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Friday, May 06, 2005

And now...Sex!

Warning--this post contains observations of a personal, if not Oprah-esque confessional, nature.

Via Bill Cork, I stumbed across this Busted Halo rumination on premarital sex by Fordham University senior Julia Tier. Since it's (usually) not sporting to fisk college students (think: bragging about grenade fishing skills), I'm not going to do that.

Besides, it's really not worthy of a caning. Flawed--very--but honest. That, and it's hard for me to truly get upset with someone who takes the time to cite the Catechism.

In fact, she makes a decent point or two. The problem is that she appears to be completely unaware of the tragic flaws in her own moral argument. Since it reflects a common mindset, I thought I'd take a crack at answering it. And I might as well get an early start on preparing to explain it to my own children, to boot. That day will be coming sooner rather than later.

The heart of her essay is this:

There is a trend among people my age to separate their faith from Church teachings on issues of sexuality. I believe one of the main reasons for this disconnect is that the Church does not provide any guidance regarding sexuality for unmarried young adults other than "Don't do it!" Although remaining chaste until marriage is no doubt a beautiful and romantic experience for those who choose it, not everyone follows this path. In my experience, pre-marital sex on college campuses is not the exception, but the rule. So how does a predominantly Catholic student body at a Jesuit school justify disobeying this tenet of the Church? The answer seems to be that they don’t. I don’t believe young people are simply ignoring this teaching so they can do what they want and go to confession later. Instead, I think they feel that the Church's teaching on sexual issues is bordering on irrelevance, not only because of the institution's hypocritical handling of the recent scandals but also because young people see the Church as treating all acts as equally damning. For those Catholics who are having pre-marital sex, there is no distinction between making love in a committed relationship and having sex with the entire rugby team; they are both mortal sins. This ignores the heart of the Church's teaching on sex, which, among other things, calls on us to integrate our "thoughts, feelings and actions in a way that values, esteems and respects the dignity of oneself and others."

The fatal flaw in her reasoning is this: there is no such animal as a "committed relationship" outside of marriage. Not that I'm naive enough to think that getting married of itself offers some kind of magical assistance and protection, but it seems pretty clear to me that the idea that couples being "committed" to each other makes everything OK has gone a long way toward eroding the strength of the marital bond itself. With the "committed relationship" mindset, marriage becomes just another form of "committed relationship" with tax benefits.

First, just what is a "committed relationship" anyway? From what I can tell, it means "we only have sex with each other." By that standard, I've been in three "committed relationships." That is not said with pride. Sure, there's more than just that: hopefully a heightened amount of respect, trust, communication, spending of time with each other and so forth. But anyone who has been in one would be lying if he or she said the exclusive sex angle was not central.

But the full checklist is a long ways from being any kind of articulated, formed understanding of what the commitment really means, how deep it is, where it is going, etc. In my own experience, I know it meant different things between the "committed" parties at different times. With marriage, the man and woman declare "until death do us part." With "commitments," no such declaration is made. It's nebulous at best. What--till graduation do us part? Till I meet someone more compatible? Till you've nagged me for the last time/embarrassed me by getting drunk for the last time? It's a pledge written in quicksand, and it shows.

I think this is why I knew a lot of people in college who ended up "enjoying" serial "commitments."

As a result, most "committed relationships" are doomed by the very fragility of the commitment itself. Trust me when I say this: I am not a polygamist. Nor even a bigamist. That means that at least two of my "committed relationships" ended badly, now, doesn't it? And trust me, they did. One was particularly wrenching, but let's not get into that.

Which brings us to the real harm that comes from the detonation of these commitments. That a small minority end happily in stable, healthy, truly committed marriages doesn't warrant the celebration of the concept. The fact is, the great flaw of "commitments" is that they are a cardboard imitation of, and reflect a yearning for, the real thing. And both parties know it. That's why, unless we are talking about a pair of sociopaths, both parties hurt like hell when it ends. Maybe one partner more than the other, but the less-hurt also, even if only because they have been made colder and more distant.

Just in time for the next "commitment"!

Then what happens if--hopefully when--you do find "the one"? Odds are, you'll come fully prepared and equipped. As in "equipped" with enough emotional baggage to sink a freighter, and the bad habits ingrained by a string of failed "commitments." All of which you get to work through with the one you would have been better off waiting for. Sure, it can and often is done successfully. But it takes a lot of time, and let's not pretend there's no psychic cost.

Especially with that one little thing. That piddling issue. That stuff you left behind. You've grown up since. You know: your past.

If the both of you think you can pretend that your past sexual history will not be an issue, that it will be tabula rasa, fresh start, all of that?

You. Are. Delusional.

It's a gut issue. Instinctive. It will come up--even off-hand-- and you will have to deal with the inevitable hurt. I am only able to speak for myself, but I think it's safe to say that men do not care to even think about their intended's sexual past. It's not because we're "unenlightened" or vindictive--it's simply that the thought hits us in a tough spot and takes us where we do not wish to go, and do not care to dwell. That's a shadow that can turn into a pall. I imagine something similar is at play for women, but possibly in a different way. I'll leave that to the female readers who come here to address.

Or not...

Finally, Tier completely misses the relationship between "commitments" and the development of the hookup culture. The willingness to embrace and excuse less committed relationships only greases the skids for the one-night stands and "doing the Rugby team" mindset her "Values" class rightly deplores. The tragedy is her inability to recognize that there is no meaningful difference between "committed" premarital sex and the hookup kind. Hopefully it won't take the disintegration of a few more "committed" relationships to before she understands. The difference between the two is mostly one of degree, not kind.

I'm reminded of Naomi Wolf's remarkable essay of a couple of years ago (warning: some offensive verbal imagery), deploring the "p**nization" of sex, and the wholesale decay of relationships between men and women at colleges and universities. The last exchange amply describes what happens after a long period of winking at ersatz commitment:

Compare that steaminess with a conversation I had at Northwestern, after I had talked about the effect of porn on relationships. “Why have sex right away?” a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. “Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.”

“Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?”

“Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”

I think it's also safe to say that sexuality drained of mystery is also sexuality devoid of the sacred. With all that entails for relationships between men and women, and the impact on their children and the greater world. Viewed in this light, the "rules" Ms. Tier complains about make a lot more sense. Moreover, it refutes her argument that they lack essential nuance. She is unqualifiedly right about one thing, though--they could use a lot better explanation.

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