How to Write About Sex

If you’re theologian Alice von Hildebrand, the answer is obvious: delicately, if not sparingly. Sex and sexual pleasure, being gifts from God, represent a “sacred sphere” deserving of every defense against profanation. To explain her operating principle, she uses the French pudeur, meaning a healthy sense of shame, a quality she finds in short supply.

In the essay I’ve linked to, Hildebrand makes clear that pudeur isn’t lacking only in the World. It’s also missing from certain segments of the Church, specifically, from the writings of Christopher West. To her way of thinking, West, in his treatment of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, plays a little too fast and loose — for example, when he refers to Hugh Hefner as “tarnished gold.” He’s also a little too quick to cry “puritan.”

With my very cursory knowledge of West’s work, I’m not competent to choose a side. But I have noticed — haven’t been able not to notice — a general sexing-up of the Catholic message. 1Flesh, a grassroots organization that opposes the use of artificial contraception by married couples, has, according to its Facebook page, set for itself the additional goal of “bringing great sex to the entire universe.” If that’s too long to fit on your bumper, 1Flesh’s mottos include “Bring Sexy Back” and “It’s Better Naked,” meaning, without latex.

In a way, this makes good sense. A big component of evangelizing is salesmanship, and sex sells. More important, in order to win credibility in the general culture, a Christian evangelist must prove that his attitude toward sex — the deal-breaking subject for many –is thoroughly adult. If he gives the impression of being grossed out by, frightened of or inept at the business of the bed — in a word, repressed — he will get hooted off whatever stage he’s on.

And it won’t only be heathens hooting. In an entry on her blog, Shirt of Flame, Heather King confesses to going slightly crackers at hearing a priest homilize on chastity in pompous, infantilizing, and ultimately negative terms. She proceeds to re-cast his message:

Because this is how sensual, how erotic Christ is—one of the manifestations of waiting is that pleasure is sharpened. Waiting brings pleasure and joy to their highest possible point, and to bring things to their highest possible point is explode with love. We will suffer, of course, we will undergo the agony—for that is the very highest point of love; the point that Christ reached on the Cross. Consummatum est. To consummate our love in every sense is to give our whole selves to the world.

And that is the opposite of no, no, no. That is one cataclysmic, self-giving, aching, life-affirming yes.

It’s strong stuff. Heather, being a first-rate wordsmith, wields it with great elegance. She makes me want to petition the Vatican to draft a female figure into the Godhead so that my yes might ache like hers. And yet, now that this kind of thing is starting to echo constantly through my own corner of the Catholic blogosphere, I find myself, for the first time ever, anxiously glancing at my What Would Alice von Hildebrand Do? bracelet.

Why yes, that is a beam in my eye. So nice of you to notice. Readers will know I’m routinely profane, often bawdy. Short of posting the lyrics to “Barnacle Bill, the Sailor,” I’ve violated every rule of good taste, never mind pudeur. Well, I’m starting to repent of it, at least a little. And though I don’t think I’m quite ready to impose any hard and fast rules, I think I will, before posting, torment my conscience with the following questions. I submit them because, now that we’re all re-writing the Song of Songs, a few guidelines might be in order:

1. What are you really trying to accomplish?

A few weeks ago, Joanne McPortland wrote a piece comparing Catholics to BDSM submissives. In sharing the post on Facebook, I noted it had followed close on the heels of a piece where I compared Catholics to the gay cowboy protagonists of Brokeback Mountain. What I was too ashamed to add, though, was that Joanne, like Heather, had an actual point. (Another pundit, Sally Quinn, had introduced the topic of kink; Joanne was simply challenging her conclusions as they related to religion.) I, on the other hand, was being cute and arch purely for the fun of being cute and arch. Worse, Joanne’s post had brought out my competitive streak. If it weren’t so obvious that the last thing Patheos needed was for its bloggers to stage an edginess contest, I might have returned fire with something really unseemly.

In pushing the envelope, I suppose I’m trying to alienate a certain kind of reader. You know the type — overly pious, world-rejecting, argumentative and brittle. Last summer, when a popular televangelist left active ministry, these people roared into the comboxes like Visigoths, and I can’t think of a single blogger who was sorry to see the back of them. I got off easier than some others, mainly, I think, because I struck them as too far off the reservation to respond to their brand of fraternal correction. It’s a fair goal, I think, but I may have paid too high a price in achieving it.

2. Is challenging taboo a crutch or a gimmick?

Also a few weeks ago, I referred to an abortive gay encounter. Even now, it strikes me as a reasonable decision, undertaken for an honorable purpose. That purpose was to remind readers of the dangers of stereotyping: since I resembled the gay stereotype, part of me remained convinced my attraction to women was just a passing phase. The proposition obsessed me to the point where I simply had to test it. Simpleminded thinking had, in this case, encouraged me to sin, and the sooner Catholics stopped thinking in those terms, the better things would be for everyone.

But even so, part of me remained aware that — now that I’m all grown up and picking my way through a brand-new plate of neuroses — being straight-but-not-narrow has become cool. The idea of being seen in the light of a depraved Roman emperor or a Delightful Young Man in a green carnation did appeal to a certain part of me, but not the best part. A couple of well-meaning readers called the post brave, but really, in today’s climate it was anything but; in plain English, it was trendy.

3. Are you, perhaps, underestimating the persuasive power of unworldliness?

Probably the most effective evangelist I’ve ever known was a 60-something Sister of St. Agnes. In some respects, she seemed naive. She began her postulancy after “a couple of dates,” as she once told me, so her firsthand knowledge of sex and romance must have been pretty minimal. She blushed at four-letter words. But that appearance was deceptive. This sister had a genius for figuring out what made people tick; “nothing human is alien to me” could have been her motto.

These insights extended to matters of the heart. A couple of years ago, after dating a mutual acquaintance of ours had left me feeling bruised and baffled, I sought Sister’s advice. After hearing my story, she frowned slightly and asked, “Are you sure ________ is even capable of the kind of intimacy you want?” Just recently, the woman was diagnosed with a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome, which, while not precluding intimacy absolutely, does tend to complicate it.

By some roundabout way, it was Sister’s stodginess that allowed her to come closer to the truth than either of us could. My own diagnosis was that the woman was a lesbian. In part, I might have lit on the idea because it provided my ego with an out, but it was also in sync with my self-consciously modern outlook, the one that sees sex, especially exotic sex, everywhere. Sister saw straight through to human suffering. I’ll try to remember her example the next time I feel the temptation to be tragically hip.

  • Joanne K McPortland

    Wow. Wowee. Wow.
    No matter what voices you adopt, for whatever purposes, your honesty about it is the truest voice of all, and the edgiest (because hardly anybody has the courage to go there), and the most hip, but never tragically.
    And that’s the voice that speaks to the widest audience, too, because we all want to juggle hip and edgy and faithful and honest, but we don’t have the courage.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    What a good piece, Max, although I kind of wish you had linked to some of what you’d referenced (like the 1flesh thing) so one could easily access/follow the reference. But I love where you went with it, and particularly your closing graph, which reminds me so very much of what a sister once told me — that the FRUIT of celibacy is precisely what this sister was bearing: the ability to really listen, to enter into communion and community with each person, and therefore to “know” them in a way that is insightful and immediate and is as true a “knowing” as any sexual intimacy can be. This is the sort of richness which is part of the “office” of chastity, to which we are all called and yet from which we so often run. Lots to think about, here and I also really appreciate the authentic self-examination you make.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Btw, I have absolutely no problem with you guys getting competitive…it’s yielding some great stuff! :-)

  • J. R. P.

    As a double-T traditionalist (that’s “T” and “t”), I wonder if we can’t locate the essential problem with West’s work and the modern evangelical method on this topic as being that they no longer express the correct primacy of place to “continence”, a’ la Joseph and Mary, as a model.

    That continence ought to be considered and presented as a crowning achievement – a perfection – in the abundant life to which we are called by our call to holiness. It’s the lack of this focus that most disturbs me about the presentation of the TotB, certainly. Even if it’s not your bailiwick, it shows up as a rather significant – jarring – lacuna in the discussion when the entire tradition is taken into account.

    One wonders if the early-Christian model (where baptism was regularly put off until towards the end of life), which was taken up in the medieval times (and used only rarely there – but by some saints, certainly) might provide more of a guide.

    Something like: the more worldly focus of family and children in youth, and a certain putting aside of such things in old age, either in communion by putting into act a more profound spirit of shared holiness, or separately by entering into the religious life. This sort of model could be eyes-wide-opened entered into at the start of a marriage, subject to, of course, incapacity or whatnot on the part of one of the spouses, in which case the marital duty must remain as primary for the due course.

    Indeed, I find in the explicit call for (now Permanent) Deacons to chastity ought to entail perfect continence for the sake of the Kingdom. It isn’t presented as such presently, but I think this is a deformity of the faith rather than something in continuity with what the Roman Rite has always held for those in Orders.

    Having that sort of ‘whole garment’ approach to chastity might serve to nullify some of the existing criticism, and serve as an anodyne to the otherwise ‘too worldly’ approach that many find worthy of criticism.

  • Fortuna Veritas

    Christ is *erotic* now? God can’t love me without it being sexual now? Or is this supposed to be the reverse and when people say you have to love Christ more than your spouse they mean in every single way?

    Something seems very, very wrong here.

    This is reminding me rather uncomfortably of being told that I was going to be Christ’s wife in the afterlife when I was a 10 year old boy right before they sent me to sex ed and told me about what “wifely duties” were.

    [I could be wrong about this, but I remember reading that eroticizing the figure of Jesus is an old, if not quite respectable, tradition among nuns. I believe it was even the basis for a genre of poetry during medieval times. It's hard to read accounts of ecstatic visions without thinking, "Wow. That sounds"]

  • suburbanbanshee

    The thing to remember about images of Christ is that you’re allowed to pick the ones that are useful to you.

    And yes, that was an entire genre, written by men as well as women, mostly following the example of Song of Songs. Which is why a lot of people thought teenagers really didn’t need to study Song of Songs. :)

  • suburbanbanshee

    Of course, Baby Jesus visions and writing were also an entire genre unto itself.

  • Dan C

    Can’t we talk about something other than sex? Why always sex? We make the claim true that all Catholcis think about is sex.

    [In fairness, it isn't only Catholics. In his Dictoinary of Received Ideas, Flaubert defined the Qu'ran as "Book by Muhammad, which is all about women."]

  • Dan C

    Robert Sirico is prepping the powerful with blogging techniques and PR apologetics for libertarianism and all we talk about is sex.

    [It just occurred to me: sex is a subject where most people consider themselves expert. Or at the very least, they believe their personal experiences give them some right to speak. Whether most of them are right or wrong is beside the point. But, complicated though sex might be, it at least LOOKS more accessible than political and economic theory. That's as true of my own perceptions as anyone's. I don't pretend to have wrapped my head around Theology of the Body, but if someone told me, "You can study nothing but this or Adam Smith for the rest of your life -- choose now," nobody at the National Review would have cause to fear for his job anytime soon.]

  • Corita

    I understand what you are saying, Max, about that piece being “trendy” and certainly *you* are in a better position than I to examine your own motives. But I thought it brave specifically because you were writing about it in Catholic circles which, yes, have been shifting toward the sexed-up, Glee-loving edge of culture a great deal lately (is it only this year?), but still contain– at least in my narrow experience– plenty of VERY opinionated Catholics wielding Ye Old “Sin that Cries out For Vengeance”.

    Two years ago I would have been absolutely shocked by the fact that you wrote it, as well as the fact that you did not get completely ripped a new one….but hey, after all this is Patheos, not the Regester! (ha)

    I met Alice von Hildebrand once. She was just lovely, but I felt then and still feel like she lives in a completely different world (physical and spiritual?) than I do. Her ideas about relations between men and women are almost like reading esoteric Mesopotamian poetry; and when I read her book about Dietrich von Hildebrand I thought to myself, “Well, shit, *anybody* could be gentle and feminine and submissive and still feel like themselves as an intelligent and creative being with HIM for a husband!!”

  • ace

    Thanks, Corita, for the comments about Alice. Her stuff is quite a beautiful tribute to Dietrich, and, also, makes some important observations about the excesses in West’s extrapolations of JPII’s Theology of the Body. And yet, one wants to almost tell her to 1) have a little “pudeur” in what she is telling anyone with half an ounce of intuition (or pattern recognition) about her hero discipleship worship of her deceased hubby (and may I be forgiven for observing this about a still grieving widow) 2) everyone doesn’t live with a spouse inclined to look at their relationship in such mystical terms except perhaps in rare moments. So, like Freud quoting Shiller when dismissing William James (who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience): “Let him rejoice who breathes up here in the roseate light!” And, what does this have to do with the rest of us?

    Then, we also get 1Flesh which provides information on the dangers of oral contraception and also, quite amusingly, is anti-condom because sperm in the vagina is an antidepressant and vitamin/mineral supplement for women all rolled into one…

    Finally, there’s Heather King at Shirt of Flame writing about “metaphorical orgasm”. I guess, in the church of today, we look on disfavor if a person talks about “mental onanism”, much less actual. At least the confessable sin is still looked at as less serious if there is evidence of immaturity…

  • ace

    With regard to Joanne’s piece, I agree that “[w]e crave bondage and discipline with the divine”, and yet, we often need new (or at least additional) language to discuss this issue and to stay safe and healthy from ways in which this trust might be misused by others in whom we are to see the divine. We trust God because “he is all good and deserving of all our love”, because he is “all-just, all-holy, all-merciful”, because he is “truthful and faithful”, because he is “all wise”, because he “sees us and watches over us”, because he “knows all things, even our most secret thoughts, words, and actions”, because he “can do all things, and nothing is hard or impossible to Him”… It is Jesus who shows us the way; who asks us to pray “our Father”… something which seems a much more helpful image than spousal submission which, at least to me, is more helpful to think of as mutual submission one to the other, or at least in turn…

    St. John Climacus, in “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”, speaks about obedience being the burial place of the will. John Mack, in his exposition of this spiritual treatise (“Ascending the Heights”), says that obedience does not earn us anything but rather changes us and makes us ready to receive God’s love already given in Jesus Christ. It is necessary because it cuts off our self-will and pride and schools us in not judging and in practicing patience. “It is our own stubborn self-will which will keep us out of heaven. It is demanding that things be done our way on our own time schedule which destroys us spiritually”. To me, this gives real meaning both to Jesus’ example in submitting to the Father and to His words that “unless we become like little children”…

    But, back to adult-adult relationships. I thinks it’s about turn-taking in ceeding control and about giving in at times, when both ways are good, even if we think our way is better, and yes, in letting an erotic partner lead us and carry us to heights which release and join our hearts, our bodies, our minds, and our spirits.

  • Manny

    With all the articles on Catholic sex around, I wonder if we Catholics are making too much of this theology of the body. It just seems like it’s an avenue for Catholics to be hip with the times. “Oh we’re not prudes, we have this theology of the body.” It now strikes me as too convenient for post sexual revolution era. If we had emphasized this during the middle ages or even Vioctorian times, I might give it a little more credence. Bottom line is that Christ says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat 18:3). There is no sexuality in becoming like children, not even as a married person. You have an obligation to procreate, but lust in the heart is not exactly looked on favorably. Seems like you’re overly conscious of sexuality, per the mores of the current times, but you haven’t alienated me Max. ;) I think you Sister of St Agnes is right on.

    [Then where've you BEEN? I haven't seen you around here in months. Do I have to serenade you with "O come, Emmanuel" out of season?]

  • Manny

    LOL, I’m sorry Max. Anchoress has got so many writers here I just don’t get to them all. I have stopped by but may not have had much to say. I’ll try to come over. I always do like your writing.

  • sjay

    Let’s not neglect Hosea and Ezekiel, who manage to analogize God’s relationship with His people to a dysfunctional and quite sordid one (not His fault, but still).

  • Cathy

    Like you, I can’t believe I’m finding myself in (partial) agreement with Alice von Hildebrand. The 1flesh stuff makes me roll my eyes for precisely the reason she articulates: any spin on Catholic sexual teaching that adopts the pretense that it’s all about more pleasure for everyone is simply doomed — and disingenuous to boot. But AvH is her own problematic extreme, theologically speaking — she’s so scandalized by the Incarnation that she’s practically a heretic. And I will continue to find her take on gender unstomachable.

    But I very much appreciate your integrity and honesty about your own writing — you and Joanne are wonderfully self-reflective about such things, and I’m taking good lessons from each of you.

  • Victor

    (((If we had emphasized this during the middle ages or even Victorian times, I might give it a little more credence. Bottom line is that Christ says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat 18:3).)))

    Max, for what “IT” is worth and without getting into details, I agree with Manny on the above but what do “I” really know? :)

    NOW as for my so called spiritual imaginary friends of sinner vic who believe that they’ve been begotten as an imaginary silly god, well they say that about 93% of today’s humanity spiritual reality realm of our world are compressed of nothing but over sexed spiritual vampires and when GOD calls HIS 7% “JESUS CELLS” back HOME from this world, then, they’ll take charge and we’ll eventually get wind of their piece, if ya get my drift? But then again what do sinner vic and his so called crazy imaginary spiritual friends also really know? :)

    Go Figure! :(


  • Willie

    It seems to me the real danger with West and others who try to talk “mano a mano” about the sex stuff, is that it becomes the Catholic equivalent of this: No sensible person is going to be fooled by West or anybody else into thinking the Catholic church can compete with the secularists in the realm of pure pleasure. This is not what the Faith offers. I was turned off by West, not because he exhibited insufficient pudeuer or whatever, but because it was like a dad trying to impress his children by rapping (or something even tamer, like saying “24/7″).