The Universal Search for Affection – Looking For Love in Some of the Wrong Places

It probably begins in utero when hearing awareness first develops. The baby inside, safe and wet and warm, hears the noises of activity nearby, but at first they are just sounds. Later they may register as soothing or frightening depending on the goings on outside. The squeezing pressure of the uterus at delivery and the chaos in the delivery room must be bewildering and scary. The newborn has to be terrified, gasping for air, hearing its own voice, and feeling it vibrating inside for the first time while freezing cold. Having no language, there’s little else to do except holler. Finally being held close to mother’s chest must feel a little soothing until being snatched away for the first bath. Terror and the hollering returns.

It isn’t long before the newborn makes fuzzy eye contact with mom and begins imprinting with her. When vision clears up, the bond increases and baby begins to crave her warm caresses and kisses. Soon that feeling and sense of belonging likely extends to others in the family especially when they demonstrate their love with reassuring smiles and playful gestures and touches. In a healthy family, love for mom and dad and brothers and sisters flourishes for life. If the newborn is a boy, affection is shown to him in masculine terms like “That’s my big boy” or “Look at my little buddy” or “Come ’ere, Pal, let me hold you.” For girls, the tone is different: “There’s my little sweetie pie” or “She’s so sweet” or “That’s Daddy’s little angel.” Gender identification begins early.

Testosterone is one of the principal hormones whose effect on boys’ brains helps determine some of their behaviors as toddlers, young children, adolescents, and adult men which distinguishes them from their female counterparts (Hines, M. Human gender development. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2020;118:89-96). Socialization also influences gender identity. For example, parents, other children, and teachers encourage kids to play with toys which are considered gender-appropriate. Once they know they are girls or boys they tend to imitate the behavior and model the object and play choices of their own gender more than that of opposite gender in the course of their childhood.

Gender identity is obviously complicated and multifactorial. Nevertheless, most people who have male-typical external genitalia think of themselves as boys or men and most people who have female-typical external genitalia do not. Moreover, their childhood reflects these self-images. Along with that development comes the strong yearning to fit in—to be liked by someone. There is a natural attraction for others who share the same interests and even more for those who are talented or popular. These feelings are the rudiments of affection and more. A very healthy kind of bond develops among boys and men who are able to share their ideas and dreams, find a similar sense of humor, laugh at life’s circumstances, and join in the same activities. For girls and women it’s likely identical, but I won’t presume to speak for them. A few of these relationships become lifelong friendships.

The sometimes vocal minority who dispute their anatomic gender assignment are considered to have gender dysphoria and are convinced it occurred in utero or before.  Because many come from families which would be considered dysfunctional, the truth of that opinion is far from settled and continues to be the subject of genetic, sociologic, and neurologic research. Nevertheless, these individuals, too, have a normal desire to fit in and there is no reason to believe that they cannot bond with others of like mind and develop lifelong affection for them.

Children are naturally curious about their own anatomy and that of persons of the same or opposite gender and are likely to compare and contrast openly or surreptitiously. Reprimands from parents or surrogates and older siblings for fondling themselves or purposeful, mischievous leering at others’ private parts establish in them certain norms of behavior as right or wrong, but it is doubtful if most children are capable of actual sin. As they begin to participate in various family faith traditions during their elementary school years, foundational morality develops.

What is considered immoral varies widely among churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples and their representative private schools. Such mores can be stringently or leniently reinforced by parental figures. At home a growing child is likely to feel most secure and safe if the natural affection they have for mom and dad is returned without strings attached. Thankfully, most parents have unconditional love for their children and show it daily. However, some children are not exposed to any faith traditions and are raised by parents whose priorities are elsewhere. As a result, the lines between perceptions of good and evil are extremely blurred and the search for affection from someone never wanes.

The surge of adolescent hormones brings with it striking changes in anatomy, sexual fantasies, morning erections, and nocturnal emissions. Self-exploration leads to unprecedented, pleasurable moments and yearnings to repeat them in secret and to cautiously joke about these actions to classmates and friends. Although both parents had the same experiences years ago, embarrassment prevents most of them from broaching these subjects with their children. The majority are content with leaving questions about the biology to educators and the morality to religious leaders. However, the personal views of both teachers and preachers are widely disparate and also tempered by their own experiences.

Given the thousands of religious denominations, it may be worthwhile to examine the oldest Christian religion because it has clearly articulated beliefs about the human sex drive. It is probable that some may view the teachings of the Catholic Church with regard to sexuality as far too extreme and prohibitive. Nevertheless, they originate from the Church’s definition of chastity referred to as a virtue characterized by the successful integration of a person’s sexuality into who they are– bodily and spiritually (CCC 2337). Anatomically, the purpose is obvious. According to Catholicism, when it is used as a complete and lifelong gift of love and the possible procreation of new life between a man and a woman and God, that purpose brings genuine integrity to the married couple and not mere physical pleasure and release. Indeed, it is impossible for God who is love (1 Jn 4:16) to be connected with any act which is not loving and holy. The marital act ideally then will foster that loving relationship to God. It is therefore absurd that casual or group sex, pleasuring oneself, rape, bestiality, or incest– by either gender, designated or desired, would fit easily into God’s loving use for our genitalia.

Be that as it may, an orgasmic climax is among life’s most powerful sensations and its unique pleasure is indelibly written into the human memory. Understandably, the desire to experience it repeatedly in many forms or sometimes any form is strong, especially among young people. Older persons, too, can easily recall and ruminate about the intimate encounters of long ago. Moreover, for young and old, innumerable sources of arousal are part of our daily experience on television, the movies, smart phones, and the internet. Attractive people can hardly be avoided in any walk of life and it takes effort not to fantasize about them, especially when they purposely flaunt their good looks.

God has anticipated our need to resist a life of dissipation, and offers us that grace-giving gift of chastity.  A chaste life has its foundation in the waters of Baptism in which the Holy Spirit calls all to imitate the purity of Christ (CCC 2345). This virtue does not develop immediately for hardly any of us. We who desire to seek it, often find it a difficult and lifelong pursuit as we learn to master ourselves and govern our passions. Accordingly, failings in the realm of chastity must be among the most frequent admissions priests hear in the confessional whether from the laity or even from other priests. Success or genuine progress brings with it the blessing of a healthy, inner peace.

Those who completely reject God’s assistance or are agnostics or atheists are unlikely to be able to rein in their desires and are destined for a life of chaos and unhappiness for themselves and their families. However, most of us were raised in religious traditions. Even if some of us have strayed from those spiritual roots, there likely will remain a nagging deep inside which tells us that when we have used another person of the same or opposite gender primarily for sexual gratification we have wronged ourselves, wronged the other person, and if we still believe, offended God. If that were not intrinsically evil, why would we hide the prurient details from those we love? Why would we bother to confess them to a priest? Why would some of us so vehemently and vociferously argue for various forms of sexual release as normal variants? With apologies to Shakespeare, “The ladies (and the gentlemen) protest too much, methinks.” At a minimum, our actions have been beneath our dignity as a human.

The reality remains that 7.1% of people in the U.S. identify as not heterosexual. In fact, one in five in generation Z (adults born after 1997) identify as LGBT with bisexual being most common (Gallup). The absence of proof notwithstanding, most would claim they were born that way. According to a 2020 report from the Williams Institute of UCLA Law School, half of them consider themselves religious. It can be cautiously assumed that religious people like these continue to believe they are called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself…”(Mark 12:30-31). One might ask those believers whether the orgasmic pleasure derived from same-gender or bisexual sexual intercourse can possibly be an expression of that love for God and love of neighbor and whether chastity in those relationships is even possible.

It might be argued that a loving relationship without sexual intimacy between a same-gender, religious couple can be chaste. That form of affection would be analogous to best friends who are roommates. In contrast, what about openly gay people who exchange vows in religious services who thereafter pleasure one another in sundry ways? How would those couples compare their union to that of a religious man and woman married by a rabbi, mullah, minister, or a priest? Would God accept as holy any and all ceremonies asking for his witness because he does not discriminate?

I won’t attempt to convince those who are certain there is no God or are disinterested agnostics. Sexual gratification to them among consenting adults is limited only by their imagination. Such activity can provide the superficial and short-lived, physical pretense of affection.

Usually focused on our families and friends, we can and should save some room in our prayer life for our troubled, gender-dysphoric brothers and sisters and pray that they will find God and love in all the right places before they “face their final curtain.” Believers or not, He loves them with the same intensity that He loves each of us and that kind of affection comes with available, overabundant grace. Few of them realize that the grace to seek him was implanted before they were conceived. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”(Jer 1:5).  It is even more certain than their gender at birth.  But God has given us free will and will provide all the evidence and grace we need to believe and to master our desires to please him, but He will not force us. May that freely given gift not be labeled by any of us, “Return to Sender.”