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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The “Sebastian-Sodomite Complex”

In his column over at The Huffington Post, “The Real Reason Why So Many Gay Men Are Single,” Mike Alvear, co-host of HBO’s The Sex Inspectors, complains:

Like a lot of gay men, I seem to be stuck doing guys I don’t want to date, and dating guys I don’t want to do.

… [A]s much as I liked [one guy] sexually, I didn’t feel any other connection.  And thus, I was hurled into the basic gay dating dilemma: Do you have sex with someone you’re physically but not emotionally attracted to?  The answer, of course, is yes.  Oh, God, yes….  He eventually broke it off, as he should have.  I wasn’t the bad guy but I wasn’t doing him any good either.

… Then there’s the other side: the guys you want to date but not do.  They’re the worst.  Because they make you realize what a nutcase you are.  Like this guy, “Ted.”  I loved everything about him except his body.  I tried to do the chick thing—you know, have sex with a guy even though you’re not physically attracted to them because they’re kind and smart and loving and that’s what you want in a man so what’s a few minutes of Ugh-ness.  Well, it didn’t take….  I guess that’s the main difference between men and women.  For men, intimacy is a consequence of sex; for women it’s a pre-requisite….  Too bad we can’t call up biological electricians and have them re-wire us.

This pessimistic assessment of male sexuality—“men are beasts,” and men who do with men are the worst beasts of all—is striking, especially insofar as it is made not by a religious conservative critic of homosexuality, but by a prominent member of the liberal entertainment industry.   I do not know whether Alvear’s generalization is in fact justified, or whether, if justified, it may or may not have some basis in evolutionary biology.  But Alvear’s perception does correspond to something real enough in modern gay mentality. 

I call it the “Sebastian-sodomite complex.”  That is, our version of the infamous “Madonna-whore complex.”  S. Sebastian as lofty an ideal as the Mother of God; sodomite as ugly a word as whore.  The pessimistic thesis: love and sex do not, and perhaps cannot, go together.

“Saint Sebastians”: Partisans of Love Without Sex

One approach to Orthodoxy: Fr. Seraphim Rose

Positioned at one extreme—a more-distant extreme than anything Alvear probably imagines—is the closeted, self-hating ascetic.  His is a rôle I know well, because I used to play it.  One summer I lived in an Orthodox monastery; I read the works of the ex-gay, and apocalyptically unbalanced, holy man, Fr. Seraphim Rose; and in confession I scrupulously revealed the slightest fault, including wet dreams.  Back at Catholic Georgetown, meanwhile, I got it into my head to perform, under cover of night, an ascetic feat straight out of the Italian Counter-Reformation: the self-abasement of the strascino, the trailing of one’s tongue along the church floor, right up to the altar.  I even worked for a fairly viciously anti-gay evangelical think tank and lobby group.  And all of this I did for the love of God and man, or rather for what I imagined such love to be.  I was an extreme partisan of love without sex.

Strange as this may seem both to self-accepting gays and to secular liberals, there are quite a few gay people out there who do the things I did, and who do far worse.  Fr. Seraphim Rose is but one, particularly alarming example.  But any observer who spends much time hanging out in any of the hierarchical churches will recognize the type, from the man in red Prada shoes on down.  Such people are all Saint Sebastians—men hypnotized by the concept of the beautiful martyrdom, their skin bristling with arrows, their mentalities eager to suppose, as Eve Tushnet describes them very compassionately, that “[t]he sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the sacrifices God wants” (my emphases).

A “reasonable and bloodless” asceticism, by contrast, is not self-hating, or necessarily closeted.  Quite the contrary.  When I finally found a priest who did not think that my homosexuality was necessarily any more sinful than someone else’s heterosexuality, it required humility from me—an actual sacrifice of some of my own self-regard—to perform the first penance he gave me, the regular recitation of Psalm 22, with its appallingly self-affirmative language: “The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing….  He hath brought me up, on the water of refreshment: He hath converted my soul….  Thou hast anointed my head with oil; and my chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly is it!”

“Sodomites”: Partisans of Sex Without Love

A second approach to Orthodoxy: Michael Pihach

Positioned at the opposite extreme are the subjects of Alvear’s column.  These are the Anthony Blanches of the world.  As Alvear sums their decision-making up: “Oh, God, yes.”

Like lots of people, I can’t find it within myself to dislike the Anthony Blanches.  They are pretty.  They are charming.  One makes allowances for them all the time.  Some part of my unpurged psyche is probably a little envious of them.  And what young gay male wouldn’t be just a little envious, say, of Toronto’s gay Ukrainian journalist, Michael Pihach, who seems to be everywhere described as “delicious”?

Yet, the position of sex without love is poisonous.  Many people survive, and some (in cases of true monastic calling) flourish, in love without sex; but no one, in the end, survives sex without love, not with one’s personal integrity and educability intact, anyway.  Sex is, for most humans, a need; lust, on the other hand, is a brutal demon, irrespective of the gender of one’s sexual-object choice.  It demands to be fought with some courage, by the young most of all, and for the sake of their own integrity and education.  As Posner flatly states at the end of Allan Bennett’s History Boys: he does not touch the boys in his charge, which is “always a struggle.  But maybe that’s why I’m a good teacher.”

A Middle Way?

Pace Mike Alvear, I would like to think, more optimistically, that a middle way is indeed possible, that love and sex can go together, even for gay men. 

What I have termed the “Sebastian-sodomite complex” is no less powerful a stereotype than the Madonna-whore, and it will not die out from historically Christian cultures any more quickly than will the Madonna-whore.  But let’s at least think it is possible both to date and to do the same guy, and him only—and stop (in this instance) accusing our biology, or our social arrangements, when we really ought to be accusing our own ethical and aesthetic choices.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

Published in: on July 16, 2010 at 1:17 pm  Comments (16)  
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