Thursday, August 8, 2013

ARW: Sex Positive?

This is written on vacation. My brain has possibly been addled by sweet lake breezes and a sudden plethora of sleep. 

A reader writes (abridged): 

[Evangelical marriage bloggers] use the term "sex positive" to describe the time when a woman owns her sexual identity and moves to do something about it.  ...she transcends certain limitations (often self-imposed or due to training) and begins to appreciate sex in the way that a woman can (or should) given that she...was outfitted from the first with sexual drive and a heart for sexual relationship.  Of course, it is not exactly a mirror image of the male modality.

I do not wish to get personal here, but you seem to have made a similar sort of transition in your Catholic way. What can you say about this transition--with respect to yourself or with respect to Catholic women in general? 
I do not mean to suggest that there is a direct Catholic "translation" of what the evangelicals are saying, but, then again, there might be.  There might be some "sex positive" reality that each group is trying to describe.

I do not enjoy answering questions on behalf of 'womanhood' so I cannot respond to this question with respect to "Catholic women in general." Catholic women are a diverse group and I believe they are capable of speaking for themselves. That they do not speak on this topic is perhaps more owing to their innate sense of propriety rather than any sort of sexual prudery. 

At the risk of being pedantic, I object to the question. You assume that a Christian person must make a "transition" to being "sex positive" (googling this term was fraught with tragedy; I am going to assume it means viewing sexuality as good and a woman's enjoyment of it good as well). This assume implies that if a woman is raised with good Christian ethics, she will need help to see sex as positive. Although undoubtedly true for some women from some families, this is not true for all women - certainly not young women. This seems to have been more of a problem for baby boomers or, in my experience, for Evangelicals. Prudishness and/or shame have been all but banned in our Western world post-1960s (how sad). 

I'll set aside my objections to your question to answer you personally. I never had to be rehabituated into seeing sex as a good because I was raised in no particular religion, and thus with a more or less post-sexual revolution view of sex. The first I learned about sex from a Catholic point of view was in my late teens and the message was robust: God made bodies, bodies are therefore very good, and when they come together to make babies, it is EXTREMELY good as we then share in the Trinity's creative power. It was one of the first teachings that attracted me to the Church, and obviously, that has endured. 

If young people are raised to truly believe what the Church teaches, then there is no need for a transition. The Church is body-positive: she embraces and loves our incarnational reality, just as much as she recognizes it's inherent limitations and struggles. I am fairly certain that if that was ever a question, Blessed Pope John Paul the Great blew the doors off that misconception with great skill. Catholics enjoy our embodied selves - drinking, dancing, fighting, having sex and lots of messy babies. Aren't those the stereotypes bandied about by our brethren? They do have roots in something!  

I cannot be blind to the fact that such women do exist, however. How can they come to a richer understanding of the true teachings of Holy Mother Church? How can they embrace their messy embodiment? I think a great deal of this comes by simply living married life - becoming more comfortable with one's husband, with the sexual act, and of course, after children, realizing the great joy of having a body and bringing forth life. I do believe that the mere act of living out one's vocation can often correct any errors in instruction - that and a good confessor, of course.

But, as an academic, I always have some suggestions for books! St. John Chrysostom's sermons on marriage are some of my favorites, any of the lay guides to Theology of the Body, and maybe some of then-Karol Wojtyla's books, if someone is up to it. A woman so affected with wrong-headed notions about sex must do what anyone must do to correct an error in mental perception: consciously correct wrong thoughts, read correct thoughts repeatedly, and then beg her Creator to renew her mind. Also, being surrounded by the like-minded is helpful, if at all possible. If problems are severe, counseling may be required. 

I hope this answers your question, dear reader. Forgive me if I am at all obtuse, but as a woman who has found the Church to be far more positive about my sex life than any secular authority, I am a bit confounded to explain what seems obvious. 


  1. I'm not a woman, but I am a cradle Catholic. I know exactly what the reader is talking about.

    Yes, there are some Catholics who have been taught very negative things about sex. The focus was on fear of sexual sin, not the good of sexuality. This is more common among Catholics of Anglo-Irish descent. Living in a Protestant society, sometimes Puritanical views about sex got mixed in with Catholic teaching. Some Catholics thought prudishness was the way to shake the negative Catholic stereotypes and move up in the world.

    This often goes along with a lot of other theological problems. A Catholic who was taught negative things about sex was probably taught everything else in a negative way. If you want to know where this all negativity leads, just go to YouTube and listen to George Carlin rant about his Catholic upbringing.

    More recently, I have seen similar things happen because of "cross-pollination" with Evangelicals. Sometimes Catholics can be very naive about ecumenism. Just because we all love Jesus doesn't mean we don't have radically different beliefs about Him.

    The solution is, as Mrs. Chastity said, to find authentic Catholic teaching about sex. Unfortunately, finding "authentic" teaching hasn't always been easy. When Humanae Vitae was released and all hell broke loose, those who supported the teaching were disproportionately the prudish, body-negative Catholics. So anyone trying to follow the Church on contraception often got a lot of bad, body-negative theology along with it. When we first heard about the Catholic Church's teaching against contraception, we were horrified because it was presented with such a negative (and incorrect) view of sexuality.


    JPII was extremely critical of the generally negative "traditional teaching" on contraception, which is why he wrote L&R, then TOB. His work has inspired others. As for resources, Dr. Popcak addresses "Catholic prudishness". in "Holy Sex" in his section on "Aunt McGillicuddy's Antique Urn".

    If education is not enough, then therapy may be helpful, especially if there was sexual abuse in the past.

    1. Right on, James.

      As Dr. Popcak says in his book, there tends to be two spectrums of Catholics - the AMAU school that you mentioned (largely associated with the Irish, sadly), and then the other spectrum largely associated with Italian Catholics, which is hey I go to Church why bother me with your sexual morality?

      Both are problems. Both are distortions of Church teaching.

      And I just put a post up about sexual abuse, in case that dovetails with issues anyone is facing!

  2. Speaking as non-white first gen American woman, sex was barely communicated to me other than a flimsy brown book with lousy line drawings that my pediatrician gave to me when I got my period and sex education in Catholic school where all the kids squirmed in their seats and didn't really pay attention. I didn't even give my permission slip to my parents because I didn't want to go one year. It was bad and uncomfortable. I didn't have sex till college where I could be away from my parents who were so terrified I would have premarital sex and be a teen mommy and dishonor the family. That is where I learned about sex a crash course where you learn by doing, but the shame so filled me that I could not climax, but I was happy just to be held by someone - many of them nice enough guys but on the same bad path not knowing what we were doing was so destructive to our souls and bodies and future relationships. So my parents thought sex was naughty (I heard jokes when I was little with grown ups assuming I could not catch on) and so didn't pass on any info because they were uncomfortable. That made me uncomfortable when school tried to teach sex stuff to us. And it caused a backlash once I left home. I am much more open about sex with my kids. I am more scientific, but it still seems to embarrass my oldest son who would prefer dad I guess. My daughter is too young to get a full talk, but we don't avoid questions. We give them what they can understand. Although I am sad about it all I know lots of other women who were taught (or not taught) the same way I was. I really have to fight envy for those women in great Catholic marriages who are having great Catholic sex. My married life right now is very depressing - been up and down but due to medical issues we just don't do much anymore (which on the upside makes NFP much easier). It's the more infrequent case of a husband not desiring, but I have taken up knitting and reading books to absorb my time and energy. It could be worse but makes me very sad.

    1. Hi Anonymous,
      Please accept my apologies for my late response, and my prayers for your marriage.

      With a background like yours, it is a wonderful thing to still love and desire sex, and to see it as holy! How wonderful that you are striving to give your children a better education and a more positive view of their bodies and sexuality. This is part of your role as their parent; to guide them towards a full and complete understanding of Creation, including why God created them as sexual beings.

      As for your marriage, I am so sorry to hear of your husband's lack of desire. This often-misunderstood and under-addressed topic is a great cross for many marriages. Have you and your husband communicated about the mismatch of desire? Is he open to trying to fix it? There may be a physical cause, such as weight gain or loss, or something more involved - getting a check up might be a good first step, if your husband is willing.

      If not...well, it's difficult where husbands are concerned, isn't it? We do not want to nag them into making love - especially because that tactic is so rarely effective. Men want to feel masculine in all areas of their life, but especially the sexual arena. In my understanding, it is humiliating for men to feel cajoled into sex. The best you can do is be inviting. Love him all day long however you can - compliment him on his appearance, his strength, his service to you. Make your bedroom appealing and pleasant, and take care of your appearance - nothing too dramatic, mind you, just combing your hair and some nice perfume, maybe a pretty nightgown? Offer other forms of physical affection: rub or scratch his back, pat his arm or thigh, hold his hand. Something to remind him that being physical together is such a lovely feeling.

      Then pray! Pray like the dickens. Pray while you're knitting (and do be a dear, come over and teach me how), or read a book like Holy Sex by Dr. Popcak! Maybe that will make him sit up an take notice.

      Please know you're in my prayers. If you have any more questions, feel free to write.

  3. This is from a reader who did not want to comment here directly, lets call her Anon2:

    I wanted to comment anonymously on the "sex positive" post. I was born in the 70s and raised Evangelical and can say that this is absolutely an issue. I was raised with the idea that chastity = virginity and there is no such thing as "marital chastity". Basically, if you're not married sex is bad, and if you are married sex is good (required, even). It is really, really hard to make that mental transition on your wedding night.

    We've been practicing NFP for 12 years, married for 15 (Catholic for 2) and I feel like I'm still making the mental transition, even today. The Catholic view of sexuality is hands down, the best out there. I think that "transition" in my thinking may be, in part, what evangelicals would term "sex positive". This is something I've thought about a lot because I don't want to pass this burden down to my kids, especially my girls.

    I think, if I was listing it, my transition in thinking went something like this:
    1. Practicing NFP taught me to connect sex with the gift of children. Children are gifts from God, not something that my husband and I can "plan" to have and then become sterilized and be done.
    2. My husband and I are not at the mercy of our sex drives. They are powerful and good, but we control them, just like all other appetites. You can abstain in marriage for the good of your family and it won't kill you, it can, in fact, make you stronger.
    3. I gave the gift of my whole self to my husband when we married. Making him beg and plead for intimacy is like taking the gift back (which by definition would not be a gift). It puts him in the role of seducer and me in the role of a prostitute. I had to release myself from the mental image that enjoying sex made me into a slut (and my hubby had to free himself from that train of thought too). This was key, because before that in order to reach orgasm I had to go to these places in my mind. Then I would feel ashamed and dirty afterwards. I knew this is not what God wanted for my marriage, I was settling for less than what He had for me. The concept of being a "gift" as opposed to being "used". I give myself to my husband because I love him, not because I "owe" him because we are married and the bible says it is wrong to withhold yourself. He gives pleasure to me because he loves me and enjoys making me happy, not because he is seducing me to get what he needs. Big difference.
    4. I took this to prayer constantly (still do), the whole process was and is covered in God's grace.

    Sorry comment so long, I would never post this on my blog because it's too personal, but I hope it can help someone else who is struggling with these same issues.

    1. What a fabulous comment! Thank you so much for giving your perspective on how to become 'sex-positive.'

      Also, I really appreciate what you wrote about having to think of sex as 'dirty' in order to enjoy it. This is so very common amongst people and it really points to a wrong way of thinking, as you said. You really hit the nail on the head when you draw the distinction between sex as gift and sex as use!

      Please know I do have anonymous comments turned on, so even if you are signed into your blogger account, you can choose to "reply as" anonymous on the drop down bar directly beneath the comment box form, above the 'publish' button.


Keep it clean, modest if possible, and certainly charitable.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...