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«MULLINS: SEXUAL INTERCOURSE 111 THE UNITIVE AND PROCREATIVE VALUES OF SEXUAL INTERCOURSE: DO THEY CO-EXIST? Pat Mullins 68 Mackay Street Coorparoo ...»

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MULLINS: SEXUAL INTERCOURSE 111

THE UNITIVE AND PROCREATIVE VALUES OF

SEXUAL INTERCOURSE: DO THEY CO-EXIST?

Pat Mullins

68 Mackay Street

Coorparoo 4151

Mrs Pat Mullins recently completed her PhD

with the thesis, Becoming Married: an

Australian theology of marriage from a

feminist perspective.

A spirituality of sexual intercourse, as the language in humankind of a desire for life which can be satisfied most deeply through the presence of another, has not been developed fully in Catholic teaching to the detriment of women in marriage.

One Australian Catholic woman in 1994 wrote that she would like to see the theology of marriage developed in the area of “sexual intimacy. However”, she wrote, “this would mean rewriting the scripts almost entirely”. Theologian, Rosemary Haughton, claims that, we have put up barriers of all kinds in the roles which we have required men and women to fulfil in their sexual relationship and in the whole context of their married lives. In a real sense this has cut down many of the channels of communication through which God is perceived and experienced. What we need to do is to explore how we can recover the uniqueness of the heterosexual relationship as a place for the explosion and celebration of divine energy.... Women’s new consciousness...is part of the attempt to reclaim that uniqueness.1 The 1994 survey data on the topic of sex in marriage strongly suggests that the sexual activity of many Australian Catholic married women surveyed may not have Rosemary Haughton, “The Meaning of Marriage in Women’s New Consciousness,” in Commitment to partnership: Explorations of the theology of marriage edited by W. P.

Roberts (New York: Paulist, 1987) 156.

112 COLLOQUIUM 29/2 (1997) led them to a stronger sense of self, to bonding in the marriage relationship and an experience of life through which God may be experienced. Of the 279 respondents to the survey, 165 (59.3% of the women) were sexually active regularly in marriage.

When asked what situations created moments of closeness to husbands, 124 women listed sex, while 151 women of those who answered the question did not list sex among the numbers of options to describe moments of closeness to husbands. When asked what they would like more of in the marriage, thirty-seven only of the women listed sexual intimacy, while 159 women (57%) did not feel they had equal control in the area of sex.

The two myths which inhibit mutuality in sexual relationships in marriage are:

1. That men have a dominant, aggressive and at times uncontrollable sexual need,

2. It is natural for women to be disinterested in sex and to experiencepleasure primarily in pleasing their male partner.

Feminist research has championed the validation of female orgasm, which confirms the spiritual value of pleasure. Without this theological insight, in the words of Eric Fuchs, “there would be no possibility of demonstrating that an authentic spirituality of vulnerability and gift can undergird the erotic celebration of love”.2 Ironically, the personal assertive quest for pleasure in sex is often the arena of those outside the monogamous commitment of marriage, because the vulnerability of the disclosure of one’s needs is more difficult to live out in the every-dayness of breakfast cereals, children, mortgages, old age and the reality of an ever-changing life-time marriage.

Though marriage encompasses many interlocking aspects, genital sexual activity is central to the marriage relationship. Society today is saturated with the importance and necessity of sex. The Catholic church teaching on the other hand exhibits a fear of, and exaggerated need to control, sex. Undue emphasis is given to this aspect of marriage by both of these opposing positions. Yet marital sexual activity has the potential to generate personal development, a sense of self-hood, as well as relational bonding. The ultimate sublimation of woman, the denial of her unique identity, has its last bastion in the darkness and privacy of the bedroom. Arising from and returning to the marriage bed, woman’s identity has in the past been defined by others and for the male other, as vehicle of sexual pleasure and progeny, and has confined women to expected roles and behaviour. Primary among these roles is motherhood, focal to Eric Fuchs, Sexual desire and love: Origins and history of the Christian ethic of sexuality

–  –  –

Catholic women in the church teaching that each act of sexual intercourse must be open to procreation.

The Australian Catholic women participating in the survey produced 1034 naturalborn children; fifteen women had no children. This gives the average child-bearing woman 3.91 children, compared to the Australian average for women in couplefamilies in the 1986 census of 2 children. The respondents also had twenty-six adopted children between them. Among 115 women, 181 miscarriages and six babies still-born were noted. One woman had eight miscarriages, another woman had six miscarriages and a further had five miscarriages. Forty-one of the women had families ranging between 6 and 10 children.

From the responses to the survey it is clear that failure of Natural Family Planning is a constant reality for women. An insert in the 1995 statement of the Australian bishops quotes the British Medical Journal of 1993 which claims that “a number of studies have found the pregnancy rate [of those using NFP] to be less than 1% among couples who did not want any more children....Among couples who are ‘spacing’ their children, pregnancy rates are typically higher as one would expect”.3 Statistics by those promoting NFP are deceptive in that many pregnancies by intelligent, well motivated, co-operative couples are attributed to “user error”; other unintended pregnancies are in hindsight accepted and then become part of the statistics of those “spacing” their children. Data from the women surveyed did not support the figure of a 1% failure rate of NFP.





A number of women who responded to the survey stated that they were unfamiliar with the Catholic theology of marriage, but then spoke forcefully about the right of couples to use contraception. They were familiar with the laws which affected their lives, but not with any relevant positive theology. To the question of how the Catholic theology of marriage could be made more meaningful to women, the overwhelming response of the women surveyed concerned the status and role of women, many mentioning motherhood (83 respondents). The second most voiced response concerned the church’s attitude to contraception (55 responses). Women wrote with anger of the difficulties they faced in damage to their marriage relationship, their health and in the problem of not being able to cope with other children after having a child or children who were disabled.

Responses to the survey indicated that use of NFP resulted in more infrequent Australian Catholic Bishops Committee for the Family and for Life, God’s Gift of Life and Love: A Pastoral letter to Catholics on family planning (Canberra: National Catholic Media Office, August 1995) 7.

114 COLLOQUIUM 29/2 (1997) sexual activity and less pleasure experienced in sexual activity among the women.

Sixty-seven (24%) of the women in the survey used NFP. Though this group saw less conflict between the unitive and procreative values of marriage, thirty-six of those using NFP noted sex often or regularly, while thirty noted irregular, rare or non-existent sex (one did not answer the question). Regular sexual expression in the marriages of those using NFP is therefore (54.5%), which is lower than the comparable figure for the total group (59.3%). Those who had pleasure in sex always and mostly rated 64% in those using NFP compared with 73% in the total group. Almost half the women with families of six children and over used NFP (four did not have a method of birth control, seventeen used NFP, nine had had hysterectomies - two of whom previously used NFP), and nine now used methods not acceptable to the church (with three women not answering the question). Of the sixty-seven women using NFP, only twenty-three (34%) felt they had equal control in the area of sex, compared with the overall figure of 44% of the women who answered the same question. Therefore, the response of women overall in the survey

compared to those women using NFP reads:

–  –  –

Humanae Vitae (n.12) asserts the “inseparable connection” between the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning of the conjugal act, and “that the men of our day are particularly capable of seizing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle”. This was not a true statement of the Australian Catholic women surveyed in 1994. Conflict between the unitive and procreative values of sexual intercourse was experienced by three-quarters of them. One hundred and eighty nine women (74% of the 255 who answered the question) experienced some conflict between the unitive value (expressed as “to be for the good of the spouses themselves”) and the procreative value (“to be open to the possibility of new life”) of sexual intercourse. One hundred and six women (39%) replied that the conflict was always or mostly.

Two women did speak of the creative experience of using NFP. One woman asked that more emphasis in the Catholic theology of marriage be given to: “The whole NFP aspect. I think that this would be one of the fundamental sharing points of our marriage.” (married 25 yrs - 4 children).

MULLINS: SEXUAL INTERCOURSE 115

Another told her story:

My husband was a convert and for us the hardest part was family planning.

Sometimes I used to think “I wish I didn’t have a conscience”. It was very hard for him, but we had to live according to church teaching, and he is a very considerate and loving person, a better Catholic than I am. We always worked together in our own business and now we have developed a sharing prayer life.

However, women in the survey indicated overwhelmingly that adherence to the church teaching on procreation more often restricts development of the unitive/ couple value of sexual activity. Sexual intercourse for many was procreative but the

unitive dimension suffered. One such response read:

Looking back, our commitment to natural family planning placed great strain on our sexual relationship for the first fifteen years. It felt like anything but natural. If I/ we could live that time again, with the knowledge and experience I have now, I would not struggle so hard with NFP.

In the lived reality of marriage the unitive and procreative values of sexual intercourse are most often areas of conflict. I do not use the word conflict lightly, but deliberately and literally in the light of the struggle, anguish and guilt experienced by women to reconcile the two values of sexual intercourse espoused by the church.

In the words of one woman, Fear of unwanted pregnancy is a great burden to carry. The sacrament of marriage has always been in my heart and my mind. The ruling on contraception I feel denied me a full sexual commitment, until menopause. I was always fearful because I was always so ill whilst carrying my babies. I feel my sexual life with my husband was governed by a calendar and a thermometer. Apart from this instance I feel really blessed.

Sexual activity which becomes obligatory because of limited opportunity has its essence in duty and readily becomes a burden.

Catholic marriage theology has focused on coitus, being all that is necessary for procreation. Little is ever said about the need for tenderness and affection. Yet psychologist Jack Dominian notes “it is the absence of affection which is the key to marital breakdown nowadays”.4 In numbers of cases all tender expressions of Jack Dominian, “Christian Marriage,” in Commitment to partnership: Explorations of

–  –  –

physical love in the every-dayness of the marriage are curtailed in attempts to control frustrated sexual arousal.

Natural family planning easily detracts from the possibility of mutuality in the marriage relationship. When long periods of abstinence deny the couple the spontaneity and relaxation to develop the life-time skill of mutual sexual satisfaction, women suffer from a dearth of tenderness, but also from the opportunity and freedom to discover and develop their own sexual potential in interaction. The Catholic church condemns solitary masturbation; thus only in the couple relationship are women considered free to achieve a full experience of their marital sexuality.

To become mutual sexual partners is a long journey. Consummation in effect takes a life-time. Learning to be sexual partners requires not only skills acquired in an area of extreme inhibition and vulnerability, but also coming to know the partner in different experiences and stages of life-together. Susan Dowell expresses this experience aptly when she claims that we make a commitment till death because somehow we know “that it will take that long to grow into the present moment”.5 Half of the Australian Catholic women surveyed indicated that at the time of the survey they used methods of family planning not acceptable to the church. The number of those infertile, those with hysterectomies, those using no method, those using NFP and those who did not answer totalled 142 women. When these are subtracted from the 279 women surveyed, the remainder, 137 (49%) use methods unacceptable to the church. There were seventy-three women (26%), who accept the church’s teaching (using NFP and no method). The remaining 25% includes those with hysterectomies and those infertile and the very high number of nineteen who did not answer the question.

Anguish and guilt became the catalysts of a different knowledge of God for women. The issue of contraception resulted in a strong perception among the women in the survey of a division between God and the church. The concept of God experienced by women, struggling with marital sexual relationships, arose from their own sense of what was good, from the image of goodness within themselves, which they identified with a presence and essence of God. This situation comes through very strongly in the stories of the Australian Catholic women in the survey,

as one woman expressed:



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