Thursday, April 28, 2016

It's Time to Have "The Talk" - Part Two

When I was in middle school, I remember we had a special guest speaker come in to talk to us about chastity.  This wasn't a surprising thing for a Catholic school to do, and the speaker was charismatic and entertaining.  He used such romantic language as "true love", "princess", "happily ever after", and so on and so forth, making it sound like such a fairy tale to stay "pure."  By the end of the talk, most of my class willingly signed a "purity" card, promising to wait until marriage to have sex.

Years later, I'm thinking back on that talk, and realizing how screwed up it really was.

Let me begin by saying that this is not an anti-chastity post.  Chastity, truthfully defined as "the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of [a person] in [his or hers] bodily and spiritual being", is a good thing (CCC, #2337).  It's an awareness and respect of one's own sexuality, and an understanding that sexuality is an integral part of the wholeness of the person.  It's a gift, and one that should be used responsibly.  Unfortunately, that's not what most people think of when the topic of chastity is brought into conversation.  Most people think that it is interchangeable with "virgin" or "pure", when it is in fact a term much more complex than either of those words.  But, you'll most likely come away from any chastity talk today with the idea that "chastity = not having sex", which, at the end of the day, has more potential for harm than good.

So, am I saying that the Church should do away with chastity talks?  No, I'm not.  What the Church does need to do, however, is reflect on and change the language that is used during those talks and the actual message that young people who hear them are receiving.  Specifically, the use of the word "pure", and the intensely gender-divided lessons.

When talking about chastity, what does it mean to say someone is "pure"?  Well, you're knee-jerk thoughts might be that that person is "clean", "wholesome", "unsullied", and "untouched".  But, digging a little deeper, what exactly does all that mean?  What are we really saying about someone when we call them "pure"?  To put it simply, pure = virgin.  Someone who has never had intercourse (even if they've done other stuff) is considered to be "pure" in the Church's eyes.  By that definition, then, the flipside would mean that non-virgin = used, dirty, unclean, sullied, broken, etc.  In other words, a non-virgin is automatically less of an ideal person than a virgin.

Let's pretend for a moment that you are a girl in high school, and a speaker comes to talk to your class about chastity.  You hear some things like "stay pure", "true love waits", "stay true to your future husband", "dress in a way that won't tempt guys" and so on.  Maybe the speaker uses some kind of imagery, like a white rose.  They hold up the rose and say that it's a representation of you when you're pure, and then squish it in their hand.  When they have another student try to straighten the squished petals out (and they obviously can't), they say that that's what happens when you give up your purity.  Maybe they take it one step further and compare women (yes, specifically women) to a clean, white piece of cloth, which they then get dirty.  They offer it to a boy in the crowd and ask if he would want to clean his hands with the dirtied cloth, and he naturally says no.  What's the lesson?  Guys don't want "dirtied" girls.  Super duper.

If you're a virgin, this might all sound just dandy for you.  But...what if you aren't?  What if you've already had sex?  Maybe you willingly chose to do it...maybe you were unwilling.  Either way, the message seems pretty clear: You're dirty.  You're used.  What respectable guy will ever want you now?  You don't think a young, impressionable high school girl who is bombarded daily with criticisms of herself from the media and society at large is going to come to these conclusions?  Sure, you can commit herself to "purity" from this point onwards...but the damage is done.  Instead of being uplifted, instead of choosing to wait because you know how important sex really is and why the Church considers it so sacred, you just feel more weighed down by guilt and fear.  Which, believe me, high school girls feel enough of in their day-to-day lives.

Even if you are a virgin, however, this language can still have negative consequences.  You come away from the talk with a fairy-tale understanding of how relationships work.  All you have to do is stay "pure" and you'll find your prince charming.  There's nothing about how naturally difficult relationships are, how much work goes into even the most successful ones.  And there sure as hell isn't any talk about how much work the sex part of a relationship will be, especially if you're completely ignorant of that area.  How will you shake the negative thoughts and ideas that you have about sex if you do get married and want to have it?  Won't you always see that part of your married life as a little bit dirty?  Plus, how is this talk going to color how you view girls you know have had sex?  Will you think less of them?  Will you avoid them, because you think they're bad or dirty?  Will you start judging others, instead of loving them?

Let's switch it up!  Now I want you to pretend you're a high school boy listening to a chastity talk.  Is what you hear going to have as big of an impact on you as it does the girls?  Are you going to feel as guilty, as dirty as a non-virgin female classmate?  Probably not.  Why?  Because while girls are most often told they need to remain pure to find love and get married, putting all the pressure on them to keep themselves "intact", boys are cast into the "prince charming", "true man", or protector role.  They are told the best type of girl to be with is a "pure" one, who will need to be protected.  There's nothing about mutually supporting each other in a relationship or partnership.  Boys are told that "pure" girls are delicate little flowers, and it's their job to make sure nothing "sullies" them.

Sure, this might not sound that bad at first glance, but these messages do nothing to empower young people, especially girls.  They're not keeping themselves "pure" because they have a right to control what happens to their own bodies, or a right to embrace their sexuality in the way they think is most wholesome.  No.  They have to stay "pure", or they will never find true love.  And for the boys?  When they say they need to be "true men", it's a very specific understanding of what it means to be a man.  Tough, strong, masculine, non-emotional, aggressive, get where I'm going with this?  Not all boys are going to fit into this mold of what it means to "be a man", and this is far from the only way to "be a man"!  However, when the Church is presenting it's understanding of what it means to be "pure" to young men and women, these deep gender divides in the language used and lessons taught feed into a much larger social problem.  This kind of divide leads to women who are opinionated and aggressive being labeled "bossy" or "bitchy", and for men who
display the same characteristics to be labeled "driven" and "assertive".  It's the divide that pressures men to keep their emotions buried, and for the norm for women to often be seen as "overly" emotional.  It's the divide that slut-shames girls and criticizes their bodies and the way they dress, while it's almost expected of men to engage in promiscuity (at least while young) and views those men who don't want to live up to that expectation as "unmanly".  It's the divide that makes certain men believe they can make decisions regarding women's bodies without involving women in the conversation at all.  It's the divide that leads some men to believe that it doesn't matter if a woman says no...

So what can we do instead?  What can the Church do to make chastity talks a more empowering, educational experience that the poorly-veiled guilt trips they really are?  Language is key here.  The language needs to change.  The word "pure" needs to be removed from the equation completely.  Just because a person is a virgin, does not mean they are "pure".  Just because a person has had sex, does not mean they are "impure".  Not all girls need to fit into the "delicate flower" mold, and not all boys need to fit into the "tough, emotionless, manly" mold.  People are complicated, men and women are complicated.  Chastity talks need to acknowledge the complexity of humanity, take into account the very different experiences of people, and recognize the spectrum of sexuality.  They need to switch the view from "stay pure and your life will be great" to "here's why your sexuality is important, and here's how taking care of it can make you a more holistic person."  The Church as a whole needs to rethink it's approach to the subject of sex, and a good place to start is rethinking the message that it's giving to young people through its chastity talks.

Stay tuned for Part Three of "The Talk", where I'll offer an alternative to "abstinence-only" ministry.

Until next time,
Erin B.

Monday, April 18, 2016

It's Time to Have "The Talk" - Part One

Let's talk about sex.

Wait, before you run from your computer screaming "inappropriate", let me ask you this question: Why might talking about sex on a faith-focused blog make you uncomfortable?

Is it because you have this idea that sex is somehow "dirty" and "sinful"? That you think a blog like this is only going to talk about abstinence, or why people shouldn't use birth control? Maybe it's because, in all reality, you've never actually received a helpful, enriching sex talk before, and were either told "just don't do it" or "here's how not to get an STD"? If you're a person of faith, have you ever heard anyone give a positive, well-rounded talk about sex in the Church? My guess...probably not.

So, we're going to talk about sex, because the Church is not doing a great job of it.

Take some advice from Salt-N-Peppa

Don't get me wrong, it's not just the Church that has a problem. Our society, especially in the United States, has this weird, unhealthy way of addressing sex. It's like a terribly kept secret - you know it's there, reference it subtly in some settings and blatantly in others, but ultimately condemn it when there's an attempt to bring it out into the light of day. I could go on for hours and hours about how the United States specifically needs to reevaluate its views on sex, but I digress. We're not talking about that right now. Today, we're focusing in on the Church.

Now, before anyone gets too excited, I'm not going to present any arguments for or against sex outside of marriage, or birth control, or anything of that nature...not today at least. This is a very broad topic, so to narrow it down a bit I'm going to work specifically from within the Church's officially teachings, meaning sex within the context of marriage.  What I want to talk about today is specifically how the Church talks about sex, and why the current rhetoric is so damaging, even for those couples who follow Church teaching and do wait for marriage.  For you unmarried folks reading this, don't worry.  There's plenty in here for you as well!

I once heard of an exchange between a priest and a young male college student.  The two were talking about the student's relationship with his girlfriend.  They were living together, and were having sex.  The priest and the student basically got into an argument about the situation, and the priest later spoke about how he was so shocked by how "blinded" the young man was to his "wrongdoing."  When I heard this, I was extremely upset, but not because of the young man's actions, or because of the priest's opinions.  I was upset with the way the priest handled the situation.  Instead of using the conversation as an opportunity to talk about the positive things the Church does have to say about sex, and engage with the young man to explore his choices, the priest was completely focused on what he viewed as the young man's "blindness" and "wrongdoing."  A wonderful opportunity for conversation and ministry was wasted, and a pointless argument took place instead.

This exchange perfectly illustrates how poorly the Church has talked about sex throughout the years.  What most people are hearing from the Church in regards to sex is "it's wrong, it's wrong, it's wrong."  Not only does this way of addressing the topic not keep people from having sex, it does a lot of damage in regards to how people feel about sex.  Guilt, frustration, shame, anger, confusion...they feel all this towards themselves, towards their Church, sometimes even towards God.  Many rebel against the anti-sex, abstinence-only rhetoric they hear from their priests and ministers.  Some view sex as sinful, and the stigma remains even when they are married and "allowed" to be intimate with their spouse.  A lot of people, especially young people, feel so uncomfortable talking about sex openly with anyone, mostly adults, that they either refuse to learn anything about it until they're "allowed" to have it, or they have unsafe, unprotected sex because they don't know any better.

Let me break this down into a more specific scenario to make my point.  Let's say a young couple gets married.  They've done everything "right" in the Church's eyes, having engaged in very limited physical intimacy until they tie-the-knot.  Unfortunately, this also means that they've made no effort to learn much of anything about sex, other than what was told to them in school years and years ago.  For both of them, sex has always been a bit of a taboo subject, because they've been told their not allowed to have it, so they've avoided it in order to stay "pure."  As a result, they know nothing about their own bodies, their own desires, or what to expect of themselves or their partner when they're together.  The expectation is that they simply flick the switch from "sex is bad, sex is bad, sex is bad" to "it's okay now" on their wedding night.  But it doesn't work that way.  It's not that easy to go from years of negatively-tinged thoughts about sex to a mindset that it's a vital part of their married relationship.  They don't understand that their physical relationship isn't going to magically click together right away and be awesome.  When it ends up falling short of expectations, that can lead to strain on the relationship, and the desire to have sex, to practice and explore that aspect of the relationship, can plummet.

Do you have to have sex before marriage to gain this knowledge?  No.  Most of the hang-ups that couples who have waited can end up having in the bedroom can easily be avoided by simply taking the time to actually talk about and learn about sex.  "But Erin, won't talking about, reading about, and learning about sex just make it harder for them not to have sex?"  Maybe for some, but not if the Church is doing its job right (which, hint hint, it's not).  For those couples who are dedicated to waiting to have sex until marriage, it's important for them to understand that sex is a really, really good thing.  They shouldn't be embarrassed to ask questions and try to figure out, to some extent, what might work best for them as a couple.

There is some really positive teachings within the Catholic Church regarding sex, but it seems that it is rarely talked about in the day-to-day life of the Church.  Despite the wide-spread misconception (which was at one point, admittedly, fact) the Catholic Church does not view sex as simply for baby-making.  There is a real emphasis on the bond it creates between spouses.  The Catechism says such things as "the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion", that sex "is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such" and that God wants spouses to "experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator has intended for them" (  Unfortunately, unless you've actively studied or pursued answers to this topic within the Church, you most likely haven't heard anything in regards to the spiritual, emotional, and physical bonding that can happen during sex, and the assurance that God does actually want you to enjoy it. 

The Church needs to change its strategy in how it talks about sex.  Its needs to stop fearing that if it says anything positive about sex to people, especially young people, they're going to go out and copulate like crazy rabbits.  Instead, the Church needs to open the doors to conversation, talk about why sex is good, and why the Church teaches that God wants individuals to wait.  Will this keep people from having sex outside of marriage?  No.  People are going to make their own choices, whether to wait or not to, and that's up to them.  What the Church can do is hold up the spiritual as well as the physical importance of sex, allow people to explore the topic without embarrassment, and realize that it is beautiful.  The Church needs to talk more about why sex is good, why it is holy and sacred, and deserving of respect rather than stigma and guilt.  It will only continue to drive people away and damage their perceptions of sex if it maintains its negative rhetoric.

There's still a lot to talk about with this subject, so I'm breaking it down into three parts.  In Part Two, I'll talk about why the language used to talk about sex needs to change, and why women are the ones receiving the most negative messages about their sexuality.  In Part Three, we'll focus specifically on young people, and how to minister about sex in a positive, uplifting way without ever having to use the word abstinence (whaaaaaat???).

Stay tuned!
Erin B. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Simple Irish Blessing

For this week's post, a simple Irish blessing for anyone who is grieving a loved one's passing.

Tis only we who grieve
They do not leave
They are not gone
They look upon us still
They walk among the valleys now
They stride upon the hill
Their smile is in the summer sky
Their grace is in the breeze
Their memories whisper in the grass
Their calm is in the trees
Their light is in the winter snow
Their tears are in the rain
Their merriment runs in the brook
Their laughter in the lane
Their gentleness is in the flowers
They sigh in autumn leaves
They do not leave
They are not gone
Tis only we who grieve
If only we could see the splendour of the land
To which our loved ones are called from you and me
We’d understand
If only we could hear the welcome they receive
From old familiar voices all so dear
We would not grieve
If only we could know the reason why they went
We’d smile and wipe away the tears that flow
And wait content.

Erin B.
(This prayer and others can be found at