Holy Sex!--Part 2.1

Part Two introduces us to the Five Powers of Holy Sex, which should not be confused with the five stages of Holy Sex, or the eight ingredients of Holy Sex we've seen earlier.  They are:

  • Holy Sex makes the common holy.
  • Holy Sex has sacramental and redemptive power.
  • Holy Sex is a physical sign of God's passion for us.
  • Holy Sex unites the couples.
  • Holy Sex is creative.
I'm going to save the last one (which is about birth control) for a separate post, because he has a lot to say about it, and so do I.

It's a bit hard to talk about these chapters, because they are more than a little bit inchoate.  It took me a little while to figure out that Popcak views these as descriptive categories as opposed to prescriptive categories--these are qualities of Holy Sex, as opposed to things you should do in order to achieve Holy Sex.  Popcak goes out of his way to emphasize that these qualities are not present at all with "eroticism."  So, if you do not experience these things in your sex life, then you are having eroticism-sex, not having Holy Sex.  That's tidy, but it is a No True Scotsman fallacy.  It also pushes Popcak toward the Christopher West-style Theology-of-the-Body-as-gnostic enlightenment view--if you don't agree with Popcak's characterization of what sex is truly like, that means that you haven't reached the proper level of awareness and are stuck in eroticism. QED.

The descriptive versus prescriptive divide makes many of these chapters muddled.  In the sacraments chapter (Chapter 6), Popcak discusses the phenomenon of the "sexless marriage."  He notes that, at least according to JPII's take on things, every act of sex between husband and wife is a renewal of their wedding vows.  Since you wouldn't be "too tired" for your wedding day, you should never be too tired for renewing your vows, either.  As a framing device to encourage a couple to make sex a priority in the relationship, this seems like a good approach.  But Popcak goes much further than that, and seems to suggest the adopting a Holy Sex paradigm will guarantee you will not fall into a sexless marriage.  Is he saying that if you remember that having sex is a reconfirmation of your wedding vows, that, by itself, is enough to prevent one or both parties from losing interest in sex?  Because that seems to be a very bold claim--if all it takes is a slight shift in attitude, you would think this problem would be routinely solved.  Or is he saying that people who practice Holy Sex (achieved via enlightenment or otherwise) will not go sexless because they look at sex this way?  Again, it is unclear.

Sometimes it's not clear what he is talking about at all.  Under the section on "God's passion for us," there is a discussion on the importance of working at relationships.  On a general level, that's pretty uncontroversial--"relationships take work" is a standard counseling trope.  But he seems to be suggesting that Holy Sex relationships will "work" at the relationship to a different degree, or in a different way, without ever explaining what exactly that would look like in practice.  Instead, you get a number of sentences like this:

This is the kind of intimacy to which the Infallible Lover is called, and this takes a willingness to work hard for the sake of celebrating authentic love.

What kind of intimacy?  Work hard in what way?  It's all very vague.

And that's the problem, ultimately, with these five powers.  At a certain level of generality, I think most people (especially Catholics and/or Christians) would agree that these elements can and should be a part of marriages.  But the devil is in the details.  Thus far, we haven't seen Popcak provide very many concrete details about what couples in Infallible Loving relationships do, or how you get to be an Infallible Loving couple.  Instead, Popcak skims over the surface.  It reads like an extended mission statement.     


I'd like to talk about the fourth power--sex as unity--in a bit more depth, but first a quick aside.  I come from a family that has, as the Irish say, the gift of gab.  All of us have a tendency to make pronouncements with great conviction and commitment, but not necessarily the best factual support.  Over time, a tradition has developed around this dimension of the family.  When someone thinks that another family member is going off on one of his or her less supportable tangents, that person will yell "It's science" in response.  This line comes from the legendary Ron Burgundy from movie Anchorman.  "It's science" doesn't mean "I know for a fact you are making this up," but it does mean "I am definitely suspicious that you are making it up."

I kept yelling "it's science" when I read Chapter 8 on sex as unity.  And, digging a little deeper, it turns out I was right.  His thesis is that "[o]ur bodies are simply not intended to have multiple sexual partners," and that any previous sexual partner reduces the strength of the bond with the current partner.  This is because, per Popcak, pair-bonding chemicals like oxytocin are released during sex to strengthen the bond, and if you were to subsequently try to bond with someone else, that bond will be competing with the previous bond, making it weaker.  I hadn't heard of this line of argument, but apparently there is a fairly significant bit of research on this topic, and it is a key part of pro-abstinence advocacy.  This advocacy, however, appears to be very one-sided and agenda-driven.  For example, women release a flood of oxytocin when a child is born and when they breastfeed, creating a bond between mother and child.  If the "oxytocin gets worn out by multiple bonds" theory were true, then having multiple children should reduce a mother's connection with any one of them.  That would certainly be an inconvenient truth for big family advocates like Popcak, but fortunately there appears to be no evidence of such a thing.

In addition, oxytocin has been found to be present in higher levels in people with more stressful relationship circumstances.  "[W]omen who reported more gaps in their social relationships and less positive relationships with their primary partners had higher levels of oxytocin and the stress hormone cortisol than those reporting better relationships," says the summary of research from the American Psychological Association.  So oxytocin is responsible for binding couples together in stable, monogamous bonds, but if your relationship is lousy you will have more oxytocin.  How does that work?  It seems to me that the answer is "no one knows" and "the science is still unclear."

Popcak also throws in the idea that, if you wear a condom during sex, you will have a reduced release of oxytocin during sex, and thus less bonding.  He doesn't even try to justify this with studies--he presents it as a musing on the topic.  But that would imply that this oxytocin release process is tied directly into the insertion of a penis into a vagina, as opposed to the more general experience of being aroused by sexual activity.  That doesn't seem to be the case at all.  This piece suggests that any sort of physical contact (including dancing), or even imagining such contact, releases oxytocin.

He does give one relatively specific citation when he discusses a "2003 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family," that states that women who have multiple partners before marriage have higher divorce rates.  Well, I found that study.  It's behind a paywall so I can't look at the full article,  but the abstract is here.  It appears that the study does indeed conclude that "women who have more than one intimate premarital relationship have an increased risk of marital dissolution."  Interestingly, however, the study also concludes that premarital sex with the future spouse, as well as premarital cohabitation with the eventual spouse, has no effect on the chances a woman will get divorced.  Whoops.  That's a bit of an awkward conclusion for someone writing a book saying that Catholic marital sex is the One True Way to do sexuality, particularly as "premarital sex and cohabitation will wreck your marriage" is a pretty standard Catholic talking point.  So, while the citation is technically good, leaving that last part out is a wee bit misleading.

All of this is so unnecessary, since I don't think anyone really disputes the basic point Popcak is trying to make.  People who have sex experience it as a uniting experience, especially repeated sex with the same person.  If you are having sex with one person at a time only, you are probably going to feel closer to that person than if you are having sex with multiple people.  That's a basic observation of the human experience.  But Popcak tries to turn that into an absolute principle that only one lifetime sexual relationship can be fully unitive.  In doing so, he tries to prove too much.  Human experience is not that cut-and-dried; our biology, as well as a our relationships, are simply more complicated than that.

It's science.


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