The Quest for the Meaning of Sex
How the movie Don Jon helps us identify what sexual pleasure is really about
Last month, I saw the movie Don Jon. You may have heard of it — or heard others talk about it. The character development and story line are a great commentary on our modern hookup culture. And as we would expect, it’s full of lots of nudity and sex scenes. If you are trying to stay chaste, or even avoid porn yourself, then don’t see this movie. Despite the sexual content, what makes this movie great is its quest for the meaning of sex.
In the film we meet the typical (or stereotypical) single Italian Catholic man, Jon Martello, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Jon is stuck: He loves women, but he loves porn more. He and his buddies go out at night hoping to hook up, dissecting women based on a grading scale of their physical forms. Jon has his standard operating procedures for procuring a woman for his bed: a sexy look from across the room, followed by dirty dancing moves, followed by his make-out moves, followed by a ride home, then what appears to be great sex. Until, that is, he wakes up somehow unsatisfied, and seeks out his computer and a favorite porn scene. Jon says he can “lose himself” in porn, and having sex with an actual woman is simply a lot more work.
Then Jon meets Barb, the girl of his dreams — sexy and sassy. Only problem: She won’t have sex with him. Well, at least not until they meet each other’s friends and family. She brags that she has made him wait a whole two months. And while Jon’s hiding his porn fantasies, she is watching porn for women: romantic comedies. He dreams of unending orgasms. She dreams of a wedding dress and lifelong commitment. The sexual chemistry between them keeps the couple together long enough to fall in love. Until she discovers that Jon can’t live without porn, and she can’t live with it.
So is sex just body parts put together for the purpose of producing pleasure? The movie makes the point that porn is not “real sex,” because the actors are pretending and those watching are simply pleasing themselves. Isn’t sex meant to be an act where you lose yourself — not in yourself, but in another person? By the end of the movie, we see Jon realizing that he doesn’t want to hook up every night; instead he prefers to “make love” in a meaningful relationship, although (unfortunately) one that clearly has no long-term possibilities.
Both of these options tell us sex is meant for the end purpose of pleasure or escapism. Problem is, the unity of two bodies into one has much greater meaning than the movie could ever hope for. Sex was created for pleasure, but also for fulfillment. Sex is meant not only to draw two people together, but to hold them together in a lifelong commitment. Great sex is a total and complete offering to each other, one that is open to life and happens within the safe haven of a lifelong commitment.
We know it doesn’t always work that way. But we also know that when it doesn’t, great pain is involved. Pain is God’s megaphone telling us something is wrong. The pain of the breakup; the pain of the people involved in the porn industry; the pain of a marriage torn apart by lust and infidelity; the pain of divorce; the pain of STDs and unwanted pregnancy: all these things tell us that something is wrong with the “sex is pleasure” philosophy. You won’t see any of this pain in Don Jon, or just about any movie out of big Hollywood studios these days. But if you have lived long enough to have been part of a single twentysomething crowd like that in Don Jon, chances are you or someone close to you will experience it.
One of my favorite quotes from Pope John Paul II is about porn. He says the problem with porn is not that it shows too much, the problem is that it shows too little: a person separated from a body. Our bodies are made sacred, not because they aren’t meant for pleasure and great sex, but because they embody the soul. And when we use another’s body, or our own, for the simple end of pleasure, we are degrading our inherent dignity.
Don Jon does catch a glimpse of this truth — that sex is much more fulfilling when it includes a connection with another person. As Catholics, we have access to a love story much greater than the one we get in this movie. We hold out for the hope of true love, one that accepts us for all of our parts — including our faith, our values, our hopes, our failings, and our bodies. So when we choose to wait to have sex, it’s not to get something in return. It’s a gift we give to our future partner and to ourselves, to embody the true meaning of sex.