The real world is what’s right in front of you

By all means, be informed. Pay attention to great global matters of historical significance, and don’t stick your head in the sand. But don’t let some vague sense of duty to more important things distract you from the present; and don’t, for goodness’ sake, believe the line that tells you that the more close and familiar something is, the less it signifies. Just the opposite is true.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (Wikimedia Commons)

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)

Living in a panic room: Virtuous pedophiles?

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“Eternally hunkered down in a panic room.” That’s how one psychologist describes  the interior lives of people who are sexually attracted to prepubescent children.

Who could pity a pedophile? Of all the crimes in the world, child abuse rightly seem unforgivable.  “It would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” That’s what Christ said about people who hurt little children.

But that’s how we feel about people who actually commit these unspeakable crimes. What about people who, through great effort, don’t?

Say you feel sexually attracted to children. You don’t want to feel that way, but you do, and you have felt that way your whole life. You’ve never acted on your attraction, but you’re afraid you might. What are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to live your life?

I need to speak to a therapist because I don’t think I can get through this on my own. But if I talk to a therapist he could report me, because I have to talk about my attraction to young girls. I don’t know whether he would or not and don’t even know how to go about getting more information. Even the friendships I have are in danger of falling apart because I can’t just keep saying ‘I’m fine’ and I can’t talk to anyone about my problem. I think about suicide a lot.

This quote comes from a website I came across the other day. It’s called Virtuous Pedophiles,  and its goal is not to normalize pedophilia but to “provide peer support and information about available resources to help pedophiles lead happy, productive lives.” They say,  “Our highest priority is to help pedophiles never abuse children.”

From what I can see, the approach is in keeping with how the Church understands temptation and sin: there is a difference between being tempted to do something, and actually doing it. People who are tempted are not sinners simply because they are tempted — but they do need help. It is possible that our extreme and fitting repugnance of crimes against children is actually making it harder for pedophiles to avoid committing these crimes, because there is no structure in place to help pedophiles who have never acted on their urges. People are, in effect, punished for admitting that they need help.

A few years ago, the American Psychological Association printed a new version of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and for the first time, it classified pedophilia as a “sexual orientation.” The nation responded with horror, and the APA quickly retracted what it called an “error.” In a statement, the APA said:

“Sexual orientation” is not a term used in the diagnostic criteria for pedophilic disorder and its use in the DSM-5 text discussion is an error and should read “sexual interest.” In fact, APA considers pedophilic disorder a “paraphilia,” not a “sexual orientation.” This error will be corrected in the electronic version of DSM-5 and the next printing of the manual.

APA stands firmly behind efforts to criminally prosecute those who sexually abuse and exploit children and adolescents. We also support continued efforts to develop treatments for those with pedophilic disorder with the goal of preventing future acts of abuse.

In other words, pedophilic disorder means that you are attracted to children, not that you do abuse children. If you have this disorder, you should be able to speak about it with a therapist, to help you avoid acting on your involuntary attraction. It is neither a sin nor a crime to be tempted, but it is treated as both.

It is possible that the APA briefly used the term “sexual orientation” because they were attempting to classify non-abusive pedophiles in such a way that they could more easily speak to their therapists about their urges without triggering mandatory reporting.

I am not sure if this was the reasoning behind the choice to say “sexual orientation” (and Virtuous Pedophiles does use the term “orientation” in its site, which is disturbing).  There is most certainly a push, in some quarters, to normalize the sexual abuse of children, and to call pedophilia just one more shade in the rainbow. Goodness knows that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, as well as in nearly every other organization that comes into regular contact with children, has been criminally slow to recognize and crack down on abusers and the structure that enabled them, even while condemning the sin itself; and some Catholics are still speaking as if the sex abuse crisis was some overblown, media-created hit job instead of the deeply scandalous tragedy it was and continues to be.

But as it is, people who are attracted to children are told that they cannot get treatment unless they’ve actually already preyed on a child! Part of the reason for this dearth of preventative treatment is, according to the NYT, because all the studies about pedophila have been done on pedophiles who have succumbed to temptation.Many psychiatrists believe that pedophilia has a neurological origin; but people who feel an attraction to children but do not act on it are not included in studies because they are afraid of being charged with a crime they have not yet committed — and so the information about pedophiles is all information about criminals, whose brains, psyches, behavioral patterns, and family histories may be very different from people who successfully resist temptation. It’s a vicious cycle.

I believe very strongly that society shouldn’t do anything that even suggests that attraction to children is within the normal range of sexual experience, and I believe that our laws should prevent child abusers from living and working near children. But refusing to acknowledge the existence of “virtuous pedophiles,” who are struggling against their attraction, is the wrong response.

The longer we refuse to acknowledge the existence of “virtuous pedophiles,” the less likely these suffering souls are to find effective treatment to help them remain virtuous.

A New Idolatry: Foreskin Restoration

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[I’m not really here! I’m stealing WiFi at Dunkin’ Donuts to post this on our way to beach. This seemed like the perfect post for a day when I’m not really here.]

Today, a horrible new planet swam into my ken: foreskin reconstruction.

It’s a thing. It’s a thing among a small number of men who suffer from rare disorder called “phimoses,” where the foreskin won’t retract fully, and it’s a thing among a small number of men who had botched circumcisions, and experience pain and bleeding.

But it’s also a thing among men who have allowed themselves to be persuaded that their lives are significantly impoverished because of a missing flap of skin. They believe that they cannot be happy or fulfilled until they go through a lengthy process of skin grafts or, less risky but somehow more appalling, a years-long regimen of “tugging,” with tapes, weights, and elastic straps. They believe that they can be “restored” to something valuable, dignified, and worthwhile by devoting hours out of every day, perhaps for years, to measuring how much skin covers the end of their penises.

There’s a word for this: “Idolatry.” Elizabeth Scalia nailed it. We imagine idol worship is a thing of the past, just because we haven’t seen wanton wenches polishing a golden calf with their hair, lately. But idol-making has been the constant business of humanity for thousands of years. The idols themselves change, but the impulse is the same: replace God with something smaller and easier to manage — and devote your life to serving that, instead.

This isn’t about whether circumcision is right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy. It’s about who’s in charge: you, or what you think you lack?

Some people speak of the devil tempting us with pleasures and delights, which turn to ashes when we die. More and more, he tempts modern men and women with the idea that we are miserable. He tells us there is no way we can’t be miserable, under our current intolerable circumstances. He teaches us to examine every experience and tease out how unsatisfying it is, compared to some ideal which we’ve never experienced, but which we firmly believe we deserve. He trains us to focus on what we do not have. He constantly reminds us that we’ve been violated in some way, that life itself has robbed us of  . . .  something.

And the more squalid the locus of our desires, the better.  Exorcists often report an overpowering fecal stench in the homes of the possessed. The frantic masturbation scene in The Exorcist was not a fantasy. This is what the devil offers us: everything wretched and small, because he wants us to know in our hearts that we are wretched and small, that we stink, that we’re nothing more than a few square inches of skin.

He doesn’t just want us to lose God. He wants us to degrade ourselves as much as possible in the process. A fall is not good enough: it must be a ridiculous fall.

Foreskin restoration? I don’t care who you are, I can promise you this: there is only one kind of restoration that really means anything, and that is the kind that comes from letting go of that wretched little idol you’ve been clutching. Let Christ take everything from you, and then we’ll see how you can be restored.

At the Register: True Suffering Isn’t Photogenic

Don’t add pain to pain by expecting it to “hurt so good.”

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