Posts Tagged Catholic Women
Mary Magdalen as a Sex Positive Therapist: What Catholic Women Can Learn from the Most Misunderstood Figure in the New Testament
TweetOne of the mystifying aspects of my studying the US mainstream feminist movement has been the “sex positive” feminists. In my cursory reading of it (I nearly exclusively read authors on women of color feminism and poetry), my general understanding of it comes from the 1980s Sex Pos movement which came as a – somewhat – reactive response to the anti-pornography feminism that sprung out in the 70s, which placed pornography at the center of the women’s movement. It claimed, among many other facets of women’s rights, that true freedom was directly related to sexual freedom and choice.
In more modern and nuanced definitions, I’ve read more blogs and articles that sex-positivity is more of an umbrella to hold theories, prompts, and loose philosophies around ideas of desire, consent, gender, and sexual choices.
Even with the updated work on sex positivity, I was always confused by the phrase “Sex Positive.” It never really occurred to me to identify as a sex positive feminist because the title itself seemed to suggest that most people think of sex as negative. I never thought of sex as “bad.” Sure, I grew up in a more conservative Catholic Filipino culture, but as a Filipino American, I came to understand sexuality through books, friends, and sneaking a peak during the “shut your eyes!” moments in the movies like Top Gun, Ghost, and Dirty Dancing. (RIP gorgeous phenom Patrick Swayze.)
Catholics and sexuality. Er, um. A-hem. That’s not exactly our forte. Despite the rigid lines around Catholic sexuality, I grew my own sense of what it is, was, and what I wanted it to look like for myself. So, identifying as “SEX POSITIVE!” seemed odd, to say the least. Like, why don’t I go around saying I’m a FILIPINO POSITIVE feminist? Eh, that seems a bit awkward. And redundant.
Lately, though, the more I read and listen to Catholic news surrounding sexuality, I can certainly see why the term SEX POSITIVE is necessary. There is a tremendous amount of guilt, shame, and silence when it comes to sex, sexual development, and gender for Catholic women. (Understatement of the year…)
Just last night, I taught a class on Mary Magdalen, a controversial and rather mysterious figure in the New Testament. It was astounding to see how people were impacted by her. It appeared, though, that everyone’s impression of Mary depended on how she was presented either in Catholic schools or by parents. Last night, one woman, full of emotion, professed her undying love for Mary Magdalen. Another identified her as, “the whore* of the bible.” People were all over the place and it’s no wonder. But, the one thing that they all had in common was that their reactions were strong. No one had a lukewarm impression.
Even in history, her identity is somewhat obscure. Her identity was conflated with so many other biblical women figures whose sins were deemed of the sexual nature. She was an adulteress about to stoned. She was the woman with the alabaster jar. She was Mary of Bethany who renounced sin and turned her life to Christ. She was the woman who cleaned Jesus feet with her tears and wiped them dry with her hair. But, in two gospels, she is simply referred to as one Jesus cured of severe illness; one who Jesus drove seven demons out. And “demons” at that time, were a way for folks to explain the presence of sin and suffering in the world. It’s not how we think of it when we think “demon.” (Read: head spinning from the Exorcist)
Mary Magdalene quite possibly was a regular, common person in the time of Christ who was healed of her illness and went forward in her life to eventually become the only witness to all of the most significant events in the last days of Jesus’ life. She was there at the crucifixion (John places her at the foot of the cross). She was there at the burial, and then she was the first witness. Pretty important stuff.
Since her historical identity is so supremely tied to the renunciation of sexuality and fornication, it seems odd to use her to expound Catholic feminism, but I think she’s the perfect muse.
Some theologians speculate (given the fragmented stories from the Gospels of Thomas, Phillip, and Mary), Mary possessed inner vision. She possessed sophia, the enlightened Wisdom, which the Apostles sought. It was with this inner vision that she led the women followers of Christ, supported Jesus in his ministry, and, consequently, became the first person to see the most famous miracle in human history: the resurrection of the Human body.
I surmise, two thousand and twelve years later, that it’s mainstream feminism’s lack of inner vision that inhibits it from truly leading a movement that sustains itself on principles of growth, altruism, and liberation. Much sex positive feminism equates liberation with liberation of the body and while I agree to some extent that one must have the rights and freedoms of body to feel and express empowerment, it is not just the liberation of the body and sexual relationship that equates to liberation for all. Perhaps sex positive feminists posit the body as the foundation for which all other human rights lie because without that basic acknowledgement, no other progress can be made. I think the body is a critical point to begin, but it’s limiting to centralize the body and sex (as defined by heteronormative mainstream feminists) for a movement claiming liberation for all persons. I do think, though, that the sex positive movement can teach a think or two to Catholic women and I think Mary Magdalen is the crux for that argument. A nuanced version of Mary Magdalen – as a woman who may or may not have been a sexual prowess – can lead some Catholic women to a more sex positive state of being.
So many Catholics get bogged down with wondering who and what Mary was that they forget she became one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, follower of Jesus Christ. And her ability to be visionary, her ability to act with radical love in a time of great chaos and persecution is the most incredible feminist lesson I can take from her life. If Mary Magdalen as the visionary leader of great Wisdom were to lead Catholic women in sex positive living, I believe she would begin with helping women trace the roots of female shame.
It was Pope St. Gregory the Great who officially announced Mary Magdalen as umbrella for sexually related female sins and labeled her as a prostitute. She became the poster child of regained spiritual and bodily virginity. In a time where celibacy and abstaining were pressed upon Catholics, creating a female figure who professed a sex-free life was beneficial. Mary Magdalen was the bearer of the scarlet letter long before Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about hypocrisy and societal humiliation. The problem for Catholic women is that while Hester Prynne was fictitious, Mary Magdalen – and her pseudo identity as a purified Eve – was real. Very real. And Catholic girls were taught to hate the “whore of the bible.” Thus, for many Catholic girls, guilt was born just as they hit puberty and boobs and hair started to grow. The relationship between sexual acts and Mary Magdalen is still very real. Her name has been proliferated through everything from non profits helping “save” girls from prostitution and brothel houses.
The good news is that the church officially stated that Mary Magdalen was indeed ONE person in the great year of 1969. Yes. You read that correctly. That tiny detail – Mary Magdalen was only one person and probably not a prostitute – was clarified just forty three years ago. While the Catholic Church can take a over a century to clear up a case of sexual mis-teaching, Catholics don’t have that kind of luxury to spend their lives in judgement and unnecessary guilt, trapped in false images and notions of sexuality promiscuity.
So what are we to learn from Mary Magdalen about being a sex positive Catholic feminist?
It would behoove us to start with courage. It would behoove us to stop seeing gender as a binary dividing line of battle. If she had the means, I would hypothesize that Mary wouldn’t have wanted to be separated into women and men traveling groups in the Jesus movement. I think she would have liked to see community coming together, not traveling with lines of power and separatism. I think she would want us to recognize our brothers and sisters who do not identify as brothers and sisters, those who identify as gender non conforming, or as trans, asexual, or simply unknown. Not everything is about boxes of identity, as her own complex history shows us. I believe we could also couple our courage with honesty. Honesty about who we are, who we want to be with, and when we’ve had enough. I believe that Catholics have spent so much of their lives hoping they’re on the “right” side of faith, they fail to truly know what they themselves want out of life, out of relationship, out of sex, and of God.
Desire is so heavily sided to mean “sex” that we forget that simple pleasures – sensuality – is a brightly starred cousin of sexuality. We forget that pleasure can be expressed in countless ways of touch, speaking, and exploration. When did it become a sin to be overwhelmed with desire for another person? What we DO with that desire is another conversation, but the allowance of desire in our lives deepens not taints our humanity.
Mostly, though, I believe Mary Magdalen would be worried less about what the mostly white men with robes on think about contraception, and more about what we truly believe in our hearts about our bodies, our sexual expressions, our ability to accept and be desired and desirable. I believe that Mary would have us reflect more about sexuality as spirituality, a gift that we alone can cultivate and question in the holiest ground we know: our conscience. And when we choose to share it, we do so with those who walk respectfully, maturely, and passionately on our ground.
*I take personal issue with the word “whore” and use it only in quotes to accurately reflect the rhetoric used. ”Whore” is often used to shame women and female identified sexuality. There is no equivalent for non-female, non-woman identified persons (e.g. “male-whore”) and “whore’ is typically used in pop culture to pejoratively refer to women who have a lot of sex. It also feeds the killer double standard facing most US female and girl/woman identified teens who are given options to either abstain (pro-abstinence) or dare to express themselves sexually and risk being labeled as such.