Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Just Sex

There are two sides to the modern North American hysteria about sex. One is the side that we get to hear about all the time in the Catholic press: the hysteria about how sex is so great, so much fun, so liberating, so all-pervasively important to human life, etc. etc. That is, the hysteria that fueled the sexual revolution.
The other side of the coin, however, is the Catholic over-sanctification of sex. A problem that I’ve encountered enough times to think that it’s probably a quiet, underground endemic within the Catholic community, is the problems of Catholics – especially Catholic women – feeling that sex is somehow wrong, dirty, or dehumanizing if it is anything less than the scintillatingly personalistic vision of fleshly union that appears in the writings of John Paul II and Christopher West.
It’s just sex. If you don’t have it, it’s not the end of the world. If you do have it, and it’s rushed, mediocre, and half-asleep, it’s not the end of the world. A lot of the time, you end up with a situation where there is a strong biological imperative to make love on the part of one spouse, and a total lack of interest on the part of the other. This isn’t reductionistic and selfish, it’s just biology. (Worth noting: if you’re a young woman, and you’re frustrated with feeling that you’re just being used as a sex object to fulfill your husband’s depersonalizing sexual demands, baby, your turn is coming...)
“But hold!” my Catholic feminist interlocutor cries out, “Are you saying that I have to allow my body to be used as an object of male lust just because one day I might suffer from an excess of lust myself? Surely on that day, I shall be self-possessed and considerate and will put the flesh to death for the sake of my rarefied spiritual sexuality.”
Maybe, maybe not, but let’s examine P1 here, which is the contention that you’re allowing your body to be used as an object of male lust. There is a difference between lust and sexual desire. Sexual desire is good. If your husband has given his entire life to you, and he provides for you, and talks to you, and loves you, and interacts with you as a person on a daily basis, then his relationship with you is not reductive. (If he doesn’t, the problem is not lust but a failure, usually mutual, to relate properly outside of the bedroom.) The association of biological urge with spiritual lust is based on a false understanding of the goodness of the human body. The physical desire of spouses for one another is ordered. When a man or woman, confronted with strong feelings of sexual arousal comes to his or her spouse, they are conforming their sexuality to reason. If they go to the internet, or the brothel, or into their imagination, and have sex there, that is depersonalizing, inhuman and irrational.
It is not the desire of spouse 1, but the lack of desire of spouse 2, that is disordered. I don’t mean here that it’s a moral fault or a psychological disease, just that it is contrary to right reason. It represents a sort of acedia, or spiritual sadness: an interior resistance to something that is genuinely good. Now, I also don’t mean that you can just reason it away: many things are contrary to right reason but can’t be rationally blown off. The point is that when one spouse experiences the other’s desire as a violation, it generally means that they have an excessively elevated opinion either of themself, or of the loftiness of sex.
“Now wait just a minute. We are talking here about an icon of the interior life of the most Holy Trinity, the image of the relationship between Christ and His Church, the fountainhead of human life, and the foundation of all human community. How could a quick, cheap shag in the shower possibly be commensurable with the dignity of such an act?”
All right, let’s take a look at another bio-spiritual act: the act of eating. As Christ points out in His Eucharistic discourses, all eating is a sign and symbol pointing towards the Lamb’s Supper, the sacrifice of the Cross, the wise providence of God, and the economy of salvation. Ideally, each meal would be undertaken in a spirit of gratitude and joy, shared in community with friends and family, offered up as a thanksgiving offering to the Lord, and enjoyed in the full consciousness that here we receive the fruit of the earth and work of human hands. Yet sometimes, if you are hungry, and you are in a rush, you grab a granola bar and munch it absent-mindedly in the car. Yes, technically that is not fully in accord with the dignity of the granola bar, but it would certainly be a form of disorder, based on serious scrupulosity, if you allowed yourself to become malnourished because you refused to eat unless the conditions allowed for the perfect expression of the highest spiritual meanings of the act. If you refused to feed your children unless you were completely satisfied that their motives in eating were perfectly pure, it would cease to be a mere scrupulous disorder, and would become a serious dereliction of duty.
Ditto with sex. “The husband must give his wife what she has the right to expect, and so too the wife to the husband. The wife has no rights over her own body; it is the husband who has them. In the same way, the husband has no rights over his body; the wife has them. Do not refuse each other except by mutual consent, and then only for an agreed time, to leave yourselves free for prayer; then come together again in case Satan should take advantage of your weakness to tempt you.” (1 Cor 7:3-5)

3 comments:

  1. It is important not to confuse your feelings with spiritual reality. Just because we don't have a spiritual high does not mean we are not experiencing the "scintillatingly personalistic vision of fleshly union" that we should be. Holiness is often achieved when we are tired or in pain or at the end of our rope. It often does not feel holy. But it is. Sex is no exception. Hopefully sometimes you feel that spiritual connection with your spouse but when you don't is often when you are really giving that gift of self.

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  2. Another great post!
    I agree that if the relationship is working outside of the bedroom, a truncated period of foreplay shouldn't cause offense.

    That, however, is a big "if".

    Unfortunately there aren't many marriages that I have seen where affection outside of the bedroom (or inside for that matter) is a priority for the husband. I was happy to see while visiting the National Basilica an examination of conscience which asked husbands if they had made sexual demands of their wives without showing proper affection towards them. :)

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  3. " I was happy to see while visiting the National Basilica an examination of conscience which asked husbands if they had made sexual demands of their wives without showing proper affection towards them."

    Really? I agree - this kind of self-examination would definitely make a difference.

    "If your husband has given his entire life to you, and he provides for you, and talks to you, and loves you, and interacts with you as a person on a daily basis, then his relationship with you is not reductive. (If he doesn’t, the problem is not lust but a failure, usually mutual, to relate properly outside of the bedroom.)"

    When a man's first goal is to get a girl he just met into bed and getting to know her is secondary, and even has limits, (as in I like to talk with you, as long as we are not talking about X subject, when X subject actually happens to be a really big deal, something enormous to be avoiding talking about), I'm not so sure that it is just failure to relate properly, once the two are married. Or maybe it just becomes that, but it certainly STARTED out with lust.

    I realize that the "failure to relate" is certainly mutual, but it doesn't help when one person is not open to talking about X subject at all, and both people are on opposite sides of every issue out there. Makes for a lot of walking an eggshells and avoiding subjects.

    "It is not the desire of spouse 1, but the lack of desire of spouse 2, that is disordered. I don’t mean here that it’s a moral fault or a psychological disease, just that it is contrary to right reason. It represents a sort of acedia, or spiritual sadness: an interior resistance to something that is genuinely good. "

    Total and complete lack of desire on my part for the very longest time - and yes, I realize this is not normal, and yes, it was due to VERY deep spiritual sadness. And yes, I have forced myself to accept having sex, at least at some (surely inacceptable) minimum rate - because I realize this isn't normal, even when it seemed barely tolerable to me.

    What has helped me is to realize that even when there can be no spiritual intimacy in a marriage, marriage is still an opportunity to better oneself. One CAN rise up to the challenge, and let marriage form one into the person he/she was meant to be. St Rita and St Monica certainly did not have ideal marriages, and yet they still managed to become Saints.

    It helps to know that ultimately, the goal of marriage is to mutually bring ourselves closer to God, that the only "perfect" relationship is to be had with Him, and that even in a bad marriage, a person can STILL have that relationship with God, and still be challenged by one's spouse to perfect oneself. In other words the ultimate goal of marriage is not about finding the perfect partner and living in a fairy tale, it's about two imperfect people reaching for perfection through trial and error and "I'm sorry" and I forgive you". Marriage is a battleground and the day I truly realized that, is the day that sexual desire came back.

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