Sunday, February 24, 2013

Avoiding Warped Sexual Morality

This morning an online buddy of mine shared some of his struggles with his sexuality in the context of his marriage. He's a practicing, devout Catholic, as is his wife. The trouble, you see, is that they find themselves too busy to get it on as often as he'd like. As a father of four younguns and a baby who only recently started really sleeping on his own, I can certainly relate to the, shall we say, frustration that such a situation brings.

What I don't follow, though, is the perplexion, even fear, he seemed to feel in considering his wife the object of his desires. Okay, I do get the "object" part--she is a person, not an object. I get the whole anti-objectification thing, but you can't let that drive you into thinking that considering your wife as the.. focus of your sexual desire is a bad thing. It's not. That's actually good--it's awesome! I'll bet you few wives would object to being so monogamously desired by their husbands.

This struggle illustrates a problem when one's understanding of sexual morality is based more in a list of don'ts than dos. "Don't treat your wife as a sexual object, that is, don't use her as a thing for your own sexual gratification" is of course something I'd hope most of us could agree to. But it doesn't tell us how to relate to her sexually; it only points out one way of how not to. This lack of knowledge leads to a necessary uncertainty in regards to how to act. It leads to a constant tentativeness, even fear, when not informed by a positive proposition.

A strictly negative approach also warps our perception. It causes us to rest our focus on the bad, and if not balanced out by the positive, it can lead to an unhealthy presumption that some things are bad that are, in fact, not bad. It can lead, in the worst case, to a despair of being able to practice virtue and subsequent giving up trying. Have you ever met anyone in that boat? I have.

It can lead to a quite understandable revulsion for an otherwise good ethical system, such that the system is seen as bad in itself because of all these consequences of focusing too much on the negatives. How many times have you had someone tell you they gave up on being Catholic (or even Christian) because "it's all about guilt and what you can't do"? I know I've heard that a lot, and even more than that, this distortion leads to a perception that Catholic sexual morality is somehow "extremist"--a label applied to Santorum many times in the media.

A better approach to sexual morality, and morality in general, is to seek out and practice the good and the beautiful. And that's precisely what a correct understanding of Catholic sexual morality is--nothing less and nothing more than to fully understand what is truly good for human beings and to fanatically pursue it. And yes, I would say that is true of all Catholic morality.

A positive moral proposition provides a basis and, indeed, a strong motivation for action, instead of inaction. This basis provides more freedom and more certainty that your action is good than simply proscription. When you see and understand the true, the good, and the beautiful, you are motivated to pursue it, and you know how. Show me such a person, and I'll show you someone who is happy and free.

This is not to say that negative moral expressions are never good, of course. They are definite signposts to help us more fully understand the limits of the good--when a good thing can become twisted and abused. And so it is with sexual morality. It is an appetite, and appetites can become unhealthy. Not everything we desire is good for us, and it is helpful to know to avoid certain foods that are unhealthy. We can overeat. We can eat things not good for us, things that don't even have any nutritional value at all (but sure are tasty!). Sex is no different.

Now, I'm not about to attempt a full positive exposition of Catholic sexual morality--books have been written on that, even on just aspects of it. But at a high level, it can be expressed in terms of generous love, a mutual giving and receiving of self that holds nothing back, an embrace of two sexually complementary persons that offers the fullness of each to each and graciously receives the other in turn. There are very many implications to be derived from this.

Our sexual drive is a good thing in this context of sacramental marriage; it is a powerful motivator towards such a full, inseparable union of persons. "Wanting" the other is not wrong. On the contrary, it is good. We humans are not incorporeal entities of pure thought--we are bodily. To fully partake of each other necessarily involves this intimate bodily expression, and being inclined toward it is a good thing.

So I'd say rather than being tentative about one's attraction to one's spouse, one should rather embrace that attraction, express it, and, if I may, consummate it with full freedom. Enjoy each other fully, not holding anything back.