Saturday, January 26, 2013

My Dog Ate My Chart

Hi! I wanted to thank everyone for the responses on the NFP post. I'm going to just put up a second post here rather than overloading the com-box, 'cause it gets hard for folks to follow.
I'll start with a frank and open declaration of what my problem with NFP is. I know that it works for some couples, and that's lovely. The problem is that it is presented as a one-size-fits all solution for all couples, and there isn't room made for individual couples to reasonably discern whether or not it's a practicable solution for their particular situation. I feel lucky because I'm a Canadian, and the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops has acknowledged this problem and allowed some wiggle-room for conscience in the Winnepeg Statement -- but of course that's severely controversial within the Catholic world.
My situation is that I've been trying to use NFP to "space" my births for my last three pregnancies. I've tried sympto-thermal, Billings, and ecological breastfeeding all with equally dismal results. I could learn Creighton, but there's really no point because I know exactly why NFP doesn't work for me, and it has nothing to do with the methods. NFP demands two different things of a woman: 1) Body awareness, and 2) Organizational skills. Different methods tend to emphasize one of these two poles: sympto-thermal demands an extremely organized life-style in which you have a consistent sleep schedule and are able to make a series of scientific observations at the same time each day. My babies generally do not sleep through the night, I'm an erratic sleeper, and I have an autistic son whose sleep schedule is extremely unorthodox. I'm one of these scatty, head-in-the-clouds creative types and in spite of countless attempts by my mother, my teachers and myself to instill basic organizational skills in me, I still haven't mastered the art of remembering to brush my teeth every morning. Even when my husband reminds me to do my charting, there's a better than 80% chance that I will either a) get distracted on the way to do it, b) have lost my thermometer and forgotten to buy a new one the last four times that I went to the drug store, c) have my temperature thrown off by random external factors, d) not be able to make head-or-tails of my cervical changes, e) have lost my chart, or f) swear in frustration and kick the wall as I realize that I haven't successfully entered any information on my chart in over two weeks. A typical NFP chart by me has five days of beautiful, perfect, by-the-book charting at the beginning of the first cycle, a couple of sporadic entries over the next week or two, and then completely random information written down at five to 40 day intervals after that. That's what it looks like if I'm really extremely motivated to avoid pregnancy, and very committed to making it work. If I've more or less given up and resigned myself to getting pregnant again, then my chart will look like one random piece of information written down on a random scrap of paper at the bottom of a drawer.
Which brings us to the less organizationally dependent Billings method. The advantage of Billings is that many women find that after they've learned to read their mucous symptoms, they are actually able to dispense with charting altogether. Lovely. Sounds like the method for me. There's only one drawback: Billings assumes that you are able to be aware of your body on an on-going basis over the course of the day. You're supposed to observe the natural changes in your mucous and track your fertility based on the most fertile symptoms as the day progresses. I am dimly aware of my body most of the time, and when I am aware of it I have trouble convincing it that it's female. Usually I reach the end of the day and I think "did I have any mucous symptoms today?" and the answer is, "I have absolutely no idea." So I check to see, do I have any mucous now? The answer is usually "I have absolutely no idea." Then I forget to write that down, for the reasons mentioned above, and I feel like I can't go and ask my NFP instructor what to do, because she's going to tell me that there is absolutely no way that the method is going to work if I don't pay attention throughout the day and don't keep records.
Now I'm sure that a lot of you out there are thinking "Just pay attention, keep records, and stop whining." I'\ve tried. I have tried very, very sincerely. I've tried it three times, with the result that my pregnancies were spaced exactly the same distance apart as the pregnancies where I was not using any method, and was just getting pregnant. I've tried innumerable different schemes to try to get myself organized, and none of them work. Finally, I've had to deal with the fact that organizational skills are a cognitive thing -- that it is perfectly possible for a human being to have a legitimate neurological disability in this area, and that such disabilities are blatantly rampant in my family. That's not a moral failing, it's an inability to employ a particular technique. And a person's status vis a vis God and the Church should not be dependent on the performance of a technique.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Whatever Happened to That NFP Series?

Okay, so I was supposed to be writing a series about NFP and it turned into a series of philosophical dialogues about homosexuality instead. Blame the Muses. I do, however, have a lot of things to say about NFP, and that's what I promised, so here goes.
There are seven common things that I hear about NFP from real people on the ground:

1. NFP is so beautiful because it really respects a woman's body and her natural fertility. I'm not married yet, but I'm really looking forward to practicing it. (Naive Family Daydreaming)

2. My spouse and I used/are using NFP to get pregnant, and it's great. (Natural Fertility Promotion)

3. We used NFP to space our ten beautiful children. (No Family Planning)

4. My husband and I used the Pill until we had both nearly reached the age of infertility, but I felt like I was being used and my body wasn't being respected. Now we're using NFP and we both really love it. Right dear? You love it. See, he loves it. (Natural Family Procrastination)

5. My spouse and I are using NFP...supplemented with, uh... (Natural Family Contraception)

6. NFP failed for me last time, but I talked to my instructor and we were able to figure out the minor, niggling mistake that I made in my charting, so the failure was really my fault. Now I'm learning a new method that I hope is going to work better. (Natural Unplanned Pregnancy)

7. My wife is making me use NFP. We never have sex anymore. At least not with each other... (Natural Family Porn Addiction)

NFP is used by approximately 1-2% of the Catholic population in North America. So far as I can tell young, fertile couples who are able to successfully use it to prevent pregnancy in situations of grave necessity are about as common as successfully “repaired” ex-gays. The problem is straight-forward: on the one hand, it would seem that there genuinely are circumstances which may arise where it is not reasonable or responsible for a couple to have another child, and on the other hand the only method of pregnancy avoidance which is permitted by the Church is not very effective when used in accord with the“natural law” as it's usually defined in Catholic discourse on sex.
The efficacy of NFP can be massively increased if it is used in conjunction with “unnatural” acts. I suspect that's why it has had fairly high rates of success in tests by secular organizations like WHO who were primarily testing it with populations that have low access to contraception, but who don't necessarily have any moral problem with mutual masturbation or other...variants. (With regards to this, note the coy references in Billings' handbook.) Trials with religiously motivated North American populations have had high rates of failure, with one commonly cited cause being “complex personal reasons” -- which I think we can take as a euphemism meaning that the couples involved were not able to tolerate the amount of abstinence which the methods demand. The other commonly cited causes of failure (mistakes in charting, failure to chart reliably, uncertainty as to the meaning of the symptoms, etc.) are also only problematic if there is a lot of pressure to get it right. If you can simply say “You know what, I don't know what's going on. It's been a wonky month. We'll try again next month” that radically increases the likelihood that you're going to succeed. The problem is, people who are so indifferent to sex that they don't mind indefinite stretches of celibacy generally do not get married in the first place.
Anyways, that's a teaser. I'm going to resume my series of dialogues now, and I'll write more about this when that series is finished.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Opening Ceremony

(Catullus and Ali arrive at the Kirkman house. Germanicus and Sheila are already there, filling an effigy of Saturn with olive oil. Juvenal has just arrived. Catullus leaves a small gift at the feet of the household gods and joins his siblings.)


Juvenal: Catullus, Ali. Glad you guys could come out.
Catullus: Hello Juvenal.
Juvenal: Hey little brother, I've been hearing some scandalous rumours about you.
Catullus: Oh?
Juvenal: I was talking to Lydia – You sure you want me to bring this up in public? I could take you aside later.
Catullus: I've nothing to hide.
Juvenal: Brave man. Okay. According to her, not only did you, in clear violation of Kirkman family policy, attend Perpetua's baptism, but you were also observed eating Jesus.
Catullus: When in Rome...
Juvenal: No no no. You're not getting off the hook that easily. No way would Lydia have let you profane her holy crackers with your unworthy tongue – unless she had some reason to think that you were a “Catholic in good standing.”
Catullus: I was a Catholic in good standing. It was my niece’s baptism. I'm not some kind of reprobate, I made all of the necessary ritual purifications before receiving.
Juvenal: But you're a pagan.
Catullus: .......
Germanicus: Juvenal, can you stop tormenting Catullus and hand me that wash-cloth – there's still some blood on the back of the altar. Someone didn't clean up properly after Opsiconsivia.

(Juvenal obliges.)

Juvenal: So, did everyone get my message?
Germanicus: Yeah. Only I don't understand why I'm arguing in favour of homosexuality.
Juvenal: I believe that last time you had this argument Catullus was a gentleman and spoke up in support of your girlfriend. I figured you could return the favour so that this time we could hear what he really thinks.
Sheila: You people are sadistic.
Juvenal: Yeah, you would think that. That's why you get to be the arbiter. You can help us keep it between the navigational beacons.

(Exeunt.)

(The curtain opens on a Roman style dining room, low table, long couches. The table is laid with a variety of snacks: figs, olives, bread, stuffed dormice, that sort of thing. The four interlocutors take up their positions, Sheila is at the head of the table.)

Sheila: You know the rules: keep the opening speeches short and to the point, after that you can squabble to your hearts content. If I see any ad hominems or generally bitchy behaviour I'm going to intervene. We've all agreed that, in the spirit of the first Symposium, we aren't going to be drinking tonight. (She produces 2 gallon jugs of red wine brought up from the Kirkman cellars and places them in the centre of the table.) But we'd better have this available for anyone who, like Socrates, can hold their liquor without clouding their reason. You've all drawn lots, and I believe that Ali is going first.

(Expectant silence. Ali stands.)

Ali: It's a little hard, because I'm supposed to speak in favour of homosexuality, and I just don't think it's even an issue. I realize that there's a long history associated with this, and that it goes back to certain concerns in ancient cultures, mostly surrounding the idea that somehow a man who engaged in homosexual behaviour would be effeminized by it. Obviously that's just a ridiculous argument in a modern context: we no longer believe that women are naturally inferior to men, and we understand now that gender is a lot more complicated than people used to think it was. I mean, it used to be argued that all kinds of socially constructed gender roles were “natural,” even really superficial things like the way that men and women wear their hair. It was considered natural for women to stay at home and do nothing but raise children. It was considered natural for men to exercise dominance over their wives, and even to use violence in order to secure obedience. Within that context, a man who played the “feminine role” in male intercourse was seen as relinquishing his natural privileges and behaving in an unnatural way. Today, we're able to recognize that those “natural” privileges are actually the result of a particular set of heteropatriarchal social arrangements which are inherently abusive, and we've made a lot of progress towards overcoming those male-dominated systems of valuation. We've also made tremendous progress towards understanding that gender is not a simple bipolar phenomenon, it exists on a spectrum, not just within society but within nature. There are people born with androgynous genitalia, people born with male genitalia who later become female, people born with female genitalia but which a masculine brain structure, and a wide variety of other conditions which simply weren't understood in the ancient world. Because we have a more sophisticated understanding of sexuality, and because we have a more egalitarian view of gender, it's only natural that we should shift our thinking about the goodness of homosexual relations. It's not a matter of throwing away the idea of natural moral inclinations, or of the inherent dignity of the person in relation to herself, but rather of recognizing that the way that nature was understood by the ancients was coloured by their social institutions, by their science, and by their cultural assumptions. It's just silly to act as if we haven't made advances in our knowledge, or positive changes in our social relationships when we have, and it's equally silly to insist on some outdated proposition just because it happens to appear to in certain prominent religious and philosophical texts.

(Ali returns to her perch.)

Catullus: She says she doesn't know what this issue is. Well I hardly know where to begin. It's bad enough a lot of little limp-wristed mollies congregating in their grotty bathhouses, infecting each other with crabs and scabies and other unmentionable diseases, but nowadays they have to be out of the closet, marching down Queen Street, frightening the children and blocking up traffic. It's disgraceful! They're everywhere. Lecherous old sods ogling adolescent boys in the schools, keeping them back for remedial attention after class. Butch drill-Sargents in far-flung countries with bizarre customs, initiating raw recruits into their disgusting practices. Power-mad sadistic queers clogging up the seminaries and buggering the choir boys --
Sheila: Point of order.
Catullus: It's a disgrace! A perfect disgrace. If I were Jove, I'd have brought out the lightning bolts long ago -
Sheila: Catullus!
Catullus: -- rained down a little brimstone on the Castro. That's what's needed --
Sheila: CATULLUS! Shut up! (There is a brief silence.) Thank you. I'm sure that we're all enjoying the Monty Python antics --
Catullus: Shows you what you know, you great nancy. I'm not doing Monty Python, I'm doing Kenneth Williams.
Sheila: Well whatever you're doing, your accent is outrageous, and you're not making an argument. If you need a couple of minutes to put together a speech --
Catullus: No, no. I can be perfectly serious. Just let me finish this glass of wine. (He downs it and pours another.) All right, I'm being serious now: The reason why the contemporary mind finds it so difficult to understand the prohibition on homosexual relations is that we have suffered a complete loss of understanding regarding the purpose of ethical ideals. People today talk about 'morality,' not realizing that this is a rather insipid little notion which arose in the course of the so-called 'Enlightenment' as an attempt to establish a system of conduct based entirely on reason. All of the aesthetic values were stripped from ethical theory, causing it to descend into some trite, reductionistic prohibitions on doing harm to others, and some jingoistic cant about “freedom.” Well that's not what ethics is. Ethics is not concerned with the questions like “how can I maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest number” or “how may I act only that maxim by which I might at the same time will that it be a universal law.” It is concerned with the question of how I might live The Good Life. It is a practice which is deeply rooted in aesthetics, which involves seeking to produce one's life in accord with coherent stylistic principles in order to make of oneself a masterpiece. Now aesthetic beauty is not arbitrary. It must conform to certain set principles: harmony, symmetry, complementarity, composition, proportion, symbol, archetype. It's not enough for the artist to have lofty intentions. Lofty intentions, when combined with stylistic bankruptcy and lack of discipline can produce nothing but trite, pretentious crap. As in art, so also in sexuality. The proper use of the sexual faculty demands conformity with genuine aesthetic criterion, foremost of which are the complementarity of the sexes, and the creative energies latent in procreative-type acts. Homosexuality is incapable of achieving these criterion. It is a kind of parody of sexuality, an obscene doodle which effaces the truth about the body and renders null its highest creative act.

(Catullus bows elaborately and awaits applause.)

Germanicus: All right. I'm going to suggest that the problem with Catullus' exposition of the immorality of homosexual acts is that it assumes that sexual acts, as such, have a singular nature. Id est, it assumes that a heterosexual act and a homosexual act share the same fundamentally procreative nature, but that the homosexual act is an unnatural perversion. I'd like to argue that there's no grounds for accepting this thesis. So why do we accept it? First of all, there's a tradition which assumes that the reproductive system has a single natural purpose, that teleologically it is always oriented towards procreation, and all of its parts can only function naturally if they are put towards that end. Obviously this just isn't true. The phallus, for instance, also has a urinary function. There's no question of that being unnatural. So clearly we're faced with a problem, which is that the same human organs can have multiple natural purposes. The sexual function has a procreative purpose, which no one disputes, but arguably it also has the purpose of producing pleasure and relaxation. That's the thesis which Eurythmachus defends in the Symposium, and it was widely believed in the ancient world, by many people including the early Stoics, that the use of pleasure in accord with moderation in order to relieve sexual frustration and other forms of tension, was not only natural but necessary in order to maintain interior equilibrium. Which makes sense. For one thing, there's the pretty obvious fact that practically no one can actually limit their sexual release to those occasions when they intend to reproduce, and that if someone does manage to do this they're considered either superhuman or biologically asexual. There's also the fact that in most animals the reproductive system only naturally activates when it's time to reproduce. The rest of the time, birds and dogs all go around enjoying undisturbed freedom from sexual desire, it doesn't bother them, it doesn't wind them up, it's not something that they have to be constantly battling. The fact that human bodies don't work this way should tell us that something different is going on. And the different thing is that human bodies naturally seek out sexual release solely for the sake of pleasure. Now we could follow Plato, and conclude that pleasure is largely bad because it interferes with the action of right reason, but most people won't accept that argument because our natural reaction to pleasure is overwhelmingly to think of it as good. We could also follow Augustine and propose that human nature is somehow inherently distorted as a result of some primeval catastrophe, but that's not natural law, it's just a means of explaining why our natural intuitions and desires are at odds with Christian doctrine. Any reasonable, measured, objective evaluation of the facts, divorced from dogmatic considerations, will come to the conclusion that it is natural and normal to enjoy sex for non-procreative purposes, and that with respect to such usage the gender of one's partner can be rightly considered a matter of indifference.
(Germanicus resumes his post.)

Juvenal: I'll buy that, Germanicus, but I don't think that the issue with homosexuality has anything to do with whether or not it's procreative. It has to do with what it is. So let's clear away some of the deadwood in this discussion. First of all, lesbianism. Nobody has a serious problem with two ladies going at it, especially if they employ a web-cam so that the rest of us can benefit. People pretend to object just so that they look like they're being rationally consistent. Secondly, the idea that the problem is guys falling in love. The only reason our society is terrified of male love is that it can't properly separate love from sex. In other cultures, male friends could write each other mushy love letters, and kiss, and hold hands in public, and recline on one another's breasts, provided they didn't fuck. That's even in the Bible. Thirdly, the idea that the problem is men engaging in sexual acts together. Listen to comedy, folks: whenever gay sex is being portrayed positively, it's always two guys giving each other blow jobs. Whenever it's being portrayed negatively, it's always anal sex. Why? Because a guy performing fellatio on another guy is no more disgusting than a woman performing it on a man, and anyone who tells you that they find that gross is either a woman, or a liar. The issue is anal sex, specifically anal sex between guys. That's why if you get into these discussions, sooner or later they always come down to AIDS, and bathhouse culture, and barebacking, and BDSM, and all that gay shit, because that's what people are really reacting to. Now, the gay rights movement is going to tell you that this is “homophobia.” I'm going to tell you that it's nature. Does homosexuality exist in the animal world? Damn right it does. Specifically, it is the way that more dominant males express their superiority over submissive males. There are no gay wolves. There are boy wolves who get boned by other boy wolves in the process of the struggle to establish which of them will get the girl wolves. Ditto with every other species that engages in homosexual acts. It is, by nature, a means of establishing who is a player, and who is a loser. That's why all males naturally look with contempt on passive homosexuals, and why all males naturally react with fear to active homosexuals: because we're pack animals. When it comes right down to it we're a bunch of overcomplicated monkeys with delusions of grandeur. And like all monkeys, we look with respect towards the big dadda monkeys who are producing all of the baby monkeys, and we throw coconuts at the sissy little weakling monkeys. And it ain't gonna change, because that's the law of the jungle – the only natural law that's really natural, and actually a law.
Sheila: Okay. So that's the opening speeches over. Now we can start throwing coconuts at Juvenal.
(End of Part IX)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Black Knight

(A phone rings in an apartment halfway across the province where Juvenal, Germanicus and Catullus' older brother, is in the shower. Stepping out, he consults the call display and discovers that Lydia is calling. Shocked and slightly embarrassed at the thought of talking to his big sister without even a towel, Juvenal throws on a bathrobe and answers the phone. Opening pleasantries are exchanged, and then Lydia gets down to the point of her call.)

Lydia: Okay, so this is going to sound crazy...but I think that Catullus might be gay.
Juvenal: Astounding Holmes! What incredible sequence of deductions brought you to that conclusion?
Lydia: So you think so too?
Juvenal: Why do you think I call his “girlfriend” Ali?
Lydia: Why?
Juvenal: Because she's his Ali-bi.
Lydia: So you've thought so for years. But do you have proof?
Juvenal: We've reached the point where even you've noticed. Q. E. D.
Lydia: That's not fair. I mean real proof.
Juvenal: How about you start by telling me what put you on to him?
Lydia: Okay. So we're in a bar, having a conversation with Germanicus and Sheila about the morality of sex. Catullus claims that he's just playing devil's advocate, but he seems pretty invested...

(Juvenal reaches towards a device attached to the side of his phone and presses a small red button marked “Record.”)

(Meanwhile, Catullus has been forced to cut his conversation with Jeremiah short because his Alibi has arrived at the door to pick him up. Catullus disappears upstairs. He returns wearing a long black coat which covers up his formal wear: the traditional toga virilis which his mother made to celebrate his sixteenth birthday. He and Ali talk in the car as they drive to Catullus' parents' house.)

Ali: So, I was talking to Sheila and she said that she thought that you might be coming out...
Catullus: Sheila? I didn't think that you and she had a relationship outside of my parents' house.
Ali: She thought it was important to get in touch with me. She was worried that I might not know about you...that you might be stringing me along. She's actually afraid that her boyfriend is two-timing her and she's projecting that onto us.
Catullus: Ah. Well that explains why she's throwing herself at Lord Stoic again. I'm half tempted to take her aside and give her lessons in how to carry out a proper seduction. She could have him by the end of the week if she went about it the right way. And it would be so satisfying to see his vaunted “self-possession” cut down.
Ali: I think it's probably a lot more fun to imagine that than it will actually be when it happens.
(Time passes.)
Ali: Do you mind my asking why you decided to come out to him?
Catullus: Temporary madness. I saw a woman at the mall selling Christmas cards and bric-a-brac for PFLAG in support of her gay son. I had a Hallmark moment and came down with a severe case of coming-out-itis.
Ali: That might have happened, and it might even have been the catalyst. But it's definitely not the reason.
Catullus: I don't know.
Ali: (Considers) Something must have changed recently.
Catullus: Yes...
Ali: Do you know what it is?
Catullus: Yes.
Ali: Well? Are you going to tell me?
Catullus: All right. Jeremiah has AIDS.
Ali: Yes...But we've known that for a while now.
Catullus: No. I mean, it's not just HIV anymore. He's dying. Probably in the next couple of years. I haven't any idea how that relates to coming out to my wildly erotophobic little brother.
Ali: Catullus, that makes perfect sense. You know you're going to need the support and understanding of your family, and that support isn't going to be anywhere near secure enough if they think that Jeremiah is just your mentor and if you're terrified of them finding out the truth. You're on the brink of a major personal trial, and you want to know which of your allies are really on your side. I think that's very reasonable.
Catullus: Yes, well what I found out is that my allies are decidedly not on my side. I'd rather not figure that out any more.
Ali: Hugs.
Catullus: Yes, I know you're on my side.
Ali: But remember it took me a while too. It's not an easy thing to understand. To other people your relationship with Jeremiah just looks like...
Catullus: Sexual predation?
Ali: Something like that.
Catullus: That's why I'm not coming out. I tested the water, and I've realized that plunging in is liable to induce psychic hypothermia.
Ali: I understand. And I'm not saying you have to have some sort of “coming out” type staged event, but your family is going to find out eventually. And I do think that it would be easier for everyone if they heard it from you.
Catullus: Yes. I realize that. I don't know. I'll think about it.

(Back in Toronto, Juvenal finishes putting on his toga and wraps up his conversation with Lydia.)

Juvenal: Interesting. Very interesting. So, you coming to Saturnalia this year?
Lydia: You making sacrifices to idols this year?
Juvenal: You betcha.
Lydia: Yeah, I think I'm going to decline. We'll pop in after it's over and say hi to everyone.
Juvenal: You'll miss the symposium. You know you wanna be there for the symposium.
Lydia: It's so true. But it's probably just an exercise in contention anyways. What's it going to be about this year?
Juvenal: Well, last year it was death, the year before that, madness. I was thinking it was time to have one about Eros, since that's how it all began.

(End of Part VIII)