Regarding Sex: Beyond Hedonic Ambivalence

In the next edition of the pastoral journal Leaven an article of mine will appear entitled Regarding Sex: Beyond Hedonic Ambivalence. This particular edition of Leaven will focus on sexuality and my contribution is an attempt to help frame some of the theological and psychological dilemmas churches face as they approach sexuality.

I make three moves in the paper. The first move is to suggest that because churches so rarely discuss sex the conversational and theological void is filled with a hodge-podge of (often implicit) assumptions, many of which create problems. As an example, here is a part of the paper:

Implicitly, many people believe that sexuality exists on an erotic continuum (e.g., from kissing to sexual intercourse). Many people also implicitly assume that “sin” is a binary category (an act or mental state is a sin, or it isn’t). Obviously, these two implicit theological assumptions create a disjoint when the binary category is applied to the continuum. Thus, the ubiquitous youth group conversations about where “the line” is to be drawn in sexual activity. Church leaders and parents are often frustrated by these questions, but they can also be at a loss about to how to proceed in a coherent fashion...

The second move I make in the paper is to suggest that the most influential and problematic implicit assumption regarding sexuality has to do with what I call hedonic ambivalence, spiritual worries over the uniquely pleasurable aspects of sex. I argue that many of the religious recommendations regarding sex are parsimoniously understood by their attempt to marginalize the hedonic aspects of sex , replacing pleasure with a more "spiritual" terminal goal (e.g., procreation). Implicitly, the assumption seems to be that holy sex should seek to marginalize pleasure. I go on to use this analytic perspective to examine religious opinion (Protestant and Catholic) across a variety of sexual behaviors. Here's a bit showing how the argument is applied to autoeroticism:

Hedonic ambivalence is also observed in mixed feelings regarding autoeroticism, or masturbation. Some Christian traditions prohibit the behavior. Other traditions don’t know what to do with the behavior, and thus pass over the topic in silence. This silence is troublesome in that autoeroticism is the most frequent sexual activity we humans engage in. My point here is not to render a moral verdict on autoerotic activity, but to examine the assumptions behind the warrants for prohibiting the activity. A common warrant is to cite the “pointlessness” of autoeroticism. The assumption here is that we wish to see sexual climax as having a “point,” a goal. Masturbation clearly has a goal—the achievement of pleasure—but this is deemed unsatisfactory and spiritually problematic.

Finally, in my third move, I suggest that more fruitful theological conversations regarding sex can be had if we intentionally move the focus from hedonics to harm. A taste of that argument:

...two of the Ten Commandments are explicitly focused on managing sexual relationships: “Do not commit adultery” and “Do not covet your neighbor’s wife.” If we reflect on God’s goals in the Ten Commandments we grasp that God is calling out and creating a new kind of community. This suggests that God’s main concerns regarding human sexuality are more sociological than hedonic. That is, God’s concerns over sexual activity appear to be less concerned with the fact that sex is pleasurable, and more to do with issues involving the violation of social contracts (Do not commit adultery) and the reduction of sexual rivalry (Do not covet your neighbor’s wife).

Look forward to this edition of Leaven, not just for my piece but for the other contributions as well. I'll let you know when this issue of Leaven is out, after which I'd be happy to forward a copy of the article to any interested readers.

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23 thoughts on “Regarding Sex: Beyond Hedonic Ambivalence”

  1. Richard,

    I'm a reader from Germany and I don't have the opportunity to get a copy of the Leaven.
    It'll be great if you could sent the article to Arnachie[at]
    (After the issue is out...)


  2. I've enjoyed browsing through your site and am interested in the article. Could you send it to me?

  3. If Larry was late I may well have missed the bus =)

    But if the bus is still oprational I'd love a copy of the article. This may help me in some interesting conversations of late around Christian Sexual Practice pre and post marriage... how do we deal with issues created around the common aproach of turning "off" sexually pre-marriage only to be told to turn "on" post marriage. If if successful in "turning off" it seems there are growing issues in "turning back on again" for marital bliss.

  4. Again, a belated request for more. This is fascinating stuff, as indeed is everything that you share here. Thank you so much for your grace and erudition.

  5. Dr. Beck,
    I am a recent arrival to your blog so am playing catch up. I would love to have a copy of your Leaven article ( Thank you for sharing.

  6. Dr. Beck,
    Would you please email me a copy of your article. Thank you. (

  7. Just found the blog - has some great stuff on it. Would be really interested in reading the article. Would you please be able to email me a copy?  (wrightd33[at]

  8. I apologize for being one of those latecomers popping on to your blog, but if you're able to, I'd love to receive a copy of your paper. Your teaser was pretty tantalizing! docsabato at gmail dot com
    Thank you! 

  9. Dr. Beck,
    I'm a new reader of your blog and so far I love it! I realize that this a bit late, but if possible would you please email me a copy of the article?

  10. Hello Dr. Beck. I am one of your students and if it is still possible I would like to receive a copy of your article

  11. Hello, if I still can, I'd like a copy of this article as well (sparklypixie [at] gmail). Thank you!

  12. Dr Beck, was curious if you could send me a copy please, matthew.j.haden [at]

  13. Would it be possible to have the full article sent to me? I realize I'm five years behind, but it would be lovely to read. laurenellisonjames [at] Many thanks!

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