Posted by: dacalu | 21 May 2014

Why Have Sex?

This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

Holy Trinity, you made us one for another, that in coming to know another we might better know ourselves and you, in whose image we are made; grant that we may each be blessed by our sexuality and find grace in intimacy, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Amen.

Why have sex? That probably sounds like an easy question to answer. It is a biological drive and a great source of pleasure. All of this is true, but it does not capture the incredible complexity of our motivations. In this post I would like to explore the reasons we choose physical intimacy and how that might affect the choices we make.

Why have sex? I have suggested in recent posts that the core purpose of sex is to deepen relationships. The idea covers a host of intimacies from a touching hands to intercourse. For this post, I’m just going to say “sex” with the understanding that the whole range exists. It’s worth being thoughtful and kind in all types of physical communication and, of course the amount of thought and care we invest should be proportional to the significance of the interaction.

When choosing whether to have sex at a given time, it’s worth attending to what you want out of the interaction – and what your partner wants.

1)      Compassionate communication. I see this as the primary goal for sex. Do you see this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and the other person? Do you know them well enough to be confident they have the same intention? Are you curious? There’s a good chance your motivation is wrong if you know exactly what you want to do with this person. Good sex means discovery, even playfulness in encountering another. Hopefully this will be true even for long term partners; we change with time. We experience new things. Sex can be an opportunity to enter into their perspective in a profound way.

2)      Pleasure. Yes, sex is about generating happiness and yes, that’s a good reason to have sex. And… And it is important not to confuse anticipated pleasure with actual pleasure. One of the reasons Christians advocate care and delay in having sex is pure pragmatism. It’s worth figuring out what gives you pleasure and what gives your partner pleasure. Jumping directly into an intense physical relationship can result in some very unpleasant circumstances, both in the long term and the short term. God gave us brains; it is worth using them to help us achieve our ends. That often means figuring out how to get perspective…especially when we feel driven by our desires.

These are both good reasons to have sex. I would say 1 is better than 2, because a real care for the pleasure of your partner (both short term and long term) requires communication. Sadly, people have sex for a number of other reasons other than 1 and 2. It’s worth being aware of when you or your partner might have these motivations. I’m not saying they are inherently bad, but I do think they can lead to bad (unethical) and bad (unpleasant) sex when we allow them to get in the way of compassionate communication.

3)      Comfort. In the best sense of the word, comfort means something that is strengthening. When dealing with shock or loss, physical comfort can be extremely important, up to and including intercourse.

4)      Control. One of the most fundamental human insecurities has to do with feeling a lack of control. Some people feel particularly powerless with regard to their sexuality and act out in order to feel more in control – or to feel like they have “lost” control. The huge social weight we attach to sex in addition to a strong biological drive means this is a common way for people to act out on their control issues. Other people feel powerless in other areas of their lives and see sex as a way of coping. In either case, the desire to use sex – and hence use a partner – to help with control issues can be very strong. This appears most dramatically in cases of bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism but manages to show up in a broad range of sexual activities. Less severe examples include using sexuality to embarrass (by teasing, flirting inappropriately sexual contact,…) or manipulate (as threat or bribe).

5)      Self-medication. Physical intimacy comes with a whole host of chemical and emotional responses. People can use everything from visual stimulation, to touching, to intercourse to distract them from other issues in their life. Again, this appears dramatically in sex addiction, but lesser forms of self-medication may include constantly seeking new and exotic romantic (and/or sexual) partners or using sex as a way to avoid actually talking with a friend or spouse.

6)      Social expectations. In American culture, we face a strong expectation that we will be sexually experienced by the time we leave college and that we will regularly have sex once we become an adult, either with a spouse or while dating. One common case of extreme dysfunction involves having sex with a spouse even though it is uncommunicative, unpleasant, and manipulative, just because it is expected. Many themes in popular media – most transparently the movie Forty Year Old Virgin – rely on the myth that if you are not having sex, you must be defective.

No doubt, there are other reasons as well, but I think these are some of the most common. Again, I’m not saying that reasons 3-6 are bad reasons to have sex. We are all dealing with the challenges of being alive in the world. Sex can be an amazing opportunity for us to deal with very difficult life issues, literally in the arms of someone we love. This only works though if you start with reason number 1. Compassionate communication is the only thing that can turn 3-6 from selfish usage of one person by another into a profound act that strengthens both.

Being aware of your true motivations–and your partner’s–before being too intimate can lead to healthier, happier relationships and a healthier, happier you. That will require humility, self-examination, talking, and even a bit of experimentation to get things right. If you approach the whole affair with a light heart, genuine curiosity, and caution that respects both people’s vulnerability, this should not be too difficult. It will mean, though, waiting to find someone both trusting and trustworthy, someone you are curious about and who it curious about you.



  1. […] my last post, I addressed the question “Why Have Sex?” My friend Josh pointed out that I left children off of the list. Aren’t children a reason to have […]

  2. […] a post two back, I set forth what I see as the main reasons people have sex. This is part of a continuing […]

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