Real Marriage
From the March 21, 2011 issue of NR


Steorts might object that he does meaningfully distinguish the type of love and sharing specific to marriage, by agreeing with the conjugal view that marital union must include bodily union, which he simply sees differently than do George, Anderson, and I. Or he might reply that our view proves too much — for example, by implying that infertile couples cannot unite bodily. But such replies reflect an error about the makeup of the human person — one so implausible on inspection that Steorts himself professes to reject it, even though it is essential to his theory. Sometimes called “body-self dualism,” it sees human persons as mere minds or consciousnesses that inhabit and use their bodies as vehicles or extrinsic instruments. Against this view, Steorts claims to agree with my co-authors and me that the human body is an integral part of the human person. But it does not take much analysis to see that despite his protestations, Steorts fails to take the body seriously — to see the moral significance of the fact that the body is no mere instrument for producing desirable feelings, but a real part of one’s person. 

Why should full personal union require sexual activity? Having turned to the question, Steorts merely points out that sexual desire is desire for a person. No doubt. But desire is a psychological state. If Steorts requires sexual intimacy just as a way of fostering and expressing certain emotions, which form the real “maximal union” of persons, then he hasn’t really understood bodily union and its centrality to marriage, or escaped body-self dualism, after all. Indeed, Steorts justifies his conclusion that any sexual activity can unite just as well as coitus on the ground that same-sex partners’ sexual activity is no different “in experience” — that is, psychologically — from a husband and wife’s conjugal acts. He thinks that both couples have the same basic attitude toward their respective acts, and that this is all that matters. So it really is just the mental experience or sense of unity that matters. But this is obviously false, for it implies that people’s hallucinating or fantasizing about each other could unite them bodily.

Nor does it help Steorts to insist, as he does, that maximal experiential union should occur only between “peers whose bodies . . . are complementary rather than overlapping.” Set aside the inapt metaphor of “overlapping” bodies, by which Steorts presumably means similar ones. If “complementary” does not mean “sexually complementary,” what does it mean? Should sprinters seek marital union only with distance-runners? Does that matter more for the possibility of bodily union than sexual difference? Here as elsewhere, Steorts’s argument is so confused and implausible that it is difficult to rephrase without seeming to ridicule. Perhaps Steorts means just that a couple should be “compatible” in the bedroom. But then personal union seems again to be about psychological or emotional realities, presumably because persons are essentially centers of consciousness and feeling. But this is precisely the dualism that Steorts claims to reject.
Steorts’s ultimate failure to ground an integral role for sexual or bodily union is unsurprising. The only way to show how sexual union can be valuable not only as a means of fostering feelings, but also as an integral part of marriage, is to accept the conjugal view. Only coitus achieves real bodily union. After all, our organs — our heart and stomach, for example — are parts of one body because they are coordinated, along with other parts, for a common biological purpose of the whole: our biological life. So for two individuals to unite organically and thus bodily, their bodies must be coordinated for some biological purpose of the whole.
That sort of union is impossible in relation to functions such as digestion and circulation, for which the human individual is by nature sufficient. But individual adults are naturally incomplete with respect to one biological function: sexual reproduction. In coitus, but not in other forms of sexual contact, a man and a woman’s bodies coordinate by way of their sexual organs for the common biological purpose of reproduction. They perform the first step of the complex reproductive process. Thus, their bodies become, in a strong sense, one — they are biologically united, and do not merely rub together — in coitus (and only in coitus), similarly to the way in which one’s heart, lungs, and other organs form a unity: by coordinating for the biological good of the whole. In this case, the whole is made up of the man and woman as a couple, and the biological good of that whole is their reproduction.


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