Good Christian Sex, Chapters 5 and 6--The Stakes of Loving and Being Loved

After a long break--partially because of work commitments, partially because of the world turning upside down a bit, we are back with Good Christian Sex.  If you want to see the previous posts in the series, here is my introduction to the seriesthe introductory chapterChapters 1 and 2, and Chapters 3 and 4 (as well as this somewhat on topic post).  I promise it won't be so long for the rest of the book.

Chapters 5 and 6--about nakedness and intimacy, respectively--are in many ways a continuation of what McCleneghan addresses in the the previous two chapters.  An overarching theme to the book thus far it is that all intimate relationships of whatever type are multi-faceted.  There are a number of things that go into a good, happy, fulfilling, just relationship, and none of them can be assumed or come as the result of signing a piece of paper or being a part of a church service.

A discussion of nakedness, as McCleneghan points out, is really a discussion of vulnerability.  When we put clothes on, we protect ourselves from the elements (and thus are less vulnerable in a functional sense), but we also make it so that people can't see the entirety of our bodies.  McCleneghan makes the point that this sense of the vulnerability of nakedness is something we learn--young children are often very cavalier about nakedness.  It is also context-dependent, which she shows using the example of becoming comfortable being naked around other naked young women as part of a swim team.  Still, being physically naked is more or less inherently vulnerability-producing.

That vulnerability is not bad.  In fact, jumping ahead to Chapter 6, vulnerability is a necessary part of intimacy, which McCleneghan defines as being known completely (echoing Rowan Williams in "The Body's Grace,")  Being known completely necessarily requires us to expose ourselves, in order for the other to see the totality of who we are.  Doing so, though, exposes us to the risk of being hurt or exploited in our vulnerability.  There is a balance to be struck, which McCleneghan names as "appropriate vulnerability."


I found four really useful nuggets in this discussion of "appropriate vulnerability."  First, McCleneghan makes the critical point that, while nakedness is a kind vulnerability, it is not the only relevant kind of vulnerability.  Emotional nakedness, emotional vulnerability, is just as important as the physical kind.  It is entirely possible to be physically naked in front of someone and not at all emotionally naked at the same time--think of strippers, to take one obvious example.  This insight is important because it expands the scope of the discussion beyond just sex.  We become emotionally vulnerable around friends and family as well; while it may be different in intensity, this sort of emotional vulnerability is of the same kind as that found in romantic relationships.

Second, being vulnerable necessarily involves risk.  McCleneghan makes an interesting observation about the story of Adam and Eve--because they were naked all the time, that nakedness wasn't really a kind of vulnerability, but simply a ground state.  In essence, Adam and Eve were like very small children, and only became adults when they could take the risk of choosing to be vulnerable and understanding the consequences of that vulnerability.  If there is nothing at stake, then it is not real vulnerability.

Along those lines, "appropriate vulnerability" is necessarily context-dependent and individualized.  We make decisions about how vulnerable we can and should be be around certain people, based on a number of factors--how well we know them, their track record in respecting the vulnerability of us and others, etc.  The risk-taking that is inherent in vulnerability can and should be moderated, and it is reasonable to be circumspect about to whom one becomes vulnerable.  People should have to earn the privilege of having someone be vulnerable to them.  Ideally, a married couple should have each earned that privilege with respect to the other spouse, but McCleneghan insists that this is not some inherent property of marriage, and must be earned by the parties to the couple.  Once again, it's a step away from the idea of the Golden Ticket approach to marriage.

Finally, McCleneghan also wades into the turbulent waters of the idea of modesty.  In its positive form, modesty is a kind of risk-management mechanism--it creates a framework that allows someone to control the degree to which they become vulnerable to someone else, and thus controlling the risks that stem from that vulnerability.  You should not be forced to become vulnerable in circumstances or with people that you don't want to be, whether that comes from direct force or from coercion.  More concretely, if you don't want to walk around in a bikini or a Speedo, you shouldn't have to do that.

The problem with modesty is that too often is moves from being self-directed ("I don't want to be exposed in this way") to other-directed ("you should not be exposed in this way.")  This turns modesty from a personal right into a means of control, especially a means of control of women and female sexuality.  In a sense, this controlling hyper-modesty is the opposite side of the coin from the Adam and Eve scenario.  For choice to be real, you have to be just as free to say "yes" as you are to say "no."  Adam and Eve couldn't be vulnerable because they couldn't really say "no" to nakedness, but it is equally impossible to be vulnerable if you are prevented from saying "yes."

Full, unencumbered election of vulnerability is important, McCleneghan argues in chapter 6, because it is the foundation of intimacy.  Again, she defines intimacy as the freely chosen mutual vulnerability of two people, which allows them to be known in fullness (or at least, as close as possible to fullness) by the other.  If you are not vulnerable, you can't be intimate, or perhaps more accurately the other person can't be intimate with you.

Again similar to Rowan Williams's argument in The Body's Grace, McCleneghan asserts that this state of being known fully is what all of us are really seeking through relationships of any sort.  In framing relationships and sexuality in this way, though, McCleneghan sets up a tension with a key part of traditional Christian sexual morality.  The overwhelming metaphor used in the Bible for marriage is the idea of "two becoming one."  This means, or at least implies, that intimacy and marriage and sex involves giving up some measure of one's identity and personhood in favor of the new synthesis.  McCleneghan's formulation of knowing and being known implies a fundamental integrity to who we are--I may be known by this other person, but I am still me.

McCleneghan, to her credit, acknowledges this problem and powers right through it, in essence saying that we should take this "two become one" business poetically perhaps, but certainly not literally.  Whatever "two becoming one" means, it can't mean who we are gets dissolved in the process.  Or, perhaps more importantly and contrary to the way it is almost universally portrayed in conservative Christian discussions of sex, intimacy doesn't mean that you "give up a piece of yourself" to the other person.  McCleneghan, drawing on Harry Potter, calls this the "Horcrux" model of sexuality--if we "give ourselves away" too often sexually, eventually there will be nothing of us left.          

Nonsense, says McCleneghan:

Our holiness, our worth, our identity as image-bearers of God, is not compromised through the attempt to grow in love and intimacy with those around us.  Our worth is not something we can give away; it's something we are supposed to to share with others.  Voldemort, the one who divides and divides himself, is barely human anymore; our humanity can never be diminished, no matter how many sexual partners we've had.  We're created to be in relationship, after all.  It's not sex outside of marriage that threatens us; it's our fear of living and growing in intimacy with others.  It's our unwillingness to open ourselves up to the abundance of life's created goodness--to wonder and mystery and pleasure and relationship--that often leaves us feeling empty.

The call of the Gospel is not to protect ourselves at all costs, but to risk ourselves in love.  Not always, not with the whole rugby team or all the ladies in the marketing department, but nonetheless with hope, wisdom, and courage. 

In a big picture sense, these two paragraphs are probably McCleneghan's biggest departure from the conservative Christian sexual and relationship narrative.  The Horcrux model is pervasive and foundational to both Catholic and evangelical presentations of sexuality, and here is McCleneghan saying that it is just not true.  Moreover, along the lines she explores in Chapter 4, she raises the possibility that having too few experiences of intimacy is just as bad or maybe worse as having too many, a possibility that is never discussed or taken seriously in Christian sexual discussions.

For what it is worth, based only on my own narrow experience and those of the people around me, I think McCleneghan is 100% right here.  The emptiness comes from not being known in the fullness of who we are.  While many of the relationships we might have never get to this place of full knowledge, at least we are trying, working toward that end.  And you can't be known in your fullness if you are giving up (or, think you are giving up) part of that fullness as the entry fee to the relationship.  Moreover, better to try for intimacy and fail, even if that means being exposed, than to never try at all.

It's not the McCleneghan is advocating for promiscuity; it's that she is pointing out that there are things that are worse than being a little too free from time to time.  There is more at stake in loving and being loved than simply having the right number of notches in the bedpost.  That's not something that you often hear, but it is worth saying.

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