With the recent, beautiful wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, it’s an opportune time to ask: what is the meaning of sex, marriage, and love? How one frames these issues makes all the difference.
Americans are divided over the meaning of sex.
Americans are divided over the meaning of sex. Steven Seidman, professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany, suggests that moderns are typically divided between two differing frames. Though Professor Seidman has written widely on contemporary sexual politics in books such as The Social Construction of Sexuality and Embattled Eros, the discussion of sexual moral logics is expressed most fully in his article, “Contesting the Moral Boundaries of Eros: A Perspective on the Cultural Politics of Sexuality in the Late-Twentieth-Century Unites States” in Neil Smelser and Jeffrey Alexander’s Diversity and Its Discontents: Cultural Conflict and Common Ground in Contemporary American Society.
These two frames, he suggests, determine how we see and understand a wide range of conflicts over sexuality. He writes, “I have suggested that a key site of sexual conflict pivots around the moral logics [read: frame] that justify social norms, rules, and therefore a system of sexual hierarchy, and I have proposed that in contemporary America there is an opposition between a morality of the sex act and a communicative sex ethic.” The purpose here is not to argue the rightness of one over the other, but to clarify the difference between these two frames. This difference matters. “Each standpoint has its own language, logic of justification, and metatheory that gives it coherence and ethical force.”
The first moral logic he calls the “morality of the sex act.” It assumes that sexuality has an inherent meaning, social purpose, and moral status. Here “sex acquires a determinate moral and social meaning as part of a cosmology, which may be understood in the language of religion, natural law, or secular reason.” Here sex is understood as being a part of the “order of things” or having some sense of transcendent foundation. Sex within this frame has meaning rooted in something larger than itself. It is rooted in cosmology, in the nature of reality, and in the meaning of persons. Sex in this frame has a vertical dimension. It points to the stars.
Sex within this frame has meaning rooted in something larger than itself.
In contrast, Seidman outlines the alternative frame, which he describes as the “communicative sexual act.” This “assumes that sex acts have no inherent meaning but gain their moral coherence from their interactive context. It is the qualities of the social interaction that are appealed to as ethical standards.” Its justificatory strategy is based on consensual, responsible, caring, reciprocal, and mutually respectful aspects of social interaction. He concludes, “If sexual practices have no intrinsic meaning, if their moral sense involves understanding the contexualized meaning and social role of such practices and appealing to formal aspects of the communicative practice, then such an ethical viewpoint legitimates a plurality of sexual practices and patterns of intimacy, including different kinds of families.” Here the focus is on the nature of the exchange and not the meaning of the act itself. This view has “the advantage of being non-judgmental with regard to substantive sexual values and respectful of a wide range of sexual differences yet providing guidance and establishing moral boundaries.”
The differences between these two frames establish the organizing logic of debates regarding sexual politics. Seidman writes, “Although there is no one-to-one logical correspondence between the moral logic and political ideology, it is nevertheless the case that historically the communicative sexual ethic has been closely aligned with movements defending sexual pluralism, while the morality of the sex act logic has often been used to resist such movements.”
The difference between these two frames was recently highlighted on a Liturgist podcast that featured a dialogue between Bromleigh McCleneghan and Christopher West. Because the underlying frames were not discussed, the viewpoints each proclaimed were largely incomprehensible to each other. It was a podcast that illustrated the Korean phrase, “East question. West answer.” The hosts, Mike McHargue (AKA “Science Mike”) and Michael Gungor, are articulate defenders of the communicative sexual ethic.
One cannot get others to change their frames by more arguments or the pouring on of additional facts. If the facts don’t fit the frame, the facts bounce off and the frame stays. To shift frames one must engage the imagination and tell a better story. Minimally, it begins by identifying the competing frame(s).
It is notable that the Liturgist podcast was not titled “The Ethics of Love.” Many would consider sex as meaning more than the physical act; many are reticent to go with mere biology. We have a sense that something more is involved. And certainly the life-shattering impact of sexual abuse suggests the same: something more is involved.
Sex is more than a coordinated form of mutual exercise. That something more points to something larger and deeper: larger in that love is rooted in the nature of reality, and deeper in that personhood is best understood in community. There is a physics to sex because its meaning is rooted in the nature of reality. These are the longings and dreams that had 1.9 billion people watching the Royal Wedding.
John Seel is a consultant, writer, cultural analyst, and cultural renewal entrepreneur. He is the founder of John Seel Consulting LLC, a social impact consulting firm working with people and projects that foster human flourishing and the common good. The former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation, he is a national expert on millennials and the New Copernicans. He has an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland (College Park). He and his wife, Kathryn, live in Lafayette Hill, PA. He directs the New Copernican Empowerment Dialogues at The Sider Center at Eastern University. This post originally appeared on his blog, New Copernican Conversations.