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 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.




  • Io

    Thank you for this. Like a lot of other people, I was pretty disturbed by that post when it came out, even in addition to the fact that I’m weirded out by chaste, single people going on and on about sex all the time.

    There is a disturbing trend among young, unmarried Catholic men to be controlling. Usually this is couched in terms of obedience, and always, always has the friendly little disclaimer that it’s the for woman’s GOOD and out of LOVE. I dated a guy like this. It’s very sinister, and has nothing to do with love. So in the broader picture, and not specifically about sex, I think there are a lot of young, unmarried Catholic men who have to do some serious thinking about what love and marriage really mean. Combine that with modesty rages, rants about controlling women’s clothes (read: sexual attractiveness) and Michael-Voris style young-masculine-angry-at-the-world-for-no-reason proselytizing towards the insecure, and we have a melting pot of problems that’s about to blow its lid. I saw this post as a not that surprising extension of the general attitude. I’m not saying that Bad Catholic fits into the angry category, but he seemed to be reflecting a lot of problematic attitudes that get tossed around pretty casually because no one thinks they will do any harm to women.

    You are ABSOLUTELY correct that there are some conversations or abstract ideas that will do real damage to real people and therefore shouldn’t be talked about. It’s amazing how hard it is to convince people of this.

  • jen

    Word, Calah.

  • Elizabeth

    I grew up in a Protestant community where “headship”/control was held up as the supreme virtue of a married man. Anytime I encounter this attitude in Catholic circles, it makes me sick. It flies in the face of the beautiful, beautiful theology of marriage we are privileged to share as Catholics.
    I am blessed to be married to a man who understands that being head of our family means being the servant in all things. Sex and every other aspect of our marriage is about doing our best to model the sacrificial love of Christ. It’s never about control.

    Thank you for having the humility to post here. That says a great deal about your character.

    • DeaconJR

      Hi, Elizabeth–just a thought regarding the term “headship” which is alongside “control” in your comment above. It’s probably good to remember that the Catholic concept of “headship”–but without the “control” context, rather with the idea of “headship-as-self-gift” or “headship-as-imitation-of-Christ”–is still worth keeping, as it has its place in Scripture and magisterial teaching. Husbands need to understand the “real” meaning of “headship,” which is so vividly expressed by Paul in Ephesians 5–the kind of headship that leads by example via total self-gift and sacrifice even unto death. God bless! JR

      • Elizabeth

        Yes, I certainly understand. I only put “headship” alongside “control” to signify the way leadership was twisted in the church where I grew up. The Catholic understanding of a husband’s headship is incredibly beautiful. St. John Chrysostom helped me to understand it best when he spoke of the “gift of submission” given to Mary at the foot of the Cross. Submission for Mary and for all wives is the privilege of receiving the love of our beloved.

  • Pingback: Breakfast Links for 12/11/12 - Sex and Control; What Ticks Jesus Off; Googling God

  • Anna

    Yup. That was one post I read and said, “oh, he’s trying too hard to draw in people with shock value and just ended up being totally wrong*” but Marc’s comboxes usually blow up quickly so I didn’t want to get involved there. So thank you for doing the necessary takedown of this one!
    *doesn’t happen too often – usually he has a good point – but it does happen.

  • Me

    Thanks Calah, as a women who just ran away (jumped in the car with my kids and three baskets of clothes and drove off) from an abusive marriage I want to thank you for your comments. I am still an emotional mess. My husband used the Church’s teaching against me all the time. One of the last conversations we had he told me I was a bad catholic because I was planning to get a divorce and an annulment from him. He thinks that when 2 become 1 flesh I became a part of his flesh so I cannot leave our bad marriage because it is FOREVER. We used NFP, he was a lector and in the KoC. We have 4 kids. We were the model of the good Catholic family, except for the abusive part. Control was our “relationship”. He was always doing what he decided was best for the family, my opinion was not needed. Often when we had sex he would complain that I didn’t seem to enjoy it enough. Really? What makes you think that? Marc does need to rethink what his words sound like to abused women everywhere.
    “The man who loves does wish to “control a woman’s body,” and
    “Similarly, the lover does desire a “slavery for women,” and
    “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”
    I was always glad when the cycle of readings would get around to Jesus telling us that in heaven we would not be married. At one point I hoped that I would die once my last child left home so I wouldn’t have to be married to husband anymore. Now I have decided that in no way did the chuch intend that at the stupid age of 23, on a beautiful day in an ugly church, when I promised to stay married until death, would I have made that promise if I knew I was marrying a monster. But his abuse started slow, after the honeymoon. Little mean things here and there. After the kids it escalated, and escalated again after I started to say I would leave. But by then the bad catholic and bad mother meme was looping in my head 24/7. Because as we all know evil, drug addicted, sexual deviant, and loser kids are the only kind of kids a single mom can raise. Better that they see dad abuse mom than come from a divorced family. Last week for the first time in 40 years of being a catholic I heard a priest speak of domestic violence in a sermon. It was all I could do not to run up on the altar and hug the sweet 26 year old kid. Maybe Marc should come hang out with my priest sometime and learn something about compassion and think a little less about passion.

    • Barbara

      Me, I am going through the exact same thing, almost identical circumstances. Thank you for telling your story. I am in a deep crisis, both spiritual and emotional. If you’d like to connect send me an e-mail.

    • Karen

      You did the best possible thing for yourself and your kids. For what it’s worth, I will send thoughts and prayers to you and Barbara.

  • Lena

    What’s the scoop on Angry Catholic Mark? Young? Old? Married? Single?

  • Pingback: “We” Ennui and the “I” Revolution

  • jose

    I’ve noticed that bad catholic guy often makes generalizations. He speaks about his personal opinion or feelings about something and says “we”, meaning the whole of humanity, instead of just “I”. He did that recently speaking about how “we” are afraid of corpses; he does the same thing here by explaining what “a man” wants or doesn’t want. He thinks he speaks for christianity, men, and humanity. He definitely should tone down those delusions of grandeur.

  • wewroiwep

    This is a wonderful example of an attempt to control, but done in the classically feminine style of emotional manipulation instead of open aggression. First, humiliate, which you do well at the beginning of the piece. You have to wound a victim so he feels fear; he doesn’t want to be wounded again. You give your own hands and illusion of cleanliness by allowing someone else to do the dirty work and merely quoting. After the initial humiliation, the next step is to explain why the victim deserved it in a way he will internalize. This is the time for condescension, which you do well; it adds insult to injury and deepens the humiliation. If the humiliation was thorough, the victim will be pliable and will likely assent to whatever you say, out of fear and a desire to save face. Third, and this is the most important part, make the victim feel that this was necessary and that you really care. It was for his own good. After that, a lot of positive comments and encouragement from other emotional manipulators will reinforce the dynamic, about the victim’s acquiescence and how it shows that he is so very humble, mature and gracious. Have a nice pat on the head, little doggy, here’s a biscuit and don’t ever EVER do that again.
    Marc should never have apologized. These people hate free inquiry and thought. They don’t understand men and they will always gladly stifle or kill freedom of thought and expression for emotional sensitivity, ultimately to the detriment of all. All of the tolerance-above-all and sensitivity talk of recent decades, which is ultimately oppressive and dictatorial, is the result of this sensitivity-before-freedom attitude that mainly women bring to the table and lately as a herd insist upon, sometimes literally shrieking about it. Whether he was on target in the piece or not is irrelevant. No one should ever submit to such blatant manipulation. It’s disgusting. Never apologize in situations like this. You could never abase yourself enough to satisfy the emotional manipulators. It’s all about control.

    • Elizabeth

      Calah wrote a thoughtful and charitable critique of an article loaded with problematic theology. Marc showed a lot humility in apologizing. Whether he was on target or not IS incredibly relevant as evidenced by the stories shared here of women who have experienced abuse at the hands of “good Catholic men.” Internet theologians don’t theologize in a void…their thoughts and opinions have serious consequences in the real world.