Another Theology of the Body, Part XIV--We Need To Stop Being Terrible To Each Other

One of the criticisms that always comes up when you want to re-evaluate or challenge Christian sexual morality is that the real goal is laxity.  "You just don't want to have to follow all those rules; you just want to be able to do what you want," these folks will say.

I think it is precisely the opposite.  I think the focus on rules is a way to let ourselves off the hook from dealing with the real problem with relationships.

Christian sexual morality, as currently constructed, is an acts based system.  There are a list of discrete behaviors that you must not do.  But that's basically it.  Outside of the bounds of the prohibited acts, there is no real moral guidance on how to behave in the context of a romantic or sexual relationship.  Sure, one can apply generalized principles (don't lie, etc.), but the take away that many people get from this system is "as long as I am not fornicating, I'm OK."

I believe this system tacitly endorses, or at least facilitates, all sorts of bad and hurtful behavior in the context of relationships. At the end of the day, it doesn't say anything about how we should "not fornicate," only that we should not fornicate.  It says nothing about how we must treat each other, in that bottom-line, day-to-day sense.  And it is in this day-to-day way we treat each other--the concrete interactions between people you ostensibly care about one another--that the real harm is found.

To demonstrate what I mean, let's take a look at Taylor Swift's song "Blank Space."  But before I do, some caveats.  This is of course a song, and thus a work of art, and thus not necessarily reflective of Ms. Swift's actual behavior.  One hears that her songs tend to be autobiographical, but I don't know that this song is autobiographical, and thus I am not suggesting that Ms. Swift is a terrible person or some sort of avatar for everything that is wrong with relationships.  To avoid the appearance of blaming her personally, I'll use "the narrator" to refer to the person speaking in the song.  Second, while this song is obviously written from a female perspective, I don't think that women are somehow more to blame for these problems than men.  Men do all sorts of terrible things in relationships, if perhaps not in precisely the same ways.

Anyway, on to the song.

Cherry lips
Crystal skies
I could show you incredible things
Stolen kisses, pretty lies
You're the king baby I'm your queen
Find out what you want
Be that girl for a month
But the worst is yet to come

Way back in the beginning of this series, I talked about the idea of vulnerability.  The short version is that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be seen without the layers of armor we cover ourselves, we open ourselves to an experience of acceptance and love that is transcendent, insofar as it models the genuine experience of God's love.  The premeditated crafting of a persona that is designed to appeal to the other person is basically the polar opposite of that vulnerability, a kind of anti-love.  "Find out what you want/Be that girl for a month."  It is fundamentally a cynical act.  It is particularly cynical, and damaging, if the purpose, or even the effect, is to generate genuine vulnerability in the other person.  In other words if he (in this case) were to let down his guard in response to this constructed persona, thinking it was real, then our narrator has the jump on him, and is in position to exploit him emotionally.  As we will see.

Note that this kind of false persona is not the same thing as "putting your best foot forward."  That's a function of trying to show only the best stuff in the beginning.  That's a manipulation as well, but it is at least grounded in the truth of who you are.  Here, the narrator is "finding out" what the unnamed guy is looking for, and then filling that role in a conscious way.  She is being a different person.  

Oh no
Screaming, crying, perfect storms
I could make all the tables turn
Rose garden filled with thorns
Keep you second guessing like oh my god
Who is she? I get drunk on jealousy
But you'll come back each time you leave
Cause darling I'm a nightmare dressed like a daydream

What strikes me most about this song, and why I think it is a useful example of bad behavior in relationships, is how premeditated all of this is.

It is certainly possible to unintentionally hurt someone you care about, whether through pure ignorance or through carelessness.  But I think, if we are truly honest with ourselves, our bad behavior is far more intentional than we are willing to publicly admit.  Because, as the narrator correctly points out, creating relationship drama is a narcissistic act: "Keep you second guessing like oh my god/Who is she?"  Secretly, I think most people like the drama, especially when they know how it is all going to play out.

If one person knows how to push certain emotional buttons in the other, then they can go to that well to get that narcissistic itch scratched.  And that's the danger of the kind of vulnerability I was talking about above.  If I make myself vulnerable to someone, then that person is going to know where all of those buttons are located, and are always going to have the ability to press them to get their fix of narcissistic drama.

It takes moral discipline to know where all the buttons are and not to press them, even when we could use a little pick-me-up.  That's hard work, but it can be done.  It can be done, however, only when we admit that doing the opposite is equally intentional.

It's easy to dismiss the narrator as a bit of a sociopath in this song.  But I think she is just being honest.

Boys only want love if it's torture
Don't say I didn't say I didn't warn you
Boys only want love if it's torture
Don't say I didn't say I didn't warn you

I have no problem with psychotherapy of any kind.  I currently make use of it myself.  But I have noticed that some people use psychotherapy as a kind of talisman to ward off moral responsibility, or responsibility of any kind, for their actions.  If they can put some kind of name or label or category on their behavior, and maybe even if they were to disclose it to others, then that's the end of their responsibilities.  You have been duly informed that I am crazy and destructive, they say, so if you suffer as a result of my crazy, well, that's on you.  "Don't say I didn't say I didn't warn you."

That's not good enough.  The goal of any kind of therapy is to get you to stop doing the bad stuff in the future.  It is a tool to assist in producing better, more moral behavior going forward.  It does not absolve you of the duty to try to stop being crazy and destructive.

It is also an evasion and manipulation to project psychological conditions onto other people as an excuse for bad behavior.  Perhaps it is the case that "boys only want love if it's torture," but that does not authorize one to play the role of the torturer.  Knowledge of another person's weaknesses should be a tool to avoid unintentionally pressing those buttons, not a road map to pressing them more effectively, and not a justification for mashing the buttons in the first place.

Cause we're young and we're reckless
We'll take this way too far 
It'll leave you breathless
Or with a nasty scar
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They'll tell you I'm insane
But I got a blank space baby
And I'll write your name

Conservative types like to talk about the "nihilism" of modern culture, especially with regard to sex.  We should be skeptical of these claims, at least the way they are framed, for a host of reasons.  There is, however, a certain kind of nihilism that can be found in this chorus.  Or, if not nihilism, at least a sense of predestination.  One gets the sense that the narrator is resigned to the fact that these things will happen in the future as they happened in the past, as a kind of fate.  The only element of choice is whether the next unnamed dude will sign up to be grist for the mill.

Or, you know, the narrator could just cut it out.  She could stop emotionally manipulating these guys, she could exercise some moral discipline and not exploit the dude she is with.  And, if she finds that she is having trouble doing that, despite honest efforts, she could get some therapy to help with that process.  But to throw up her hands and say "what can I do about it?" is a cop-out.  She obviously is well aware of what she is doing, enough to craft a song about it.  If the narrator is indeed not a sociopath, then she needs to work on not doing these things any more.  It's really that simple.

Notice, with the possible exception of the use of the term "ex-lovers," nothing in this song has anything to do with the acts-based morality that is the stock-in-trade of most Christian discussion of sexual and relationship issues.  You could follow every jot and tittle of the most conservative Evangelical or Catholic's rules for sexual morality, and still do all of the things that the song talks about.  Conservative Christian morality is not going to provide any impetus to stop exploiting and manipulating people in this way, nor does it provide any tools if one does want to stop.  It doesn't relate to this kind of thing at all.

And that, for me, is why so much of the discourse regarding sexual morality is so wrong-headed.  We have massive Christian organizations, including the Catholic Church, convening high-profile gatherings to try to figure out why marriages and relationships are failing, with a focus on abstract, systemic causes like "loss of respect for marriage as an institution," or "the gays," or whatever.  But it seems to me that the reason the vast majority of relationships fail is because one or both people treat the other like shit.  They do the kinds of things our narrator is talking about in the song.  That's the problem.

I suppose that one could do a nuanced and subtle investigation of whether these more abstract factors are contributing to people treating each other like shit.  But, too often, focus on these abstract factors is a substitute for acknowledging our own bad behavior.  It is far easier to blame the gays, or Katie Perry's Halftime Show, for the break down in relationships than it is to analyze and come to terms with our own bad behavior.

What we need to do is to treat each other better.  To stop exploiting and manipulating each other, especially in the context of romantic relationships.  And we need to face the fact that all of us are inclined to exploit and manipulate each other, and to stop looking for excuses or justifications or scapegoats to get us off the hook.


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