Just imagine that you’re hungry and I have a bowl of fresh-picked, red, ripe strawberries. I extend the bowl and you put a strawberry in your mouth. The juicy nectar is baptising your tongue. And I ask you, “Are the strawberries sweet?” Oh, yes. They’re fantastic!
But let’s just imagine that I have another bowl—this time of Tim-Tams. And I say to you, “Here, have a Tim-Tam.” So you have one. And you have another. And another. And another. You are in Tim-Tam heaven!
And just as you swallow the last bite of your final Tim-Tam, I say, “Here, have another strawberry.” You put it in your mouth . . . and I ask, “What’s wrong?”
Not only is that strawberry not sweet, it may be bland—worse yet, it may be tart or even sour. But nothing has changed in the strawberries—they still have that juicy, red nectar; they still have their own natural sugar content. The strawberries are in fact still sweet, but you have altered your tastebuds in such a way that you can’t perceive their subtle sweetness.
Sex without feelings
Last year Time magazine reported that the Florida House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring pornography a public health risk. According to the House report, research has found “a correlation between pornography use and mental and physical illnesses, difficulty forming and maintaining intimate relationships, unhealthy brain development and cognitive function, and deviant, problematic or dangerous sexual behaviour.”
Really? Looking at pictures produces “mental and physical illnesses”—this whole list of negative relational, behavioural and neurological effects? Yes, apparently so. All of this resulting from a mismanagement of pleasure.
A GQ magazine article by Scott Christian about young men’s porn use cites “a growing concern that it is beginning to affect our brains, our relationships, and even our bodies”, noting in particular, that a regular porn user’s capacity for neurological and physiological arousal is likely to decline over time. This is startling: red-blooded young men are becoming impotent! Because of porn.
In 2015, Vanity Fair ran an article with a provocative title: “Tinder and the dawn of the ‘dating apocalypse’.” The article informs us that, due to the rise of dating apps like Tinder, things have changed in places where young adults gather in the evenings—bars and clubs and the like: “Everyone is drinking, peering into their screens and swiping on the faces of strangers they may have sex with later that evening. Or not.”
Here’s what one interviewee, Amanda, told Vanity Fair: “There’s no dating. There’s no relationships—they’re rare. You can have a fling that could last like seven, eight months and you could never actually call someone your ‘boyfriend’. Hooking up is a lot easier. No-one gets hurt—well, not on the surface.”
I think Amanda’s a little sad. But she’s trying to be strong. Because her world is like this now. She’s saying people, especially females, are in fact getting hurt with this new dating scene, but they’re all trying to pretend that they’re not.
Sex without love has the overall net effect of killing the human capacity for the emotional dimension of love. I’m saying this, not as a pastor or a theologian, but from a purely scientific and secular standpoint. The world at large is observing the landscape of human sexuality and saying, “Something’s been lost in the process of all this ‘sex without feelings’.”
Just prior to his death in 2014, celebrated actor Philip Seymour Hoffman said something very insightful: “I would definitely say pleasure is not happiness. Because I would say I kill pleasure. I take too much of it and make it unpleasurable. . . . There is no pleasure that I haven’t actually made myself sick on.”
If it’s possible to enter into a biological-physiological experience in which strawberries are not sweet anymore, is it possible to manage your pleasure intake in such a way that you actually gradually diminish your capacity for pleasure?
“Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed” wrote the apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:19). “Having lost all sensitivity” or, as the King James Version puts it, “being past feeling”—that, to me, is probably one of the scariest lines in Scripture. Because once you’re “past feeling”, you don’t know you’re there.
Here’s how the physiology of pleasure works. Dopamine is sometimes called the “pleasure molecule”; the chemical that produces the bliss of physical pleasure in your brain and through to your body. And then there’s oxytocin, the “bonding hormone”—the “cuddle chemical” or the “moral molecule”. It’s called the moral molecule because oxytocin doesn’t want merely what dopamine has to offer. Oxytocin wants to be “married” to dopamine, if you will. Because, as we’re seeing in hookup culture, pleasure without bonding gradually kills the capacity for pleasure.
Here’s what author C S Lewis tells us in just one sentence from his observation of life: “Sin is an ever-increasing craving for an ever-diminishing pleasure.” Sin is, I want four more Tim-Tams. And more. And more. Until you’re in Tim-Tam heaven. And then in Tim-Tam hell.
Or sexual heaven—and sexual hell. Because anytime you try to manage your sexuality outside the bounds of trust, loyalty, commitment and bonding, you’re chipping away at your very capacity for pleasure—you’re fundamentally changing your physiology and your psychology until you end up, as Paul said, “past feeling”.
We, particularly in the educated, affluent, wealthy West, are playing with fire, sexually speaking. Scarlett Johansson, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Ethan Hawke, Shailene Woodley—celebrated Hollywood actors who people look up to—all identify as “sexual omnivores”. They want relationships that are “open”.
One of their key influences is Dr Christopher Ryan. He wrote a book with his wife called Sex at Dawn. It says evolutionary theory dictates that human beings are essentially sexual omnivores, so you can’t expect something like fidelity or loyalty from another human being. Sexuality is an animal urge that needs to be satisfied. Men are prowling the planet, looking for somebody, anybody with the right genetic markers, with whom to reproduce. It has nothing whatsoever to do with old-fashioned ideas like love, trust and loyalty—forget all of that; none of it is real.
We’re watching human beings short-circuit their ability to perceive where sex might be pointing. Because sex, I suggest to you, transcends itself by pointing to love. Commitment. Trust. As writer and philosopher G K Chesterton said, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” That man may not know it in the moment, but he’s searching for a quality of love that finds no perfectly satisfying match in this world.
There’s a pleasure thread running through the biblical narrative. It begins at the beginning of the story: God created humans, male and female, with the emotional, mental and biological capacity for pleasure. He placed Adam and Eve in a garden where there was “every tree . . . pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9) and told them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). A man and a woman in a garden, naked and making babies—what a picture!
God put the original humans in a place that was perfectly calculated towards pleasure.
Human sexuality is celebrated in the Bible as a source of relational bliss. Between all the accounts of the dysfunction and trauma that accompanies sin, the Bible gives us these snapshots of how human sexuality was supposed to be.
The Song of Solomon, for example, in chapter after chapter celebrates the eroticism of human sexuality. But then you come to the theological climax of the Song: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal on your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord” (Song of Solomon 8:6).
What the lovers are saying to one another here is essentially, Let’s seal this relationship. Let’s bring our whole body and our whole mind into a sealed, irrevocable commitment to one another.
There’s fiery passion here and a connection between the Creator and the created. God is the one who made us the way we are and the Song of Solomon is telling us that sex at its best is a window of understanding into God’s love.
God is pro-strawberries, pro-pleasure, pro-sex, pro-family and pro-love. He invented sex in the first place. But to be pro-sex without being pro-love is not only damaging; it’s to miss something crucial. God is communicating to us that there is a kind of holy hedonism; a full-orbed pleasure—psychological, emotional, biological, familial—all incorporated into a single relational whole. And the gospel is, in part, the process by which God redeems pleasure; restores pleasure to its rightful state.
Sex at its best is loyal, trustworthy and monogamous. It’s beautiful, it’s a commitment and it’s for life. You and I are creatures of the divine image with the capacity to love like God loves. And He will redeem our capacity for pleasure and lead us to ways and patterns of love that are out of this world.
Ty Gibson is co-director and speaker of Light Bearers (lightbearers.org) and lead pastor of Storyline Church in Eugene, Oregon, where he lives with his family. This article is adapted with permission from a talk he gave at Kingscliff Adventist Church on the NSW north coast.