The other day, someone quoted Ephesians 5 at me:
3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
If I understand her properly, she took this to mean that it is wrong to use coarse language in general, and she's probably right about this. Mea culpa. (I'm working on it: just the other day, I heard myself using "Sam-I-am" as an expletive, as in, "Sam-I-am, this chili is spicy!" This strikes me as more weird than virtuous, but I guess it's an improvement.)
I also agree with her that it's wrong to be disgusting, to corrupt innocent minds, or to tempt people into sin with words. But she also believes that it's always wrong to make jokes about sex, even privately with your own spouse -- that it's wrong even to speak of sex in terms that are not reverent, solemn, and exalted.
This is nuts. It's like telling me to enjoy my meal, but without using my nose. Yeah, taste is of primary concern when we're eating, but we can't just ignore the other cues that normally functioning people pick up when they're eating. Normally functioning people laugh about sex at least some of the time.
I'll go further: if you can't laugh about sex, then you're doing it wrong. Maybe you've been so damaged by suffering or abuse that the whole thing cannot be separated from psychological pain; or maybe you're just taking yourself way too seriously. But for the standard issue, mildly neurotic, moderately messed up, original sin-damaged, salvation-seeking, temptation-fighting, humility-seeking, minimally humorous human being, laughing about sex is the sign of good emotional and spiritual health.
I'll go even further: when we're laughing about anything, we're really laughing about sex. My theory is that there are two things which make a joke really funny: the element of surprise -- of being put off balance unexpectedly -- and at least a grain of sadness. And that describes sex to a T.
Don't get me wrong! My general attitude toward sex can be reflected in the following statement: "WHOOPEE!" But there's a reason why it's the one thing that everyone has wanted to talk about since forever. I mean, there you are, either having a wonderful time, and/or joyfully contemplating the mysteries of procreation, and then right in the middle of the steaming and the making and the smelling and the baking, tragedy -- or at least gravity -- pokes through. This disruption, this intrusion, isn't what spoils the joke of sex: it's what makes it funny.
I'm not just talking about intercourse. Human sexuality is about so much more than that. It's about the incredibly weird cosmic joke that two things work together only when they're opposites of each other. It's about the baffling irony that innuendo speaks louder than frankness. It's the dance between power and helplessness, and the eye-popping switcheroo when you realize that the balance has silently and profoundly shifted. It's the fearful delight of discovering yet more doors to open. And the blessed defeat when you discover that sometimes, you'll only get what you need once you give up grasping for it so hungrily.
These constantly renewed incongruities of sexuality are tragic . . . and they're funny. As C.S. Lewis says in The Four Loves,
...I can hardly help regarding it as one of God's jokes, that a passion so soaring, so apparently transcendent as Eros should be thus linked in incongruous symbiosis with a bodily appetite, which, like any other appetite, tactlessly reveals its connections with such mundane factors as weather, health, diet, circulation and digestion. In Eros at times we seem to be flying; Venus gives us the sudden twitch that reminds us we are really captive balloons. It is a continual demonstration of the truth that we are composite creatures, rational animals, akin on one side to the angels, on the other to tom-cats. (The Four Loves, 100)
It's not just that we may laugh about sex; it's that, at some point, we must. Lewis continues:
It is a bad thing not to be able to take a joke. Worse, not to take a divine joke; made, I grant you, at our expense, but also (who doubts it?) for our endless benefit. (100)
So, how do we tell the difference between just being obscene, getting a little silly, and graciously appreciating a joke that God, with the help of Adam and Eve, designed Himself?
Lewis to the rescue again. He has Screwtape teaching the junior demon:
There are some for whom ‘no passion is as serious as lust’ and for whom an indecent story ceases to produce lasciviousness precisely in so far as it becomes funny: there are others in whom laughter and lust are excited at the same moment and by the same things. The first sort of joke about sex because it gives rise to many incongruities: the second cultivate incongruities because they afford a pretext to talk about sex. (The Screwtape Letters, Letter #11)
So if you are wondering if you sin by speaking as you do, you could ask yourself: where does the humor arise from? What is its aim, and what is its result? Does it make me or another person ugly and perverse? Or is it simply to remind us of the angel/tom cat creatures that we really are? Does it make us turn away from the light? Or does is merely acknowledge that all sorts of things are revealed when the lights are on?