Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Contractual Obligation II

Okay, I think the first thing that probably women need to keep in mind when they read Theology of the Body, whether in the original or in the popular versions, is that what John Paul II was envisioning was human sexuality as it was “in the beginning.” What did marriage and sex look like before the Fall? It’s a very illuminating approach, but when you go to apply it, you have to keep in mind that what you’re trying to accomplish is the closest possible approximation to the way that things were before concupiscence entered the scene. No one, even in the best of all marriages between two Saints, is going to get all the way there. No one starts out anywhere near there.

It’s kind of like St. Thomas Aquinas et al telling people that the proper interior order of the soul involves the total subjugation of all passions and appetites to Reason. Everyone knows that that’s how it’s supposed to be, but if you try it you quickly find that it’s a project that takes a lifetime. Sure, you can get much closer than people usually are, but it takes a tremendous amount of work. Theology of the Body is the same kind of thing. Unfortunately, a lot of folks seem to fall into the mistake of thinking that if they take the Christopher West marriage prep course, and go on a few couple’s retreats, they’re going to get something that looks pretty close to what JPII is talking about. If this is your expectation, disappointment is inevitable – and it’s a disappointment that I’ve seen amongst a lot of really committed Catholics, especially Catholic women.

When Eden cannot be reclaimed, we tend to blame the other spouse – a familiar pattern to those who’ve read the Genesis narrative. If you talk to women, the problem is always with the man. If you talk to men, the problem is always with the woman. Catch 22.

The difficulty arises, I think, from the fact that when people hear about someone else’s responsibilities towards themselves, they immediately think of it as an entitlement. Men did this to women for years: they read the first Letter to the Corinthians, turned to their wives and said, “You see that, woman? St. Paul says you gotta obey me. I have a right to be obeyed.” But St. Paul did not say that men were entitled to their wives’ obedience; he said that women should obey their husbands. These are two very different statements. Also, the men tended to gloss over the part that said they had to love their wives like Christ had loved the Church. Women have now picked up on that part, and are saying to their men, “See, see what is says there? I’m entitled to have you treat me like Christ treated the Church.” Again, not what Paul said.

The key is to concentrate on making sure that you are truly giving your own gift sincerely. A gift that is given on the condition of reciprocation is not a true gift, it’s a commodity exchange. If there’s any sort of contractual obligation, explicit or implied or even just understood within one’s own mind, then the gift loses its gift-likeness. The economy of gifts follows a logic that seems like foolishness: “Give and there will be gifts for you, poured out without measure.” You can never see where those gifts are going to come from, and there has to be a real act of faith, where you throw your gift out into the darkness without any idea of how it is going to come back to you. This works in the realm of economics – if you are generous, your generosity will be mysteriously repaid – and it also works in the realm of sexuality. But you have to somehow get over the temptation (and a mighty strong temptation it is) to count the cost and tally up the revenues.

How do you do this? You have to begin by focusing on taking joy and pleasure in giving your gift to the other person. Ideally, what you’re aiming for is to take greater pleasure in the other person’s sexual climax than in your own, and to want to be satisfied yourself primarily so that the other person can have the joy of having satisfied you. Out of the gate, that might sound impossible, but it really isn’t. All you have to do is decide clearly that that’s your objective, and sink all of the energy that you would otherwise sink into fighting with your spouse to make sure that you secure your piece of the marital pie into that goal. I think any reasonably committed person could probably achieve this in under three years, which, in the scope of a marriage, is peanuts.

So that’s the impossibly demanding marching orders for the sexual via dolorosa; but here’s the carrot: as you do this, your entire way of seeing your marriage will begin to change. A lot of the time women set up conditions wherein it is functionally impossible for them to receive or perceive their spouse’s love and affection. They have a set of particular “needs” which they feel are not being fulfilled, and they fixate myopically on those things. Often the husband really is trying to show genuine affection, but it is overlooked, dismissed, or even belittled because it is not in the correct form. As soon as the we stop worrying about being entitled, it becomes possible to notice those things, to enjoy them, and, by enjoying them, to encourage them. A man will find it much easier to show affection to his wife if he sees that his efforts are bringing her joy; if he sees that she sees his efforts as paltry, insipid, or unworthy, he’ll tend to clam up and stop trying out of a sense of insecurity.

Also, if a woman is constantly, joyfully giving herself to her husband, the husband will come to feel a greater affection for her. This is just natural. As his affection grows, it will express itself naturally in a much larger number of ways, and it will feel more authentic – because it is more authentic.

Finally, once enough of the hostilities have cleared, and love and affection are being freely exchanged in whatever ways come most naturally to each of the spouses, it’s not hard at all to get affection in the form that you want. All you have to do is wait for an opportune moment and say, “My dear love, do you remember how you used to give me footrubs when we were courting? Those were amazing footrubs. I don’t suppose that I could get one now?” When a man responds to such a request, it doesn’t feel like he’s doing it out of a sense of resentment and obligation, and it doesn’t feel onerous to have to ask for what you need.

As a final note, let’s say that you do all of these things, and you do them for decades (and if you’ve got a particularly tough nut of a husband, or a particularly stubborn inner child that keeps throwing temper tantrums, it might take decades), and your husband passes away, and the reciprocation never comes? If what you’re doing is genuinely taking joy in being a gift, then it makes no difference. The reciprocation is icing on the cake. The real prize is the joy of pouring out love, and the attainment of self-mastery. Even your husband never does build you that dream swing in the backyard, you will gain freedom from the suffering of disappointment and resentment, and your reward will be great in Heaven :)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Contractual Obligation

My post “Just Sex” opened a potential can of worms, so I’d like to go a little deeper into the relationship between the sexes, and the role of sexual responsibility in solidifying marriage. Anonymous commented that “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.”

Okay, there are a couple of issues at play here. The first is the issue of male responsibility. Men do have a responsibility to provide their wives with affection both in and outside of the bedroom, and, as John Paul II pointed out to the scandal of the prude brigade, they also have a responsibility for making sure that their wives achieve orgasm. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that the latter responsibility will be fulfilled every single time a couple makes love – there are points in a woman’s hormonal life when bringing her to sexual climax could be numbered with the labours of Hercules – but the woman’s satisfaction should be a priority for the husband.
The irony is, I think it actually is a priority for a lot of men, but they just don’t know how to go about it. Having sex when your partner is disinterested, reluctant, unresponsive and unenthusiastic is humiliating. There’s a reason why all of those spam messages offering men the opportunity to have their woman “moaning for more” actually work to sell erection pills. It’s important to a guy’s self-esteem to feel that he’s actually a good lover – that’s why some women resort to faking orgasm if they’re not able to achieve the real thing. The point is, in those marriages where the woman is totally unsatisfied and feels that it’s the result of her husband’s sexual selfishness, the man is also profoundly frustrated, but he usually keeps quiet about it.
The lack of affection, and sometimes open hostility, outside of the bedroom are a response to this mutually frustrating situation. At this point, the woman will often start making excuses to have sex infrequently (too tired, slight headache, in-laws visiting, kids going to wake up soon, too much work...) which exacerbates the problem. A man who’s been waiting with increasing frustration to be able to make love to his wife is not going to be able to pull off a long, satisfying encounter. When the sex finally happens it ends up being quick and desperate: the wife goes away unsatisfied, and the husband goes away humiliated, and the whole cycle starts up again.
Here we arrive at issue number two, which is women’s tendency to resort to passive-aggressive strategies to get what we want. Let’s be honest here, most of us when faced with sexual frustration don’t sit out husbands down and explain the situation in clear, simple, honest language that a man will be able to understand. We feel like if he really cared about us, he’d know what to do. He’d read the little signs, and he’d take the time to pamper, and caress, and make us feel desirable. So when he doesn’t, we shut him out emotionally. We come to bed the way a martyr goes to the rack, we send out little barbed messages throughout the day, and we make sure that he knows that he’s in the doghouse. Ultimately, we may resort to the Lysistrata stratagem, and go on a sexual strike until we get the affection that we want.

Problem is, you can’t make someone affectionate by twisting his arm. If the husband is thinking, “Fine, I’ll rub her shoulders, and give her kisses, and snuggle up to her on the couch, because otherwise the &*$@! is never going to put out,” any woman with any emotional sensitivity will notice. The affection will feel like a demand for sex, because that’s what it is. It couldn’t possibly be anything else: the decision to withhold sex until hubby is appropriately sensitive situates the entire conflict within the realm of contractual, as opposed to covenential, exchange. If a woman says, either explicitly or implicitly, “You give me affection, and I’ll give you sex,” the affection becomes a form of payment for sex – and any form of payment is always a form of demand for the thing that is being paid for.

All right, this post is becoming book length, so I’ll leave it there for now, with a solid description of the problem, and I’ll take a stab at the solution next time.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Golden Bones

I just got the sample copy of Leading Edge magazine with my story "The Golden Bones of Grandma Bo" in it. It's the 30th Anniversay Issue (oooh!) and it also contains work by the three guys who do my favourite writer's podcast, Writing Excuses. Of my short stories, this is one of my personal favourites. It concerns a young philosopher, a ghost that won't behave, and a confrontation with Death in the form of a seven headed eel. Great fun.

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)