Catholic sexual ethics conflict with contemporary culture of sexual freedom

The Gender Studies Program hosted a book club on feminist philospher Amia Srinivasan’s book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century on April 8. Students and faculty discussed the book’s topics: sexual desire and equality, pornography, attraction, sex’s intrinsic relation to social status, and the changing nature of society’s perception, understanding, and acceptance of sex.

The event began with a brief introduction by the event facilitator, Michael Rea, a concurrent faculty member in the Gender Studies Program and the director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion. When asked why he chose this book, Rea responded: “It’s a new and highly accessible book on a topic of clear interest to the gender studies community … [which] has been receiving a lot of attention since its release.”

Amia Srinivasan is a prominent philosopher and professor of political theory at Oxford. The Right to Sex consists of a series of essays on the ideological and political dimensions of sex and desire, with a key focus on the role of institutional power in sexual politics.

Several students who participated in the discussion voiced their surprise in seeing this event advertised. Outside the context of marriage, sex seems to be a taboo topic at Notre Dame, one student argued.

Rea agreed with this impression: “In religious environments especially, people’s sexuality is often a source of shame, and so they are hesitant to be open about it or enter into conversation about the topic.”

While conversations about sex may have been repressed in the past, the past few decades have seen an enormous shift in the stigma of sex in the context of education, legislation, and elite society. Beginning with the sexual revolution of the early sixties, discussions on sexual autonomy, the right to privacy, and new standards of sexual ethics have captivated feminist political theorists and philosophers, specifically advocating for a wider acceptance of sexual desire free from institutional intervention.

In an interview with the Paris Review, Srinivasan said: “[We should] all be a bit more attuned to those instances where we are not listening to desire, but listening to a political force that tells us what we shouldn’t desire.” A proponent of a sex-positive feminist culture, Srinivasan believes in the affirmation of diverse sexual desires, and opposes intervention with individual sexual autonomy through legal measures.

This post-sexual revolution shift in attitude toward sex is reflected on campus as well. Starting in the seventies, Notre Dame experienced a campus-wide attempt to abolish parietals. Furthermore, the university’s decision to end birth control coverage for students and employees—a decision which they later revoked—elicited a negative reaction from the media and students which led to the founding of Irish 4 Reproductive Health: “an all-volunteer, student-led nonprofit organization (501(c)(4)) advocating for reproductive justice at Notre Dame and in our surrounding community.” Even more recently, the student policy proposal for a pornography filter on campus Wi-Fi was rejected by administration.

The university’s attempt to promote a Catholic sexual ethic is summarized in its policy in du Lac: “The University embraces the Catholic Church’s teaching that a genuine and complete expression of love through sex requires a commitment to a total living and sharing together of two persons in marriage. Consequently, students who engage in sexual union outside of marriage may be subject to referral to the University Conduct Process.”

However, some students on campus believe that Notre Dame has done an inadequate job in educating students on the topic of sex and addressing the modern sexual freedoms of broader political society in their policies.

According to Rea, Notre Dame has notoriously been seen as a place where “conversation about sex seems to be stifled,”  and lack of sexual education has been a topic of conversation for years.

Notre Dame was ranked by Teen Vogue as one of the “least sexually healthy” colleges in the country in 2016.Additionally, Kate Bermingham, a doctoral candidate and a founding leader of Irish 4 Reproductive Health, stated in 2018, “Many Notre Dame undergraduates report that [sexual education] is something the student body desperately needs, especially since a significant number of the students attended high schools that had abstinence-only sex ed.”

One student who attended the book discussion articulated her experience within the Catholic culture at Notre Dame, arguing that the culture creates a high-stakes game within dating or hooking up. For her, the Catholic culture and promotion of a ‘dating-for-marriage’ ethic makes any romantic interaction inherently more serious.

Another student observed the presence of a counter-culture to the ‘wait-till-marriage’ ethic within the student body which embraces sexual liberation and freedom. She regards Notre Dame as very polarized on the issue, either only hooking up or only dating for marriage.

Other students, however, feel that this dichotomy is not the case. Fifth-year architecture student Maggie McDonald disagrees: “I do not think talk about sex is stifled at Notre Dame … If the student population thinks talk of sex is stifled, then clearly they do not understand what sex is.”

In a conversation with the Rover, senior Francie Shaft affirmed her support of the administrative protocols promoting a Catholic sexual ethic. In a world with growing freedom and acceptance of sexual autonomy, she believes these policies help to guide students who would otherwise fall into the college social pressure to have sex.

“You expect that in college guys will be around all the time, you will be on birth control, and you will be having sex. By having a rule that says ‘You cannot have guys in your dorm past midnight,’ it sets the expectation that it’s normal not to do so,” Shaft said.

“Of course with any of these rules people will break them—but it’s not about the people who are going to break these rules, it’s about the people who are on the fence about whether or not they should engage in risky behavior … By creating this culture that doesn’t promote things like contraception or pornography or staying the night, Notre Dame is able to promote the Catholic vision of sexuality,” Shaft continued.

Much of the dialogue addressing the topics in Srinivasan’s book centered around Notre Dame’s deficiency of discourse on sex. Students and faculty in the discussion called for reformative sex education, porn literacy courses, abolition of parietals, co-ed dorms, and wider contraceptive access to combat the perceived sexual repression at Notre Dame.

Despite these propositions, McDonald maintains: “I think the rules ND puts in place are designed to promote the Catholic view of sex, which is intrinsically a moral act.”

Merlot Fogarty is a sophomore studying political science, theology, and constitutional studies. Contact her via email to chat, she would love an excuse to drink a cup (or two) of coffee with you!

Photo credit: Rdmsf01, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License