Thursday, December 8, 2011

What is Healthy Sexuality?

Some years ago two Paulist priests, in separate radio encounters, debated Al Goldenstein, the publisher of a “newspaper” called “Screw”, which in today’s rating system would probably be XXX. Both priests later described their opponent as surprisingly respectful and cordial. ‘Surprisingly” because Goldstein advocated the absolute contradictory of the Catholic Church’s stand on sexuality. Al had contended vigorously that for good health, man should feel little restraint about acting sexually in whatever form he wished. There should be few or no limits, few or no boundaries. Any desire, any sexual fantasy could be acted upon, whenever possible. Thought, word or deed. It was hopefully within the law. Any restraint or denial could lead to a neurotic consequence and result in what his crowd called “sexual repression.” This was apparently a horrible condition which exceeded things abysmal.

The ends to which such a viewpoint might lead seemed not to bother Al a whit. The terrible, inevitable emotional and spiritual consequences, strewn all over the human landscape, seemed to be utterly out of his intellectual ken. However, Al, the great advocate of “no holds barred living”, is rumored presently to be in “disturbed emotional straits”. If the rumor is true, it would be highly consistent with what society has seen over the centuries to be the fate of undisciplined living. The libertine usually pays a depressing price. But should we be surprised when we have created an environment of sexual confusion?

If it weren’t so truly sad, one might get a laugh out of a depressing news report concerning the Big Pooh Ba of sexual self indulgence, Hugh Hefner. Poor old Hugh, in silken smoking jacket, and with mottled old face, tries to laugh off the supreme embarrassment of a libertine. Some girl (apparently decades younger than he) had either called off or left a “marriage” with Hugh because he was unable to meet the basic physical requirements for marital coitus. If life’s meaning is primarily linked to one’s genital prowess/experience and linked to the untrammeled, promiscuous and prodigal use of those “faculties”, and such a one becomes impotent, unable to fulfill the act of consummation, then we have classic irony.

One wonders whether the frenetic behavior of the libertine is an unconscious attempt to reassure the self that ‘I am really sexually capable in spite of my secret misgivings. I am not impotent. I do have power.” Is sex being used as a tool, not really valuable as an expression of authentic love, but largely as a personal sedative for one’s own shriveled psyche? Or even for personal narcissistic “good feeling”? Is the problem with the Als and Hughs of our confused society not sexuality but self esteem? It is more than that “it feels good.”

I personally watched one of the night time Network Television shows which, in the often feeble attempts of that medium’s thrust to influence national interiority, presented a hospital death scene of an old man. As a sympathetic nurse listens, the man sums up his resignation to the Final Experience by saying, “I’m ready. I can’t have erections anyone.” No meaning beyond that? With no sexual pleasure life is not worth living. What about Honor? Love? Loyalty? Obligation? Intellectual excitement? Joy in simple living? Loving relationships? Others? God? Is viewing life through one’s genitals ultimately superficial living? I think there is a deep, transcendent awareness in human beings that the view espoused by Goldstein, Hefner et al. is inaccurate, imprudent and non-pragmatic. Human beings feel that there has to be something more! How often there arises the pathetic and frantic cry” of young experimenters-- “Is this all there is?” It has never permanently worked even with its charismatic and slick champions. It never really profoundly, lastingly, satisfies. The Don Juans, the Casanovas and the Romeos of history have, most often, been, not happy figures, but tragic ones.

Regardless of the heated and sometimes clever presentations of libertine leaders, we know in our honest moments that the above does not truly describe what is meant by “healthy” sexuality. The sadness which follows sexual scandals in education, religion, Penn State, medicine and law is inherent in sexuality gone astray. Yet, one might ask again why we should be surprised when we ourselves have created the field out of which has come this madness. Destruction of boundaries to contain the power of sexuality are omnipresent. The shallow insistence that unrestrained sexual behavior is grownup and mature is clearly a mask or pretense to cover the desire to act out primal interior drives like lust. Patrick Carnes who entitles his famous book “Don’t Call it Love!”, rips off such masks even by the book’s title. Sheer sexual satisfaction alone doesn’t deserve to be named Love! There are adult males driven to molest young boys who have organized into what is called “Nambla” or a national group for man/boy love. On the face of it, one immediately thinks “oxymoron.” This is an extremely lame attempt to justify a particularly virulent form of lust. Calling it “healthy” is way beyond even the murkiest concept of maturity.

The spokesmen of sexual non-restraint level the criticism that proponents of traditional sexual maturity somehow neurotically fear or hate sexuality. This is, of course, absurd when one studies the teachings and suggestions of authentic champions of the beauty of real sexuality. Pope John Paul II and the scores of adults who understand his insights about Love and Responsibility are the real champions of the Sexual. They understand that sexuality is a beautiful gift from God which is to be fully enjoyed and cherished as a priceless blessing within the Covenant of Marriage. The physical, as component of the nature of “person”, is beautiful and admirable, and meant to be respected. Much human experience attests, however, that, outside of marriage, deep sexuality fulfillment generally does not come anywhere near the joy intended by the Creator. A little honesty would be so welcome after one consults the depths of one’s psyche. Besides, one might recall that marriage is meant not only for the enjoyment and needs of the couple. There is also a serious social concern: the matter of children! That would make a great debate!

In any event, what is abundantly clear is that the messy and drab description of sexuality used to begin this essay is certainly not healthy. Nor is the opposite extreme. The stern joyless Puritan who sees the Devil in every natural admiration and appreciation of physical beauty is hardly healthy. That uptight person needs a balanced therapist to help him reach for sexual balance, not the wide eyed Al Goldsteins of any era. While Hollywood generally glories in unfair exaggeration to hold an audience, the movie “The Dirty Dozen” depicted the character Maggot (as ably portrayed by Telly Savalas) in a revolting and yet dimly clinically accurate manner. Maggot was consumed interiorly with burning lust for beautiful young females whom he could never attract or win. Yet, in the anger of his perceived rejection, he spouts Scripture, calls women harlots and wishes them ill, even death. All the while posing as the upright and worthy citizen, the emissary of the Most High. Such a personality (even if exaggerated for dramatic purposes ) while purporting to be the upholder of social mores and purity is a sick and sexually obsessed soul. Perhaps some of this pathology creeps into the drum beating of some alleged defenders of society. If there are screaming, wild eyed Carrie Nation types with their symbolic axes out to destroy what they consider to be immodest or excessive expressions of sexuality, one can marginalize them intellectually as relatively unbalanced. This is not healthy sexuality. Having some mediocre “artist” attach “fig leaves” to great works of art (in the name of “Purity”) is hardly “grown up.”

Well then, what is healthy sexuality? After centuries of debate with Plato and Augustine and Sappho and Aquinas, experimentation, failure, witch hunts and book burning, human beings still argue the question in terms of their own opinions, bias and subjective conditioning. Certainly this writer, after ninety years of living, is the same. I have a view largely based on my Faith (as I believe revealed by God Himself) and my own experience both as a psychologist of 45 years practice and as a priest of 63 years as a confessor. Most of my “subjects” have been Catholic (with a few priests) , a sprinkling of Protestants (and some Ministers), a small Jewish clientele ( with one Rabbi) and an occasional unbeliever, probably agnostic (a term basically meaning “ I don’t know”).

While Pope John Paul II was probably the best and most profound articulator of the beauty of sexuality, his profound and scholarly style did not touch the Beer and Bowling crowd. The sweaty, T-shirted, loudmouth types hanging out in bars and backyards were probably more touched by the thinking of a gentle Italian Bishop right out of the Brooklyn sidewalk. This successor of the Apostles was able to convey the astonishing fact that sexuality is more than sex! And even that sometimes sex is not about sex at all!

Bishop Francis Mugavero, with many, many years of Social Work experience, wrote an epic pastoral letter to the Catholics of Brooklyn detailing insights into sexuality both from a Catholic and psychological point of view. He made a distinction between sex and sexuality which struck me as novel but enlightening.

The former (sex) concerned behavior and physical dimension the latter (sexuality), spirit and dynamism. Sex would be the various intimate and physical expressions of love between husband and wife while the latter focused on the drive (and need) within all human beings for closeness, friendship, empathy, affection, love and understanding.

Within this type of thought, Jesus, Himself, would possess in His human nature true sexuality which He offers to the whole human race. It would be the bond that ties humans together. It would be the charity ( agape or love) between parents and children, grandparents and grandparents, and close friends. It would be the filia so beautifully described by C.S.Lewis in his famous book “Four Loves.”
It does, at the same time, indicate the difference between the sexes and allows much for the important and basic factor of self identity. Of course, sexuality makes men and women different. Vive la difference! Extremists who say men and women are just the same should open their eyes and take a “good look.”

Genuine sexuality would generally be non-physical, although it could include modest kisses and fraternal hugs. The God given drive would be properly directed by the virtues of continence and chastity. It would be warm and unafraid. The additional dimension of eros (again delineated by Lewis) belongs to the holy state of Marriage where the complete pleasures of sex are blessed under the Divine Smile. Does one need to consult Biology 101 to understand that complete sex is intrinsically linked to the pro-creation of a human being under God? Does Dr. Stork bring babies in his little black bag? Perhaps, the modern sophisticate could benefit from a heart to heart talk on the Birds and the Bees! Are we floating in an ocean not only of selfishness and immaturity but of an incredible film of ignorance and superficiality?

True sexuality would have the ability to give and receive love. It would be understood as a reflection of God’s love for all. It would be highly seasoned by the profound awareness of one’s own infinite value as validated by the supreme sacrifice of Jesus for each and every one of us. Its hallmark would be interior peace and a cleansing sense of walking the walk of the Lord! The non-discipline of the libertine and the icy aloofness of the “Puritan” would be unwelcome in such a spiritual/psychological home. How could the phony faces of sexuality interface with I Cor. 13 of the blessed apostle Paul? It might be a helpful measure when one searches for Healthy Sexuality!!!

Historically, the Catholic Church which vigorously defends the beauty and good sense of chastity, can exemplify by its own membership the balance we seek. We have seen pathetic examples of the two extremes listed above—and on every level. We have seen corruption and hypocrisy. We have seen rigid, unloving, revolting personas masking as “Pure.” But we have also seen unbelievable examples of the beautiful balance of the many inbred drives woven into the glory of chastity. We have seen liberating examples of sinners becoming warm, repentant and loving saints. From Mary Magdalene to Augustine to the killer of Marie Goretti, we see the Constant Resurrection through the powerful help or grace of the Almighty Himself! We have seen literally millions of woman and men find the balance so ardently desired! Further, appropriate fun has always been the hallmark of the sexually healthy.

There is always hope. But the one entrapped in unhealthy life styles has to see and hear it first! How does one who feels so caught in the vicious web of merciless sex gone wild, hear, even faintly, the words of liberating Hope? People who can really love and really care for fellow human beings can only hope, themselves, that by prayer and example and judicious words, they may aid some poor soul to find the peace and fulfillment of healthy sexuality.

New York City , Dec. 2011
Advent: Meditating on the glory of the flesh within the Incarnation of God.

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