How to Write About Sex

How to Write About Sex July 5, 2012

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.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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