Sex and Religion #
Religion and Sex
Gilgamesh, corrupted by his power, became an abusive oppressive tyrant. He insists on the droit du seigneur: he, not the groom, spends the wedding night with the bride.
The gods, listening to the complaints of his people send a priestess, the Goddess of Love, Shamhat, a sacred prostitute, to seduce Enkidu, the wild brutalised man, and they make love continuously for six days and seven nights. Enkidu is transformed by that experience, and becomes socialised, humanised and empathetic.
It’s a kind of Anti-Garden of Eden story, where instead of sexuality being a fall, it’s an initiation into what it means to be human. It can also be seen as an indictment of civilised society and a demand for freedom from oppression and for equitable justice.
When Enkidu discovers Gilgamesh’s claim of “Jus Prima Nocta” the right of the King to sleep with all brides on their wedding night, he challenges it. When the fight ends in a draw, they become good friends and travel the world together.
To please his mother Gandhi had taken vows not to touch wine, meat, or women while abroad. In 1906, Gandhi took the Hindu vow of brahmacharya - chastity. At the age of 36, he was determined to be celibate.
Although he proclaimed his abstinence, he still managed to be extremely intimate with many of his women.
Disgusted by his innate lust, Gandhi would try to distance himself from the women - but he was soon sleeping next to them again - and, what’s more, blaming his surrender on them. ‘I could not bear the tears of Sushila,’ he said.
He deliberately put himself into increasingly arousing situations to prove mind over matter.
He would often sleep next to naked nubile young women to test himself; each failure merely meant a renewed attempt was inevitable.
The Greeks #
Hesiod was the first to record that, Eros, fairest among the deathless gods, “unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind”. Sexual attraction is an inherent and irresistible force all humans.
It is the quirkiness and unruliness of sexual impulse: fantasies—of submission, abandon, extremity, that do not necessarily translate into reality; they can be untrue to the workings of the sexual imagination. That sexual fantasy is quite commonly inconsistent with one’s social values, should not in itself a cause for alarm.
Homer’s The Iliad depicts Agamemnon as a serial oppressor of women. Not only has he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to the virgin goddess Diana, infuriating his wife, Clytemnestra, he insults a priest of Apollo by abducting his Priest’s daughter as his “comfort woman”. When Agamemnon is forced to give up his booty, he commandeers Achilles’ young maiden, Briseis. Achilles, in high dungeon simply refuses to fight anymore. Later, when Briseis is restored to him, Achilles declares his love for her. Erotic excellence is a sacred gift like any other human excellence, to be cherished without moral reflection.
After other disputes over concubines, Agamemnon returns home after ten years with his booty, Cassandra, from the Trojans. Clytemnestra welcomes him home with libations and offers him a soothing bath where she brutally and bloodily stabs him, setting off a family feud of blood vengeance spurred by the Furies. Cassandra, predicting her own death, submits to her own “good death”.
“You go home now and attend to your work, the loom and the spindle, and tell the waiting-women to get on with theirs,” says Hector to his wife, Andromache, in The Iliad. “War is men’s business.”
The eight-year-long conflict in Syria gives the lie to that age-old view.
Hesiod also paints a submissive role for women in his poems. Eros, fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind. Sexual attraction is an inherent and irresistible force all humans and animals.
Men have been undone both by being trusting and by not being so. Let not a woman who dresses to show off her behind deceive your noos, cajoling you with her crafty words, ready to infest your granary.
Whoever puts his trust in a woman puts his trust in tricksters.
In The Theogony, Hesiod claims a tryst between Ares, the god of war and Aphrodite, goddess of love produced the offspring Harmonia. Opposites attract.
Medea falls fatally for Jason of the Argonauts as Ariadne does for Theseus, both abandoned later.
The idea that sexual intercourse is inevitably debilitating for men seems to be widespread in Greek thought, as it already appears in Pythagorean philosophy also suggests that the same idea is behind Hesiod’s description of high summer as the season when women are most attractive and men in turn weakest (Works and Days 586).
It is an idea John Updike explores in his novels of twentieth century American exposes.
“Women! This coin, which men find counterfeit! Why,
why, Lord Zeus, did you put them in the world, in the light of
sun? If you were so determined to breed the race of men, the
source of it should not have been women. . . .”
Ovid claims “All these things have been caused by the passion of females. It is more violent than ours, and has more frenzy in it”.
Mock Invocation to The Odyssey: #
“Sing to me muse, and through me tell the story of a man who lets all his men die, lies to everyone he meets, cheats on his wife with assorted nymphs and takes ten years for a journey that google says should have taken two weeks.
Odysseus’ sheer hypocrisy, in killing all the suitors and the maids who had slept with them is problematic, because they are not at war. In Homer’s memorable line: “They were strung up like little birds; they kicked their legs but not for long.”
These vivacious victims requite the hero’s desire for patriarchal order.
Penelope tests her husband on the secret of their marriage bed. When he passes: “and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband, her white arms around him pressed as though forever”.
Seneca’s advice to his mother to cease her grieving.
“You are beautiful, with an age-defying appeal that needs no make-up, so stop acting like the worst kind of vain woman.” You never polluted yourself with make-up, and you never wore a dress that covered about as much on as it did off. Your only ornament, the kind of beauty that time does not tarnish, is the great honour of modesty.So you cannot use your sex to justify your sorrow when with your virtue you have transcended it. Keep as far away from women’s tears as from their faults.
Judaeo-Christian view #
The Judaeo-Christian view sees non-monogamous sex as transgressive and the body impure; Adam and Eve cover up their bodies after eating of the Tree of Good and Evil.
Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is clear:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ (28) But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Freud suggested all human endeavor is motivated by our sexuality. We are not always rational, and contend throughout life with our aggressive and sexual feelings.
Oscar Wilde agreed:
“Everything in the world is about sex; except sex. Sex is about power”.
Thus sin is essentially a perverse refusal to align ourselves with the order of the world. If we take the traditional seven deadly sins, lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and pride, we can see that the first three are comparatively less serious because they represent excessive love of things which it is proper to love in a moderate way. Indeed sloth or accidie, which is a sullen refusal to enjoy the world, is a more grievous sin than the overindulgence of lust or gluttony. The last three are worse again because they represent the perversion of love into hate.
Dante’s levels of depravity follow the seven deadly sins.
Matt Groening warns: “When authorities warn you of the sinfulness of sex, there is an important lesson to be learned. … … Do not have sex with the authorities”.
Catherine Deneuve* insisted that women were:
“sufficiently aware that the sexual urge is by its nature wild and aggressive. But we are also clear-eyed enough not to confuse an awkward attempt to pick someone up with a sexual attack.”
It is the quirkiness and unruliness of sexual impulse: fantasies—of submission, abandon, extremity— do not necessarily translate into reality; they are merely the workings of the sexual imagination. That sexual fantasy is quite commonly inconsistent with one’s social values, should not in itself a cause for alarm. We all have an outer life, an inner life and a secret life, and never shall they meet.
Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount had this to say:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart”.
It is the one issue raised, that I find difficult to accept.
Time will tell if Plácido Domingo’s: It wasn’t sexual harassment, they were ‘gallant gestures’ will pass muster – it didn’t.
To be loved sexually is to be loved not for your actual self, but for one’s ability to arouse desire in others. Women are conditioned to arouse desire all their lives.
As all aspects of life, sexual intercourse can be personally fulfilling or damaging to us. Good sex makes us feel good about ourselves; bad sex, bad."
Courtly love idealised women leading men to ultimate beauty, truth and God. Through the pursuit of beauty, men would transcend or be exalted beyond the physical or temporal to a higher spiritual plain and aspire to Godliness. Pining draws the lover away from things which are base. Dante believed “the expression of sublimated and spiritualized love ends with a total absorption in the divine”.
People might say that the naked figure must be profane love; in fact artists portray it as the reverse: sacred love is naked and profane clothed. Sacred love is naked because in this case nakedness stands not for sexual promiscuity but for freedom from worldly attachment; the lamp she holds is a motif from Christian iconography and is associated with the theological virtue of charity or love.
Good experiences are transcendent, uplifting even spiritual; enhancing our self-esteem, but bad sex through manipulative, exploitive, self-indulgent, self-gratifying or coercive experiences can lead to self-loathing, trauma and suicide. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah celebrates the frisson of the act as spiritual ascension.
Paradoxically, while trying to recreate ourselves, we simultaneously attempt to lose ourselves. The novels of Philip Roth or John Updike often depict sexual desire as a sad, annihilating experience. The Medievals considered the sexual climax as “a little death”.
The earliest literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh demonstrates the age-old battle of the sexes – the gender wars. Gilgamesh abuses his privilege by demanding to sleep with new brides – Prima Nocta. The gods, responding to the people’s complaints, raise a feral man and use the priestess of love, Shamhat, to seduce, domestic, socialise and humanise Enkidu. Her woman’s power, overpowered this feral man.
Enkidu puts a halt to Gilgamesh’s abuse and they become good friends. The fury of the goddess, Ishtar’s failure to seduce Gilgamesh, ends in Enkidu and Gilgamesh killing the Bull of heaven, and in Enkidu’s death. Gilgamesh knows that after seducing men, Ishtar destroys her lovers.
Later in his quest for knowledge, Gilgamesh receives wisdom from an old woman. “Make merry and enjoy the continuity of your children and grandchildren before you die”. You cannot have immortality except through your family - offspring.
Toxic Masculinity has been around for a long time. Pagan myths perpetuate it by sanctioning Zeus’s ravishing a variety of mortals. The patriarchy has dominated in most religions in the hierarchies of Synagogues, Temples, Churches, and Mosques claiming the authority of a male deity.
Over the past half century, evangelicals have tended to depict men and women as opposites. “They believe God ordained men to be protectors and filled them with testosterone for this purpose,” Women, on the other hand, are seen as nurturers. The fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control—are deemed appropriate feminine virtues. “Men, however, are to exhibit boldness, courage, even ruthlessness in order to fulfill their God-appointed role,” Du Mez explained. “In this way, the warrior spirit and a kinder, gentler Christianity go hand in hand.”
History indicates that women are judged more harshly. Women suffer from a double standard; the exact same behavior that types women as sluts, types men as studs. The Trojan War was fought over women; both Helen and comfort women for the soldiers. In Homer’s world, erotic excellence is a sacred gift like any other human excellence, to be cherished without moral reflection.
The only way to become a good heroic strong man (BSD) is to prove your virility by bedding lots of women. If a woman has sex with lots of men, she’s tainted as impure and a horrible cuck- hold.
Heterosexual men who have affairs are just heterosexual men who had affairs. But, the women with whom they have those affairs quickly get labelled with another term, mistress, one for which there is no effective male equivalent in English.
Double Standards through Literature #
Primitive societies were obsessed with fertility, replenishing the tribe, so women were considered birth machines or baby incubators. They were precluded from war to keep their wombs safe to produce more fighting men.
All societies attempt to subjugate women
Greek myths include female goddesses yet blame Pandora for all the evils of the world, while the Judaic – Christians blame Eve.
Hamlet to Ophelia on Women’s faces: Hamlet accuses all women of affectations and cosmetic ruses to seduce men.
I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God
has given you one face, and you make yourselves
another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp,
“The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art”.
Or Dolly Parton’s quip:
“You just can’t imagine how expensive it is to make me look so cheap”
Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, shared a life of non-exclusive intellectual and sexual companionship. Rather than an open marriage, their pact included “to be one another’s ‘essential love’ with contingent lovers on the side”. Monogamy was vastly over-rated. She wanted “a Love that accompanies me through life; not that absorbs my life”. De Beauvoir lost her teaching position as a result of her “suspicious living arrangements”. Sartre’s position remained safe.
Many other notable couples opted for “open marriages” – Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Lord and Lady Mountbatten…
Men and women fall in love with an idealised version of each other. The high idealistic romantic notions of the young are eventually dashed by reality and represents a loss of innocence.
The first Christians were Jews, but the people they converted were Greeks, Hellenised easterners and then Romans, none of whom could imagine the divine as exclusively male. It is no coincidence that Mary plays a small part in Matthew’s Gospel, written by a Jewish convert and addressed to fellow Jews, while Luke’s account, written by a Greek, is the only one to include the story of the Annunciation.
Deuteronomistic History is a literary patch- work. It is clearly the result of the editing together of various earlier sources—not a single original work written by an individual or group of authors at one time. The text contains jarring discontinuities, snatches of poetry, quotations from other works, and geographical lists interspersed with long passages of narrative.
The figures of King David—shepherd, warrior, and divinely protected king—-and of his son Solomon—great builder, wise judge, and serene ruler of a vast empire—have become timeless models of righteous leadership under God’s sanction. The archaeological discoveries of recent decades have clearly shown how far from the glamorous scriptural portraits the actual world of David and Solomon was.
Yet, both David and Solomon also have great human flaws. One afternoon, David, walking on the roof of the Jerusalem palace, saw a beautiful woman bathing on a neighbor’s roof. David found out that she was married to Uriah the Hittite, so he sent a servant over to get her, and he slept with her, and she went back home. When she found out she was pregnant, David arranged for her husband to be sent to the front lines of the battle field, where he was killed. Bathsheba gave birth to Solomon, who became King after David. When David was old and stricken in years; his servants found a young virgin to lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.
4 And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not. Kings I.
You might wonder why he doesn’t avail himself of some of Bathsheba’s warmth?
Solomon is celebrated throughout the world as the richest and wisest of kings. He marries a pharaoh’s daughter and gains renown as an insightful judge, author of proverbs, and master of knowledge about all the riches of creation—The queen of Sheba journeys all the way to Jerusalem from her distant kingdom in Arabia to meet him, Solomon’s image is the ideal convergence of wisdom, opulence, and power in the person of a king. Yet he was known to have hundreds of wives as well as concubines.
Solomon’s harem consisted of approximately 700 wives and 300 concubines. But king Solomon loved many strange women, including the Queen of Sheba, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites. Kings 11 (KJV)
The Catholic Church has had problems with sexuality ever since the policy of celibacy was introduced to protect the assets of the Church from the 11th Century. With the increased sexuality of the sixties, it appears many priests could no longer repress their sexual drives and developed an attitude of entitlement as compensation.
More interesting, however, is the variety of loves that are represented in renaissance Art, including a young man and a young woman, but more notably a cardinal with his page, two richly-dressed adolescent boys with their arms around each other, two aristocratic girls, a couple of friars embracing, and so on. The prominence of these couples of the same sex may be surprising when we consider that Saint Bernardino had for years preached almost obsessively about the prevalence and evils of sodomy in contemporary Italy. The implication here, however, seems to be that all manifestations of love are acceptable in the afterlife, and even of equal merit, once purged of the grosser element of lust.
For the Medici, love was a central theme, symbolised by the figure of Venus, but she had two faces: the earthly Venus who ensures reproduction and the continuity of life, and celestial Venus who leads our souls to the love of knowledge and ultimately to enlightenment.
While the #MeToo movement has made worthy contributions to our understanding of sexual predation, we should be on guard for a new wave of puritanism that can drive sexual instincts underground.
There always has to be a delicate balance.
We are all sexual beings and any attempts to suppress this inherent need, usually ends up as perversion or hypocrisy. Much better an open acknowledgement of our sexual demands. Mature adults openly banter about our innate attraction to each other. Women too make advances. It is better to be honest than to pretend it doesn’t exist. Only surreptitious, clandestine, furtive or coercive approaches should arouse suspicion and condemnation. Any open advances should be dealt with appropriately – graciously declined or gratefully accepted. No need for damaging, demeaning and humiliating allegations, unless they persist with unwelcome advances, these need to be reported, acted upon with as much force as possible.
If not, let’s just all grow up and live in the real world.
Celibacy may be a worthy ideal, but usually creates its own problems. The Catholic Church has proven time and time again the only way to a clean pure life is through enforced celibacy. It worked for some 900 years and it has only been the last 25 years of revelations of rampant predation of compliant choir boys to raise a few minor concerns. It relied on discreet choir boy’s ability to open their mouths to receive the benediction of “Omnia membri sancto fellanto” * but keep their mouths shut during subsequent secular, forensic, procedural investigations.
- “Omnia membri fellanto” - All cocks must be sucked – quoted from Life Sentence by Christie Blanchard, referring to pompous Canadian Judges, courtesy of dogged researcher Kirsten Smith’s contact with Alban Walsh of Newfoundland. It uses the rare form of future imperative that is used only for legal/court documents. I simply added the “sancto” to make it applicable to power hungry ecclesiastical officials as well. This is precisely the crime an Australian court jury managed to find George Pell, the third highest ranked Cardinal in the world, guilty of.
Women should celebrate their sexuality:
In Colour Purple, ironically it is Shug Avery, Mister’s mistress, who ultimately rouses Celie’s self-worth by her approval. Theirs is a bizarre but mutual relationship; Celie accepts Shug into her home, baths her, feeds her, combs her hair and encourages her to start singing again. In turn Shug gives Celie her self-respect by singing for her, dressing her, stopping Albert’s beatings, helps her achieve financial independence and teaches her to enjoy her own body.
Despite her initial comment of: “God, you’re ugly”, Shug and Celie develop a mutual rapport after Shug’s realisation of Celie’s inner beauty when she sees Celie’s smile. This develops into a wholesome, esteem building, lesbian sexual relationship and Celie first becomes aware of sex as a positive morale boosting force.
“Sexual pleasure in a woman is a kind of magic spell” according to Simone de Beauvoir, it commands complete abandon; if the moment opposes the magic of caresses the spell is broken.”
Nikki Gemmell continues:
“How easy it is to dissolve that spell. The female path to organism is such a fragile, delicate one, so easily lost. Our organisms are shy little things to coax out, insisting on concentration and focus and then of course complete abandonment; such a tricky combination”.
As Alice Munro said,
“Sex seems to me all surrender - not women to the men, but to the person - to their body.”
It takes time to surrender; to enter the sacred, exhilarating zone when we’re jolted into life, combusted into light. The best sex involves a sense of connecting on the deepest level, with two people who are utterly in the moment. It can become a transcendent experience – Hallelujah!
All good sex aids self-esteem for both parties.
Thank you, God, for giving us the only organ on the human body devoted purely to exquisite sensation: the clitoris. That tiny little pleasure dome has 8000 nerve endings crammed into it (twice as many as the penis). In Greek mythology, when Zeus and Hera visited the hermaphrodite Tiresias to determine whether it was men or women who experienced more pleasure from sex, Tiresias replied: “If the sum of love’s pleasure adds up to 10, nine parts go to women, only one to men.” Nikki Gemmell
Or as Sister Margaret Farley expresses it in Just Love
“Many women have found great good in self-pleasuring – especially in the discovery of their own possibilities for pleasure – something many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary sexual relations with husbands or lovers.”
Fragments from 60 lines of The Rose Thorn (Der Rosendin) discovered on a strip of parchment in the library of Melk Abbey, Austria, dating from 1300, has been called the earliest form of the Vagina Monologues – an argument in verse between a woman and her vulva, originating in the Middle Ages.
In the poem, a virgin woman (junkfrouwe) argues in a free-flowing, often witty dialogue, with her speaking vulva (fud) about which of them is held in the higher regard by men. The virgin argues that it is by her looks that men are won over, whilst the vulva, accusing the virgin of putting too much stress on her appearance, says it is she who provides the true pleasure. The two decide to part company, but find themselves deeply unhappy and so reunite to allay their suffering. They conclude that they are better together, as a person and their sex are quite simply inseparable. (Kate Connolly in Berlin – The Guardian 27 Jul. 2019)
Star-crossed Lovers #
Cupid is sent by his jealous mother Venus to kill an extraordinarily beautiful young girl, but falls in love with her instead. He visits Psyche every night in the dark, warning her she must never look at him, but she lights a lamp one night to see her lover; a drop of hot oil wakes him and he disappears.
Persecuted by Venus, Psyche undergoes a series of seemingly impossible tasks, in which she is aided by various real or supernatural creatures. Finally she is reunited with Cupid, and – the final meaning of the tale – love makes the soul immortal. The story became enormously popular in the Renaissance; the episode in which she spies on her lover, wakes him and loses him was, not surprisingly, the most popular with artists.
Among the most famous lovers of Medieval times, Abelard and Heloise, celebrated their love making by experimenting with unconventional methods. Abelard detailed their irresistible passionate relationship:
“Our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it. We entered on each joy the more because of our previous inexperience and were all the less easily sated”.
Because he was her Philosopher tutor and twenty years her senior, her father, took exception when she became pregnant and sought revenge by having Abelard brutally beaten and castrated. Humiliated by the loss of his manhood, the lovers take religious vows as monk and nun; are separated for twenty years, and when they meet again, though the physical aspect of their relationship is no longer possible, declare their eternal love and oneness.
Heloise writing 12 years after the separation admits: “Even in sleep I find no respite”. Though brief, the lovers found eternal true love.
Other unrequited loves include: Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura, Romeo and Juliet…
Catholic women writers #
Hildegard of Bingen, 1098 - 1179
According to Alex Ross of The New Yorker, The Hildegard Convent (12th Cent.) in the Rhineland region of western Germany was where the nun, theologian, poet, and composer Hildegard of Bingen spent about forty years of her eight-decade life.
Hildegard resisted the misogyny of Catholic doctrine by pairing Eve with the Virgin Mary; the bearer of original sin also becomes the agent of redemption. Hildegard habitually invokes female frailty—
“I, a poor little figure of a woman”
is a recurring formula—yet her self-deprecation is double-edged, as Newman observes:
“Because the power of God is perfected in weakness, because the humblest shall be the most exalted, human impotence could become the sign and prelude of divine empowerment.”
She cites the words of St. Paul:
“Woman was created for the sake of man, and man for the sake of woman.” In fact, St. Paul says nothing of the sort, explicitly declaring, “Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man.”
Paul may not be listing Jesus’ commandments in these passages but, rather, Roman laws; afterward, he often contradicts or subverts them. In one letter, he writes, possibly in response to Roman conventions, “What? Was it from you that the word of God went forth?,” emphasizing, that these teachings are not God’s.
Hildegard’s relatively even-handed view of gender relations, is startlingly candid about sex. Male love is characterized as “blazing heat,” as a “storm of lust”; the love of a woman, by contrast, is “mild and gentle, yet steady.”
One passage seems to give a persuasive and sympathetic depiction of female orgasm:
“When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed.”
Sister Margaret Farley #
Just Love - Sister Margaret Farley Sister Farley, who taught Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School, a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and an award-winning scholar, responded in a statement:
“I can only clarify that the book was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching. It is of a different genre altogether.”
“Many women have found great good in self-pleasuring – especially in the discovery of their own possibilities for pleasure – something many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary sexual relations with husbands or lovers.”
The censure of Sister Farley, who belongs to the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, is the second time recently that a book by an American nun has been denounced by the church’s hierarchy.
In 2011, the doctrine committee of United States bishops condemned “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God,” by Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a professor of theology at Fordham University in New York.
Amanda Lohrey #
Julieanne Lamond of Australian National University, writes on the intellectual fearlessness, politics and the spiritual impulse of the remarkable career of Amanda Lohrey whose husband Andrew was for many years a Tasmanian Member of Parliament.
The Morality of Gentlemen courageously captures the entanglement of personal desire, ideological commitment and institutional constraint that I saw in the daily experience of politics.
Amanda Lohrey grew up in Hobart on its working-class waterfront. She tells Charlotte Wood:
I was raised by men for the first five or six years of my life. My mother worked and the men in my family were shift workers. So often during the day I was looked after by my father – which meant he just carted me around wherever he wanted to go. The pub, the bookmaker’s club, the wharf – there was no concession.
The 1950s was a period of intense ideological and religious conflict in Australia, with a failed referendum to ban communism in 1951 and massive division between Left and Right in the Australian Labor Party, leading to a split, with Catholic anti-communist members breaking off into the Democratic Labour Party. It was a period of McCarthyist sentiment in Australia that Lohrey witnessed first hand.
A Catholic education
Her contribution on Catholic childhoods focuses on sexuality with a determination to be clear and straightforward in the face of the elisions and fearful paraphrasings that sex was met with in her own education.
It begins with usual forthrightness to discuss her earliest memories of masturbation. In the face of being constantly called to account for any perceived impurity or sin, Lohrey recounts a feeling not of shame “but of a privileged naughtiness, something which was a desirable secret from the adult world and which belonged to a whole repertoire of special pleasures” , containing “a feeling of excitement, of discovery and, above all, of independence”.
Characteristically, she uses this topic of masturbation not to think about her own experience but, rather, for what it reveals about the reasons for Catholics and other repressive institutions to so insistently police it:
“power and autonomy are the last things that such people can afford to let a child have”.
Lohrey’s account is vivid in detailing the absurdities of such acts of policing: the icy-faced Mother Imelda, unable to name the deed but nonetheless attempting to entice nine-year-old Amanda to admit to it. Amanda responded by returning her stare, unblinking.
But this account also considers the longer term impacts of this constant surveillance and being called to account: a distrust of authority, of friends, and a “defensive distrust of other women”.
Apart from my mother it is always men who give me support and encouragement, who tell me I am clever and give me books to read. My grandfather gives me A Short History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik), my uncle, Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. The women tell me that I am untidy, that my hair is a mess, that my body is suspect and my attitude unladylike.
These experiences suggest why Lohrey writes in such searching detail about masculine subjectivity. They also explain her umbrage at suggestions that she writes about masculine worlds she could not possibly understand. Lohrey was constantly warned about “reading [herself] out of the church” when caught reading Freud, Stekel and Marx, although the latter was a bit confounding: what was this word “bourgeois” that seemed to crop up in every second sentence but couldn’t be found in my dictionary?
At fourteen, she escaped Catholic school and enrolled at the local grammar school, “a transition unheard of at that time and one subject to excommunication”. The relief was immense:
I felt as if I’d been let out of the madhouse. There was no battleground of seething sub-texts.
At the end of A Work in Progress, Lohrey recalls being in Venice in 1983, and on a whim deciding to enter an 18th-century church and light a candle to the Virgin. She enters and “instantly recoils” at the images on its walls, feeling physical revulsion. Nothing is there. There is nothing in the church for me and nothing in me to connect with it. It was a fantasy, a desire to recover a lost innocence, a childlike faith in irrational possibility.
She is always aware of how personal desires – for fulfilment, self-knowledge, freedom – are shaped by institutions and communal connections.
This is an edited version of the introduction to Lohrey by Julieanne Lamond (Melbourne University Press).
John Donne #
Donne uses the same blend of passionate feeling, subtle thought and fantastic “wit” in his Holy Sonnets as displayed in the love poems. It is the same introspective spirit that wrestled with the contradictory emotions he felt towards his beloved, that now struggles to harmonise the same forces towards a relationship with God and a reconciliation of his morbid fascination with sin and death.
All experience is personal, emotional and subjective - but Donne and the other Metaphysicals used their poetic talents to define emotional experiences by a series of intellectual parallels. They tried to objectify subjective emotions.
Donne uses religious conceits in his love poetry about sex and later in life uses sexual conceits in his religious poetry.
In his love poetry, Donne strives to merge Carnal (profane) and divine (sacred) love.
In his divine poetry he uses paradoxical sexual conceits:
“To be chaste one must be ravished by Christ” –
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. Batter My Heart
His is the struggle of faith, the conflict between what Donne was and what he would be, between will and conscience; an attempt to bring harmony out of conflict.
Donne’s greatest struggle was to master his temperament and his greatest hope was not for forgiveness of his early excesses but for a consistent piety which would save him from despair. The sensuous immediacy of the love lyrics is continued through moral intensity and agony of the Holy Sonnets.
Men vs women #
“The relative weights of sensory and emotional influences on orgasm may differ between the sexes.
Orgasm in men is directly tied to reproduction through ejaculation, whereas female orgasm has a less obvious role. Orgasm in a woman might physically aid in the retention of sperm, or it may play a subtler social function, such as facilitating bonding with her mate. If female orgasm evolved primarily for social reasons, it might elicit more complex thoughts and feelings in women than it does in men.
In men, during ejaculation, the researchers saw extraordinary activation of the ventral tegmental area, a major hub of the brain’s reward circuitry; the intensity of this response is comparable to that induced by heroin. It would be critical for reproduction of the species to favor ejaculation as a most rewarding behavior,’.
“But when a woman reached orgasm, something unexpected happened: much of her brain went silent. Some of the most muted neurons sat in the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which may govern self-control over basic desires such as sex. Decreased activity there, the researchers suggest, might correspond to a release of tension and inhibition. The scientists also saw a dip in excitation in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which has an apparent role in moral reasoning and social judgment – a change that may be tied to a suspension of judgment and reflection.
“Brain activity fell in the amygdala, too, suggesting a reduction of vigilance similar to that seen in men, who generally showed far less deactivation in their brain during orgasm than their female counterparts did. ‘Fear and anxiety need to be avoided at all costs if a woman wishes to have an orgasm,’ ‘At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings.’ “The Orgasmic Mind”, Martin Porter Publisher: Scientific American Mind, 2016 Pages: 8-9
Muslim law #
Scholars identified higher objectives of the law. In the 14th century, influential Muslim jurist Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi identified the highest objective of law as:
to promote good and to benefit human beings and to protect them from evil, from harm and from subsequent suffering.
Muslim jurists deduced five basic human rights for Islamic law to guarantee – the right to life, property, freedom of religion, freedom of mind (including speech) and to raise a family. Caliphs and sultans could not violate these individual rights.
Like most religions, lofty ideals give way to apostasy, turning against founding principles.
Porn, Masturbation and Religion. #
From The Atlantic By Laura Kipnis
In an essay titled “Tongues Untied: Memoirs of a Pentecostal Boyhood,” the Yale literary and queer theorist Michael Warner, now an atheist, writes that:
“religion does things that secular culture can only approximate.”
Without wanting to reduce religion to sex, he nevertheless finds overlap, as have others, Georges Bataille and Harold Bloom among them. Religion offers rapture; it “makes available a language of ecstasy”; it gives us the “strobe-light alternation of pleasure and obliteration.” As does sex at its most intense.
Though Christianity is always pretty queer in Warner’s telling (“Jesus was my first boyfriend”), his teenage struggles sound quite similar to Burke’s. The “two kinds of ecstasy” on offer became an agonizing dilemma for him as well; having to choose, on a nightly basis, between orgasm and religion was excruciating: “God, I felt sure, didn’t want me to come.” At the same time, religion’s celebration of ecstasy offered a way of understanding “transgressions against the normal order of the world” as a good thing.
Burke takes a less transgression-celebrating path to reconciling her own antinomies. The anti-porn and porn-positive camps she’s been chronicling actually care about the same things, she concludes: “human rights, sexual consent, and living a fulfilling life.” Everyone wants to achieve “a real and authentic sexuality” and break away from the “fake sex that surrounds us.” Her perspective is reassuring, and no doubt the authenticity of tender, caring sex with another person has much to recommend it. But it’s out of reach for many, and even the sound of it is a little tedium-inducing.
Pornography’s immense audience suggests that a lot of us would like some respite from authenticity, too. Porn offers a world where you don’t have to deal with other people’s personalities and expectations just to have sex, a world where (even more fantastically) men and women want the same things in bed, a world where (as in the Freudian unconscious) there’s no “no” or sexual scarcity. It’s utopian in the truest sense: a world that doesn’t exist.
As James Joyce’s Bloom, most sex takes place in our minds.