13 September 2013

Sexual Ethics as Parents, part 3(b)

Part 1:  We have a problem.  It is an especially unattractive one. 

Part 2:  To make sure everyone is on the same page about what the the problem is and isn't, we talked here. 

Part 3(a):  And, we named the first four principles of dealing with the problem here. 

I'm tired of all this sex talk.  Talk of this doesn't need to fill our days, after all.  But, we need to finish what we start, so I'm going to round it out here.  I've gotten a couple of opinion questions via email, and I'll hope to answer those in this forum in the coming months. 

Before I get to the last six principles, though, I'd like to reiterate my attitude about this whole thing.  These are not answers - they are thoughts.  My oldest child is nine and a half.  Ask me again about this stuff in 20 years.  Or better yet, ask her. 

However, I don't see a lot of public (or private) discourse on this clearly serious problem, and so, I'm trying to play my part to sort of get the conversation going.  As parents, we all have responsibilities in varied areas - as Chesterton says of mothers, our jobs are necessarily broad.  Even with that breadth, we all have those issues that prick us and drive us to really attempt improvement.  And sexual integrity, and the lack of conversation surrounding it, happens to be one of those issues for me.

I don't write here as an expert.  That's laughable.  Unfortunately, I simply have not been able to find anyone who has written well about the specifics of sexual ethics as it relates to child-rearing.  The very few books that even exist are either painfully prudish or amazingly amoral.

 [For sexual ethics in general, specifically in context of marriage, I cannot recommend enough the writings of the late Robert Capon, specifically Bed and Board.] 

So, with those caveats, back to the principles. 

Five:  We should not allow the obscene to become normal entertainment for our young people. 
One of the earliest things we think of as modern-day parents are what kinds of things we're going to let our children watch, see, read, and hear.  They used to not have this concern, see, because there was too much to do to worry with what might fill your leisure time.  But, that's not the case now, and so we must worry.  Transformers? Pink Panther?  Harry Potter?  Judy Bloom?  NPR?  Jay-z? 

We want them to speak no evil, so we don't let them hear or see any either, right?

I'd argue that there are two things at play here, and the answers are a bit different.  The first is, to what do we allow any exposure?  And these second is what do we use to train their desires?  

The former of the questions is pretty easy:  My children don't need to see anything pornographic, obscene, or anything including violence toward women or children.  So, beyond sort of a basic "nothing R rated till high school" I'm actually pretty open about simple exposure.  Even some types of PG-13 exposure.

However, exposure is not the limiting factor for our media decisions. 

The things we show to our people not once, but over and over again are what train their desires.  Most tastes are really acquired tastes.  There is a great lie in our world today - that taste is a complete accident - or entirely out of our control.  Dedicate yourself to learning to like something, and there is almost nothing for which you cannot train a desire.

So, we try to fill our kids' days with good books, good music, and some good tv and movies.  Of course, this all comes after time taken in education and in plenty of simple playtime.  But, still there is ultimately a lot of input. 

Make sure the things you recommend, the things you have them turn to for comfort, are portraying the values you want to portray. So, portrayal of sexuality is particularly at issue here, and particularly hard to parse out.  We tend to think about specific images and words only, instead of the context and purposes of those images and words.  The harder questions are what are the sexual values of the particular media in question?

Is it obsessed with teenage romance? Does it glorify serializing of relationships or does it encourage long-term monogamy?  Does it renounce or celebrate celibacy?  Does it treat marriage as a good or unfortunate institution?  Is it crass or respectful?  What is its view of gender?  Equality of strength and dignity?  Does it objectify the woman's body?  Does it justify the cravings of bodily satisfaction as an uncontrollable force in a man's life?

Quickly, let's take two movies, both of which we've let the kids watch.   But, one is better.  Much better.  Soul-food better.  To be fair, let's make it two princess movies - both sappy romances, and both very fun to watch, and even both from the late 1980s. 

The Little Mermaid and The Princess Bride. 

The Princess Bride has that great quote in it - "There is a shortage of perfect breasts in the world. It would be a pity to damage yours."  He says breasts, and it's sort of in a hot way, and Carey Elwes is great looking after all!  Therefore, it is banned. 

But, watch the whole movie in context.  The sexual ethics of The Princess Bride are dead on.  Sure, it's a silly, slapstick romance, but the things taken for granted are all true and the false and ugly is rejected.  Buttercup becomes lovely as she learns to be kind!  Even Miracle Max and his century-old bride are perfect, pottering around together, engaging in projects together, fussing at one another lovingly, waving goodbye, arms linked.  

So, we let them hear the word breasts, even in an "inappropriate" context,  admittedly full of sexual innuendo.  Westley's interest in Buttercup's breasts isn't scientific.  I offer a chuckle and a "heavenly days, as though he should say such things!" out of the corner of my snickering mouth.  But, it doesn't pollute the movie.  The movie is wonderful - it is full of truth, beauty, goodness, and, to put the largest of cherries on top, it speaks all this in the midst of laugh-till-you-cry humor.  Buttercup is hardhearted, and is broken down by tragedy, only to rise up, brave but fragile.  She and Westley are in love, but there is no glorification of the sex part - the mild sexual tension is a peripheral part of this love story about service and kindness and victory over evil men who hate and use women.  And they don't rush off to bed.  They ride off on white horses.  There is sexuality, but greedy physicality is not the point.  You are rooting for them to marry and live happily ever after; you're neither scandalized nor left cold. There is a rosy, hazy glow, and it makes you want to hold hands with the partner in your life. 

Unlike, say, the Little Mermaid whose opening scene is blatant sexual objectification of barely-clothed, eye-lash batting, hourglass young women with the dance of the harem made up of Triton's daughters. 
It goes on to focus on a boy-obsessed teenage girl who rejects her father's counsel, finds her only solace in material goods, sells her voice to the seawitch, manipulates a man into kissing her, whose true happiness is when she leaves her family for a man she barely knows, and 'loves' because he's beautiful. 

I'm a cynic, I know.  But, the themes are important.  They are all kinds of sexual, but more than that, they are objectifying, focused on the physical, and ultimately very immodest. 

Now, we let the kids watch it - Sebastian-the-Crab's scene in the kitchen with the chef is cinematic genius, and the whole thing has lots of great music.  However, it should not fill our days.  We don't buy the gear and lavish praise over it.  Ariel is not our role model.  She basically does nothing, ever, at all, worthy of replicating.  And neither does Eric, who is as vacant-eyed as his statue that Ariel fawns over in her underwater trove of material comfort. 

So, read good books, listen to good music, and watch the Princess Bride every day all day.  Obviously. 

Six:  Simultaneously, we should not wrap them in bubble wrap. 

This is not really a different principle than the above, but I wanted to highlight one key thing:  Some exposure is not only okay, it's strategic.

Many of our great conversations with the kids, which are key to leaving open a line of communication about sexual values, have come from some limited exposure to 'inappropriate' things.  When we see something together, we are able to talk about modest behavior, body objectification, etc., because we've been given a context.  It is much more difficult to bring things up out of the blue than to take advantage of a window.  And it only gets more and more awkward as they age. 

Obviously, we shouldn't seek this stuff out.  But your kids seeing too much skin or hearing something inappropriate or stumbling upon the lingerie ad are opportunities - they are gifts for us to have a moment to teach.  It is better for our sons to see a few women in their barely-there underwear, so I can say with a bit of lighthearteness, "Can you believe they mail that out to people all over the world? Pretty much nekkid women! Heavens to betsy.  Run throw that in the garbage for me, please" than it is for me to rush to the mail and toss it all, just so he can get excited when his first view of it is at 13. 

So, don't squeeze too tight.  Teaching them to be in the world requires us to be there a bit.  

Seven:  The sexual sin of other people is mostly not our business and, moreover, comes from brokenness, so pity, not judgment, is the correct attitude.  

There is a billboard we used to pass every week on our way to Church.  It advertises for a strip club downtown.  It has three women on it in barely-there underthings, and the whole thing is crass and unfortunate.  Most days, the kids are yapping amongst themselves, not paying attention to billboards.  But, every now and then....

One day, Eason said to the rest of us, 'Wonder why their Daddies let them be on that billboard in their panties?"

Oh, the naivete of the child, but, as they do, he hit the nail on the head.  Those girls up there are broken.  That is the appropriate attitude.  Their daddies, or someone else, failed them. 

But, we adults enjoy judging sexual sin.  We like it, because we ourselves are debase and broken and we enjoy knowing about the private and salacious things that people do.  Also, it makes us feel better about our every day sins.  "I just chewed out my husband, but I am not any kind of billboard girl, after all."

But, this attitude is wrong, and moreover, it isn't helpful.  Sexual sin is real.  Being on the billboard, and lingering over the billboard, and liking the billboard are all problematic.  I'm not trying to excuse it.  But, modeling for your kids pity, sorrow, and mercy for these folks is the best way to guard against destructive pride.

Also, there is gray area in this vicinity.  There is black and white, but there is also gray.  Much of it is a judgment call - it is prudence, and it will vary by person. 

Ada Brooks has friends who wear bikinis.  We don't let her wear bikinis. We have friends who don't allow their boys to swim shirtless.  Our boys are shirtless from May until October.  Explaining to our kids why we make particular judgment calls is appropriate, but it is not appropriate to dwell on the judgment calls of other people, especially good, well-meaning people who are in the trenches with us.  Not only is it uncharitable, it sets up an unfortunate, black and white dichotomy about sexuality.   This is over here is good.  This over here is bad.  Sexuality doesn't all work that way and it's important to hold that tension.

We have principles, we have convictions, but all we're doing is trying our best. 

Eight:  There are sexual sins our sons must guard against in their own lives.  

Okay, here I shall become controversial.  As though all that other stuff has been just rosy.  I'm about to generalize to my heart's content.  But, notice number nine - I'm going to be an equal opportunity generalizer. 

Boys are prone to certain bad things.  They are. 

Boys are prone to prioritizing utility, to viewing all people and things as means to an end.  This includes women.  Boys are prone to being end-driven rather than process-driven, and this shows up in the bedroom.  Boys are prone to being crass and gross and disrespectful. Boys are prone to being dismissive of women, and in the true corruption, violent towards them.  Boys' eyes linger, they are affected by the visual image, and they seek after it. Boys care about a girl's body before they care about her mind.  Boys tend to prioritize physical feelings over all else.  They are sensate beings.  The senses are in control, and boys lust after the satisfaction of those sensual preferences. 

And this is not a phase of boyhood.  These are tendencies that continue into manhood, if left unchecked.  And even when checked, they remain a struggle for most men.  Except Paul, he's perfectly tender and sensitive.

These aren't perversions of the Silence of the Lambs type, but they are tendencies that are destructive, and unchecked, they are wrong.
 So, my sons aren't allowed to act this way.  Your sons are not allowed to act this way.  Testosterone is tamable.  For the love of all that is holy, really, give up the Boys will be Boys defense. 

Men are to be respectful, loving, service-oriented, interested in thoughts and feelings, honest about emotion, open to conversation, focused on a person's soul and not her bosoms. 

Ha!  How in the world would one prevent boys from acting like they're naturally going to act?  Well, this is where fear and trembling enter into my life.  There is no perfect plan.  But, there have got to be better and worse plans. 

And no one is going to like this plan.  But, here is the current Forster plan, and that's all I've got to offer in this space. 

In addition to all the previous principles being oft applied,

Fathers and other male figures in a boy's life must model desirable behavior toward women.  They must respect, love, serve, and show devotion.  They must report to their sons their wives' brilliance or sweetness or great cooking or whatever is her particular area of beauty.  They must never, ever ogle 'hotness' in front of their sons or tell a dirty joke. 

We must warn our sons what their struggles are likely to be, which is a doozy, I grant.  But I think parents, preferably fathers, need to sit down with their sons periodically in the years leading up to and during puberty and say, 'Look - this is what I struggled with and still struggle with.  Go ahead, be on the look out.  Women are wonderful - look at your sister and your mother and all of the wonderful things that they say and build and do and teach us.  And women are beautiful creatures, but the value of a woman is not found first in her physical attributes, but in her mind and soul and being, and they are wonderful I tell you.  The bosoms are just lagnappe.' 

All you daddies are ready for that conversation right?  
No?  Well, then, you shouldn't have lusted after his mother's body and conceived this child. 

And Mamas - number three really rests on us.  We are annoyed of these dirty, gross boys.  So, sometimes we go with the "boys will be boys, and there is nothing for us to do about it" defense, but often times we go about emasculating them.  We make it difficult to grow into a man in our own homes.  If they never become men, the subconscious reasoning goes, they can never be these testosterone driven, satisfaction seeking gross people.  True, I guess, but then, they can also never become men. So, we must allow for healthy masculinity. 

But, we also have one more duty. We have a duty to act like the types of women we are telling our sons they ought to see in all women.  We have a duty to be respectable, to focus on our souls and our brains more than our wardrobes and our bodies.  We have to show our sons what a desirable woman is, and she is not focused on the outward appearance.  She is focused on inner beauty and strength.  Be the kind of daughter-in-law you want to have. 

Nine:  There are sexual sins our daughters must guard against in their own lives.  

Okay, I'm flipping teams here.  I really am just equally mean to both sides.  Again, more generalizations. 

Girls are prone to certain bad things.  We are. 

Girls long to be wanted, and love to cause things to happen.  We just do.  We like the way eyes feel on our bodies. We love to cause a reaction.  We like to get our way, and we like to be sought after.  At our most corrupt, we enjoy making others feel helpless.  Girls want to be princesses, not because we are spoiled, but because they are prized.  We long to be thought of as beautiful.  We lust to be lusted after.  And frankly, we'll use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that that happens.  We are physically intolerant and relationally demanding. 

I know we aren't all this way all the time.  But these are the temptations of the ovary-having set.  There are biological reasons for the tendencies of the male and the female, but that doesn't change the need to curb them.  And, like with the tendencies of men, if left unchecked, the tendencies of woman become destructive and wrong. 

So, my daughter is not allowed to act this way.  And neither is yours.  Estrogen can be bridled. 

Women are to be productive, straight forward, clear, secure, calm, and respectable.  We are not to be vapid or obsessed with reactions and responses.  We are to have full plates, so that we do not fill them with this licentious attention seeking.  And that is what we are to teach our daughters to do.  We are to respect men and expect to be respected. 

Do you know the etymology of respect?  It means to look at again.  Specto, spectare means 'to look at' and re, of course, means 'again'.  Respect is that look which is beyond the first look.  It is to go back and like what we see, deeply, not on the surface.  If we want that, we should probably act like we want it.  If we continue to make our bodies the things that we put forward as the most important aspects of ourselves, no respect will come. 

As mothers, we should be the women of substance that we want from our daughters.  This means not manipulating our spouses, not spending more time and money and energy on the physical - body and clothes -  than on other aspects of our lives, not being seekers of attention or seekers of drama, and it means being content with the long-term desires of one man, not vying for every pet response, especially from other men and women, like children vie for attention. 

It involves beginning a conversation of modesty with our daughters when they are young and continuing it through the awkward years.  Modesty is not about covering up parts, though that comes with it, but it is about making it natural for people to respect you - easy for them to look further.  No, their behavior is not your problem, but your projection of yourself is your problem.  If a man bows up to another man and calls his Mama fat and ends up with a black eye, we all know both men are at fault.  Well, as women continue to objectify themselves, men will continue to view them as objects, and that is everyone's fault.  So, we don't throw our legs above our heads when we are four and show the world our panties - it's attention seeking.  Put your dress down; don't hold it over your head like that.  And no, you may not wear that, because it is drawing attention to your physicality rather than any other part of your self. 

The daddies of little girls should not give into their manipulations.  Fathers should show interest in their daughters' whole selves, should enter into conversations of substance and humor with them, so that they know what healthy male attention looks like.  And so that they have plenty of this attention and do not seek it elsewhere until it is time.    

Ten:  Constant and close relationships with our children are necessary for any of this to work.  

So, our first principles - of sex being fun and frankness about parts being good - are necessary for the principles of confrontation of unhealthy sexual tendencies to work.  Right?  You have to have a home of laughter, where you have restricted judgment and encouraged relaxing, so that when you are talking about right vs wrong, you have credibility and comfort.
And to do any of this, you have to have a close relationship with your people.  You have to visit, to be honest, to have dialogue.  I know it seems like I probably don't mind talking about this stuff with my kids, but I do.  I just cannot stand it.  In the abstract, I want for them all the good things in life, and Paul and I want to train them in truth, goodness, and beauty in every area, not just the comfortable ones.  But when it's up in my face, I don't like it.  I like talking about food and books and dancing and tv and educational theory.  I don't mind talking about sexual politics, ethics, and culture with adults.  But, my children are my babies, and I don't want to do it.

But, we don't live in a world where we can cross our fingers, zip our lips, and hope for the best.  It quit working, if it ever did, when we all came down out of the mountains and into community. 

If I don't talk to them, Miley is going to.  So, talk we must.  And listen we must. And answer questions.  And be at home.  And be the home.  And never, ever make them feel silly or burdensome. 

But, we're all going to feel silly and burdened if we don't so much know each other.  The only thing more awkward than talking to a 14 year old about sex is talking about sex to a 14 year old you don't know very well.  We must know our people, and allow ourselves to be known, so that we can create the space in which ethics can be formed, expounded upon, challenged, and upheld. 

And the wine.  There is always the wine.  

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