which is corrupt while increasing our capacity for joy in what is truly good.

The consequences of this understanding of sexual purity are significant. First, the battle is transformed from a holding action into one of annihilation. One is not trying to hold lust back, but to destroy it, and in destroying it to raise a new and better love in its place. It is a battle in which real victories can and must be won, though the final victory, in the sense of lust’s total annihilation, will not come in this life.

Second, “minor accommodations” take on a whole new light. If the goal is to teach oneself to love the right, rather than the more typical focus on simply avoiding actual intercourse until marriage, the idea of compromise becomes absurd. One cannot willingly allow small accommodations in order to focus on the most important battle, because to allow those small accommodations is to lose the most important battle. (One might observe further, in light of the effect that our choices have on our soul, that such small compromises are the most effective way to undermine a commitment to avoiding premarital intercourse, but an understanding of the corrupting influence of the compromises themselves renders that point almost irrelevant. The fact that slitting one’s wrists leaves them open to dangerous infection is not the best argument against such a course of action.)

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