Saturday, 24 March 2012

Veiled Language

"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.


HJW said...

Oh, that's that cute boy from that lovely movie with whatstheirfaces... Judy Dench and Maggie Smith.

Gosh, but wasn't he a cutie!

Oh, wait. I remember you didn't like it.

Mustard Seed said...

I understand the reasons for wanting to wait to ask extremely personal questions like this. However, if the answer is not what we had hoped, then what? If the guy doesn't show remorse or think it's a problem to look at that stuff, to me that would be a dealbreaker. As people have mentioned, many good men struggle with this, and I'm not saying I don't have any flaws myself. It's just that it takes time to get to know someone, and it's a little scary to me that you could date someone for a whole year, fall in love along the way, start talking marriage, and only then find out about a p*rn habit or other major problems that are so personal in nature.

Seraphic said...

HJW, I did like it. I was just embarrassed by Judi Dench's character. When I am old, I will not chase after young Polish violinists. I will sit still and summon them to me with sheer force of will and pie.

The film would have been better if Daniel Bruehl had been secretly in love with Judi Dench: a sort of Polish refugee "Harold & Maud". Awesome!

Mustard Seed, you bet it's scary. It's super-scary. And that is why priests should be in the pulpits on Sunday mornings saying actually important things like "Don't look at internet porn; it is addictive and ruins marriage." Teachers should be saying it in schools. Lobbyists should be taking out television ads.

Very few people get through life without some heartbreaks. The lucky ones are those whose hearts are broken when they are no way to blame. It hurts like hell to walk away from a man you love because he is addicted to a vice, as I happen to know firsthand. But when we walk away from the loved one and his vice, we make room for the hope that we will one day find and be found by good people without destructive vices.

The choice of whether or not to continue associating with a beloved person struggling with an addiction is up to you. No Catholic woman would blame you for breaking up with a boyfriend or fiance because he has a porn habit. But, on the other hand, many women would support you in your choice to stick by a man who truly wants to quit.

Meanwhile, although I'm advocating not asking men direct personal questions about their sexual sins, I am not advocating keeping your eyes shut and your ears closed. If you are watching television with a young man and if you ask him to change the channel when a "sexy" scene appears, he asks what the big deal is, then you have a NATURAL opportunity to talk about the issue.

berenike said...

All your swashbuckling protectors are a bit drippy and hairless! Like little shelled prawns. Can you not have some
whiskers and wrinkles

berenike said...

Or is that deliberate, to avoid it turning into a sort of "swoon corner"?

(I thought I'd bring the conversation back to important issues)

Seraphic said...

I am considering not so much who women like but whom men don't like. Men don't like men who look like shelled prawns.

Being an equal opportunity kinda gal, I was thinking of putting Charles Bronson or Lech Wałesa up there, but I don't think they would drive nosey male readers away. I don't suppose you can think of any shelled prawn or pencil-moustached Poles? Daniel (today) just played one in a film.

HJW said...

I think that the line among Christian spiritual and mystical writers is not that we veil that which we value, but that which is sacred. Orders of magnitude of difference. Sacred. That which is set apart for a holy purpose.

Seraphic said...

Whoops, Charles Bronson not actually Polish-American but Lithuanian-American. Who knew? Well, there's Piotr Adamcyk, if I can find an annoyingly (to men) sweet photo of him.

Seraphic said...

Well, we also value the sacred.

I don't want to fall over the edge into the "sex is sacred" camp because that ways lies D.H. Lawrence and stupid fake-religious sex rituals in "The Da Vinci Code." Sex is sacred in a way, but I think we should also be free to joke about it, in certain circumstances and in veiled language, in a way we don't joke about Our Lord or the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

Seraphic said...

I hope that doesn't sound inconsistent. I'm going for both/and here, as opposed to either/or. Shakespeare was very much into "both/and" when it came to sexuality. On the one hand, there is stuff you do not say, do not show and do not pick apart. On the other hand, Juliet's nurse and various rude mechanicals make a lot of double-entendres.

MaryJane said...

Seraphic, I think you are wise to go for both/and re: discussions of sexuality. It's sacred in its sacramentality/ sign value, but it is also very human in its creational essence. The mass, in the real sense, is the wedding feast of the lamb in heaven. Jesus was pretty clear that there'd be no sex in heaven. So while we ought never joke about the mass, a truly heavenly thing, it seems ok to sometimes be lighthearted about sex, which is truly an earthly thing.

Also, I am of the opinion that a girl should try to tactfully bring up the p*rn issue before she has devoted a year of her life to a man. It need not be a direct interrogation: "do you commit the mortal sin of viewing pornography?" But rather, the indirect approach: "I was reading Seraphic's blog and she brought up an interesting point... I think it would be so difficult to be caught up in that sort of seems really common... what do you think?"

Not on the first date, of course. But when dating, you get to a point where you start talking about things like how to raise children and what kind of financial lifestyle to lead - these are all things that contribute to a decision about whether or not to marry someone. It seems completely appropriate to include more challenging matters in these conversations, rather than getting blindsided with it 6 months before the wedding at an engaged encounter.

PS: Please do keep the shelled prawns if they keep the menfolk at bay. (Although I think sometimes it's good for them to hear what you have to say, as flies on the wall, not participants)

Mustard Seed said...

It seems that popular culture being what it is, unfortunately there probably are enough opportunities to segue into a conversation without it being overtly interrogative or out of the blue. I guess part of it depends how well you know someone. I wouldn't want to pry too soon, but I also would want to keep my eyes open, as Seraphic said.

I'm somewhat prone to worrying at times, but I also wonder whether a guy would hide his bad habits (such as this) or even lie about them. I worry that I would only discover such negatives after getting married. I guess that's a separate issue but it makes a case for staying in reality, asking questions of the guy, asking the opinion of family and friends, and praying and discerning all along the way. Anyway, thanks for acknowledging the super-scariness of it. I know there are still good guys out there nonetheless.

Seraphic said...

Ooo! Obviously I am slacking off, for here I am again. But I need to take issue with the phrase "devoted a year of her life to a man". No woman should be devoting her life to any man for any length of time unless he is her husband or a male relation in ill health.

Going out with one guy to the exclusion of other guys certainly can be seen as an investment, but I am not sure that is the most helpful way to look upon it--or him! On the other hand, you don't want to waste time so... Hmm.

Meanwhile I wasted SO MUCH TIME during my undergraduate years with boyfriends that I am thoroughly annoyed with myself today. Hopefully seeing a guy, especially in the early stages, is just one part of an otherwise busy and interesting life.

Seraphic said...

Hey, how can the prawns keep the men at bay if you say stuff like, "I was reading on Seraphic's blog..."? That's how men end up reading Seraphic's blog! :-D

Yes, of course, a guy is going to hide, and lie about, his porn habits. That's one reason you keep your eyes open, your ears open and don't ask about it directly unless you are having a serious marriage-type talk.

The sad thing about porn is that it can turn really good guys into kind of bad guys without them knowing that's what's going on. But I know what you mean and, yes, there are guys who consistently refuse to look at porn and go to confession if they watch something on TV they know they shouldn't have watched.

MaryJane said...

Too true! How about, "I was reading this wonderful blog where a wise woman mentioned..."

And yes, dating should be part of a greater whole. Perhaps it isn't helpful, but it seems to go something like this: if you aren't exclusive, then usually you aren't too serious. And if you aren't too serious, you aren't making an investment. If you aren't investing, then soon you start to waste time. And marriage minded women ought not to waste too much time. Hence the dating conundrum, during which you cry out to the Lord: What is going on?! Or something of that nature. Much wisdom is needed.

Charming Disarray said...

Well, your posts today and yesterday both really brought me down from a good mood, but it all needs to be said and confronted, I guess. I don't doubt that this is as big a problem as you say it is, but I feel the same as Mustard Seed--how scary to think of falling for a guy and then having to confront something like this. Because I also agree that it would be totally inappropriate to ask about it early on. (Kind of like guys who think they have to right to know if a girl is a virgin before they start dating her. Puke.) Sometimes it seems like it's impossible to avoid getting hurt so there's really no point in trying to avoid it.

BUT at the same time there are priests who will teach people about the importance of avoiding indecent movies, etc., and that it's seriously sinful and degrading. I've heard it plenty of times. In fact I'm pretty sure it was mentioned last Sunday at Mass by an old Italian priest whose accent was so thick it was hard to tell, completely, but I think that's what he was talking about. He also said something about the internet. So maybe this awareness is growing?

Lena said...

Hi Seraphic,

I'm thrilled in a bloggy fan sort of way we are both in the same hemisphere. Toronto is only one hour away by plane from where I live. You are lucky to be there.

I agree with your post today. I also agree with the post you linked to. Maybe that makes me confused. Perhaps things need to be said, but I don't want to be the one who says them. And sometimes people say things that I don't want to hear or discuss.

Yes, it does surprise me how frank the younger generation is on these matters.

Seraphic said...

They were trained to be. In the Lifesite combox I linked to, you can see a real disconnect between the older Catholic guy who is arguing for modesty of speech and the young Catholics who honestly have no idea what he is talking about. They cite "Theology of the Body" in such a way that one can easily see why such devoted Catholics as Alice von Hildebrand take issue with the equally devoted Catholic Christopher West.

healthily sanguine said...

Argh! I agree with you about modesty of speech!! But I still think we need to ask about porn. As I put in the other combox, one way might be to ask, "Do you currently struggle with any forms of addiction, such as drugs, alcohol, or sexual addiction?" This is a question that I, and other modest ladies, should be able to ask on a third date, for instance.