Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Knopf; (February 1998)

Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Knopf; (February 1999)

Excerpt from the Preface

This book began in honest perplexity, where most good books begin: How do some people remain happily married and genuinely faithful to each other? That question quickly led to a bigger one. How is it that trust and honor have become daringly countercultural? An independent local merchant declines my offer of identification, looking me in the eye with something close to proud and angry defiance. I return an excess $10 bill given me in change by a clerk. She eyes me cautiously, knowingly: Oh, it's one of those people. Bumper stickers advocate kindness as a subversive, liberating "random act"--not as an habitual disposition.

Another title for this book might be "the plight of troth," a lovely old phrase that can mean both "the predicament of trust" and "the promise of fidelity." I keep to my specific topic, sexuality fidelity in long-term, committed relationships, but the bigger issues cast shadows I cannot avoid. What is fidelity between people? What do we promise when we promise to be faithful? How does it work? On the other hand, why does it matter? Why is it so hard? And why, in our day, do we seem as a society to be losing the capacity both for trust and for trustworthiness? I also wonder about how we teach kids, that too is the local form of a bigger question about the nurture and the transmission of moral tradition.

My perspective upon these larger issues is determined by what I can glimpse of the Wisdom that calls us to be compassionate and not merely competitive, to serve and not merely to succeed. Ancient voices insist that there is more to life to earning a living, and greater depths within us than individualist self-actualizing can plumb. The deep and abiding human passions are a sacred fire in the heart: we need in every age to find new ways to gather together around that circle.

My specific and most important presuppositions have been articulated best by poets. John Keats, for instance: "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination." William Blake: "Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity" and "Exuberance is Beauty." William Shakespeare: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments. Love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds . . ." My argument also derives from my scholarly work many years ago on Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his theory of imagination. Coleridge was both poet and theologian. He was absolutely convinced that spiritual realities permeate every aspect of experience and weave themselves into every line of inquiry, no matter how rigorously abstract or apparently remote. As Blake cautions, infinity can fit in the palm of your hand, eternity in an hour. It's an odd way to get through the day, if you take this idea seriously. And I do. And so I am convinced that faithful, absolutely committed marriage is the creative work of imagination.

This book is also grounded in a visionary and Coleridgean reading of Christianity. I realize that many Christians--and some Coleridgeans as well--will be deeply offended by that claim. Many others, I hope, will not. Explicitly theological issues are confined to footnotes, where the curious or the angry can locate at least a little of the modern scholarship delineating how Christianity itself is or can be a profoundly wise and deeply imaginative Western engagement with the human experience of The Holy. But I am a literary critic, not a professionally-trained theologian. I trespass. Nonetheless, poets and priests were once the same people, and truth carried alive into the heart by passion remains a central human need no matter how subspecialized our graduate schools. . . .

from Chapter One: Sexual Ethics for My Children

Facing Questions in the Dark

"Does Daddy use condoms?"

I stopped grinding coffee beans and looked across the dark, November-morning kitchen at my eight-year-old son, who had set aside his raisin toast with peanut butter. The kitchen smelled of cinnamon and peanuts and coffee.

"Mark says--Mark says, the teacher says, if you don't use condoms then you could both get sick and die. So we want to know. Does he? Every time?"

I looked down from that level blue-eyed gaze, wishing I could eat coffee beans like peanuts, straight from the little bag. Apparently Mark had been talking to his brother about his fifth-grade "sex ed" course, sharing his fears about orphanages in their endless brotherly small talk after lights out. When a kid has totally uncool parents, when his parents were probably nerds when they were kids, a kid needs to ask these questions. A kid can't count on parents like that to know the important stuff--not even when Daddy is a professor in the medical school downtown

When I had sex ed, we didn't worry about our parents' dying. One afternoon in 1964, the eighth graders gathered in the parish auditorium to listen to the curate explain about sperm and fallopian tubes and why girls should sit with their knees together. (The three nuns listening from the side nodded approvingly on this last point; I was watching them. They taught us everything else. Why bring in the curate for this? Maybe nuns didn't know about fallopian tubes.) Then we marched, single file and in silence, back to our crowded classrooms.

Fallopian tubes and sin, I wondered to myself. Surely there is more to sex than this. Don't nuns and priests ever go to James Bond movies?

Probably not, I realized.

Sex education, 1990's style, is fallopian tubes and death. Sex and death. Not "death," that favorite synonym for orgasm in the love-sonnet tradition. No, sex and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and viral encephalitis and Karposi's sarcoma. Sex and AIDS, like sex and sin, is supposed to help him "just say no." But surely there are greater truths about sexuality that the grownups are still not telling the kids.

So I put aside the coffeegrinder and struggled to find the right words to reassure my son. As his tears brimmed and splashed down onto the peanut butter, I heard myself talking about my marriage as if it were based primarily on sexual exclusivity, as if my own sexual behavior were grounded primarily in nothing more than property rights and the fear of contagion. But what would that fear be worth when this gutsy and forthright kid discovered his own mature sexuality? The threat of eternal damnation hadn't stopped me, not for a minute. And what's a mere virus, in comparison with hell? I knew I had to do better than that. I had to do better for them, for Tim and Carol, who are twins, and for Mark, our first-born. I felt that I owed them a more accurate and intelligible account of anything so important in my life and in theirs as this marriage.

But I had to do better for myself too. Why are my husband and I faithful to each other sexually? I knew that our sexual exclusivity is not simply obedience to the prohibitions handed down to us once upon a time. Like many other baby boomers, we had simply dismissed as nonsense the whole hierarchical structure of repression, exclusion, and exploitation within which those rules were traditionally enshrined. But since the '60s, some new understanding of, some new commitment to sexual fidelity, had obviously grown up in its place. And I didn't know what it was, and I didn't know how to account for it over breakfast, except in the negative and utilitarian terms of property rights and public health.

I think that my predicament is widely shared. Having attained a certain age, we have one way or another come to terms with our own sexual needs. We have made the various decisions about sexuality that life demands of us, and we cope with the consequences as gracefully as we can. But from what I can tell, talking to people here and there, most of us did so pragmatically, ad hoc, here and now, in this situation with this partner, and not because we had worked through the issues in thoughtful and thorough ways. Our world, our times, did not permit of that, at least not in much of this nation.

Nonetheless, many of us have muddled our way into middle age on the whole quite successfully. If now we are settled into faithful relationships, if now we treasure what we have and hope our kids do as well for themselves, we have gotten to this point through a bewildering mix of conscious motives, unconscious internalization, and what often feels like lucky breaks and arbitrary choices. We have trouble accounting--even to ourselves--for the choices that have shaped our lives. My presentations in parish settings have strongly convinced me that this is as much the case for ordinary church-goers as for anyone else: In our sexual lives or as sexual couples, we have and we cherish something that inherited religious traditions have trouble articulating plainly and directly except in the bloodless legal language of mandated exclusivity. Even believers tend not, these days, to pay much attention to church authority as such. (I now make my bed in the morning too--not because my mother once made me, but because it's my only hope for my half of the covers the next night.) Whether we are church-goers or whether we sit home in our pajamas reading the newspaper, I suggest, very many in our generation have decided to cope with our own sexual needs in our own ways and on our own terms, whether or not we can articulate those terms to ourselves or to our teenagers.

No matter what, we can't say to our kids, "Just say no." That's simply not an option for most of our generation. We came of age when "tradition" and "authority" were derogatory terms, when the whole post-Enlightenment world-view, shattered left and right by Stalin and by Hitler, was being swept off-stage altogether. I was eighteen and living in Chicago when the police rioted during the 1968 Democratic Convention. I was exactly the age of several of the students who died at Kent State--while the brother nearest to me in age was switched from his usual task of flying body bags out to the Philippines and sent to bomb in Cambodia. These are the images of "traditional authority" that were seared into my soul.

Now the scars are no longer so livid. Now we ourselves wield much of the power against which we once rebelled. But unanswered questions still lurk in the shadows, and sexual fidelity is among them. We questioned traditional sexual arrangements just as powerfully as we questioned traditional political arrangements. But now we have kids who face the reality of AIDS: premarital abstinence sounds better and better as the months tick past. Or we have nightmares about paying both for childcare and for college if the unwanted pregnancy of a dependent teenager renders us grandparents (grandparents?) before our time.

Most powerfully of all, we have learned a lot that once we could not imagine. We have reaped the blessings that follow from sexual fidelity; we have discovered the comfort and the strength that committed relationships engender, even though plenty of us have gone through divorces and remarried. We have grown up since the days when we were immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, and skinny. And sexy. And unwilling to trust anyone over thirty. We have earned our own small share in the world's deep and ancient wisdom, a precious heritage we hope somehow to transmit.

I was startled to realize how tough it can be to find ways to explain all this to our kids. If anyone ought to know what to say, I thought to myself angrily, it's someone like me, with the kind of education I have had. But I didn't. And everyone I knew well enough to ask faced the prospect of these teen years with all the same dread and uncertainty that my husband and I were feeling.

Nor was it clear, at first, where to look for help. It seems to me that the mainline Protestant denominations are discovering the sexual revolution just everyone else discovers fatal venereal diseases and starts looking around for some better and clearer understanding of fidelity, some non-repressive, non-punitive argument for abstinence. They are debating the humanity of homosexuals with all the bizarre seriousness with which the ancient world wondered whether women have souls, or the early-modern world evaluated the humanity of people of color. The Roman Catholic Church maintains its prohibition of birth control, although plenty of American Catholics--supported by compassionate clergy--quietly ignore the Pope. But the Vatican expends tremendous resources to enforce the ban elsewhere in the world and to silence even responsible scholarly debate of the issues. The silencing of debate blurs the crucial distinction between moral authority and simple authoritarianism.

Furthermore, both Protestant and Catholic accounts deduce sexual morals from a complex array of abstract, densely encoded theological propositions about the nature of God, the authority of tradition, and the character of the Bible. I am not persuaded. I am a believer--albeit on the margins--but that is not how I believe. Sexual fidelity is for me not an intellectual stance but an intensely embodied practice. It is a high-energy habitual approach to my physical life as a red-blooded woman who is sexually attracted to men. It is not an idea, not a conclusion deduced from premises.

Sexual fidelity is not an idea for any of us, I suspect, churched and unchurched alike. Plenty of us are faithful to our spouses and opposed to casual sex by our kids, whether or not we have studied theology or pledged allegiance to a church. Our reasons are articulated neither by the abstruse arguments of theologians nor by the narrow self-interest calculations of social scientists. Nor, even for those of us who schlepp out on the Sabbath, do sermons say why. Preachers explicate elaborate doctrines and ancient texts. Conservatives may advocate obedience to authority; liberals may advocate soup kitchens in the city or social justice in Central America. But parish clergy in general seem to me quite reluctant to trespass upon the sacred ground of "private" matters. It is much safer to explain the arcane than imaginatively to address the very tough moral choices we face in our everyday lives both at work and at home.

"Make up your own minds," we are told. And that's what our kids are taught in "sex ed." And so we are left standing in dark kitchens, wonder what to say about why we live as we do, facing these solemn-eyed kids.

I am not professionally trained in Christian theology, although I am theologically literate. I can more or less hold my own regarding the philosophic array of fundamental questions and answers on either side of the Reformation. That literacy doesn't help. Even if it did, I can't use theological razzle-dazzle on my own kids: they don't go to church. Our experience with local congregations has been painful at times, and the kids have become even more wary than I am. Under any circumstances, I doubt that church authority as such would influence their sexual behavior. My husband and I have always encouraged them to think critically. It's much too late for anyone to try pontificating on something as complicated and contentious as sexual behavior. Their questions are sharp and skeptical. They expect good answers that I have struggled to find.

We all need answers for our kids, answers that are honest and useful and sensitive. Consider this: all of us help our kids with homework. We guide them carefully through the selection of classes for next year. We discuss what warrant the orthodontist has for insisting on floss or on retainers, and we laugh together at Joe Camel ads. We facilitate relationships with teachers and coaches; we mediate the power of peer pressure. We put apples and carrots in their lunches every day, and we struggle to keep pepperoni pizza to whatever minimal level adolescent metabolism actively demands. We help them to plan parties and to respond appropriately to a considerable array of social situations created by the many varieties of blended families and--at least where we live--by the dazzling diversity of a multicultural community. In short, we give them a lot of intelligent help in every domain of their lives. They have always counted on us, and we have always done our best to provide. Adolescence is not a good time to abandon them to their own "opinions."

I remember the day one of mine (who pleads to remain nameless) calmly announced a decision to stop bathing, because showers were boring. We are wise to respect our kids' opinions and choices, but only up to a certain point. For ourselves as well as for them, we make crucial distinctions when theory comes to practice, when post-modern push comes to shove. To do otherwise is deeply irresponsible. For instance, I have read enough about particle physics to understand that the brick wall of the house is not as solid as it seems but rather seething and indeterminate. Nonetheless, it will leave quite a dent: I back the car down the driveway very carefully indeed. No theory, no matter how elaborate and persuasive, can soften a brick wall. And life is full of brick walls, in morals as in real estate: post-modern skepticism reaches its horizon when an eight year old confronts you about safe sex. We have to talk to our kids, no matter how many grey hairs that earns us.

One way or another, consciously and deliberately or who knows how, we are already advising them on their sexuality. There is no way not to, because sexual ethics is a variety or a species of interpersonal ethics, and their crucial model for interpersonal relationship is their relationship with us. When we tried to teach our toddlers to say "please," to take turns, to share, not to hit, we were only making explicit what we had already taught by example. We were teaching them how to be friends, which is a very complex course of study. Sexual relationships are the most highly charged of friendships, the highest-stakes relationships most of us will ever know. The friendships that are our marriages are--for better and for worse--our kids' crucial model as well. But once again, it's up to us to make that model explicit and, enroute, once again to do as much as we can to enunciate ideals that our own lives can only partially illustrate.

As parents of teenagers or almost-teens, our only real choice is how conscious to be of what we are doing, how consistent, how systematic, and above all how comfortable with ourselves in discussing the erotic as such. And that's where this book comes in. Real consistency, real clarity, demands the kind of thoughtful understanding of the erotic that most of us never achieved as young adults. We need now to account to our kids for our own mature engagement with sexuality, to account for what time has taught us--the hard way, at times--about sexually-active relationships. This book is my best effort to think through these issues in a way that I hope you will find intellectually responsible and ethically focused but neither authoritarian nor doctrinaire. But this is not a how-to book, not a later version of Toilet Training In Less Than A Day. How has to be happenstance. How will happen only in response to their questions and essentially to their sleight-of-hand little comments.

We also need to think through the issues for our own sakes, because the sexual transition that is their adolescence is a transition for us too. The sexual maturity of one's offspring is a disconcerting encounter with one's own aging. The tumult between parents and teens is clearly stirred up from both sides, because the temptation to deny their growing up is deeply seated in all of us. Sex and death, after all, have always been elaborately intertwined concepts in our culture. Among the very richest fruits of our own maturity, as I see it, is the ability to face our children's sexual development with some measure of equanimity precisely because whatever we once had of sexy youthful allure has developed into that richer, deeper sense of self that can look upon grey hair through bifocals and be unshaken. It's tough. We have to be able to laugh together, and to laugh at ourselves, or we will indeed succumb to that ancient curse: Just Wait Til You Have Children Of Your Own.

It has taken me several years and several very generous audiences to elaborate the argument I will be presenting: that bright-eyed third grader is now in high school. Last time we checked, he stood six inches taller than I am--and even that is changing fast. Amidst the reality of my life with three teenagers, my need to define an intelligible sexual ethics has never been a theoretical project or an academic undertaking. I have done my best to situate major issues within historical and cultural contexts so that we can help our kids to "map" or to "locate" the various claims about sexuality that they hear. They are being taught to do that in all their social-sciences courses, after all: It's fun and it's tremendously useful. But I am not at all concerned with history as such. I have endeavored in every way to write a pragmatic book, a direct and down-to-earth book for those of us who stand in kitchens on dark mornings, wondering about the decisions that so deeply inform whatever meaning our lives have. I have not endeavored to write a book you can hand to your teenagers instead of listening to them, but I have worked long and hard to craft explanations that you can steal easily and with confidence and quickly adapt to your own circumstances and particular priorities. . . .


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