Wendell Berry – What is Sex For?

Wendell_berry Wendell Berry is perhaps best known as a writer of essays and stories about community, stewardship, and the values that should undergird them. He is also the author of at least one somewhat unconventional love story: Jayber Crow. To be sure, only a small part of the tale is devoted to romance, and the romance barely registers even on those pages. But it is by no means a gratuitous part of the novel. Jayber falls in love with a married woman whom he vows to love from afar. Her husband is unfaithful to her and to the land on which they live. Jayber seeks to be faithful to both, and his love for her is of the same stuff as his love for their community. It is, to say the least, an uncommonly provocative tale.

Shortly after the publication of Jayber Crow in 2001, Modern Reformation magazine sought Mr. Berry out for an interview on the subject “What is Sex For?” It serves as a nice counterpoint to Naomi Wolf’s “The Porn Myth” I blogged on last week.

Last week, referring to C.S. Lewis, I said that “Sex is the means to the end of intimacy.” Berry rightly reminds us that sex alone cannot create intimacy.

“Intimacy has the sense of 'inmost,' as in inmost knowledge. So there can be such a thing as unintimate sex. Sex is certainly an intimate part of marriage, but surely it is no more intimate than all the rest that is implied by 'living together.' The best possibility of marriage is that intimacy and love might exist together, that a person can be known with the inmost knowledge by another person and yet be loved. When older people recommend marriage to the young, they are wishing for them that their loneliness might find an answer in this intimate love.”

“I think, too, that there are degrees and kinds of intimacy that cannot be represented in art. To represent directly a couple making love, if they are to be taken seriously as lovers, seems to me as presumptuous and disrespectful and false as to represent a person praying alone.”

In order to be understood and appreciated, Berry argued, sex needs to be part of a bigger story.

“Sex is not a story in itself. It has interest, meaning, even power, only when it is understood as part of a story. To divide sex from fertility is to divide it from its story and make it an end in itself. That is what lust and pornography do: they make sex an end in itself.”

“But sexual love, to achieve its full goodness and beauty and power, needs the amplitude of a story. It joins husband and wife together, joins them to their fertility, to their children and grandchildren; for its sake the couple makes a home, a household, an economy, which joins them to the fertility of the world, to the generosity of God. Sexual love can do this, or it can fail to do this, but its success or failure is a story.”

It should come as no surprise to us, then, to learn that in Berry’s opinion, the best romantic relationships are the ones that are the result of the most work.

“To say that our participation in sexuality ought to involve us in the work of marriage making, family making, homemaking, etc., does not detract from the sexual pleasure and implies no necessary insult to the work. Do we assume that we get to the pleasure of eating only after the hardship of farming or gardening and cooking and before the hardship of cleaning up the kitchen? If so, why eat? The popular idea that we must dread and drudge and sacrifice for the sake only of a few widely scattered moments of pleasure is an argument for suicide.”

“It seems to me that we have an obligation to take a legitimate or undestructive pleasure in all the world’s pleasurable things, and that the pleasure does have a kind of primacy. If we took no pleasure in them, why should we be troubled to take care of them or use them well?”

I recommend Wendell Berry’s interview to you and his novel Jayber Crow as well. 

Read the full interview here.