Holy Sex!--Part 1.2. I Don't Think That Means What You Think It Means

Let's start with some definitions.  The word "eroticism" comes from the Greek word "eros," which referred both to the cherubic, winged deity that shot arrows at people to make them fall in love (better known by it's Roman version, Cupid) and to physical, sexual desire more generally. The closest single English word is probably "lust," but without the connotation of sinfulness that lust has.  "Sexual desire" is probably the best overall translation.  So, "eroticism" might be defined as "relating to sexual desire."

Similarly, the concept of a "straw man" is defined as "a fallacy in which an opponent's argument is overstated or misrepresented in order to be more easily attacked or refuted."  Rather than point out objections to the actual argument or situation being considered, a person creates a "straw man," which may look superficially like the actual argument or situation but is really quite different and obviously flawed.  That person then attacks the straw man, and concludes that the original argument has been refuted.  So, it is on some level a bait-and-switch, substituting what the thing actually means with your created straw man.  The real problem with using straw men in an argument is that, by taking down your construct, you have proven nothing other than you can take down a thing that has been designed to be taken down.  You haven't really accomplished anything.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Chapter Two sets up a clear dichotomy.  On the one hand you have Infallible Loving or Holy Sex (he appears to be using these terms interchangably), which is Good.  On the other, you have what Popcak calls Eroticism, which is Bad.  Now, Popcak cannot possibly mean by eroticism the dictionary definition we've discussed above.  Remember, this is the guy who has promised us "toe-curling, eye-popping, mind-blowing" fun in the sack--obviously, some measure of "sexual desire" is part of that equation.

Side Note:  Popcak tries to convince us that "eroticism" is clearly condemned in the Bible, via a throw-away citation to Mark 7:21-22.  Here's what that passage says (NRSV):

For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.

It turns out, if you look at the Greek text, there is the word poneros, which comes from the root eros, except it is part of the phrase opthalmos poneros, which means "the evil eye" (translated, I think, as "licentiousness" in the NRSV).  So, the passage doesn't say anything about eroticism.

So, what does "eroticism" mean to Popcak?  Here is the taxonomy he gives us:

Holy Sex vs. Eroticism

  • Very Pleasurable vs. Very Pleasurable
  • Driven by Intimacy and Arousal vs. Driven only by Arousal
  • Overcomes Shame vs. Causes Shame
  • Works for the Good of the Other vs. Uses the Other
  • Welcomes Children vs. Fears Children
  • Shares the Whole Self vs. Withholds the Self
  • More Joyful and Vital with Time vs. Stagnant and Boring Over Time
  • Gives Life and Health vs. Brings Disease and Death.
In other words, "eroticism" describes sexual relationships that (1) are driven entirely by physical arousal, as opposed to any interpersonal feelings or relationship; (2) cause shame; (3) involve exploitation; (4) become boring over time; and (5) bring disease and death.  I don't think they are are going to be many takers for "eroticism."  But that's why Popcak's eroticism is a straw man.  No one would say this thing Popcak calls "eroticism" is a good thing.  A real thing, true (unfortunately).  But not something that anyone is carrying the torch for.  And it certainly doesn't say anything meaningful about "Holy Sex" by its contrast.  If "Holy Sex" simply refers to "sexual relationships that are not manipulative or exploitative or dangerous," then the concept is basically no different from "healthy sexual relationships."  I am not sure I see the point. 

Part of the problem here is that Popcak seems to love binary categories, with no gradation or nuance in the middle.  Take his discussion of shame.  He begins with a reference to Pope John Paul II's book Love and Responsibility (written before he was Pope) that describes shame as "a virtue that protects us from being used" [presumably by others], and thus fundamentally a good thing.  In Popcak's (or it is JPII's? It's a little hard to tell) view, we begin to experience excessive shame when we have been used by others serially--our sense of shame becomes "hyperactive" in response to having had that bell wrung over and over.  That's an interesting idea of shame, and I don't know what I think about it.  It cuts against the general idea that shame is a purely negative experience and something imposed by outside forces and stimuli.  Still, an interesting idea on its own terms.  And, I can see the point he is trying to make, which is that a mutual, non-exploitative relationship will have less shame, since you are not being used.  Fine.

But then he ends the section on shame this way:

If you continue to allow yourself to be used by eroticism [used by eroticism? or used by others in the context of eroticism?] you'll become aliened, not just from others, but also from yourself.  You'll become so convinced that your only worth is derived from being the object of others' desire that you stop noticing or minding you're being used.  You'll make a circus act out of your sexuality, publicly claiming "liberation" while privately struggling with self-hatred and the eating disorders, cutting, drinking, drugs, and other excesses people use to numb their psychic and spiritual pain.

Well, that escalated quickly.  Again, I think that you would get few objectors to the notion that if a person is engaging in sexual behaviors that result in that person regulating their feelings via cutting, then that's a Bad Thing.  And there is no question that people can and do regulate feelings that are a result of negative sexual experiences through the destructive behaviors he outlines.  But it seems to me that there are a number of intermediate places between "Theology of the Body-style Catholic sex" and "overt self-harm due to sexual dysfunction."  I know this is tough for some folks to believe, but there are people that have healthy, well-adjusted sexual lives that would not qualify as A-OK according to the standards of the Catholic Church.  I know a couple of these people myself.  But any consideration of this middle ground is wiped away by this insistence on binary categories.

I have to talk a bit about his section on "Gives Life and Health vs. Brings Disease and Death."  He begins by saying that, a priori, eroticism is unhealthy because it is sinful and "the wages of sin are death." (Romans 6:23).  That's taking that quote out of context, but whatever.  He then cites "research published in the journal Pediatrics" which says that "young adults who are promiscuous have higher rates of depression and emotional problems."  Anticipating our likely objection, he then says that the study shows that the promiscuous sex is causing the depression, not the other way around.  Oh, and people who have Holy Sex are better adjusted than those that don't.  I would be really curious to take a look at this study, but unfortunately all we are told is that it was published at some point in the journal Pediatrics.  I know this is not an academic work and it is not going to have a full bibliography, but this kind of drive-by citation to unspecified research has a strong whiff of truthiness to it.

Anyway, he then says follows-up with:

Sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, and AIDS, to name a few, are communicated by eroticism, but they are not transmitted by Holy Sex because it is always faithful and respectful of the natural order.  A couple engaged in Holy Sex is at zero risk for these and other diseases (except in cases where one of them has contracted a disease prior to the marriage).

First off, STI's are transmitted by sex, not by "eroticism."  Second, according to Popcak, a couple practicing Holy Sex has zero risk to get STI's, presuming of course both parties in the relationship does not already have an STI.  Know who else has zero risk to get an STI?  Every couple who practices monogamy and both partners enter the relationship without a preexisting STI.  I am not a doctor, but I am aware of zero cases where a person spontaneously contracted an STI, whether due to the evil eye or the inchoate practice of "eroticism," without first having sex with an infected partner.  That's not a feature of Holy Sex; that's a feature of faithful monogamy understood via basic science.

Finally, we end with Popcak's assertion that eroticism is a scheme of Satan.  Some might scoff at this idea, but considering how unquestionably bad "eroticism," at least as defined by Popcak, is, then it stands to reason that it must be a product of the Evil One.  So, in a weird way, I agree with Popcak here.

At the end of the day, after reading this chapter I still have no idea what Popcak means by Holy Sex, other than it excludes sexual relationships that are self-evidently destructive and catastrophic.  Hopefully we will get more clarity in Chapters 3 and 4.

Before finishing, a quick update from the Prelude.  I mentioned that it was sort of unclear what Dr. Popcak has his doctorate in.  It turns out that the last page of the book explains that his doctorate is in "social doctrine" from Capella University, which, as I mentioned, is an online-only school.

It may sound like I am being an education snob here, and on some level I suppose I am.  But I am really more interested in honesty than in credentials.  There is a tendency, which I have discussed before, of truthiness among the conservative side of the Catholic spectrum.  And it is my experience that truthiness about academic credentials is a good sign of truthiness in the argument they are making.  But Popcak does not appear to be hiding the ball, so there's no problem here.  Carry on.


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