[A word of warning: I describe the porn industry in some detail here, the contents of which are very disturbing and may evoke past traumas in some readers. Proceed with caution.]
In previous generations, perhaps what feminists call ‘the patriarchy’ was more genteel. More ‘chivalrous’, ‘distinguished’, even ‘wholesome’ by all appearances. In other words, there was a time when our inequitable gender relations looked chiefly like church bells and pickett fences.
But the ‘sexual revolution’ has multiplied our weaponry. As Catherine MacKinnon has often pointed out, much of what once passed for sexual liberation has only reiniscribed the stranglehold that men kept over the old world and furthered it on into the new. One of the more obvious examples would be pornography.
The documentary Hot Girls Wanted follows a number of young porn actresses as they navigate the industry. In one scene, our subject arrives on set to film a video in which she plays an under-aged girl who is molested by a family friend.
The director positions her, scantily clad, in a king-sized bed and coaches his actors through the trajectory of the scene: “Now, you keep resisting his advances, but he is is going to begin caressing your breasts – without getting a clear yes, alright? Now, without really getting the ‘go ahead’, he takes your shirt off and begins to kiss your chest.”
By the end of the video, her character has ‘succumbed’ to his persistence – although she had initially resisted his advances, she realizes, by the end of their encounter, that she really had ‘wanted it’ all along.
To point out the obvious: The video of which our subject was a part depicts a rape. That is to say, by the millions, we consume and gratify ourselves to media that gradually conditions us to accept non-consensual sex as probably kosher.
Of course, pornography did not invent sexual violence, but its staggering popularity is symptomatic of something that ought to get under our skin: We have always fetishized sex we have to take – that is, coerced sex, quid pro quo, sex with people (usually girls) who are too young to responsibly choose it. Porn is as relatively uncontroversial as it is because much of our sex has always been violence.
Perhaps something like this hangs in the background of a rather striking sequence in Claire Denis’ film, Trouble Every Day, in which a beautiful young woman lures a teenage boy into her house, entices him into bed with her, and dismembers him with her teeth before lapping up the blood from his unclothed remains.
In another scene, a man seduces a hotel employee in an empty locker room. As they begin to succumb to one another, his sexual excitement climaxes into a gleeful brutality: Mid-cunnilingus, he sinks his teeth into her flesh, prompting desperate screams and violent flailing – but not the sort one generally hopes to evoke from a partner.
In the world these characters inhabit, sex is cannibalistic simply because it is sex. They cannot content themselves with enjoying the flesh of another creature in only one way. They have to sink their teeth into one another.
This comes to a head when, at the climax of the film, a newlywed couple we’ve been following begins to make love. What begins rather sweetly turns sour when the husband (played by Vincent Gallo) retreats abruptly to the bathroom to aggressively masturbate until climaxing while his wife sobs in the background, confounded. She is not enough, and she can’t be, it is implied. When we have acquired a taste for sex as violence, we will never be content with sex that nurtures.
Well, the censors had a field day with Trouble Every Day, which is ironic. It would seem as though Denis’ blurring of the lines between coitus and cannibalism comments on the real-life prevalence of what we might call sexual vampyrism.
That is, we are one of the cultures out of whom the rape porn industry, in all its exploitative unglory, was birthed, and into whom it became omnipresent, an unholy ghost. We are the culture wherein it is seldom safe for women to walk home alone, or turn down a date with a charmless stranger, or refuse sex with their husband on a given night.
But more: We are a culture where sexual brokenness of all stripes is so thoroughly inscribed that we are socialized into it – we are taught, if we are boys, to become men by ‘getting some’, by collecting badges of virility with strangers we we don’t care to know but can’t wait to get inside of. Or we are taught, if we are women, that our ‘desire’ is an aberration – that our sexual prowess is only good insofar as it can be suppressed, and meted out as scattered tokens of good faith for boys who ‘put in the effort’ to ‘behave themselves’ and get full-time jobs. No one is allowed to breathe, and no one is allowed to copulate, and no one is allowed not to. It’s a game, by some spectral design, that nobody wins. Everyone’s sex has been weaponized.
Old Testament scholar Ellen F. Davis thinks that the Hebrew word Te’shuqah (which translates roughly into English as ‘desire’) was was very carefully chosen by the author of the Song of Solomon. Good mainline Protestant that she is, she assures us that the Song was not authored by the man himself but poet (or songstress!) centuries after his death.
Well, that may be the case, but isn’t it scintillating to imagine, for a moment, that this ancient ode to the glories of monogamy was written, perhaps near the end of his life, by that legendary King of Israel whose endless trysts with pagan queens brought about the end of the united monarchy?
If we carry this narrative (the traditional one, I might add) into the text, it develops a bitter, hopeful irony.
As Davis notes, if the inequity between the sexes seems inscribed into the fabric of the universe, it’s because it is: In Gen. 3:16, the Garden-Keeper laments to the Woman, “I will intensify your labor pains; you will bear children in anguish. Your desire (Te’shuqah) will be for your husband, yet he will rule over you.”
Understandably, the term te’shuqah became so thoroughly stigmatized by the Hebrew community that it never shows up again outside of Genesis – until the Song of Solomon, when the Shulamite woman says, “I belong to my love, and his te’shuqah is for me.”
The associations would be difficult to miss, Davis writes: Though ‘desire’ has long cursed the whole of womanity to a kind of cruel subjugation to their male counterparts, damning them to inequitable and often inescapable arrangements whereby they are left with few options but to marry whoever is eligible and and endure whatever abuse they inflict upon them, Solomon envisions a day when faithful monogamy, carried on under the Lordship of the Garden-Keeper, might begin to bring that longstanding curse to a close – one couple at a time.
And Solomon should know. Vincent Gallo might be a good choice to play the man in the inevitable whitewashed biopic that Hollywood churns out – as the poster-child for Old Testament polygamy, Solomon is well acquainted with the benefits of thereof. Now he fantasizes about something better, a world where sex isn’t cannibalism.
Supposedly, Christianity envisions marriage, like celibacy, as something innately sacramental, by which the Holy Ghost reorients our desires, to turn Judahs into Tamars, to disembowel our selfishness, even depatriarchalize us, turn oppressors into servants – to reshape disinterested busyfolk whose chief end is to defend their own interests against the looming ghost of the ever-threatening other into creatures who embody the Trinity’s communitarian compassion. Again – supposedly.
That’s largely a paraphrase of Gregory of Nyssa’s essay, “On Virginity,” a bizarre work that transcended its time and speaks into ours with uncommon clarity. Early on in Church history, it formed the basis for what could be called the “Christian” view of romance, partnership, sex, etc. The rest of our ‘theology of eros,’ so to speak, emanates from that. In the essay Gregory, a 4th century Cappadocian Father, creatively reimagined what had before been primarily been an Aristotelian social structure.
Nyssa observes that the phenomenon of human desire is never self-contained. Sexual desire is not its own thing, distinct from, for example, the desire to be understood and cared for. In the Ancient Near East, the term “know” was often a euphemism for “copulate with,” and it wasn’t for no reason. But neither is it distinct from any other desire. Like all desires, some people have a greater orientation toward it than others. Some have very little orientation toward it whatsoever, and they’re not lesser for it. But whatever the volume of one’s sexual desire, it is one among many intersecting desires, Gregory says, which give birth to our ‘public selves,’ so to speak. The directions in which our diverging and converging desires develop shape how we grow into ourselves as humans among other humans.
From that standpoint, we might assume that a sort of broad ‘consensualism’ is the best sexual ethic, because it carries with it the notion that others are to be treated in the way they want to be treated (which has always been the most obvious way to interpret “treat others the way you want to be treated,”). It carries with it that other people’s bodies belong to them, and their emotions as well. Via consensualism, nobody exists purely for our gratification, and thus, no one should be objectified. Their sex is for their enjoyment and yours is for yours, and the activity itself mutually beneficial. Consensualism is not libertinism, and it isn’t amoral. It’s the closest any culture has ever come to sharing a Christian sexual ethic.
There’s significant overlap between the ‘consensualism’ outlined above and the Christian understanding of sex. But on this side of the final resurrection, that kind of coitus-without-parameters materializes as something else entirely. We could refer to it as “sexual capitalism” because it negates what can be the sanctifying effects of marriage by introducing options. So long as we don’t choke on the “wives submit to your husbands…” language in Paul’s writings, it’s difficult to escape the sense that he envisions marriage as something whereby two people are molded together into the image of the Jesus they worship – specifically, by binding them together for the rest of their lives, in a relationship that they cannot back out of (apart from certain very narrow extenuating circumstances), whose vows commit them to learning, however difficult, to extend what feels like impossible grace, endure frustrations patiently, and embody a concrete compassion toward one another.
Our spouse, so to speak, is our primary personal relationship, and the petri dish in which the unnatural qualities of kindness, empathy, compassion, tolerance, grace, and so on incubate and then multiply out toward others. We’re drawn into this strange sacramental relationship by our innate sexual or romantic desires. Something in us responds to a ‘call to intimacy deep enough that it requires a covenant,’ and once inside, we’re bound to one another nearly irrevocably.
I don’t get to back out of this arrangement whereby I learn to love humanity at large by learning to love one person intimately, because I’ve covenantally foregone all other outlets whereby I might satiate my sexual desires or romantic longings. I’ve cornered myself into learning how to love at least one person as deeply as I love myself. I have no other outlets. I’ve foregone all other options.
Additional partners sabotage this. The endgame of monogamy, Christianly speaking, isn’t to disinfect love, or disenfranchise it, but to cultivate it by giving it direction. The foregoing of other options is indispensible to that, because it forces me, at risk of sounding gloomy, to ‘crucify myself’ for their sake. I will grow tired of them. Monogamy is not natural. Evolution has not prepared us for it. Sooner or later, the presence of a spouse will make my life harder, not easier. Almost certainly, a kind of ethical egoism is what comes naturally, and it materializes, for one, in unjust social structures. Depredation is in our nature, and, inevitably, we inculturate what’s most prevalent in us.
That is, we need an overhaul on how to relate to others, not only at the conscious level, but at the subterranean levels where our desires incubate before blossoming into fuel for the quiet dystopias we’ve erected. Marriage, then, is an uprooting and a replanting. The chaff is set ablaze and new seeds are sown, in a way. With the Jesus who quite literally crucified Himself for the humanity against whom His own wrath burned as our example, we opt into a life of ‘crucifying’ our own nature to serve one person who will not satisfy the pervasive loneliness that haunts us. We commit ourselves to washing someone’s feet who doesn’t deserve it, till we die or they die (or both).
That’s not to imply that marriage is gloomy or unpleasant. It’s often fun (so I’ve heard). You should rather like the person you choose to lock yourself in a household with for the rest of your life. But throughout the whole of your marriage, if it is in any way ‘Christian,’ you engage in something God-like: you learn to love and forgive somebody who will find new ways to wrong you, regularly and often.
That is, however much you luck out with your partner, however compatible you may be, once you both stop ‘performing,’ when what’s natural in each of you becomes what’s normal in the day-to-day, it becomes a ‘spiritual discipline’ of sorts. And then you either get fed up and part ways, or settle into tolerable patterns of marital inertia, – or agree, together, that your life-long covenantal partnership will be a means by which you allow the Holy Ghost transform both of you into creatures who reflect His longsuffering compassion, together, by embracing your life together as God’s threshing floor, whereby you crucify your selfishness and serve them sacrificially instead, and they do the same toward you.
But it’s a threshing floor, and burnt chaff doesn’t become unburnt outside the threshing room. The kindness you engender toward your spouse doesn’t terminate on them alone. It refracts, one hopes, into the rest of society. If you have opted into the covenantal relationship that Paul and Gregory have in mind, your marriage molds you into the raw materials that, en masse, may produce the tectonic shifts that change culture for the better.
So it deforms us, to put it another way. Pulling our limbs out of joint and rending our bodies and our souls such that we’re turned unsettlingly peaceable. Its roots grow down beneath our consciousness and unpoison the well. If marriage does its job, we learn, gradually, to honor the other, merited or not, and to bestow it on them before they even get around to demanding it.
In a way, Trouble Every Day sets the stage for this. Marital monogamy a la the Song of Solomon is a sanctifying measure, a sacrament of reorientation instituted on behalf of a people who have already been catechized into an unholy cult of masculinity. There will come a day when all that has shattered in the Fall will be brought together again in Christ, but until then, monogamy is a glorious placeholder.
Right down to the Song‘s final punchline, which, as Davis pointed out, is an unsubtle jab at the life Solomon actually lived. She paphrases Song. 8:11-12 as “Solomon can have his thousands, but I need only you.”
Sex will not be unbroken, at least in the fullest sense, until the final resurrection, but the colorful depictions of coital bliss which pervade the Song bear witness to continued goodness of sex, all of it, and the weird stuff, within the sacramental parameters of the covenantal marriage union. Much of our sex is violence, but it doesn’t have to be.
If they ever do adapt the Song to film, Denis’ wouldn’t be the worst choice to helm the project. From one angle, its stanzas read like the answer no one quite expected to a problem that has haunted us forever. Trouble Every Day is the first half of a story whose climax is the gospel.