Why we should not talk about sex

Dress is an important part of modesty, but it is by far not the most important part.  Far more important to our virtue is modesty of speech, a chaste reticence towards the conjugal act.  An analogous case holds in religious matters:  it is bad to dress sloppily for church, but it is far worse to discuss holy matters in a flippant or blasphemous way.

For the chaste couple, matters of the marriage bed are discussed–or rather alluded to–with the greatest delicacy, even in private.  Even for the husband or wife to ask for his or her marital right is a delicate matter.  One would not go to his or her partner in private and say, “I want sex”.  The very thought is dreadful.  The couple develops a sort of code, something to respect their delicacy.  Some of these expressions have gone public, such as when we say that a couple are “going to bed together”, “sleeping together”, “making love”, etc.  These expressions have become so widespread that couples must come up with allusions even more indirect.  Modesty certainly restricts a couple from discussing their sexual acts in too much detail.  Clinically precise descriptions of bodily positions and physiological responses seem a sort of desecration.  Ironically, there are acts that a man may morally do with his wife but that it would be morally perilous to speak to her about.

One of the great campaigns of the sexual revolution has been to destroy this holy reticence.  Things should be “out in the open”, it is said.  Couples shouldn’t be ashamed to express their desires plainly.  They should stop “being ashamed”, etc.  The word “shame” is the revolutionary’s biggest weapon.  After all, if you don’t want to talk about something, that means you must be ashamed of it, right?  Wrong.

Modesty of speech reflects a sound and healthy instinct.  It recognizes the physical union of husband and wife as a sacred thing, a thing to be set apart from the profane world.  It is a holy mystery, a thing that cannot be captured by words, and which words falsify by their inadequacy.  It is a profoundly personal act; as von Hildebrand says, in sex we share our “secret” with another person.  Imagine a sports announcer delivering a play-by-play description of every physical action and physical response in one of your marital acts.  Would not the very words be a desecration?  If you heard them, wound you not think, “That’s not how it was at all.  It doesn’t capture the intimacy, the interpersonal communion.  It reduces us to flesh in mechanical performance.  The uniqueness of my spouse, I, and our love is stripped away.”  We realize that it’s just as much a violation if you yourself deliver the play-by-play.

Sex is private.  Language, as Wittgenstein argued, is inherently public.  If I say “it sure was grand, my dear, when we copulated in position X last night”, I reduce a personal act to a page in a sex manual.  I create an impersonal simulacrum of the act, a shadow of what really happened with the unique I and Thou removed.  “We performed position X” is a public statement.  The fact that the rest of the world doesn’t have access to it is a mere accident; I could advertise the fact to the whole world and nothing more would be lost in translation.  The depersonalization, the objectification, was already complete when I opened my mouth and spoke of things of which I should not speak.

Such is the case for the holy union of husband and wife.  The chaste man’s reaction to fornication or adultery is entirely different.  Here he knows that delicacy of this sort is a sentimentalism that only encourages sin.  For vile things we should use crude words.  I refuse to say that a married man “makes love” to his mistress, not when I can come up with a coarser word to describe it.  The crude words and slang do have their proper uses.  They are also legitimately used to describe (or at least think about) one’s own lustful tendencies, a useful precaution lest adolescent boys come to identify every stirring in their loins with “love”.

Such, then, is modesty of speech.  In my whole life, I’ve never heard anyone defend it, but it must be defended.

6 Responses

  1. “Allusion is the only way to express what is intimate without distorting it.”

    “The modern writer forgets that only the allusion to the gestures of love captures its essence.”

    –Nicolás Gómez Dávila

  2. Thanks, Stephen. I should have known that Don Colacho would have already captured my whole essay in one line.

  3. The privacy of sex. Hmm…coming close to the topic of porn and erotica. Reminds me of an article I once read: http://www.agreeley.com/articles/eros_art.html

    It discusses the depiction of erotic desire in art, i.e. talking about sex.

    The author has an extensive bibliography, and is notable enough to have a Wiki page. Vatican is silent on him (as far as I can tell) and his arguments are certainly plausible.

  4. The author of that article is Fr Andrew Greeley, a well-known liberal Catholic scholar and writer.

    I respect him, but draw you own conclusions.

  5. OK, how about this: Bonald and Greeley are both correct.

    The distinction is between real and fictional characers. When one writes a book, obviously the privacy of the characters is violated, their most intimate thoughts displayed to the readers. No one seems to have a problem with this. Although, within the universe of the story itself, the charcters may respect that the other characters are all secret worlds unto themselves, we are the ultimate voyeurs, and every action every thought, is shown to the reader.

    So it does not make sense to apply the same level of privacy regarding affairs of the bedroom of real people to fictional characters. Thus, in some cases, portrayal of the sexual act is permissible in art.

  6. Greeley is a liberal, no doubt, but I have a bit of a soft spot for him because he sometimes makes unexpected and interesting observations.

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