Sean McDowell | November 24, 2015

Has Sex Lost Its Meaning?

A friend of mine has sex with a lot of women. He has completely bought the idea of the hookup culture, which says you can simply have sex with someone, and then move on with your life as if nothing significant happened. Last time we talked, he bragged about the number of women he’s pursuing. I asked him if the act of sex means anything to him or the girls he’s sleeping with. He nonchalantly said, “No, it’s just for fun. The act itself doesn’t really mean anything.” No matter what I said, he refused to concede that sex had any meaning beyond the physical act itself.

The next time we talked I decided to broach the subject another way. I asked him if he believes a pat on the back means anything. He said it communicates support. To follow up, I asked him if a kiss on the cheek has any meaning, and he said it shows care and affection. Finally, I asked him whether a slap on the face had intrinsic meaning, and he said it’s an insult. He agreed these have transcultural meaning, even when they’re expressed without any words.

For whatever reason, my next question caught him off guard: “If a kiss on the cheek, slap on the face, and pat on the back have intrinsic meaning, how can the act of sex—which is the most intimate physical act two people can commit—not mean anything beyond itself?” He simply stared at me, and then chuckled, realizing I had a point.

One of the lies of the sexual revolution is that sex is merely a physical act with no meaning beyond itself. Our hookup culture propagates the lie that you can give someone your body, but that it doesn’t affect your soul. And yet deep inside we know this isn’t satisfying or true. The myriads of sexually active young people, who feel lonely and used, reveal this lie. We know that sex is meant to be a life-giving act that unites two people on the deepest level.

Despite its protestations to the contrary, our culture really does know that sex is profoundly meaningful. There has been a date rape crisis on campus for the past few years. In fact, California governor Jerry Brown recently signed a new bill that requires participants to provide conscious consent before engaging in sexual activity.

This raises an important question: Why is unwanted sexual activity such a big deal in the first place? People find themselves in unwanted situations regularly. For example, has your boyfriend ever taken you out for Mexican food when you really wanted Italian, or to an action movie when you wanted a romance? Why don’t colleges offer “action movie date” crisis centers for students who are traumatized after seeing a B-rated action flick?

Dr. Roback Morse says, “Posing this absurd comparison between unwanted sex and unwanted activities of other kinds helps us to see that there really is something unique about sex. The whole premise of the sexual revolution is that sex is just another recreational activity. But the proliferation of date rape crisis centers demonstrates that no one really believes this” (Smart Sex, 105).

Either sex means something or it doesn’t. On one hand, our culture minimizes sex as just another physical act. On the other hand, date rape is considered a significant violation (as it should be). Yet, if sex is just another act, then why make such a big deal about date rape in particular? Why is it any worse than, say, being taken out for bad food or a lousy movie on a date? It is much worse, and we all know it. The reason is not merely because it is unwanted, but the kind of unwanted thing it is.

The reality is that physical touch is a powerful means of human communication. That’s why Jesus touched the leper. He could have healed him through words alone, as he did the paralytic, but Jesus knew what the affection-starved leper needed most—touch (Mark 1:40-44). And Jesus touched him in the most appropriate, life-giving way.

Physical touch does mean something. A kiss means something. Holding hands means something. A hug communicates something. Sex means something too. If you think you can have sex with multiple people without communicating something deeply significant, you’re only fooling yourself. Sex does mean something. And every honest person knows this is true.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: