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National Marriage Week: Reflecting on Sexual Difference

Posted Feb. 7, 2013 by Marriage Unique for a Reason No comments yet

Today begins National Marriage Week 2013, which will last until Valentine’s Day, February 14. To complement the good work being done pastorally for marriages by the USCCB initiative For Your Marriage, we will be re-running a series that examines in depth the meaning of sexual difference and its importance to marriage. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, “The sexual difference that distinguishes the male from the female body is not a mere biological factor but has a far deeper significance.” We will reflect on that “deeper significance” in this series of posts, seeking to discover the meaning inscribed in the human body and to understand marriage more deeply.

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Sexual Difference Post #1: Shedding Light on Popular Claims (Part 1)

First, let’s clear the pathway, so to speak, by thinking about popular notions about sexual difference and where they fail to capture the full truth.

Is sexual difference a wound or a curse?

The idea of sexual difference as a wound has ancient roots. In the myth of Aristophanes, as recorded by Plato in the Symposium, the world was originally inhabited by androgynous creatures (a combination of man and woman). These four-legged, four-armed beings mounted a failed rebellion against the gods. For their punishment, Zeus split each of them in half, fashioning what we now know to be individual men and women. Previously united as one dual-gendered person, these new sexually-differentiated creatures were doomed to wander the world, searching for their “other half.” Sexual difference, here, is a wound, a punishment, and a scar on humankind’s originally unified existence.

The ancient myth of Pandora also alludes to sexual difference as something negative. Pandora is the first woman, and she is as beautiful as a goddess. But along with her beauty, she brought to men her infamous box. When curiosity overcame her, she opened the box and released every sort of evil, sickness, and disaster upon the earth.

Modern life seems to echo these stories. One only has to watch a few episodes of daytime Court TV or the soaps to see the myriad wounds and pain that men and women inflict on each other: domestic abuse, cheating, shouting matches, and so on. It might seem tempting to say that sexual difference is a wound, and the world would be a better place without it!

But this is not the whole story or even the truth of the matter. As the book of Genesis makes clear, sexual difference is good and a gift from God. In Genesis 1:27, we read, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” And later, “God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good” (1:31). (Note that only here, after the creation of man and woman, the pinnacle of creation, does God find his work not just good but very good.)

It is only after the Fall that problems between the sexes begin. With the first sin, shame, mistrust, accusation and distance enter into Adam and Eve’s relationship (see Gen 3:1-13). As John Paul II puts it, “Instead of being ‘together with the other’…man becomes an object for man: the female for the male and vice versa” (TOB, 32.4). How often have these words been lived out since the dawn of creation! And yet animosity between the sexes is not part of sexual difference, but rather a result of sin.

Is sexual difference a construct of society?

A second common idea about sexual difference is that the differences between men and women are socially constructed.[i] In other words, sexual difference and gender traits are what we – society – make them to be, and thus are infinitely malleable – and effectively meaningless (if not oppressive). It is claimed that, with the proper upbringing, a child could be raised as a boy, or as a girl, or as neither until “he” is old enough to decide for “himself.” (Gendered pronouns are a heated topic in the gender-as-social-construct arena.) As Anne Fausto-Sterling puts it, labeling someone as male or female is a “social decision.”[ii]

But is sexual difference just what we make it? Are gender-specific traits caused entirely by nurture, with no contribution from nature? While the interplay of biology and rearing make it difficult to parse out the precise source of a person’s personality and behavior, there is something more at the root of one’s sexual identity than the dictate of society (see Catechism, nos. 2331-2336: “‘God created man in his own image…male and female he created them’” – no. 2331; “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity” – no. 2333).

Consider the sad story of Bruce/Brenda/David Reimer.[iii] Or consider the testimonies of mothers who, despite making “Herculean efforts” to raise “gender-neutral” children, come to the realization that their daughters will only wear “a dress and tights,” and their sons are obsessed with toy guns, which are officially banned from the household. As one mother relates, her son “quickly learned that Tinker Toys make wonderful guns, and one of his male friends found that even waffles could be used to shoot his dad at breakfast.”[iv] These stories suggest that sexual difference does, after all, have something to do with a person’s body, and that society has less influence on one’s authentic sexual identity than is sometimes assumed.

Next: Two more popular claims about sexual difference, and why they’re problematic

For more on sexual difference, watch the video Made for Each Other and read the companion materials (Viewer’s Guide and Resource Booklet).



[i] See, for example, Judith Lorber, Paradoxes of Gender (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994) and “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (May 12, 2008) at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-gender/#GenSocCon.

[ii] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 3.

[iii] For the complete account of David Reimer’s story, see John Colapinto, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl (New York: Perennial, 2001). See also John Colapinto, “What were the real reasons behind David Reimer’s suicide?Slate (June 3, 2004)

[iv] See Steven E. Rhoads, Taking Sex Difference Seriously (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004), pp. 22-25.

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About the Sexual Difference Series:

What is sexual difference? What is it not? And why does it matter? This series of posts will attempt to answer these questions, in order to shed light on a crucial – but often misunderstood – aspect of marriage: sexual difference. Sexual difference, man to woman and woman to man, is essential for marriage. The posts in this series will by no means say all there is to say about this rich topic, but hopefully they will provide a jumping-off point for further reflection and discussion.

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"We were made for each other, as a man and a woman"

Posted Aug. 30, 2012 by Marriage Unique for a Reason No comments yet

Note: Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reading through the Viewer’s Guide for the video “Made for Each Other.” In the video, married couple Josh and Carrie reflect on the meaning of sexual difference. Each section of the Viewer’s Guide takes a quote from either Josh or Carrie and fleshes it out. The goal of the Viewer’s Guide is to help you, the reader, become more confident in promoting and defending the meaning of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

In the first section, we’ll look at the basic meaning of marriage and the role of reason and faith.

“We were made for each other, as a man and a woman.”

Carrie states something that is very basic. Man and woman are made for each other in a way that is absolutely unique. We see this through their sexual difference, even if we just look to the human body as male or female. God’s plan for men and women is a great one.

Marriage is the lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman. It is more than a legal category. Marriage is a communion of persons, a communion of love between husband and wife meant to be the source of the family and society. God’s vision and plan for marriage is not idealistic. That’s why Jesus referred his interlocutors back to the beginning (see Mt 19:4-6; Mk 10:6-8). [i]

We are meant for union and communion, to be in relation with others. [ii] In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” God’s solution to man’s isolation is not to create another identical man. God’s creation of the animals does not satisfy the longing Adam feels for communion. God creates woman from the body of the man and gives man and woman to each other. Then God says, “For this reason, a man shall leave his mother and father and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Mt 19:5; cf. Gn 2:24).  This is the first marriage.

Even our friends and neighbors who do not accept the truth of the Bible can see the point here. The two becoming one flesh refers to the physical act of sexual intercourse, as well as to the spiritual communion between the man and the woman. People from every religion, or no religion at all, can confirm the power and uniqueness of a man and a woman “becoming one flesh” with each other in marriage.

In other words, the truth of marriage between one man and one woman can be known by human reason through the natural moral law (the law according to the nature of the person, not just biological or physical laws), always with the help of God’s grace. The truth of marriage is not only a concern of the Church or religion—it’s truth for everyone. As Catholics, we also understand that faith sheds light on marriage. Christ raised marriage between the baptized to be a sacramental image of his love for the Church. Faith and reason don’t conflict here. In fact, they never do. [iii]

Next: more about sexual difference and complementarity


[i] See Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB), trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 1 – 4 (audience numbers); Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis Splendor (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1993), nos. 22 and 53.

[ii] See Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], nos. 45, 371-372, 1603-1604, and 1877-1879.

[iii] See CCC, no. 159.

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Sunday Pope Quote: JPII on the divine "We" and sexual difference

Posted Dec. 4, 2011 by Marriage Unique for a Reason No comments yet

 

Bl. Pope John Paul II: “In the light of the New Testament it is possible to discern how the primordial model of the family is to be sought in God himself, in the Trinitarian mystery of his life. The divine ‘We’ is the eternal pattern of the human ‘we,’ especially of that ‘we’ formed by the man and the woman created in the divine image and likeness. The words of the Book of Genesis contain that truth about man which is confirmed by the very experience of humanity. (more…)

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Sexual difference: "Double unity"

Posted Dec. 3, 2011 by Marriage Unique for a Reason No comments yet

This is the fifth post in our series about sexual difference.

Earlier posts:

In this post, we’ll look at a second helpful way of understanding sexual difference, one that is found in Pope John Paul II’s The Theology of the Body, where the Holy Father speaks of “double unity” or “dual unity.” (more…)

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Sexual difference: Going back to the "beginning"

Posted Nov. 29, 2011 by Marriage Unique for a Reason No comments yet

Today’s post is the third in a series about sexual difference.

Previous posts:

  • Sexual Difference: Shedding light on popular claims (part one)
  • Sexual Difference: Shedding light on popular claims (part two)

In this post, we will examine Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) on the subject of sexual difference. (more…)

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Sexual difference: Shedding light on popular claims (I)

Posted Nov. 21, 2011 by Marriage Unique for a Reason 2 comments

Today’s post is the first in a series about sexual difference. Stay tuned for more!

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First, let’s clear the pathway, so to speak, by thinking about popular notions about sexual difference and where they fail to capture the full truth.

Is sexual difference a wound or a curse? (more…)