attitudes towards sex – avoiding the harmful extremes

We recently encountered these words in a novella length short story from nearly one hundred years ago, Out of Nowhere into Nothing (which is found in The Egg and Other Stories published by Dover Publications in 2000 as a republication of the 1921 work by Sherwood Anderson, The Triumph of the Egg:  A Book of Impressions from American Life in Tales and Poems).  These stories are fictional yet are the author’s attempts to portray attitudes of the time.  (We will from time to time read books written decades ago to gain insights into how people thought at earlier times.)

We share these words (from pages 128 – 130) now as the starting point of today’s essay.

Ma Wescott is thinking to herself and then speaking to her 27 year old daughter, Rosalind, who is romantically involved with a man.

page 128

. . . . To her she must make clear the fate of all women.  Young girls grew up dreaming, hoping, believing.  There was a conspiracy.  Men made words, they wrote books and sang songs about a thing called love.  Young girls believed.  They married or entered into close relationships with men without marriage.  On the marriage night there was a brutal assault and after that the woman had to try to save herself as best she could.  She withdrew within herself, further and further within herself.

page 129

. . . . . She had been thinking, all through the years she had been thinking.  There was a dreadful lie in life, the whole fact of life was a lie.

She had thought it all out.  There was a world somewhere unlike the world in which she lived.  It was a heavenly place in which there was no marrying or giving in marriage, a sexless quiet windless place where mankind lived in a state of bliss.  For some unknown reason mankind had been thrown out of that place, had been thrown down upon the earth. It was a punishment for an unforgivable sin, the sin of sex.

The sin had been in her as well as in the man she had married.  She had wanted to marry. Why else did she do it?  Men and women were condemned to commit the sin that destroyed them.  Except for a few rare sacred beings no man or woman escaped.

page 130

. . . . . Life was a lie.  Life perpetuated itself by the lie called love.  The truth was that life itself came out of sin, perpetuated itself only by sin.

“There is no such thing as love.  The word is a lie.  The man you are telling me about wants you for the purpose of sin,” she said. . . .

. . . . “Men only hurt women,” she said, “they can’t help wanting to hurt women.  They are made that way.  The thing they call love doesn’t exist.  It’s a lie.”

“Life is dirty.  Letting a man touch her dirties a woman.”  Ma Wescott fairly screamed forth the words.  They seemed torn from her, from some deep inner part of her being.  . . . . Ma Wescott had said nothing of what was in her mind.  She had thought it all out, what she wanted to say to her daughter.  Why would the words not come?  The passion for denial within her was not satisfied.  “There is no love.  Life is a lie.  It leads to sin, to death and decay,” she called into the darkness.

What do you think of these quotes?

The other extreme, to the current widespread sexual license that is disconnected from a healthy understanding of morality, is the hatred of sex and this leads to sexless, dead marriages.

I think this is sick.  The quotes above appear to indicate a case of personal bitterness taken to a grotesque extreme where mental illness, even insanity, may be present.  In addition to bitterness, religion may have been a factor in this woman’s thinking.  The quotes above could pass for the writings of Christian monks during Scholastic times (11th to 13th centuries).

Extremism begets extremism.  Hatred of sex.  Extreme prudishness.  A twisted, distorted understanding of holiness.  An inhuman view of human sexuality.  Sexless, joyless, love less, dead marriages.  All this leads to, as it has done during the 20th century, to sexual anarchy.  Sexual addicts.  Widespread promiscuity.  Etc.  Extreme attitudes to sex do much harm to real people.

the rigid inflexibility of some churches

Causing much harm to our attitudes about sex, western Christianity (since the time of St. Augustine, died 430) has clung to an ancient pagan sexual pessimism that is not authentically Christian.  For too long, the churches have had a negative attitude towards sex within marriage.  Taken to a grotesque extreme, we have the sexual morality of celibates, the morality of the monastery or the cloistered convent.  This “morality” seeks to emasculate husbands and de-sexualize wives.  Of course, this morality ceases to be moral with the harm it does to married persons and becomes a tool of power and control. (Christians need to consider what Jesus taught in the Gospels.  He calls us to live a moral, human life.)

For many, the Catholic Church comes to mind here.  The institutional Church, as opposed to the Catholic faith, treads too heavily upon marriage.  For many Catholics, it is hard to go along with all of the Church’s many positions on so many diverse issues.  The Catholic Church with its bishops and lay apologists will bleed for convicted capital murderers on death row awaiting execution (thanks to Pope John Paul II’s personal animosity to capital punishment).  At the same time, the Church will assert that the husband who desires to make love with his wife can be guilty of lust.  (Again, John Paul.)  But, this is not accurate as lust refers to unlawful sexual desire.  There is talk of frequent sex within marriage leading to the “objectification” of the wife (especially if the couple is using contraception). What some of these church men and their lay apologists fail to grasp or fully appreciate is that women do have a sex drive.  (By the way, you will be hard pressed to ever see the Church – in its voluminous writings on sex within marriage over many centuries – use the term “lovemaking” to describe what goes on in the marriage bed between the spouses.)  As to the objectification of persons, that is what occurs not in marriage but with bed hopping, one night stands and casual sexual “hook-ups” between strangers.  As well, it is offensive to many married persons when the Church complains about those husbands and wives who incorporate oral play (oral sex) into their lovemaking, which the Church chooses to forbid at all times, even on non-fertile days (when there is no possibility of conception occurring).

married lovemaking and the sexless marriage

Our view, not very popular with those of the extremes, is that sex ought to be reserved, saved for marriage.  The spouses should practice and enjoy mutually fulfilling sexual love within their loving marriage.  The lovemaking needs to be frequent, playful, passionate and enjoyable for both spouses.  Thus, the marriage bond is strengthened.  (Sexual frustration within marriage leads to sexual sin and marriage failure.)

There is a need for Christian marriage bloggers.  These marriage bloggers are married women and married men.  Thus, they can address the many challenges in marriage having the actual experience of being married themselves.  What is one of the most frequent topics on Christian marriage blogs?  Which essays have many painful comments submitted by readers, both by wives and by husbands?  Answer: The topic of sexual refusal (and sexual neglect) within marriage and the closely related topic of the mostly sexless marriage.

One curious or odd thing to note is that many married couples stuck in a sexually dysfunctional marriage had frequent sex while they were dating and engaged to marry. We read many comments from both husbands and wives about how they had – while dating their then future spouse – lots of passionate sex prior to getting married.  But, since their wedding day the frequency of sexual intimacy has fallen off significantly.  This seems to us to be getting it backwards.  Try to save the sex for marriage.  Once married, let no one tell you not to engage in frequent, mutually pleasurable lovemaking with your spouse.

The lovemaking makes one vulnerable, yes, but it also opens us up to the mutual respect, the shared trust and mutual appreciation that we can build and experience with our spouse during our lovemaking.  This shared emotional vulnerability need not be feared and thus avoided.  In time, it can and will be supplanted by a stronger, deeper trust of one’s spouse, a greater respect for him or her, and a loving, embracing, deeper acceptance of him or her. But, this will not happen, cannot happen, when you refuse your spouse frequent sexual intimacy.

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  1. Completely agree. But my understanding is the Catholic Church teaching is sex in marriage is good and healthy. But only using your spouse for sex is lustful. At least that is what I got out of JPII’s letters.

  2. Thanks Rachel-Elaine for your comment. I did not want to get into too much detail about the Catholic Church’s teachings on married sexuality in the above essay as it was intended for a general audience. But, the view of married sex, even today within mainline Protestant denominations, has been heavily influenced by the Catholic Church’s historical positions on marriage. As you know, the Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church in the 16th century.

    If you ever read some of the history of the Church’s views on sex within marriage, you may come to a different conclusion. In some of its writings, the Church gives evidence of an animosity to the sexual love of the spouses. This is from ancient pagan schools of thought. At the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563), one of the many anathemas issued was for those who would dare to assert that celibacy was not preferable to marriage in God’s eyes. Marriage cannot even be considered on a par with celibacy (although it is one of the sacraments of the Church).

    As to “using your spouse for sex” being lustful, JP II was insisting that married couples leave every act of sex ordered to procreation (as obviously not every act can be open to it as the wife is only fertile for 2 to 3 days each month). If the spouses desire coitus without leaving the act ordered to procreation it becomes illicit. We are assuming that the spouses love each other, why else would they be married? And, thus they are not “using” each other for sex. Read JP II’s writings from the early 1980s, I think it is Familiaris Consortio, something like that, wherein he argues that the Church is protecting the wife from her husband’s sex drive (that may objectify her) when the Church condemns contraception (we mean true contraception, and not abortifacients). The fact is that many Catholic wives use birth control as they desire lovemaking and intimacy with their husband and do not want to end up pregnant every other year. Recently, the Church has begun using the term sodomy to denote, in addition to its true meaning, any and all sexual acts within marriage that are not ordered to procreation. Think about this! The term sodomy has been redefined in a way that is not congruent with the context in which this word is used in the Bible. Thus, intercourse (coitus) becomes a sodomitical act if contraception is used. And, oral sex (fellatio) is sodomy even if it is performed when the wife is menstruating, already pregnant, or post menopausal – all 3 scenarios do not allow the possibility of conception. This is very extreme to many people. (Oral sex within marriage is not forbidden to the spouses in the Bible.)

    When, some years ago, I read a Church approved English translation of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI (1968), it became clear that he was trying to redefine the unitive aspect of married sex in terms of the procreative aspect. Why would he do this? Because although the Church claims it treats both aspects with equal dignity and respect, the Church’s rules always call for the procreative aspect of married sex to trump the unitive. Many married Catholics have seen through this now and do not accept it.

    Another irritating item is when US Catholics hear on Catholic radio programs priests such as Father Corappi (not sure of the spelling of his name) and he says “Being married does not give you a license to have sex.” What does he mean by that?

    Please do not misinterpret the tone of my remarks. I am not attacking the Catholic faith. I am merely pointing out that an absolutist, controlling approach to the spouses’ sexual love, and the range of expression of that love within their marriage, is hurting the Church’s credibility in the modern world. The Church is undermining respect for its authority by having so many prohibitions on the sex within the marriage bed.

  3. For a very thorough discussion of oral sex within marriage, with relevant links to a few Christian marriage blogs, see this linked essay. It is quite long and quite explicit (suitable for adults only), but reading the main essay and the first several paragraphs of the very lengthy addendum will be enough to see our views on the subject. Fellatio, far from being “dirty”, is a tender and very intimate expression of the wife’s love for her husband.

    1. And having sex during marriage, according to current Catholic teaching renews the vows. Which is why a married couple should have sex and do it as often as possible.

      1. Yes, this is good. But, Rachel, Christians – and this applies to both Catholics and Protestants – do not hear in Church from priests or pastors about the sin of sexual refusal – the very harmful sin of sexual refusal within marriage. Some Christian bloggers and authors are now taking up this issue that needs to be addressed and discussed.

        One thing for readers to consider is that sex within marriage is not solely for procreation. Most everyone knows this by now, but some cling to the position that sex is only for procreation. This is a remnant of Aristotle’s erroneous, simplistic understanding of human reproduction.

        A question arises: Should the Church re-evaluate its position(s) in light of new scientific and medical knowledge and understanding?

      2. That’s a very touchy subject but I think the teachings have not changed but evolved over the years in light of new scientific and medical knowledge. The purpose of marriage is still being open to procreation. Not necessarily the act of procreating but being open to it.

        I’m not an expert of catholic teachings nor do I pretend to be. But based on what I was taught in marriage and family in my Catholic high school this is what I got from these teachings and this subject.

      3. Thanks Rachel for your comments. I think we probably agree on much more than we disagree on. 😉 A married couple can respect the procreative aspect of marriage and still enjoy the unitive aspect in a healthy, positive way without shame or guilt. Most Catholic married couples are having children, but not having as many as their parents and grandparents did.

        The disconnect, and friction (or disagreement) between the clergy and the married laity on some of these issues is mainly due, I think, to the married persons having direct experience of sexual love within their marriage leading to insights that the celibate clergy cannot understand. For the clergy, married sexuality is in the realm of theory, a normative world. The clergy does not give as much weight to the input of the married laity when the Church makes its rules. (Wives are not “objectified” when they make love frequently with their husband and they do not want to conceive. Nor do married couples become selfish by choosing to limit and space their children. These are normative assertions one hears often enough on Catholic radio. I have heard these types of statements before in recent years.)

  4. At least that was what I was taught in Catholic high school about the theology of the body and marriage. And using your spouse for sex meant the only reason you are married is so that you can have sex. And the church teaches natural family planning which is avoiding sex on those nights that the women can have children and freely having sex on the nights she can’t. When the couple doesn’t want a child. Then reversing it when they do. I think the church thinking changed over the years on this issue. I learned it several years ago and didn’t use council of Trent.

    1. It does appear that there have been some changes in the emphasis over the years. The natural birth regulation (NBR) you mention is a good thing. This method is safe (without adverse side effects) and avoids the use of some problematic devices or regimens. I have heard several times from some of the laity and seen in Catholic publications that a couple cannot use the NBR for “selfish” reasons, only for serious reasons. I think it would be better for the Church to give positive reinforcement to those couples who use it and not create anxiety or potential guilt in couples that use the NBR. There should be no anxiety nor guilt placed on couples who use the method, or many couples may conclude that there is no pleasing the Church in this area and then begin to disregard its teachings. (I have heard that there have been some improvements in this NBR approach and it is easier to determine the fertile time of the wife than in decades past. The easier and more reliable it is to use, the more married couples would make use of it.)

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