A PHYSICIAN FRIEND OF MINE spent two months in a remote part of the African nation Benin. The airplane on which he traveled home was showing current movies, and after two months away from all media, he found them jarring. Each movie centered on sexual intercourse, as though this were the only significant topic in the world, whereas David had just been dealing with weighty matters—disease, poverty, hunger, religion, death—while relating to colleagues in a way that had nothing to do with sexual intercourse. When the plane stopped for refueling at the Brussels airport, David saw rows of magazines for sale featuring women's breasts in various stages of exposure. That, too, seemed odd, for he had been working in an area where women commonly uncovered their breasts in public, not for sexual arousal but to feed their children. Welcome back to Western civilization, he thought to himself.
I know no clearer example of the modern, reductionistic approach to life than human sexuality. We survey people about their private sex lives, and write manuals based on data gained by watching people perform sex in a laboratory setting. To junior high students we teach details of sexuality forbidden to previous generations.
At the same time, I know of no greater failure among Christians than in presenting a persuasive approach to sexuality. Outside the church, people think of God as the great spoilsport of human sexuality, not its inventor. The pope utters pronouncements, denominations issue position papers, and many Christians ignore them and follow the lead of the rest of society. Surveys reveal little difference between church attenders and non-attenders in the rates of premarital intercourse and cohabitation. Surveys also show that many people have left their churches in disgust over hypocrisy about sex, especially when ministers fail to practice what they preach.
Nothing intrinsic in human sexuality keeps a person from experimenting with multiple partners, both genders, even children, close relatives, or animals. Yet every tribe studied by anthropologists has taboos that fence off some of these practices. As if by instinct, the most "primitive" of humans recognize in sex something beyond a merely physical act.
Only in technologically advanced cultures do people reduce sex to an act of pleasure we perform like any other animal. Music gives us away. A popular song by Bloodhound Gang urges, "You and me, baby, ain't nothin' but mammals, so let's do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel." Why not? The Discovery television channel often portrays close-up detail of sex in the animal kingdom.
The attempt to reduce human sex to a merely animal act, however, runs into unexpected problems. The more we learn about human sexuality, the more it differs from how the animals do it. Most obviously, humans come vastly over-equipped for sex. The human male has the largest penis of any primate, and the female is the only mammal whose breasts develop before her first pregnancy. Virtually all other mammals have a specified time in which the female is receptive, or in heat, whereas the human female can be receptive anytime, not just once or twice a year. In addition, the human species is one of very few in which females experience orgasm, and humans continue to have sex long after their child-bearing years have passed. Why are we so oversexed?
Relationship is the key. Human beings experience sex as a personal encounter, not just a biological act. We are the only species that commonly copulates face-to-face, so that partners look at each other as they mate, and have full-body contact. Unlike other social animals, humans prefer privacy for the act. In many species, females openly advertise their receptivity with swollen, colorful genitals, and the male and female mate in full view of the group.