On the Meaning of Sex 6: Now Go Away or I Shall Taunt You a Second Time

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


I’m trying to take the high road in this series, to take On the Meaning of Sex seriously as an argument. I haven’t been perfect; I’ve slipped into snark a few times. But mostly I think I’ve refrained from ridiculing Budziszewski and this book, even when they’ve been ridiculous. It’s getting harder, though. Last chapter we had Budziszewski scandalized by a salesgirl in a department store but managing (by peeping through his fingers, I guess) to give us a lurid description of her outfit. In this chapter, he launches into a medieval fantasy right out of some kind of sexless version of Game of Thrones. This is his chapter on purity, and he describes it with two images: for women, it’s the inner sanctum of a well-guarded castle; for men, it’s a quest undertaken with a valiant steed and (for some reason) a well-trained lion. I picture Budziszewski writing this chapter in full Renaissance Fair regalia, complete with tights and broadsword.

It’s not the first time he’s used knightly analogies in the book (“Odd knights we!” he wrote in chapter 3), so I’m not sure why it caused me to giggle so in this chapter. But I can tell you exactly where I lost it. On page 114 he’s elaborating the image of womanly purity:

First, the soul may be pictured as a castle. Around a massive rampart runs a colonnaded portico. Built into the rampart are many and diverse rooms, including armories, sculleries, libraries, wardrobes, and baths. Inside this rampart lies a courtyard; at the end of the courtyard stands the castle; and a quiet garden lies hidden in the castle’s secret heart. This garden has a single door, hung with a curtain. At the end of the garden is a throne in which only one may sit, like the Siege Perilous at the round table of Camelot.

Okay so far. But then he tells us that a woman’s body itself shapes her understanding of purity: “The very shape of her flesh is a powerful symbol, for the deepest and most secret place in her soul, really is open through only a single door, and really is hung with a curtain.”

Oh. My.

Look, there’s nothing new about describing female genitalia as a garden (see Song of Songs 4:12). But “hung with a curtain”? That’s, um, graceless.

And I think that’s enough to earn a bit of ridicule for this chapter. So here goes. I think Budziszewski imagined he was writing this:

But this chapter comes off more like this:

Yes, in Budziszewski’s hands, Camelot is a rather silly place.

Okay. Now that that’s out of my system, let’s talk about the argument.

There’s a rich body of criticism on the Christian purity culture—Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth (2009) is an excellent book-length treatment of the subject and, online, Sarah Besseyand Rachel Held Evans write beautifully about messages like the one Budziszewski is selling in this book. Libby Anne, too, has written extensively and forcefully on the issue.

For understanding the argument of Chapter 6, I’m going to turn to Richard Beck’s post, “The Psychology of the Christian Purity Culture.” Beck explains that the notion of purity originally related to how we judge whether food is safe for eating, and he points out that, psychologically, such judgments tend to be permanent. He writes:

One aspect of purity psychology is how we make contamination appraisals. The psychologist Paul Rozin has been a pioneer in naming and describing these appraisals. And one of these appraisals is the judgment of permanence.

To illustrate this Rozin will put, say, a cockroach in a glass of juice and swish it around. He then removes the bug and offers the juice for participants to drink. They, of course, refuse. That’s to be expected. But then the interesting part of the experiment begins. Rozin goes on to sterilize the juice in front of the watching participant. He then makes another offer. Participants continue to refuse. This despite knowing, at a rational level, that the juice has been sanitized. So why refuse? Because at the affective level a judgment of contamination continues to dominate. The juice is judged as unclean. Despite all efforts to purify, sanitize, or rehabilitate.

Rozin’s demo illustrates the attribution of permanence, which is a key part of purity psychology. The judgment appears to be “once contaminated, always contaminated.” The implication here is that contamination—a loss of purity—is a catastrophic judgment creating a state that cannot be rehabilitated. The foodstuff is, as we say,ruined. And if ruined it’s only fit for the trash.

Beck notes that transferring purity psychology to our approach to sexuality leads to the message that Bessey describes thus:

Sarah, your virginity was a gift and you gave it away. You threw away your virtue for a moment of pleasure. You have twisted God’s ideal of sex and love and marriage. You will never be free of your former partners, the boys of your past will haunt your marriage like soul-ties. Your virginity belonged to your future husband. You stole from him. If – if! – you ever get married, you’ll have tremendous baggage to overcome in your marriage, you’ve ruined everything. No one honourable or godly wants to marry you. You are damaged goods, Sarah.

Now, maybe Budziszewski would claim, as a Christian, that his view of purity isn’t “a catastrophic judgment creating a state that cannot be rehabilitated.” It certainly shouldn’t be. But he says in this chapter that “There is no purity ‘just for this evening.’ One is pure every evening, or one is not pure” (113). And previously he’s described the results of sexual impurity as a piece of tape that’s lost its stick (20) and spoiled honey (105). Then there’s this lovely image from page 74: “After all my fashionable joinings and severings, rejoinings and reseverings, when I have turned myself into a mass of erotic scar tissue, when at last all feeling has faded from the many-times-amputated stump, even then I may suffer the painful sense of connection to an absent lover, like the phenomenon of phantom limb.”

Those processes—food spoiling, tape losing its stick, amputation(!)—are all irreversible and catastrophic. They lead to ruin without the possibility of rehabilitation.

Further, Beck points out that our talk about sexual purity tends to be gendered. We talk about boys losing their virginity as a stumble or a mistake (something that can be corrected, learned from, and avoided in the future), whereas with girls we talk about contamination (spoiled honey) or permanent loss (a tape’s stickiness). Budziszewski’s two images reflect this gendering: for women, the soul is a fortress that must be defended, “lest the castle be invaded and the garden despoiled” (115); for men, the soul is a rider, horse, and lion, together on a journey towards joy. (In case you’re wondering, the rider represents man’s intelligence, the horse his desires, and the lion his ardor.)

Because this second image involves a journey, it allows for mistakes, straying, and corrections-of-course. Budziszewski writes:

A word against overstatement. Very few of us in this life seem much like molten gold. … Progress down the road is measured not in miles but in inches. Even so, it is measurable. Our efforts become less and less ridiculous; we begin to catch the golden scent of the burning sun even when still far from it. Siegeworks that once would have stopped us, we begin to be able to scale. (119)

So this “male” vision of purity is about progress and gaining something you don’t already have. You can mess up, take a wrong turn and still, somehow, end up pure. It’s hard to see how these allowances could apply to Budziszewski’s “female” image—how a castle could be only slightly invaded, or a garden progressively less despoiled.

To be fair, Budziszewski actually decries the double standard: he says that both images for purity should apply to both men and women. But rather than getting rid of the damaging purity/castle imagery, he wants to add it to the self-mastery/journey imagery that he uses for men. He laments that, for men, it’s harder to see themselves as having an interior that must be guarded and that, presumably, can also be despoiled. However, I can’t find anywhere in the chapter where he suggests that  women should see themselves as warriors on journeys with noble steeds, controlling and directing their own lion-like ardor. That’s telling, I think. It’s almost like the image is inconceivable to him.


[The Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid. Image via wikipedia.]

Rachel Held Evans can picture that image, or something like it. She draws a distinctionbetween a sexual ethic based on purity, which is damaging, and one based on holiness. Holiness for her looks a lot like Budziszewski’s “masculine” purity (minus the broad sword). It’s a path, not a single decision. It’s about self-mastery, not policing boundaries. She writes:

Holiness isn’t about sticking to a list of rules. It isn’t something you either have or don’t have, keep or lose. It’s a way of life, filled with twists and turns, mistakes and growth, uncertainty and reward. And, (to make matters even worse for the fundamentalists), a holy lifestyle often looks different from person to person, though the fruit of the Spirit is the same. 

If you’re not religious, reader, don’t get turned off by her term “holiness.” While her Christian beliefs form the backbone of her thinking, at base all she’s talking about is making good decisions about sexual actions—it’s just ethics, knowing (to quote Budziszewski) that, “the sexual powers are good, but only when exercised by the right person, for the right motives, in the right way, and in the right state” (111). 

The thing is, while Budziszewski’s second, “male” image of purity is kind of dorky, it’s really not objectionable. That’s because it’s not about “purity” at all. And, dorkiness aside, it’s hard to see why that image isn’t sufficient for talking about good sexual behavior, or what his other image adds to the conversation besides shame and anxiety.


[Lions, dragons… same difference. Image from HBO’s Game of Thrones.]

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