It’s that time of year again – the annual season of arguing about whether “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a rape anthem or not. I know what you’re all thinking: “Melinda,” you are asking yourselves, “can you relate this question to NFP?” Why yes. Yes I can.
The argument in favour of “Baby It’s Cold” is basically an argument that these coy refusals are a way for a woman to get sex in a context where she will be shamed, or ashamed, if she just says “I would love to.” Some go a little further and argue that this kind of seductive cat-and-mouse game is sexier than all of the awkward conversations that we’re supposed to have about consent instead.
Not surprisingly, the defense of the sexy-seductive theory often comes from women and men with conservative sexual ethics. But I don’t think it’s fair to reduce this to a matter of “upholding patriarchy” or being “anti-feminist.” There’s something more at play.
I’ll tell a story. A few years ago I was in a situation where I wanted to practice NFP and my husband said, flat out, “No.” He refused, on the fairly sympathetic grounds that he did not want me to risk my health on another pregnancy after my miscarriage. We made a brief attempt at living “as brother and sister” and quickly saw that it was rapidly turning into a train-wreck – it made an already very stressful and difficult situation worse and it was literally tearing our marriage apart.
So I went to confession and I asked what I should do. It was one of those Lenten confessions where they have a handful of spare priests come to administer the sacrament, and the priest that I actually confessed to did what most priests will (in my experience) do if you come to the with an NFP hard-case: he said, “I don’t know.” But then he added that if I was willing to stay afterwards, one of the other priests might be able to advise. I waited, and eventually a very kind, older priest came over and listened while I explained my situation.
His advice was “Every day, you should try not to sin. But if you do anyway, know that you have done everything humanly possible. Put it in God’s hands.” It was in many ways very helpful – being told by someone in authority that I really actually had tried as hard as I could made a huge difference in terms of shutting down the shame and self-accusation machine. It was also meant charitably: this was a priest trying to somehow steer a path between the demands of the teaching and the needs of the person in front of him.
It was, however, problematic advice in practice. What it meant was that I was in a position where I couldn’t have a realistic discussion about what I actually wanted in my sex life… but provided I was responding to seduction, swept away by my passions, or just doing it because I felt pressure it wasn’t really my fault.
It’s a problem, not just in NFP culture but in purity culture more generally. If your situation is any way irregular – that is, if you are not having married sex primarily for the purpose of procreation, there is a more or less strong psychological incentive towards sexual expression that is not quite consensual. There’s a lot of understanding, a lot of leeway, for people who are just carried away by a desire that overwhelms them. But if you’ve arrived at a sober, rational, well-considered and empirically tested conviction that a sexless marriage would be a disaster, that pregnancy would be worse, and the NFP does not work for you… well, you’re out of luck.
Of course most confessors have more sense than people in NFP forums and comboxes. They’ll point out that emotional factors are only one of factors that can reduce culpability, that in an objective hard case you probably don’t meet the criteria for full knowledge, that if you want to do the right thing but are finding it functionally impossible due to external circumstances this also impedes full consent and so on.
But this is not the attitude that I generally find in Catholic chastity culture. Here, external circumstances are always the Cross that God is calling you to bear. Internal weakness, on the other hand, is natural. Everybody stumbles. It’s a dirty little secret that almost nobody actually practices the teaching. It’s understood that you are going to succumb to passion, that “frequent recourse to the confessional” will be necessary. That if you’re actually rigid enough to follow the teaching as you profess it, well, probably that would be harmful. But nobody actually does that.
What people do instead is engage in a kind of psychodrama where you are tempted, you resist, you try to get away, but temptation slowly reels you in. It’s not quite your fault. It’s the feeling. The music. Your drink. The weather. Before you know it, almost against your will, there you are having sex just like all the normal, badly catechized people. But at least you know enough to feel bad about it in the morning.
Then you go to confession. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
This means that you can have a sex life… provided you’re not too hung up on giving clear consent. Because if you insist too much on explicit consent, sober consent, or worse, premeditated consent, this interrupts the entire drama. It shines too much light on its fundamental assumption that it is acceptable, indeed better, to lose control of yourself sexually than it is to rationally think about what will be good for you and discuss it clearly with your partner.
So long as its cold outside, you can play these games and let things get hot. The one thing you cannot do is admit, out loud or even silently to yourself, that you have actual agency and are making a decision to do something that you want.
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