The Splice of Life: Sex in the 21st Century

A child’s teasing rhyme, heard once upon a time on American playgrounds, finished with the line, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes junior in a baby carriage.”

That was certainly the recognized order of things not so long ago: love, then marriage, then a family. The targeted child on the playground might flush indignantly at the rhyme’s implication about his love life but wouldn’t dream of denying the stated progression that led to the traditional nuclear family. Everyone knew how society expected it to work: A boy meets a girl, they fall in love, and they get married. Then, if all goes well, they have children. They run the lottery of life in terms of whether those children will be healthy or sickly, male or female, short or tall, or look more like their mother or their father. But in any event, they do not buy the “lottery tickets” until after the wedding. Sex—once the only means by which children were brought into the world—was officially seen as being reserved for marriage.

Several sexual revolutions later, however, there is no particular prescribed progression. Boy meets girl, they have sex and live together without getting married. They may or may not have children; after all, both must work to make ends meet in our high-cost consumer societies. Or perhaps boy meets girl, they like each other and engage in casual sex. Or boy meets boy. Or girl meets girl. There may be no intention of marriage or a long-term relationship; they may simply intend to have a good time. Sex is seen merely as an evolutionary biological imperative—an “animal need” to be engaged in with whomever, whenever, without inhibition. It has evolved beyond its former perceived purpose: a combined recreational and procreative bond between husband and wife, creating a secure fold in which to raise a family.

The term family has itself become rather ambiguous. The dictionary may define it as “a father, a mother and their children” or as “the collective body of persons who live in one house.” Late anthropologist George Murdock offered the idea that the family is “a social group characterized by common residence . . . [with] adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children.”

Advanced Pregnancy

There have already been great changes to these models, but some sociologists believe the picture is now set to change even further with advances in reprogenetic technologies, which could render the “sexual relationship” aspect unnecessary, at least for producing children.

Dianne Bartels, associate director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, agrees with that assessment. “Reproductive technology is having a direct impact on the traditional family,” she told Vision. “At present, with all the divorces, remarriages and blended families, the nuclear family only exists about half the time in the United States, if that. But as these technologies become more available, having a partner of the opposite sex will be seen less and less as a prerequisite in order to have children.”

Technologies already in use make it possible for single people and same-sex couples to produce children. For a single woman or a lesbian couple, only a sperm donor is necessary. Using either in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination, one or both partners could have their own offspring. At the current level of technology, a single man or a gay couple would need to hire an egg donor and/or a surrogate mother. However, if embryo fusion becomes available in the future, it would become even easier for homosexual couples to produce their own children together. In this procedure, the sperm from two different men could be fused together and then implanted into a surrogate mother. Alternatively, the egg nuclei from two different women would be fused together to form one egg, to be fertilized with donor sperm using in vitro fertilization.

An almost boundless list of alternatives to sex may be available to future generations for purposes of procreation. 

According to a growing number of scientists, an almost boundless list of alternatives to sex may be available to future generations for purposes of procreation, including artificial wombs, male pregnancy and even cloning. Such options are probably not as close a reality as it might seem, however.

Take cloning, for instance. “When we hear about Dolly and other cloned and transgenic animals,” says W. French Anderson, director of Gene Therapy Laboratories at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, “the impression is that it may be a simple step to go from germ-line genetic engineering in livestock to germ-line genetic engineering in humans.” Considered the father of gene therapy, Anderson told Vision he believes the jump to human cloning is much further down the line: “Between 95 and 99.9 percent of all engineered embryos are damaged. Most are lethally damaged and do not lead to live births. But even those that do are frequently deformed and later die.” He believes it would be unethical to attempt germ-line genetic engineering in humans until the success rate in animals is significantly improved.

Pursuing the Perfect Child

Nevertheless, genetic engineering may be able to provide new parents with other options in their quest for perfect progeny. Eugenic genetic engineering, for example, is defined as the ability to modify complex human traits such as body structure, personality and intelligence. Anderson admits to having believed 19 years ago that such a feat was many decades away from reality. Today he foresees that it may actually come about in the next 20 years.

Princeton molecular biologist Lee Silver agrees with Anderson’s timeline. “By that time [i.e., 20 years from now] at the latest,” he remarks, “parents will be able to choose which of their characteristics to pass to their children and which to withhold. Parents would be able to go to a catalog and choose which of these traits to add to their children.” Producing children with the characteristics of our choice could well become the ultimate shopping experience.

Technological advances such as these normally start out with good intentions, of course, but they often spark ethical struggles. Harry Griffin, assistant director of the Roslin Institute (which produced Dolly, the cloned sheep), comments that “on one hand, genetic technology has immense potential for good: to allow infertile couples to become parents; to cure disease or provide better treatment options. But such power can also be abused.”

Typically,” adds George Khushf, humanities director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of South Carolina, “when any new technology is introduced, people make the mistake of thinking they will be able to draw the moral lines when they need to.” However, the lines are not immobile. “It’s a gradual acceptance,” Khushf said in a recent interview with Vision. “Society gets comfortable with a new technology, and then they move to the next step with it.”

While most scientists agree that these new technologies must be regulated, the question of exactly who should do so is the subject of debate. In the end, it is most likely that the marketplace will be the final arbiter of what technologies will be used, rather than scientists or governments. “The instinct to produce biological children is very powerful,” says Silver, “but the instinct to provide your children with all possible advantages is also powerful, and together these instincts will drive people to use these technologies, no matter what society as a whole or governments may say.”

Any one of these developments offers the prospect of profoundly changing the nature of sex, marriage and the family, and through these every other aspect of human society. The less drastic reproductive technologies currently in use give us a peek into this kind of future.

Already, children have been born who literally have five parents,” says Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. “You could have an egg donor, a sperm donor, two social or adoptive parents, and a surrogate mother. The number of people who can be involved in the creation of a child now has gone from two—the ‘normal’ way historically—to many more. It certainly changes the way we think about what constitutes a family.”

The Marriage Factor

Sex itself will not be relegated to the woodpile, of course. Although its procreative aspect may seem to be growing redundant, the recreational aspect is as popular as ever, though not necessarily in the context of marriage. In fact, if television sit-coms and movies are to be believed, most recreational sex is enjoyed by single men and women rather than married ones. A commonly heard joke is that marriage is the best way to curtail one’s sex life. But is there any truth in such a jest?

Linda J. Waite, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and author of The Case for Marriage, believes her research and the research of others indicates there is not. Citing two major recent sex surveys (one by Edward Laumann, popularly known as the National Sex Survey, and another conducted by psychologists Scott Stanley and Howard Markman), Waite claims, “Married people have both more and better sex than singles do. They not only have sex more often, but they enjoy it more, both physically and emotionally, than do their unmarried counterparts. Only cohabiters have more sex than married couples, but they don’t necessarily enjoy it as much.”

This last comment is based on the same study, in which men and women were asked to describe the way that sex with their partner made them feel physically and emotionally. Cohabiters, especially men, registered significantly lower emotional and physical satisfaction than did their married counterparts.

Waite suggests that the enjoyment factor is connected to commitment. “One argument is that the commitment of marriage in and of itself improves sex,” she told Vision. “The other is that marriage, with its promise of sexual fidelity, gives people a big incentive to figure out what their partner likes and learn how to provide it. If you care about someone, pleasing them is rewarding in and of itself. If in addition you know that your only sex life is going to be with this person, pleasing them increases the chances that you’re going to have a satisfying sex life, because they’ll want to please you. So there’s an incentive to develop what sometimes are called relationship-specific skills.”

It works the other way too. “There are always strains and irritations involved in living with somebody else,” Waite adds, “but if you have a good sex life, that gives you incentive to sort of balance the irritations.”

In addition to Waite’s research and that of Laumann, Stanley and Markman, several other studies in recent years have been directed at learning more about current trends in sex, marriage and the family. One key study was undertaken by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe of Rutgers University in New Jersey. Known as the National Marriage Project, it includes an annual report called “The State of Our Unions.” This year’s report, conducted between January and March and published June 13, 2001, presents some interesting findings about the attitudes of adults in their twenties toward dating, cohabitation, marriage and parenthood.

Who wants to marry a soul mate?” asks this year’s “State of Our Unions.” “Practically all young adults,” it asserts. “Young adults today are searching for a deep emotional and spiritual connection with one person for life. The overwhelming majority (94 percent) of never-married singles agree that ‘when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.’ There is no significant gender gap in this response; similarly high proportions of men and women agree that they want to marry a soul mate.”

While the study does indicate that young adults commonly limit some relationships to “sex without strings,” it also reports they will often postpone sex in relationships that appear to have “soul mate” potential.

More Than a Biological Need?

The findings of the report agree with the results of Judith Wallerstein’s well-known long-term study of the effects of divorce on children. The children she followed, now adults, are skeptical of their chances of achieving a lasting soul-mate marriage. Nevertheless they desperately want it and express a deep desire for a faithful, intimate, lasting relationship.

Sex therapists are also seeing a movement toward a more spiritual yearning in sexuality throughout the sociological spectrum. Celebrity therapist “Dr. Ava” Cadell (known in some circles as “the new Dr. Ruth”) has noticed a surge in the popularity of the Kama Sutra and the Tantra, which she refers to as the yoga of sex. She believes the future of sex includes an increase in communication between partners. “Monogamy will return, and couples will seek a higher level of learning so that they can maintain a consistently successful relationship,” says Cadell.

Monogamy will return, and couples will seek a higher level of learning so that they can maintain a consistently succesful relationship.”

Dr. Ava Cadell

But why do we look for such spiritual fulfillment in our sexual relationships? If sex is just a biological imperative, an “animal need,” why do we ask more of it than simple physical satisfaction or procreation?

The complex human mind, with its spiritual attributes and potential, is the all-important factor. The Bible refers to this spiritual component as “the spirit in man” (1 Corinthians 2:11). This spirit essence is not the person, but something additional to the physical being, imparting the power of intellect to the brain. It also adds a spiritual and moral faculty not possessed by animals. The body, then, is merely the mechanism or vehicle that the mind directs and uses.

Sex anatomy and sexual functioning are connected directly with the brain through a system of nerves. But for humans, sexual activity involves more than the brain itself; every bodily action is directed consciously or unconsciously by the mind, by this “spirit in man.” Created in the image of God, humankind was given this mind, or intellect, with which to think, know and reason. Animals were not given this reasoning ability.

The direction of the mind is the vital key in understanding the role of sex in our lives. The “spirit in man” is what allows us to make deep, spiritual connections with others. It allows us to enjoy more than just the procreative and pleasurable aspects of sex on a physical level. Those are clearly not wrong; people were, after all, intended to “be fruitful and multiply.” However, this instruction was given a context: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). In part it is through sexual intercourse, with full participation of the mind, that a man and a woman form a deep, intimate connection and become “one flesh.” The context for this union is marriage. Within this framework sex provides pleasure and makes possible the development of a family.

Amazing Parallels

What, then, is the purpose of sex? Today, in reaction to the oppressive teaching of the past that sex was sinful and permissible only for reproduction, we have swung to the opposite extreme where any use of sex is seen as acceptable, whether in or out of marriage, “as long as no one gets hurt.” In fact, marriage itself is often seen as irrelevant in the scheme of things.

Yet neither of these extremes is sound. One purpose of sex is indeed for reproduction, but the spiritual lesson is profound.

Beyond the benefits of intimacy, human reproduction and sexual love within marriage have spiritual counterparts that help us understand God’s purpose for human life. Human conception, gestation and birth are the astounding parallel of spiritual salvation. The Bible explains that in order for salvation to take place, this human mind must receive the divine Spirit of God. As the human egg or ovum being impregnated by the male sperm begins physical life, so the human mind being impregnated by the Holy Spirit begins spiritual life. God’s Spirit combines with the human spirit in our mind and imparts power to comprehend spiritual knowledge that the human mind of itself cannot grasp (1 Corinthians 2:11). As the human embryo develops into a fetus before actual birth, so the spiritual “embryo” must grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18) prior to birth into the kingdom of God.

As Jesus explained, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5–6). Humans are mortal, having come from the ground. But Jesus was not talking about another physical birth. Rather, he was talking about a spiritual process that will come to fruition at a future return to life, or resurrection, as described in 1 Corinthians 15. When human life is created through the sexual union of husband and wife, it is analogous to the spiritual conception and creation of a future child of God.

Sex is also for the purpose of learning about a higher form of love—the love that emanates from God Himself. “God is love,” said the apostle John (1 John 4:8). This love was demonstrated by Christ in that He gave His life for humanity. We are told that husbands and wives are to love one another in a sexual relationship as a type of Christ’s love for the Church. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31–32, emphasis added).

Understanding the true purpose of sex within marriage adds a dimension of spirituality and intimacy.

Understanding the true purpose of sex within marriage adds a dimension of spirituality and intimacy. It speaks to our yearning to have a deep connection to another human being, and to something outside us. The spiritual connection and lifelong commitment people are looking for is a need built into us from the beginning.

When we understand the intended role of sex, our husband-wife relationships are not only strengthened, but we begin to understand the God-ordained purpose for human life: to ultimately be born into a spiritual family relationship with God.