Sex and the Single Person

by Theresa Notare

April 3, 1998

Recently a reader asked if I had ever written on the subject of living the "gift of human sexuality" as a single person. He asked because he was single and had felt frustration trying to reconcile his belief in the Church's teachings on chastity with society's presumption that everyone should be sexually active. In looking to the Church for guidance, he said that he hadn't heard much about how to be a healthy, holy--and yet sexual--single person. Married couples, after all, can live their human sexuality fully. Clergy and religious have vows which give meaning to their lives of celibacy. One might easily conclude that single people "don't even have God's gift of sexuality."

At the risk of sounding like a Catholic "Dr. Ruth," I'd like to take a shot at addressing the basic problem which this reader inadvertently expresses: defining human sexuality by its genital expression. My response to his quandary is quite simple--sexuality is part of human nature, everybody has the gift. "How" we live the gift is nothing less than the challenge of growing and maturing as a fully developed person. In addition, as people of faith we should know that the "mystery of what it means to be human--incarnate, embodied, and therefore sexual" is also "bound up in the mystery and purpose of God, who is the author of all life, and love itself." (Human Sexuality, A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning, p. 7).

We live in a world which has exploited sexual attraction and activity. Advertisements, movies and music convey a particularly negative vision of sex. Today's culture insists that genital activity is the most important aspect of human sexuality. This view holds that people have a need to be satisfied genitally in whatever manner makes them happy. And if a person is not "doing it," society warns that psychological neurosis will result. This utilitarian view of human sexuality and sexual relations sees human sexuality as limited to the genital and treats the sexual partner as nothing more than an object to be used. It offers a greatly diminished understanding of human nature. Most of us are not conscious of how powerful these cultural messages are. We have become so saturated with these limiting definitions that we have forgotten sexuality is much more than genital actions. It "is an enrichment of the whole person--body, emotions and soul" (FC, #37).

It is a fact that human beings are sexual people. We are born male or female. Although some will argue that cultural norms inform our gender roles, we cannot ignore the reality that gender has a bearing on how we think and act. We cannot and should not extract our sexuality from who we are--it's part of the whole package of being human. But let's think about the other elements of this package. We have intelligence, we can think and solve problems. We have reason, we can judge what is right and wrong. We have emotions, we know what we feel. We are social, we need one another. We also have a "something more" about us. To be human also involves ways of knowing and understanding which move beyond mere scientific explanations. We are creatures of faith, connected to the Divine. When we reflect upon our sexuality within the context of all these other elements we should be able to see that it is a mistake to think of our sexuality as existing on its own.

It is true that sexual feelings are powerful. That is a part of life. But why are they powerful? On the one hand we know that biologically, sexuality is directed to perpetuating the species. Human pro-creation is a primordial force. But like human nature itself, the ability to pro-create means more than its biological outcome. Within the context of human nature, pro-creation also speaks of our need to be in relation to each other--to build family, to have community. If we hope to live in a sexually mature way, our basic challenge in life is to integrate our sexual feelings with all other aspects of being human. If I as a single woman, for example, work along side of a married man to whom I am attracted, I should thank God for the goodness of this man and respect the boundaries of his life as a married man. In other words, unlike the soap operas, I would not even think of having an affair with him! Regardless of their state in life, others should treat him the same way. There are moral absolutes which shape our world and confront our individual desires. All of the great religions and philosophical systems confirm this. On the practical level this means that we have to work to properly develop in a healthy way. We need to exercise self discipline and avoid things which encourage negative sexual myths. We should avoid certain movies and music, and shun all violent and abusive materials, such as pornography. Living God's gift of human sexuality means that we have the challenge of "respectfully" directing this gift in "a manner reflective of our human dignity and God's gracious design." (Human Sexuality, pp. 13 & 14)

So how can single people celebrate God's gift of human sexuality? We can be thankful for our gender. We can honor the gift of fertility and the drive that makes us want to establish community--family. We can take this impulse to pro-create and apply it to becoming a more considerate, more loving people. We can respect the structures which God Himself has given us. We can center our very being in the mystery of Christ who can help us see that "sexuality appears . . . as a vocation to realize that love which the Holy Spirit instills in the hearts of the redeemed." (Educational Guidance in Human Love, #30)

Theresa Notare is the Special Assistant to the director of the Diocesan Development Program for NFP, a program of the NCCB's Committee for Pro-Life Activities.