Sex and Control

I’m really late to this party, but yesterday, prompted by a red-eyed friend, I took a look at this post over at Babes in Babylon.

If you say this: “For what on earth is the sexual act, if not an attempt to control the body of the beloved? This is obvious in the physical sense, as the lover tries to “control” the other’s body into experiencing ecstasy…”

I am going to guess you know nothing about the female orgasm outside your rapey faux Theology of the Body fantasies.

And if you say this: “Women’s sexuality is internal to their bodies. This means something.” I am going to guess you don’t know what a clitoris is.

So if you don’t want me to say this, especially you, dear virginal young Catholic men so eager to tell me what’s what on sex and gender, I suggest you just….stop.

(That’s the whole post, but if you want to go to the source it’s here. And you should, because I love these girls.)

My first response was to laugh so hysterically that I woke up angrily sleeping Lincoln, because “rapey faux Theology of the Body fantasies” is the most hilarious thing I’ve ever heard. My second was to be like, “what?” when I realized that was my fellow Patheosi the Bad Catholic that she was quoting.

Surely not, thought I. Surely they misunderstood or something. I’ll go check it out and find the miscommunication and then sleep peacefully tonight, knowing that all is right with my corner of the internet.

Alas. They did not misunderstand. And actually, the entirety of the post was much, much worse than the little snippets quoted.

Before you bring out the torches and pitchforks, let me post a teeny-tiny disclaimer. I know that Marc is the Wunderkind of the Catholic blogosphere. I know that he’s doing really great things with 1flesh.org. I know that he’s doing what I pretty much thought was impossible, making Catholicism look cool to the unwashed, hipster masses.

But he can still be wrong. We all can. I have some spectacularly awful posts in my archives that I wish would disappear into internet oblivion, but that I refuse to delete because anytime I get too big for my britches someone inevitably comes out of the wood works to comment on one of them and remind me that I’m still a total asshat. The internet tends to keep us honest like that. And I’m just here to do my part! (You’re welcome, Marc.)

Just kidding, I’m not actually trying to be one of those annoying eternal fight-pickers, but this post was…disturbing. Here’s an excerpt:

The liturgical chants and battle-cries accompanying and bemoaning the war on women are true in an erotic context.

The man who loves does wish to “control a woman’s body,” with an ardor rivaled only by his desire for the beloved to control his own. For what on earth is the sexual act, if not an attempt to control the body of the beloved? This is obvious in the physical sense, as the lover tries to “control” the other’s body into experiencing ecstasy, but it is also true when considering the nature of sex itself: If sex is the ultimate physical expression of erotic love, and love is desiring the good of the beloved, than sex — in its fullest — is the physical attempt to bring the beloved to his or her ultimate good, and thus an obvious attempt to control.

Similarly, the lover does desire a “slavery for women,” and for one woman in particular, a desire overwhelmed only by his desire to be enslaved by her.

This statement meets an immediate difficulty: Children of the 50 Shades of What The Hell Is This and the general BSM bent — who so excite Rihanna — have reduced this characteristic of erotic love. Sexual fetishism has caged the concept of a “slavery of love” within the bonds of mutual use for the achievement of erections. Fun stuff, perhaps, but such a narrowing of the radicalism of the erotic! Such a boredom, that cannot with all the whips and chains in the world scratch the surface of what means to be enslaved to another, for better or worse, till death do you apart. It occurs to me that the bride in her wedding dress is always something far fiercer than the dominatrix.

(Read the rest here)

I don’t even know where to start, so let’s go with the superficial.

This is a note to all bloggers and columnists and everyone who picks up a pencil or sits down at the typewriter ever: use of the royal we is okay in two instances. First, if you’re using it ironically to make fun of yourself, like I do occasionally. Second, if you’re the Queen. I used to be a college student, and I know that college kids like to use the royal we in academic papers because some asshat critics do that and the college students think it makes them look smart. Here’s a hint, college kids: it doesn’t make you look smart. It makes you look pompous and linguistically immature. If you’re a blogger and you use it devoid of any sense of irony…you just look like a giant gherkin. And not the kind that makes delicious tea sandwiches.

On to the main argument. I can make the mental leap and understand what Marc is (I think) trying to do here. It seems that he’s trying to apply the language of BDS&M to explain sex in a Catholic way, and pulling in the idea of the “war on women” to make his post relevant, while drawing on the historically well-known poetic trope of comparing love to slavery. It isn’t that this comparisons is new. It’s as old as poetry, so basically, as old as language itself. But when done in a poetic context, the poet utilizes this metaphor as a trope, often done in the form of a metaphorical conceit. The reader understands that the poet is, well, being a poet. The poet is not being a philosopher or a theologian. You can’t take a poetic trope and try to use it as the basis for a philosophical argument. Or, rather, you probably could, but you would have to do it cautiously and with a great deal of circumspection.

Many women and quite a few men have suffered the assault on their dignity and their life of someone trying to control them. Sometimes it’s rape, sometimes it’s an abusive relationship. It can take many forms. For these people, how painful must it be to read a prominent, widely adored Catholic blogger encouraging men to “control” their wives, stating that the “war on women…exists for the simple reason that erotic love demands it”? I understand that Marc clarifies what he means by love in the middle of the piece. I think he goes to great lengths to try and explain that he doesn’t advocate rape, or controlling relationships. And yet, statements like, “love is the most terrifying of tyrannies,” “what lover would say his love is consensual?” and “when we find love we crucify freedom” are wrong. Those statements might be acceptable, maybe even good, in a poem, but in a philosophical argument about the nature of sex, they’re wrong. All the explanations in the world don’t take away the fact that equating love with control and a loving relationship with enslavement without the freedom of poetic license is a terrible thing to do. It’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous. It’s ignoring the reality that many women have been the victims of men controlling them, and vice versa. Not with scare quotes, but with violence and cruelty. And no one should ever claim that such a thing is acceptable, let alone good.

Controlling relationships, rape, bondage and sexual fetishes of that ilk are essentially, fundamentally opposed to true love. There is no possible way to take the idea of “control” and “domination” and use them to explain Theology of the Body. Sex in the context of true, unselfish love is never about control. You don’t control your lover’s body to make them achieve orgasm. Are you kidding me? If my husband tried to “control” me to climax, he’d be finding himself sleeping on the couch with a serious case of blue balls. Sorry for the frank language, folks, but there it is. Anyone who does think that sexual climax can be forced upon another person is revealing themselves to be either totally inexperienced or a fantastically poor lover, and on the basis of either of those things, they should shut up on the internet about it. Sex is primarily a physical act. Whatever spiritual component should or may be present, the act still can’t be done without the body, while it can be done without the spirit. Someone who has never physically experienced it should be exceedingly cautious about going around and telling other people what it is and what it isn’t, much less what it should be.

Sexual love is about giving oneself up to another, willingly, in love. It has nothing to do with enslavement. Slavery is forced upon someone; sexual love is a gift freely given. Marc is right that love is desiring the good of the beloved, and I even understand his statement that “sex — in its fullest — is the physical attempt to bring the beloved to his or her ultimate good”. I wouldn’t put it that way, but okay, I can roll with it. But you don’t ever, ever try to bring your lover to their ultimate good, whether you’re talking about climax or spiritual maturity or health or anything, by controlling them. That is not love. That is a deeply Calvinist understanding of love, and it gives me the wigs.

Calvinists believe that each man or woman is predestined to either heaven or hell, and that man is so ruined by sin that he cannot even choose Christ freely. Instead, any good act done is only the power of the Holy Spirit working in the person. That is control and enslavement. That is what I went running from, and the opposite of that is what I found in Catholicism. Catholics believe in the inherent dignity of the human person. We are not depraved. We are good, but wounded. We do not need to be controlled. Controlling, enslaving, those things are a direct attack on the essential dignity of the human person.

The lover does not, should not, wish to control or enslave his beloved, just as the beloved should not desire to be controlled or enslaved. It’s a mutual love, a mutual giving, a mutual tenderness. On a practical level it may seem like control, but if anything it’s self-control. You have to force yourself to pay attention to your lover’s body instead of your own. You don’t go forcing someone else to their ultimate good, either in or out of the bedroom. It doesn’t work that way. You work with them, taking your time, listening to their cues, giving them yours. Nothing will make a spouse go cold quite like asserting control without consent. It’s disrespectful, unloving, and wrong.

Like I said above, I know what it’s like to make arguments that are so bad that people are actually, rightfully hurt by them. I know how it can feel to be on the receiving end of what seems like a thousand voices calling for my head on a platter. I know that lots of times bloggers write posts as a way of figuring things out, and sometimes we tumble off the path of reason into the frightening abyss of bad poetic analogies parading around as philosophical arguments. I’m not writing this to dump on Marc, but to correct him. As I have been corrected. And to remind him, and myself, that the world is bigger than our corner of the blogosphere, and more diverse than our own personal experiences would lead us to believe. It’s imperative that we remember that when we blog.

 

 

 

  • Kassie

    Oh, Calah. I don’t what else to say besides thank you.

  • http://aknottedlife.blogspot.com Bonnie

    Yes, yes, yes.
    Prayers for all bloggers who are just trying to do the best they can.

  • Marc Barnes

    This is excellent stuff. Many apologies for the post, I hope it won’t do too much damage. Mea culpa, and I’ll try harder next time.

    • Tom

      Good on you, Marc.

    • Mikayla

      I’m glad to read the apology here.

      As a woman who has been raped, it was thoroughly healing to my mind to read JPII’s “Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.” I was blessed enough to meet and marry a man who had also read this and had absorbed the message.
      It might have been a good idea to run the control idea through a TheoBod lens to see how it would works It is not a matter of the control of the other being a good when done with nice intentions in the proper marital context. In fact, as Calah writes, the sexual control of the other person even in a marital context with good intentions is not a good at all. The body language of marital love is always that of free self-gift. That’s it. Self-surrender, not manipulation or control of the other. I know it’s hard to distinguish when the outer action is all one sees. After all, one may do physical thing X that causes reaction Y, and so be considered to be doing that in an attempt to control the other’s body to orgasm, rather than as a pure gift of self. It’s a similar kind of blindness that equates NFP with contraception or IVF, because the goal (spacing/achieving pregnancies) is the same. In this case, however, while the external action looks the same, but the underlying language is different.

      I understand that a Chesterton-like flair may have been intended. But the poetic flair doesn’t hide the fault of a disturbingly unChristian idea of what a sexual relationship should truly be. Even Christ, who always has our greatest good in mind, doesn’t control us to get us to heaven. :)

      Marc, I’d love it (and I imagine other women who’ve had similar experiences to mine would also appreciate this) if you could post a retraction on your blog.

  • http://geeklady.wordpress.com GeekLady

    If I’m dating things correctly this whole thing blew up back in the beginning of the “lie wretchedly on any available horizontal surface” phase of morning sickness. I started to write notes for a response, needed the toilet rather urgently, and forgot about the whole business. But, from my notes:

    “A lover is always too busy surrendering himself to worry about controlling anything.”

  • Gina

    Well said.

  • http://cathofeminism.blogspot.com/ Jess@Cathofeminism

    Could not have said it better.

  • Kassie

    Marc, thanks for the humility in responding to Calah’s excellently written, loving correction. I have to confess that, as a Catholic woman who has been the victim of control, the original post was a screaming trigger for me. Like you, my experience in marriage is non-existent, but illicit control, sexual and otherwise, is something I’m all too familiar with.
    Your understanding is appreciated.

    • http://www.finelinenandpurple.com Kendra

      I’m with Kassie in that I thank you Marc profusely for having the humility and guts to respond gracefully to Calah’s post. That says a lot about your character and I appreciate that greatly.

      Good post Calah, and I think you said what needed to be said, clearly and charitably :-)

  • John

    As much as I love a lot of Marc’s stuff, I read that “controlling” post and really didn’t have any idea what he was talking about. There were a lot of very enthusiastic comments under the post, but I got the idea the commenters were more swept up in the poetry of the moment, than in a critical reading of the post. As a young, extremely happily married man, all this business about “control” failed to resonate.

    But at the same time I do appreciate Marc’s Chesterton-inspired flights of fancy that strive to see things in a new or unusual light. Chesterton definitely didn’t hit the mark all the time, and I don’t expect Marc will either.

  • Anne

    Well put Calah, after all isn’t our free will one of God’s ultimate gifts of the love? The Supreme Lover did not want to control us but rather for us to freely choose to love him. No control (other than self-control) involved whatsoever.

  • Falls Apart

    Can I please say, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for writing this. I remember when I first read that post; it just left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m fortunate (or maybe just young) enough to have never been in a controlling relationship, and I intend to do my best to keep things that way, but that post brought back all the worries I’ve had about what a Catholic understanding of a relationship would be. I’d run into the controlling language elsewhere before, but always from extreme ends of the spectrum, which I’ve been able to dismiss. Hearing it from a blogger whom I read regularly and whose work I enjoyed was a real shock, and seeing the generally enthusiastic response just made things worse.

    Fortunately, I did my research, which confirmed that, no, that is not what the Church teaches at all. In all seriousness, if the results had been different, if I found out that one could not have a Catholic relationship without talk of control and dominance, I would have sworn off relationships entirely. That whole mentality just scares me.

    Kudos to Marc for responding to this article gracefully. I’ve stopped reading Bad Catholic, but seeing such a mature response makes me reconsider.


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