Dissecting Bodies, Sex, Sin, Selves: Catholic, Muslim and Plasticine

A couple of days ago Muslimah Media Watch examined the way the media indulges in reductive stereotyping of Muslim women, whenever sexual issues are discussed:

Thank you Jezebel for your groundbreaking work in this field and for using phrases like “Islam, surprisingly…” and “All of which may make many a Muslim woman blush,” because that’s not reductive at all – particularly when discussing Muslim women and their intimate lives, completely missing the point that sexuality is a normal part of Islamic faith. One can get steamy with their partner without it affecting their level of piety.

It was an eye-opening read for me; I hadn’t realized that Muslim women — who are currently delivering more babies than anyone else in society — are perceived and written about, at least in the secular press, as having very little open acquaintance with sex.

It should not have surprised me, though, because we Christians are also reduced to stereotypes when it comes to sex and the press, although we’re not generally depicted as blushing innocents who don’t know what end is up. Rather, we’re either prudes and scolds, or hypocrites.

While I cannot possibly speak to Muslim press coverage, I can say that sadly, where the media stereotypes Christians, it’s because there is a germ of truth to it. Last week our Catholic channel actively refuted the “sex is dirty” narrative, with a lot of discussion about about sex education, abstinence-only education and where Christians go wrong on the sex-talk. This week, the conversation is continuing, and it’s including where we go right.

Calah Alexander kicked it off, again by expanding on her previous thoughts:

In The Divine Comedy, Dante’s organization of Inferno and Purgatorio is telling. While Catholics tend to treat sexual sins as some of the worst, and the rest of the world regards the Church’s teachings on sex as borderline obsessive, Dante’s organization of hell (which is reasonable both in medieval theology and in common sense) suggests otherwise. Lust is the least of the sins in both the Inferno and the Purgatorio. In fact, Dante finds Cunizza da Romano, a woman notorious for her many love affairs, in heaven. A priest once told me that sexual sins should be the easiest of the grave sins for us to confess, because they are the least rebellious. Indeed, sex is an act of vulnerability, one that requires a person to be literally naked, physically and spiritually, exposing their flaws along with their beauty to someone else. As such, sexual sin is usually the sin that leaves a person feeling the most exposed, ashamed, and wounded. Yet instead of responding with compassion and gentleness, too often people respond with further condemnation, wielding adjectives like dirty, filthy, soiled, spoiled, or ruined.

Elizabeth Duffy, meanwhile is pondering practical and not-overpowering ways to teach sex, and talk about sex theology, without overwhelming or scaring people off. Her post has some interesting insights on chastity and the “apprenticeship of self-mastery” which is a theological concept that goes way beyond sex and I sure wish (as I start the one-millionth diet of my life) that I’d experienced such an apprenticeship as a kid.

Dr. Gregory Popcek is talking accidental heresy and the cult of purity

Now, I know you’re asking, “okay, so, sex post…sex post…sex post…what’s the deal with the skinned and wired human bodies all plasticined-out?

Well, I’m glad you brought that up. It all began with this wonderful post by Leah Libresco that is not about sex, but about cruelty:

In gazing at the exposed musculature of the human body, writes Leah:

I could finally see some of the logic of how my body worked, and I was overwhelmed by it’s efficiency and beauty. I tried to remember the flayed muscles and blood vessels so I could almost see them when I looked at myself, and I couldn’t be lulled into complacency by the uniformity of skin. When I saw how the bodies worked, I wanted to hold on to my similarity, so I could carry over that sense of beauty.

But someone indulging in cruelty dissects human feelings without comprehending them as beautiful. Instead of marveling at our ability to love, and therefore to lose, a person exploring cruelty avoids drawing parallels between zerself and zer victim. Even if you delight in your ability to predict and control someone else, you must label that delight as different than the delight you’re denying to your mark. Or you turn it off all together. You can change (and degrade) yourself, so you can blot out any fellow feeling for the person you’re preying upon.

I couldn’t help thinking, while reading all of these excellent posts, that in a way — in a very broad way, admittedly — all of these writers are talking about different aspects of the same truth: that we are all so similar, and yet we manage to find ways to not only differentiate ourselves but to do it in cruelly condescending or willfully distortive ways — in ways that dissect the human spirit and leave too much that is meant to be sheilded, all too exposed and vulnerable.

I know almost nothing about Muslim scripture and sex, but I know Muslim women are more similar than different from their Christian or Jewish or Hindu or Atheist sisters, and so I can assume that they yearn for sex and intimacy, just like anyone else. Catholic teaching on sexuality is a marvel of openness and applied reasoning and yet it’s not only the Calvinists who contributed to the destructive notion of “filth”, and it’s not only Muslims who connect family honor to virginity. I’ve written in the past about the mad patriarch in our family who did enormous damage to younger women in the family, who could not wear a bit of lipstick without being called “slut” and accused of all but trolling for sex (and who likewise could not go without make-up without being called “dyke” and accused of sexing up their classmates pals, so, you figure out how they were supposed to get through a day!)

We humans seem to have infinite means by which we can slice and dice each other, but the sharp knife of sex and sexuality is too often the favorite tool — our cruelest means of feeling better by making others feel worse.

As a Catholic, I believe that sex is meant for marriage — in fact, I believe marriage is an office so difficult that it earns the privilege of sex both as a means of giving God an assist in creation, and of accepting his gift of consolation. Sex is nothing to be taken so lightly.

That said, I’m really glad we have so many good writers at Patheos. And I’m glad they talk of all of these things, because discussion clears the air and it gives me hope that the knives and the bullying and the adolescent sneers may yet be defeated for something much healthier, kinder and more aligned with what God wants us to understand about ourselves: that we were loved into being, designed for love, are exquisitely lovable to him.

Kissing Bodies Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Well, wait a second; let me play devil’s advocate here. If sex isn’t dirty in Christianity (and in the Abrahamic religions), then why isn’t pre-marital sex allowed, or pornography, or even dressing ill modestly? Why not endorse
    nude beaches and sexually revealing clothing? Why not engage in sexual activities? Why not flaunt youthful sex appeal? Heck the Catholic Church doesn’t even condone non-procreative sex between spouses, and how often in a lifetime does one have sex for procreation? Now I know the answers to all that; sexuality is sacred and requires divine sanction and context. But wait a second; some pagan groups also think that sexuality is sacred and come to the opposite conclusion. Full disclosure here, I did my master’s thesis on D.H. Lawrence and he ultimately rejected Christianity because he felt it renounced natural sexuality. He would have rejected the sexual revolution as well—he would have called it “sex in the brain” rather than natural sexuality, but that’s a larger argument. But he understood that some pagan religions held sexuality just as sacred as Christians but allowed the freedom of striving for a religious experience through their natural impulses. The fact is that Christianity (and the Abrahamic religions, who by the way still in places stone women for sexual impropriety) does ask people to refrain from natural impulses. So both Christians and some pagans both look at sexuality as sacred, but Christianity asks you to refrain except for very limited circumstances. Heck, look up the offshoot Protestant denomination of the Shakers. They required full abstinence at all times, even between married couples and not even for procreation. They essentially died out because they couldn’t reproduce.

    If sexual impulses are natural and you’re asked to refrain from them, then anyone looking in would draw the logical conclusion that Christians do think sex is dirty.

  • MeanLizzie

    Manny, there is so much in your comment that is misunderstanding, error and poor teaching that I will have to find time to do a long response. Today is not that day, I don’t think — I’m slammed — but there WILL be a response. :-)

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    No problem, but I did say i was playing devil’s advocate. I don’t personally subscribe to that train of thought. That is how the general public come to the conclusion that Christians think sex is dirty.

  • Gonzalo Palacios

    “As a Catholic, I believe that sex is meant for marriage.” Well, with all due respect to Ms. Scalia’s theological knowledge and biological expertise, also as a Catholic, I suggest that sex is a manifestation of God. Eros/Love as Pope emeritus Benedict XVI identifies our Father in his “God is Love” encyclical. Once again, I urge the reading of THE VIRGIN MARY’S REVOLUTION, OR LOVE AND DO WHAT YOU WILL; it will help you to understand the extent and true meaning of our Blessed Mother’s “FIAT” to the Father of her Son. Gonzalo T. Palacios, Ph.D., C.U.A.,1970

  • MeanLizzie

    Well, thank you for that umm…inviting (!) invitation to read your book. I love “with all due respect” openers: they’re usually followed by something condescending and yelled (or capitalized unto yelling). As much I as love and honor Our Lady, though, I think I’ll stick to what her son said about marriage, eyes that tempt, ideas that become idols and so forth. I believe Mary, herself would endorse that, as “do whatever he says” is kind of what she is all about. Sex is certainly a manifestation of God. That’s why (as I understand it) it ought not be used casually and should be grounded in the sort of committed relationship that can support/sustain its consequences. I suspect we will have to agree to disagree.

  • Gonzalo Palacios

    Thank you for your comment. From what I have read in your blog and here, were you to read “The Virgin Mary’s Revolution”, I am convinced we agree, period. “Married couples, single persons. consecrated virgins, celibate persons, in sum, all of us, should regard as our ‘proper mission to transmit human life,’ which we know by faith to be the life of Christ. (‘Faith means knowing God as Love, thanks to his own love,’ Benedict XVI, Vatican City, November 21, 2012)”


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