Good Christian Sex--Interlude

I'm working on some posts reviewing the rest of the chapters of the book, and I will be getting those out in the next week or so, but I wanted to pause for a second and go on a bit of a tangent.  This last week and half or so has been a bit of a perfect storm--I've been reading and thinking about Rev. McCleneghan's book, I have been talking to friends of mine about the book and about their own situations, and of course I have . . . experienced? endured? . . . the latest from Donald Trump and his campaign and the reaction thereof, alongside the rest of the U.S. population.

At the intersection of all of this has been a bit of a Eureka moment for me.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I've always known I existed in a bit of the in-between space between the broader, secular culture and the more conservative Christian (in my case Catholic) culture. And, while there is no question that I have been moving in many ways away from that more traditionalist thinking, I still saw myself as in between those two poles.  But the Trump thing, and in particular the way that conservative Christian folks have reacted to the Trump thing, shows that, at least with regard to sexuality, that is not true in any meaningful way, as I don't relate to the conservative Christian position on this topic at all, even putting aside all of the legions of objections I have to Trump and his policies.

Let's start with first principles.  I have been in many male-only conversations about women.  Some of those conversations have been, frankly, objectifying to the women in question--discussions of their body parts or other attributes.  I have also been involved in conversations in which other men recounted their sexual exploits, and in which they expressed aspirations of sexual exploits in the future.  But I have never been in a conversation in which any of the guys discussed having sex contact with women without their consent.  Not in terms of past exploits and not in aspirational terms.   Never.

The shocking thing about the Donald Trump tape to me is that he is openly talking about forcing women into sexual contact without their consent.  The surface reading of what he said is that he has done this in the past; his "spin" is that he was talking about doing so in aspirational terms.  Both of those possibilities are beyond the pale and wholly outside of anything I have experienced.  For good measure, I have checked in with a male friends, and they don't report anything like this either.  Neither do professional athletes, who spend most of their lives in all-male, highly competitive locker rooms, and report nothing like this being said ever.

What's going on here?  The key, I think, is seen in the following quote by radio "personality" Rush Limbaugh on this show yesterday:

You know what the magic word, the only thing that matters in American sexual mores today is?  One thing.  You can do anything, the left will promote and understand and tolerate anything, as long as there is one element.  Do you know what it is?  Consent.  If there is consent on both or all three or all four or however many are involved in the sex act, it's perfectly fine.  Whatever it is.  But if the left ever senses or smells that there is no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police.  But consent is magic to left.  

The underlined sentence is particularly instructive.  See, I was operating under the premise that everyone would call the "rape police" if one "ever senses or smells that there is no consent in part of the equation," not simply "the left."  After all, rape is defined as sexual contact against the will of the other, so it would follow logically to call the "rape police."  I thought the conversation we were having about sexual morality is what rules we were going to put in place in addition to the baseline idea that it is never OK to have sexual contact with someone without their consent--"liberal" people would have few if any additional rules, and "conservatives" would have a bunch.  Said another way, I thought we all agreed that consent is necessary to appropriate sexual behavior, but had a disagreement over whether it was sufficient.

It seems, though, that that is not the conversation we are having.
 Instead, we are having a conversation over whether consent is actually all that important.  Because, if you don't view consent as particularly central to sexual morality, then it makes sense to view Trump's comments as part and parcel with "locker room talk."  At the end of the day, the only thing that distinguishes what Trump said from what I have heard (and even, on occasion, said) is the lack of concern for consent.  I think that makes all the difference in the world, but if you are not that concerned with consent, it follows that you will not see what the big deal is with Trump's newest blast.

Now, you might be thinking "well, Limbaugh is a well known Terrible Person, so we shouldn't be drawing general conclusions from what he says."  That's fair, except you can see echoes of this in the other statements made by conservative religious figures.  Consider Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of the evangelical Liberty University.  He gave the line that has been the standard talking point for most Republicans, whether they are bailing on Trump or not--"I’ve got a wife and a daughter, and nobody wants to hear their women talked about in that manner."  Now, people have pointed out how bizarre and misogynistic it is to only care about these things if you have a wife or daughter, as well as the use of the possessive pronoun to refer to women.  All good and important points.  But notice also how Falwell locates the problem in the way Trump talks about women generally, as if the problem here is propriety or vocabulary.  Propriety and vocabulary are beside the point--the words are the problem in that they disclose things that he has either done or wants to do.  He could have had the same conversation with Billy Bush using entirely clinical, medical terms and it would not be a sliver less problematic; likewise, if he had just kept these thoughts to himself, it would not make him any less problematic (though, of course, we wouldn't know about it).  To say it another way, in the infamous sentence of Trump's "I grab them by the pussy," the core of what is offensive about that sentence is lies in the word "grab," not in the word "pussy."  And, if you think it is found in the word "pussy," the suggests to me you don't really care all that much about consent.

Again, I just assumed that everyone was on the same page with this stuff.  As they say, "you know what happens when you assume. . . ," because it is clear we are not on the same page about this stuff.  And it causes me to rethink and reinterpret some things that go on in conservative Christian sexual discourse.  Take, for example, the notion that a wife should be "available" sexually to her husband.  When I heard things like that in the past, in my head I thought "well, whatever that means, it cannot mean that the husband can just have sex with his wife if she doesn't want to.  Everyone knows that that is not OK."  Except, if consent is not the first principle of sexual morality, then it absolutely can mean that the husband can have sex if the wife doesn't want to.  Stripped of the interpretive layer of my own moral system and values, that principle seems utterly horrifying and categorically immoral, no matter what traditional or Scriptural support one can find to buttress it.

This is not to say that all conservative Christians are raping their wives.  I know a number of conservative Christian men, and they would never think of violating the consent of their wives.  But what this discourse has exposed is that that posture has much more to do with their own internal moral compass, or as a result of the way they have internalized the prevailing sexual morality of the culture, than it is an explicit product of their Christian moral framework.  All of this Trump stuff hammers home that is that there is a fundamental disagreement over how to judge the morality of sexual acts.  And that fundamental disagreement cannot be reduced to one side being "permissive," as each side would endorse sexual behaviors that the other side view as beyond the pale.

To personalize all of this, I am starting to look at traditional Christian sexual morality (at least in parts) as not just overly strict and restrictive, but in many cases affirmatively abhorrent.  As a friend of mine said when I sent him the Limbaugh quote, "these people live on a different planet."  We hear endless complaints about the Sexual Revolution and how terrible it is.  But if what we see from many conservative Christians is the alternative, then viva la revolucion.

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