Sex. Or, What The Bishop Said

The former Bishop of Carlisle, Graham Dow, had the audacity to say in 2003 that the human penis and vagina belong to each other. For that, he was absolutely excoriated in the British press. They ripped him to shreds, and one of his cleric peers spoke distastefully of Dow’s “gynecologic” tendencies.

Dow is no secular humanist. He was something of a thorn in the Church of England’s reformist side. He went on record as believing in evil as a force (few bishops do anymore), and referred to the 2007 North Yorkshire floods as the judgment of God. In 2009 he was hustled off to retirement, replaced in Carlisle by a nice chap with bags of Oxbridge academic credentials.

However, just because Dow is a bit different from his peers, just because he sounds nineteenth-century and vindictive, doesn’t mean he can’t have a valid anatomical point.

If Dow had made the same assertion about, say, giraffes (“In giraffes, the penis and the vagina belong to each other”), would he have been so rebuked? I think not. I think people would have scratched their heads at such a banal and self-evident statement, muttered something along the lines of “duh! . . . where else?”, and gone about their business with perhaps slightly raised eyebrows at Dow as a man with a keen grasp of the obvious.

Why, then, admonish the same statement about humans? Surely it’s plain that in any species engaged in sexual reproduction, the penis and vagina are designed for each other; they generally provide a workable, functional fit; and therefore they belong to each other like a same-size bolt and nut?

Adult male humans have quite large erect penises, compared to the males of other primate species. Researchers can – and do – argue about the “why” of that, attributing it to visual attraction, planting seed farther into the birth canal, improving the sexual experience for women, and on and on. The “why” doesn’t really matter. What matters is how the design of the human vagina has matched the increased size of the penis. “Matched” means we do not know when came first, and we must allow that altered vaginal design is just as likely to have preceded changes in penile design as to have followed them or – a third option – arisen simultaneously with them.

In humans, more than in other primates, the birth canal of a healthy and willing adult changes enormously in the face of anticipated sexual pleasure. Blood rushes to the area and the vagina self-enlarges. From its existence as a short narrow passage whose walls meet, it becomes a longer, wider way. It also self-lubricates, making tender sexual congress possible with the minimum of harm to sensitive tissues. (In sub-Saharan Africa, in places where men prefer the feel of a drier birth canal, women often introduce substances into their vaginas to prevent self-lubrication. Besides causing pain during intercourse, this practice unfortunately helps spread AIDS and other STDs, since the birth canal’s tissues are greatly abraded during sex, creating multiple small lacerations and scratches through which bacteria and viruses enter the bloodstream.)

These changes, whether they preceded, followed, or coincidentally matched in time the increase in size of the adult human penis, mean that Dow was right: the penis and vagina were made for each other. They belong to each other.

But Dow didn’t go far enough, in my view. No, he didn’t. He spoke as if we all understood the conditions under which these two bits of human anatomy belong together. Yet obviously, given the prevalence of sexual abuse and rape (which is not sexual in origin, but uses sexual anatomy to hurt, control, punish, and frighten others), not all of us do understand.

I think what Dow meant to say is this: the human-adult-healthy-willing penis and the human-adult-healthy-willing vagina belong to each other.

Let’s break that down, because every one of those factors must be met (thus the hyphens) before we arrive at sexuality as it was designed to work. (Note, too, that Dow and his colleagues are clerics – therefore they may be said to work for the Designer. For atheists and agnostics, it’s just as possible to accept that whatever force designed human anatomy – Nature, fate, a giant celestial tortoise – it’s a design we’ve lived with for millennia, and we might as well acknowledge it as a given rather than treating it as a design which humans engineered and can therefore re-engineer as we choose.)

First, human. A human penis was designed for a human. It wasn’t designed to be thrust into a ewe, a cow, or other female animal, because doing so would produce pain and injury to the animal. Nor was the human birth canal meant for other male animals (e.g., dogs, horses) to enter it. Other species’ penises can harm the human vagina, because they were designed for the female of another species. This factor avoids creating pain and confusion. Adhering to it also acts to make sure that neither sexuality, nor the people engaged in it, are objectified as simple relief for lust. Meeting this factor means a human must choose another human, with all of his/her traits, positives and negatives. It makes us think about the individuals we want to have sex with.

Second, adult. The two people (just two – penis and vagina, remember, not plural) must each have enough years to make sex work well, and to appreciate what they do. Human penises mature sexually at an earlier age than females’ bodies. The vagina does not become fully functional until it’s 25 years old, about the same age that the brain’s decision-making pre-frontal cortex reaches its complete growth in both sexes. Thus any female under 25 engaged in intercourse will experience far less physical enjoyment than the male she’s with – a point it’s good to keep in mind. But age has even more to do with one’s emotional capacity for sexual congress. Sex is not just like brushing one’s teeth, as some people claim. If similar hormonal dips, responses, and surges were involved in dental hygiene, people would look forward to Pepsodent-time not just eagerly, but with passion. “I just brushed my teeth” would evoke wink-wink-nudge-nudge.

Sexual congress is important because it involves extensive hormonal and physical investment, particularly for females. One example: after orgasm, female humans are filled with the hormone oxytocin, which promotes emotional joy and pair-bonding (the same hormone floods breastfeeding mothers while they nurse, to the benefit of cantankerous infants). If one has picked (decision-making!) the wrong man for sex, one will pair-bond with someone who’s counting the seconds until post-coital escape. This is the reason behind too-seldom-enforced “statutory rape” laws. The law reasons that making good sexual decisions is beneficial to the individual and society. Under a certain age, one’s decision-making ability (located in the pre-frontal cortex) is unformed. It’s therefore detrimental to a young person to engage in sex under that age, and anyone having sex with that person, even if that person has agreed to sexual activity, is understood by law to be taking unfair advantage, just as if that person were 25 years old but mentally retarded. By law, that person still lacks the capacity for informed consent. Both people need to be adult to make for an even playing field, to make sex just.

Third, healthy. This factor involves health in all its facets: physical, mental, emotional. People must be healthy for sexual enjoyment to reach the peak it’s designed for, and they must not be urged into it if they are not healthy. One who urges sex with another person who is not healthy physically (e.g., fever, pain, infection) or mentally/emotionally (e.g., psychosis, depression, grief) takes advantage of that condition. Again, the field is not level. Unfair advantage is being used, and there is no sexual justice.

Estimates of depression (a disorder that will strike nearly all Americans at some time in their lives) among prostitutes is very high, hovering around 90%. This makes any solicitation of prostitution an act of unfair advantage, since one cannot tell if that particular person has depression, so one must assume that depression is present because of the statistical findings – at 90%, any prostitute is more likely than not to have depression. This is understandable, since depression is primarily a cognitive disorder that often gives the sufferer the sense that she or he does not deserve good treatment by others.

Fourth, willing. An act of sex must involve two willing participants, two people who want sexual congress to occur between them and who are not forced into it by violence, trafficking, slavery, coercion or economic need. Thus sex without mutual willingness is rape, and is an invalid and unjust act – understandably, since rape involves the use of the penis as a weapon to control, punish, hurt and/or frighten. It is not primarily sexual in nature, but controlling. As a controlling act, rape is anti-design: it denies the very intention of the penis, which is for creation and mutual pleasure. It holds hostage the other person, not for as long as the rape lasts, but for longer – PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is highly prevalent in victims of rape, and is amplified compared to PTSD due to other causes.

Someone who is trafficked or enslaved cannot give consent willingly, of course. This holds true whether or not the person seeking sex knows that the other is trafficked or enslaved. Several Scandinavian countries have recognized the need for parity and justice in sexual congress by noting that almost every prostitute in their countries has been enslaved through trafficking, and is forced into prostitution to earn money for abusive others. They have therefore criminalized the act of soliciting prostitution.

Economic need may be present in the background of a prostitute (as well as depression and other factors listed above). If it is, that person is not capable of giving willing consent, since fear and worry are driving the offering of one’s body for another’s temporary use. An interesting analogy is currently being drawn between sex prostitution (which subjects the person to the risk of murder, further physical and emotional abuse, and disease) and the currently popular – in India – job of surrogate motherhood, in which a very poor woman will carry the genetic child of a Western woman to term (risking death, coma, injury and disease, and possibly leaving her own genetic children motherless). Although the pregnancy will last for many months longer than any act of sex with a prostitute, the principle is the same: the offering of one’s body for another’s temporary use. While Indian surrogates point with pride to the money that enables their children to enjoy a better life, the truth is that pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous times for any woman, even an experienced mother, and India’s parliament is rightly concerned about the injustice – the absence of a level playing field – of paying someone to risk their life.

Coercion and economic need may also be more subtly present. The revelations by a growing number of French women against former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, that he urged them to sexual congress, show how fear for one’s job or position can be used by someone higher up the pay-scale as pressure to comply. This pressure is wholly distinct from the rape charges he faces, but demonstrates his willingness to apply economic and social force.

If a person is not wholly willing (that is, if violence, trafficking, slavery, coercion or economic need are present), then sexual congress does not meet the requirements of all four factors.

I’ve gone further than Graham Dow, who used verbal shorthand in 2003. Yet we share a concern over the increasingly common assumptions that sex should be whatever, whenever, with whomever; that no care needs to be paid to bodily design and function; that humans can re-engineer sexual congress to be what was never designed; that people who point to the importance of design are prejudiced and puritan; and that anyone pointing out the facts, ma’am, may be justifiably ignored, criticized, or ridiculed.

Humans did not plan the design. We just need to follow it.

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