Wed. January 23
God, Onanism, and the Woman Who Said No
It’s not something fun to write about. The potential for embarrassment or personal–and even career–damage is real.
And yet, here at Acculturated, we’re in the business of dealing with the popular culture, God, and the virtues, so when the topic comes up, we’d be cowards not to address it.
I’m talking about sex, yes, but also something specific to sex–onanism. Self-love. Self-love, and the brilliant, heavenly, and comedic thing that is the young male libido.
What prompts this reflection is a recent column in the Catholic News Agency by Matt McGuiness. McGuiness set out to write “a second look at porn,” but his writing is so confused and oblique that he’s only managed to cause anger and controversy. The sharpest response came from pro-chastity activist and sexual abuse survivor Dawn Eden, who wrote a sharp response.
But to McGuiness’s column, a smart editor at the Washington Post once told me when I was about twenty-five years old that the most important thing in journalism was getting to the point. McGuiness fails this test, and badly. Here’s his opening:
Poor Lily. Xavier just used her body, and not even the right side!” In his film “Damsels in Distress,” Whit Stillman explores “non-procreative sex” in ways that are shocking, simply shocking: it just isn’t proper to question sexual relativism in a “Hollywood” movie. Later on in the film, another character named Jimbo asks Lily, “How could he do that to you?
The first paragraph just leaves the reader confused, from the clumsy and cliched use of “shocking, simply shocking” to the quotes around “non-procreative sex.” McGuiness then tries to make a point, which is, I think, about the struggle in men between our lust and/or nobility. He talks about “ultimately what we want,” arguing that lust is separate from love.
Yes, love is ultimately what we want, but what liberals never consider is that our sexual fantasies also express this. Indeed, if you are a healthy and well-adjusted man, sexual fantasies are a combination of tenderness, spiritual longing, and curves (why, to the Dan Savages of this world, do sexual fantasies always equal degradation and that there is no distinction between healthy and unhealthy fantasies?). I’m not saying that there aren’t times, as McGuiness says (I think), when the beast is loose and we just want to penetrate something. And he’s right, in quoting filmmaker Whit Stillman, that this can be comedic. But it is the job of a family and a church and a culture to harness those instincts, that power, into something with beauty and nobility. It also makes the sex a lot better. (I recently made a film about this topic, which can be found here).
And it’s here that I have to tell a story that I probably shouldn’t, but it will prove the point. When I was younger I met a woman that I was wild about. Nothing new under sun, I know. I desired her, and, of course, had fantasies about her. But my sexual excitement was connected not only to her body (and for the record, day-um!), but to her eyes, her laughter, her intelligence, her spirit, and the idea of her opening herself up to me while making love would mean all of these wonderful parts of her accepting me with total self-giving. It was not a porn fantasy. It was a natural, healthy one.
But here’s the thing. To a real man, at a certain point, simply fantasy, and yes, the onanism that goes with it, is not enough. The porn industry has made cowards out of men. It is much easier to satisfy yourself online than take the real risk of going out and meeting a woman, that creature that H. L. Mencken called “the only truly grand hazard a man will ever encounter.” It means you’re too much of a punk to deal with rejection, which will happen. I’m not saying that men, alone and in a certain mood, will not let things get away from them. But we’ve turned that act into an entire way of life.
It also means you may miss out on some truly transcendent moment. And it’s here that I’ll finish my story, which I still have doubts about doing. After a few dates, the woman I was mad for finally agreed to come back to my apartment. One thing led to another, but at a certain point she said she wasn’t ready to go further. She touched my face, looked me in the eyes, and said, “I know you’re a man, and right now you need to penetrate something. But I want to wait until we know each other better.” She said it with a great deal of tenderness, and I never forgot her totally fearless, and wise, assessment of male sexuality. She was direct about the biology of my attraction to her, but equally aware it’s true beauty could find it’s fruition in a genuinely self-giving intimacy. It was like the early Jesuits, who encouraged men to go forth and “penetrate” the world, but in the cause of something higher.
Matt McGuinness was right in one sense. Us men can be lustful brutes. But to celebrate that, and the fear behind it, as he seems to do, is just weak. As Mencken said about the man who avoids live encounters with women because it has hazards, it is “the work of a puling and tacky fellow.”