Holy Sex!--Part 3.2. Getting Down to Business, Part I

Chapters 11 through 13 is where we get to the nitty-gritty of Infallible Loving.  Chapter 11 is yet another framing chapter, albeit more focused than the previous ones, Chapter 12 deals with foreplay, and Chapter 13 deals with intercourse.  Needless to say, this post (and the next one) is going to be the real "Sheer Silence After Dark" portion of the review, so fair warning.

Before diving into the three chapters and dwelling on the weird parts, I want to talk about the good parts of these chapters.  First, it is clear Dr. Popcak's heart is in the right place.  He comes across in these chapters as utterly sincere in his desire to lead couples to have a good relationship and good sex.  Whether or not his proposals actually accomplish this is a separate question, but the intention is there.  You have to give him credit for trying very hard, particularly as he is fighting the headwinds of Catholic doctrine and practice.

Second, it is clear that these chapters are written with an eye to people who are very hesitant about this whole sex business.  He doesn't come out and say this, but you get the sense that these chapters are trying to convince conservative Catholics to be a more open with their sexuality.  As a result, he makes some statements that are bizarre when directed toward a general population, but seem to be designed to give "cover" to folks who are not sure that they can reconcile this sex stuff with Catholicism.  So, even while I point out some of the weirdness, I want to recognize that I am not really the intended audience and that it could be really helpful and useful for other folks.  So, keep that in mind.

Anyway, let's talk about Chapter 11.  Chapter 11 begins with the "One Rule"--the one rule that couples must always follow when having sex.  That rule is that every sex session must end with the man ejaculating inside the woman.  You can do anything else leading up to that point, but the man needs to finish inside the woman.  The rationale here is that, if you don't do that, you are not being "open to life," which as we have seen is the great No-No.

There are some problems here that I want to address going forward, but there is one thing that is simply unclear to me from what Popcak says. Obviously, the One Rule requires that the man must have an orgasm during penis-in-vagina sex.  But does the woman have to orgasm during penetration?  There is nothing in the One Rule that would suggest this is a problem, and Popcak makes clear later in Chapter 12 that he is 100% OK with oral sex.  So, it would seem that it's OK for the man to bring the woman to orgasm via oral sex, and then have the man orgasm via penetration. But later in Chapter 13, he talks about the couple "harmonizing" their orgasms, which would imply that the idea of taking turns on the orgasm is not OK. Similarly, it is also unclear to me whether manual stimulation to orgasm for the woman is OK.  Solo masturbation is Very Bad according to Popcak, and manual stimulation to orgasm for the man is no good.  But what about for the woman?  I'm just not sure what Popcak thinks about this.

In any event, the One Rule has a large caveat, which is that the "you can do everything" part should be read as "so long as it is not 'objectively immoral' and 'respects the dignity of your partner'."  How do you know when a sexual act violates these restrictions?  Well, Popcak provides a list (*sigh*) of Four Principles.  They are:

  1. There must be a continuity between the sexual activity and the relationship as a whole.
  2. The parties must recognize that the other person is a person, and not a sex object.
  3. No sexual act or practice can more important than the relationship as a whole.
  4. Couples should be respectful of personal boundaries, but have a posture of openness toward the wishes and requests of the other.
At a high level of generality, these principles are solid, and even relatively uncontroversial.  But when you get into the gloss Popcak puts on them, you run into problems.  Popcak interprets these ideas in a very absolute way, which, as with much of what we have seen so far, sweeps in many normal, reasonable behaviors in an attempt to screen out the extreme, obviously negative manifestations of the counter-examples.

Take the "continuity" principle.  The example he gives is a couple that has real difficulties with communication and getting along in their marriage as a whole, but are able to close the bedroom door and have great sex.  Obviously, the problems the couple is having in the relationship are problems, and one would hope that they work on them and make it better.  But it seems to me that the sexual part is just fine.  In fact, the sex part may be the thing keeping the ship of the relationship afloat.  If anything, you want the continuity arrow to go from the sex to the broader relationship, building on the part that is working.

But Popcak sees this situation as ultimately dangerous and untenable because the sexual relationship has to be a product of the broader relationship.  It may be untenable in the sense that the positive elements of the sexual relationship may eventually be overwhelmed by the problems in the relationship, but I don't see how the working sexual relationship is a problem in and of itself.  It is certainly better for all elements of the relationship to be in harmony, but life is not always that clean.  In every relationship, some parts work better than others.  It is not obvious to me why the sexual part of the relationship needs to be treated in a manner that is categorically different from the other elements of the relationship.

The continuity idea also leads to some strange taboos.  Popcak seems to have a problem, or at least grave concerns, with role-playing during sex.  If you need to be someone else during sex, Popcak says, then obviously your relationship is all but doomed.  But, once again, there is a vast distance between needing to be someone else all the time, and wanting to someone else every once in a while.  Sometimes sex is a nice, necessary break from the "continuity" of your day-to-day life, and role-playing can be a part of that.  I don't see the problem.

Continuity also becomes problematic when paired with Principle Number 4.  He begins by asserting "[i]n lesser marriages, spouses decide how loving to be toward one another based upon their comfort zones."  He then follows up with examples of this dynamic in "lesser marriages,"  none of which have anything to do with sex--one partner asking the other to go to church or watch the game with them, for example.  Then we are told that in Christian marriages, that sort of thing is not OK.  Instead:

When your partner expresses the desires of his or her heart--assuming that the request does not violate objective moral principles or your dignity as a person--I encourage you to view that as an opportunity to respond positively to the invitation God has written on your mate's heart, so that you may grow in ways that enable you to become the person God created you to be.

Wait, are we still talking about sex here?  Or are we talking about sitting down and watching the hockey game together?  The answer for Popcak, I think, is both, per the continuity principle.  These things are all thrown into the same bucket, without any differentiation.

As I mentioned before regarding an earlier chapter, I think Popcak makes an excellent point that couples should work hard at avoiding the trap of drawing dividing lines between "his interests" and "her interests."  It would be good for most, if not all, people in relationships to be more open to doing stuff that the other person wants to do, as opposed to going to their respective corners.  And I think a general posture of openness to trying new things in the sexual sphere is healthy as well.  But I am not sure that lumping those two things together is the way to go.  Sexuality touches on far deeper and more personal parts of one's life when compared to whether or not my partner is willing to watch me yell at the television during the Blue Jackets game.  You could easily imagine why a person might be completely open to some of the day-to-day requests of their partner but more hesitant in the sexual sphere.

I also worry that this framing is rife with opportunities for manipulation and exploitation.  "Honey, it's not that I want you to do X sexually; it's that God wants you to do X sexually," is really dangerous in the hands of the wrong kind of person--and yes, such persons exist even in the Theology of the Body crowd.  Popcak provides some wiggle-room and allows the person who is being asked to do something new to "grow into" the request.  But at the end of the day, Popcak makes clear that the end point of this process is doing what the other person asks.  For the vast majority of couples, this is not a problem.  But I could see some really ugly situations coming out of this, and it makes me leery.

In the end, as with a good portion of this book so far, the problem is not with the principles themselves.  The problem is the absolutist way that Popcak interprets those principles, leading to a completely binary way of thinking about relationships.  I am becoming a bit of a broken record at this point, but where is the nuance?  Where is the recognition that sexuality and sexual relationships are extremely complex and don't fit into neat little boxes?  I don't see any of that.  I see the complexities of sexuality and individual sexual experiences being made to fit into the boxes.  As a result, a bunch of stuff is leaking out the sides.


only me said…
I dream of moving to India, or Pakistan, and becoming a cabdriver.

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