How to be horribly repressed

(This is a followup to my previous post on Melinda Selmys’ book Sexual Authenticity, as I have now finished it)

I really like this book, and it is a lot more weird, funny and geeky than I expected it to be. There’s an episode where Selmys engages in a debate with a Druid sorcerer over the nature of truth, a gloss explaining what role-playing games are (the Druid episode is actually not an instance of role-playing), and sentences like this: “I happen to think that “catamite” is an absolutely lovely epithet, and I am kept up nights trying to think of imaginative ways of weaving it into my fiction.”

This is now my new favourite book discussing homosexuality from an orthodox Catholic standpoint (actually, I’m not sure that I had a favourite in that category to begin with). As suggested above, it’s very personal, with Selmys using anecdotes and narratives from her own life as launching points.

Some scattered thoughts:

– People tend to conflate chastity with a sort of sex-hating puritanism, and it is something of a cliche that religious conservatives live in fear of sexuality (particularly women’s sexuality, or homosexuality). We think of the man flagellating himself for his attraction to a woman, etc. And with celibacy in particular the understanding of it is that it is a sort of total repression, where sexual thoughts and feelings are stuffed down into a closet in the subconscious and locked up. If that were the case, then of course people would be right to view these things with a bit of a suspicious eye, because that’s just not a healthy way to live. Selmys does good when she underlines how the goal of chastity is not a sort of neutered asexuality, but rather rational autonomy, and an avoidance of objectifying either others or oneself:

“Thou shalt be in possession of thine own sexuality…The integrity of the gift of self in the sexual act comes out of the integration of sexuality into the wholeness of the person. In this way, it ceases to be lust – lust, which drives the reason and the will kicking and screaming into the pits of sexual excess, or bludgeons the conscience into unconsciousness so that the genitals can get on with their fun. The practice of chastity demonstrates that one actually possesses what one promises to give. To refrain from sex before marriage is a very concrete, difficult, and therefore valuable, proof that the other person is not merely an object of lust, that sexuality has been subordinated to the will.

And, I would add, the practice of chastity in the context of celibacy makes it possible for there to be that giving of oneself directly to God. If I own my sexuality, then I am also in a position to completely surrender it for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

– This is kind of how I felt for the recent few months: I am going to stand up and confess, here, that I understand exactly what my homosexual brothers are feeling when they give up on the quest for chastity, leave the Church, and try to find hope and happiness in the gay lifestyle. I have felt it myself: there are times when I look up at my ceiling at night, and I don’t see the face of God – I haven’t seen Him, or felt Him, in months, and I can’t understand the burdens that are piling up on me – and I want to say, “To hell with it.” Literally. Let this entire project of the moral life collapse under its own weight; just let me get out of the building first.

So yeah, while I am all for the freedom of chastity, I’m more than willing to admit that there are those dark moments where everything seems so fragile.

But even during my worst moments of self-pity, I find myself agreeing with St. Peter: After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, “will you also go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

– Selmys is right to point out that it does no good to merely quote statistics about the dangers and complications of being a practicing homosexual. The desire to love and be loved by another human being is very deeply ingrained us, and isn’t easily comparable to the desire to, say, do drugs. If it seems like the only option for love is a risky one, people will more likely just eat the risk. You need to be capable of offering authentic hope – and not the “sign up for our $1000 course and you’ll be 100% straight in three months!” hucksterism.

– The proliferation of various alternative sexual identities going hand in hand with an increasing rigidity of our understanding of masculinity and femininity. I generally like to say that I’ve had no particularly great struggles over my sense of masculinity, and, while I was picked on in Elementary School for being shy and dorky, I was never made fun of for being a ‘sissy’ or a ‘fag’ – except in the sort of casual homophobia that guys often engage in when they jokingly toss insults at each other. I evidently don’t set off peoples’ gaydars much, even though I am more Sensitive Guy than Manly Man. But when I was a teenager I did find a certain degree of relief when I acknowledged my attractions, because I did feel different from other guys, and now had an explanation.

I’m less inclined to let my attractions do that much explanatory lifting these days, and indeed the fact that it does so about a number of character traits that don’t fit into the masculine or feminine ideals that we have says more about those ideals than anything else.

(especially when reality inverts some of those expectations: priestly vestments, anyone? We’ve all heard the “durr hurr men in dresses” jokes, but is there any real reason beyond modern western expectations that pegs clothing like that as being somehow feminine? One time I served at Mass as a thurifer, and wearing that cassock made me feel ten times more manly. And then there’s the weird phenomenon of how women priests in the Protestant churches (and Catholic women “priests” who have excommunicated themselves) tend to show a bit of a tacky taste in their vestments.)

– Selmys’ book also touches on the relationship of art to homosexuality. Regardless of how you cut it, there does seem to be a correlation between same sex attraction in men, and an artistic inclination, or at least an interest in aesthetics. Which leads to the question of whether there is any causation going on here.

Selmys goes into a neat little section discussing the difference between artistic expressions of male or female beauty, and porn, or, ‘erotic art’. The latter fails to meet art’s universalizing tendencies, because it’s all about the artist’s desire for what he is depicting – you can’t really ‘appreciate’ it unless you happen to share the artist’s kinks and want to enter into his lust fantasy. Whereas, to use Selmys’ example, in the case of Michelangelo, it is all about the beautiful, which draws the viewer into an aesthetic experience of male beauty which is entirely different from sexual attraction. The extent to which actual desire played a role in the creation aside, Michelangelo would have failed as an artist if his works were just a tawdry reflection of those desires. Whatever eros was involved would have had to have been purged of its concupiscence, and led, platonically, into a consideration of the beautiful as such. But this sort of sublimation, for men, I think, can be very difficult, even when we are chaste. The lion may be tamed, but its teeth are still sharp.

Which goes back to chastity: the raw matter of sexuality can be used for good or ill. Lust certainly doesn’t help the cause of art at all.

Anyhow, neat little book. There is a sequel, which I will be sure to pick up at some point.

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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1 Response to How to be horribly repressed

  1. Amyclae says:

    A whole series of good posts.

    Sometimes, when I read something, all I can hear is an echo of one word or sentence. It’s good, in a way, because it probably means you accomplished your goal. It is bad, however, because I can’t think of anything else. “I did feel different, and now I had an explanation.” So much in so little.

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