In our day and age, where topics concerning sex are frequently talked about and seen everywhere, it is hard to believe that there was a time in which, under Catholic ideology in the 4th century, and then becoming doctrine & dogma in the Middle Ages, dictated that sex between married couples was ONLY to be for the purpose of procreation.
Pleasure and sex – or having sex for pure pleasure and bonding in marriage – was prohibited, especially for wives, who “were admonished to avoid enjoying themselves; it was sufficient to welcome one’s husband as a passive recipient, but to share his ardor was expressly forbidden.”*
Thank goodness today this is not something either the Catholic church deliberately teaches, or the Protestant denominations; however, this religious attitude and background surrounding sex often does still impact many Christ followers – often to the detriment of their well-being or the demise of their marriage relationship. Many Catholic “good girls” find it hard to enjoy sex in marriage, and many Catholic men find it hard to view their wife as a sexual being.
There is the Madonna – Whore complex, where once married, a Catholic man often finds it hard to desire his angelic, pure wife (who he assumes doesn’t like sex – or who he thinks sex wouldn’t “feel good” to), over a woman who is sinful and promiscuous. He has problems lusting after the promiscuous woman because in his mind, only a woman like her could enjoy or want sex, which in turn, gives him insurmountable feelings of guilt.
Even in marriage, unless he has a strong biblical (not Catholic) view on sex in marriage, he might be plagued with addiction to porn, cybersex, or prostitutes. This is not what God wanted.
Again, sexuality and sexiness is equated with promiscuity and sinfulness in the mind of many Catholics even today. But where did it come from? How did such a perverse view of biblical, wonderful, mutually pleasurable sex get so messed up in Christianity? Surely it didn’t come from King Solomon’s take on sexual bliss in marriage (ie. the whole book of Song of Solomon), or even from the European Jewish wedding vows in the Middle Ages which openly alluded to sex between the two lovers.*
Once the stigma was placed on sex in marriage for Catholicism, many men and women felt licensed to leave their spouses and often times children in order to pursue a religious life of celibacy and devotion to God. Saints Jerome and Augustine brought forth the idea that “marriage, at best, was a necessary evil,” and that sex itself – even if it was good for procreation, made one less holy because it came from the flesh. This caused many families to be disrupted and broken up, many marriages to experience decades of turmoil, all due to this religious assurance that marriage and sex were a necessary evil.
One woman’s personal story tells of how this perverse religious view of sex unraveled not only her marriage, but also her mind and sanity. Margery Kempe, born in 1373, married at age 20, experienced a supposed form of post partum psychosis after the birth of her first child (the first of 14 children!), and recovered after a vision of Christ. She writes of herself in her autobiography (in 3rd person):
And after this time she never had any desire to have sexual intercourse with her husband, for paying the debt of matrimony was so abominable to her that she would rather, she thought, have eaten and drunk the ooze and muck in the gutter than consent to intercourse, except out of obedience.
And so she said to her husband, “I may not deny you my body, but all the love and affection of my heart is withdrawn from all earthly creatures and set on God alone.” But he would have his will with her, and she obeyed with much weeping and sorrowing…. And often this creature advised her husband to live chaste and said that they had often (she well knew) displeased God by their inordinate love, and the great delight each of them had in using the other’s body, and now it would be a good thing if by mutual consent they punished and chastised themselves by abstaining from the lust of their bodies.
Its amazing to hear her voice come through so clearly on this topic… the “debt of matrimony” being so “abominable,” … her hating sex and feeling so much guilt over their marriage bed to the point of rather engaging in something as disgusting as eating and drinking from the gutter! Its incredibly hard to imagine that such a religious stigma against married sex ever existed, but it offers an explanation as to why many religious people (Catholic or not) have unconscious or deeply buried negative feelings surrounding the acceptance sex being “wonderful” and God-given for pleasure.
Its also very important to note the affect of her guilt and assurance that God hated sexual pleasure on her marriage to her husband. She put him in the ridiculous position of desiring to have a healthy, sexual marriage with his wife, while causing her to weep and sorrow over their engagement in sex!
The only other option for him was to become a celibate husband, sexually frustrated and missing a deep part of the most bonding event in a marriage.
The Catholic Church deliberately stepped between the ability of a husband and wife to “become one” with each other, putting a stumbling block in the way of their marriage.
How did their story end? What became of their marriage or sex life?
After some time, her husband, when asked about the subject, felt “that he was made so afraid when he would have touched her, that he dared do no more.” Her religious assurance that God hated sex, and her weeping and acting like a martyr during intercourse finally succeeded in her getting her way. Eventually, she persuaded her husband to allow her to take an official vow of chastity, and to travel on pilgrimages to Israel, Italy, and Spain.* They parted on good terms, with her husband encouraging her to give her body as freely to God as she had given it to him.
Her story was not at all unique for this time period – hers is merely one of the only ones of which we have personal insight into due to her leaving behind her autobiography. Many holy women were mothers and wives who had chosen to abandon their children & spouses, the church didn’t look down on this as being a neglectful and bad wife or mother, but encouraged by making marriage into some kind of unbiblical “necessary evil.”
Its important to note that Margery Kempe gives hardly any mention to her children in her autobiography. She was primarily concerned (her entire life) with her own purity, chastity, and like a classic martyr or victim, she was mostly concerned with her own perceived hardship in life – that of merely being a wife and mother.
This same preoccupation with self and one’s own hardships (and total dismissal of one’s responsibilities or empathy for those who depended on her) is something that would surprisingly turn up centuries later in the minds of early feminists who also left their husbands and children in order to pursue a life centered on themselves.
The similarities between these medieval religious women who rejected the biblical model of wife and motherhood, and the feminists of the 1800’s through to today who likewise reject the biblical model of wife and motherhood, is intriguing and gives us more knowledge as to what affects a marriage or the role of a woman in her society.
*Quotes, etc. from A History of the Wife by Marilyn Yalom, 2002