Today I want to give some of my critique of traditional sexual ethics…and also to talk about why I don’t think the modern, liberal consent/communication/consideration-for-your-partner’s-pleasure model is an adequate alternative.
To start off, I’m going to state a fact that I think should be really obvious, but that is worth stating because way too often it just gets ignored in discussions about chastity. We are the inheritors of a tradition of discourse surrounding human sexuality going back for thousands of years. Throughout almost all of this time, the discourse has been carried out almost exclusively by men, for men, and it has primarily concerned men. This is true of both secular and religious discourses about sex, and the tendency of both sides to claim that they are the real feminists, or the only ones who are truly pro-woman, is just a way of projecting all of the male chauvinism onto those folks over there rather than addressing it in a responsible way.
Sexual discourse in the West routinely marginalizes women. I’m sure this is equally true of sexual discourse in other cultures, I just don’t happen to know enough about those cultures to discuss the problem in any detail. So we’re going to talk about the West. Here we have two different, apparently opposite views of human sexuality both of which kind of deny that female bodies are compatible with meaningful sexual agency.
Most people outside of Christian chastity circles are aware of the ways in which traditional sexual morality marginalizes women, so I want to start off by talking about how the liberal model also marginalizes women. In contemporary secular sexual ethics there are basically three principles which are put forward as essential to appropriate sexual conduct: thou shalt seek consent and that consent shall be meaningful and uncoerced; thou shalt both communicate your own needs and also listen and understand the needs of your partner; thou shalt consider thy partner’s pleasure to be equal in importance to thine own.
Alright. So I get that for a lot of guys these three commandments are not actually all that easy to follow. I understand that it takes work. And I do also understand that for many men these things take enough work that they might even look like a lofty standard of sexual conduct. But by the time we are adults, the majority of women do number one and number two without even thinking about it. The idea that you have to make sure that your partner really and freely consents, and that you need to ensure that they actually enjoy the sex… that’s a standard that was developed to correct male behaviour. It’s not really a standard for females, because most of us just do those things. Yes, there are exceptions, but as a general trend males are the ones who have difficulty with this. If anything, the problem for many women is that we end up focusing on male pleasure to the detriment of our own needs and our own bodies.
Which brings me to the fundamental, glaring omission in the liberal model which is that there is no natural equality of the sexes when it comes to sex. You can’t have a sexual ethic in which men and women are both expected to behave with precisely the same kind of respect and consideration for one another’s bodies because sex is the one area of life where our bodies behave really significantly differently. And the difference is pregnancy. A fertile female can always get pregnant during sex, no matter how many precautions have been taken. A male can never get pregnant during sex, no matter how irresponsible he is. To formulate a sexual ethic that does not place this fact up front and centre is to formulate a sexual ethic which will harm women. Period.
And we can see this easily enough if we look at the actual state of things. When children are born outside of stable and committed relationships, the work of child-rearing falls overwhelmingly on mothers. The brunt of social stigma also falls overwhelmingly on the woman. As does the financial burden. And the emotional labour. Not to mention the brute fact that pregnancy is physically onerous and childbirth is painful, and in some cases traumatic.
The liberal solution to this is to try to technologically correct the problem by doing away with the female functions of the female body. This also is impossible without harm to women. I’ve been on the Pill, and the reason why I do not think that it is a great advance for female-kind is that after six months of being on it I was experiencing mental health side-effects so severe that I literally could not look at an object (like any object: fire hydrants, pillows, stuffed animals, cows) without immediately involuntarily visualizing a way that it could be used, by myself or another person, to kill or maim me. On a really, really good day I would experience suicidal compulsions like once or twice. Those side-effects vanished within a week after I stopped taking my birth control. Yet my doctor told me that women’s reports of depression while on chemical contraception are basically psychosomatic… and I know a lot of other women who have been told the same. This in spite of the fact that staggeringly large numbers of women stop using these methods because the side-effects are unbearable.
Abortion is definitely no better. It’s a physically traumatic operation that has severe mental health sequelae for many women. Tubal ligation is a major invasive surgery. IUDs and other implanted devices have been known to wreak serious destruction on women’s bodies – and more frequently cause cramping so severe that women feel like they are in labour. Any time a woman signs up for any of these technological solutions to the problem of fertility she is rolling the dice, and doesn’t know whether she will get lucky, or end up in the emergency room with serious, even life-threatening, complications.
In other words, by pretending that pregnancy can be basically removed from the equation of sexual morality by simple technological expedients, we make a decision to throw tens of millions of women under the bus. What possible reason could there be for making such a decision? The party line is that this is the only way to achieve women’s sexual liberation. I would like to suggest, as courteously as I may, that women are being liberated in order that they may be more readily available to meet the needs of men – and that no amount of talk about mutual pleasure and consent is sufficient to redress the injustice that occurs when a woman’s capacity to produce new life within her body is marginalized or omitted.
Now, that said, traditional sexual morality is no better and I am certainly not eager to let it off the hook. While the reproductive aspects of sex are definitely up front and centre in traditional discourses, the agency of women as sexual subjects is marginalized, often to an appalling extent. I’ve recently been researching the politics surrounding the Papal birth control commission, and if you are a liberal reader you may be reassured that I am by no means sanguine about the degree to which women were thrown under the bus by the Church in order to prop up a patriarchal authority structure’s claims to infallibility. Nor do I think it likely that the objective truth about human sexuality can only be discovered by celibate men, who don’t even have wives to answer to, going into secret enclaves and coming to decisions based on texts written by men out of a tradition from which sexually active women have been systemically excluded.
No matter how you try to white-wash it, the traditional family is one in which a woman is expected to subordinate her sexuality to the desires of her husband. She is obliged to render “the marriage debt,” regardless of her own needs or interests. Her pleasure is habitually omitted from discussion, except when it is vilified. Until quite recently, the ideal was that a woman should go to the marriage bed solely in order to prevent her husband from committing adultery or in order to bear him children. There are arguments for why giving reciprocal pleasure to a wife who is incapable of orgasm during penetration (either by manual or oral stimulation) is lustful. Women are habitually shamed for their sexual choices, without reciprocal shaming of the men without whom those choices would have been impossible. And finally, women’s legitimate desire to have a life apart from child-bearing and child-rearing is routinely either denied or demonized.
I do not consider as adequate any conception of the virtue of chastity which does not sincerely and whole-heartedly seek to remedy and repent of these errors. And to be clear, I think that the Church has mostly paid mouth-service to feminism since Vatican II and that Catholic sexual morality will continue to be substantially unbalanced and malformed until the sins of patriarchy have actually been repudiated and atoned for.
All of that said, the Church does have one essential thing right: procreation cannot be excluded from its central position in sexual ethics without severely harming and compromising the concrete good of the female sex. To have a sexual ethics which does not put pregnancy up front and centre is like having a theory of economic justice which systemically excludes the fact that humans need food. Such an ethic can only possibly serve those who can take freedom from pregnancy for granted, and it is ultimately another manifestation of males lording it over females in the broken sexual economy of postlapstarian life.
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