Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Should we be “desirable” … or “sexy”?

  • Sexy adj. /ˈsɛksi/ From sex (Middle French sexe < Latin sexus (gender); thought to be connected with Latin seco, secare (divide, cut) by the concept of division, or “half” of the race) + -y — 1: sexually suggestive or stimulating; erotic. 2: generally attractive or interesting; appealing.
  • Desirable adj. /di-ˈzī-rə-bəl/ From desire (Middle English desiren < Old French desirer < Latin desiderare, orig., prob., to await from the stars < de-, from + sidus, star) + -able — 1: having pleasing qualities or properties; attractive. 2: worth seeking or doing as advantageous, beneficial, or wise; advisable.

If there’s a clear line between sexy and desirable, finding it is challenging enough.

Consider the picture of Penélope Cruz at left: I found the picture when I searched Bing for images of “desirable”. There’s no doubt she’s one of the most beautiful women in the world today. Sexy, yes, beyond shadow of a reasonable doubt. But without unnecessarily vilipending Ms. Cruz (since I don’t know her personally) — is she really desirable?

A certain kind of trousered ape, a type all too familiar to us, would answer, “Well, yeah! Duh! Who wouldn’t like to wake up to that in the morning?” This is precisely the attitude that gets us the perennial female complaint, “Men are pigs!” And, unfortunately, even the best of us aren’t so far from the trousered ape that we don’t wonder what Ms. Cruz would look like with bed hair, no makeup and the sleep still in her eyes.

Chalk it up either to our fallen nature and farblondjet sexual ethos that the traits which make a woman a desirable wife, or a man a desirable husband, don’t always make him/her a desirable sexual partner (and vice-versa). Women are constantly bewailing the fact that they fall too easily for insensitive, uncaring jerks. Men are constantly grumping that their lovers are either clinging, weeping masters of learned helplessness or stone-cutting harridans. “Serial monogamy” occurs when people don’t learn from their mistakes; they don’t learn from their mistakes because nobody else points them out; nobody else points them out because they too are erring in the same fashion.

Our trousered ape is a perfect example of one aspect of the Mistake: The bedroom is only one room of the house. Put differently, sexy is only one component — and not even the most important component — of desirable. Whether I would really want to wake up next to Penélope Cruz in the morning would very much depend on what kind of person she was the night before; I might prefer to see her wake up in jail or an asylum.

Or, in a fit of gallantry, I might prefer to wake up on the couch, ceding her the bed as befits a gentleman … especially so long as her husband, Javier Bardem, still lives. A ring doesn’t plug a bullet hole.

Make no mistake, God made a place for eros in human life. Indeed, the Song of Songs is redolent with sexual imagery:

How graceful are your feet in sandals,
     O queenly maiden!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels,
     the work of a master hand.
Your navel is a rounded bowl
     that never lacks mixed wine.
Your belly is a heap of wheat,
     encircled with lilies.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
     twins of a gazelle.
Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes are pools in Heshbon,
     by the gate of Bath-rabbim.
Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon,
     overlooking Damascus.
Your head crowns you like Carmel,
     and your flowing locks are like purple;
     a king is held captive in the tresses.
How fair and pleasant you are,
     O loved one, delectable maiden!
You are stately as a palm tree,
     and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree
     and lay hold of its branches.
Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
     and the scent of your breath like apples,
and your kisses like the best wine
     that goes down smoothly,
     gliding over lips and teeth (Song 7:1-9).

But eros isn’t a part of our makeup for its own sake. Neither do we pursue people of the opposite sex only for the release of that psychic tension we call “being horny”. Indeed, if (unlike the trousered ape) we possess some degree of reflection, we realize we’re playing the long game: marriage and reproduction.

The truth is, both men and women will put up with so-so sex as long as other parts of the relationship are solid and valuable. So long as the woman we wake up next to is someone who completes us and whom we cherish, she doesn’t have to have the obvious physical beauty of Penélope Cruz or the sexual prowess of Shyla Stylez. So the other part of the Mistake is not so much putting too much emphasis on sex but rather putting the wrong emphasis on it, like a screenwriter who puts the ride off into the sunset near the beginning of the story rather than in the final scene.

Given that eros helps pull us together for our participation in God’s creation, while sex may hold a rocky marriage together, it takes other personal skills to remove the majority of the rocks. Compassion, commitment, a sense of humor, strong moral values, concern for others, responsibility — such traits can and do make us attractive to our spouses even as the wear-and-tear of time chips away from the beauty of our youth.

To wrap this up: It’s not really a question of whether we should seek to be desirable rather than sexy. Rather, we should first remember that sexiness is only one variable in the desirability equation.

To what end should we be desired? Not simply for night’s passion, but for a lifetime and a family … to cleave to each other and become one flesh (Gen 2:24; cf. Mk 10:7-8).