The sexual sphere in its physical expression was designed by God to be a vivid incarnation of the mutual self-donation between man and woman, which seals and consummates, as a kind of sacramental sign, the total surrender that is effected by the vows of marriage pronounced in the sight of God. And yet, as we have seen, this very one flesh union between man and woman—in marriage as well as in the “sealing” of marriage in sexual union—finds its true meaning and illumination only in the light cast from the great Mystery of the love of Christ and the Church, and indeed of the love of the divine Persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In order, therefore, for the language of the sexual embrace to speak authentically and transparently, for the “word” that God ordained it to speak to be authentically spoken and heard, the very concrete unfolding of the embrace must occur in conformity with its true nature as the sealing of wedded love and tender mutual affirmation, as a distillation of the great Mystery of Christ and the Church, radically open to impelling both persons, together, ever more deeply into the very innermost dance of the Trinity’s life of intimacy and love.
Because of the perennial attraction of man and woman in their rich complementarity, and because of the special depth and intensity to which the intentio unionis (the desire for union) finds expression in the love of man and woman, there is a particular ardor to the embrace of man and woman, of husband and wife. The very intensity of the sexual sphere was intended by God to be nothing but a distillation, an incarnation, of such spiritual and personal intensity in the realm of the heart. In other words, even without sex entering into the picture, there is a radical yearning in the heart of a man and a woman who deeply love one another to become one. There is a surging of heart towards heart, an aspiration, attraction, and fascination which impel both persons to draw one another close, to embrace and enfold each other in the dance of a shared gaze, a reciprocal embrace, and a true and total donation of each person to the other, in which the very possession of self is placed wholly in the hands of the beloved, and both pronounce to each other: “I am yours, and you are mine.”
This is the “word” that the sexual embrace is meant to distill and to seal in the physical realm, and it will do so authentically to the degree that it flows from and remains always enfolded within precisely the word of the inner heart in true spousal love (and indeed in the inner virginal form that enfolds and protects spousal love itself). However, because of the negative effects that original sin has caused in our experience of the sexual realm, there is a threat towards the submerging of the full liberty of the person and of the inner virginal meaning of love, caused precisely by the intensity of the sexual experience. Or perhaps better, this intensity itself is not the problem, but rather its tendency towards a kind of “autonomy,” towards following its own track and its own laws, apart from the law of authentic love in the mutual affirmation of persons. The answer, as I will say more below, is precisely that the sexual sphere itself cannot become a theme focused on in its own right, because then it inclines towards voraciously dragging everything else in its train. Rather, the sexual sphere, as God ordained it, seeks to be lifted up into, and to occur only as a transparent reflection and expression of, the inner word that two hearts speak to each other in a virginal affirmation of the beauty of one another and their desire to be made one in the sight of God.
This is also how the sexual consummation of marriage in this life gives a glimpse, as a kind of foretaste or symbol, of the “virginal consummation” that awaits us in the new creation, where the perennial attraction of man and woman will be sealed, not on the basis of the vows of marriage or the sexual act, but rather wholly in the realm of their union in the pure sight of the Trinity and in the singular word that he speaks between them. Every word that marriage and sex speak in this life, indeed, will not be left behind in eternity, but, after being radically transfigured and virginalized—in which the temporal sexual domain as we now know it will cease—the whole sphere of the complementarity of man and woman will be super-affirmed and consummated as a pure participation in the eternal complementarity of the Father and the Son in their one Spirit, and in the incarnation of this in the beautiful intimacy between man and woman.
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But now I need to speak of a number of things which are not pleasant to discuss, but which are deeply in need of being said. Namely, not only is the sexual sphere in this life, as beautiful as it is, destined to pass away, but there are also a number of profound distortions that are prone to creeping into it, and which, particularly in our current cultural situation, are sadly very widespread, even in Catholic circles claiming to speak in the name of the Church or of the Theology of the Body of John Paul II. I have mentioned this in my gesture towards the ways in which “foreplay,” and many other ways of acting in or around the sexual act, are propagated as entirely natural or healthy, whereas they are in fact deep distortions of authentic love as God intended it to be manifested in the sexual sphere.
I must here give a very strong and wholehearted denunciation of the book Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving, by Gregory Popcak, which takes precisely the position that I gestured to before. He proposes the so-called “one rule,” distorting in a disgusting way the beautiful phrase of Saint Augustine, “Love, and do what you will,” to mean instead, “Do what you will, and call it love.” He claims that, as long as both persons feel loved, and the act ends in natural penetrative intercourse open to pro-creation, then anything and everything is allowed. This legitimates even such things as sexual toys, oral sex, and sodomy, as well as, for example, masturbatory acts between the spouses. To say that such things can “mean” whatever we want them to mean—that they can communicate love in an authentic way as a pure gift from one person to another—is a very clear blindness to the innate meaning of natural law and of the “language” of the body. There is, in God’s design, only one way to speak the “word” of authentic cherishing love in the sexual sphere, and that is natural penetrative intercourse expressed with authentic tenderness. Anything else wrongly assumes that turning my eyes (even spiritual eyes) away from the face of my beloved and fixing them instead somewhere else could possibly affirm them with the same transparency as the beautiful symbolism—and more than symbolism—of the natural sexual embrace, and not, indeed, be a spontaneous movement into use and a focus on pleasure which objectifies the person and does damage to the dignity of each. Even the very title of the book already reveals the disordered “divinizing” tendency, using a phrase which perhaps never in the history of the Church would have been conceivable until now.
Yes, I would also add that this radical disorder is not merely a focus on the “animal” or “instinctual” elements which cling so strongly to the sexual act as expressed in this fallen world. It is true that elements of animality can obscure the authentic transparency of love and self-giving between man and woman, and thus true love as expressed in the sexual embrace calls for a radical focus on the spirit and on the person who entirely surpasses, in his or her spiritual dignity, the animal realm. But the danger here is even deeper, and even worse, than living sexuality on the level of the beasts. For beasts do not copulate with a violent and brutal mutual use, an engorged addiction to pleasure, a fascination with the addictive and exciting feelings that fuel acts such as foreplay, masturbation, and oral or anal sex. Yes, when man and woman engage in the sexual act with a focus on pleasure, with an attention to the parts of the body and to the intensity of the orgasmic experience, they are in fact descending below the level of animals. There is in such an approach to sex a diabolical element, a radical twisting of what is sacred and holy in the eyes of God. There is the committing of a great sacrilege, in which a sacred mystery is profaned and becomes a place in which, where the greatest beauty is possible, the greatest and most destructive ugliness in fact occurs.*
Indeed, I am convinced that any explicit focus upon stimulation or the fostering of pleasure in its own right has an inherent obscuring tendency which leads, in larger or smaller ways, to the “submerging” of the person and of the true intimacy of two persons in an embrace of affirming love. In the very sexual embrace, therefore, the focus should never be on the pleasure of the body, on the intensity of the physical experience, on the orgasm, etc., but totally and exclusively on the beauty and dignity of the other person and on the spiritual joy of togetherness in mutual self-surrender.i Yes, there should be a complete attunement to the interior subjective resonance of the other person, yet not on how physically pleasing it is for them, but rather on how affirmed, how loved, how cherished they feel in an embrace which, while incorporating sexuality, is and must be inherently personal and virginal first of all.
And I am not talking merely about “feeling,” as there is an objective language of the body, in which particular actions always mean particular things, regardless of their subjective resonance. The important thing, therefore, is to be able to read the language of the body in truth, such that subjective and objective come together in the reality of affirming love and cherishing tenderness. One thing that this excludes is any focus on arousal, any touching of the parts of the body that seeks to arouse or cause physical pleasure in its own right or for its own sake. To speak very explicitly, the following things are incompatible with the transparency of God’s intentions for the sexual embrace: the passionate kissing of the other person on the neck or any parts of the body besides the face (this is an animalistic “eating” of the other person that is degrading to human beings, as is, in fact, so-called “french kissing,” even face-to-face). The deliberate stimulation of the breasts or genitals through manual touches or other forms of contact besides that which arises spontaneously out of the very closeness of persons in the sexual embrace (i.e. if the woman’s bare breasts touch the man in the sexual embrace, this is not in any way obscuring, but rather a beautiful expression of the affirming closeness of two persons to one another such that her whole body is deeply sensitized to the presence of the one who loves her). Any forms of masturbation by which the genitals of either person are touched with a stimulating touch except by the genitals of the other person in natural penetrative intercourse. Sodomy (anal sex) as well as oral sex are inherently degrading and submerging of the person, and do violence to the dignity of both persons. Simply put, the only forms of touch proper within and around the sexual embrace are innately virginal and personal expressions of tenderness, and not forms of stimulating touch focused on pleasure given through certain parts of the body. Within this context, and cradled by this beautifully restrained tenderness, the sexual embrace speaks the transparent word of the inner person, and the true union of persons in complete mutual surrender. It does this because the whole body, and every part of the body, is allowed to speak its inherent “word,” a word that it speaks, not by being directly stimulated, but by being taken up into the pure attentiveness of persons to one another in the realm of the spirit and in the presence of the Trinity.ii
I want to say one more thing about the disorder of foreplay in and around the sexual act, and its surprising similarity with another sexual sin about which the Church has a very clear position: withdrawal. In both cases, the attitudes by which the persons operate are almost exactly the same. In withdrawal, for example, the man and woman engage in natural penetrative intercourse, but the man pulls out in order to avoid the orgasm occurring within the body of the woman—all in order to avoid the possibility of the conception of a child. What this does is suffuse the sexual act with fear (with the fear of accidentally climaxing within the woman), and thus with a perpetual “self-watching” that totally breaks off attunement to the other person. And indeed these attitudes are themselves rooted in and made possible by a more basic attitude: that the focus in the sexual embrace is primarily or even only on the experience of pleasure for both persons, and thus is inherently an act of use.
Now, when we turn our gaze to the practice of foreplay, whatever particular form it may take—whether that be more subtle forms such as intense, pleasurable kissing and apparently chaste caresses even to explicit masturbatory acts between the two persons—we see that the same principles apply. The focus is, even if unintentionally, on the pleasure that two persons give to one another (which is the same thing as both “taking” each other, even with the other’s permission). And because of this context of pleasure-seeking and use, the sexual act also becomes suffused with fear and self-watching, and yet now from the opposite direction. The preoccupation here is not to make sure the man does not climax in a way open to pro-creation, but rather to make sure that he does. And yet in the context of such an experience of sex—or rather of mutual use in foreplay—the experience of such a limit feels like a law imposed from the outside. Since the whole sexual experience has the inner form of “taking,” then to end it as a “gift” is inherently in contrast to the whole attitude in which the two persons are engaged. And ultimately all they can do is watch themselves in a fearful attitude, trying to get as much pleasure out of it as they can, while not transgressing the boundary that would be sinful, in which the ejaculation of the man occurs outside of the receptive space of the woman’s body. But the sin, clearly, has already happened much earlier, even if one is “successful” in gauging the orgasmic experience in such a way that it ends, supposedly, the way that it is “meant to.”
To summarize: the very need to “turn around” and face the other direction whenever the moment of climax comes reveals that one has been walking in the wrong direction, taking the wrong path, all along. In this, too, it becomes clear that the law (of avoiding a contraceptive act) is not a mere “outer limit” that must not be transgressed, but rather the gift of a direction for love itself. It is an arrow pointing out for the receptive and contemplative human heart the path of authentic love. It gestures towards the only true way of authentic affirmation, in which the sexual embrace is simultaneously unitive and procreative and in which these two converge together as one in the simple embrace of mutual belonging and total gift. In this way, the very “logic” of the law against contraception is not a mere burden imposed from the outside on pleasure, but rather a beautiful gift of clarification, an unveiling of the logic of the divine law itself—which is nothing but the eternal life of the Trinity in which we are called to participate. The external law thus points beyond itself to the fullness of the “logic of love” which, while surpassing the law, alone brings it to fulfillment.
Now to return to the similarities between withdrawal and foreplay. In both withdrawal and foreplay, at the very moment when both persons are meant to be most deeply attuned to one another, and most totally surrendered in the self-forgetfulness of love, they are in fact most focused on themselves. The bond of intimacy between them, the very bond of cherishing and affirming love in which alone the sexual embrace and the climax speak the word they are meant to speak, has already long ago been broken. And so the moment that is meant to be an expression of deepest intimacy in mutual self-donation becomes in fact a moment in which both persons feel deeply estranged from one another and, in an agonizing way, “emptied out.” On the other hand, when the sexual embrace is lived in accordance with God’s intentions—in a deep tenderness of mutual attunement between persons, in which both rest together in an abiding way in natural intercourse—then all has already in a real way been given from the very beginning. And so the climactic moment of this surrender in the orgasm occurs quite freely, beautifully, and spontaneously within the true living of the “word” of self-giving, and the true union of two persons, that the sexual embrace speaks by God’s design. Both persons will not, in this way, feel “emptied out,” but rather will abide together in a sense of the fullness by which, in the total surrender of self to the other, one has also received and been immeasurably enriched by the other’s reciprocal gift. Simply put, whenever the whole experience of the sexual embrace occurs in a truly personal way, then the fruit of the total self-giving of the spouses is a deepening of their intimacy, and a profound experience of this intimacy which permeates the consciousness of each. And this, after all, is the fullness for which every human heart longs.
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There is one more point to be added in this reflection. John Paul II in Love and Responsibility talks about the two spheres of human experience that are present in the love of man and woman and yet which can obscure their true beholding and affirmation of one another on the basis of the authentic dignity of each. These are sensuality and emotion.iii Sensuality is the natural sexual drive awakened by the physical attractiveness of the other person, and also includes the entire psycho-physical experience of the sexual act itself. It is primarily this sphere that I have been speaking of in its danger of submerging the person and “chaining” the spirit to the intensity of bodily experience. But it must also be said that emotion, too, can be a space of use, a space in which a disordered subjectivism enters in that blinds persons to one another and becomes a focus on something that is not fully adequate to the true mutual attunement and loving affirmation of persons for one another.
It is generally true, because of the particular physical and psychic constitution of man and woman, that man inclines more toward being submerged by the physical intensity of sexual desire and pleasure, whereas the woman, while also prone to this, nonetheless inclines more towards emotional use rather than a use based primarily on physical pleasure. In other words, man inclines more towards using the woman as an object of pleasure or enjoyment in the physical realm—whereas there is, obviously, even here, a particular emotional resonance, though the man also is generally more capable of “detaching” himself emotionally from the experiences of his body and seeking the body in its own right. The woman, on the other hand, is in danger not so much of being submerged by the intensity of the pleasure and the orgasmic experience—though again, this also is possible—but even more of becoming trapped in a kind of “subjectivism of the emotions,” in which she uses the experience of physical touch and sexual intimacy, not as a true surrender of herself to the one whom she loves, but as a grasping for the feeling of closeness and the consolation that this brings.
Even the external physical structures of the bodies of man and woman reflect these inner spiritual dispositions, which manifest something true even though by no means “defining” man and woman in their fullness. For the man, through sin, inclines towards forcing himself violently into the woman’s sacred sphere and using and abusing her as an object for his own subjective gratification, whether the nature of this gratification is fundamentally physical or affective. The woman, on the other hand, in her physical receptivity, is in danger of seducing or leading the man on for the sake of feeling wanted or cherished, or even of simply “going limp,” letting things be done to her that are ultimately not affirming of her true sacredness and dignity, but which give her the semblance of love and a feeling of being loved and desired. Here she is using the man without reference to his authentic personhood and dignity, but rather “taking” him for herself—even in the act of s0-called receptivity—for the experience of affective consolation or physical pleasure.
In both cases, the disorder—whether expressed primarily in the sphere of sensuality or of emotion—is the same: to lose sight of the other person, and of the authentic, reverent attunement of hearts to one another in affirming love, and to fall instead into the subjectivism of use and appropriation in which what was designed by God to be a complete mutual gift becomes instead mutual grasping and possession that demeans both persons and leaves them empty. In this place, they are not drawn close in authentic intimacy, but rather are detached from one another, from their authentic selves, and from God himself in whom alone the authentic beauty of the sexual embrace can truly flower and be safeguarded as a living contact with objective truth and love and in accordance with the intentions of, and reflecting the life of, the Trinity himself.
*I recognize that such acts of foreplay and disordered sexual stimulation also often have roots in deep spiritual and psychological wounds, often unrecognized by the parties who engage in them. (They also, of course, can spring from the twisting of our nature in original sin and concupiscence.) In the former case, one can become obsessed with touching—even licking and tasting—intimate organs of the body which were never intended for this, precisely out of a deep wound in the heart. I express my compassion to persons who struggle with this, and pray that they will find the help and resources to walk a path of healing. Whether this disorder has come from the twisting effect of pornography, or from the opposite extreme of a sexual repression, I know that such wounds are widespread in the Church today. I would recommend the beautiful work of the Catholic psychiatrist Conrad Baars, in this area. I also am devoting much of my writing and work to helping create an atmosphere where sexual healing can occur in the light of the true “language of the body” read in the grace of God.
For more on this, see the work of Conrad Baars—particularly Feeling and Healing Your Emotions, or, for a more in depth theoretical treatment, Psychic Wholeness and Healing—or my own treatment in my book, Home for the Restless Heart. I would also recommend my book, Created for Intimacy: Sexual Healing in Christ, which is a comprehensive resource for sexual healing and integration, both from the wounds of a repressive disorder, as well as from wounds caused by our pornographic culture.
i. Pleasure is, clearly, a dimension of the experience of sexual intimacy, and the pleasure of this sphere is particularly intense. And yet the essence of the sexual sphere is not pleasure, nor indeed can the “experience of intimacy” be reduced to the experience of mutually giving pleasure to one another. This is a subtle fallacy that permeates the realm of sexual ethics today, as will become clear in the following reflections. But not only can pleasure not be seen as the only or primary theme of sexual intimacy, but in fact it cannot become an explicit or deliberately sought theme at all, but only ever an “accompanying element” of something that far surpasses it.
This is because the whole experience of the sexual sphere is different than any other forms of pleasure, and indeed than any other bodily experiences at all. It bears a particular depth, a particular capacity to “harness” the person to the core of their physical being—which also calls for a corresponding spiritual depth that fills, sanctifies, and lifts up the bodily experience, and without which the bodily experience is not only lacking, but profoundly empty and disordered. The only other bodily experience that parallels the depth of the experience of the sexual sphere—though clearly in a different way—is the experience of suffering, and in particular suffering that is either debilitating or indeed leads to the point of death. This, too, effects—or rather calls for—a radical harnessing of the self in the loving gift of self in the sight of God, and by his express “word” spoken into such an experience.
But let me return to the nature of pleasure, and to how the pleasure of the sexual sphere has an inherently different meaning and significance than pleasure in all other spheres of life. In eating a dessert, for example, pleasure is a proper theme, to be welcomed in moderation and gratitude; and in eating in general, it is a healthy accompanying element of the experience. This is true also in experiences such as comfort and rest, such as reclining when one is tired or bathing in the warmth of the sun. These experiences are of a much lower order than the whole sexual sphere, and pleasure here is rightly a theme, though always in moderation and within the context of a fully personal awakedness to all of the many values that surpass pleasure and go far beyond pleasure in their importance in human life. (In this regard, see the terrific insight of Dietrich von Hildebrand into the “three kinds of importance” in human life—the subjectively satisfying, the objectively beneficial, and the intrinsically valuable.) On the other hand, in the sexual sphere, pleasure cannot be enjoyed in the same way as it is in other spheres of life, since it is inseparably bound up with a value that far surpasses pleasure, and which the focus on pleasure inherently obscures and indeed twists and distorts. To focus on pleasure in the sexual realm in its own right or for its own sake (however subtly), therefore, is not merely to focus on something peripheral or accidental, to do something less perfect, but rather to actually defile oneself in a particularly deep way. This is not only due to the fact that the pleasure of sex has a particular tendency to submerge the personal in the animal realm, but also and above all because to focus on pleasure in this sphere is to degrade what is inherently holy and sacred—the mutual self-donation of spouses in the sight of God and by his express sanction—to the level of mutual enjoyment.
To summarize all of this, let me quote Dietrich von Hildebrand in his words on “purity as a positive virtue,” in which, in just a few words, he clearly summarizes the intuition that the pure heart has about the innate sacredness of the sexual sphere, and how there is a deep understanding, born from this vision, that pleasure can in no way become an explicit theme in an act that is so holy in the sight of God:
The pure man perceives the mystery of sex. He perceives its depth, its seriousness, its intimacy… He understands implicitly the sublime purpose and fundamental significance of sex, and perceives the fearful profanation which every abuse of sex represents, the deadly poison, defiling the soul and separating it from God, which sexual pleasure generates when treated as its own end. He is marked by a profound shrinking from any contact with sex as soon as it is thus isolated and rendered poisonous. He possesses a deep reverence for the mystery of which he is here in presence. Sex as such in no aspect seems to him contemptible or base. Bearing no repugnance to the fact of sex, free from all prudish and hysterical disgust, whether of sex as such or of the act of marriage, he remains at a respectful distance from it so long as he is not called by the disposition of God to enter its domain. Reverence is a fundamental component of purity. The pure man always lives in an attitude of reverence for God and His creation, and therefore reveres sex, its profundity and its sublime and divinely ordained meaning. Indeed, and we have now reached the factor which is decisive both for purity and for the character of sex, the pure man understands that sex belongs in a special manner to God, and that he may only make such use of it as is explicitly sanctioned by Him. (In Defense of Purity, p. 60-61)
ii. I would like to address something here which may perhaps help to complement my strong words pointing out the disorder of foreplay and of the deliberate stimulation of the genital faculties (even indirectly through the so-called “erogenous zones”). Namely, I do not want to sound as if I am saying that any focus on these organs is wrong, as if they are somehow bad or dirty in themselves (for they most certainly are not, but rather are profoundly sacred). To give in to such a conception could easily lead to a so-called repressive disorder (for more on this see the Catholic psychiatrist Conrad Baars, or my summary in the book Home for the Restless Heart), in which the very irrational desire to bury the sexual faculties and to “repress” them from consciousness makes them emerge with uncontrollable intensity. It is not a matter, therefore, of trying to avoid or ignore the sexual faculties as much as possible, but rather of letting them be what they are in the orbit of the global love of person and person.
In the text above, thus, the dichotomy I am drawing is not between an awareness of and a living of the meaning of the sexual organs, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a kind of acting-like-they-don’t-exist. Rather, it is the radical difference between a focus on stimulation (in all the disordered forms of foreplay, etc.) and a focus on sensitivity and authentic tenderness. Stimulation cannot but be a form of use, treating the body as a pleasure-machine or a biological object, but tenderness, insofar as it is authentic and centered wholly in the person, will enfold the entire person of the beloved, including the intimate parts of their body. This is why in itself the touching of the genital faculties is by no means intrinsically wrong, but only when it is done so for an explicitly stimulating purpose, or for a purpose which focuses on the part severed from the person. So to interpret my words as meaning that the touching of the breasts or genital organs is intrinsically a sin would be incorrect—insofar, of course, as there is an adequate reason to do so and it is done so for the proper motivation and in the right manner.
Let me give a couple examples. The first example would be of a person who has experienced deep wounds relating to their own body, in particular in its most intimate sexual meaning. Perhaps a woman was sexually abused in her youth, or was shamed for the shape or size of her breasts, and she bears a deep shame about these parts of her body. Or, in another case, a man may have a physiological disorder, or a repressive disorder, which can lead (though rarely) to uncontrollable experiences of undesired orgasm, even when alone. Of these he may feel profoundly ashamed, and, in this shame, deeply isolated. In both of these cases (the woman and the man), precisely what may be called for is that this place becomes an explicit focus, and is even gently touched with true tenderness—for example held in the hand or lightly pressed with one’s fingers—in order to let the light of affirming love enter into a place which before has been only a place of darkness, shame, and loneliness. When this is cradled in the prayer of two persons who are invited by God into this space, and who welcome his healing and redeeming touch into the sacredness of the reverence that they share, such can be one of the most beautiful and vulnerable expressions of true tenderness.
In these cases, clearly, it is fitting and desired that these expressions of tenderness remain clearly virginal and non-stimulating, which means that they best occur outside of the sexual act itself and unrelated to it. In fact, these expressions of tenderness are and must be, in their inmost essence, innately virginal, otherwise they cannot speak the word they are meant to speak. Indeed, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that there are no expressions of tenderness, in any circumstances, that are inherently sexual (except for natural intercourse itself), for all tenderness is innately virginal, even when it encompasses the sexual sphere or takes up into itself the experience of the sexual embrace. It is possible, of course, in the tenderness with which man and woman approach sexual consummation, for each to touch the body of the other in reverence and affirmation, but this should clearly remain always transparently a word of personal affirmation, and not something that is ordered to causing stimulation or pleasure. For the touching of the breasts or the genitals in and around the sexual act can tend to be, or become, a form of foreplay, fostering the excitement and pleasure of arousal which should not occur through such forms of touch (i.e. of the parts of the body). Rather, everything should unfold simply through the desire of the heart, expressed also through more “global” and gratuitous expressions of affirming tenderness, which are not sexual or stimulating, such as a simple holding in mutual embrace, and the gentle pressing together of lips, etc.
Another example of a time when touch might be called for would be the case of a man with a true erectile disorder that is physiologically caused—for instance, certain spinal injuries can cut off the nervous channel from the brain to the penis such that no thoughts or emotional movements can cause an erection, but only touch can do so. In this case, clearly, touch will be necessary for the sexual embrace to occur. And this necessity itself radically changes the nature of such touch from an act of unnecessary stimulation into an act of beautiful tenderness—for now it is a medical necessity. And this necessity is the essential point. For the woman to gently touch or massage her husband’s genital faculty is thus a part of her receiving him, her eliciting his gift which she will then, once he is ready, receive in the way of natural intercourse. Of course this could degenerate into a kind of foreplay if such acts occur for their own sake, but as long as they are but the necessary eliciting of the man’s gift, there is no reason to fear them. The difference between this and foreplay is that foreplay inherently causes a distraction from the person and their disintegration into “parts,” and also focuses on pleasure and excitement in themselves in a profaning way, whereas a sober and humble massaging of the injured man’s penis by his wife has a “gathering together” movement that, when done with immense reverence, can be a deep act of true affirmation and chaste desire.
The point, here as everywhere, is that the bodily dimension of the union never becomes closed in upon itself through deliberate excitement or stimulation, but rather remains a living dimension at the heart of a fully personal attunement of man and woman before one another in their mutual self-giving in the sight of God. Yes, and here again we come to the living space in which alone the true word of loving self-donation and personal intimacy in the sexual embrace can be spoken and heard: in the heart of the virginal embrace of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by whose express sanction alone two human persons themselves have entered into this sacred sphere.
iii. This latter term is often translated in different ways—e.g. emotion, affectivity, sensibility. The older translation of Love and Responsibility rendered it as sensibility, but the more recent one translates it as affectivity. I prefer emotion because to use the term “affectivity” seems inadequate, particularly considering the rich treatment of the sphere of affectivity given by Dietrich von Hildebrand. I have spoken of this above in a previous reflection. True affectivity is something that springs from the heart, from the inner person, as it is one of the three spiritual faculties of the person, and is thus much more essential to love itself than mere emotion or sensibility, which lie on a lower level. Thus I reserve the term affectivity for this deeper, more spiritual and personal dimension of “being moved” by the innate value of another person, this intuition into their dignity before God. But John Paul’s conception, which is at times rendered as affectivity, speaks of something very different: emotion or sensibility refers to the particular “charm” or attractiveness that the opposite gender has to me, without any explicit reference to the living person, and perhaps without knowing them at all. Thus, for example, it is possible to “emotionally idealize” another person in an anonymous way without being in a living contact, a truly affective contact, with their beauty and dignity as the singular individual whom they are.