The Other I

June 20, 2008

Learning to say yes meaning being able to say no

After the whiff during my grade school days of an introduction into the unauthorized sex life of the Catholic clergy, my next wave of revelations came after I left the convent.  Chronologically I was twenty-six, but in terms of sexual awareness, I was still an eighteen-year old raised in a totally Catholic family in the 1940’s and 50’s in midwest America.  I’d even gone to an all-girl boarding high school taught by nuns.  I was released into the New York City of the late 1960’s and 70’s, into the world of civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests, of hippies and flower children and free love.  Academically I flourished, but in terms of understanding the sexual signals I was both sending and receiving, I was completely out of my depth.

I’d revolted against the concept of sex that seemed to permeate any discussion of the topic in my family, which managed at the same to to present it as something shameful and embarrassing while remaining somehow “sacred,” a fiendish turn-off for sexual enjoyment.  But though I’d given up my adherence to the Catholic teaching that sex belonged exclusively within marriage, I was without any anchoring principles to take its place.  I didn’t sit down and think about it, but vaguely assumed that it was fine to sleep with anyone at anytime if the spirit so took me.  There were several problems with this modus vivendi.  The first was that, even when the spirit did not so take me and in the absence of any sexual attraction on my part, I had no skill or confidence about saying no.  I’d been socialized as a good Catholic girl to please, especially to please my father, and by extension to please men.  So I found myself in compromising situations more often than I wanted.

The second thing I did not appreciate at the time was that I was not the only one who was at sea.  I thought everyone else was so terribly sophisticated and experienced about sex, that they knew how the game was played, and were enjoying it all immensely.  I missed the anxiety and pain and rejections that were not solely restricted to me.

After I left the convent, several priests stayed in contact with me.  One evening, Father D invited himself for dinner to the studio apartment where I lived alone.  We shared a bottle of wine and the chicken casserole I’d prepared, and he told me he’d fallen in love with his best friend’s wife and that the night before they’d had sex.  He was still an active priest, and was struggling with his realization that the one reason he would leave the priesthood – to marry this woman – was not on offer.  At what I thought was the end of the evening, I went into the back hall to retrieve his coat.

When I returned, Father D was standing there totally undressed.  “I want to have sex with you,” he said.  “I can’t have Arleen tonight.  Will you be there for me instead?”

I had never given him any signals that I was interested in him – in fact, I found him rather boring and dull.  and I am not the type to relish being a stand-in lover for the unknown unattainable Arleen.  And so I would like to say, dear reader, that I said an emphatic No.  But I didn’t know how to manage saying no without making him angry.  Consequently, I used a much more cowardly technique.  I submitted to his request without pleasure, showing absolutely no emotion and remaining cold and rigid.  When he finished, he put on his clothes and left, and I never saw him again.  Not, I will say, to my regret.

Mostly I’ve tended to blame Father D for taking advantage of me and betraying his commitment as a priest.  But there was another protagonist in this story, and that was me.  I wasn’t raped.  I was simply too lacking in a sense of self to stand up for my own wishes.  But if I found that, having discarded the unyielding Catholic strictures concerning sexual behavior, I was at a loss, there is every reason to think that so were many priests.  They were as naive and ungrounded as I was, and wandered into unsatisfying, unfulfilling relationships the same way I did.

With time, I did find my own set of principles.  With time, I decided that it was my responsibility to say yes and to say no in response of sexual advances.  It was up to me to decide what I wanted and with whom and when.  Father D was not the last priest to make advances to me.  But he was the last time I didn’t say no.

So I did learn something from our unsatisfactory encounter.  I hope that he somehow did too.

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