On the Meaning of Sex 5(b): On Talking (and Listening) to Others

[This is part of a series on J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of SexRead my Introduction here.]

I need to stop making promises in this series. Last week, I said I would finish up Chapter 5 with some quick-hitters, like I did in Chapter 2, but now my heart isn’t in that. You get the point: the writing in Chapter 5 is awkward, bordering on creepy, and Budziszewski is still peddling the myth of moral decline and still conflating large-scale differences between the sexes with what we all should aspire to. You don’t need more examples.

But Terence Weldon’s response to my write up of Chapter 1 refocused my attention on a more essential repeat offense. Weldon diagnoses what may be Budziszewski’s biggest problem: “He’s prepared to learn important lessons about theology from his own experience – but is not prepared to hear what others have learned, from theirs.”

That was in reference to the anecdote with which Budziszewski started the book, about an incident that happened in class with a student named Harris. By his telling, Budziszewski asked Harris a question, and he says that if he had had time, he would have asked more—but through the chapter he reveals that the questions he wanted to ask were intended to teach Harris, not to understand Harris’ point of view.

Budziszewski starts Chapter 5 with another anecdote—and does the same damn thing. This time, he tells us about a dinner party where he overheard one woman telling another that she looked “sexy.” Budziszewski pounced:

I turned to Cora.

“Both of you are lovely—“

“Thank you.”

“—but what do you mean when you call Kathryn ‘sexy’?”

“I mean attractive. Desirable.”

“Forgive me if I’m too literal,” I answered, “but what desire do you mean?”

“Sexual desire. What else would I mean?”

“So the basis of your compliment is that the way Kathryn looks makes men want to get in bed with her?

“Sure.”

“All men?”

“Sure.”

“That’s good?”

Cora and Kathryn glanced at each other and laughed. “Is it strange that a woman would want to be desirable?”

“Well, you wouldn’t want to have sex with all men, would you?” I asked.

“No,” Kathryn said.

“Then why would you want all men to desire to have sex with you?”

“Don’t you understand a woman wanting to be beautiful?” asked Cora.

“Sure,” I said.

“Well, then?”

“But you didn’t speak of beauty. You spoke of sexiness.”

And from there Budziszewski launches into his pontifications on beauty and sexiness, girl-next-door-sexiness, ballerinas, dirty salesgirls and Mother Theresa. At the end of the chapter, he comes back to Cora and Kathryn (emphasis added):

Cora complimented Kathryn for looking sexy, and Kathryn was pleased. In itself such a compliment might be innocent and charming. It is not the sort of compliment that husbands pay each other, but that is all right; female conversation is conducted by different rules. When Cora was pressed, what she said that she meant was disturbing. Yet perhaps my oafish questions had only placed her in a false position. Perhaps she didn’t even quite understand her own meaning.

Lovely, isn’t that?

As we saw with Harris, this is the way Budziszewski views those who disagree with him: either they’re depraved, or they don’t understand their own words. Budziszewski never considers the fact that he doesn’t understand them, that he needs to listen to them, that theymight know something he doesn’t. He never asks questions to learn, only to lead the people he’s talking to—Socratic professor style—to the conclusion he already “knows.”

The irony here is that there’s a real, fascinating question in Cora and Kathryn’s responses to Budziszewski. What does it mean when a married woman says that she’d like to spark sexual desire in men who aren’t her husband? Is it necessarily bad? What if it’s a natural part of her sexuality? And how do we reconcile that with the acknowledged good of monogamy? And there are plenty of people exploring this question, in varied and fascinating ways. I’ve got two on my Kindle right now: Daniel Bergner, who dedicates a chapter to the question in his review of challenging studies on female desire, What Do Women Want?, and—in an entirely different vein—fiction-writer Jamie Quatro in her short story collection I Want to Show You More.

This is precisely why I say that, no matter what the Catholic Right tells you, natural law inquiry hasn’t gone away. There are lots of people exploring, in lots of ways, what it means to be human.  But it’s also why I insist that what Budziszewski is doing does not deserve to be called natural law inquiry. At a very minimum, natural law inquiry requires a spirit of, well, inquiry—and the humility to not assume you know the answers at the outset, and the openness to re-evaluate your conclusions as new evidence challenges them.  And, most of all, what’s least apparent in both Chapter 1 and Chapter 5: if you’re inquiring into human nature, you’ve got to be willing to listen to other humans.

[Thanks again to Terence Weldon for his comments.]

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