Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Leave It In the Confessional

I've forgotten when I last wrote about this, but it doesn't matter because I probably should write about it once a month. This topic is of enormous importance, bringing together female psychology, male psychology, sin, forgiveness, reticence, modesty and heaven knows what else. If I remember correctly, the last time I wrote on this, a priest emailed to say "Good job." So here I go again.

Men and women commit sexual sins. Some are venial (not as serious, but still sins). Some are mortal (serious). Some sexual sins are committed alone, and some with others. Many of the serious one are committed with a good helping of such rationalizations as "we're probably getting married, anyway." If you don't believe in the concept of sin, stop reading now and go here.

Anyway, if you commit a serious sexual sin, it is important for your ultimate happiness that you feel sorry, that you confess it, and that you do penance. You confess your sin to God through, Catholics maintain, a priest in the confessional. And then you keep your mouth shut.

Men, I read the other day, process pain and stress by hiding away in a cave. Women, I know very well, process pain and stress by talking it out. Having committed sexual sins can be extraordinarily stressful for women in particular, not only because/if they have well-tuned consciences, but because the consequences can be extremely serious. As this is not a chastity lecture, I will not list them. You know what they are. The point I am making is that even if you are longing to talk about your sexual sins with your sympathetic new suitor, you absolutely must not do it.

For about six thousand years, the fewer men she slept with, the more honoured a woman was. Polygamy is not unknown, whereas polyandry is almost unheard of. In the early Christian era, widows were discouraged from marrying again, and although widows remarry without shame, many widows have prided themselves on being one-man women. And although there has almost always been some tolerance for the sexual sins of men, tolerance for the sexual sins of women is brand spanking new and hardly universal.

Is this fair? No, it is not. Human society is, was and will probably always be unfair until the end of time. Nature is unfair, too. In her Woman: An Intimate Geography, biologist Natalie Angiers is perturbed by the fact that the more men a woman has sex with, the more likely she is to get cervical cancer, even if she always uses condoms.

So if women feel deeply, deeply guilty over our sexual sins, even long after we have confessed them in the confessional, done our penance, and pulled up our moral socks, it is little wonder that some of us feel permanently damaged. We might even be haunted by the thought, "Would they/he still love me if he knew...?"

I am not a man, so I can't tell you firsthand what it is like to be a man hearing firsthand how a woman he loves or admires has been with another man or other men. But I believe that, in general, a mature, honest man born between 1940 and 1980 doesn't like it that much and doesn't really want to hear about it, but accepts that these things happen. If he is a humble man, he might remember that he has blotted his copybook himself, with himself if not with another person.

But many young religious laymen, I'm told, freak out. And goodness knows, anyone who wants to know what laymen think about women telling them their sexual sins can find out quickly by finding a chastity blog, or reading Jeff McL's comment in the "Reticence is Golden" combox below.

Many young religious men (I'm not talking about Jeff McL, here) are obsessed with virginity and terrified of sexually experienced women, and haven't a clue what goes through women's heads. To them we are either sexual angels or depraved demons, pure as the snow or base as the mud. Fortunately, most young men grow up and realize that women are human beings, much like themselves, only usually less inclined to self-abuse and looking at porn.

That reminds me, men are very visual about sex, which it is another reason not to confess your sexual sins to laymen (or to confessors in technicolour detail). They will immediately picture them in their heads. They can't help it, and it will make them feel terrible. Really, you should never tell your male friend, boyfriend or fiance these things, unless it is absolutely necessary to his health or your health that he knows (e.g. if you have herpes, your fiance needs to know).

You might also think twice before telling a female friend, unless she is the enviable kind of woman who can keep your secrets and other women's secrets, even from her boyfriend or husband. Otherwise, heaven knows who will find out. And these things stick in the mind.

On this blog, Single women occasionally make direct reference to their own sexual sins (e.g. losing their virginity to their last boyfriend, thinking they would get married anyway) in the combox under their habitual pseudonym. I think this is a terrible idea and never allow them to appear. The internet is forever.

In short, if you need to discuss such personal things after you have gone to confession, go to spiritual direction, a therapist, or a medical doctor.

Are women's sexual sins worse than those of men? No. I'm inclined to believe that men's are often worse and certainly more frequent. However, men are much less likely to go around telling people in the hope of obtaining absolution (or blessings) from all and sundry. They shut their mouths, and the good ones pray that the women they love never find out. They leave it in the confessional.

We should all leave it in the confessional.

Update: I had a sudden horrible memory of an article about sex discussion workshops in some American university or other. I fear it was one of those universities that stress how Catholic they are in the brochure, and then you get there and find something completely different. Anyway, I've long been haunted by quote by a nice Catholic girl at this workshop who confessed shame over "having inhibitions."

"You don't have inhibitions," I shrieked at the paper. "You have natural, healthy modesty!"


Anonymous for this comment said...

Seraphic, all I can say is THANK YOU for posting this. I was actually wrestling with this very, very thing last night-- mere hours ago.

For whatever reason, my sexual sins were really weighing on my mind and I had very strong inclination to tell the guy I'm seeing about them. My main reason for this was because I kept thinking, "What if I got married to a man, and he later found out and felt decieved and betrayed and angry that he married a woman so despoiled?" I guess I feel like I should give him an out before we get married so he doesn't think he's marrying the Lily of the Valley.

I am a virgin, but I used to make out with another girl I knew years ago. It's been confessed and penanced, and I am 110% straight (the girl and I were just stupid and bored). But I feel like actually losing my virginity would be a more easily understood and overlooked sin than this.

I feel especially guilty because I've never been kissed... by a man. So, for the man I do kiss, hopefully my husband or soon-to-be-husband, I feel like I'm cheating him by letting him believe he was my first kiss. I've heard that girl-on-girl kissing when neither are lesbians "doesn't count." But women kiss/sleep with men they aren't attracted to all the time and it certainly does "count."

Obviously, I opted out of telling the guy I'm seeing any of this, and have never told anyone, in fact. Advice on the rest of it is appreciated, though.

Kate P said...

Seraphic, thanks for advice that certainly flies in the face of today's tell-all talk shows that have, unfortunately, conditioned people to throw away discretion. It's refreshing, and (I hope) helpful to people who don't know where to go when they do need to work some things out. Maybe some people try to tell practically everyone because they are struggling to find the proper healer (and have no idea it should be a priest, therapist, or physician). God bless them and guide them.

dark but fair said...

This post is so common sensible that it is sad that I know that you have to write it and that I know that it is true that it bears repitition.

Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

I figure if it's good enough for God, I'm not going to complain or make an issue of it - confession is confession, and it's not my business. I think if a faithful couple is engaged, they should have a general awareness (and if someone used to be really promiscuous, medical tests) but that's it.

But what about people who haven't taken it to the confessional? I think there are a lot of people, including people who otherwise are quite faithful, who just don't see it as a problem. What is a chaste single supposed to do? That person is probably fine waiting until marriage, etc., but I'd be worried about raising kids with a consistent sexual ethic.

~Nzie (the rolling stone in eastern Europe ;-)

Seraphic said...

Anonymous-for-this-comment, what you did was silly and dumb, but no reason to beat yourself up for years. As far as I--and my guess is just about every man out there reading this--am concerned, you ARE a lily of the valley.

I believe it is true that men do not give a darn about women kissing women; it's knowing about women being with other MEN that makes them feel jealous/freaked out/disappointed/whatever.

You went to confession, sweetie. You did your penance. It's done. If I could do it over the internet, I would give you a big hug.

I hope telling me made you feel better. Hugs, hugs, hugs. Now I understand why priests say they are so moved by good confessions. I am very moved by yours. Be at peace.

Seraphic said...

Oh, and if you are still not at peace, I recommend a good cry (so healthy and good for getting rid of toxins) and asking our Lord to give you the grace to accept His forgiveness unconditionally. He loves you so much, and wants you to be happy.

I believe it is not just me: traditional old married ladies/aunties often feel very protective of young virgins. You are so beautiful to us, even in the abstract!

Pseudonym Sally said...

I've found from past experience that confession alone does not do it for me and my girlfriends when it comes to feeling like we've truly dealt with and healed from serious sins, particularly sexual sins. Many girls process and deal aloud, and they need to find at least one friend who can help them do that. Priests, particularly spiritual directors, and therapists are really good for listening and for leading us to healing, but they are not friends. They are not cry to in the middle of the night, help us drown our sorrows in ice cream, know that they'll always come running friends. Those friends are irreplaceable and an absolutely essential part of healing. There was much I personally could not have healed from without crying on a friend's shoulder. That being said, unless you have a friend that can take these truths to the grave, you do need to learn to cope by locking up sins in a confessional.

fifi said...

I remember being really ticked off once hearing Anne Hathaway talk about how uncomfortable she was doing a scene in a swimsuit, but that now that she is "more comfortable with her body" she wears bikinis. So many girls I know parrot that phrase. "More comfortable with my body." Or "I'm not that comfortable with my body" ... apologetically. It's like there's something wrong with YOU if you don't feel comfortable with certain clothes or kinds of cross-gender contact. No one questions the standard, they just run and ditch their natural modesty asap.

I'm shrieking along with ya, Seraphic!

Anonymous said...

And what if you fiance or your husband ask ?
Have you ever had sex ?
Are you a virgin ?

Seraphic said...

Dear Anonymous,

I am not sure where you are from, but I am guessing that English is not your first language.

I write mostly for people in English-speaking countries, but of course I have some well-educated readers from other countries who read English very well. Usually these are Western countries where women are not physically hurt or killed or punished by law because they have had sex before they were married. But even in the West I know there are women from certain cultures who might be in danger because of their past.

In general, and in countries and cultures where women are not hurt, killed or otherwise punished for having sex, I would counsel a woman to first of all ask their fiance or husband why he wants to know, and why this is important to him.

She should decide from what he says whether this is something she wants to discuss. Hopefully a real fiance or husband is someone she has grown to trust enough to talk about such personal things.

If she wants to discuss it, she should discuss it. If she doesn't want to discuss it, she doesn't have to discuss it. A man who truly loves a woman respects her privacy. Your past is your past, and it does not belong to a husband or anyone else.

A woman who is a virgin should tell her fiance or husband before their marriage night that she is completely inexperienced so that they can talk about how to make her (or their) first experiences as comfortable and relaxed as possible. I think, though, that a woman who is not a virgin but still has not had much experience, should also explain that, although her hymen has been destroyed, they still need to talk about how to make their first experiences together as comfortable as possible.

(There are many ways in which a hymen can be torn, for example, in ballet, riding accidents or in other sports. Some woman are born without them, too. The absence of a hymen is not scientific proof that a woman is not a virgin.)

In many places in the world, marriage is based on loving trust between spouses, so it would be unwise for 99% of American women, for example, to lie about something this important, instead of replying honestly or just refusing to talk about it.

However, in other places/cultures in the world, where marriage is not as based on loving trust as it is on something else, women have gone so far as to have reconstructive surgery so as to hide any sign of a sexual past from their husbands. I think this is horrifying, but if the alternative is public shaming or being killed, than I understand completely.

St. Augustine believed that no-one should ever tell a lie for any reason whatsoever. I recommend that no woman ever get seriously involved with a man who might hurt or shame her because she tells him a truth about her past he might not like to hear.

A woman's body belongs to herself and to God, and is the only means through which her unborn babies can survive. It does not belong to anyone else. The same can be said for her secrets.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much Seraphic. I speak french.