"We veil that which we value," I thought. "The tabernacle, brides, little girls going to First Communion..."
I was downtown, between errands, reading the earlier comments on yesterday's post, thinking about when it is appropriate to ask a man if he looks at p*rn, i.e. almost never.
Having likened the use of internet p*rn to the use of heroin, I am thinking about when it would be appropriate to ask a man if he shoots heroin. I don't think I have ever asked my Scottish husband if he shot up heroin as a mad young thing, although that would have been a good question to ask before we got married, as heroin + Edinburgh tend to = HIV+.
HIV is the connection between heroin and sexuality, and how heroin affects spouses in their very bloodstreams, setting aside for the moment the day-to-day frustrations of being married to a strung-out junkie. Of course, it is easier to tell that a man uses heroin than that he uses internet p*rn. And fewer men use heroin than use internet p*rn.
Because a conversation about hard drugs only touches sexuality in terms of AIDS, it does not otherwise touch that which is most personal to us. And until recently, women--at very least--have veiled conversation about sexuality in code, euphemisms and judicious silence. And it wasn't just women-in-public. I don't think it was until the scandal around an American president and his young female assistant that I heard certain words said, and certain themes discussed, on the television news.
Catholics of a certain age are sometimes startled at how frank young Catholics can be about sexuality. I am myself startled by "virgin pride", and I think publicly declaring oneself either to be or not be a virgin a bad idea. (As I've said again and again, this is very personal information that no-one except a fiance and perhaps your doctor and maybe your spiritual director needs to know for your sake.) Some of us think that there is something wrong, not with the virgins or with sexuality, but with the frankness. It is the same thing we find wrong with skimpy clothes and sexual pride parades. It's the in-your-faceness about something that ought to be veiled, not because it is ugly, but because it is precious.
I was told--although to be honest, I can't find the reference--that Saint Paul asked that the women of Corinth go veiled because veiling was, in his day, a sign that a woman was the wife or daughter of a Roman Citizen and therefore worthy of complete respect. He thought--said my source--that Christian woman were precious, no matter where they were in the social pecking order, and therefore should appropriate the privileges of the matrona Romana.
I repeat, I do not know if this is true, but I have always believed it to be true, and when I put on my mantilla in the church vestibule, I do it with a sense of, "Ego sum matrona Christiana." The society in which I live believes that, although all women deserve to be treated with respect, women who wear sweatpants on the bus are somehow less worthy, and therefore I never wear sweatpants on the bus.
But that is determined by culture and is therefore relative. Is modesty of speech, I wonder, also relative to culture, or is there an absolute? I believe, for example, that there are things no husband should ever reveal about his wife and that no wife should ever reveal about her husband, but I am told that sometimes husbands and wives do reveal these things to their friends, e.g. at hen parties. I think this an absolutely horrifying betrayal.
But on Valentine's Day, there I was on the bus, and the Englishwoman in her twenties behind me told her pal everything she and her boyfriend/husband/partner had done to celebrate the day including, in her words and in the most affectionate of tones, "a little shag". And as I blinked, I thought, "HOW did we get to this point?"
I'm not advocating a return to shame, per se. I think it is terrible when men and women suffer in silence because they can't find the words or the courage to discuss a sexual problem or because they were not told what they needed to know. But quite obviously we have gone too far in the wrong direction. When we think carefully before talking about a sexual matter, and choose very carefully with whom we discuss it, and veil the subject with polite euphemisms, we are paying homage to sexuality, which touches all of us at the centre of our beings and is the source of life and--very often--creativity.
From "Hania" by Henrik Sienkiewicz (trans. H.E. Kennedy & Z. Umińska).
"To the health of women!" cried Selim.
"All right," rejoined the [atheist tutor]. "They're pleasant creatures, if only one doesn't take them seriously. To the health of woman"!"
"To Josey's health," I cried, clinking glasses with Selim.
"Wait, it's my turn now," he retorted. "To the health...the health of your Hania! One's as good as the other."
My blood boiled and sparks flew from my eyes.
"Hold your tongue, Mirza," I cried. "Don't utter that name in a low wine-shop like this!"
So saying I threw my glass to the ground, so that it broke into a thousand pieces.
"Have you gone mad?" cried [the tutor].
But I hadn't gone mad at all, only anger boiled within me and burnt like a flame. I could listen to everything that the [tutor] had said about women, I could even enjoy it, I could scorn them as others did; but I could do all that because I didn't apply the words and the quips to any of my own, because it never even entered my head that the general theory was to be applied to those dear to me. But when I heard the name of my purest of orphans uttered lightly in that wine-shop, amid smoke, dirt, empty bottles, corks, and cynical conversation, it seemed to me that I had heard such disgusting sacrilege, such a smirching of little Hania and such a wrong done to her, that I almost lost my senses with anger.