Holy Sex!--Part 1.3. Dr. Popcak Loves Lists

We'll handle the rest of Part One--Chapters 3 and 4--in the post.  Be forewarned:  there are a bunch of lists in these chapters.

We start off in Chapter 3 with the promise that Popcak will explain what he calls the "eight ingredients" of Holy Sex.  But before we get to that, he has a brief section where he reiterates that Holy Sex is awesome and eroticism is terrible.  Then he says:

[Being an Infallible Lover] means that if you are struggling sexually, the root of the problem most likely has more to do with your character or relationship than it does with mechanics and proper lighting.  Your sexual relationship is a microcosm of everything good and bad in your entire relationship.

See, this is precisely what I was worried about in my previous post.  Can relationship problems lead to sexual problems?  Absolutely.  Are relationship problems more often the source of the problem than technical problems?  Maybe.  Are relationship problems more often the source of the problem than technical problems for the audience of this book?  For an audience of people that likely have below-average levels of information about techniques?  My (admittedly anecdotal) experience says no.

Let me tell a story to show you why I think that.  This is a story of a lovely person, a friend, who is married, and who comes from a very conservative Christian background (not Catholic, but it certainly could have been for purposes of this story).  We were talking things related to sex, and he stated that he "just doesn't think women like sex very much."  Around and around we went on that talking point, until I eventually made the observation that most women do not climax from vaginal sex, and that often they require oral sex in order to climax.  My friend stopped short, and looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face.  "I don't understand," he said.  "You mean to tell me that when a woman puts a penis in her mouth, she has an orgasm?"  He had never heard of cunnilingus, nor had it occurred to him that this was a thing people might do.  This is an adult, married man with children.

If my friend were to say there are sexual problems in his relationship, would it be reasonable to think that the problem was technical?  Or, as Popcak would have us do, assume that it was a personal or interpersonal problem?  The people reading a book called Holy Sex! are not pornstars--the level of basic, technical knowledge about sex in Catholic circles (especially conservative Catholic circles) is often shockingly low.  I think Popcak is simply wrong that the problem is likely not a technical one, at least for his likely audience.  If that is true, he is setting people up for failure right off the bat.  If a person is having a sexual problem because one or both partners are not doing something right, no amount of delving into your spiritual life is going to fix the problem.

Anyway, on to the eight ingredients.  They are:
  • Love
  • Responsibility (broken down into self-discipline and stewardship)
  • Faith
  • Respect (half self-respect, half respect for others)
  • Intimacy (half verbal and half emotional communication)
  • Cooperation
  • Joy
  • Personhood

These are pretty general.  And I have to throw a penalty flag (or, since we are in World Cup season, show a Yellow Card) on Dr. Popcak for defining some of these terms by not really defining them, and instead referring you to other books he has written.  That comes across as a bit of a cheap marketing push.  Uncool, Dr. Popcak.

Rather than go through each of these, I'd like to talk about the first and last item, both of which Popcak addresses in an interesting way.  Under love, he makes the point that love is about giving of yourself to the other person.  As a practical suggestion of what that might mean, he suggests making a point of trying to find the good in the things your spouse likes.  If she likes, say, reality television, then try to find a way to get into reality television.  If he likes hockey, try to learn to appreciate hockey.  This can be taken to extremes, and I don't think there is an inherent problem with having some different interests from your spouse.  Still, I think this is good advice.  Often times, differences in interests turn into sources of conflict and grounds to put the other down ("I can't believe she wastes her time watching those dumb Kardashian shows!")  Being generous about the interests of the other person, though a small thing, is a way of showing the other person you love them.  Solid advice.

On personhood, Popcak wades into the treacherous waters of gender roles.  Citing to John Paul II, he affirms the notion that men and women are different and that this has big significance for sex and families.  But you get the sense that his heart is not completely in it.  He takes pains to emphasize that a couple should not expect that one partner or the other will do a certain thing because of their gender.  So, gender complementarity is super important and everyone should learn to understand it, except you can't use it to prejudge how the couple will actually behave with reference to those roles.  Philosophically gender roles are very important, but in practice they don't really mean anything.  Like I said, his heart is just not really in it.


Chapter 4 gives us . . . another list.  This time, we have a ladder of attitudes toward sex that one progressively moves through.  These stages are:
  1. Sex as a duty/sex as negative [basically, the "Anglo-Irish" approach he talked about in Chapter One].
  2. Sex as purely physical and about pleasure [the "Mediterranean" approach].
  3. Sex as a product of, or reflecting, interpersonal elements of the relationship.
  4. Sex as a product of the couple's identity.
  5. Holy Sex.
#4 and #5 are hard to tell apart, except for a very strange discussion of a form of the incest taboo.  Basically, a couple becomes so close that they like brother and sister, and so sex seems bizarre and inappropriate.  Popcak attributes this to the idea that people have that sex must be "nasty" to be good, so presumably if you are so close that you can no longer conceive doing "nasty" things, you will just stop having sex.  Popcak then says that we should never view sex as "nasty" or "dirty."  Maybe Popcak is being a bit too literal here.  Certainly, thinking that sex is actually dirty is problematic, but when many people talk about "dirty" sex, what they really mean is "transgressive" or "boundary-pushing."  There is an element of sex that involves stepping outside of your normal personality and experience.  I know I keep saying this, but it's true here, too--excessive versions of this are bad, but a little bit of fantasy-becoming-real seems to me to be OK.  But maybe Popcak thinks that these kinds of naughty fantasies are bad, and one must overcome these things to achieve Level 5.

Two other things jump out at me with this schema.  First, Popcak presents these as fixed, hierarchical levels.  He gives allowances for people to skip ahead and start at the intermediate levels (if they have the "proper attitudes"), but the idea seems to be that you move thorough these phases in a lock-step progression.  Moreover, it appears that these categories are rigid--if you are in Level 3, then every time you have sex, you do so from the point of view of the interpersonal elements of the relationship.  It seems to me, however, that most people have a range of attitudes toward sex that fluctuate over time.  For example, a couple might most of the time view sex as an expression of the deep relationship between the two of them (Level 3), but periodically have nights (maybe after they go out and have a few drinks) where the sex is simply about the pleasure (Level 2).  Popcak's system doesn't seem to account for the fact that sex can mean different things to the same couple at different times--it flattens everything out into one ontological state that defines the entire sexual relationship.

Second, it's a little unclear exactly how you move from one level to another.  I presume that the rest of the book is going to explain this, but the only concrete prescription he gives here for couples on the "lower" rungs of the ladder is to study more Theology of the Body.  This brings up something that is a minor point, but noticeable nonetheless.  Theology of the Body is often presented in somewhat gnostic terms--once you read these books and absorb JPII's hidden wisdom, you will achieve a kind of enlightenment about sexuality.  The most famous Theology of the Body advocate, Christopher West, is far worse in this regard than Popcak--he wrote an article in response to well respected Catholic Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson's criticism of Theology of the Body that sounded very similar to the way advocates of psychedelics talk about those who refuse to try Ayuhuasca. ("This is the main problem of Johnson's assessment of the TB. He never crosses that threshold. He never makes the paradigm shift.")  But we see echoes of it here.

Certainly books can be helpful in coming to new a understanding of your life--otherwise all self-help books, including this one, would be purposeless.  But there seems to be a mystical quality to the way Theology of the Body is talked about.  And, while it is undiplomatic to point this out, Theology of the Body is not Divine Relevation.  It is ultimately the thoughts and ideas of one guy.  Yes, he was a Pope and now a saint, but it is still one guy.  Theology of the Body is not Catholic dogma.  I am uncomfortable with the way that some of these TOB devotees speak as if this is the third testament.

Still, Popcak has three whole sections of the book to explain how you operationalize all of these ideas, so I should give him the benefit of the doubt.  I am concerned that I still don't have a firm idea exactly what Holy Sex/Infallible Loving actually is, but instead a list of things it is not.  Not a super encouraging sign, but interesting enough, by far, to keep going to Part Two.


Frank said…
"Certainly, thinking that sex is actually dirty is problematic, but when many people talk about "dirty" sex, what they really mean is "transgressive" or "boundary-pushing." There is an element of sex that involves stepping outside of your normal personality and experience."

Absolutely! That's why books like this that promise to help you achieve "good sex" by following a set of rules bum me out so much. They miss the whole nature of sex. Good sex is inherently unstable--what turns your partner on today might turn her off tomorrow. And it's relational, dependent on the interaction of shifting realities of two complex, changing individuals. Which means it requires openness more than anything else.

Case in point: "For example, a couple might most of the time view sex as an expression of the deep relationship between the two of them (Level 3), but periodically have nights (maybe after they go out and have a few drinks) where the sex is simply about the pleasure (Level 2)."

Yep. And those level 2 nights are good, and sometimes even necessary for the relationship. Like you say, you don't want to only have level 2 nights, but I don't think that's a problem most couples have.

"...study more Theology of the Body."

Ha! Well, that is the answer for everything.
Michael Boyle said…
"Theology of the Body: Good for Whatever Ails You."

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