In my last post I covered the lie that motherhood is nice but perhaps a little lesser on the playing field of what a woman can “do”. This time around I want to step back and talk about a lie that affects not just mothers, but women in general (whether married or unmarried) and that is the lie that women are objects. I know, so obvious and kind of cliché, right? This is not going to be some wrist-slapping sermon on the evils of porn and a lamenting of all the smut in the media. I’m assuming that’s a given for most of my readers- at least I hope it is. We live in a vile and disgusting society. Take a look around and it’s kind of obvious. On the other hand, don’t take a look around. Just look at your shoes.
No, I want to take a different route in my approach to the lie about women being objects. Bear with me as I wind my way ever so meanderingly to the objectification of women.
Quite a few years ago, before we were seriously on the path to Catholicism, I was listening to a popular Christian radio show that was, ahem, focused on talking about ways women can strengthen their marriages. The guest speaker said in no uncertain terms that women who don’t shell out the goods to their husbands whenever they want it are putting themselves in serious danger of cheating and/or divorce. I remember this clearly, even the intersection I was driving through at the time because I think I had a small stroke.
Then there were all the marriage books I read that invariably implied that women should always be on the cutting edge of fashion if they wanted to keep their husbands happy. I encountered the suggestion that being some kind of amped-up sex kitten was the best way to live out one’s role as a Christian wife quite often, and there is really no end to that kind of junk; in fact, business- savvy pastors of mega-churches are finding out this is a really good angle to take if they want to draw media attention to themselves. The most recent offering by (fill in the blank with your adjective of choice) pastor Mark Driscoll, Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship and Life Together really has blood pressures skyrocketing in many quarters. For interesting discussions by Catholics and non-Catholics on this most recent abomination book look here, here and here.
As much as I can try to make light of it now, these were the kinds of things that really made me want to wretch. It felt demeaning to know that according to Protestant culture, my worth as a Christian wife was found in what I looked like and how happy I was keeping my husband in the bedroom. What the heck?
Not that there’s not a *small* element of truth in these sentiments. Should a woman be frigid and withholding? I’m not a psychiatrist but I’m going to hazard a guess and say “no”. Should a woman make some effort to look halfway put-together? Sure. (Confession: Anyone who knows me personally has probably fallen out of their chair laughing because I would marry my hoodie collection if I could.) Should a woman have regard for her husband and like him? Of course. And do men have their own responsibilities to live up to in regard to their wives? Absolutely. These all seem like common-sense things to most married people who actually want to have a pleasant marriage. Got problems with these things? Then go get some help, for crying out loud. My problem with the advice from evangelical authors and teachers was that it hovered on this very surface level subject matter of “physicality,” avoiding the spiritual, for the most part. (I suppose this could branch into a dissertation on Gnosticism and Protestantism, but I’m going to try to keep this simple. No doubt this dividing of the physical from the spiritual is a very complicated issue.)
Anyway, fast-forward a couple of years to the point where Jason and I were starting to read Catholic writings like Humanae Vitae , JPII’s Theology of the Body, and Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners. Finally it started to make sense to my why the “wisdom” I’d previously been exposed to was really kind of warped and the blanks began to be filled in for me. The most missing-of-all word being “dignity.” I had never in my Protestant life heard the word dignity used in the context of marriage or much else, for that matter, and so it was somewhat novel to consider this word in the context of human relationships.
Take, for example, the words of Blessed John Paul II in his Apostolic letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women:
The biblical description in the Book of Genesis outlines the truth about the consequences of man’s sin, as it is shown by the disturbance of that original relationship between man and woman which corresponds to their individual dignity as persons. A human being, whether male or female, is a person, and therefore, “the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake”; and at the same time this unique and unrepeatable creature “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self”. Here begins the relationship of “communion” in which the “unity of the two” and the personal dignity of both man and woman find expression. Therefore when we read in the biblical description the words addressed to the woman: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16), we discover a break and a constant threat precisely in regard to this “unity of the two” which corresponds to the dignity of the image and likeness of God in both of them. But this threat is more serious for the woman, since domination takes the place of “being a sincere gift” and therefore living “for” the other: “he shall rule over you”. This “domination” indicates the disturbance and loss of the stability of that fundamental equality which the man and the woman possess in the “unity of the two”: and this is especially to the disadvantage of the woman, whereas only the equality resulting from their dignity as persons can give to their mutual relationship the character of an authentic “communio personarum”. While the violation of this equality, which is both a gift and a right deriving from God the Creator, involves an element to the disadvantage of the woman, at the same time it also diminishes the true dignity of the man. Here we touch upon an extremely sensitive point in the dimension of that “ethos” which was originally inscribed by the Creator in the very creation of both of them in his own image and likeness.
This statement in Genesis 3:16 is of great significance. It implies a reference to the mutual relationship of man and woman in marriage. It refers to the desire born in the atmosphere of spousal love whereby the woman’s “sincere gift of self” is responded to and matched by a corresponding “gift” on the part of the husband. Only on the basis of this principle can both of them, and in particular the woman, “discover themselves” as a true “unity of the two” according to the dignity of the person. The matrimonial union requires respect for and a perfecting of the true personal subjectivity of both of them. The woman cannot become the “object” of “domination” and male “possession”. But the words of the biblical text directly concern original sin and its lasting consequences in man and woman. Burdened by hereditary sinfulness, they bear within themselves the constant “inclination to sin”, the tendency to go against the moral order which corresponds to the rational nature and dignity of man and woman as persons. This tendency is expressed in a threefold concupiscence, which Saint John defines as the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life (cf. 1 Jn 2:16). The words of the Book of Genesis quoted previously (3: 16) show how this threefold concupiscence, the “inclination to sin”, will burden the mutual relationship of man and woman.
The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her “fulfillment” as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the “image and likeness of God” that is specifically hers. The inheritance of sin suggested by the words of the Bible – “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” – can be conquered only by following this path. The overcoming of this evil inheritance is, generation after generation, the task of every human being, whether woman or man. For whenever man is responsible for offending a woman’s personal dignity and vocation, he acts contrary to his own personal dignity and his own vocation. –Mulieris Dignitatum
What began to strike me in reading various Church documents on gender and sexuality is that the Church is concerned with preserving the dignity that is innate to each of God’s children. Anything that threatens that dignity should therefore be off-limits.
One of the biggest threats to dignity today is society’s wholesale acceptance of birth control- and I’m talking about both Protestants and Catholics here. It is tragic that so many Catholics reject the Church’s teaching on contraception. Obviously, many, many Catholics don’t practice what the Church preaches but I don’t think that negates the truth, as I’ve heard some people suggest. Jesus also told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and Christians don’t always do a stellar job on that one either.
If you don’t agree with or “get” the whole thing about the Catholic Church being down on artificial contraception, allow me to continue to beat this dead horse until, well, it’s a little deader. But first, I implore you, dear, fabulous, extremely good-looking reader, to read Humanae Vitae. That way you can at least get a taste of where I’m coming from. It’s not fair to protest the “unfairness” of the Church’s stance if you don’t know what her stance is or more importantly why she maintains it, despite the rest of the modern world being so hip and cool and enlightened.
I’m going to give you my abbreviated version here. I’m not going to get into a huge apologetic about the theology of the body, about which you should also read. This is a very complex issue and I must admit it takes some time to wrap one’s mind around it, especially when the norm is to view fertility as something that can be managed like a bad case of tonsillitis. In short though, the problem with artificial contraception is that, in eliminating the procreative aspect of sexual expression, the tendency is for the focus to be solely on recreation. And here is where the equilibrium between the sexes, which JPII maintained as the only standard for a “unity of two”, is thrown off. Who ends up at a disadvantage? Women.
With fertility being shelved, there is a sexual marketplace in which women must compete to be the best and most desirable. A husband may be constrained by his morals not to cheat but he certainly knows what’s out there and that puts his wife in the position of constantly having to be on her toes, since the sexual aspect of their relationship is unfettered from the chains of a possible pregnancy and is only for physical gratification. No doubt, either party is capable of objectifying the other, but let’s be quite honest: it is most often the woman who will end up in that boat. When is the last time you saw a guy fretting over whether he can encase his thighs in a pair of size 0 skinny jeans? Yeah, didn’t think so.
And where does that even leave virtuous single women who have no interest in swimming in the shallow pool that dating has become? Competing in a social scene where plenty of other women are willing to engage in commitment-free relationships, using others and being used. Dignity? No, just disgusting.
Blessed Paul VI predicted the consequences we are seeing as a result of widespread acceptance of contraception:
Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her 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. – Humanae Vitae
The sad result of contraception is that everyone gets objectified. Spouses can easily objectify each other, which you may say is a victimless crime (I’d disagree) but think about children. Birth control creates what I like to call a “spreadsheet mentality.” Does the kid look good on paper? Are there more checks in the “yes” column than the “no” column as to whether we should have a baby? Is it feasible mentally, emotionally, career-wise, financially, meteorologically, astrologically? Ok, let’s have a kid. Talk about being an object. (Does it seem to you like more children are dying these days at the hands of a parent? I haven’t looked up statistics, but it seems like every other week, a little child goes missing, parent delivers impassioned plea for said child’s return, and then a while later it turns out the parent took the life of their own child. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re seeing this kind of thing more as we get further out from the Lambeth Conference of 1930 and then Roe v. Wade 43 years later. What we are seeing play out is the falling value of the human person. After all, if I had the option of deciding when and how to engineer you or of eliminating you altogether in the womb, what’s to say you have any more value now?)
So what is the flip-side of this prohibition on contraception? Well, a more holistic view of the person is maintained. Fertility is not viewed as something that should be chopped off or cut out of a person like a cancerous growth. What the Church is suggesting is that God made people the way they are because that’s the way they are intended to be. To take a person for everything they are means to accept everything about them, fertility included. To treat fertility as a something that needs to be eliminated for the sake of convenience is to reduce that other person to a tool for only one purpose. Who wants to be seen merely as a tool or an object? Well, people with very low self-esteem, I suppose, but that’s not how God intended us to be seen by anyone.
When spouses choose the option of accepting each other for everything, fertility included, that holistic view really does tend to eliminate the need to be some kind of foofy dancing poodle, and instead allows people to be themselves without fear. It makes it a lot harder (not impossible, since we’re all prone to sin) to see one’s spouse as a means for personal gratification. What the Church is saying is that a wife should never have to be constantly looking over her shoulder for constant threats to her prized position as a cherished and accepted spouse, and a husband should never assume that he can selfishly put his sexual agenda at the center of the marriage.
I am so glad that the Catholic Church has continued to be the beacon of truth in this matter. As long as this earth is populated, people need to know that as God’s children we all possess a dignity that deserves proper respect. To lead them to believe otherwise is simply to reject a gift from God, and the consequences are pretty ugly.