Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sex and Religion and Moral Responsibility

Hopefully this post won't be as heavy as the title suggests.

First, a couple texts I wrote to a friend last night, motivated by recent events among my circle of friends in which certain people have behaved very badly:
I’m thinkin: Some people (name redacted, e.g.) go from one bad relationship to another because they’re in love with being in love. They’re taken with the image of themselves with wind in their hair being gazed at adoringly. Others cheat incessantly because they’re taken with the idea of an attraction so intense it defies convention and exempts them from the rules that ordinary mortal folk have to follow. I’m not sure where the rest of us stand.
And later:
The “swept off your feet” phenom exempts one from moral responsibility, right? When you’re in the grip of something so much bigger than yourself… So it seems that you and [mutual friend’s] ladyfriend have this in common. It just takes on a dif form. And it fits the description of a religious experience…in the grip of an epic force in which you are transformed from the ordinary. Ecstasy. The drug. The religious experience. The orgasm. Whatever.
So I've been thinking about this in more detail as it applies to a broader pattern of behavior and not just to certain people I know.

In the first instance we have the romantic-love-as-spectator-sport that's so prevalent in romantic comedies and reality shows and wedding culture. And this has the odd effect of making people bystanders in their own relationships in a way. Just like the cultural preferencing of the male gaze leaves women constantly examining themselves from a harsh patriarchal stance (always watching ourselves perform femininity), the fetishization of hetero relationships, and a particular type of hetero relationship, causes many people to value the existence of a romantic relationship itself over the quality of their actual experience in that relationship. Which is not as clear as it sounded in my head. I'll try again. I think in our culture we (especially women) are so in love with the idea of being in love (and all the accouterments of romantic love), and so committed to the idea that there is no fulfillment outside of a romantic relationship, that we're willing to endure all kinds of ridiculous indignities for relationships that are ultimately unfulfilling, while we miss out on relationships that are potentially very fulfilling simply because we're not taken with the image of ourselves in those relationships. A friend said to me once "I'm not so sure I was in love with her. It was more like I was in love with the idea of myself as the guy who was in love with her." I think this is sort of what he was getting at. Anyway, this seems to be one cultural script we can follow when it comes to romantic relationships.

Then there's this other dynamic that's much more destructive. I have a number of acquaintances who can only manage to be attracted to someone if one or both of them are cheating. And a lot of lip-service is given to how wrong and shameful cheating is in this crowd, but really, most of it just seems to be lip-service. It's a script they've learned to appease a society that doesn't officially approve of cheating. But deep down, I suspect they don't feel that they've done anything wrong, or that they're responsible for the damage they routinely do to others. And I think this is due to another cultural script we have.

You see it all the time in movies and books. Two star-crossed lovers meet and are so attracted to each other instantly that they have to be together, no matter how many people they have to betray to do so. And it's passionate and intense and they're swept away by the experience. It's The Bridges of Madison County or the English Patient, in one form or another, over and over again. "This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime" and a whole lot of other ridiculous nonsense that sounds kinda like that. And the experience is epic and life-changing and soul-consuming. You become more fully yourself when you're with this person, whatever that means: "I was acting like another woman, yet I was more myself than ever before." Well, you were acting like a treacherous asshole, so apparently that's who you really and truly are. And this person helped you discover that, and that's a good thing?

Except that in the end it isn't epic and life-changing and soul-consuming, and the passion burns out and you're left with a couple of inconsiderate schmucks who just fucked up a lot of people's lives. But the thing is, the experience is constructed (and no doubt experienced) as this thing that's bigger than you, bigger than the two of you. It's this Force of Nature, and you're just a helpless leaf caught up in the whirlwind of it all. And leaves don't have agency. Moral responsibility cannot be attributed to mere leaves. So you are excused of all wrong-doing.

But the experience is transformative in other ways, right? You become this new person within the body of the illicit relationship. You're passionate and poetic and so special and unique that you're totally worth taking huge risks for. It's exciting and an escape from everyday life. And it sets you apart, because the same rules that apply to ordinary people don't apply to you. If someone suggests that the rules do apply to you, you dismiss them with a sneer, thinking that they've just never experienced the depth of passion you're experiencing (or something along these lines). If your bf/gf/husband/wife/partner, who you're cheating on at the time, were to cheat on you, you would be outraged and wounded. But this is not hypocrisy, because in this script you are special - the rules don't apply to you - while they are ordinary people and thus governed by the laws of convention.

And what does all of this sound just exactly like? Religious experiences. A transcendental reality. Epic, transformative, irresistible, intense. So I suppose in this framework, being in the grip of a religious experience exempts one from moral responsibility as well. Think Abraham sacrificing Isaac here (sorry Kierkegaard, I think I just finally really got this, because, seriously, I was way too young when I first read you anyway). And maybe the chronic cheaters are looking for the sculpture: the ecstasy of saint teresatransformative religious experience that's a perennial object of obsession in our culture. But dontcha think by now we should get over the whole immature "I need to be swept off my feet and have a transformative (change you can believe in) experience or I'm just standing outside the fire and missing out on the real experiences" thing and realize already that love is what you do, not what you feel in the moment that will change in a heartbeat, and that mature people live with their feet on the ground and their loved ones' best interest in their heads at all times, not just when it feels good? In other words, Jesus Christ I am sick to death of immature self-absorbed people. But also, this is another way in which the ridiculous cultural scripts and expectations we cling to are much more than harmless entertainment, and do very real damage to real people in the real world.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you for helping me take my faith a little farther today. You've given me something to think about with the connections you've drawn between "swept away" emotional experience and the practice of religion. I always enjoy your blog.

    My favorite line in this post: "Well, you were acting like a treacherous asshole, so apparently that's who you really and truly are. And this person helped you discover that, and that's a good thing?" Sometimes we don't want to own who we really are.

    I loved your discussion of agency or moral responsibility. I see a beautiful woman (sometimes inside / sometimes skin deep) and I feel myself drawn to her. My imagination runs through all these fabulous things that would happen if I could indulge myself with her. Then I often find myself wondering what would be the charred remains of this passionate flame. My relationship with my wife would be broken. The several relationships that surround our marriage: parents, relatives, couple friends, etc. would be damaged. And worse, there's no permanence to that passionate flame that would consume all of this, so I would be left with nothing; alone sitting in a pile of charred ash.

    So posts like yours that call these truths to my attention once again re-inspire my vigilance in my marriage.

    I find that talking with my wife about what I see and feel helps draw us closer. I think I'm most attracted to things that are temporarily lacking in our relationship whether it's conversation or physical intimacy or whirlwind romance. So in talking with my wife about it we feel our way towards what's missing.

    Great post!

    (forgot to spell check)

  3. Two star-crossed lovers meet and are so attracted to each other instantly that they have to be together, no matter how many people they have to betray to do so.

    And I would argue that not only is this true, but in movies the people they have to betray are mere collateral damage. They're tragic figures who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, much like victims of tornadoes or earthquakes. It's nothing personal, just a natural event or an act of God.

  4. Anonymous5/18/2010

    Wow. Just, wow.

  5. Stacia5/18/2010

    "love is what you do, not what you feel in the moment that will change in a heartbeat"


  6. Anonymous5/18/2010

    I think maybe this is one of those pendulum issues in our culture though. Maybe at times the emphasis is on the passion and intensity of the emotions you experience, but there have also been times when marriage and relationships were all about work and thinking about your own personal fulfillment was evidence of a shallow petty nature.

  7. @ Anonymous: I think that just means our understanding of "fulfillment" is ambiguous. My parents (married 27 yrs) would say that you don't understand the true fulfillment and depth of emotional connection you can achieve in a relationship when you're young, because sticking with it and doing the work is what gets you to that point. The idea that jumping from one passionate affair to another is the way to achieve emotional fulfillment is an alien concept from this perspective.

  8. @ Jakob

    And in the movies it's always that the hero/cheater was married to someone s/he was incompatible with anyway, so the end of their relationship was inevitable all along. Because that justifies the behavior somehow.

  9. Another spot-on post. Just fucking spot-on.

  10. This is oddly refreshing, in the way that an astringent is refreshing. Thanks for writing this, and for being your bad-ass self.

  11. Anonymous5/19/2010

    thank you

  12. Anonymous5/19/2010

    Why don't you avoid the rush and get a column with Cosmo?

  13. Haha Burn. Commenting as Anonymous. Brilliant. You've gotta be the first troll in history to ever think of that one. And how is it that you find so much time to read Cosmo with that "executive position" you've got in that "multinational corporation"? Do tell.

  14. Just wanted to say that this is my favorite blog post ever.

  15. Anonymous5/19/2010

    This first dynamic that you mention...maybe it accounts for the "bridezilla" effect. Because your wedding day is no longer about the experience of the day itself in the moment, but it's about watching everyone and analyzing whether or not it's all picture perfect. Like a wedding is just really a video production and a long series of photo ops rather than a real, albeit important, day in your life.

  16. Thanks for the positive comments, everyone.

    Anonymous and Rayne: agreed on both the pendulum effect and the changing definition of fulfillment.

    Jakob and Kate: Exactly. If the "victims" of the cheating were fleshed out as real characters, then the charm and force of the swept-awayness would be lost, wouldn't it?

    Anonymous on the bridezilla effect: I couldn't agree more. I also think kids experience this at their proms now, where there's so much pressure to have a picture perfect evening that you end up stressing over whether you're having a perfect evening all night to the point where you don't actually enjoy yourself. So yay for the wedding industrial complex and the prom industrial complex!

  17. Anonymous5/21/2010

    Gah! The prom-industrial-complex! There's nothing that can't be commercialized.

  18. Anonymous5/23/2010

    Fabulous, fabulous post!

  19. stillsmallvoice5/28/2010

    Wow. That last riff ("I need to be swept off my feet...") is just - wow. I believe you tangentially referenced passionate political experiences and ridiculous country music memes and transformative religious experiences and infidelity all in one breath. I wouldn't have thought that possible until now. So - wow.

  20. Anonymous5/28/2010

    I think I need to read some more Kierkegaard. Maybe I was too young also.