Let's talk about sex

WHY HAVE YOU AND JOHN HEAGLE, two celibate people, chosen to work in the area of sexuality?
Neither one of us, when we were 10 or 12 years old, said, "When I grow up, I want to write about sex." But as a clinical psychologist, I experienced very early that when people come in to talk about their concerns—it might be depression or panic attacks or marriage crisis or sexual orientation—almost everyone sooner or later wants to talk about their relationships. Because whatever is going on inside of us that hurts, it affects relationships. And the more John and I prepared to deal with our clients, the more we realized that relationships and sexuality were tremendously connected, particularly for Catholic people.

Although many people today want to downplay this, the issue of sexuality is a source of tremendous pain and angst among serious, churchgoing Catholic people, as well as among those who have dropped out of Catholicism. Often they've done so for reasons related to sexuality—divorce, birth control, homosexuality. So there's a lot of pain around the issue.

We felt invited, mostly by our clients, to rethink, pray, and study. We would say to people, "It's important that you're in touch with your sexual story and your sexual energies and that you listen to them." And we realized we need to do the same. That made us even more aware of the messages and things that we grew up with.

Why is sexuality a source of pain for many Catholics?
A lot of it has to do with the dualism that has been present in Christianity for centuries. It divides body from soul. It's not Christian in origin, but many of the early religious writers and thinkers had strong suspicions of the body and of sexual pleasure and subsequently taught that they were opposed to the spirit. In an era when much of the population was illiterate, the people were dependent on educated priests, monks, and religious leaders to tell them what was right. So many people internalized a lot of negative messages about sexual pleasure, the goodness of eros, the wonder of relationships. And that just got passed on from generation to generation.

You know, when the Catholic tradition speaks from its best side, it's incarnational, embodied, fleshed. It's sacramental. It's salt and water and ritual and all of those earthy things. Everyone's included, everyone's got a place at the table. When we speak from our best side, there isn't a tradition that could speak more positively about the broad meaning of sexuality. But we so rarely do that.

That's changing somewhat now, but we still meet people in their 20s and 30s who labor under messages that sexual mistakes, even small ones, are about the most offensive thing that one can engage in in relationship to God. So all of that needs to change.

Don't many church leaders still reinforce that message?
Unfortunately, yes, they do. My personal belief is that these negative messages have to do with control and maintaining power. The patriarchal dominance in the hierarchy is incredibly strong, and sexual mandates are a good way to scare and control people.

Why does that negative attitude get so associated with Catholicism, not just Christianity in general? A lot of people have the view that Catholics are anti-sex.
In the mainline Christian religions, the messages have been pretty similar in terms of negative views toward sexuality and rigidity around sexual mores. The newer religious traditions that claim Christianity but are not part of the mainline, like Unitarian Universalists, are much more open. Other Christian traditions are learning and listening to some of their views.

Catholics are not the only ones. But still, at graduate school one of my professors defined scrupulosity as the "Catholic disease." Some research has shown that sexual scrupulosity is high among the most conservative faith traditions and highest among Roman Catholics. So that says something.

Do you see that in your practice? Can you give us some examples?
I don't see it as much anymore. Now when we see scrupulosity, we're calling it obsessive-compulsive disorder, which may have religious features to it. But I have seen tormenting guilt about occasional masturbation. And I remember working with a woman a number of years ago who as a teenager had danced with a boy at school. He brushed against her breasts during the dance and she found it arousing. Twenty years later she was still confessing that because she felt like she had done something terribly wrong.

Many Catholics were taught that the mere suggestion of erotic or sexual arousal outside of marriage was sinful, not just sinful but mortally sinful. And that's a heavy burden to carry.

How does that have an impact on people's lives?
People have done different things with that. Some have said "I'm outta here" to the church. It no longer makes sense to them, and they leave or carve out their own space. Other people stay and try to fight for change. And still others walk the line back and forth like, "I don't really believe it, but it bothers me."

Our book is aimed partly at those who still labor under a lot of those negative messages. We want to speak to that middle group that still suffers. But it's also for the many people who have moved beyond the belief that the hierarchy has the last word on what's right and wrong in sexuality.

What are the key messages that you want to convey to this audience?
A couple of things. When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, someone asked him, "Why?" He said, "To make the human sojourn a little less sad." John Heagle and I reflected on that, and when people ask us why we wrote this book, we say it is to make the human sojourn a little less guilt-ridden around sexuality—a little more positive and a lot more open to people's experiences.

Another message is that sexuality and spirituality really belong together. I don't believe that people can be authentically spiritual, holy, in touch with the sacred, if they're not also grounded in their flesh, aware of the mysteries of their bodies, dealing with the love and pain of relationships. Sexuality is energy for relationships.

The third message is that sexuality is bigger than sex, it's more than genital behavior. In relationships of love and respect, sex ritualizes love. But our culture, and unfortunately our church, tends to deal with sexuality primarily as genital behavior.

The church often says, "Don't do it except under these rules that we give you. Don't feel it. Don't think about it." And society, secular culture, does just the opposite. It says, "Go there because it's dirty and nasty and titillating."

What do you think we should be doing to prepare kids to be sexually healthy people someday?
We often say there are two missing dimensions to sex education, which we prefer to call sexuality formation for lifelong learners.

The first missing dimension is communication skills. Communication is a tremendously sexual reality in the sense that it's impossible to have a relationship that's healthy, and that grows and deepens, if one can't express feelings and listen with interest to the other.

The other missing dimension, then, is formation for friendship. We say to 5-year-olds, "Who's your boyfriend?" or "Who's your girlfriend?" First of all, we make a heterosexual assumption, but we also create a mindset when we do that—that they are supposed to couple. I'd rather ask little kids, and even older ones, "Who's your friend? What does it mean to be a friend? How do friends treat each other?"

Children need to learn age-appropriate sexual anatomy and physiology and prevention, but I'd like to see it more in the context of relationships.

For example?
Recently we said to a group of high school students: "Create a scenario about how you want to remember your first sexual experience. Pretend you're 30 and looking back. What do you want to tell your children about it, if at some point you do that? And if you've already had sex, how do you want to remember the next time?" Their answers were profound.

We also gave them questions to take home to their parents, like "What do you hope for me in the future in terms of my love life?" And it really helped the parents move beyond "I don't want you to have sex until you get married." Instead, they said things like, "For your love life, I want you to find someone who really cherishes you, someone wonderful." So they had great discussions.

It seems our culture tries to sexualize girls younger and younger with trashy clothes and trashy rock stars. What do you think?
We've been trying for a long time as a human community to shake off the constraints and the negative messages about our bodies and about sexuality that dualism has created.

On the Sex-Abuse Crisis

Tell us how your work sheds light on the current sex-abuse scandal in the church.
On a scale of 1 to 100, we're about 5 percent into resolving this crisis, if that. It's a systemic problem, a deeply ingrained ambiguity in the teaching church that is suspicious of and preoccupied with sex at the same time. That's part of the institutional pathology.

The crisis has to do with not just decades, but hundreds of years of not taking women and children seriously, not regarding them as full human beings.

If we are 5 percent into solving the crisis, what else do we need to do?
One thing the church can do is stop saying, "We're very sorry this happened, and we're glad the victims came forward, but we must never forget all the good priests." When they focus on the "98 percent of priests who don't do this," they negate their own apology. We need to keep the focus on the victims.

In my experience, the majority of victims want three things: they want to be heard and taken seriously; they want reassurance that the perpetrator is not going to do this again; and they want some type of compensation that makes up for their losses. Commonly they want money for a couple of years of therapy. That is just fair.

We also need to do a lot more thinking about the institutionalization of the sex offender mentality. In the typical sex offender we see certain characteristics such as secrecy, minimization of abuse, cognitive distortion, and lying. These same qualities of the sex offender have sometimes characterized the church's handling of sexual abuse. That promulgates the problem and we need to do some careful study on that.

What do you say to people who use the "bad apple" theory?
As much as the hierarchy says that the abusers are fewer than 2 percent, we don't know that because the bishops have never studied it.

John Heagle and I recommended in 1989 that the bishops undertake a study of known child molesters in the priesthood, and compile a profile of the clergy offender in the Catholic Church. It has not been done. Some fear it would reveal a secret that they don't want out.

Some say this crisis happened in part because the church has not taken a strong enough stand against American culture that is saturated with sexual gratification.
No matter how sexually explicit or dripping and saturating the sexual imagery is in the culture, that will not move a healthy adult to want to have sex with children. It just doesn't.

It might move them to want to have sex with another adult, but we haven't hit that issue with clergy just yet. People who say that do not understand what causes pedophilia and child molestation.

The Christian churches have often given a double message: "Sex is dirty. Save it for someone you love." Basically the message is that sex is dirty, sex is bad, unless it's within these boundaries we've defined.

Then, in the '60s and '70s, the hippie movement came along. The message in that era was, "Sex is beautiful." It attempted to reconnect sex and love. It was irresponsible in many ways but it was all about love. Of course, it didn't last, and a new shift came with Madonna. Madonna said, "Sex is naughty, and I'm gonna do it anyway." And it's an in-your-face, trashy thing. Everything that's outrageous and sexual got combined with Madonna. And then Britney Spears came along and got bleached and packaged by the media because the Madonna thing wasn't working anymore.

When any kind of fad stops selling, then the packagers have to get a new one. It's about money and skin. Unfortunately, the latest way is that sex is increasingly being packaged deliberately to very little girls. The message is that unless you're like Britney Spears, you're not beautiful, nobody's going to love you, you're out of it, and clothes will make you.

How can we counteract that?
This is where my sadness lies in that the church has not been helpful. It has merely created negative warnings. Instead of coming out with a list of do's and don'ts—mainly don'ts—and the "just say no" message, the church needs to put some thought into age-appropriate positive messages. What do you say yes to? In terms of relationships, in terms of caring for your body, in terms of messages that you want to give.

I would like to see religious leaders listen more to kids. Talk with them about what they're watching on TV and listening to in their music. Sit down with them and say, "Let's listen to that together and let's talk about it."

Some of the chastity programs are really frightening. If you sit in front of a group of 16-year-olds, you can assume that a substantial number of them have already had sex—under whatever circumstances. And you can assume that somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of them have been sexually molested to some degree as children. So if you tell them chastity is equated with sexual abstinence—which is a misuse of the word chastity—you've already lost a third to half of the people who think, "Well, so much for me." And they write you off.

What in our Catholic tradition can we mine for positive messages?
Some of what's best in the tradition is our focus on the incarnational. We need to look at what it means to be embodied. How do we live in our bodies? How do we experience our bodies—all dimensions of them? Then we could create programs for children at all ages to honor and reverence not only their own bodies, but to treat other people's bodies well.

We could incorporate ritual, the whole sacramental tradition in the church. I think we could be really creative around designing rituals that many of our ancestors practiced, like coming-of-age rituals.

Catholicism is also a mystical tradition. There's more than what we see. There is mystery. There is more to hope for, to believe in, to strive for.

John Heagle makes the point that when children are little, we talk to them about metaphysics. When they say, "Where do babies come from?" we give them concepts. They don't understand the philosophical ideas of love but we go on and on about it. And they're kind of bewildered by the whole thing. They just want to know mechanics. They're very concrete at that stage.

Then when they get to be in middle school, when they're having heart experiences and crushes and attractions and twitterings, feelings and arousals, then we give them plumbing. And what they really want to know about is: What does it mean when all of a sudden my whole body goes electric when I see this person or that person? And often they're embarrassed to talk about it. We need to help them see those as mystical experiences rather than dismiss them with: "That's normal, but don't act on it."

We need to redesign, rearticulate the whole theology of body touch, body exploration. What does it mean to experience your body as a child? And what is this wonder of feelings and arousals and ideas and physical powers? It is important to see these things in context, rather than separate out genital touching from other kinds of learning and experience. Ordinary genital self-touch can be very important and can help children come to reverence their bodies, to know them.

You mentioned that sexual abstinence is not the definition of chastity. What is it?
All of us are called to chastity. Chastity is loving reverence in relationships—how we stand before people, and ourselves.

The Catechism has a great definition of chastity: a school of the gift of the self. It says chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person. And that's the inner unity of people in their bodily and spiritual being. It says some good things.

We also need to look at the real meaning of sexuality and the erotic. We think of everything in terms of genital stuff. The term sexual has been so narrowed to be synonymous with genitality that you cannot use it in a broader way.

But eros is to be stirred, to be moved, to want to embrace all that is good and beautiful, and to recognize that it comes in many different forms—the whole person, soul pleasure, body pleasure, watching a sunset or sunrise. And to narrow it just to the sexual pleasure part is to really reduce it.

You talk about diversity and inclusivity as an essential teaching of Jesus—that we need to let everyone come to the table.
That is definitely a central message that we want to communicate. Often it's around issues that deal with sexuality that people don't feel included in our church. I don't see a lot of people who are pro-capital punishment feeling like they're not part of our church or that they can't participate in the sacraments. But someone divorced and remarried without an annulment is explicitly excluded, unless they are refraining from sex with their spouse.

This is where genital behavior—what you do or don't do with your genitals—becomes the defining issue in Catholic morality. And we need to move away from that. 

This article appeared in the February 2003 (Volume 68, Number 2) issue of U.S. Catholic

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