Poor Man’s Opera

Bed is the poor man’s opera.

-- Italian Proverb

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story called “Welcome to the Monkey House” about a futuristic world whose inhabitants were compelled to take an “ethical” birth control pill to curb overpopulation.  The pill was regarded as ethical because it didn’t interfere with reproduction; it simply made you numb from the waist down.  In the story, this particular method of birth control had been developed originally to curb the libidinous behavior of monkeys at the Grand Rapids zoo.  As you might image, the societal effects of such a nostrum, if applied to humans, would be wide-ranging.  There would be no more romance, no cheap thrills and, in all likelihood, no reproduction.  Without hormonal urges to compromise our objectivity, we might well conclude that sex was simply too messy and too undignified to bother with.

Since most of us are not numb from the waist down, we do tend to get hot and bothered about issues related to reproduction, notably among those who are designated as guardians of public morality.  The Western church has had a particularly tough time coming to grips with hormonal urges – not the least because many of its founders were celibates, among them St. Paul, St. Augustine and, of course, Jesus himself.  On the one hand, there was God’s commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” which constrained the church fathers at least to pay lip service to reproduction.  But much of what they had to say on the subject could fairly be characterized as damning with faint praise, as in St. Paul’s famous judgment that “it is better to marry than to burn.”  Even the Protestant firebrand Martin Luther -- a onetime monk who later married -- betrayed his own biases on the subject when he described marriage as “a hospital for sick people.”  He said, “No matter what praise is given to marriage, I will not concede that it is no sin.” 

St. Augustine -- a reluctant convert to celibacy who had fathered a child out of wedlock -- nevertheless became a zealous advocate of sexual abstinence, even in marriage.  “The union… of male and female for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage,” he wrote.  “But he makes a bad use of this good who uses it bestially, so that his intention is on the gratification of lust, instead of the desire of offspring.”  Admittedly, the distinction between man and beast in this regard is not all that clear-cut, since God’s marching orders to each in the biblical creation story are identical: Be fruitful and multiply.  Leaving nothing to chance, the Lord made sure neither was numb below the waist.  And given that humans have multiplied in far greater numbers than the creatures who occupy the monkey house, who’s to say whether man or beast is the more naturally libidinous?  

So, is sex good or bad?  Clearly, God cannot expect his creatures to be fruitful and multiply if they are not suitably equipped for this undertaking.  So where did we get the notion that sex was dirty?  St. Augustine may have been on to something when he proposed that the “shame-causing lust of bodies” was a consequence of original sin.  Certainly, one of the consequences of illicitly acquiring knowledge of good and evil was to see evil where God saw only good.  In any event, Augustine's remedy, which was to make himself a eunuch for Christ, may have been more a symptom of the disease than its cure.

Genesis 1:28
1 Cor. 7:9
Karen Armstrong, “Not-So-Holy Matrimony,” The Guardian, June 30, 2003
St. Augustine, “On Marriage and Concupiscence”

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