WARNING: There’s nothing grotesque in these posts. I’ve tried to avoid too much detail about the conjugal act, but may not have succeeded well enough for some readers.
In The City of God, Saint Augustine ponders our need for privacy during sex. He could see nothing shameful in the conjugal act per se–in fact, he points out that men would not want others to imagine they did not have carnal knowledge of their wives, that their marriages were unconsummated and their children illegitimate. Augustine suggests we are ashamed of the fact that our sex organs “move” without our deliberate control, an intimation of our fallen state, that by rebelling against God above us, we lost the full and rightful authority over our bodies beneath us. In a prelapsarian state, erection and ejaculation–for example–would be as subject to a man’s rational/volitional faculties as are the movements of his fingers. No doubt many women having difficulty achieving orgasm and many men struggling with premature ejaculation would see the attraction of this idea, but I’ve come to regard it as a “near miss”. (I certainly don’t find Augustine’s writings on sex silly, as many of my contemporaries seem to.) We need privacy during our sexual responses not because they are shameful (whether or not they are shameful depends on entirely separate criteria) but because they are intimate, and they are self-revealing partly because of the loss of control involved. If a man’s ejaculation were willed, it would reveal only the decision that caused it. If it were involuntary in the way a sneeze is–simply bypassing the conscious faculties altogether–it would reveal nothing at all. The orgasm as we experience it in mankind’s current state is something we do not directly control, but is something that follows upon a definite sensory and mental state. Only the man must climax for reproduction to occur, but both male and female orgasm are conducive to intimacy and thus to one of the natural goods of married life. Thus, even apart from the fact that the woman’s body is designed to enjoy sex, we can tie this to an intelligible good of human nature.
What about the concern that the way women experience sexual excitement is unfeminine or otherwise defective? First of all, it’s clearly not true that women’s sexuality is the same as men’s except with the nerve endings in the wrong place. That sexologists could make such a commotion about discovering the importance of the clitoris proves it. No man ever needed to be told where he can feel sexual pleasure or how to masturbate. Women’s sexual response is clearly more diffuse than men’s, presumably because the clitoris is mostly internal. We men are more given to specialization, so it is fitting that for us sexual stimulation entirely concerns the penis. It is appropriately feminine that women are not like this, but experience things more holistically. One can even see some appropriateness in the fact that female orgasm takes more time and effort from her husband, that she must be carried across the threshold, as it were, of sexual release.
We have undertaken what may seem an excessive amount of effort to argue against something we knew from the first was wrong and grotesque. Perhaps Dr. Cocks was wise to establish the wickedness of FGM briefly and then move on to the more important question of why students wed themselves to a worldview that would countenance such abominations. (Then again, we only have the summary of his argument. Maybe he did spend a lot of time arguing against genital mutilation before turning his guns to cultural relativism.) However, I’d like to make two wider points. First, it is intellectually defensible for traditionalists to criticize other peoples’ established customs. However, we must be very careful in doing so. We must be sure not to give any ammunition to the common enemies of all traditional peoples. (This was my criticism of Professor Cocks’ arguments against the burka.) Second, we get an idea of how natural law arguments against mutilation might go generally. One shows how a given alteration of the body impedes either functionality (related to some objective good of human flourishing) or symbolism. Thus, we can see–even aside from issues of safety and coercion–why female genital mutilation is unacceptable while male circumcision and earrings are unproblematic.
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