Ruining Respectful Relationships Between the Sexes
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church… Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church… This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
— Ephesians 5:25-33
Towards the beginning of Humanae Vitae Pope Paul VI describes the four characteristics of married love – or rather, the characteristics that married love should have.
Firstly, married love must fully be “human.” That is, it must involve the whole person, the “compound of sense and spirit,” and cannot be merely “a question of natural instinct or emotional drive.” Thus, it must be an act of the “free will,” so deep that it can “survive the joys and sorrows of daily love” and also to grow, “so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.”
Secondly, married love must be “total.” It should be based on a deep “friendship” in which “husband and wife generously share everything.” Within this total love, one spouse does not love the other for what he “receives” but rather “for the partner’s own sake.”
Thirdly, married love must be “faithful and exclusive.” While at times this may be difficult, it is “always honorable and meritorious,” insists the pope. “The example of countless married couples proves not only that fidelity is in accord with the nature of marriage,” he added, “but also that it is the source of profound and enduring happiness.”
Finally, married love must be “fecund” – or, at least, open to the possibility of children. “It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being.”
There are two striking elements about Pope Paul VI’s vision of married love. The first is that it is a vision of love that demands continual effort and sacrifice. It is not enough for a couple simply to feel “in love”; to attain this depth of love, both spouses must work hard for it. And, secondly, it is a love that presumes equality between the spouses, an equality that is fostered by the spirit of sacrifice mentioned above. Rather than adversaries in the “battle of the sexes,” husband and wife are friends, each seeking in their own way to give to the other, for the other’s own sake.
Pope Paul VI’s Third Prophecy and the #MeToo Movement
A marriage based upon a love of this kind clearly benefits both men and women. However, it is striking how monogamous, life-long marriage is uniquely suited to protecting women from the worst exploitative tendencies of men.
Pope Paul VI, writing in the late 1960s in Humanae Vitae, was gravely concerned about how societal changes undermining the Christian ideal of marriage and sex exposed women to exploitation. In the third famous prophecy of Humanae Vitae the pope expressed his “alarm” that “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman.” Instead, he warned, by “disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium” a man might reduce a woman “to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
It hardly seems necessary to expend any effort “proving” that this prophecy has come true. Over the past year we have been inundated with stories of powerful men taking advantage of vulnerable women to satisfy their insatiable sexual appetites. At the height of the #MeToo movement, millions of ordinary women shared stories on social media of being sexually harassed or abused. As many commentators have noted, one of the most striking aspects of these stories is the degree to which the men involved seemed to feel that they were entitled to sexual favors from women they scarcely knew. It doesn’t even seem to occur to these men that the women involved are human beings, with their own desires and dignity.
Furthermore, one need only glance at our advertising and popular culture to see the systematic sexual exploitation of women. Pope Francis lamented this problem this week, pointing out in a homily how women are routinely “humiliated” in ads, shown “wearing no clothes,” simply to sell a product. “This is a sin against God the Creator,” said the pope, “rejecting women, because without her we men cannot be the image and likeness of God. …. how many times do young women have to sell themselves as disposable objects in order to get a job? How many times?”
Decrying the practice of prostitution and sex trafficking, Pope Francis added, “All this happens here in Rome. It happens in every city. Anonymous women. Women we can describe as ‘faceless,’ because shame covers their faces, women who do not know how to laugh and many of them do not know the joy of breastfeeding their baby and the experience of being a mother…A woman is trampled underfoot precisely because she is a woman!”
The Sexual Complementarity of Men and Women
If women have always been vulnerable to exploitation by men, the widespread use of contraception has made them doubly so, as Pope Paul VI rightly predicted. To understand why this is so, it is first necessary to understand some of the core sexual differences between men and women, and then to see how contraception exacerbates and highjacks these differences, at women’s expense.
To begin with, men (on average) have a much stronger sex drive than women. Their sexual desires are also often only tangentially related to a desire for relationship or procreation. Their sex drive is also largely visually-driven and non-specific, meaning that men can be (and often are) instantly attracted to total strangers. As a general rule, this makes men the sexual pursuers, rather than the pursued. While sexual pursuit is good – indeed, necessary – when oriented towards marriage and procreation, if unchecked the male sexual appetite can easily become exploitative. This is the central point of a famous letter by the famous Catholic author JRR Tolkien to his son Christopher (to which I will return later), in which Tolkien makes the somewhat startling claim that for most men, monogamy is not natural, but rather “a piece of ‘revealed’ ethic” – that is, something learned by faith.
A woman’s sex drive, on the other hand, is (on average) significantly less intense and more complex in its mechanisms. The science on this is quite clear: a woman’s libido tends to be significantly more relationally-oriented, and responds to an unpredictable mix of intangible factors such as feelings of personal security, a sense of emotional connection with her partner, a comfortable and undistracted environment, etc. If this complexity is sometimes a source of frustration for men, it also makes perfect sense biologically. Women are, after all, much closer to and bear the overwhelming burden for the natural biological outcome of sex. A woman’s monthly cycle is a continuous and often-painful reminder to her of the natural purpose of sex. Contrary to a man, a woman is often keenly aware of the fact (indeed, how could she forget it!) that the risk of having sex is that she may spend the next several years of her life nurturing a new human being with her own body. Furthermore, she knows that if her sexual partner is not invested in the relationship, she may spend her life raising that child alone. It is wholly unsurprising, therefore, that a woman’s sexual nature is oriented towards relationship and security.
Any man who has been married quickly learns that he cannot expect sex on demand; and if he is at all sensitive, he also learns that there are very good reasons for his wife’s caution. He learns that if he wishes to have a healthy and regular sex life with his wife, he must pay attention to and nurture the whole of their relationship. Furthermore, he cannot do so only in the cynical hope of more sex (she will quickly detect that ruse) but rather out of a legitimate concern for her welfare.
In this way, a woman’s sexual nature draws a man out of the narrowness of his indiscriminate sexual appetites. A man who responds to the challenge thus learns to integrate those appetites into a broader context of relationality and self-giving: only one of the many ways in which men and women complement one another. Even as Tolkien bluntly acknowledged the troubling tendencies of male sexuality in a world after Adam’s Fall, he also movingly affirmed the only appropriate response for men: to train their sexuality through self-sacrifice. Faithfulness in marriage, he told his son in the letter mentioned above, requires “great self-mortification.” “For a Christian man there is no escape,” he added.
Marriage may help to sanctify and direct to its proper object, his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him – as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state, as it provides easements. No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial.
Contraception: De-sexing Sex
The problem with contraception is that it removes one of the primary incentives for a man to embrace this ethos of self-denial. It does this by “de-sexing” sex.
That is, contraception suppresses the one aspect of sex that is overwhelmingly associated with the feminine: procreation. The chemical suppression of the woman’s cycle and the removal of the possibility of procreation creates the illusion of rendering “moot” all that complex female reproductive business. It suggests to a man that he no longer has to worry about the “risks” of sex, or the demands that those risks make on him. As a consequence, a man risks viewing a woman as just another man, but with a woman’s body. If he is excited about having sex right now (as he often will be), and there is no longer any serious risk of an unwanted pregnancy, then why is she still hesitant? What more does she want?
Just because a woman is on contraception doesn’t mean that her nature has changed. She is as much a woman as before. In many respects, she remains just as sexually vulnerable as before. Her deep-seated need for the sense of security that comes from the knowledge that her husband truly loves her remains.
Within a marriage, the risks are two-fold: 1) That the woman will become resentful that she is being used as an instrument of pleasure for her husband, who no longer sees any reason to expend effort learning to understand and love her as a woman. This is only exacerbated in our pro-abortion and pro-contraception culture, since women are overwhelmingly expected to bear the burden of so-called “consequence-free” sex: for it is they who are expected to pay for and take the hormone-laden contraceptive pills every day, or to submit their bodies to the violence of abortion if a “mistake” happens. And, 2) That without the incentives to control his passions and deepen his concept of love, the man will fall prey to the illusions of his baser instincts, believing that the quality of his marriage is solely dependent on the extent to which he is attaining sexual fulfillment. As Tolkien warned his son: “When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, [men] think they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along.” In both cases, the end result is divorce and disillusionment.
Within a culture, on the other hand, the risks are what we have seen above: The catastrophic collapse of respectful relationships between the sexes, to be replaced with a culture of casual sexual exploitation and resentment: i.e. the #MeToo generation. The solution is teaching found in Humanae Vitae. The solution is St. Paul’s inspired word: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church.” And as the Church has always taught, contraception has no place in a love like that.