O’Connor speaks on sex, gender relations, and marriage

At the Identity Project of Notre Dame’s sixth annual Edith Stein Project this February, David O’Connor gave a lecture entitled, “She May be My Wife: How a Real Man Looks at Women.” In the following interview, he continues this discussion.  O’Connor is a professor of philosophy and classics at the University of Notre Dame. His class, titled “Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love,” is currently featured on Notre Dame’s open courseware.

What should a man see when he looks at a woman?  How would you say men tend to see women?

The title of my talk was “She May be My Wife: How a Real Man Looks at Women.”  So that gives you an idea of my answer to that question.  The short version is that you see a world of wives.

That doesn’t mean that everybody’s vocation is going to be to be married, but the vast majority of people’s (vocation) is to be married.  That’s not because it’s an easy vocation.  It’s because people have moral and spiritual resources they didn’t realize they have and that people are much better than they realize they are.

The way a husband learns to love his wife is over time.  It’s too much to expect that a young man who hasn’t had the formative experience of living inside of a marriage will have that much “self” to give to somebody.  It’s not unrealistic to think that a young man can see it as . . . a project of self-formation, which includes grace as well as nature.  It’s not all just self-assertion.  It’s accepting something as well as making something.  A young man can see himself as becoming the kind of person who can treat a woman the way that he should treat his wife.

Included in how you should treat your wife is, of course, finding her sexually attractive.  That’s an aspect of seeing a woman as a potential wife – or, for that matter, as seeing a woman as somebody else’s wife, to understand that she has a sexual life with another man.  This is part of what it is to be able to see a woman as a whole, so to speak.

There are a lot of questions on campus about gender issues and how those play out.  One of the topics for contention, especially among students, is parietals and single-sex dorms.  What role do you think those play in developing these relationships between men and women and how they we see each other?  Do you think those aid or hurt those interactions?

Well, a natural situation for men and women of college age is that there’s a certain amount of sexual energy, which includes sexual tension in their relationships.  Relationships between men and women aren’t simply the same as relationships between two men or between two women.  That seems to me completely healthy and unavoidable.

This [sexual tension] is not a gender problem.  It’s like waking up in the morning and thinking you’ve got a gravity problem because you can’t fly through the air.  It’s just part of the structure of the human world.

I’m skeptical about a lot of the things that are called gender problems being problems at all.  They’re a natural part of the differences between men and women and that the way men and women relate to each other has a kind of complexity that’s exciting.

During your talk, you talked about how it’s natural for men and women to be clothed, and to try to put oneself out there as a naked person is kind of like trying to put on a “skin-suit.”  What is that?

Nakedness is a costume, or a disguise.  It’s not a way to be seen.  It’s a way to present oneself in a shocking way.  So nakedness is rarely the accomplishment of easy nature.  It’s instead a kind of a shock to what’s naturally social about us.  [It’s] a kind of metaphor for the way sexuality is in contemporary culture.

People are naturally rather embarrassed and shy about displaying signs of sexual attraction to somebody else.  That’s a natural part of human life.  There’s a kind of discretion about it, a kind of privacy about it.  If it weren’t for that kind of discretion and privacy, there wouldn’t be such a thing as flirting.

Can men and women be friends?  What is the difference between friendship and the romantic relationship?

I don’t think that a romantic relationship is friendship primarily, and then has some other aspects to it.  That’s a fundamental mistake.  An erotic relationship is a relationship that brings with it that special energy of sexual attraction, which is not in some limited way physical at all, that kind of special energy you have when you find somebody attractive like that; I don’t think that relationship is one form of friendship among others.

It’s a different kind of relationship.  Now, of course there can be friendships between men and women where the primary relationship is friendship.  There’s a contemporary ideology that says that should be their primary relationship, so that the specialness of the attraction is all made a secondary thing.  That’s a fundamental mistake. If you really want to form romantic relationships with somebody, you don’t want to make everybody that enters your social world just a friend.  That’s not a good strategy.

So what is development of this romantic relationship?  What do you think that should look like?  What are the kinds of things that are appropriate for those people to be doing?

I guess one of the things I would say is that, if you’re developing a romantic relationship with somebody and you’re in your 20’s, whether you like it or not,  you have to decide pretty early on: Is this on the path toward marriage or isn’t it?

Any couple who’s in college who dates exclusively for two years and doesn’t know if they’re engaged or not . . . they’re fooling themselves.  At this age, you’re not kids. I take college students extremely seriously as adults.  If you’re dating somebody exclusively, exclusively in the sense that you would feel a sense of betrayal if they dated somebody else, you’re engaged.  That’s just what being engaged is.  You haven’t set a date yet, but you’ve done all the things that isolate your romantic energies and focus them on a single person.  That’s what it is to be engaged, and it only makes sense to be in that kind of relationship if you bring to consciousness that you’re deciding whether to marry each other.  And if you’ve decided the person you’re dating is someone you don’t want to marry, it doesn’t matter how much it’s going to hurt; you need to break up with them.

What is casual dating?  Is that acceptable?

I don’t have any objection to it.  I wish there were more of it.  I don’t think there is very much of it.  Dates are often invested with an awful lot of emotional energy.  Two dates come pretty close to establishing exclusivity for a lot of people.  That seems to me a mistake.  How would you get to know people?

In relationships where sexual contact starts very early on in the dating relationship, it tends to drive the relationship toward a false seriousness and exclusivity.  And so a kind of patience and honesty about how big a deal it is to have sex with somebody, whether that’s intercourse or not, more honesty about how much that really means to people, would make people much slower to get involved in that kind of relationship.  And that would take some of the heat off of each and every date. And it would make it possible to date more people.

If, by casual dating, you mean having casual sex with a number of people, well, that’s a different life-form, isn’t it?  That doesn’t put you in a very good position to get to the place where you can focus your romantic energy on a single individual.  That just disperses you.

At the conference, there was a lot of discussion of discernment of one’s vocation and going through the process of that.  What is that, and what does that entail?

I’m not a big discernment guy.  I’m a decision guy.  Discernment sounds like we’re all like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, and we’re going to be knocked off a horse.  I don’t doubt that there’s a certain kind of quietness and reception that goes on.  And I’m happy not to call that discernment, but with discernment, it’s too easy for that to mean waiting.  Sometimes you need to decide and go do something.  I would like more students to be deciding on their vocation and fewer of them to be discerning their vocation.

I think that for lots of earnest young Catholics, the talk of discernment is just a Catholic fig leaf thrown over the general culture’s constant postponement of marriage because of a lack of belief in their own moral resources to really be married.

What role does the cultivation of good friendships among men, or among women, play in the preparation for and maintaining of marriage.  Or does it play a role at all?

Oh, it does.  Here’s one thing that used to play a very important role in preparing people for marriage: learning how to get along with your brothers and sisters.  Except in unusually bad cases, people don’t have sex with their brothers and sisters, but they learn an awful lot of lessons from what it’s like to be a family from their brothers and sisters.

People who come from small families, where there’s less of that kind of learning within the family of what it takes to live with other people on a day-to-day basis, start out behind the curve a bit, compared to people who come from families where that really is a set of skills and expectations and moral habits that you build up.  Life within your family is the single most important part of your formation.  (It provides) the establishment of a strong habit base that makes you someone who could be a husband or a wife or a mother or a father.

What role to college-level friendships, the sort of quick intimacies that dorm life promote, play?  Little.  Those don’t tend to be relationships that drive people toward maturity, toward that kind of habitual giving of self to other people’s needs that life in a family often does.  Marriage is its own thing.  It’s quite different from any of the moral habits that may get developed through the kind of intimacy that’s so natural in social groups and in conversation groups that form through dorm life.