Betty Duffy

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sex, Shame and Self-Control

Around second or third grade, I wore one of my mother’s tweed blazers to school: leather buttons, suede patches on the elbows. It was a perfect Annie Hall blazer, though I didn’t realize it at the time. All I knew is that when I arrived after school at my friend Marcy’s house, her mother said, “That’s a spiffy jacket you’ve got on.” She said the word “spiffy” in that “I’m a Midwesterner speaking to children” accent—a tiny bit of a lisp, a very short emphasis on the “-y.”

Marcy’s mom was a department store clerk by day and a sad clown by night, entertaining at birthday parties, hospitals and nursing homes. I was terrified of her. And her father too, an army guy who wore cammos, made a lot of trips to Guam, had a gun, and stacks of Playboys by his bed, in the garage, and in the closet. He apparently couldn’t bear to throw out a picture of a naked lady. He too, was terrifying.

But both of them, in fact everything about Marcy’s family and her home has left an indelible mark on my psyche. It was with Marcy that I clandestinely flipped through those stacks of Playboys and felt my first inklings of a latent sexuality, and all the customary shame that goes with it. And because of the inherent shame associated with that time, I still have an abhorrence of pornography, a fear of sad clowns, and an aversion to the word “Guam.” For many years, I also had an aversion to blazers because of that incident with those people and the odd interweaving of memory.

My own parents’ approach to childhood sexuality was liberal: Mom, helping me out of the bathtub, gently and calmly asking me about the incident Marcy’s mom reported to her. Yet even her gentle question felt like an accusation and condemnation at once. I had been caught, in my most private of discoveries, witnessed by an adult, discussed with my mother, and now addressed personally and asked to elaborate on my crime. My young sexuality had caused adult controversy, and I felt the indictment painfully, no matter how gently my mother posed the question.

There were no particularly Christian reasons to feel shame at that time in my upbringing, as God-talk was scarce in my family’s early days. Sexual shame, especially during childhood, is pretty much a universal, which leads me to believe that it is not Churches which instill this feeling in us, or parents, or other Christians. If it were not written in the Gospel, it would still be written in our hearts, because so many people who are not Christians still have shame at their early sexual experience.

This is the message I want to give my kids: Jesus has no use for perfect people. He knows we will sin and that’s why he came. But we don’t get around guilt or shame by redefining sin or redirecting the blame. Just because almost every kid goes through something similar does not mean that sexual experimentation should be encouraged. And just because shame makes us feel bad about ourselves does not mean we should do everything humanly possible to disarm the power of shame. We get around guilt and shame through the goodness, mercy, and forgiveness of God.

My children have now reached the age of curiosity and experimentalism that will more than likely provide for them some shameful cargo of their own to carry into adulthood. My mean outbursts, “Privates stay private!” have surely instilled a thought in their minds about the primacy of sexual sin. It’s the Catholic plague, but in my mind, not a terrible sickness to have, if it aids in the development of self-control. The counterpoint to “Keep your hands off the merchandise,” however, must be “Ask God to help you.”

I am always amazed by how inextricably spirituality and sexuality are tied together. There was a time in my life when this fact was to my chagrin as my sexuality had a tendency to manifest itself in behaviors best classified as sin. Marriage and Sacrament allows some sexual behavior to fall under the classification of Divine, which makes sexual immorality less an opportunity to exercise our Catholic guilt and more a falling short of delight and full purpose.

My husband and I are too easily a disinterested Adam and curious Eve, rather than an ever-chaste Joseph and self-giving Mary. Our gender and sexuality is in need of a Redeemer, still. Marriage and the practice of Natural Family Planning (or even not practicing it, and being ever open to life) are not a free pass against mortal sin. We screw up in loving generously, in abstaining prudently, in respecting one another appropriately. It can be a pesky nuisance, the body, rearing its head just when we have cause to think that all is clear.

In my early twenties at my General Confession, I was formally absolved of the sexual sins of my youth. I was too embarrassed to confess them at my first Reconciliation, and I had not thought of them in subsequent ones. The General Confession looks back over one’s life from the age of awareness up to this current day. And there, after two hours in the Confessional, I felt the release, the freedom to turn my back on all sexual sin, the childhood experimentation, the high school petting, the college transgressions, all squelched in a liberating Sacramental smack-down.

Except that it wasn’t the end of sexual sin. Developing the virtue of chastity begins in childhood, but it is a life-long apprenticeship in self-mastery. Confession provides grace to progress in the apprenticeship as long as we retain hope in the infinite, and I mean infinite, mercy of God.

More on this topic here. The really meaty stuff is in the comments section.


Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

Wow, lots of great food for thought here. This is what jumped out at me most:

I am always amazed by how inextricably spirituality and sexuality are tied together.

Of all the many surprises I have found in the process of converting from atheism to Catholicism, I would have to say that that was probably the biggest one (other than, well, realizing that God exists). I think that most people have no idea just how much spirituality and sexuality go hand-in-hand.

Emily J. said...

TMI! Mom's going to pass out when she reads this. And your husband's going to blush. And you might get blocked by family friendly browsers.

Just kidding. You make some great points.

Emily J. said...

This thread has stuck in my mind, too, so I'm back to comment more. I wonder if you could engage the people on the halfway to normal blog who show condescension/hostility to the lone defender of Christian morality in a debate about defending the connection of marriage/sexuality from a standpoint of natural law. Although there is a tendency to blame the Church for guilt about sexual transgressions, there's human nature at work, too. By nature, we're monogamous, like pigeons who stay with their first mate for life. And I don't think the desire to mutilate and exterminate the cheatin' lover comes from Christian guilt, but from that sense of ownership of another's body that comes after the gift of self. And although this might offend some fundamentalists, Even the story of Adam and Eve covering up their privates seems to reveal, not that God has shown disapproval for sexuality, but that human beings feel shame about an insatiable desire to "know", as opposed to the innocence of love in the Garden, where it is limited by fidelity to God's commands.

Betty Duffy said...

Jennifer--thanks for the link, here. Glad you stopped in.

Emily, there's a reason I posted this when Mom and Dad were out of the country.

I think your natural law point is excellent, but I'm not sure how many commenters on the other thread would acknowlege it. Wouldn't they rather think that we have evolved out of our need to mate for life?

I like your point about the desire to "know." I hadn't thought of it that way.