Friday, March 09, 2012

What Is It About Sex?

While it has been fun to watch the sinking ships called advertisers desert the rat's radio show, it has been sad to be bombarded by the demand that only a single narrative is operative through this whole mess. Since the narratives themselves share nothing in common, it becomes impossible to arbitrate which should have primacy. Is it about women's health and equality and freedom? Is it about sex and sexuality? Is it about the ethical demands of a faithful life? Is it about the freedom of religious institutions to practice their faith without coercion by the state?

I suppose it's about all of them.

If this were about access to insulin, I'm not sure the debate would be as heated. Diabetes just doesn't have that ring of titillation to it that contraception does.

The use of biochemical contraception was not only a pharmacological breakthrough; it sparked a social and cultural revolution the reverberations of which are still present. While contraception existed prior to the pill - the condom is probably the oldest pharmacological device invented; turtle-shell condoms pre-dating written language have been found in both Mesopotamia and China - the pill is so effective it opened up a world of possibilities for women that hadn't existed. Before the pill, if a couple had sex, despite the prevalence of the condom, it was the man's decision whether or not to proactively prevent insemination. The burden of sex was born disproportionately by women in the forms of pregnancy and social ostracism. Now, with the fear of pregnancy set to one side, women had the opportunity to explore their sexuality in ways that had previously been the sole provenance of men.

Entwined within this whole discussion, yet barely brushed against, are matters of personal and social piety regarding sex. In the west, which for a variety of reasons considered itself the arbiter of proper social and cultural mores for the entire planet, the Christian teaching regarding human sexuality (little different from the teachings of other religions) had placed the moral burden for sexual immorality on women. Even a cursory examination of the history of various Christian teachers referring to women as "ordure" and "vomit", to their sexual organs as "pits of despair", and to women's basic moral stance as little different from the view of the demonic forces constantly tempting men away from virtue should convince anyone that ours has been, and in large measure continues to be, a society deeply bound to a fear and hatred of women, and the power they have over men as sexual beings.

Freeing women from the burden of pregnancy and child-rearing was bound to tear open the fragile social super-ego that maintained the truce between the sexes. The male id, open now to the frightful proposition that, regardless of law and custom, women were now as free as men to explore and exploit their sexuality, has reacted violently. Recent events should disabuse any but the most casual observer that there still lies within the western heart a deep revulsion and fear of the power women have over men because of sexual desire.

In the meantime, some Christian denominations have been re-examining the "traditional" teachings of the faith regarding human sexuality and gender relations. Not to remove the sting of the strictures against fornication; rather to come to a deeper understanding of why it might be thought a good thing for human beings to treat the gift of sexuality with more care than, say, defecation. Of course, there have been other Christian denominations that have adamantly refused to revisit "traditional" teachings about human sexuality, seeing in the strict insistence on chastity and forbearance a solid rod for imposing what they see as both a personal and social good.

One can, I would think, affirm both the goodness of human sexuality as a gift from God without removing from any teaching about human sexuality the sting of restriction. Indeed, in coming to understand human sexuality as a good thing, a marvelous gift of a loving God, the demand for chastity makes as much if not more sense than in the "traditional" teaching that sees sex as an evil, with women as the snare drawing us to that evil against our (male) better judgments. One can, in other words, insist that living a disciplined sexual life is in keeping with a proper, faithful understanding of God's love for humanity, for creation, and for society without demeaning sexuality or human beings (women in particular) in the process.

One would also think it quite possible to affirm the social benefits that come with a proper use of the pill. The question, it seems, has become whether or not we Christians, through our organizations, either can or should or do subsidize certain practices that run counter to our teaching about how best to live a fully human, fully ethical life. That is, recognizing that women who are not married or otherwise in a monogamous relationship might wish to use the contraceptive pill to prevent unwanted pregnancy as they have sex, should church's and church-affiliated organizations be put in the position of providing what was once called occasions of sin?

It seems to me we are here up against what one writer has noted is a conflict between our commitment to Civil Theology and Christian Theology. This is not only, or at least shouldn't be, an issue of primacy. Again, as the linked author notes, for Christians, our first duty is to the Kingdom of God as professed and witnessed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet, this also places upon us the burden of being faithful within our reality as citizens of various nations, to whose maintenance and success we are called just as much as to the ongoing project of the furthering of God's kingdom. We can, I suppose see this as a simple enough conflict, in the glare of right and wrong, good and evil, relying not only upon our primary commitment to God and the Kingdom to which we are to bear witness in both word and deed. All the same, we should also recognize that the God incarnate in Jesus Christ was not a God of compulsion. On the contrary, as St. Paul noted so clearly, the most precious gift we received from the Father in the Son through the Spirit is freedom - for freedom's sake.

We should also recognize the fundamental pluralism and diversity of the world in which we live. We Christians can always choose the path of distinctiveness rather than that of accommodation to the larger society in which it finds itself; this has always been a temptation, one even at its height of social, legal, and cultural influence the Church has found difficulty resisting. At the heart of the conflict, of course, is how are we to remain faithful witnesses to the Christ who proclaimed release from the bonds that hold us while following what seems to many a sensible legal requirement for equal treatment for the health care of both men and women.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that the multiply entwined ethical, political, social, legal, theological, and cultural demands show why this particular matter has, despite a wide social consensus on the singular issue of contraception (even among Roman Catholics, who oppose the church's official teaching not only in word but also in deed by overwhelming majorities) brought to the surface the antagonisms we have seen over the past couple weeks. I don't have a final answer because I'm not sure there is one. Reasonable people of good faith can disagree on the matter (and even on my presentation here) without either of them being wrong. For myself - the only one for whom I can and do speak - I see no reason why any institution should deny access to contraceptive care as part of a comprehensive benefits package; I do not see how this compromises any ethical, theological, or social teaching the Church in question might profess. Others are free to disagree. All I've tried to do here is show why this matter has become the source of so much heat and light.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More