If You Haven’t Read Humanae Vitae, What Are You Waiting For?

You may imagine it’s a stern and solemn doctrinal harangue, fusty with misogyny, larded with theological jargon, cluttered with impractical, abstract ideals. In short, something you’d write if you’ve never had sex and have no idea what marriage is really like.

But Humanae Vitae is not like that.

Humanae Vitae, which is Latin for “On Human Life,” doesn’t bring the authoritarian fist of the Church crashing down on individual, authentic human lives. Instead, it invites us to recall two things . . .

Read the rest of my latest for Parable Magazine.

 

Image via Pixabay (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.

 

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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. 

 

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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)

Podcast 49: Not trying to hurry you (FREE PODCAST!)

I’m making today’s podcast free, just for the hell of it. Normally, podcasts are open to patrons who pledge $1 or more through Patreon. You are still highly encouraged to pledge. But this one is free, who can say why.

In this podcast, my husband Damien and I cover:

How to get motivated at work and not put people’s business cards in your mouth (unless you are Judge Judy);
a very fine story about boy, some other boys, some cement, and a microwave;
what Sr. Mary Immaculata saw when she went to check on my little brother on his circuitous route toward adulthood;
some choice moments with Edward G. Robinson and a certain rat;
For this story about bad sex writing, let me adjust the microphone, if you will;
Woop! Woop! That’s the sound of the . . . billiard racks, and other irrelevancies;
And the priest said, ” . . . well . . . .”
Damien denies having any knowledge of Mexican baloney;
Irish dogs and other unreliable sources;
an actual ankle-biter;
And a poem by Michael Lavers.

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Image: By Trailer screenshot, from DVD The Ten Commandments, 50th Anniversary Collection Paramount, 2006 (The Ten Commandments trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

New book: A Pope Francis Lexicon (including my chapter!)

Now ready for pre-order: A Pope Francis Lexicon — and guess what? I somehow have a chapter in it!

My chapter deals with the word “embrace,” and while I did regretfully excise the passage where I compare Francis to the Sta Puft Marshmallow Man, I attempt to answer the thorny question: Does our pope really think huggy togetherness is an adequate substitute for orthodoxy? I try to answer the question sincerely, based on his writing and his actions, and from the perspective of someone who is sometimes frustrated by his approach.

This book has an impressive line-up of fifty illustrious contributors who each

explore the Pope’s use of words like joyclericalismmoneyfamily, and tears. Together, they reveal what Francis’s use of these words says about him, his ministry and priorities, and their significance to the church, the world, and the lives of individual Christians. The entire collection is introduced by a foreword by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide, and a preface by one of Francis’s closest advisors, Cardinal Seán O’Malley.  

Here’s a full list of the chapter themes and contributors:

Volume foreword   Patriarch Bartholomew
Volume preface    Cardinal Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap
Baptism              Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Benedict XVI        David Gibson
Capitalism           Bishop Robert McElroy
Careerism           Cardinal Joseph Tobin, C.Ss.R.
Church                Elizabeth Bruenig
Clerical abuse      Francis Sullivan
Clericalism          Archbishop Paul-André Durocher
Collegiality          Archbishop Mark Coleridge
Conscience         Austen Ivereigh
Creation              Orthodox Fr. John Chryssavgis
Curia                  Massimo Faggioli
Dialogue             Archbishop Roberto González Nieves, OFM
Dignity                Tina Beattie
Discernment        Fr. James Martin, SJ
Devil/Satan          Greg Hillis
Ecumenism         Nontando Hadebe
Embrace             Simcha Fisher
Encounter/Encuentro      Archbishop Victor Fernández
Episcopal Accountability  Katie Grimes
Family                Julie Hanlon Rubio
Field Hospital      Cardinal Blase Cupich
Flesh                  Msgr. Dario Viganò
Gossip                Kaya Oakes
Grandparents       Bill Dodds
Hacer lio             Fr. Manuel Dorantes
Hope                  Natalia Imperatori-Lee
Immigrant           Sr. Norma Seni Pimentel, MJ
Indifference         Sr. Carmen Sammut, MSOLA
Jesus                 Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, SJ
Joy                    Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP
Judgment           Michael O’Loughlin
Justice               Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS
Leadership          Kerry Robinson
Legalism            Sr. Teresa Forcades i Vila, OSB
Martyrdom          Bishop Borys Gudziak
Mercy                Archbishop Donald Bolen
Miracles             John Thavis
Money                Andrea Tornielli
Periphery            Carolyn Woo
Prayer                Bishop Daniel Flores
Reform               Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, SDB
Refugee              Rhonda Miska
Second Vatican Council   Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
Service               Phyllis Zagano
Sheep                Archbishop Justin Welby
Sourpuss            Fr James Corkery, SJ
St. Francis          Fr. Michael Perry, OFM
Tears                  Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle
Throwaway culture Sr. Pat Farrell, OSF
Worldliness         Mollie Wilson O’Reilly
Women               Astrid Gajiwala
Youth                 Jordan Denari Duffner

Speaking of books, have I mentioned lately that I have a book of my own, and that I’ve contributed chapters to two other books besides A Pope Francis Lexicon? Here they are:

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The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning

The chapters are divided into three groups:

  • NFP and Your Spiritual Life
  • NFP and the Rest of the World
  • NFP in the Trenches.

Some of the most popular chapters have proven to be “The Golden Box,” which deals with how our decisions work with God’s will, in matters of family planning and in general; and “Groping Toward Chastity,” a title which, if there were any justice in the world, would have won me a Nobel Prize in literature.

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Style, Sex, and Substance: 10 Catholic Women Consider the Things That Really Matter

My chapter is “Receiving, Creating, and Letting Go: Motherhood in Body and Soul.”

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Catholic and Married: Leaning Into Love

My chapter, “Mirrors Around a Flame,” explores the idea that children are a gift. This book kind of got lost in the shuffle while there were some logistical issues, but it includes many excellent essays, including Jenny Uebbing’s great chapter on NFP.

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As always, the links above are Amazon Associate links. If you buy these books using the links I provide (or if you buy anything on Amazon after getting to the site through one of my links), I earn a small percentage of each sale. Anytime you shop on Amazon, please consider using my link!

Simcha’s Amazon Link!

Sometimes people tell me they’re not sure if it’s “working” or not. Thanks for asking! It should look like a normal Amazon page when you click through. If you look up in the URL or address box at the top of the screen, it should have a long string of letters and symbols after Amazon.com, including “ihavtositdo03-20” somewhere in there. That’s me! Here’s a sample of what it will look like when you shop on Amazon using my link:

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I also now have accounts with Amazon Canada and Amazon UK, hooray! Thanks so much. I know it’s one more thing to think about.

Protected: Podcast 32: Tuna Free!

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Protected: Podcast 27: My interview with Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa of New Wave Feminists

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Protected: Podcast #14: I wish I had a whip

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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.