Saturday, August 11, 2012

Is Sex Sacred? Fathers and Boys in the News

Two prominent news stories in the past few weeks may seem at first disparate, unrelated and quite historically and culturally removed from each other. However, to my mind, both raise serious issues of attitudes towards sex and children in any society.
One story involves the tawdry revelations surrounding baby-faced Alfie, the boy said to have conceived a child with a fourteen year old girl, at the age of just twelve. Although at the time the news of the birth 'broke out' there were whispers that there were other, slightly older and more physically developed contenders for the title, no longer poor Alfie's, following the results of a recent DNA test. To give Alfie credit, he proclaimed his willingness to take responsibility for his actions, even though he did not understand the meaning of the word 'financially'. Perhaps one of the financially astute grown-ups capitalising on the cherubic features of 'father' and child could have explained. Max Clifford, who took on the role of publicist, or the girl's father, who appeared in public wearing a devil mask?
Masquerading behind the face of Christ, it could be said, were the priests exposed as having sexually abused many boys in Catholic institutions in Ireland, between the 1930's and 1990's. Children who were truants, deemed delinquent in some way, or the progeny of single mothers were amongst those sent to these establishments, presumably for their own good and protection.
So what do these stories share in common? Both have elements of a vulnerable underclass, child protection issues and therefore, the matter of prevention being an important strategy in the task of protection. On one hand we have a group of disadvantaged children being used for the gratification of adults who were supposed to care for and educate them both spiritually and academically. On the other we have gratuitous sex among older children, in the context of high rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, particularly, though certainly not exclusively, amongst a low educated, low-aspirational section of our society. A void also seems to be the common ground here. What needs to be put in its place?
John Banville, who grew up in an Irish Catholic institution run by the Christian Brothers, wrote in the New York Times recently, "What happened to them within those unscalable walls was no concern of ours. We knew, and did not know. That is our shame today."
The shame of Alfie's story is that we know, are told too much, and do not seem to know, or want to know, what to do about it. Our teenagers function in what has been described as a 'porn culture', without much, apparently, being presented to address the balance in our largely secular society.
Having personally experienced some of the down-side consequences of a Roman Catholic convent school education. I am therefore, not advocating a return to the ignorance, dualism, guilt and idealism of such traditions, nor do I want to take the fun and freedom out of sexual expression. I am proposing that we offer our children a much more wholesome view of sex, that places it firmly in the context of loving relationships, holistic health and wellbeing. Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who survived concentration camps in World War II, noted an absence of sexual perversion in the camps. In the face of extreme and total deprivation, sex ceased to become a concern, and that, apart from a longing for food, generally, Frankl said that it was the 'higher emotions' which manifested in the inmates' dreams. In his magnificent book, 'Man's Search For Meaning', he says:
"Love is as primary a phenomenon as sex. Normally, sex is a mode of expression for love. Sex is justified, even sanctified, as soon as, but only as long as, it is a vehicle of love. Thus love is not understood as a mere side effect of sex; rather, sex is a way of expressing the experience of that ultimate togetherness which is called love."
I cannot think of a better way to explain the connection. And if we seek to emphasise to our children that, apart from having the physical equipment and skills, sex is a pleasurable act which requires trust, responsibility and respect, if not love, it may be elevated, if not to the sacred, then at least above the profane.

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