My missionary buddies and I accepted the strictures of the Law of Chastity. We agreed that masturbation was wrong. But we still looked forward to the day when our sexual needs could be met within marriage.
In the Spring 2013 issue of SquareTwo, S. Matthew Stearmer wrote “A Reflection on the Cultural Construction of Sexual 'Needs.'” He made three important points: 1. “Sex is not intimacy.” 2. “Even in marriage, sex does not necessarily lead to unity . . . it can even become a distraction from our true goal, if we conflate the two.” 3. “No spouse should feel obligated to meet the other’s sexual 'needs.' Such a mistaken sense of obligation removes the potential for open and honest communication, which is the hallmark of a unified celestial marriage.”
These points are well and good, or at least the first two are quite solid, and the first is truer than we might want to admit. They can and should be defended on their own merits. But his essay suffered from the regrettable insistence on defining a need as something that a human organism can't live without, like food or water. A human body can survive indefinitely without sexual intercourse, ergo, there really is no such thing as sexual needs. QED.
It’s easier to condemn men's boorish and selfish behavior towards women when you feel you've taken away any justification for it, but a narrow definition of needs as what you can't live without is simplistic thinking and sets bad precedent. Nor is it quite clear to me exactly how a sense of obligation must remove even the potential for open and honest communication. In those who feel a sense of duty and selflessness (which are much more pervasive messages in church than sexual needs), obligation is of course a formidable obstacle to open and honest expression of their thoughts and feelings, and maybe duty and selflessness are just other faces of obligation. They certainly do walk hand in hand.
It is true that too many people use the word “need” in thoughtless ways, like when a teacher tells a child “you need to sit still in your seat” when what he really means is: “I have the right to tell you what to do and I am going to force you to sit still in that seat that I chose for you in the first place. You have no say in the matter, because I don't trust you or accept your wishes as worthy of respect.” That goes beyond any social construction of needs: that's downright Orwellian.
A teacher might say “I need all your eyes on me!” when what she really means is “I demand that you all watch me because I am in charge!” Of course she may also believe that the children really need to hear whatever she has to say, if they are to learn. She may believe that children are naturally so feckless that they can't think or learn without constant adult supervision, measurement and intervention. Here is where a socially constructed need works the other way: instead of men justifying betrayal or coercion on the basis of their own needs, adults justify coercion on the basis of needs they project onto children. They silence children so that they can speak for those projected needs and feel good about themselves as virtuous, dedicated saviors of children.
Meanwhile, what the children really need is more play. Or do they? After all, they can survive just fine being kept in chairs six hours a day. They should be grateful if you give them recess.
Do children need affection or respect:? Well, the human body can survive indefinitely without smiles, hugs, play, understanding and all those softie sorts of things. We can say that children's so-called “need” for love is just a social construct, a product of the swelling tide of permissiveness that saps our national vigor. Let's have stricter laws, more rigorous school rules and longer hours, and harsher punishments! You could even point to the prowess of military states like Sparta or Prussia as proof that what children really need to make a great nation is a tough and harsh upbringing, unspoiled by soft doting. That is exactly why we have schools where teachers tell children that they “need” to stay in their seats and be quiet, even if they think they're being soft and nurturing by rescuing the children from their natural deficiencies.
Such are the questions we raise when we look past a facile definition of needs, which was clearly not on the agenda in Stearmer's article. My objections along these lines in an earlier draft of this essay elicited this comment from the editorial staff of SquareTwo:
No matter how beautiful, intimate, or bonding sex could be, if it is defined as a need then it inherently comes with the right to demand. As we have counseled with other couples it has been our experience that the definition of sex as a need - when combined with all the complexities of an intimate relationship - this shaky foundation will almost inevitably lead to insecurities, breakdowns, and conflict. . . . If we continue to insist on sex as a need it leads to some rather disturbing conclusions . . . We feel this foundation and its offspring must be rejected. Sex can be something that we desire, it can be important, it can be natural - but if we define it as a need then it moves beyond the negotiated space and begins to place inappropriate demands on the other partner. Always. (Private email)
That got me thinking about another lyrical re-write, this time of that Meat Loaf song:
I want you,
I love you,
there ain't no way I'm ever gonna need you.
Now let's be glad, 'cause 'needing' sex is bad.