Venting is healthy, but the cross purifies

Social media, for all its benefits, has made it all too easy to find a group of people who will take your lowest impulses and hoist them on high, praising and burnishing them until they look like something fine and heroic. As you form relationships in the group and come to know and trust your new friends, and as the group members reward each other for holding fast to its ideals, the thing that used to make you feel a little uneasy about yourself slowly becomes your identity, the thing that fills you with pride.

This is how alt-right groups function. This is how terrorist groups function. This is how abusively rigid traditionalist groups function. And this is how dissenting groups function. Dissent comes to feel normal, even heroic. The subject matter in each group is different, but the psychological dynamics are the same.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine here.

Image by faungg’s photos via Flickr . (Creative Commons)

What is women’s responsibility to men while breastfeeding?

Today, on International Women’s Day, a conservative Catholic Twitter personality retweeted a story about a gubernatorial candidate who breastfed her baby in an election ad. He added this comment:

“Lady, cover that up. Breast feeding in public is fine but cover up. No one needs to have to avert their eyes uncomfortably.” (I’ve taken out his name because it’s not about him. His sentiment is very common among conservative Catholics.)

 

Curious, I looked up the ad in question to see how flagrant a bit of lactivism it was.

Now, a disclaimer: I’m rare among my friends in that I have some sympathy for men who find public breastfeeding distracting. Men like boobs, and I’m okay with that. I do believe women should be aware at the effect their exposed breasts can have on men.

Of course, it’s not always possible for women to be completely discreet, and lots of babies won’t tolerate covers, and of course there is often a flash of skin that shows while you position the hungry baby, and the most important thing is that a baby get fed when he’s hungry; but it does kind of bug me when moms go out of their way to turn breastfeeding into some kind of exhibitionist statement, hanging out at Starbucks with their entire titty on display like some kind of–

Um.

Watch the ad. Here’s the footage that made this Catholic conservative fellow’s eyeballs feel so uncomfortable.

 

Did you even see anything? I didn’t. Just a hungry baby getting fed.

This video is almost miraculous for how unboobful it is. Margaret Thatcher showed more skin on any given day than the woman in this commercial. She’s far more modest than I ever manage to be. (For the record, my own public nursing technique was to remove my glasses. Then everything got all blurry, and no one could see us.)

So . . . what’s the deal, here? Why does this Tweeter, and so many other men (and women, too), find even the idea of public breastfeeding so disconcerting? Because that’s all there was here: An idea. We saw a woman; we saw a baby; we knew what was going on, but we sure didn’t see anything. And yet merely knowing it happened caused the fellow discomfort.

Long have I pondered over this puzzle. I can easily understand how secular men can find breastfeeding off-putting. Many men are so warped by porn that they prefer videos to living women. Actual, real, in-the-room women are unappealing to them. They only want to see women who’ve been artfully separated into parts, like a cow at the hands of a butcher.

But how is it that conservative, Catholic men tremble with consternation if they must be in the same room with a woman using her breasts as if they are some kind of, ugh, mammary glands or something? They say they are concerned with modesty and decency, but how can that be so? They’re happy to partner with Fox News, which has a “cleavage” tag on its page, and whose female news anchors routinely show abundant skin. Conservative men don’t demand draconian modesty from their political idols, male or female. Only from nursing mothers.

Truly, I believe them when they say public breastfeeding causes them discomfort. But I don’t believe it has anything to do with the woman offending their sense of modesty, decency, or chastity.

The discomfort they feel is the discomfort of being excluded. The discomfort they feel is in seeing a woman’s body in a context that has nothing to with them. It makes them uncomfortable to see a woman in a context that even temporarily excludes them.

When a woman shows half her boobs in a skin-tight dress at a gala, men feel that this display is for them (and be honest, it probably is). They understand the situation, and they are in control of it. They feel themselves to be the central actor: I am a man with eyeballs and a penis, and look! Here comes a set of breasts for me. 

But if those breasts are in use for feeding a baby, where does the man fit in? He’s excluded. He feels weird and itchy and unhappy. He feels he has to look away, but it’s breasts, so he doesn’t want to look away, but when he does look, he sees something that doesn’t have anything to do with him. And he doesn’t like that, at all.

As I said, I have sympathy for men who struggle with public breastfeeding. It’s not wrong or bad or disgusting of men to be sexually aroused by the sight of a breast.

But here’s the thing: We feel what we feel, but we’re in control of what we do next. Normal, healthy, decent men can be aroused by a breast, but then immediately tell themselves, “Okay, that’s enough, now” if they find themselves acting or thinking like a creep. Men must earn the title of “man” by training themselves to get used to the idea that breasts are not always there to turn them on.

And that is a man’s responsibility, not a woman’s.

It’s a man’s responsibility to always remember that women are whole people, and not just body parts. This is true whether a woman is breastfeeding discreetly or openly, whether she’s dressed like Daisy Duke or draped like a dowager, whether she’s starring in a National Geographic special or if she’s a woman clothed with the sun. She’s a whole person, and it’s a man’s job to remember that.

It’s his responsibility to remember she is a whole person if she’s topless because he’s currently having sex with her. She’s still a whole person, always a whole person. It is his job to train himself never to forget this, and to act accordingly, even on Twitter.

It’s his job to train himself never to forget this even if, when confronted by a woman feeding her child, he has to “avert his eyes uncomfortably.” The man who whines about having to avert his eyes?  Barely a man. If shifting his eyeballs is the hardest thing he’s is ever required to do, this is a soft age indeed.

And so I’ve changed my mind, in recent years, about women’s responsibility to breastfeed discreetly. I used to think she should do everything she can to cover up as much as possible, out of charity for men who struggle with chastity. But now I see that behavior as potentially propping up a culture of pornography.

As I said above, I do believe women should be aware at the effect their exposed breasts can have on men. But I’ve come to understand that that effect may very well be to help restore our culture to sexual health. Public, uncovered breastfeeding reminds everyone that women are not isolated parts. They are whole. They have a context of their own, and that context sometimes has nothing at all to do with men’s desires.

My friend Kate Cousino said it well: “I firmly believe public breastfeeding is a blow against pornography culture. Context is precisely what porn omits. And the context of sex and breasts is real human beings with lives–and babies.”

As I said in my conversation with Claire Swinarski, extreme modesty culture is just the flip side of pornography culture. Both are obscenely reductive. Both rob women of their personhood. Both say that women are valuable only insofar as they do what men want them to do.

And men say the same thing, when they rage and sneer at women who breastfeed in public. It’s especially scandalous for Catholic, conservative, family men to behave this way, making a huge show of huffily leaving the room if their daughter-in-law begins to nurse at a family gathering, or complaining bitterly to the pastor when women dare to feed their infants in the pew without a cover.

When men do these things, they’re saying, “It’s more important for you to protect me from passing hormonal inconvenience than it is for you, who haven’t slept in four months, to just sit down and feed your baby. My obligation to exercise self-control is too hard for me. All the obligation is on you, breast-haver. Because I’m a man, you must make my world easier by caring for me, too, as you care for your new baby.”

It’s International Women’s Day. A very good day to be a man by taking responsibility for your own eyes, your own brain, your own hormones. A very good day to start your training. Women are whole people. If you work at it, you can learn to see them that way, even if they’re feeding babies.

 

***
Maria Lactans image By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Today I’m on The Catholic Feminist Podcast

The delightful Claire Swinarski graciously invited me to be on her podcast, The Catholic Feminist. My episode, #50, is up today. It was so refreshing to talk to a young Catholic woman who both loves the Faith and isn’t allergic to the word “feminist.”

Among other topics, we talked about “#metoo,” about why Damien and I covered the Christendom story, how virginity culture objectifies people, how to teach consent so it dovetails with a Catholic understanding of human dignity, and how to come back to Christ after the Church has failed you. You can hear the podcast on The Catholic Feminist Podcast site, or listen to it right here:

16 things Catholic girls should know about consent

How should Catholic parents teach their kids about consent?

We don’t want to give the impression that we’ll wink at sexual misbehavior, as long as our kids reach adulthood without a police record, a pregnancy, or an STD. We want more for them than that. We utterly fail our children if we teach them only about consent, without any other understanding of what sexuality is for and why they are so valuable as human beings. Reducing sexual health to mere consent is just another form of degradation

At the same time, we don’t want our kids to get a police record, an STD, or a unwed pregnancy. Or a damaged psyche, or a broken heart, or a shattered sense of self-worth. An education in consent is not enough, but we must teach them about consent.

But too often, Catholic parents dig in, just telling kids to save sex for marriage, period. Perhaps they teach their kids to avoid the occasions of sin like the saints, but they’ve never taught them how. They’ve never taught their kids what to do if they have, like billions of teenagers before them, gotten carried away by desire, or what to do if they themselves have good intentions but their boyfriends do not. They’ve never taught them how to navigate that minefield of conscience, desire, and external pressure. They send their daughters out entirely unequipped.

And so girls who want to be good are left to piece together some kind of dreadful “least bad” course of action with almost no information about what they can and should do in actual relationships. Teenage girls often put their own best interests last, in hopes of minimizing damage or offense for everyone else. 

So here is what Catholic parents should teach their daughters about consent:

  1. It’s never too late to say “no” for any reason. You’ve done that thing before, with him or with another guy? You can still say “no.” You’ve done worse things already? You can still say “no.” You’ve done lots and lots of things, but not this particular thing? You can still say “no.” You’ve talked about this thing, even agreed to do this thing? You can still say “no.” You’re right in the middle of the thing and have changed your mind? You can still say “no.” It’s a little thing that no one could possibly object to, but you just don’t want to? You can still say “no.”

If you find yourself in the habit of encouraging sexual behavior over and over and over again, and then backing out over and over and over again, then maybe you’re being a jerk, and should think about how you’re spending your time, and how you’re treating your male friend. But that’s a separate issue that you can deal with later. Even jerks can say “no.”  You can say “no” at any time for any reason, because you have no obligation to turn your body over to your boyfriend. Why would you?

 

2. Yes, he can stop. Of course he can stop. What is he, a defective robot? If he’s all worked up, it may be very difficult to stop, and he may be mad or offended or disappointed, but he has free will and he can stop. If he doesn’t stop when you tell him to stop, that is sexual assault. He. Can. Stop.

You’re not genuinely injuring a guy by stopping after one or both of you are aroused. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself on the altar of blue balls. If he’s man enough to ask for sex, he’s man enough to deal with a little disappointment. 

 

3. There’s no such thing as being tricked into consenting. If you consent, you do it on purpose, consciously. If you didn’t realize you consented, or didn’t mean to consent, then you did not consent, and whoever tricked or coerced you is assaulting you, by definition.

 

4. A hymen is just a membrane. We hear a lot about protecting virginity, but sex is about so much more than vaginal penetration. There are non-PIV acts which feel important and powerful because they are — and they belong within marriage, just as much as intercourse does. You don’t have to let yourself be used for all kinds of absurd and degrading things just to protect that precious treasure of technical virginity. A hymen is just a membrane. You, on the other hand, are made in the image of God, and should not submit to degradation from anyone who professes to care about you.

 

5. Listen to your gut. If a situation feels weird or fishy, trust that God-given instinct and get the hell out. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. A firm “No, thank you, I’d prefer to do x” or “That won’t work for me, how about we do x instead?” is all you need. And if someone throws a tantrum over your alternative plans, you can be reasonably certain your good was not at the top of their list of priorities. A good man will value your comfort as well as your consent.

 

6. There is never any good reason for a guy to mention what his previous girlfriends were willing to do. Whether it’s a compliment (“I’m glad you’re not uptight like she was”) or a complaint (“All the other girls I’ve been with had no problem with such-and-such”), this is pure manipulation, meant to put you off balance, exert pressure, and make you feel like you have something to prove. It doesn’t matter if you’re different from every other girls in the entire universe. You are you, and if he can’t appreciate that, then he can go dangle.

 

7. Love doesn’t manipulate. It’s old school manipulative when he says “If you really loved me, you’d do such-and such.” It’s also manipulative if he turns it on its head by saying, “Let me show you how much I love you,” or “Why won’t you let me show my love for you by . . . ” Love isn’t about putting pressure on people. Love lets people be.

 

8. You never owe a guy sexual favors just because he does something nice for you. If a guy wants to spend time with you and you like him, be nice to him. But a date is not a contract. You’re not chattel, to be traded, no matter what he thinks he deserves.

And if you do hold the line and say no to “big” things, don’t feel like you then ought to compensate by agreeing to smaller things that also make you uncomfortable. Your comfort isn’t up for bargaining.

 

9. An adult man who wants sex or romance with you when you’re underage is a bad man. Full stop. You may be flattered, you may feel like you’re especially mature, and you may very much want what he’s asking for; but, by definition, this is assault. There’s a reason you cannot legally consent when you’re underage. An older man only wants an underage younger girl if there is something wrong with him. He’s very likely gone after other, maybe even younger girls, and will continue to do so. You should protect them by telling someone you trust.

 

10. If you’ve had sex, you’re not automatically in a relationship; you don’t owe him anything; and you’re not fated to be together. Sex makes you feel like there is a bond, but you have the power to break it at any time. It may hurt to disrupt that sensation of being in a relationship, but it may be the smartest thing you can do — the sooner, the better.

 

11. You don’t have to get married to someone just because of your sexual past together. Even if you’re pregnant. In fact, getting married because you “have to” could be grounds for a future annulment, if you got married because of pressure and a sense of obligation, rather than as a free choice. If you did something wrong, like choosing to have consensual sex with someone who’s not right for you, you can’t somehow redeem or erase that past sin by getting married. The past is the past. God wants you to have a good future.

 

12. It’s a bad mistake to have sex outside of marriage, but it’s not somehow more Catholic to refuse to use a condom. Contraception is a sin, and so I cannot in good conscience say, “Yes, if you’re going to have sex, use a condom.” Even if your goal is to prevent the spread of disease and to prevent the conception of a potentially fatherless child, it’s not somehow less-bad to commit two mortal sins instead of one.

But some young Catholics will tell themselves that there is something noble or bracingly honest about refusing to use a condom, even as they persist in seeking out unmarried sex. This is absurd. What are you doing? If you want to avoid sin, because it hurts you and your partner and cuts you off from God, then avoid sin. Don’t play games with telling yourself, “I’m sinning, but I’m doing it the Catholic way!” There is no such thing as sinning the Catholic way.

 

13. You’re not bad for wanting to have sex! Feeling strong sexual desire doesn’t prove that you’re a bad person, a bad daughter, or different from good Catholics. God has given us this desire for a reason. Sex is good, and the desire for sex is a normal, healthy desire. Your job is to figure out how to respond to your desire in a healthy and moral way. And no, it’s not easy. You will probably fail. Try again. But . . .

14. If you find that you cannot make yourself stop seeking out sex, then there’s probably something else wrong in your life, and you need help with identifying, addressing, and healing it. It’s normal and healthy to have a strong, hard-to-control libido when you’re young, but it’s neither normal nor healthy to feel driven and compelled to seek out sex with lots and lots of people. This is self-destructive behavior, likely with deep roots. It will be difficult to talk to someone  about this, but you really do need help — psychological help, not just confession.

 

Some girls will also agree to unprotected sex as a way of accepting some kind of built-in punishment for their promiscuity, not realizing that the promiscuity itself is a symptom of psychological distress. Confession is helpful. It is likely not sufficient by itself.

15. If something bad happens, whether it was consensual or not, you’re not alone. The people who truly love you will not love you less just because you did something you shouldn’t do, and they certainly won’t love you less if something happened to you that shouldn’t have happened. If you have someone who truly loves you, that person will talk to you, or find you someone to talk to, or take you to the doctor, or take you to confession, or take you to a therapist, or do whatever you need so you can be in a better place than you are right now. Having had sex does not make you an outcast. You are young. All is not lost.

 

16. You’re not ruined, no matter what you’ve done or what others have done to you. You cannot be “damaged goods,” because you are not goods. You are a person. Even if you feel worthless right now, and even if other people say you are worthless, you do not and existentially cannot exist for the consumption of any other human being. Not your future husband, not anybody. You are a child of the living God.

 

Yes, your past will affect you. Yes, you are changed by your choices and by the choices of others. But if you have regrets, they can be forgiven. If you have wounds, they can be healed. You are not ruined. You cannot be ruined. As long as you are alive, there is hope.

 

Here’s the kicker. Much of what I’ve said above goes for married relationships, too. You can go to extremes, of course. Some men behave as if their wives can never say “no” once they are married; and some women behave as if their husbands must gain explicit permission for every thought, word, and deed. It often takes couples many years to understand each other well enough to find the right balance. Spouses can reasonably expect to have sex with each other if possible. But there is also such a thing as violating consent in a marriage. Marriage does not give one spouse the right to use the other spouse, sexually or otherwise.

 

So, Catholics, let’s get over our aversion to the word “consent.” Our kids need to know about consent in dating, and they’ll need to know it when they’re ready for marriage, too. It’s one more way to learn to love each other better. 

 

***

Many thanks to my friends M.B., C.P., F.S., R.S., G.H., K.C., C.C., D.M., J.T., A.G., M.E., E.L., S.J., M.D., K.M., R.B., A.H., K.C., for helping me compile and refine this list.
Photo via Pexels (creative commons)

No, Tony Esolen, you can’t cure gay with football

I think he’s fallen prey to a dangerous fantasy, almost a fetish, of what the world once was: A world where fathers are always good, kind, and wise, where women are gentle and nurturing but not awfully bright, where the sun was always golden, sheets were always clean, and most of all, no one was ever, ever gay. (And if they were, it was because they accidentally talked to a gay man, who probably got that way by … not thinking about showering coal miners often enough … hmm.)

So here’s my advice to you, teenagers . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Renee Olmstead via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Is it easier for rich people to have big families?

Heart of money

David Mills is doing a little self-examination at Aleteia with A Marxist Lesson for Breeding Catholics: What is romance to the comfortable can be a burden to the poor and sick. Mills is a good and honest man, and has a knack for prodding our weak spots without excusing himself. I think he’s only half right in this essay, though.

His main thesis: Most of the Catholics writing about Catholic sexuality are resting comfortably in a place of privilege — and they should knock it off. For a Catholic middle class couple, says Mills, having another child

 may mean giving up a vacation if the family’s wealthy, or the Thursday family dinner out if the family’s middle class. Her arrival won’t mean giving up food, or rent or the parochial school that can make all the difference to his older siblings’ future.

It’s easy, he says, for a financially secure couple to let their marriages be fruitful, and to see Catholic sexual teaching as a lovely and liberating thing. But, says Mills, the poor do not have this luxury, and may face genuine hardships that a middle class couple never even considers.

Mills says,

 The affluent for whom the Catholic teaching is not a great burden can fall to the temptations of their class, one of which is to think of their children as lifestyle accessories … You can feel that God rewarded your obedience and sacrifice by giving you more “toys” than your friends have.

He concludes:

We the comfortable, who speak so romantically of being open to life—because for us, with our privileges, it is a romance—could find ways to make it a romance, and not a terror, for others too.

Overall, he has a very good point — and truly, the main reason my book about the struggles of NFP sold so well was because there was such a glut of “perky” public discourse on the topic. About a decade ago, just about anybody who talked about the Church’s sexual teaching talked about how lovely, how fulfilling, how empowering, how enlightening, how life-changingly, marriage-buildingly, blindingly awesome it all is. So the world was pretty ready for a book that said, “Yes, but it’s also really hard, and sometimes it stinks on ice. Here’s why it’s still a good idea.” (And if you’re interested in making my life a little more romantic, then for goodness’ sake, buy my book!)

It’s a bad idea to present Church teaching as a golden ticket to happiness. But more specifically, I have a quibble with the idea that material wealth usually makes it easier to be “open to life” (a phrase which Mills uses to mean “ready to have another baby,” which is really only a part of what that phrase means — but that’s a post for another day!). Depending on what crowd you’re in, you can get very different ideas about who’s struggling with what. I mean no disrespect, but Mills, a white-bearded male scholar, most likely reads about Catholic sexual teaching in books and journals, where one is unlikely to hear anything candid, raw, unpolished or, frankly, honest. For some more useful research on the topic, try hanging around in the back of the church with other women who can’t sleep because they’re not sure if they’re pregnant or not, and they can’t make up their minds how guilty to feel about the way they feel about it.

He does acknowledge that the poor aren’t just helpless saps, too anemic to grapple with the headiness of solid doctrine:

The poor are not merely victims but moral agents who can teach the comfortable, not least about the good life and the place of children therein. As Pope Francis said, “For most poor people, a child is a treasure. … Let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.”

I wish he had said more about this. In truth, it’s often wealthy couples who struggle more with the notion of having another baby.  Poor couples can be so accustomed to uncertainty, and so used to making the best out of whatever happens, that the notion of having yet another child is less terrifying to them than it would be to a wealthy, secure couple who feel like their material lives, at least, are under control. A couple with an empty checking account and a fridge full of government cheese can laugh hilariously when they read that it takes $245,000 to raise a child; but a couple who actually has $245,000 in the bank might gulp and think twice before taking that kind of plunge.

Poverty is (or at least can be) a great teacher, because we are (as Mills points out) allpoor in one way or another — if not materially, than maybe physically, or emotionally, or in our relationships. Being poor in any of these ways makes it obvious that we are not in control, but that we still need to work very hard to get more in control — which is an excellent model for how to approach parenthood, and marriage, and life in general. Try really hard all the time; realize, all the time, that a lot of what happens is not up to you.

Is it easy to trust God, with your sexual life and otherwise, when you’re poor? I’m not going to say yes! Poverty is no joke, and being poor and pregnant can be twelve different kinds of miserable. But I’m not going to say that money makes it easier to trust God. There’s a reason Jesus warned about getting bogged down with riches.

As for why it’s mainly the secure and happy who write about sex, there are two reasons. The first is legitimate, and it’s that people who struggle don’t want to reveal private things about their marriage to the world.  It may be comforting for Jack and Joanne to read that Alyssa and Aaron had a big fight about sex; but Aaron probably won’t appreciate it if Alyssa spills all to the Huffington Post.

The second reason is less defensible. We faithful can be loathe to speak publicly about our struggles because we’re afraid that we’ll scare away the undecided — that our suffering will be the final nudge that tips an on-the-fence couple the wrong way.  So we Happy Face it up, thinking we’re helping the Holy Spirit out with one of His less-successful PR campaigns.

Poverty comes in many forms, as Mills acknowledges; and so does faith in God. I am working on learning how to put more trust in the truth when I write about my faith. It’s not up to me to paste a happy ending on the word of God, and that is true no matter how much money I have in the bank.

At Synod, Sex-Obsessed Catholic Church Finally Talks About Sex, Finally

It is stunning that the Bishops are talking about sex! As long as you are the kind of person who wakes up stunned to see the sun rise, stunned to find that you have feet at the end of your legs, stunned to discover that the floor under those feet is still made out of wood, just like it has been for decades and decades.

Read the rest at the Register. 

PIC John Paul II waving