Who wants a discount code for the FemCatholic speeches?

You do! Because they are awesome.

Today’s the feast of the Annunciation, and it happens that my speech “When Women Say Yes: Consent and Control In Sex and Love” focuses on that moment when the angel came to Mary and . . . asked? Or told? It is called “the annunciation,” not “the invitation” or “the proposal.”And if God didn’t give the queen of heaven and earth a real choice about what would happen to her body and her life, then what chance do the rest of us have?

My speech is about how I worked through my distress over women’s apparent low standing in the eyes of God, and how I came out the other side understanding what consent really means, why it’s so important, how Mary basically invented it, and what the rest of us can hope for, including and beyond consent.

My speech is just one of ten, and if you use the code SIMCHA, you’ll get a 20% discount. Go to this Vimeo page  to order these ten excellent speeches:

1. How the Church Beats Feminism at its own Game – Erika Bachiochi, J.D.
2. Woman and Man: Genius and Mission – Dr. Deborah Savage
3. Was Jesus a Feminist? – Claire Swinarski
4. Suffering and Holiness in a Modern World – Leticia Ochoa Adams
5. Am I Good? Life, Love & Same Sex Desires – Shannon Ochoa
6. When Women Say Yes: Consent in Sex and Love – Simcha Fisher
7. Love in the Ruins: The Prophetic Examples of Dorothy Day and Caryll Houslander – Mary FioRito, J.D.
8. Informed Choice: Reclaiming Women’s Health – Gabrielle Jastrebski
9. Learning to Love the F-word: Embracing Prolife Feminism – Aimee Murphy
10. The Wild Diversity of Catholic Femininity – Meg Hunter-Kilmer

On St. Joseph’s femininity

The other day, Taylor Marshall tweeted, um, a bunch of things. But stay with me! This post isn’t really about him. I just don’t know how else to talk about what I want to talk about, except by starting with what he tweeted.
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First, apparently understandably distraught over an interview with McCarrick’s first victim, he tweeted some foul garbage about how gay it is that seminarians had a gingerbread house-building contest. Seriously, he did the f*ggy lisp and all, and included a name and photos of the men engaging in this “effeminate and puerile” activity, because that’s how you act when you’re a serious Catholic theologian and scholar.

It was wildly gross and offensive (and since he asked, can you imagine Basil and Gregory tweeting at each other?), and insanely insulting to gay people in direct contradiction of the catechism.
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But it also threw into high relief how poorly so many people understand what it means to be masculine. Many of his followers apparently believe that any time you’re not studying Latin or logic, building fires, chopping something, or shooting something, you’re a whisker away from of sliding into that dreaded horror, effeminacy.  In order to save the Church, we must stop having . . . gingerbread.
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His tweet was thoroughly trounced by many others, so I left it alone. But then he followed up with something that really nagged at me:

“The womb belonged to Joseph and he set it aside for Christ. The tomb belonged to another Joseph and he set it aside for Christ.”
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 I guess what happened is he read Fr. Longenecker’s tweet about wrapping Jesus’s body, and thought, “Whoa.  Joseph-Joseph . . .  womb-tomb!” and, despite not being Dylan Thomas, he went with it, rather than doing a quick heresy self-check. When readers responded to that phrase “The womb belonged to Joseph” with revulsion and dismay, he dug in with this:

He clarifies that Mary ruled over Joseph’s body, as well as vice versa: that there is mutual self-gift in marriage. He meant, apparently, that Joseph gave over his reasonable expectations that he’d be able to have sex with Mary, because he was willing to make a sacrifice to God of that privilege. And this is true enough.
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But the trouble is first in the way he phrased it. Saying Mary’s womb “belongs” to Joseph is just . . . gross. Things belong to us; people (including their organs) do not belong to us, not even if we’re married. If you want to hear how absurd and unseemly it is to phrase his idea as he did, say instead: “The penis belonged to Mary, so she went outside and peed with it.”
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I’m sincerely not trying to be crude. I’m trying to point out that a womb is an almost indescribably personal, intimate thing for a woman, and it’s bizarrely wrong to say it belongs to her husband. It doesn’t. It is hers. A woman rightly gives herself to her husband, over and over and over again, but he never owns her, no matter how much it may feel that way, no matter how many times she gives herself to him.
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And there we have the second, much more serious problem with Marshall’s thought. Joseph did not, in fact, consent to give Mary’s womb over to the Lord. How could he? It was hers to give, and she gave it at the Annunciation. Joseph only found out about her decision after the fact. He didn’t give anything, because there was nothing for him to give. The consent had already been given by the time he found out she was pregnant.
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Joseph’s choice wasn’t to give or not to give; his choice was either to get rid of her quietly, to get rid of her noisily, or to accept the situation with love, trust, and awe, because God told him not to be afraid to accept it.
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And that is what he did. There was no transfer, no consent, no free will offering originating from Joseph. Mary was never going to be “his,” because she had already given herself to God in a real, radical way.
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If Joseph gave Mary to God, then what did Mary’s “fiat” mean? Not a hell of a lot. More like when a child is allowed to sign a document that needs an adult’s signature to be official. No, it was Mary’s choice to make, and what she said to the Lord changed the course of . . . everything.
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But Joseph’s whole deal reminds me of the concept that “we are all feminine in relation to God.” I’ve been wrestling with this idea my whole adult life, and most days, the best I can do is set it aside and do whatever job’s in front of me.
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But so much of being a woman is being asked to accept things after they have already been decided, rather than being asked if you want them to happen or not. Yes, of course we decide many things, and make many choices. But women also very early confront the idea that things happen to them which they are not truly free to change or avoid. Ten times I have labored to give birth, and ten times, when the true agony set in, I have changed my mind. I decided I didn’t want to do it after all. Didn’t change a damn thing, thank God.
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It’s not that women are passive. It’s that humanity in general is far more helpless than it realizes. It’s mankind in general that’s the damsel in distress; mankind in general that sits weeping in a tower, waiting for the savior to come. Women’s lives show this reality in high relief, largely because of our biology, and so women tend to realize much sooner than men that none of us is really in control of their lives. On a good day, we’re in charge of slightly changing the trajectory of little chunks of life as they fly past us. Freedom very often consists not in choosing what will happen to us, but in choosing how to respond to what happens to us.
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And that sounds very much like what Joseph knew. He listened, a lot. He decided, out of love, not to fight things that had already come to pass. He worked with the system as long as he could, and when it wasn’t working, he gathered his family and ran away. He was willing to play a supporting role. He decided not to insist on taking what he could reasonably argue was rightfully his. And he was silent. In other words, Joseph’s behavior in the Gospels is like what we today normally think of as feminine — trusting, waiting, nurturing, self-sacrificial, chaste, modest, and quiet. This may account for how weirdly effeminate he looks in so much religious art, and it probably accounts in part for Marshall’s weird attempt to put Mary’s fiat in Joseph’s hands: Because he doesn’t behave in a way that checks off boxes in our modern understanding of masculinity.
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We get St. Joseph wrong because we grasp that he is not what we commonly think of as masculine; but correct our mistake by assigning to him what we wrongly think of as feminine, or by refusing to face how wrong we are about what it means to be feminine. Mary’s behavior is what we should think of as feminine; but it’s so hard to grasp that we saddle her with a simpering passivity, turning her into a virgin too fragile to deal with men, rather than a virgin strong enough to deal with God.
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Hell if I know what it all means, except that most of what we commonly think of as masculine and feminine is garbage, which probably accounts for why so many people think it doesn’t mean anything. In other context, my sister Abby Tardiff said this (and this was just part of a Facebook comment she dashed off, not some polished work of prose):
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[S] ex and gender have to be understood first as cosmic paradigms. So, “feminine” doesn’t mean “like a woman.” It’s the other way around. A woman is someone who embodies the eternal archetype of femininity. But she won’t do it completely, because she’s an instantiation [a representative of an actual example], not the archetype itself. She’s a particular, not a universal. Also, her instantiation of the feminine will filter itself through her personality, through tradition, through society, etc. For these two reasons, you can’t pin down any one characteristic that every woman has. Any time you try to say what characteristics women have, you’ll find exceptions (often me).

However, if you start from the archetype, and say (for example) that the feminine archetype involves the taking of the other into the self, then you can conclude that every woman is cosmically called to do this as well as and in whatever way she can. So the point is not to say what women are like, but what their vocation is.

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Taylor Marshall and his ilk are rightly angry that McCarrick and others have so smeared and ravaged human sexuality with their crimes and perversions. But Marshall’s brutal, puerile urge to squash all men and all women into small and clearly defined boxes of masculinity or femininity is, in its way, just as disastrous. More than one abused woman has told me that, early on in her marriage, before the beatings began, her pious Catholic husband railed at her for not being sufficiently archetypically feminine, as if any one woman could or should be. As if he had married womankind, rather than an actual person. This is the trap Marshall et al fall into: They want individual human beings to be the embodiment of all of their sex (“all seminarians must be masculine”); but since no one can or should achieve that, they reduce an archetypal reality to a few small, individualistic traits, and then rage at anyone who doesn’t reduce himself to those traits, as if they’ve failed at being human.
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It’s a way of making sense of the world, and it’s intensely depersonalizing. We do not love by making what is large small, and we do not love by railing at what is small for not being as large as the whole universe. But people who behave this way don’t think they’re being cruel to individual people; they think they’re being noble by upholding ontological truths. But first they have to squash those ontological truths into bite-sized pieces.
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Dressed up as respect for God’s creation, this way of thinking turns men and women away from our vocation, which is, in our particular ways, to be open to God: To be feminine in relation to God.
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Yes, that looks different for men and for women, and it looks different for for one particular women compared to another, and one particular man compared to another; but in some very broad way, this is the true feminine, what both Joseph and Mary did.
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I saw it myself yesterday, dozens of times, at Mass, at the Eucharist, men and women. They walked up to the front with all the burdens and glories of their particularities, and then opened up to receive God. How? Because He alone can take ontological truths and make them, as it were, bite-sized. He has made small what is larger than then universe, larger than masculine and feminine. Love makes itself small. Never to make others small.
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Our vocation is to be open like Mary and open like Joseph, and neither one of the two of them look like anything I’ve ever seen before on this earth, except in brief flashes like at the altar rail. Hell if I know what it means. My kids were asking me about the Second Coming today, and all I could say was everyone who thinks they know what they are talking about is in for a surprise.

 

The Church is someone, not something

The internet will teach you how to turn a “no” into a “yes.” The phrase  appears in tutorials designed for salespeople, but also in more sinister contexts.  In militant men’s rights groups, there are forums and even study guides that teach men how to manipulate women and extract the sexual goodies they want from them.

They understand that, in these whacky times, women may pursue legal prosecution for rape or assault if you don’t listen to their “no;” so men who consider sex a right coach each other on how to pressure, manipulate, disorient, confuse, and guilt women into yielding a reluctant but legally watertight “yes.” Rather than being ashamed of this gross display of inhumanity, these men preen themselves on their skills. They know that, if they are challenged for their behavior, they can point to their victim’s coerced consent, and then she will be blamed for what happened to her.

Healthy men would vomit at the very idea of approaching a woman this way. No man enjoys rejection, but they do understand that women are human, and shouldn’t be treated like an object whose body and will can be forced into whatever position you like. No means no. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to accept it.

I’ve heard this approach before, in an entirely different context. I’ve heard this refrain of “I hear your ‘no,’ but I refuse to accept it, and I even feel proud of my persistence. So I’m going to keep chipping away at you with everything I’ve got in hopes that you’ll give in and let me have what I think I’m entitled to.”

Here’s what I hear:

“All the other churches go along with this stuff, so why won’t you? What’s wrong with you? Why are you so uptight?”

“Of course I love you, Catholicism! That’s why I want to see you change.”

“No one can possibly love you, you Catholic Church, if you keep on acting this way. I’m the only one who could put up with you, and you better give in, or I’ll leave, too.”

It’s the language of Catholic dissenters — including myself, at times, to my shame. It’s the language of people who have heard her say “no” very clearly — “no” to contraception, “no” to women priests, “no” to gay sex. But they love her, they say, so they just keep chipping away, threatening, negging, pressuring and wheedling, priding themselves on their persistence in trying to wear her defenses down, to turn her “no” into a “yes.”

When we hear pressure and threats from a would-be rapist who clearly despises women as much as he craves their companionship, it’s easy to see these tactics for what they are: Abuse. An abuser allows himself to speak this way because he doesn’t really recognize the humanity of his victim. He sees her primarily as something that could potentially deliver what he wants, if only she would know her place and cooperate with his demands. He sees her primarily as a thing, and not as a person.

I am here to tell you that the Catholic Church is a person. It is the Body of Christ. And the Body of Christ has a right to her bodily autonomy. She is not here to assume whatever position will satisfy our current appetites, whether they’re intellectual or spiritual or psychological or social. The Church is Someone, not something, and she has the right to say “no.”

Now let me make some disclaimers, because I know I’ve said something tough to hear.

When I talk about people pressuring the Church to change, I’m not talking about people who are sincerely struggling, even angrily struggling, bitterly struggling, fearfully struggling with some of the hard teachings of the faith. Healthy relationships have struggles. I struggle, sometimes angrily or bitterly or fearfully, with some fundamental teachings of the Church, just as my own beloved husband almost certainly struggles with some of the things that make me fundamentally me. It’s not always easy being in love. So I’m not saying that struggling with doctrine is abuse. Struggle is normal, and struggling with the Church does not make us abusers.

And more importantly, I’m not saying that the Church is not in need of change. God knows it is badly in need. Sometimes there are things about your beloved that ought to change, and insisting on that change sometimes truly is an act of love. Many loving spouses will eventually find occasion to hold their beloved to account for intolerable behaviors which must be changed if the marriage can survive; and so it it is with faithful Catholics and the Church. Wanting to reform what is wrong in the Church does not make us abusers.

Does the Church need reform? Oh literally sweet Jesus, yes. The hierarchy and much of its pastoral authority is deformed almost beyond recognition. They don’t even seem to realize that they have lost our trust and need to work to regain it. There are abusers in power. There are structures in place that make it impossible to hold abusers and their enablers to account. There are too many ways to keep horrible secrets; too many places for abusers to hide. God’s word is used to shout down victims and their defenders and to amplify hypocrites, opportunists, and predators. This is the state of the Church today. These are the things that must, please God, change.

But these grotesqueries, these deformations, are not who the Church herself is. They are like parasites living off the Body of Christ. They fight like mad to preserve their host, not because they love her, but because they need their daily feeds. They must be scoured away so that the body of Christ can be pure again. I don’t know how, but I see it must be done.

But there is change, and there is change. If we want to preserve our loving relationship with the Body of Christ and not unwittingly fall into patterns of abuse against her, we must learn to make the distinction between who the Church is, and what her members and her representatives do — what they have done, in fact, to her. The latter must often be changed; the former is inviolable.

We can learn who the Church is by what she teaches, what she says. And sometimes, what she says is “no.” This is inviolable. She is inviolable.

Lately, we have perhaps become used to thinking of the Church as the abuser. So many people have been maligned, mistreated, guilted, shamed, or literally raped by those who call themselves the Church. But we must see clearly. Those who abuse and enable abuse in the name of Christ are not the Church; they are to the Church as a pimp is to a sex slave. They will defend her, not because they love her, but because she brings them power and money. They are the ones who must repent and reform, not her. She is the victim. She is not the one who needs to change. The Church is a person, and she has the right to say “no,” both to those who abuse her outright, and to those who want to blame her for being abused.

We will not purify the Body of Christ by attacking what and who she is, and that includes what she says. No means no. Like anyone whose demands have been rejected, we don’t have to like it, but we do have to accept it, especially if we say you love the Church. She is someone, not something. When she says “no,” she means “no.”

 

Image: detail of photo by Stefano Merli via Flickr (Creative 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. 

 

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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)

Writing about your kids? Watch your mouth.

She got her sons’ permission to write everything she writes.

Yeah. So what? They are your children. Your relationship with them is not a contractual obligation where one party can sign away their rights to dignity and privacy just because their mom has a deadline and a grievance

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

 

No, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” doesn’t need to be updated to emphasize consent

Unpopular opinion time! “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” isn’t a rape song. It’s not even a rapey song. It’s a seduction song, and we used to know the difference between seduction and rape, before we elevated consent to the highest good.

Apparently there is an arch parody that updates the song to emphasize consent. I despise arch parodies, so I refuse to watch it, and you can’t make me.

For the record, I don’t even especially like the original song. It’s okay, as far as cutesy duets go. It does an adequate job of capturing a familiar relationship between a man and a woman. As with any song, you can make it come across as creepy and criminal; but you can also make it come across as it was originally intended: as playful.  The couple is literally playing a game, a very old one, where the man wants what he wants, and the woman wants it too, but it’s more fun for both of them when he has to work for it a little bit. It’s a song about persuasion. That’s what seduction is, and that’s what makes the song interesting: the tension. If there is no tension, there is no song.

Here are the full lyrics. The woman’s lines are in parenthesis. If you’re convinced this song is a rape song, please do read through the lyrics before you read the rest of this post!

You’ll note that the only protests the woman makes are that her reputation might be soiled. She doesn’t say that she wants to go, only that she should. This is because  . . . I’m dying a little inside because I actually have to say it . . . she actually wants to stay. As women often do, when they are already in a relationship with a man they are attracted to and with whom they have been spending a romantic evening, and whom they have been telling repeatedly that they are actually interested in staying.

Most critics get hung up on the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” The assumption is that he’s slipped a drug into her cocktail (or, occasionally, that he’s spiked her virgin drink with alcohol). Okay. Or maybe, at the end of an evening of dancing and drinking, he’s added a little more liquor than she’s expecting. Or maybe he hasn’t done anything, other than give her the “half a drink more” she just asked for, and she’s playfully making an excuse for what she’s about to do:  Whoo, what’s in this drink? I’m acting all silly, but it can’t be my fault, mercy me!  This was a standard trope of that era. Anytime something weird goes on, you blame the bottle.

Again: there is no indication, unless you take that one line out of context, that there is anything sinister going on. There is overwhelming evidence, if you listen to the whole song, that it’s a song about a pleasurable interplay between the sexes.

Heck, if we’re going to give this song the darkest possible reading, and single out one line while ignoring the context, why not call it the False Rape Accusation song? After all, the woman says, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried!” You see? She’s calculating a malicious plan to claim that she didn’t give consent, so that when her family and neighbors look askance at her for spending the night, she can make it seem like it was against her will!

Humbug. This is what happens when we’re all trained to see consent as the highest good. This is what happens when we’re trained to ignore context. People who can’t tell the difference between persuasion and force are people who have forgotten why consent is so important.

Consent isn’t valuable in itself. If it were, then it would be a holy and solemn moment when we check the “I agree” box when signing onto free WiFi at Dunkin’ Donuts. Consent is only a good thing because it’s in service to other things — higher things with intrinsic value, such as fidelity, free will, self sacrifice, respect, happiness, integrity, and . . . love. These are all things that you can’t have unless you have consent.

But when all you look for is consent, and you ignore the context, you get two human beings who see each other in rigid roles — business partners with black and white contractual obligations. In short, you have what modern people say they despise about the bad old days: love as a business arrangement.

My friends, I firmly believe there is such a thing as rape culture. When we wink and smirk and say, “Boys will be boys,” we degrade both women and men, and we teach women that they have a duty to give men whatever they want so they’re not a tease or a downer. We teach men that they can’t control themselves. We teach women that they can’t really say no, and that if they do, they’ll be scoffed at or blamed or disbelieved. When we tell the world that “no means maybe,” we’re setting the stage for rape.

But is this song doing that? Or is it just a little vignette of that deliciously warm in-between place, where reasonable people can have fun together? Because when we step outside, and make everything black and white, then, baby, it’s cold. So cold.

We degrade both men and women when we tell them that sex is just another contractual obligation — and that there’s no difference between a violent encounter between strangers, and a playful exchange between a romantic couple, and a violent exchange between a romantic couple, and a loving relationship in marriage, and a violent relationship in marriage. We’re told that the relationship doesn’t matter, and that the actual behavior has no intrinsic meaning. The only thing that matters is consent. We think that focusing on consent will ensure that no one will be degraded or taken advantage of; but instead, it has won us abominations like “empowering porn” and 50 Shades of Gray and even the suggestion that children can give consent.  It wins us a generation of kids that asks things like, “How can I tell if she consents or not, if she’s not conscious?” (A real question I read from a high school kid; I’ll add the link if I can find it again!) These miseries are not a side effect; they are the direct result of a culture that elevates consent to the highest good.

It’s not only promiscuous, secular types whose lives are impoverished by the cold rule of consent. I’m a member of a group of Catholics where one young woman wrote for advice about her husband, who, she tearfully reported, kissed her without first asking consent. This made her feel violated.

It was her husband.

Who kissed her.

And she thought he needed to ask consent every time.

This is where the pendulum has swung. We’ve pathologized the normal, healthy, give-and-take of love. We’ve taught people that there is no such thing as context: that’s it’s fair game to ignore the entire relationship and to reduce each other to business partners.

Now, if you’ve been victimized or abused, then this is probably not going to be your favorite song. You’re free to find it creepy, and you’re free to change the station. But we don’t heal from abuse by turning the whole world into an isolation ward. Healthy relationships, where the context does allow for some interplay and ambiguity, should be the norm, and they should dare to speak their healthy name.

And one more thing (and I could write volumes about this): not everything is a lesson. Not every pop song is a primer for how to behave. I tell my kids that it’s our duty to be aware of what the world is teaching us, for good or ill; but just because we’re learning something doesn’t mean there was a life lesson intended.  Sometimes art, including pop art (like pop songs) is just giving you a slice of human experience, and when it feels familiar, then it’s done well, period.

No wonder people have no idea how to stay married anymore. They expect everything to be a lesson, and they expect those lessons to be black and white. They think that life is going to give them crystal clear boundaries. They think that it’s always going to be obvious what they can expect from other people and from themselves.

I’m not talking about sex, here; I’m talking about love, and about life in general — life without context, life without tension, life without ambiguity, life without play. Baby, it doesn’t get any colder than that.

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Image: Pedro Ignacio Guridi via Flickr (Creative Commons)
This essay ran in a slightly different form on Aleteia in 2015.

Girls Cannot Give Consent

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Even if she puts on lipstick and arches her eyebrow.

In the third world, they stone a girl to death for being raped.  In the United States, we just give her rapist and de facto murderer a slap on the wrist, and reassure the world that she was asking for it.

Think I’m exaggerating?  Cherice Morales was fourteen when her 49-year-old teacher began to rape her.  Three years later, she killed herself. The reason her story is in the news is because her rapist, Stacey Rambold, got 30 days in jail for the rapes.

After Morales killed herself, Rambold was supposed to complete a sex offender treatment program, but he didn’t.  His case was revived when it was revealed that he was, among other offenses, having unsupervised visits with minors.  His sentencing judge, Judge G. Todd Baugh, who never met the victim, said that she was “as much in control of the situation” as Rambold was, and that she was “older than her chronological age.”  “It was not a violent, forcible, beat-the-victim rape like you see in movies,” he said.  (What kind of movies are you watching, your honor?)

Yesterday, after there was an outcry, the judge apologized for his statements about Morales.  He says that he doesn’t know what he was trying to say, and that his statements are not relevant to the sentencing.  But he isn’t rescinding the sentencing, either.  Thirty days is what the man gets, minus one day already served.

In this raw and profane piece in xo jane, a woman who suffered repeated statutory rape starting at age 13, reminds us why there are laws about statutory rape in the first place:

The fact is, a 14-year-old girl may be capable of agreeing to sex with a 49-year-old man, but she doesn’t have the emotional and mental maturity to consent.  I was 25 before I realized that every man I’d slept with as a teenager was a pedophile. It seemed to me that since I’d courted the attention, that I was fully culpable. What teenager believes she is not mentally or emotionally capable of full consent? I thought I was an adult, although when I look at the picture of myself from the time period above, I see a child.

I thought I was the exception for these men, the girl so precocious and advanced that it superseded social norms. I thought that I was “older than my chronological age.”

Well, what do you expect from the modern, secular world, right?  What do you expect from a culture that simultaneously glorifies and degrades human sexuality?  Of course you’re going to have needy girls and lecherous men.  Of course there will be suffering and heartache, and innocents will suffer and predators will go free.

But surely we Catholics know better than that, yes?  Surely the Church on earth, imperfect as she is, is a safe haven for the young and vulnerable.

Well, just yesterday I ran afoul of a prominent Catholic writer, a professor who often works with college students.  The last time I talked to him when he said in public that the way to deal with a teen mom who’d given birth at age fourteen is to tell the “slut” to “keep her legs closed.”

No long ago, I was speaking to a Catholic priest about how difficult life seemed when I was a teenager, and he went into a long reverie about the teenage girls that cross his path.  “Those short skirts, that heavy eye makeup—” he said . . . “Ohh, they know exactly what they’re doing.”

Think rapists come from nowhere?  Think they would dare to do what they do, if it were not for men like these?  You don’t have to be a rapist to be part of the problem.  All you have to do is make sure we all remember that the girl is to blame.  No matter how young she is, the girl is always to blame.

  • It’s her fault because she knows how to look like a woman (even though she’s not).
  • It’s her fault because she wears padded bras and skanky clothing (even though her body is tender and unfinished on the inside).
  • It’s her fault because she knows all the moves (because she’s been trained since toddlerhood to writhe to a beat, because that’s what makes the adults in the house point the camera at them).
  • It’s her fault because she works hard to look sexy (even though she really only wants to look pretty, and sexy is the only pretty she’s ever been shown).
  • It’s her fault because she’s loud and dirty because she knows it gets her something (and she knows that something is better than nothing).

It’s her fault because she’s learned that she has power, and she does wield it (because the only time men speak to her is to say two things, “Do what I tell you to do” and “I want you.”  If you were a lonely girl, which would you rather hear?).

The xojane writer tells us,

[I]t doesn’t matter if a young girl is saying yes, it’s an adult man’s job to say no.

And she’s not just talking to Rambold and other men who happen to have a thing for young girls.  She’s talking to all adults who should know better:  the judge, the defense attorney, the professors, the priests, the therapists, the school principles, the combox snipers, men and women.  She’s speaking to us.  To me.

What do I say when I meet a young girl in trouble?  What do I see when a teenage girl sashays by in skintight jeans, made up like a porn star?  Do I see a girl?  Or do I grimace and avert my eyes from just another young slut who’s out to ruin the world?

What do we tell girls, besides, “Do what I tell you to do?”  Do we tell them, “You are still young”?  Do we tell them, “Stand behind me, and I will protect you”?  Do we tell them that there is still hope, there is a way to get love and attention without being used?  Or do we tell the girls that it’s their fault, always their fault?

I don’t want to be the background music for the song and dance of the likes of Rambold and Judge Baugh, who say that there is no such thing as innocence.  Keep on saying it, and it will come true.

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photo credit: Cat Eyes via photopin (license)

This post originally ran in 2013. I’m reposting it in light of recent conversations about Maria Goretti.