“The rumba is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire” [Blogathon 2/12]

“The rumba is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire” [Blogathon 2/12] June 11, 2012

This post is number two of twelve for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.  I’m responding to comments in the “Go Ahead, Tell Me What’s Wrong with Homosexuality” thread all day.  You can read an explanation of the Blogathon and a pitch for donations (even if you’re religious) here.

At some point in the long discussion of homosexuality, I asked why the Catholic church puts erotic same sex relationships and acts in the same category as erotic male-female acts in the first place.  I wanted to know why gay sexuality isn’t more like the tango or the rumba, which is an eroticism that is not directed toward procreation.  Cous replied:

Leah, to respond to your tango objection, if a married man and a woman were using tango as form of masturbation, it WOULD be wrong for the same reasons that that two women having sex is morally wrong – since you’re asking for the Catholic perspective, “Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.” (CCC 2351)…

As Jerry says, the philosophy behind this isn’t just about homosexual sex acts, they’re principles that apply to any activity involving the sexual organs qua sexual organs and/or the pursuit of sexual pleasure. People outside and inside the Church have a hard time believing that she puts masturbation, non-vaginal sex (even heterosexual married couples are not off the hook here), contraception, IVF, fornication, etc. all in the same tent, but she is extremely clear that these are all violations of the same moral principle.

I still find this confusing, because it sounds like there’s an assumption being made that the pursuit of sexual pleasure necessarily involves the genitals, and thus, is masturbation.  But human sexuality is extremely diverse, and genital stimulation isn’t at the top of everyone’s list.

So, if you find something else more pleasurable or erotic, is it off the table as long as you find it equally or more arousing than genital stimulation.  (This is where I start to wonder how much you have to enjoy kissing, fencing, or witty banter before it’s verboten, no matter the gender of your partner.)

I still don’t understand why genitals are qualitatively different than every other part of the body and uniquely problematic.  It can’t just be the procreative argument, because the bits of a woman’s genitals that involve pleasure are not necessary for an act to be procreative.


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  • keddaw

    I think it’s just an extension of Catholic though crime, take Matthew 5:28 – “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” add in a bit of anti-onanism, a bit of “no sex outside of marriage” with just a sprinkle of anti-fun and you have a proscription against anything that could be considered sexual, a precursor to sex, or sexual thought, outside of a Catholic marriage.

  • Involvement of the genitals is a bit of a red herring here. For example, it actually is wrong for two people of the same sex to kiss in the way lovers do.

    As for your original argument, it basically boils down to gay sex not being sex for natural law purposes and thus not being bound by the purposes of the real thing. But if that was true, it would also be true for the unitive purpose. So gay promiscuous sex would be just fine, as would be the equivalent acts between a man and a woman. And, while we’re at it, married people could seek the same acts outside of marriage without that being cheating. And you don’t believe that yourself.

  • David

    If the ultimate goal of any eroticism is an orgasm, then the genitals are involved whether they are stimulated directly or indirectly.

  • Cous

    [Edit: Blah, this comment was longer and more rambly than I intended. Takeaway: The reason masturbation, homosexual sodomy and heterosexual sodomy are in the same moral class is not because of genital stimulation, but because they use sexual capacity in a way that is not just “not the same as,” but orthogonal to, the proper use of sexual capacity. Also, not all erotic activities are forms of masturbation, and same-sex kissing has, morally speaking, more in common with opposite-sex kissing than with same-sex sex.]

    Leah, you’re got most of the picture, but there’s a distinction missing that might be leading to your confusion. It’s partly my fault – masturbation, pursuit of sexual pleasure, and erotic activities are not interchangeable terms, but I have sometimes used the first two that way; by masturbation I don’t mean pursuit of just any degree of sexual pleasure, but certain types of activities where the ultimate goal is climax/orgasm. And like David points out, sexual pleasure does always require the genitals insofar they’re the organs that produce it – I don’t only get stomachaches from eating food, but I can’t have a stomachache without a stomach.

    No one’s saying that all erotic activities are off the table. Let’s start by looking at your claim that the sexual arousal involved in same-sex acts and tango “is an eroticism that is not directed toward procreation.” So sure, same-sex acts are not “directed toward procreation” in the same way that we’ve been arguing that all acts of vaginal intercourse inherently are. But they ARE acts that eliminate the possibility of that sexual encounter being one of total union with the other person, which is only proper within the context of the lifelong commitment of marriage. An unmarried but dating man and woman who go on a date, dance salsa together, find themselves turned on by dancing with the other person, and keep dancing, aren’t doing anything inherently objectionable, although it could be objectionable for other reasons (he’s doing it just for the pleasure, thereby objectifying her; she enjoys being able to manipulate him). This is an erotic activity for them, but it is not masturbation. Where it gets objectionable if it turns into of masturbation – pursuing the height of sexual pleasure by an act that cuts off the possibility of vaginal intercourse in the context of marriage (well, they’re down on two counts, since they’re not married). Hence sodomy between any couple, regardless of marital status sexual orientation or whether they’re of different sexes, is morally wrong, as is solo masturbation.

    I’m not saying you should draw a bright line around activities involving climax and that only those activities should be the subject of serious moral judgment. The morality of those other acts are more dependent on features that can vary widely from case to case, but are none the less areas where moral good can be pursued or rejected. Take two heterosexual teenagers who don’t go “all the way” but go farther than they know is fitting – they haven’t committed some inherently wrong act, but they’re showing a disregard for the dignity of themselves and the other person by treating the morality of sex as some kind of game where you’re fine as long as you don’t cross the line. To borrow an analogy I’ve heard elsewhere, it’s like deciding to carry someone you love as close to the edge of a cliff as you can without falling off – if you really cared about them, you would stay at a safe distance from the edge. You could have the same dynamic between two lesbian teenagers who have been raised Catholic and know they shouldn’t be having any kind of sex with one another, but who decide that kissing and grinding together are fine (I’m stipulating that it’s non-masturbatory grinding). The morality of their acts is a matter of imprudence and of lack of true love for the other person – it’s not an inherently wrong act the way that, say, adulterous sex is, but they’re purposely “leading themselves on,” putting themselves into a tempting situation, making it harder for them to make the right decision when they have to say “no,” and by their actions they’re creating habits that weaken their wills and their ability to love selflessly and responsibly.

    • Dumb and off-topic side question:
      You can edit comments? How does that work?

      • Cous

        Sorry to get your hopes up, I didn’t actually edit it, I finished writing the comment and then added that in at the top. But I really wish Patheos had “edit comment” capability.

  • Alex

    I must admit that I am quite confused by the whole “natural purpose of sex” argument. Perhaps it would be helpful to both parties to choose a less emotionally charged example as a learning tool. For example what is the natural purpose of the mouth and why is playing the flute not orthogonal to its purpose?

    And for that matter, what is the natural purpose of the hands? Or the feet?

  • R.C.

    It’s not just the “natural purpose of sex” argument.

    It’s also the “natural purpose of pleasure” in general, and the “natural purpose of sexual pleasure” in particular.

    Pleasure exists to direct human persons toward good activity which they otherwise might never do or defer unnecessarily to the detriment of themselves or others.

    The good towards which sexual pleasure exists to direct human beings is the good of procreation and childrearing, with married-couple, two-parent, two-gender, stable, inseparable-until-death-do-us-part childrearing being the kind of childrearing towards which the attendant emotional bonding directs us.

    (The initial plasticity of human sexual selectivity allows a young person to bond to a very wide range of possible mates provided the mutual self-giving is present. But time spent and intercourse unimpeded by barrier contraception or hormonal interference allows this bond to cement and the selectivity to “harden” over time, which provides a stable family for the benefit of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Or…something like that. I don’t want to state all that more glibly than the evidence warrants, but it seems to point in that direction.)

    So the question is: Is it morally licit to circumvent the natural goods which come about from a particular act in pursuit of achieving the pleasure of that act apart from those natural goods?

    For example, is it okay to separate the pleasure of eating from the good towards which that pleasure drives us (namely, the repair of our bodily tissues through nutrition)? The Romans, perhaps apocryphally, are rumored to have done so, gorging and then barfing in order to gorge some more. Is that disordered, or is it a properly-ordered way to pursue the pleasure of eating?

    Or, is it okay to dissociate pleasure from any good activity whatsoever, by attaching oneself to an automated life-support mechanism of some kind, sticking an electrode into one’s pleasure center, and just zapping oneself repeatedly for decades until one dies from old age? Why get pleasure from learning, loving, eating, sex, and whatever else when you can just have it straight, all day, from now until you die? Is the only problem with that the practical problem of making it happen? Or is there anything objectively disordered about seeking pleasure dissociated from any good, in that way?

    The Catholic Church teaches that the use of artificial birth control is a disordered species of act similar to the Romans reputed binging-and-purging (plus, imprudent because it tends towards divorce and other kinds of heartbreak and sexual callousness). Likewise, the Catholic Church teaches that while the persons who experience homoerotic desire are persons created in the image of God to be respected and loved in their totality, the homoerotic desires themselves are objectively disordered inasmuch as they tempt the person to take pleasure in sexual acts which entirely avoid the procreative and childrearing goods towards which that sexual pleasure is intended to direct the person.

    The teaching, then, is something like this: God gives you certain capabilities, and some of them He encourages you to use by making them pleasurable. But taking the pleasure without performing the goods towards which the pleasure is intended to encourage you separates the pleasure from the good, leaving it devoid of meaning and benefit and defeating God’s purpose in giving it to you to begin with.

    To refine it further: God gives you certain capabilities, enjoining you to use them for the ends He calls good, in ways He calls morally licit; or else to abstain from using them. Either use or abstention is permitted. But misuse is morally forbidden.

    Thus if one has a good mind, one may use it to ascertain truth, perhaps through scholarly life. Or, one may work as a ditch-digger if one chooses to abstain from scholarly life in favor of another kind of good. But one may not use one’s good mind to come up with profitable insurance scams. Use, or abstention, but not misuse.

    Or, if one has artistic or musical talent, one may use that to create beauty in service of truth and goodness. Or, not…one may use other gifts with one’s limited time and not pursue the life of an artist. But one may not licitly use one’s gifts in the creation of propaganda or to prey upon one’s audiences prurient interests in order to achieve fame or wealth. Use, or abstain, but don’t misuse.

    So, if one has the procreative capability, one may marry and have children and remain married until death. Or, one may remain single and chastely celibate. But one may not voluntarily seek sexual pleasure and fulfillment apart from the kind of act which is procreative, thereby ditching the goods towards which sexual pleasure was intended to drive one’s use of one’s sexual powers. One may use, or abstain, but not misuse.

    So it’s not just about what are one’s generative organs designed to do, but also what one’s capability of experiencing pleasure (in this case, sexual pleasure) is designed to do. Likewise, what one’s ability to bond to a partner is designed to do (form stable families for the benefit of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren). If the whole brain is “a sexual organ” as we are endlessly told, then the whole pleasurable, instinctual, pheromonal design has a procreative and family-forming end.