Another Theology of the Body, Part VIII--Making Peace With Sexual Desire

Update:  After posting this article, I found a great article from Richard Beck that is well worth reading.

The most erotic part of the Bible, and it is not really close, is the Song of Songs.  Let's start from the beginning, where the woman says (Song of Songs 1:6):

My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!

It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to figure out what "my own vineyard" refers to (hint: it has nothing to do with grapes).  Keeping with the theme of the nether-regions, the woman goes on to say (1:12):

While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance.

Once again, you have to work really hard to come up an interpretation of "my nard" which "gave forth its fragrance" that doesn't involve a vagina.  Song of Songs continues on and on in this fashion, describing two people who are really, really attracted to one another having sex in a variety of locations and circumstances.  It's pretty hot, really.

Notwithstanding the inherent smuttiness of the Song of Songs, Judaism, and especially Christianity, have spent the better part of 2500 years trying to turn it into an allegory for something else.  Anything else. For example, let's take a look at what our old buddy Dr. Popcak has to say about the Song of Songs:

Calling his beloved both sister and bride, the bridegroom in the Song of Songs asserts that he desires his beloved because she is his best friend–his “sister”– first. It is this platonic and filial love for one’s spouse–i.e., the depth of the friendship one has with one’s spouse–that makes sexual love holy, redeeming it from the clutches of lust, which is merely the desire to use another person as an object of satisfaction.
If your spouse is not your best friend, then your sexual life with your spouse will, de facto, be shallow and disordered, drawing its life more from lust (which is desire deprived of friendship) than from true love.

In other words, one is supposed to develop a a relationship such that one is best friends with your spouse-to-be, and then you should develop sexual or romantic feelings for that person.  That scenario describes precisely zero relationships I have ever seen, or even heard about.  Let me be clear--there is absolutely nothing wrong with being best friends with one's spouse, and that seems to me (as a non-married person) like a good and salutory goal for a married couple.  But the order of operations here is completely wrong.  In every relationship I have seen, sexual desire, if not present immediately upon meeting the person, grows and develops in tandem with the friendship.

Popcak seems to be working under a model where, if you identify a person (of the opposite gender, of course, at least as far as Popcak is concerned) who is your best friend, then the sexual and romantic component of that will take care of itself.  I think he is just empirically wrong about that.  It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to manufacture sexual desire ex niliho, and many people are perfectly capable of maintaining a friendship with person A, but completely unable to maintain romantic and sexual desire with that same person.  They are not the same thing, and one does not flow from the other.  I thought that everyone understood this.

Why go through these contortions?  Because of the last two sentences of both of those paragraphs--the deathly fear of sexual desire.  As we saw in Popcak's Holy Sex! book, sexual desire is only OK so long as it is really about something else, or is in the context of something else.  Wearing lingerie is OK because it is really the same thing as wearing vestments at Mass.  Sexual desire qua sexual desire, or "lust" as Popcak puts it, is not OK.

Nothing in the Song of Songs suggests that we should fear sexual desire the way Popcak would suggest.  In fact, the Song of Songs points to something that Williams talks about in The Body's Grace--the experience of sexually desiring the other can be a source of joy.  The man and the woman in the Song of Songs revel in the physicality of the other.  It's true that the couple may very well (as Popcak suggests) also have a deep emotional and relational connection, but that's not what the poem is about, and nothing suggests that the erotic is a product of the other stuff.  The poem is about the experience of sexually desiring another person, and being desired by that person.

That experience of desire can be a source of joy, even if it doesn't lead to any sort of sexual encounter.  Meeting someone who you are attracted to, spending time in their presence, thinking about how to spend more time in their presence--that's fun, and that's a product of sexual desire.  It doesn't have to be gross and objectifying in the way Popcak insists, and if he (or anyone else) has experienced it only in those terms, well, I feel kind of bad for him.

Let's approach it another way, and think about food.  Eating is a sensual, pleasurable activity, and the process of preparing and eating food can be very enjoyable.  No doubt, one can develop an unhealthy relationship with food, and that unhealthy relationship can take the form of an overheated desire for food and eating.  But it can also take the form of an overheated concern about the desire to eat, and a fear of enjoying eating too much.  This fear can be, or become, pathological, in the form of anorexia or bulimia.  Those diseases are more complex than simply a fear of enjoying the pleasures of eating, but being over-scrupulous about the pleasures of eating can't help.  And even if the fear of the pleasures of eating doesn't reach the level of pathology, a person with that fear is depriving themselves of on of the great joys of being alive.  Their life is less fun than it otherwise could be, for no real gain.

I feel like Popcak, and folks of his ilk, are promoting a kind of sexual anorexia, or proto-anorexia.  Life is better when you don't see sexual desire as the boogie-man lurking behind every corner.  Desire is OK on its own terms.  Just ask the couple in the Song of Songs.


Dr, Greg Popcak said…
I am truly sorry that you have such an impoverished social life. I would suggest working to find healthier friends, or alternatively, seeking therapy so that you could attract healthier people to you.

The question isn't "do I know people who live and love like this?" The better question is, "Would my life be better if I did." Methinks thou dost protest too well. Blessed Advent. Dr.P>
Michael Boyle said…
Just so we are on the same page, is it your position that it is "unhealthy" to be sexually attracted to someone at first, and then developing a friendship later?

P.S. It's "the lady doth protest too much methinks." See Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2.
Anonymous said…
I too am curious to know Dr. Popcak's answer to Michael's question.

Let us imagine, for a minute, that a man is attending a swing dance at his college. He sees a young woman at the dance and is immediately attracted to her. He asks her dance.

Is it Dr. Popcak's assertion that this scenario is unhealthy and the man has a psychological disorder?
Anonymous said…
One last thought.

If all who lay together without being in the state of Eros were abominable, we all come of tainted stock. The times and places in which marriage depends on Eros are in a small minority. Most of our ancestors were married off in early youth to partners chosen by their parents on grounds that had nothing to do with Eros. They went to the act with no other "fuel," so to speak, than plain animal desire. And they did right; honest Christian husbands and wives, obedient their fathers and mothers, discharging to one another their "marriage debt," and bringing up families in the fear of the Lord.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

We could substitute Friendship for Eros in this passage and the truth would still hold.
Michael Boyle said…
Thanks, Emma.

I just don't think what I am saying is particularly controversial. The motivation for the initial decision to get to know someone is often sexual attraction--as in your dancing example. That doesn't invalidate the later developed friendship, unless you view the attraction as somehow "tainting" the friendship. Which means you think sexuality is basically a bad thing.

And your quote gets to another problem for traditionalists--where was this "friendship between spouses" business during the first 1900 years of Christianity, when women were chattel? Friendship implies, and requires, equality, which was not present at all in marriage until very recently. Sexual desire has a far longer pedigree in literature about marriage than friendship.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for your response.

I posted my question because, when I first read the quote from Dr. Popcak, I thought that he was saying "first" in primacy, not first in chronological order.

However, Dr. Popcak did nothing to correct your interpretation of his words, which leads me to wonder if he really does believe that it is somehow wrong to be sexually attracted to a person first, and then develop a friendship.

And as for being best friends with your spouse, that is something that never would have occurred to the Early Church Fathers. For the Early Church Fathers, educated in ancient Greek thought, the highest form of friendship was the friendship between two men. The problem is, Catholics believe in Tradition, not history.

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