I’ve been thinking a lot about chastity — what it is, and how it is lived. And I think that the way we talk about chastity is informed by fundamentally mistaken notions about the nature of sex itself — and these fundamentally mistaken notions about sex often come from psychology, which is my passion, my hobby, and to some extent my profession. That’s about as bold a claim as I can make, but I intend to support it.
I believe that to truly understand chastity — and marriage itself — we need to (1) become fully aware of the non-revelatory origins of many of our assumptions about the nature of human sexuality, and (2) adopt assumptions about the nature of sexuality that are entirely at odds with the assumptions handed to us by the world, and perhaps even seen as ludicrous when viewed from those worldly assumptions.
Psychology and Sexuality
There is absolutely no way that I can exhaustively explore how psychology has influenced our understanding of sex, and I by no means intend to. The following analysis consists of just a few examples of an entire canon of literature on the subject. The primary assumption handed to us by society is that sexual desire is something that not only should not be neglected, but as something that cannot be neglected without great psychological harm to the individual. There are two words that are often used in connection with sexual desire: drive and need. These are figures of speech — ways of talking about sex — and each of them carry assumptions and implications that we might not always recognize. Let’s talk about both of them, and explore for a moment the history of each.
The best way to describe the assumptions and implications implicit in the term “sexual drive” is to talk about Freud. Freud believed that at our core, we are sexual and violent creatures. If you were to peel away all of our inhibitions, all of our customs, our rules, our scruples, our social norms, our training, our upbringing, etc., until you have finally reached the core of the individual, you would see two things: a sexual drive and aggression drive. Everything else—our consciousness, our norms, our inhibitions, our traditions and customs—is added on after the fact, so to speak. This core desire is what Freud named the id, and he called it “chaos, a seething cauldron of excitations.”
If the core, naked soul of a human being is a seething cauldron of desire, then how do our inhibitions, our norms, our societal rules, or our conscience form? When we observe things in our surroundings, those things sometimes become the object of the desires that arise from our drives. The “seething cauldron of excitations” becomes even more excited at the thought of having the object of desire. But we soon learn that we cannot just straightly pursue our desires. If a man looks out of his high-rise office window, and sees a woman, and if his sexual drive latches onto this woman as the object of his desires, he cannot plot and take the most direct route between him and the woman. If he did this, he might end up crashing through the window and falling to his death. Similarly, even if he were to safely navigate himself to the woman of his desires, he cannot immediately attempt to gratify his desires without getting slapped in the face and hauled off to prison. So, he cannot directly seek and obtain the object of his sexual desire without jeopardizing his long-term ability to satisfy those desires.
Out of this dilemma is born the ego. According to Freud, “The ego represents what we call reason and sanity, in contrast to the id which contains the passions.” The ego holds back the excitations of the id, and keeps them under control. “Thus in its relation to the id it is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse,” explained Freud. The ego firsts pushes the individual’s sexual desire into the unconscious mind, and then engages in the appropriate sorts of actions that will win the heart of the woman in question, making it possible to ultimately satisfy the wishes of the id (but in a way that does not land the individual in prison).
Here is something important to remember: in Freud’s world, the ego is not an independent actor, and cannot do whatever it wishes. It was constructed solely to satisfy the wishes of the id in a more constructive, calculated way than the id can do itself. In other words, the ego if formed out of the id, gets its energy from the id, and ultimately gets its marching orders from the id. It is like an elected congress: while it makes the final decisions, the id has to be pleased or a revolt might occur. “In the same way,” says Freud, “the ego constantly carries into action the wishes of the id as if they were its own.”
This is where the term sexual drive begins to make sense — consider, for example, the drive shaft of a car. The drive shaft is what transfers energy from the engine block to the wheels of the car, and transforms that energy into the rotational momentum of the wheels. Fundamentally, a drive is sometimes that transfers or transforms energy. In the same way, a sexual drive is what harnesses the energy of the “seething cauldron of desire”, and puts that energy into the motion and action of the individual. Everything the individual does is motivated by the sexual drive — even those activities that aren’t ostensibly sexual in nature. The sexual motive is often unconscious and hidden from view (just like the drive shat of a car). For example, pursuing a good career, studying for an exam, etc., may be ways of making oneself an attractive mate, even if the individual him or herself doesn’t realize the true motives of his behavior.
From this perspective, the sexuality can be seen very much like a steam engine — the seething cauldron of desire is like the boiler, and the sexual drive is what transfers that steam energy into the the rotation of the train’s wheels. The forward motion of the train represents whatever endeavors the individual undertakes in life — all of which are fundamentally motivated by the sexual desire of the id, even if only unconsciously.
And what happens if the sexual desire isn’t satisfied? What happens if there is no way to release pressure and energy from the boiler room? The building pressure of the steam would stress the structure of the boiler room. The individual’s psyche would, in a sense, begin to crack a little bit. This is called repression, and this is the origin, according to Freud, of neurosis and mental illness.
Even though we’ve largely abandoned much of the details of Freud’s theory, we’ve held onto the metaphors that he used and the central ideas of his theory. In general, we see sex and sexual stimulation and satisfaction as the motivating reason behind most human action, and a necessary outlet for the seething cauldron of the id. In our modern society, we treat pornography and masturbation as the pressure valve that individuals use to let off steam and keep themselves intact. We often excuse young individuals for sexual indiscretion, because we recognize how strong that drive is and how difficult it is to cap those desires.
The other way we often talk about sex is in terms of “needs.” The best way to encapsulate this approach is to talk about Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued that human behavior is motivated by needs. Individuals act because they lack something that they need. Maslow explained, “Any motivated behavior … must be understood to be a channel through which many basic needs may be simultaneously expressed or satisfied.” These needs are built-in and universal. There is no way around them. “Man is a perpetually wanting animal,” Maslow said, and an individual’s behavior is organized “only by unsatisfied needs.”
From this perspective, sexual desire can be conceptualized not as an inner pressure trying to find release (a force from within trying to get out into the world, compelling you to action), but as a deficiency that the individual is trying to remedy — in the same way that an individual craves water as he or she is thirsty, or food as he or she is hungry. After the individual’s safety needs have been met, the person will seek companionship and love. Maslow explained: “If both the physiological and the safety needs are fairly well gratified, then there will emerge the love and affection and belongingness. … He will hunger for affectionate relations with people in general, namely, for a place in his group, and he will strive with great intensity to achieve this goal.”
Maslow goes on to say that in “our society the thwarting of these needs is the most commonly found core in cases of maladjustment and more severe psychopathology.” This is because, he argued, “love and affection, as well as their possible expression in sexuality, are generally looked upon with ambivalence and are customarily hedged about with many restrictions and inhibitions.” In other words, societal customs and traditions keep people from feeling and expressing love or seeking intimacy with others, and this contributes to widespread mental illness and psychological maladies. Mental illness (be it anxiety problems, depression, self-destructive behaviors) can be considered a symptom of a deficiency in the individual’s need for physical and emotional intimacy, in the same way that clammy skin and headaches are symptoms of dehydration.
The Consequences of These Views
Terry Olson explains that, given that most of us in the modern day have learned to think of sex as either a drive or a need,
Human sexuality is presented in our culture as if it were the driving force — if not the ultimate need — behind all human endeavor. If the popular culture is right, sex is so compelling that societies must figure out ways to allow the regular, frequent expression of sex. Otherwise, individuals will be required to repress a need so basically human that when it is denied, unbearable — if not personality-changing—tensions are created that can lead to all sorts of aberrant and destructive sexual pursuits.
From this perspective, it is easy to see ourselves as victims of our sexual urges and desires, and to see them as irresistible. As such, Olson explains, “This description of the human condition sweeps away any foundation for chastity, builds in an excuse for infidelity, and undermines the idea of person-centered intimacy.” As Emily Reynolds explains,
Most introductory psychological texts put sex in the same category with hunger, thirst, and other built-in survival drives. The basic idea in biological/evolutionary terms is that genes exist to reproduce and the organisms will do whatever it takes to maximize the chances of reproduction. The popular culture translates this idea into phrases like ‘raging hormones’ and ‘getting one’s needs met.’ Regardless of the choice of terminology, however, the bottom line is the same: Human sexual behavior is necessary or in some sense unavoidable, brought about inexorably by an underlying cause or set of causes. …
The generally accepted view of human sexuality in our culture … is founded on the causality of biological processes, the sovereignty of the self, and the inevitability of self-interest. These ideas are known in philosophical circles as reductionism, individualism, and hedonism, and even though they play out in our experience as meaninglessness, alienation, and selfishness, they are so pervasive that many of us have come to accept conclusions that derive from them without a second thought, compensating for whatever deficiencies we may sense by mixing in a little gospel truth and hoping for the best.
In other words, the accepted view of sexuality depicts it as an inevitable, entirely uncontrollable biological process that focuses all of human activity onto the self. We can see this in both the “needs” and the “drives” metaphors for talking about sex. And this affects the way we talk about chastity: if we assume these three things, then we will end up talking about chastity as if chastity is simply the ego’s way of capping the otherwise raging inferno of desire for the purposes of self-protection. As Reynolds explains, “Chastity is taught as constraint and control because we assume that sex is something that has to be constrained and controlled.” That is, we should be chaste for the same reason as Freud describes: because the unbridled energy of the inner, seething cauldron of desire will destroy us, and we must control and direct that energy if we wish to survive to find any expression of it at all. Chastity, then, becomes an exercise in self-preservation. Consider this again: this perspective renders even chastity as a fundamentally self-interested act, ultimately pursued in the service of our inner, sexual drives.
Further, this leads us to talk about marriage as if it were the pressure valve that keeps the whole thing from exploding. We get married because without marriage, we’ll have no acceptable outlet for our drives — no acceptable marketplace for our needs — and we’ll end up mentally ill at worst, and less-than-fully-human at best. Because, from this perspective, humanness and prosperous living require either that the pressure of our interior sexual boiling room be quite low, because of an acceptable pressure valve through which we can — with prudence — let off steam, or that we have a provider of the sexual goods that we so desperately need as a pre-requisite to self-actualization (depending on which linguistic metaphor we choose to adopt).
And that is, we believe, a very destructive way of making sense of both sexuality and marriage. Indeed, it sets us up to believe that the constraints of chastity are difficult if not impossible to fully live, and as if those who are unable to marry in this life should not be expected to remain chaste. It is this very perspective, for example, that leads people to protest the Church’s teaching that unmarried singles should remain chaste, and implications that some — such as those who experience same-sex attraction — might never find a morally acceptable outlet for their sexual desires. This perspective makes the Law of Chastity look like a burden and a chain, something that keeps us from truly being psychologically whole (unless we are lucky enough to find a marriage that serves as an adequate pressure valve or provider of needed sexual goods), and something that is all-but-impossible to live without the hope and prospect of marriage.
And, most importantly, the language we use to talk about sex effects the way we experience sexual desire. We experience desire this way because we so often talk about desire this way. We adopt the assumptions of our language, and those assumptions are the lens through which we experience the world (I believe in a weak form of the Sapir-Worf hypothesis).
The Revealed Alternative
I don’t have as much time to fully express and explore the alternative as I would like. I would like to say, however, that there are two reasons the perspectives above seem so plausible:
(1) Because the natural man often does behave this way. The natural man really does see sex as a drive and a need — because the natural man has to see sex this way in order to rationalize and justify the intense focus, thought, and energy it puts into its sexual behavior and desire. Psychology is quite often a thoughtful study of the natural man (from the perspective, of course, of the natural man), and reveals quite little, most of the time, of the man redeemed through Christ and who yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit. Psychology, actually, is often quite blind to this divine side of man, because it has been philosophically predisposed to see only the self-interest in human behavior, and to dismiss all else as noise in the data. And, further, psychology fails to reveal to our view the man who yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit because psychology ignores virtually all things divine that it cannot reduce entirely to the physiological. And since all of us are so thoroughly familiar with the natural man and his ways, the above psychological descriptions seem very apt.
(2) Because we do believe that sex is sacred, and that eternal marriage and procreation is a central part of God’s plan for us. And this Latter-day Saint elevation of sex as a sacred sacrament, divinely commanded, and divinely ordained, can easily be mistaken as identical with the psychological notion that sex is the raison d’etre of all human action. The reason this is a mistake is because the sexual desire and behavior that is divinely gifted to us (rather than distorted by the natural man) is qualitatively different than the desires described by either Freud or Maslow, or any of their contemporaries today. The sexual desire gifted to us by God and enlivened by the Holy Spirit is ever and always colored by a selfless concern for the other, and not the self. So the two really are not the same thing at all, except that one is a corruption of the other.
In revealed truth, chastity is a way of living, a way of thinking, that is not characterized so much by constraint as it is by its genuine selfless love for others and God, a love expressed in covenant-making and covenant-keeping. Reynolds explains, “It is worth noting that sexual relations are just as imperative under this view as they are in more traditional accounts, but they are morally imperative, not biologically imperative.” She continues, “I like this way of talking for a number of reasons, but perhaps my favorite is that, if we define chastity this way, chastity doesn’t end with sexual relations begin. In fact, it never ends. It is simply the right way to understand and engage in human sexuality as a participant in the plan of salvation.”
I could bring into this discussion Jeffrey R. Hollands remarks about sex as a form of sacred sacrament — a very different, much more reverential way of treating sex than understanding it in terms of a “drive” or a “need.” He said, “Sexual intimacy is not only a symbolic union between a man and a woman — the uniting of their very souls — but it is also symbolic of a union between mortals and deity, … uniting for a rare and special moment with God himself and all the powers by which he gives life in this wide universe of ours. In this latter sense, human intimacy is a sacrament, a very special kind of symbol.” Sex is very much more deliberate and, I believe, more meaningful when understood as a sacrament. Reynolds explains:
For such people, sexual relations would be first of all meaningful and thus probably best described as sexual intimacy. The physical pleasure of sexual intimacy could be experiences as benediction rather than motivation. There is the reasonable possibility in this context that this kind of intimacy would only be engaged in when it is the best and most appropriate expression of the covenantal love between a husband and wife. In a healthy growing relationship, there would always be more to be expressed in that unique way. In a troubled but faithful relationships, sexual intimacy could be a means of expressing continued commitment in the face of difficulty.”
I believe that those who yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit and put off the natural man, and who become Saints through Christ, will slowly but surely cease to think of their sexual desire as an inexorable drive or need that must be fulfilled in order to find wholeness in life. They will realize that sexual desire never really was that way, except to the clouded judgment of the natural man. They will feel the imperative to marry and express that desire, but not in the entirely self-interested and purely physiological way described by modern psychology. That imperative will be the same imperative that impels them to to make and keep their covenants with God, to serve their neighbor, and to do right by all who they enter relationship with. And when they enter into covenantal relationship with their spouse, sexual intimacy is a treasured, sacramental means of communicating a growing love and commitment — not merely a pressure release that is the raison d’etre of marriage.
Recognizing the sacramental and covenantal nature of sexual desire and intimacy that is informed by revealed truth will help those who are unable — for reasons known only to God — to find marriage and sexual intimacy in this life (due to SSA or disability or whatever it be) to not see themselves as a dry sponge or as pressure cooker soon to crack. Rather, the same divinely-gifted desire that would impel them into marriage covenant (if they could do so) would impel them instead into fulfilling other covenantal duties with just as fervent a desire. This doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easy, or that there won’t be the intense pressures and temptations that are inherent in righteous living in the modern day — it simply means that as we abandon the assumptions bequeathed to us from non-revelatory sources, our approach will be illuminated by the light of divine truth, and we’ll find ourselves no longer at the mercy of physiological forces beyond hope of control.
Anyways, those are just some thoughts for tonight. This last section is not as fully written out as I would wish — I’m much better at articulating the mistaken assumptions than I am the assumptions I believe are grounded in revealed truth. But that is partly because we are all so much more fully familiar with them, since they are what we live and breath in this fallen world of ours. The treasures of revealed truth is not always as fully fleshed out in philosophical terms, because philosophers and thinkers and scientists so rarely ground their theorizing in revealed truth. For that reason, most of the well-thought out theories, languages, and terminologies that we have for discussing these matters is non-revelatory in origins, and carry with them non-revelatory assumptions. That said, however, I think some scholars and thinkers have done a magnificent job expressing divine alternatives to worldly philosophies — Terry Olson, Emily Reynolds, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (each of whom I have quoted here) just being three of them.
Terrance D. Olson, “Chastity and Fidelity in Marriage and Family Relationships.”