Sex, Love, and Women’s Fiction

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Love ? I love love love you.

Love ? I love love love you. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

I’ve been reading a lot of women’s fiction lately, and reading it with a more critical eye than is usual for me. As I contemplate the novel query stage, I’m analyzing how my book fits into what’s already out there. There’s a lot of really good writing out there: great character depth and engrossing storytelling. But one thing I just don’t get is the approach to sex.

That’s not exactly accurate. I’m not an idiot. I’m well aware that my outlook on sex, as an integrated act melding both body and soul, is way, way outside the mainstream. And I know that even after fourteen years of married life I’m still very sheltered. I find things revolting that others think are not shocking at all.

But recently I’ve encountered one character having oral sex (really? what possible attraction can that hold for the woman?), and another who repeatedly has sex with one guy as she’s becoming more convinced that she belongs with another. And Guy #2 knows about it. Eventually, Guy #2 and main character decide they’re perfect for each other, except they aren’t sure they’re “sexually compatible.” So into bed they hop, just to be sure before they get engaged. (Because no one can learn to give another what they need. You’re just s-o-l if you don’t get it right the first try. Puh-leeze.)

Do people actually act this way?

I suppose they do. But if they do, it’s no wonder our level of relational dysfunction is as high as it is.

I suppose it’s not surprising that contemporary literature for women would involve a certain cavalier attitude toward sex, since that is the reality of the culture we live in. And I suppose it’s no surprise that my formation, first as a sheltered Catholic girl and then as a woman who learned intimacy through the lens of an integrated, holistic sexuality that includes both body and soul, stands at odds to that. But frankly, having experienced the latter, I can’t imagine why anybody would find the cultural standard the least bit attractive.

A few years ago someone made a comment on a romance writers’ site that went something like: “And what is wrong with a man and a woman in love showing their love for each other through sex? If you’re honest with yourself, nothing at all.”

I suppose that’s a true statement, if it’s real love. But real love is revealed over time. You can’t front-load a relationship with sex and just call it love because you have an overpowering emotion. That overpowering emotion is not love. Love must be tested and proven.

It is a commitment made through choices over the long term. Yes, I know that’s really fuddy duddy, but anyone whose marriage has actually lasted would say the same. The sex is a response to and an intensification of a mind-and-soul unity that came first. Not a gateway to unity.

I don’t understand how women can not feel that this most intimate act loses value if you just pass it around to everyone you like. Frankly, it gives me the heebie jeebies to think about having sex with anyone other than my husband, whom I knew, long before we were intimate, has always had my best interests at heart.

And then there’s this question: If you know Person You’re Attracted To has just been sleeping with someone else, would you really want to be intimate with them? Isn’t there a huge “ewww” factor in that?

I just don’t get it.

But I think I have a totally different vocabulary surrounding this subject. To me, sex is a gift, and it’s intrinsically tied to personhood. It’s not something you can classify as “casual.” Sex has …well, consequences, for lack of a better word, although that has a negative connotation which is not what I mean. How can it be satisfying if it’s not experienced in the context of a 100%, no-holds-barred commitment? Which presupposes that the commitment came first?

Love and marriage is the central theme of my novel: when you grow up believing marriage is forever, and then you realize you made a big mistake, what do you do? How far do you go to salvage it? How much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice?

I worry sometimes that my view of the world is so outside the mainstream that it won’t resonate at all. But words are the tool I’ve been given to try to make the world a better place. So I have to try. Novel query stage: bring it on.

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When You Are Raising A Daughter With Special Needs (or: Borrowing Trouble)

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It must have been the convergence of James Bond with a bedtime call from my sister, announcing the birth of her first baby, a girl. Maybe it was superimposing the image of her baby upon my own baby girl, no longer a baby, upon the image of the Bond girl, once victim of the sex trade and now caught in a supposedly even scarier net.

I don’t know what caused it. All I know is that I laid awake that night for an hour, two, three, tossing and turning, my insides churning.

When you’re raising a girl with special needs–especially one as beautiful as Julianna–certain subjects are bound to be especially worrisome. When Julianna was a baby, we attended the National Down Syndrome Congress convention, and for some reason I landed in a session on sexuality. It was taken for granted that you’d put your chromosomally-gifted child of a certain age on birth control, just for precaution. It was the first time it had occurred to me that what is already a high-stakes area in any family (particularly one with both philosophical and religious objections to manipulating the reproductive system), is even more fraught with terror in my own parenting journey.

The first time, but not the last.

I want Julianna to move out on her own, be independent, make her own decisions. But let’s be frank. The idea of raising my chromosomally gifted daughter’s chromosomally gifted child is enough to make me understand why so many parents keep their kids close under their wing into their twilight years. The fear of Julianna being taken advantage of, or simply having her feelings run away with her, strikes terror deep into my heart. Call me selfish, but I want my kids out of the house; I want the freedom and coupledom that is the heart of the empty nest experience. I have no interest in raising my grandchildren, and particularly not in starting this whole process over again–therapies, IEPs, and high maintenance everything–at the age of fifty or fifty-five.

Of course, there’s only a 50% chance that a child of Julianna’s would have the extra chromosome. That opens up another whole line of thinking. Imagine raising a child who’s bound to discover at some point, probably just about the time she hits adolescent rebellion, that she knows more and can do more than her mother.

This entire line of thinking is called Borrowing Trouble, and it’s beyond nonproductive. I’m well aware of that. It’s not like I live my life in terror over these issues. But it would be beyond foolhardy to take a Scarlett O’Hara approach to this and think, “I’ll think about that some other day.” If there is a safe path through these perilous waters, it comes by laying foundations so solid, so wide and deep, that nothing can shake what sits on top. Foundations are built now: today, tomorrow and the next day, amid lost teeth and learning to write her name. Waiting until Julianna is ten or eleven to be thinking about it isn’t an option.

First Grade Sex Ed

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Sex Ed (The Office)

Sex Ed (The Office) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I learned more about my son’s first grade class in ten minutes on the highway than I’ve learned all year at the dinner table.

We were returning from picking up a friend for an overnight. As my crowded van sped down the highway, the boys started discussing school. “Do you remember (X) doing his freak-out dance?”

Bow-wow-freak-out!” Hysterical giggles. First grade humor. I tuned out–until I heard, “…you know, when he said the word that means…” I glanced in the rearview and saw Alex’s friend indicating a particular part of his body.

“His penis?” Alex said innocently.

“Don’t say it!”

I began to listen carefully. The details were a little muddy, but the story involved the word “wiener” and miming riding a motorcycle. Not particularly risqué, but clearly, the boys found it so. It had all the hallmarks of the scenarios I’ve outlined before: the “dirty” feeling, the embarrassed giggles, the body as the butt of titillating jokes.

I wanted to intervene, but my kids weren’t the only ones in the car. It’s not my place to teach someone else’s kids about sexuality. Right?

“This is where it begins,” Christian warned when I told him about it. “You’d better nip this in the bud.” I threw my hands helplessly in the air, for the first time caught unprepared.

It was a busy weekend, and nearly two days passed before I got a chance to draw Alex aside. Yet even with 48 hours to prep, I was woefully unprepared. I know I can cause just as many neuroses by making a federal case out of something small as I would by ignoring it altogether.

I started by asking him to tell me about it, hoping I would find inSpiration by hearing his perspectives. It didn’t really help. I pointed out that (X) might not have been talking about the penis at all. After all, “wiener” is a name for a kind of a dog and for a hot dog. And I told Alex the basic sexuality lesson: our bodies are beautiful, and we should treat them with respect.

He gave me The Look. It’s the first time I’ve been on the receiving end of The Look, but I’m sure it won’t be the last. The Look told me I had both hit the important point, and missed the delivery entirely. So I stumbled around for almost five minutes, seeking a pithy statement that never came, and finally gave it up as lost.

Three hours later, I had it: Our bodies are the gift God gave us to serve him. Everything we do to serve God, to not serve God, we use our bodies to do. That’s why our bodies are beautiful, and why we should respect them–because they’re all we have to serve God with. Fortunately, I got another shot the next day when Alex brought it up at the dinner table.

You might say I’m overreacting. Boys do toilet humor. Lots of girls do toilet humor, too. There’s a whole class of movies based on toilet humor, and good people enjoy them all the time, right? You might say I’m being a Puritan by suggesting that  bawdy humor demeans the person.

But I would respond: How can women expect to be respected by men, and men by women, when the body is treated with derision for its functions? The constant barrage of disrespect toward the physical home of our souls desensitizes us to abuses. We start to look at ourselves and everyone else as two separate entities: the soul, which is worthy of respect, and the body, which isn’t.

But that’s not how it works. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of jokes about weight or acne or Coke-bottle glasses knows the body and soul are inseparable. An insult to one wounds the whole. Like it or not, the way we treat our bodies in thought and word and action impacts the whole person.

Besides, little ears are listening. Ever since that day, Nicholas has been repeating softly, “Bow-wow freak out.”  If he got that, what else  did he “get”? Somewhere in that mysterious little brain, he’s processing all he heard from the Big Boys. He doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, but he heard the word “penis” and he heard someone he looks up to acting like it’s a scandalous thing.

Personally, I’d rather I and my children view themselves and everyone they know with a sense of wonder and beauty.

Parents of older children–you’ve all had situations come up. Kids start learning about and processing their sexuality a bit at a time, usually in the presence of their peers. I’d like to be better prepared the next time. What situations and attitudes have you encountered as kids get older? How did you deal with them?

She loves babies. Is that good or bad?

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She adores him. He’s like a magnet, a little baby black hole whose force is irresistible, no matter how many times Mommy tells her to leave him alone.

At four years and almost eleven months, she has finally entrenched herself firmly in the imaginative play stage. She loves dolls, and she doesn’t always connect the difference between cloth-and-plastic baby and real baby. It’s half-electrifying, half-terrifying, that his hands flap around and tap her face when she holds him. And she can’t seem to understand that she can’t drag him around by one arm or pick him up by the neck, the way she does her dolly.

She’s fascinated by nursing. “Baby–eat,” she signs, every time we sit down, and I have to remind her to use her words. “Buh buh,” she repeats dutifully. “Eh.” (We have a ways to go on speech, but she’s trying!)

So it is that after dinner on the Tuesday before Christmas, the first dinner in which I brought the Boppy to the table (although he didn’t actually nurse), I get up to start washing dishes and my husband says, “Kate, look at her!” I turn around and find Julianna sitting in my chair at the end of the table, with the boppy around her waist, grunting and reaching her arms out to have the baby put on her lap.

Christian and I chuckle. And then my mind races ahead a decade, two decades. “Oh, I hope she never has reason to nurse a baby,” I murmur. Christian hmmmm‘s his agreement, and Alex frowns. “Why?” he says.

“Never mind,” Christian says hastily.

I struggle mightily all the time to reconcile my own beliefs about sexuality–openness to life, the holiness of children, respecting the woman’s body as it was created and not imposing artificial infertility upon it in the name of convenience–with my wishes for Julianna. It’s very uncomfortable to see the conflict between my beliefs in general and my complete unwillingness to apply them to my daughter’s life.

Culturally speaking, birth control is absolutely a given for girls with Down syndrome. The nature of her chromosomes makes it a 50-50 shot that any child she bears will also have Down’s. And I don’t think she could raise a child, with or without Down’s. I know that any child my daughter bears will ultimately be my responsibility. And I don’t want to raise grandkids, with or without special needs–but especially, I don’t want to start down this road again at the age of fifty.

It seems sad, wrong somehow, to want to deny my daughter the fulfillment of womanhood. How can I, in conscience, willfully deny her what I spent years longing for myself, what has brought me so much fulfillment and joy?

Yet my greatest fear is that Julianna will be taken advantage of–in high school, in independent adulthood. She is beautiful, and she is vulnerable. I love that she’s beautiful, even by cultural standards, because it facilitates her ability to be an ambassador for special needs. But it also terrifies me. How can I equip her for adolescence, for the normal desires that she, even more than the rest of her peers, needs not to indulge? How can I protect her from being taken advantage of because of her beauty and her vulnerability? I want her to be independent, to have autonomy and the gift of independent living. But the more independent she is, the greater the risk.

Maybe I underestimate her. Maybe her very chromosomal giftedness will connect her more closely to God, render her impervious to what I fear. And maybe she’s perfectly capable of mothering a child.

I know for sure I’m borrowing trouble; for Heaven’s sake, she’s not even in kindergarten yet. But these are the things a parent of a child with special needs worries about. And I share it as one more slice of that life: the beautiful and the difficult.

special needs wordless wednesday

Is “Beauty” A Bad Word?

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“Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.”
— Lisa Bloom, on Huffington Post

File:Beauty is forever.jpg

Photo via Wiki commons

My sister shared this article on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. Lisa Bloom suggests that we should not use the “standard icebreaker” of a compliment on appearance when we greet young girls. I found myself nodding as I read the article, yet something in me held back from wholeheartedly jumping on the bandwagon.

When my sister came to visit a week later, we got to talking about it. “I don’t know,” I said. “We all like to be complimented, adult or child. We all like to be recognized when we make the effort to look nice.”

“Because we’ve been taught to,” she emphasized.

We didn’t have time to dig into the subject, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It seems a no-brainer for me, who has railed on the objectification of women and unreasonable standards of beauty.

But here’s the thing. Beauty is not a bad thing. As human persons, we long for it. Our eyes seek it out. We try to surround ourselves with it, in the home, in museums, in flower beds and formal gardens and parks. We seek it in artwork and in music, and yes, in people, too.

Beauty and The Beast 2007

Image via Wikipedia

Beauty is not a universal standard, of course. I remember being roundly taken down a few pegs by a composition student who objected to the words I used when talking about Schoenberg’s serial works, and people are always bickering within religious circles about what constitutes beauty, some holding firmly that only the oldest forms of art and music can be called beautiful, and others finding it in every time and culture. And I’m sure everyone has experienced the transformation when someone you meet and find to be repulsively unattractive mysteriously becomes beautiful or handsome when you get to know them. We’re prone to define beauty with far too narrow a lens.

And yet, beauty is a natural longing of our hearts. It’s how we are put together. The search for beauty, and the fulfillment of that search, is what gives life richness.

So I can’t buy into the notion that we must stop talking about beauty altogether. The problems Lisa Bloom sees are real, and they need solutions. We do need to be conscious of what we teach the next generation about appearance. But another unfortunate tendency of the human condition is to see a problem and react by going to the opposite extreme, which causes at least as many problems as the original did.

Your turn: what do you think we can and should do to achieve a proper balance for our children?

Sexuality For A New World

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Performing Womanizer

Image via Wikipedia

Recently I read two books back to back by women writing from a liberal feminist perspective: Bad Mother and Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Both books came highly recommended, and while reading, I found myself sometimes nodding my head emphatically, and other times shaking it in despair. The part I want to address today is the inconsistency in contemporary attitudes toward sex.

Both women recognize, rightly, that sexual expression and self-image are intimately entwined: that abuse in one area will lead to abuse in both. Ayelet Waldman talks about sleeping around—she uses the words “double digits” to describe her college partners. “I cannot recall ever rejecting an advance, and I know I never felt good afterward. On the contrary, I felt used and dirty, at once manipulative and manipulated. I hated my reputation; I hated the sex.” Peggy Orenstein spends an entire book fretting about the inevitable progression from beauty-centered innocence (Disney princesses) to beauty-centered sluttiness (à la Britney Spears & co.). It bothers her to see women objectified this way.

If you haven’t been exposed to Theology of the Body, that word, “objectification,” may be totally unfamiliar. The idea is that instead of seeing a person to be loved and valued, you see an object to be used. And yet Orenstein emphasizes that she hopes her daughter will have sex—“lots of sex”—before she’s married. That was the point where I wanted to pull my hair out.

What these women, and all who express the same frustrations, don’t get is that when you hold up multiple partners and child-proof or premarital sex as a standard of behavior, you automatically reduce women to objects of lust.

Maybe you think I’m overstating the case. But consider: this culture has spent decades training people to view sex as the ultimate sales tool, the ultimate goal of every romantic relationship. You can’t spend that many years using women as sex objects to sell products without the women themselves becoming an object. Last night, I was walking up to the pool with my boys after dinner, wearing the only bathing suit I own that actually fits right now, in this weird time between regular and maternity wardrobes. This swimsuit fits because it is badly stretched by three summers as a nursing mom. As we approached the 4-way stop, a youngish guy at the intersection sat in his car and stared brazenly at me for a full five seconds. I was frizzy-haired, wearing Coke bottle glasses, carrying a bag and two towels and hauling a wagon with a two-year-old in it. Folks, he was not marveling at my dazzling wit and caring heart.

Almost universally, women—regardless of political, religious or philosophical persuasion—agree that the treatment and portrayal of women in advertising and media is infuriatingly unjust. Bare a woman’s breasts in a movie, and it gets an R rating. Bare a man’s genitalia and…come on, when’s the last time you actually saw that happen? They just don’t do it. This culture respects the male body (at least nominally), but the woman’s body is an object, one that is expected, by cultural norm, to be available to men.

But ladies, you know what the worst part is? We’ve let them do it. We even encourage it. We call it sexual “liberation,” but it has chained us to the philosophy that we are only valuable as far as we are beautiful, as far as we are willing to hop in bed without having to worry about the long-term commitment of a child resulting from the union, as far as we are willing to conform to an ideal body type that cannot be attained by a healthy individual.

Ladies, it’s time to take back our bodies. I’m not advocating a return to pre-sexual revolution ideas, because frankly, they were unhealthy, too. But it’s time to respect ourselves by saying:

My body is not your tool of pleasure. My body is a holistic part of me, and you will respect it as such. I will respect myself, and you, enough to treat the gift of sex and sexuality as exactly what it is: the ultimate expression of the best humanity is. This is not a gift that can be given to a dozen different people and retain any semblance of its original beauty. It is a gift that can be given only once. And only when we express it in a way that embraces the total package, unhampered by chemicals and barriers and surgical procedures, does it achieve its full potential for bonding people together and lifting them up.

This is what I will teach my children—both the boys and the girl(s). This is how I will live my life. And whether or not I make any difference in the culture by doing so, I can at least hold my head high and know that I am doing right by my children.

Chores, Sex and Marriage

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Male and Female Ring-Necked Parakeets Enjoying...

Image by Jim Linwood via Flickr

This is one of those days where I’m going to be very frank on a very personal topic.

My reading list lately has been long on the heavy stuff—like Bad Mother, by Ayelet Waldman. This book came highly recommended by several people I respect. I’ll have more to say about it later, but today I want to focus on the chapter in which she talks about sex and marriage. After writing that after four kids, she was still interested in sex with her husband, Waldman got lots of feedback. Men wanted to know how to get their wives to have sex with them.

There’s talk of resentment, of inequality in household chores, of women who are too worn out by kid duty—whether or not they work outside the home—to be willing to trouble themselves with their husband’s desires. Waldman tells her male correspondents to do housework. “There is nothing sexier to a woman with children than a man holding a Swiffer. … You inevitably feel warm toward someone who is clearly thinking enough about you to relieve you of part of your burden.”

The thing that blows my mind about this chapter is how prevalent the marital discord over sex seems to be—how deep the resentment runs. I freely admit that my husband is much better about chores than the stereotypical man. And I freely admit that physical intimacy is nowhere near the top of my priority list. But it is important to my husband, and so I keep it on my radar anyway—because I love my husband.

There are bloggers out there who come across very happy-happy and, well…creepy. The ones who talk about changing clothes, getting dolled up, and having the house pristine every day before their husbands get home. Who talk about subordinating themselves, about giving sex to their husbands, as if the men have no answering responsibility and no call to do anything but be manly and The Provider.

This doesn’t sit well with me. There are things that are implicit in marriage. They’re not in the vows, but we ought to be able to generalize that if love is patient, kind, not dwelling on wrongs, and so on, then love calls both husband and wife to be focused on the other person’s needs and desires, not just their own.

Vector image of two human figures with hands i...

Image via Wikipedia

When you get married, you are subordinating the constant pursuit of “me” to the love of your spouse. It’s a two-way street. It doesn’t mean the responsibility falls on one partner. It doesn’t mean you never get to do things for you, because your spouse is making the same commitment. In our household, I try to make sure Christian gets out to play golf; he tries to make sure I have time to unwind by novel writing, sitting out in nature, scrapbooking—whatever it may be.

He also recognizes that after a rough day with the kids, I’m just not going to be in the mood. And I recognize that sometimes no matter how rough the day is, I need to get in the mood.

None of this can be kept on a score card: X cleaning jobs = 1 free intimacy card; you got three hours of free time, so I get three. You just give, that’s all. Both of you. The balance is never perfect; sometimes you have to assert yourself, but married love can’t flourish—maybe it can’t even survive—when one or both partners think the other person’s job is to make them happy.

Marriage is a total gift of self. To love means that sometimes—maybe even most of the time, once you have kids who assert their own rightful demands—someone else’s “want” is more important than your own. We get this instinctively in our dealings with our kids, but for some reason we don’t apply the lesson to our spouses. Why is that? Why does resentment over chores and sex seem so widespread? Do people just not get it?

Maybe that’s the problem. When do you ever hear about this concept? It’s totally off the cultural radar—even, generally, in marriage prep programs. I’m not even sure it was on my radar when I got married. I think I understood it instinctively, to some extent, but internalizing the lesson is a long process of maturation. (One I’m by no means finished with, I might add.)

I really began thinking about this clearly in the past few years, when I started being exposed to the Theology of the Body: the idea that our call as children of God is to reflect God’s love in the way we use our bodies. In marriage, this boils down to a total gift of self. Not holding back parts of ourselves (like, say, our reproductive systems), but giving everything we are to each other, all the time.

We just don’t talk about that, and I can’t help thinking that if we did, if we stopped focusing so myopically on “me,” that marriages in general might be happier and healthier.