Paradoxes Of Lust And Consent

Most modern people are morally outraged by arranged marriages and do their best to prevent immigrant communities practising them. They are assuming that marriage “ought” to be founded on romantic or sexual passion. This modern attitude becomes a paradox when seen in the light of its origins, because our language of romance and passion developed entirely outside marriage – in fact as an ideology of adultery. Meanwhile, the equally reflex Western idea that marriage must be free and consensual was imposed on society by a Church that did not believe that marriage should be based on sexual passion at all.

Only the ignorant imagine that the ethics of self-restraint were a Christian invention. In its view of the soul and the passions, Christianity is arguably more the heir of Greek and Roman moral philosophy than of the Jews and Jesus. But Christianity did produce a very elaborate system governing the sexuality of ordinary people, whose ruling idea was that strong erotic desire was to be opposed, even within marriage, and a higher love cultivated instead. The medieval Church believed that the Christian couple should feel for one another, not sexual passion but rather dilectio, a stable and respectful affection, what has been called a “discarnate solicitude”.

Many canonists even taught that excessive desire for one’s own partner was a form of adultery, and that excessive demands within marriage were worse than infidelity – at any rate for a man. If he burned with lust, therefore, it was better for him to go to a harlot than to sully the marriage bed and degrade his wife. This is not quite as alien to us as it sounds, because it can be translated into the idiom of the late twentieth century as, “Thou shalt not treat thy wife as a sexual object”. Neither should she treat her husband as her own sexual object, an egalitarian perspective that has been entirely lost in our time, a time in which it is axiomatic that sexual sin stems not from the Fall but from the possession of a penis.

While Islam was telling the male believer that his wife was his garden, into which he could go whenever he wished, the medieval Christian church was constructing an elaborate system of permissible and impermissible days, times, states and positions for sexual intercourse. James Brundage has amusingly organised these strictures into a flowchart and estimated that a pious couple could not have sex more than about sixty times a year without sinning. In fact it was even worse than that, because many (though not all) canonists taught that all pleasure in sex was sinful, but that it ought nevertheless to be engaged in for the purposes of procreation. That the Catholic Church used to preach, “You can do it, but you mustn’t enjoy it!” is by no means a Protestant slur, but an accurate summary of medieval teaching – though how many people tried to obey it and how many laughed it off is hard to say. Just how a man was supposed to get an erection without feeling sexual desire, and to procreate without having a sinfully enjoyable orgasm, is also unclear.

Another paradox is the doctrine of the marriage debt, under which having sex in order to experience pleasure is very wrong, but having sex in order to give that same pleasure to your partner is very right. An absolute defence to the charge of having too much sex was that you were only doing it for the sake of your husband – or, more likely, your wife, since the medievals considered only female desire to be insatiable. It followed that it was all right to be given pleasure almost “against your will” because your partner needed to satisfy the moral imperative of paying the marriage debt.

In the eyes of progressive Westerners, for whom consent to sexual intercourse has now to be negotiated and certified ab initio from case to case, the notion of an obligation to please your partner is anathema and a species of rape. And yet the same Church that believed that sex was only acceptable when you didn’t actually want it also championed the idea that, if not each episode of marital sex, then certainly matrimony, required a free act of consent. That part of the marriage ceremony when a father marches the bride in and “gave her away” reflected the previous social reality, whereas the part where the couple is separately asked whether they take this person etc. etc. embodies the twelfth-century ecclesiastical innovation.

For it was the Church that first opposed the building of marriage entirely on property relationships – literally embodied in sexual intercourse – and maintained instead that the copulation of two bodies should be a concession to sinful nature. Intercourse was thus not constitutive of a true marriage, which was a sacramental union of two souls. Now, it is obvious that the transcendent spiritual adventure of developing a stable and Christian love cannot be embarked upon by anyone other than the parties themselves. From this it followed that the kin-groups, who had previously considered marriage a political relation between themselves, had now to keep their noses out of a private affair. In such a theology, the desexualisation of marriage went hand-in-hand with its desocialisation – in other words, with the individualism that created our modern world.

Posted on April 22, 2010 at 11:36 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting On And Getting Off

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