Thursday, 8 September 2011

Tentative Thoughts on Woman and Guilt

There's a funny line in Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983) which goes something like "She slept with men and pretended she didn't." You get a sense that Weldon doesn't mind the activity described by the first part of the sentence but deplores the pretense described in the second part.

I, of course, have a different perspective. I think that if you have slept with men (i.e. ones you weren't married to), you usually should keep your mouth shut about it, except to your confessor, and then try to live a chaste life hereafter. (As penance for your sins, it would be nice to stick up for girls whose own sex lives are being gossiped about.)

On the other hand, Weldon may have meant that her character pretended to herself that she didn't sleep with men, and I can indeed see how this would be a problem. Lying to yourself about yourself is always a bad idea.

There are women who seem to have a compulsion to tell their sins to all and sundry as a way to reassure themselves that they are still lovable. Their script seems to be, "Would you still like/love me if...?" This is imprudent.

Then there are women who try to dress up their sins as something noble. Their script seems to be "If you don't accept me for 'what I am', then you're basically a Nazi." This is perverse.

And then there are women who try not to know what they are doing when they sin, like freshmen who get drunk to lose their "inhibitions" or pregnant women who convince themselves that unborn babies are only "clumps of cells." This is delusional.

The human capacity and longing to separate oneself from reality never cease to amaze me.

However, at the same time there are women who beat themselves up for non-sins, like being overweight, or underweight, or flat-chested, or big-chested, or grey-haired, or shy, or loud, or dim, or opinionated.

There are also women who recite harsh litanies of self-blame for sins and non-sins, either to themselves (which suggests they are sincere in their corrosive self-disgust) or aloud to friends (which suggests they want their friends to say "No, no. We still love you.")

Given the female tendency to beat ourselves up rather badly, I can see why some women (including me) go absolutely mental when someone blames us for something that really is a personal failing. And this is most often when the action can be attached to a label. For example, if my husband comes home from work and notes that there are still dirty dishes by the sink, I feel resentful because dirty dishes by the sink = I am a Bad Housewife, and how dare he notice something painful about myself I'm trying to forget?!?!?!

Many people have a problem separating critique of their actions, work or ideas from critique of their own selves. When a writer has work rejected, she sometimes feels that it is she, not her work, who has been rejected. Women are supposed to have this problem more than men do. I don't know about that. Men are certainly not free from this tendency.

The trouble of female guilt may lie in a haunting sense that Men=Action, and Women=Being. In this climate of feeling, men do, women are. (I'm not saying this is true; I'm saying that this idea seems to permeate our culture.) It feels as though men can do or even just be accused of bad stuff without it affecting their being, whereas women are somehow ontologically changed.

I'm expressing myself badly, so I'll bring up the most obvious example, which is the fear of being called a slut.

In my mind's eye I am imagining a perfectly nice, inoffensive, mildly humorous, and mildly attractive young man who is active in Catholic Chaplaincy. It comes to his ears that for some crazy and mysterious reason, a rumour has sprung up that he is a male slut. As the farthest he has ever gone in his life was to make out with a Czech girl he met at World Youth Day, he is astonished at this rumour. He is even slightly amused. When asked about it, he says he cannot imagine how this rumour came about.*

Now I am imagining a perfectly nice, inoffensive, mildly humorous and mildly attractive young woman who is active in Catholic Chaplaincy. It has come to her ears that for some crazy and mysterious reason, a rumour has sprung up that she is a slut. As the farthest she has ever gone in her life was to make out with a Czech guy she met at World Youth Day, she is outraged. She is crushed. She feels violated, betrayed, and almost suicidal. It is simply the worst day of her entire life. When asked about it, she rages and cries.

In short, as far as he is concerned, the label slides off the guy like water off a duck's back, but as far as the she is concerned, the label is stuck to the girl's forehead.

(You'll have long ago noticed that the expression is "male slut" as if sluts, like nurses, are usually female.)

Because the penalties for being (heterosexual) sexual sinners have usually been relatively light for men and extremely heavy for women, it is easy to see why my hypothetical guy is calm and my hypothetical girl frantic.

I keep thinking about a couple at a wedding. The man wears dark colours and, heck, he may have rented his clothes. No biggie if he spills something on himself. The woman wears a costly white dress, and if she spills something on herself it will show and AAAAAAAH!

Anyway, my tentative suggestion is that men don't feel as threatened as women do that admitting to personal non-violent sins will somehow make them less in the eyes of the world. There are reasons for this. The sooner Hugh Grant said sorry for paying a prostitute, Divine Brown, for her "services", the sooner he could go back to being floppy-haired and loveable on the silver screen. But I do not recall Divine Brown, the prostitute, apologizing for anything. Instead she brazened it out and became a minor celebrity. Nobody, however, ever forgot that she was a prostitute.

But this double-standard has no basis in reality. Men and women are both sinners and sin has the same effect on us. If a human being, male or female, commits a mortal sin, he or she falls from grace. If the fallen human being, male or female, feels contrition, confesses and does penance, he or she is forgiven. Men are changed ontologically if they become priests, and both men and women are changed ontologically when we first have sexual intercourse of our own free will.** But that's it for ontological change. (Oh, maybe baptism is in there.)

It does not seem right, then, for women to carry a bigger or smaller burden for our sins than men do. A Catholic guy with a past does not really worry that this will stop him from getting married one day. A Catholic girl who slept around before she saw the light sure does. Not fair. But then there are thousands of women who have gone to doctors to have their unborn children killed and then go ballistic if they hear a word of blame.

The only solution to this uncomfortable state of affairs is to acknowledge that we are all, men and women, sinners, and that sin ranges from unpleasant to truly horrible, but that we are not our sins. We are people who sin. Women are not sin. We do sin. And we can and should be forgiven if and when we ask.

Meanwhile anyone who begins or passes along rumours about a guy or girl being a slut has committed very serious sins indeed--both detraction and scandal. The pain of the victim, whatever he or she might or might not have done, will cry out to heaven for justice.

*My hypothetical college student does not experience same-sex attractions. Young men of traditional religious backgrounds who experience same-sex attractions often suffer very much from the salacious gossip of others. I've noticed that their female friends are often very protective of them, possibly because the women know intuitively how damaging it can be on many levels to be labelled a sexual sinner.

**I am currently fact checking this. I could be wrong. The Ancients and Mediaevals made SUCH a song-and-dance about virginity, they really did, that I may have been misled by their enthusiasm. Or by the fifty-cent word "ontological." Baptism wipes your soul clean of original sin (and any extra sin accrued, in case of those over 7), and priesthood gives the priest's soul a priestly character. Marriage does NOT stamp a permanent character to the soul. I guess the question is whether loss of virginity changes a person in any significant way. The Ancients and Mediaevals and whoever recruits Consecrated Vrigins might very well say "YES." Whether it has any affect on the SOUL, however, is something I am completely unsure of. I don't see why it would if marriage does not. ANYWAY, side issue, peeps. The point I am trying to make is that repentance and forgiveness of sins DOES wipe your slate clean, and so admitting to your sins does not make you a worse or "a bad" person, it makes you better.


Claire Christina said...

Two disparate comments:

Thanks for elaborating, and so clearly. Yes, this certainly rings true. It also seems to me that there is some social pressure on women to be beautiful and perfect, in a way that men are not pressured. (Not to say that men aren't pressured, of course, but that this is a lie that rolls off their backs more easily.)

The one sticking point I have is a theological one: Ontological change at the first sexual intercourse!? I mean, I understand the soul's configuration to Christ at baptism, confirmation, and ordination. But loss of virginity effecting a change in one's very being? Really? A significant change, certainly, but an ontological one? I cannot fathom a theology that explains this idea satisfactorily. Admittedly, I am speaking from the perspective of a young single, who knows much more about liturgical theology than about sex and marriage. But I am utterly baffled. Would you please elaborate so that I can at least understand where you're coming from?

Thank you much! :)

MaryJane said...

I too, am curious for further explanation of how "both men and women are changed ontologically when we first have sexual intercourse of our own free will"? Could you say more, and if you had any particular theologians in mind with the same idea, tell us who they are? Thanks!

Seraphic Spouse said...

Well now I am wondering if I got that wrong, and I will have to go and consult an expert. Obviously we do not have the same obsession with "the crown of virginity" as had the Early and Mediaeval Fathers.

I go check now. Meanwhile, there is certainly a hermeneutical change! And up until 1963 just about all Christians thought virginity was a Big Deal. Let me check.

I shall return.

The Crescat said...

Gluttony is a sin which results in obesity, so I wouldn't classify it as a non-sin. Just saying.

Seraphic said...

Gluttony is a deadly sin, but being overweight is not. Plenty of people just are plump. It's glandular, or it's genetics, or it's medication, or it's middle-aged spread.

The act of stuffing one's face long after one should have stopped is a sin, but being fat is not.

Little Mary said...

If a guy sleeps around, his buddies probably won't ditch him... if a good girl is found out to do so, she may very likely find that she is dropped by her fellow good girls social circle... and the good guys they hang with...

I think a man being called "gay" would have similar problems (I think a woman being falsely called a lesbian would probably have the same reaction to your male example). If people believe the rumor, the guy is likely to be concerned about being ostracized by others...

A hypothesis....

kiwikatie said...

I was wondering about the meaning of ontological and must look that up. I've certainly heard it mentioned before in regards to ordination of priests.
I once hung out in pentecostal circles (not sure what you call it in Scotland - Charismatic?) and there was the idea that when you had sex with someone a 'soul-tie' was created - something indeed changed in your soul (or possibly spirit or both - it was a bit vague).
Would this idea fit the ontological change theory?

mary said...

I've felt guilt over past romantically-related mistakes - not because of what others' opinions or expectations of me might be, but for the times that I failed to live up to what I wanted for myself and boundaries I thought I had set clearly, for the times I chose to ignore reality, and for the times I made myself absolutely miserable trying to be someone I wasn't in the name of "making it work" and compromising. All of this only became clear in hindsight, but I still regret the time wasted and tears cried. I don't think it has much to do with society.

So I guess mine is a more self-centered guilt. And of course there are many different situations out there. But I think what really matters is that God forgives, and we can forgive ourselves and learn to make better choices in the future. (I'm not talking about gossip, but that rotten feeling of having fallen short in your own mind.) If I could relive those times, I would make different choices, but since I can't, I will make the better choices next time (and God willing, hopefully there will be a next time).

Anonymous said...

This was so exactly what I needed to read today. Especially on sins and virginity and the way medievals saw that.

1. Your exchange with Crescat on gluttony. I think bulemia and anorexia can be sinful too. So people who are size 2 need not act so holy and smug - I struggled with both disorders in my teens and it began with vanity (a sin) which got out of control.

2. I just got a really good lesson on not judging people by appearances. I design and make most of my clothes based on what I like, vs "fashion". The grocery store guy didn't ask for my ID today because he said he'd been watching me & thought I looked like someone on TV. I asked who. He said "oh, you know - like True Blood or something". I googled it and, oh blech. Ick. Shudder. Am ready to go buy some "Mom jeans" and polyester tops. Do they have that show in the UK? Yuck.

A wool habit sounds really good right about now. Your suggestion to defend other girls who are being gossiped about is a good penance - maybe priests should read that. Thanks for the reminder that image is NOT reality, especially after my encounter at the store. All kinds of good stuff today.

Write another book, please?

Isabella of the north

Seraphic said...

Anorexia and bulemia are mental illnesses, not sins, but you can certainly risk getting them through sins, e.g. imprudence, intemperence, vanity.

Isabella, you don't even know this guy's name and you let his dumb comment influence your clothing choices???

I have been exchanging emails back and forth with My Usual Source, and he does not seem to be impressed with my use of the word ontological (which just means "of being") by the way.

He agrees that baptism and confirmation confer a change in the soul and that priesthood confers "a character" which theologians (Counter-Ref?) used to counter Protestant ideas that priesthood was just a rank.

He also agrees that virginity is a great good, and that loss of it creates a psychological and historical change (e.g. once it's gone, it's gone). He has not said it is a quality of the soul, however.

I shall have to do the hard work and look it up in Aquinas now, moan groan. I wish I had said "hermeneutical" (of understanding) change because when you are a virgin you don't know what sex is like, and when you aren't, you do. And, believe me, when you are married, it is not as big a deal!!! It's as necessary to marital happiness as financial responsibility and keeping a reasonably tidy house, but it is not an obsession. Astonishingly, one thing marriage can cure is fixation with sex (aka concupiscence).

St. Paul and the binding-yourself-to-prostitutes thing... Yes, but I don't know what he meant by that, really. Maybe he just meant you are in a state of sin, and you can get rid of that tie of fornication through repentance, confession and forgiveness.

However, this is a fine opportunity for me to bang my drum against "serial monogamy" and point out that condoms do not seem to protect women against cervical cancer. The more men you sleep with, even using a condom every time, the more likely you are to get the venereal disease that gives you cervical cancer. Of course, you might have extremely bad luck and get the cervical cancer VD from the one and only man you ever sleep with, which is a very depressing thought.

So in a physical way, you are indeed stuck with whatever you were stuck with when you had sex with whomever.

some guy on the street said...

On the peripheral subject afoot, it may be helpful noting the paucity of scriptural detail on how to get married. There is a lot about wedding feasts, and how Jacob went into a tent and Laban brought in Lia etc.; for more, enjoy this funny Sheaving.

Now, I obviously don't want to say that biblical non-specificity implies historical lack --- that there was no ceremony around marrying --- but rather, that at the heart of getting married was in any case to do what married people do. To try, with JPII, to translate something of the language of our bodies, the meaning of "the marital act" is in fact to contract, to promise a (natural, pre-sacramental) marriage; and that, absent external impediments, this would be naturally binding. External impediments might include, e.g., that the bride's father (Laban, for Rachel) or owner (Rachel, for Bala) hasn't given leave that she be married, or if either is acting under coercion; or if the one is acting deceitfully, then the other is in justice not bound.

Of course, the baptised are supposed to subordinate the flesh to the spirit; and so two Christians who would marry are to first vow their marriage according to the form prescribed, which the Church has decreed shall be done in the presence of Her minister, and except for grave reasons publically.

Anonymous said...

I have always felt drawn to St Paul's teaching on the significance of sexual intercourse and its binding power, though I cannot of course be certain that I know what he meant by it. Observation suggests to me that people are forever marked by each person they sleep with in a way that could be called a bond, even if the bond is resented or rejected by both parties involved. I suppose the pop-culture term for it, "baggage," is as good as any other. Is it possible that this is something of what Paul meant?

The bonding power of sexual intimacy appears to happen at a soul-deep level, too, and is not merely a practical matter or a question of broken hearts or anything like that. Like a few other deep experiences (baptism, mourning, absolution) the impact of this bonding cannot in fact be gauged by our emotional response to it: feelings may not be present at all, but the experience goes on resonating in what I must suppose is the soul.


healthily sanguine said...

"Astonishingly, one thing marriage can cure is fixation with sex (aka concupiscence)."

I get what you are saying here, which is a hopeful thought, but I can't help but think it's also a bit dangerously put . . .

theobromophile said...

"She slept with men and pretended she didn't."

I read this line differently. There are women who go around, not being silent about their sexual pasts and presents, but with vocal pretences to purity and virginity when they are in fact sleeping around that very same night.

That bothers the living daylights out of me - and partly because the men who sleep with those women then think that all 'good girls' are much the same, and will treat women who are serious about chastity as if they are merely saying that they are but in fact, acting quite differently.

Women are not sin. We do sin.

Sadly, there are a lot of people who misinterpret Genesis to say that women are sin and temptation and all that is fallen and wrong with the world.

Seraphic said...

Well, if you think I'm saying I was obsessed with sex before I got married, I wasn't. But Single people do worry about it a lot, in my experience. Will I ever have it? Will I ever have it again? Can you actually die of sexual frustration?

Marriage nicely puts sex in its place. It becomes something pleasant and necessary and hopefully as frequent as spouses prefer, but it becomes less of a BIG FAT DEAL. (It can, of course, become a big fat deal if half the couple "doesn't feel like it" for months on end, just as Vitamin C becomes a big fat deal if you discover you have scurvy.)

I wish sex didn't currently rule the world. It makes such a ghastly dictator.

healthily sanguine said...

Yeah, I was just thinking, while marriage might be a cure for that kind of concupiscence, it definitely won't be for a seriously unchaste lifestyle, or for habitual sexual sin--read, porn/masturbation/etc. The latter should be resolved well before marriage is even in the picture.