Welcome back to this series on sexual difference! So far we have looked at various ways that our culture describes sexual difference (here and here) and have delved into Scripture and the Catechism on the subject. Now, in Parts 4 and 5, we will examine two phrases – “asymmetrical reciprocity” and “double unity” – that, despite being mouthfuls, are incredibly helpful in illuminating sexual difference.
In his book The Nuptial Mystery, Angelo Cardinal Scola offers the phrase “asymmetrical reciprocity” as a way to understand sexual difference. He writes that “nuptiality,” the complex phenomenon of male-female interactions, “manifests a reciprocity between me and another. This reciprocity bears a very peculiar characteristic which I call ‘asymmetry’” (92).
Reciprocity: From another, For another
Let’s start with the word reciprocity. In common parlance, reciprocal refers to those relationships in which something is exchanged; there is a sense of mutuality; a back-and-forth in which both parties receive what they need. Unrequited love is, by definition, not reciprocal.
For Scola, reciprocity means all of this, and more. The “more” is that for Scola, reciprocity is not something chosen; it is something given. That is, reciprocity is present in our lives even before we ask for it. The very fact that I am born means that I come from another, to whom I am connected (a relationship of reciprocity) well before my consent – and even despite it. Scola writes, “There is not first a wholly autonomous ‘I’ which then enters into relation with an other. The relation is not extrinsic and accidental, but intrinsic and constitutive” (121). What he means is that reciprocity is “built-in” to the human experience. We are through and through reciprocal creatures.
Scola acknowledges that “the ‘other’ is obviously a category broader than that of the ‘other sex’” (93). In some sense, every person presents themselves to me as an “other” – someone with whom to interact who is not reducible to myself. However, Scola continues, “it is undeniable that the original and basic experience of otherness is founded on sexual otherness” (93, bold added). In other words, sexual difference is the paradigm of reciprocity, of otherness, and of relation. When I encounter a person who is sexually different than me, I am eloquently reminded that I do not, in fact, sum up the entirety of what it means to be human. As Scola puts it, “You, woman, are as fully person as I, man. Yet you are this in a way that is radically different from my own, so decisive and so inaccessible. You are, precisely, other” (381).
Asymmetrical: A difference never overcome, open to fruitfulness
Reciprocity, then, highlights the relational character of human persons, and especially of man to woman and woman to man (sexual difference). But what about the qualifier asymmetrical? Scola uses this term to ensure that reciprocity between men and women does not collapse into something akin to Aristophanes’ myth, where man + woman = whole person. If men and women were “halves,” then their relationship would be perfectly symmetrical, and their encounter would erase all difference between them. Instead – and this is key – the sexual difference between men and women is never overcome. Scola says, “Even in the most intimate form of the unity between husband and wife – the biblical ‘one flesh’ – difference is not abolished. The other remains irreducibly ‘other’” (381). Asymmetry ensures, then, that male-female communion in marriage is not a threat to the personal identities of husband and wife. The mystery of the “one-flesh union” is that even in truly becoming one, the two aren’t dissolved into some sort of amorphous uni-creature.
The importance of asymmetry becomes even clearer when we are reminded that it – irreducible difference – is precisely what enables husband and wife to be fruitful! As Scola writes, “The difference between the two (the man and the woman) makes space for a third…The reciprocity does not cancel the difference because it is asymmetrical, since it exists not for the sake of androgynous union of two halves, but for the procreation of the child” (95, emphasis original). Therefore, asymmetry ensures that the relations between a man and a woman never become an enclosed circle, but rather remain open – from within – to the ecstatic eruption of an entirely new person, the child.
Asymmetrical reciprocity is a useful phrase for talking about sexual difference because it expresses both the “built-in” relation between men and women (reciprocity) but also the fact that their relation is never reducible to a tidy equation (asymmetrical). Scola brings out the wholeness of every man and woman as a human person – a wholeness that is nonetheless always receptive to the other.
Next: Another way to talk about sexual difference – “double unity”