A Little Sex Talk

A pastoral letter on chastity issued this week by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, warns against the “misuse of sex” even inside the institution of marriage—that is, against sexual relations other than traditional intercourse between husband and wife.  The letter singles out pornography as an especial problem, stating that it is “reaching almost epidemic proportion.”  Amongst pornography’s evils, the letter also mentions, is the inducement to masturbation.

Intertwining throughout the document are the good, the bad, and the ugly, of the usual Christian attitudes toward sex.

It is not obvious, pace the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, that all erotic pursuits other than traditional intercourse need be unkind, or unexpressive of unconditional, self-giving love.

One example:

The first graphic description of sex in literature which made a strong impression on me was, by chance, the description of oral sex to be found in the ultimate chapter of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s historical murder-mystery My Name Is Red, set in late sixteenth-century Constantinople.  (Pamuk has, famously, run afoul of the Turkish authorities for calling a spade a spade, and acknowledging the ethnic cleansing of Turkey’s Armenian Christians as genocidal.)  I was eighteen and a newly-minted freshman when I read My Name Is Red, then newly-translated.  Thinking back, I did not care much at the time for the novel’s post-modernist use of multiple narrators, nor for its extremely stylized historical fictions.  But I do remember being struck by one of the novel’s concluding scenes, in which the principal protagonist, the miniaturist painter Kara (or “Black”—as in Kara-mazov), and his beloved Shekure (also the name of Pamuk’s mother), consummate their love.  Black is seriously wounded in the shoulder, which Shekure dresses.  She speaks:

… I warned Hayriye not to let the children upstairs.  I went up to the room where Black lay, locked the door behind me and cuddled up eagerly next to Black’s naked body.  Then, more out of curiosity than desire, more out of care than fear, I did what Black wanted me to do in the house of the Hanged Jew the night my poor father was killed.

I can’t say I completely understood why Persian poets, who for centuries had likened the male tool to a reed pen, also compared the mouths of us women to inkwells, or what lay behind such comparisons whose origins had been forgotten through rote repetition—was it the smallness of the mouth?  The arcane silence of the inkwell?  Was it that God Himself was an illuminator?  Love, however, must be understood, not through the logic of a woman like me who continually racks her brain to protect herself, but through its illogic….

While my mouth was thus occupied, my eyes could make out Black looking at me in a completely different way.  He said he’d never again forget my face and my mouth.  As with some of my father’s old books, his skin smelled of moldy paper, and the scent of the Treasury’s dust and cloth had saturated his hair.  As I let myself go and caressed his wounds, his cuts and swellings, he groaned like a child, moving further and further away from death, and it was then I understood I would become even more attached to him….

While I was confused as to whether the forearm I kissed was my own or his, whether I was sucking on my own finger or an entire life, he stared out of one half-opened eye, nearly intoxicated by his wounds and pleasure, checking where the world was taking him, and from time to time, he would hold my head delicately in his hands, and stare at my face astounded, now looking as if at a picture, now as if at a Mingerian whore….

“You can tell them you were spreading salve onto my wounds.” [1]

"Was it that God Himself was an illuminator?"

I cannot comment on the quality of the English translation, and do not wish to comment on whether this is or is not a “good sex scene.”  What I do want to point out is that Pamuk treats what Black and Shekure do with each other gently, and with compassion.

Black is seriously wounded, near the point of death, an association which is important to make: not only because, as a result of Shekure’s attentions, he moves “further and further away from death,” and because “salving wounds” becomes the couple’s euphemism for sex.  For in fact, as often as we choose to have sex, whether it be of a heterosexual or homosexual variety, vaginal, anal, or oral, we are implicitly acknowledging the power death possesses over us, and our own finitude.  This is true, crucially, even of sex which results in a child—the decision to procreate is at a basic level the decision to be replaced, by another life and another generation.  I am not saying that all sexual acts are equally beautiful or worthy of choice, but no sexual act is exempt from the status of a sign of our impending demise.  That is why virginity is a sign of our impending eternal life, and why a decent society includes any number of consecrated virgins.  Virginity is potentially a state of tremendous personal creativity; in which considerations of sexual orientation and preferences are secondary.  But by the same token, non-procreative sexual acts fundamentally share more in common with procreative, at least so far as the actors are concerned, than the bishops’ letter might care to admit.

Returning to Pamuk’s description of oral sex, one asks, does it enjoy a degree of verisimilitude?

Shekure, in the novel, has rejected Black’s previous advance as lustful and crude, which it probably was, and her primary motivations throughout revolve around the best interests of her family, the final chapter included.  We learn that her marriage to Black will not be free of difficulties; we learn that she does not derive equal pleasure from sex with Black, and from this one sexual act in particular.  And yet, she performs it as he has long desired.  Performing it she “understood [she] would become even more attached to him,” and she became confused which body parts belonged to whom.  The situation is a romantic one, though certainly not an ideal romance; the “unitive” function of sexuality moreover may be experienced apart from the procreative, albeit (always in Shekure’s view) imperfectly.

If we allow Pamuk to tell his story, and if we allow ourselves to examine our own lives and/or the lives of others, I think we have to conclude that oral sex, say, can, in certain situations, be both kind and expressive of love.  To give an ordinary pleasure to whom you love is not evil.

Unkindest Sin

If the bishops’ letter is hyperbolic and sickly politicized, it is not altogether incorrect.

Sex which is unkind, and unexpressive of love, surely is sinful.   One of the many brilliances of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—which is maybe worth thinking about because the sin which it recounts has since become, for the contemporary media, “the one unforgiveable sin”—is to confuse the distinction between manipulator and manipulated.  That is, a large part of the atrociousness of Humbert Humbert and Lolita’s relations is that each party is caught up, seemingly inextricably, in acts both of manipulating and being manipulated:

Sitting on a high stool, a band of sunlight crossing her bare brown forearm, Lolita was served an elaborate ice-cream concoction topped with synthetic syrup.  It was erected and brought her by a pimply brute of a boy in a greasy bow-tie who eyed my fragile child in her thin frock coat with carnal deliberation.  My impatience to reach Briceland and The Enchanted Hunters was becoming more than I could endure.  Fortunately she dispatched the stuff with her usual alacrity.

“How much do you have?” I asked.

“Not a cent,” she said sadly, lifting her eyebrows, showing me the empty side of her money purse. [2]

Are the relations contracted, just for example, between Calvin Klein and his latest boy toy, Nick Gruber, likely far removed from this?  Is the facial surgery for the twenty-year-old porn star so far removed from the ice cream sundae for the nymphette?

What Money Can Buy: The Two Faces of Nick Gruber

By singling out any and all masturbation, or oral sex, or anal sex, for absolute condemnation, the church hierarchy seem to be missing the forest for the trees.  There is a whole lot of genuine unchastity going on out there, most of all within ourselves, damaged as we are by our society’s ubiquitous pornography and voyeurism and body dysmorphia, and with terrible consequences for our actual love lives, to say nothing of our souls.  It is regrettable that the hierarchy currently lack the insight and the moral authority to address it convincingly.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red, trans. Erdağ M. Göknar (New York: Vintage International, 2001), pp. 408-09.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (New York: Vintage International, 1955), p. 115.

Published in: on January 29, 2011 at 8:13 pm  Comments (3)  
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  1. Not to worry: i doubt whether more than a handful of Catholics in Canada will read or head the Bishops’ newest tyrade against all forms of sexual activity except ”heterosexual penile-vaginal intercourse within valid matrimony in order to conceive.” How laughable, that celibate old men should consider themselves to be authorities on a subject with has nothing to do with religion, and how macabre that they would have us believe that they have the right to dictate the rules of intimacy for all Catholics, even all of mankind. It is a sad and perverse result of such hierarchical indoctrination, that those men who still go to confession at all, nearly always have only sexual non-sins to confess: masturbation, ”impure thoughts”. Never never does anyone think to confess thoughts, desires, deeds or ommissions against charity.
    Most Catholic acquaintances of mine, myslef included, stopped taking the hierarchs serious years ago, whenever they open their mouths or pens on the subject of sex. For many decades, probably centuries, they have considerd clerical paedophilia and sexual abuse of young people to be far less wrong than loving sexual expressions between two consenting adults. They have lost all credibility, which they never deserved formerly, being that they are not competent as sexologists and psychologists. They either donot realise this, or they do realise it, but still insist upon issuing such declarations, fully aware, that nobody is listening except Rome. And the Road to Rome – and a Red Hat – is paved with such anti-sex declarations.

  2. Albertus,

    While I agree with portions of your reply, I must strongly disagree with your statement that sex has nothing to do with religion. On the contrary, the way that human beings interact, especially something so intimate and important as sex, is very important to address in religion.

    Religion, I am sure you will agree, is meant to point us to the Divine and help us to live according to our nature. Surely you would agree that the cheapening of sex is contrary to our nature, that denying its unifying power draws us away from the Divine image. While I may disagree with the extreme importance placed on procreation at the expense of anything else, while I may believe that our hierarchs tend to fixate on peripheral concerns at the expense of highly important concerns, I firmly believe that we cannot divorce sex from religion. It is too important a thing to say that it has nothing to do with God, which is what we say, whether we intend it or not, when we say that sex has nothing to do with religion.


  3. @Albertus (and Rei): Thanks for these. You are surely right that few RC Canadians will read or heed their bishops’ warning against “deviant” sexual practices and techniques (and that they won’t, is a good thing … sort of). But it struck me as just one example of an ecclesiastical mentality or mentalities about sex which is / are hugely influential, historically. In the Orthodox East, in the Slavonic nomo-canons, for example, it was judged unnatural for a man to engage in anal sex with his wife, or for his wife to assume the dominant position in sex, because to do so was to treat her mužsko, that is, like a man, and violate the created order in that way. So a lot of this stuff is pretty deep-rooted. My question is, what did such judgments mean in their original context, and, understanding them properly, what might we do now, in a context which is altered?

    My purpose therefore in quoting the Pamuk and the Nabokov was to try to appeal to our ordinary moral imaginations. I like Pamuk’s description of oral sex just because it is compassionate and even tender, without being unrealistic about what sexual or marital relationships in the real world mean. The conservatives’ world-view doesn’t admit the existential possibility of what Pamuk is describing (oral sex functioning as a unitive act), and so I think their imaginations are put to the test, so to speak, when and if they read it. On the other hand, I like the Nabokov because it gives an unvarnished picture of what happens when sex, and sexual fetishes, and “power” (whatever that may mean), are permitted to tyrannize over us. The Church is correct to warn us against the potential tyranny of sexual passion, and in some way it is the ascetics–the monks–who have the most “right” of all, precisely because they are supposed to have the most actual experience with wrestling their passions into obedience to their mind (and their mind to God). Again my experience is that if most conservatives have nothing interesting to say when it comes to what makes for sexual intimacy (and a dozen other topics), liberals usually don’t have much to say when it comes to the need we imperfect creatures have to set ourselves limits, to exercise self-control. The truth, I think, lies somewhere in the middle. And on the topic of sex in particular I’d like to have a good think about it. 🙂


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