Another Theology of the Body, Part XIX--It's Time for Men to Shut Up

Pope Francis just won't let this complementarity thing die.  He talks about it all the time, in a variety of different ways.  He still talks about "gender ideology," which is terrible (apparently), and now he is talking about the need for an "alliance" between men and women.  To be fair to the Pope, he has repeatedly stated that his view of complementarity does not involve some sort of inherent inferiority of women, which is good.  But, it is still not clear to me exactly what he means by any of this.  And, when people hear him talk about complementarity, or use complementarity-type words, they assume there is some deep coded message about female subservience.  Because that is what complementarity has come to mean on a concrete level.

After going back and reading some of my previous posts on complementarity, it seems to me that part of the problem is that we are framing the question wrong.  The question is not "is there such a thing as complementarity"?  Clearly, the answer to that question on its face is "yes"--while there are more complexities than some would have you believe, there is such a thing as "male" and "female" and they are different in some respects.  No, the real question is "in what areas of human experience does this difference manifest itself, and in what ways"?  For example, I am not aware of anyone who believes (anymore) that there is some inherently "male" or "female" way to read or write.  In that space of human life, gender complementarity is irrelevant.  It's not that there is not such a thing as complementarity, it's that the difference of gender does not impact that part of the human experience.

So, where is it relevant?  Well, the one place where it is unmistakably relevant is in the area of sexuality.  On the crude level, men and women have different body parts, and those different body parts all relate to sex and reproduction.  Moreover, I don't think it is particularly controversial to say that the subjective experience of sexuality is different between men and women.  That is not to say that every man and every woman experiences sex in the same way, or that there is no overlap between male and female experiences.  But, partially as a result of physical biology, partially as a result of hormonal chemistry differences, and partially as a result of certain kinds of socialization, in general men and women experience sex and sexuality differently.

You might think that this is a concession to the conservative complementarians, and that these differences justify all of the trappings of traditional sex roles.  But, actually, I think it is a trap for them.  If you believe that men and women are different in terms of their sexuality and their experience of sex, then it follows that sexuality cannot be universalized by one gender.  I, as a guy, can't say, "I experience sex like this, and so therefore this is how all people experience sex," because my own experience does not incorporate the difference between male and female sexuality.  I cannot generalize my experience across the gender gap.

Consider this interview with Fabrice Hadjadj, translated by Artur Rosman.
Hadjadj talks about sexuality, and has written a book (not translated into English, it appears,) called Profondeur des sexes (which Rosman translates as "The Depth of Sexuality").  He says a number of interesting things in the interview, but one section struck me in particular:

Obviously the great majority of people think that the basic hallmark of sexuality is pleasure. In fact pleasure is not something specific even if the sensitivity of the sexual members is one of a kind. It seems that pleasure is stronger in a man than in a woman. Sexuality is thereby defined from the male perspective: Orgasm is something more masculine than feminine, in the man sexuality is concentrated upon the sexual members, while the erogenous zones of the woman are widely distributed. . . .

For the woman the carnal act is not the end of something, but the beginning. The woman understands it less in categories of pleasure than in categories of fertility, in long-lasting categories. The feminine perspective has a completely different spatial and temporal dimension. Her engagement in this sphere depends upon taking into consideration the results brought about by the act; her attention shifts onto the fruit of the relation. Therefore femininity brings in completely different view of things.

Here's my question--how the hell does he know any of this?  What is the basis of his ability to talk about how women understand sexuality?  Particularly if, as he asserts, it is categorically different from the experience of men (of which he is one)?  Has he asked women about their experience?  Or is he just making it up?

The phrase "mansplaining" is a useful one here.  If you are a guy, and if you believe that your experience of sexuality is different from that of women (and you should, at least to some extent), there is no way for you to get a complete perspective on sexuality by yourself.  You are by definition missing a key source of experience and perspective.  At best, you are only going to have half of the story.  If you try to generalize your experience to that of women, you have screwed it up.  If you try to postulate some theory of women, based on any source other than asking women to provide their experiences and perspective, you have screwed it up.  Either way, you are mansplaining, and you are out to sea.

And that's the trap complementarity creates for traditional Christian sexual morality.  The history of Christian theology about sexuality, at least in its official forms, is a history of mansplaining.  It is either the story of men talking about male sexuality and ignoring women, or it is the story of men assuming that female sexuality is the same as male sexuality, or it is the story of men developing some sort of Grand Unified Theory of sexuality on their own and then applying it to female sexuality.  What it has not been is a story of men and women working collaboratively, each side bringing their own perspective to the table, identifying areas of similarity and difference, and then (and only then) coming up some joint statements or ideas on the question.

That last version, it seems to me, is the only way that we can have a proper picture of sexuality from a Christian perspective (or any perspective, really).  Only if the contribution is 50/50 is this going to work.  As we know, the contribution is no where close to 50/50--we have 2000 years of men talking about Christian sexuality, and, what, 50 years of women talking about it (at least, in a publicly recognized way)?  More importantly, we have 2000 years of men being in an authoritative position to teach about sexuality, and basically zero years of women being in such a position, at least in Catholicism.  It will take a long time for the scales to be put back into balance.  

Otherwise, you have to reverse course and assert that men and women actually aren't different at all, such that the male perspective of the last 2,000 years is competent to accurately and completely grasp female sexuality.  But that's a problem as well, because then you have no basis for concluding gender matters at all.  Now you are in the realm of the much to be feared "gender ideology."  And we know that's no good.

So, a couple of take-aways.  First, it seems to me that, in and of itself, gender complementarity is compatible with a robust notion of gender equality.  In fact, taking gender complementarity seriously is an argument for practical measures promoting gender equality.  If you take seriously the idea that men and women are different, with different perspectives and gifts, then to exclude women from any role is to intentionally hobble yourself, to tie one arm behind your back.  You are intentionally depriving yourself of half of the data set you need to get a complete picture of humanity.  It doesn't make any sense.

No, the problem is not complementarity.  The problem is these ad hoc "just so" stories that have been used, both in the broader culture and especially in Christianity, to justify tying one arm behind our backs.  This or that piece of Scripture, or social norm, or "the moist South wind"--all of that need to be weighed against the basic, intractable problem created when women are not allowed to express their complementary gifts.  In my view, all of these stories of why women can't or shouldn't bring their half of the human experience to the table, in whatever context, should be found wanting.

Second, what Christianity needs in the area of human sexuality is for men to stop talking and allow women to take charge of the debate.  Because it is in the area of sexuality, perhaps uniquely among topics of human inquiry, that women have a unique and irreplaceable perspective that is not available to men.  I think the time has come for men to stop talking about the relationship between sexuality and spirituality, and to cede the field to women for a while.  Not because men don't have a right to talk about the topic, or because their insights are not relevant, but because the entire discourse has been dominated by men up until this point.  Women know where to find all of the stuff men have written about sexuality, and if they have any questions I am sure they will ask.

Or, to put it another way--Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body (or Paul's theology, or whatever) should be seen, and must be seen, as incomplete and preliminary because it reflects the experiences and perceptions of only one half of the human sexual experience.  It lacks the "complementarity" necessary for a full picture of the human sexuality.  You cannot have a Theology of the Body if the only people doing the theology are guys, because there is a sense in which they will only be able to talk about the male body, and not the female one.  What is needed now is for space to be created for women to provide an appropriate correction to the necessarily limited perspective embodied in these systems.

Certainly there will be differing views among different women, as it should be.  But until women have their say, we should not have any confidence in the product.


molly said…
I so appreciate this!

I'm reminded that Pope Benedict XVI was known to say that God has made the world knowable to humankind (well, I'm sure BXVI said 'mankind'). When we break down knowledge as accessible to only a some, regardless of the intellectual aptitude of the other, I think it threatened Benedict's understanding of the nature of know-ability. I think he saw/sees it as dangerous that the world may be knowable to humankind, but not to any single human individual.

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