An initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Sensuality: Love and Responsibility Series (Post #9)

Sensuality as Impression:
In his section on sensuality, Wojtyla looks at what happens when a man and a woman “make an impression” on each other. With this phrase, we are saying more than that Harry and Sally met; We are saying that this meeting left an impression. Harry walked away with a mental picture of what Sally looked like; Sally left with a memory of what Harry sounded like (for example). The impression was spontaneous—it happened to them, they didn’t do it to themselves—but it linked up with an intellectual acknowledgement, such as, “He/she is attractive; maybe we could get together.”

The immediate reaction is what Wojtyla calls sensuality. “Sensuality is not just a matter of male x becoming aware of female y through his senses, or vice versa. Sensuality always implies experiencing a particular value bound up with this sensory awareness. Specifically we are concerned with a sexual value, connected above all with the body of a person of the other sex.”[1] Sensuality by itself, Wojtyla says, has a “consumer orientation,”[i] being aimed at a body and not a person; in this way it can interfere with noticing and knowing the person as they truly are.

Sensual Reaction is Natural:
Wojtyla is quick to point out that a sensual reaction is natural, not evil; it is a “reflex.”[ii] A healthy body reacts with sensuality because of the biological facts of human existence (man + woman = baby) and it is in and through the body that these facts are experienced. Sexual attraction to another person reaches consciousness “where the impression is accompanied by an emotion experienced not only mentally but bodily. Sensuality is connected with the stirrings of the body, especially in its so-called erogenous zones.”[iii] This kind of spontaneous bodily reaction is particularly strong in men. Wojtyla notes that a man’s bodily reactions “would give man all the guidance he needs in his sexual life”[iv] if he were only an animal, driven by instinct to another animal. But man is called to exercise his freedom and self-control.

The sensual reactions of the body can pose a threat to true love when they “devalue the person”[v] by seeing the other as an object. This is why the conscience is often stirred by sensual reactions—a man (or a woman) knows that this reaction does not do full justice to the person in front of them. They may be embarrassed by it. But sensuality can be understood as the “raw material” for love, when it is integrated into a full human relationship.

 

Wojtyla notes that sensuality, since it is focused only on a body, is notoriously fickle. It turns easily from one person to the next. A man who goes to a bar and “checks out” every woman who walks in the door is a prime example of someone seemingly ruled by sensuality. Wojtyla also notes that a person may react sensually to a body that is not present (consider pornography) and that sensuality may “insinuate itself into [a] situation ‘uninvited,’”[vi] such as when an artist is painting a nude model (and has no intention of using her sexually). These reactions make life complicated!

Lest a person who is naturally more sensual (reacting swiftly or strongly to the other sex) be led to despair, Wojtyla notes at the end of this section that, “An exuberant and ready roused sensuality is the stuff from which a rich—if difficult—personal life may be made.”[vii] An ardent temperament can lead to an ardent love.

 

[1] Wojtyla, Karol. Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 105.

[i] Ibid, p. 105.

[ii] Ibid, p. 106.

[iii] Ibid, p. 107.

[iv] Ibid, p. 107.

[v] Ibid, p. 107.

[vi] Ibid, p. 109.

[vii] Ibid, p. 109.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *