Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Sexy Religious Geek Love

First, let's confess: when writing about sex, it is difficult to avoid at least the semblance of sexism. We live in an age which has been primed to detect callousness and incivility everywhere, especially when men begin talking about women, and most especially when they begin talking about women's bodies.

Given certain details of his background, Father A. has probably been more completely primed to do this than the average blogger. In those formative college years, he was trained to speak about sex -- not merely the act, but the entire field of gender and sexuality -- with an almost Victorian delicacy. Everything and everyone was to be shown polite respect, but nothing was to be giggled at, whether in mockery or genuine delight.

Age has coarsened him a bit, and if you don't believe it look at all the offensive bits in the Jane Russell post. In his middle years, he giggles more than he should, but there are years to make up for now.

We were thinking about this as we read Max Lindenman's piece at Patheos, "On Dating Nice Catholic Girls." Lindenman, a recent adult convert to Roman Catholicism, begins by admitting that he has only dated two women fitting the description. The essay is brief account of his time with the first, whom he calls Melissa. From this, it builds into a meditation on the ways that sexuality manifests itself among unmarried women whose religious views restrict the act to married life. He starts from the idea that such women give good cuddle. (At least the Catholic ones; he believes -- apparently as a result of spending too much time in the South -- that Protestant girls are just a bunch of teases.)

An essay like this could easily have been churlish, if not simply gross, and Lindenman avoids the worst of it. if anything, her errs more on the side of cloying. The piece is funny, touching and not without substance; we hope you'll give it a read.

We were especially touched, for reasons best left to the imagination, by the way Max and Melissa connected around the twin poles of Catholicism and geek culture:

Like me, she doubted her vocation for religious life. But she was pious enough to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament for an hour without squirming. She was also one of those fangirls who spoke of sci-fi and comic book characters as though they had real Social Security numbers. The second night, we stayed up late in the kitchen, drawing parallels between Catholic saints and X-Men.

"Nightcrawler?" I asked.

"Martin de Porres," she answered, with a teacher's pet's promptness. "Both were healers, both faced discrimination because of their colors. Martin bilocated, and Nightcrawler teleports."

So been there.

And yet, funny and touching though it may be, the essay also left us feeling a little creepy. It's hard to say why. There's nothing that screams "sexist" in any overt way; quite the contrary. At least on the surface, Lindenman shows Melissa a great deal of respect; she is smart, droll, self-knowing, and when she dumps him, we can't help admiring her for it. So what's wrong?

It could be that his admiration rings lightly false, and that this apparent praise of a sweet and chaste young lady masks a deeper passive-aggressive attack. Could he, between the lines, be making fun of her? Exacting, even, a public revenge for keeping her legs crossed? Surely not.

More likely, though, it is the way he describes a pivotal moment in their relationship:

I remember climbing Camelback Mountain on a breezy winter morning, watching in a trance as her strong legs hauled her over the files of boulders just below the summit. When we gained the top, panting, the wind chilling our sweat, I said, "I love you." It was not a voluntary act; the words shot out of my mouth like a ball-bearing from a wrist rocket.

"Oh!" She exclaimed, looking pleasantly surprised. "I love you, too!"

Lindenman calls this "reckless" self-revelation. But "pleasant surprise" is never reckless; it is pleasant more than it is surprising. And this seems to be the tone of the friendship. If they are in love, it is the dullest love imaginable, and when she ends it, by email, neither seems deeply affected. The reader is frankly relieved.

At least part of our discomfort with the essay, then, is the way it dodges the central conundrum. Sex outside of marriage is indeed contrary to the vast bulk of Christian doctrine. And yet, as practical theology has always acknowledged, it is the frequent result of passions which cannot be controlled by a mere act of human will. (It is also, of course, the frequent result of social norms which do not take doctrine seriously; that is another matter entirely. We're talking about sex among thoughtful and committed Christians). But abstaining from sex with somebody for whom you feel no particular passion is morally unremarkable.

Lindenman knows this. During the relationship, trying without much enthusiasm to talk her into the sack, he hints that their snuggling itself is sinful, accuses himself of being "Jesuitical." She answers that it's a sign of comfiness, or something equally trite. But he's on to something, here. If they are guilty of anything much, it is of using one another's bodies for pleasure, not merely outside marriage as defined by canon or civil law, but outside the sort of profound relationship in which even little intimacies have their proper place.

Hmm. That sounds awfully preacher-y. Or, worse yet, parent-y. It's as though we're telling them to leave the door open if they're in a room together. So let's be clear. We're not really concerned that Max and Melissa snuggle outside the bonds of matrimony. We're concerned that, like so many people in the world, they declare that they are in love when they really aren't.

On one hand, relationships like this are sweet and innocent and we certainly hope that our own son enjoys at least a couple when the time comes. But on the other hand, and this is the old Romantic talking rather than either the preacher or the dad, it is relationships like this that give love a bad name.

No comments: