More about sexual service and consent

Continuing this line of thought, raising questions and not answering them.

The sexual strictures of the Church (and in conservative Christianity in general) currently create a very definite climate/ideology of sexual duty within marriage, mostly of the wife toward the husband. My intuition is that countless women have internalized this ideology, so that, although they may know when to insist “no, not tonight” and expect their husbands to honor that, still in many cases don’t insist even when they might have – because they make a choice to serve him by allowing him access? And if, afterward, they’re glad they did, because they kind of, or very much, enjoyed it?

Service: as a teenager how many of us dreaded service projects, only to find out afterwards that we had enjoyed the experience and felt better for having done it? I often take part in helping people move, and once someone remarked that I seemed to enjoy it. I responded that I do not enjoy helping people move, but that I do enjoy the feeling I have afterward. Therefore I consent to put myself through the disagreeable process of moving, partly for the sake of the satisfaction I get afterward, and more importantly for the sake of sparing someone else trouble that I can empathetically intuit. I do it out of compassion.

“Pity sex” isn’t sexy, isn’t exciting. But in long-term relationships is it unavoidable? Dealing with the evolution of your two souls and their relationship to each other brings out things you might never have expected or comprehended the meaning of when you were first starting out. The insistence on commitment is in honor of this: a declaration of faith that there is a very real alchemical result to all this fermentation and uncertainty, and that after all the trials the transformation can come, but only then. So divorce has to be discouraged as a cowardly action by default, unless proven in specific cases to be motivated by really grave abuse (following the hyper-idealistic mindset I pointed to above, all human relationships are by default abusive, but where the hell does that leave anybody? Sooner or later we all have to accept a certain threshold of abuse below which we are willing to stay and cope, otherwise we might as well just kill ourselves, because there’s only limited space in the wilderness to build cabins).

Let’s try to think this through.  Imagine a young couple, getting married for the first time, having abstained from sexual relations in accordance with the Law of Chastity, and having learned the essentials about the mechanics thereof in preparation for the marriage, is told the following quite clearly:

“The sexual relations for which your body yearns so strongly are not something you have any right to expect. They are not anything you really need.  Your spouse’s body belongs to your spouse, and so you have no legitimate right to touch your spouse in any way that your spouse does not show clear consent for, prior to your engaging in it. You have no right to expect that your spouse will ever agree to fuck, lick, stroke or fondle you, in fact, you really have no right to expect that your spouse will hug or kiss you either. This is all dependent on your spouse’s consent as a sovereign soul, and no desire of yours, however intense, excuses any invasion of your spouse’s prerogative.

“If you ever do invade your spouse’s sovereign prerogative, if you ever do violate consent in any way, even by touching between the legs when your spouse hasn’t given you clear consent before, then you are guilty of sexual assault, and should be subject to prosecution by the law as well as Church discipline.”

What would that do?  What would change if the consent required was explicitly described as “enthusiastic?”

How about “sincere?”

Or “free?”  After all, our marriage ceremonies ask if we’re doing this of our own free will and choice.

I remember a professor at BYU talking about Paradise Lost.  In Milton’s telling of the story, he said, Adam and Eve did have sex before the Fall, but it was rational sex, and the effect of the Fall was to make sex irrational, driven by passions rather than reason.  The picture I just painted in the previous post could work just fine between two very rational people, who have become experts in subsuming their passions to the dictates of reason in every instance.  This, arguably, would finally create the only acceptable conditions for family life, but does there exist anywhere on earth an authority sufficient to enforce this?

Meanwhile, we’re all stuck not only with faulty bundles of stunted growth that don’t allow us to act so rationally, but we’re also, the majority of us, motivated by the sexual urge, which – surprise! – is anything but rational.  These “God-given affections” turn out to push us toward all kinds of stupid behavior, enticing and inciting us to invade the space of our committed partners on a regular basis.

I’m not talking about rape.  I’m not talking about clear violations when one clearly says “no” and the other overrides that.  Look: being married and having anything like a normal sex drive, it’s also normal to end up stepping on toes: the straying hand, the lingering kiss, the plaintive moans – any kind of sexual advance that goes beyond a respectful “yes or no” question – can we call that an invasion?  In any long-term intimate relationship you’re going to step on your partner’s toes in some ways, and they are going to step on yours.  When it comes to sex, do I feel justified in calling every invasion a violation of consent?  I don’t know.  I want to think through this some more.

Your hand strays to that place and your spouse sighs and says “not tonight, can we just go to sleep please?” and you sigh and say “fine” and take away your hand and try not to sulk as you respectfully compose yourself for sleep.  Did you violate consent?  You did something that required a refusal.  If you’ve been married for 20 years and you’ve done variations on this theme countless times, can I feel safe in guessing that your spouse will take this overture differently than the same person would have when you were just getting acquainted with each other?

One very obvious point I’m setting up here (and probably doing badly) is the need for a semiotic imagination when laying down the law about consent: not only do we pass much of our signals to each other non-verbally, but sexual arousal and desire often tend to be dumb and wish for dumb responses.  Overtures, invitations, pleas, insistence can all be done with or without words.  When your hand drifts to that place and your partner grabs it and pulls it closer, that’s consent.  When your partner grabs your hand and slides it back to a neutral place, that’s refusal.  In the former scenario, if your partner continues to give these non-verbal signals of “keep going” by touch and maybe wordless moans, you can either trust that your partner is doing this out of full and sincere consent, or you can start to second-guess: maybe this isn’t what my spouse really wants to do, maybe it’s just out of compassion or pity: maybe this is an act of service.  And if that’s so, do I receive it with gratitude, or do I back off?  Do I start asking for clarification out loud?  Is that a turn-off for my partner?  Do I know my partner well enough to guess that, to guess any of this?

People who are into kink have thought all this out, because they act out so many scenarios that would be violations of consent if they were “real”: the bondage, the dungeons, the dominance and submission, etc.  They have systems of signals and safe words agreed on beforehand, and it’s imperative to know when to step out of the game or the role, because it can literally make the difference between life and death.

Maybe getting into BDSM would be really beneficial for married Mormons, since it would force us to be really serious about consent, and gain some serious expertise in it.

Thoughts on consent and sexual caretaking

For people who are really sex positive, at least more sex positive than conservative Christians claim to be, what determines the morality of a sex act is not whether the people involved are married to each other, but whether each one has consented to the act.

Since the bare minimum of consent can be given grudgingly, there are those who go further and insist on enthusiastic consent as the standard for judging the morality of sexual relations.  The ideal of enthusiastic consent is immensely appealing on the surface, just the thing for a hyper-idealist like me to stand up and clutch and wave like a flag.  It seems so respectful and right.  And yet, within the past year I’ve encountered a couple of asexual bloggers who question this notion.  Reading their critiques I have to start questioning it too.  Here are some of my thoughts in that direction.

One of the first things that comes to my mind is that this ideal of enthusiastic consent is so rational.  I’ve seen the analogy given of offering someone a cup of tea.  If they say “yes, I’d love a cup of tea” you give them the tea, otherwise you don’t.

It had me going, until I thought: waitwaitwait, this is sex we’re talking about here!  As if dealing with sexual desire were as neutral, clean and untroubled as offering light refreshments!  It never pays to forget that when you’re dealing with sex, you’re not dealing with something neutral, clean or untroubled.  I think of a Paglia quote:

If middle-class feminists think they conduct their love lives perfectly rationally, without any instinctual influences from biology, they are imbeciles.  (“No Law in the Arena,” Vamps and Tramps, 35)

Consent is also complicated in long-term relationships, where the partners become familiar with each other.  I want to direct some thought to this:

We can say: you have the right to decide who to allow to touch you and how.  But it’s rare for people to make such a big deal about, say, clapping a hand on your shoulder without you wanting them to, as they would about* touching your butt or grabbing at your genitals.  Is it worth it, and does it make sense to claim that an unwanted arm or shoulder touch is sexual assault?

[*Edited after Coyote caught a regrettable error]

And let’s do consider the cases of children forced to give hugs or kisses when they don’t want.  Or, babies demanding milk, sucking from their mothers’ breasts with their innocent and urgent hunger.  There’s no reasoning or mutual accord here: the baby is here, needs milk, and though we trust the mother’s dedication and hormones to supply enough affection and desire to produce constant consent, we would have to be stupid to assert that every mother is always enthusiastic about offering this very intimate bodily contact with her infant every time.

So, what makes “sex” – that is to say, fucking and its ancillary functions and surrogates – different from these is, what, it’s special-ness?  There is a certain “sovereign dread” associated with genitals and erogenous zones.  (This can make it disconcerting when our toddler children come and bury their faces in our crotches, as they often do!)

When we’re young and our sexuality is still developing, it’s still volatile and vulnerable.  It means something very different for a boyfriend to grab a breast at age 16 than for a husband to do so at age 40.  So, when we are just awakening sexually, and have no history of a long-term committed relationship, erotic encounters are powerfully arousing.  A big part of this is the novelty.  There’s a certain feeling, a thrill of something dangerous and sublime and new, that is one of the most exciting feelings we’ve ever felt.

When we’re married, it’s inevitable for that to fade.  The genius of marriage, I think, is to erode the novelty of sex, and thus to dull that awful sublime power of arousal that is connected to our genitals and erogenous zones.

And so, I think it’s unavoidable that the longer the committed relationship lasts, the less “special” sex tends to get.  This has implications for consent.  Whereas when we were 22, and it was going to be a bad precedent for us to let ourselves be coerced into sharing our bodies intimately with someone; when we’re 40 and have been with the same person for 15 years, we have a history and a familiarity that we couldn’t have imagined when we were younger.  We have touched each other’s certain body parts so many times, in so many ways, and – like it or not – our marriage commitment, carrying the only license available for such activities or encounters, has unavoidably created a certain expectation.  So when it’s Friday night and the kids are in bed and the 45-year-old husband lets his hand wander, that’s a very different scenario than the 22-year-old boyfriend letting his hand wander on the 3rd, 5th or even the 14th date.  It’s a very different scenario than the engaged couple making out and feeling the jet turbine rush of their hormones.  The violence of complex emotional and physiological reactions that come to young people, childless and inexperienced with each other, simply cannot be of the same character between two people who have shared life for a number of years.

So when a 45-year-old wife consents to her husband’s advances with less than “oh yes, fuck me now!” enthusiasm, I don’t accept that this should be seen necessarily as a harmful capitulation – certainly not in the same degree as in a younger relationship.  In a 16-year-old girlfriend, I would definitely see it as a harmful self-degradation to just let him have his way.  I would see it as harmful in a 20-something-year old single person too.  In a newlywed?  That’s when it gets complicated.  In an absolute idealistic sense, I can accept that for the bride who’s been married three weeks, letting her husband fuck her when she really doesn’t want to is tantamount to being violated.

I am not talking about a scenario where she clearly says “no” and he forces her.  I’m talking about the common scenario where she agrees with some measure of reluctance, but gives clear consent nonetheless – clear, just not enthusiastic.

I can accept that as a form of violation, though I’m not willing to go all the way in calling it rape.  Because to assert such a high moral standard, in my book you had also damn well be ready to assert that any unkind treatment of your child, even in the throes of frustration or exhaustion, is abuse.  You’d better be ready to assert the abusive character of compulsory “public” education.  And what are you going to do about it?

And where is the authority to reinforce this?  Where is the authority to reinforce the 22-year-old newlywed bride’s refusal of her husband’s importuning?  I think that she’s far more likely to encounter advice of “just do it” for the sake of compassion and service.  Quite likely she’ll get 1 Corinthians 1:7 waved in her face.

What should be acknowledged is that in situations like these, the wife has assumed a maternal role: assuming the care of a male who comes to her in the attitude of having crotch-centered needs to be attended to.  Seeing it in this light, we could propose ideas like this:

Maybe it’s useful for new wives to put aside their own wishes and indulge their husbands’ requests for sex, because it’s good practice for motherhood, especially for sons.  If they can get used to taking care of this big body’s demands in a way that gets slime inside their own bodies, then they will be well-prepared for taking care of a tiny body with oral and anal needs in a way that usually only carries the risk of getting their hands a bit dirty.

Maybe husbands ought to reflect at length on the implications of them assuming the office of infant son when they come to their wives with requests for sex.  Maybe they ought to ask themselves: how do they feel about this regression to infancy?  How willing are they to assert their sexual “needs” then, and how often?

Reviewing Brotherson: Starting Thoughts

I first saw Laura Brotherson’s book  And They Were Not Ashamed four years ago, and frequently I’ve seen it recommended in the LDS Sexuality forum as a resource to help wives overcome the culturally-programmed frigidity that the book brilliantly diagnoses as “Good Girl Syndrome.”  I think helping Mormons overcome the bad effects of their cultural conditioning is a laudable goal, and yet I had some “you’ve got to be kidding me” moments when I browsed this book those four years ago.

But not having read it through yet, I thought it would be fair to make the attempt, and do a review of it as I did so.  Recently I got my own copy of it, so here we go.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were [had been] naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

. . . and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art [goest] thou?

And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I [beheld that I] was naked; and I hid myself.

Genesis 3:7-10/Moses 4:13-16

I start my review with this quote, because one of my sticking points is the Genesis/Moses verse she quotes – out of context – for her title and a central part of her argument.

Not that I’m entirely opposed in principle to the idea of enacting an Eden myth of wholeness without shame in a marriage (I think of Peter Gabriel’s song “Blood of Eden”). In fact, I’d be glad to see a thoughtful discussion of the Eden myth applied to marriage, informed by depth psychology. Brotherson alludes to that briefly, but like in so many other instances, only pauses briefly at the door she’s just cracked before moving on. Maybe that’s all this book has time for, but the short shrift the Eden story gets in it shows evidence not of conscientious trimming but of incomplete consideration.

So let’s consider: Adam and Eve are married in the Garden of Eden (after Eve is created out of Adam’s rib, a passage that some Mormon scholars have gone to great lengths to try to interpret in a way that doesn’t sound like a blatant assertion of patriarchal wish over the realities of nature), and live in a state of bliss, unashamed of their nakedness. Let’s leave Lehi’s extrapolations/expoundings aside for the moment and focus solely on the Genesis/Moses account. They’re doing just fine until they eat of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil and suddenly discover that they’re naked – and therefore, when God comes to visit, they feel ashamed and make the aprons (covering precisely their genitals). So a thoughtful reader of the scriptures (rare among Mormons) might ask: “wait a minute. If God created and ordained the sexual union as a vital part of the sacrament of marriage, and if being naked and not ashamed means that they felt no shame in having sex, then why are they suddenly ashamed when God comes calling? Why should they suddenly feel ashamed of this partnership with God, this procreative power?”

Is the eating of the fruit not only the sudden knowledge of good and evil, but the instantaneous download of a social program such as Brotherson laments and is hoping to dismantle: the shame associated with sex, even in a godly marriage? There’s no assertion of a factual timetable here, and in light of the presentations of the story accessible to us we may assume that when God comes to visit them, they have just barely woken up. Therefore their reaction of shame and fear at their nakedness – and their covering their genitals with fig leaves – does suggest an innate or essential shame and fear associated with the genitals and with sex which Adam and Eve immediately intuit as a result of their eyes opening.

Or it could simply be a reflection of the cultural attitudes which informed the carriers and writers of the myth: that shame and disdain towards sex and the body which Brotherson so laments as an unintended consequence of the Church’s teachings about purity and chastity. I’m sure this kind of suggestion is distasteful to faithful mainstream Mormons who view scriptural criticism as blasphemous, so I’ll leave off on this for now, and go back to the question of where Adam and Eve suddenly picked up on this shame and fear. If the innocence of little children is so complete – and anyone who has had much experience with them knows how utterly shameless they truly are (Brotherson includes quotes to this effect, counseling parents not to freak out when their toddlers play with their own genitals) – then in order for Adam and Eve to feel shame and fear at the prospect of God seeing them naked, they must have left this childlike lack of shame far behind by the time the confrontation and expulsion occur.

In her “scriptural journey” of Chapter 2, Brotherson charges sexual shame to societal/Satanic pollution of “God’s light and truth” which “surrounded sexuality in the beginning, when Adam and Eve were in a state of innocence” (p. 33) – a theme she touches on repeatedly, though never with much depth (what about Lehi’s commentary? He explicitly states that their primal innocence was lifeless and stagnant, and would have rendered creation useless had they remained therein). She quotes Doctrine and Covenants 93:38: “Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God.” I don’t know how much clearer this verse can be that it is talking about the innocence of babies and little children. She seems to be addressing this in her commentary which follows, blaming sexual shame on faulty societal conditioning engineered by Satan. It seems inescapable to conclude that between the eating of the fruit and God’s visit, Adam and Eve were bamboozled in a similar manner, convinced that their nakedness was something to be ashamed of before God. The scriptures as we have them don’t show Satan planting this poisonous seed in their minds, but the Temple drama does. It’s probable that Brotherson was reluctant to point to that, judging it to be too sacred to mention. She might have trusted her LDS readers to connect the dots, but surely if this is what she’s getting at there could be even a brief reference to further revealed truths we have in the Church which show that it was Satan, and not God, who made them ashamed to appear naked before their maker so soon after their awakening from innocence. That would have greatly reinforced her other arguments, which so far as of Chapter 2 rely on often shaky foundations.

I’m making an editorial decision not to dwell on this episode too much longer. To summarize: the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden (especially as recorded in Genesis) does not work as neatly as Brotherson tries to make it work as an illustration of how uninhibited we should be in our married sex lives in God’s eyes. It betrays a sloppy scriptural interpretation but that is not her fault: as a Mormon she’s heir to lazy and incomplete analysis of scripture as a cultural tradition, if not a requirement. This is part of why Mormons still don’t know how to deal with sex – or children.

In God’s eyes: what would it do for married couples to imagine a literal realization of their partnership with God as they took part in the Sacrament of Sex – I mean, to imagine God watching from above as they got it on?

The notion of returning to a blissful primal state (and assuming again a childlike ignorance or at least an erasure of the hard boundaries and distinctions that make adult life so painful) is a deep yearning in the sexual instinct, and it deserves some careful consideration – maybe in connection with the directive, spoken by Jesus and Benjamin’s angel, to become as a little child. Innocence, experience, guilt, shame, conscience and conditioning: sharp minds have been investigating these matters for centuries. And They Were Not Ashamed could have been greatly enriched by some acknowledgment, let alone engagement, with the wealth of rigorous inquiry recorded.