How may we best tell stories about sex?
Or — more usefully, since that topic’s so friggin’ huge and complex — how do we tell any part in such a way that even a wee tale might provide insight into the vast whole?
More insight has been our crying need since just about forever.
I recall, with mingled awe, regret and embarrassment, getting “the talk” from my dad. This was at age 11, after wet dreams began to deposit irrefutable evidence of adolescence onto my sheets. So, my mom was prompted to turn informant.
The most agonizing aspect of my dad’s sex briefing was that he served up its amazingly thin gruel in two meager portions. The first saucer was handed over as he drove me to a Boy Scout meeting. The shallow finale, which I’d begun to dread, got delivered on our car ride home.
MEETING THE REAL SLIM PICKENS
I remember sitting in the Plymouth sedan for several long minutes after he’d closed his door and walked away. My sense was, I’d just been sold a bill of grotesquely inferior goods. The core of his message was a parable of birds and bees. Barely a sentence of his tone-deaf soliloquy had to do with any body parts remotely resembling my own.
I’d neither been enriched nor enlightened. I’d been impoverished, deprived of an opportunity to learn. The half-baked speculations and idiot jokes of my grammar school playground actually held better intel than anything he’d offered.
I can best summarize my father’s paltry dialectic by regaling you with his final point: should I experience a bout of inconvenient lust, my recommended cure would be to take a long, cold shower — an Rx I reckoned that he’d invoked on just about zero occasions in his own life.
A person of a more forgiving nature might say, “Well hey, at least the guy tried.” This defense won’t stand for a simple reason: it’s untrue. He didn’t try in the slightest. A better defense might be that his lame, pro forma performance was of a piece with the ignorant, trite, mendacious, shame-filled approach to sex on offer from much of the rest of human society all across the face of our benighted globe, for literal millennia on end.
HOW DO WE NOT GET THIS RIGHT?
So, here’s my gripe, in a nutshell: How can a supposed civilization limp along for roughly 10,000 years, and not come up with better ways to introduce young people to their own sexuality — the wellspring of our existence, as well as an unrelenting force which prompts the course of much of our lives?
Humanity has somehow managed to evade achieving a more sublime and substantial level of instruction in this matter. That doesn’t beggar the imagination, it buggers it.
You might think that my education in sexual matters did not, and could not, improve after I entered a Catholic seminary to turn myself into a priest. Well, yes and no. I did acquire a few details on comparative anatomy. And I scored a chapter of deep learning on same-sex phenomena when one of the priests on the faculty got me drunk, then attempted to seduce me.
I astonish myself now when I recall how ably I foiled his plot. It transformed the ordeal into a satisfying episode — one of the more empowering of my entire time at this institution.
COSSACKS IN CASSOCKS
I entered seminary at age 13, the earliest I could go. My basic idea at the time of my admission was: humanity should grant heed to the messages of Jesus. I felt I had a modest gift to assist in fostering a beneficial boost to the project.
Vows of poverty a priest had to take didn’t scare me; I’d grown up poor, and so already was skilled at scraping by. A vow of celibacy might prove dicey, yet it was still one I felt I could handle. Next door to the seminary was a Catholic high school that held frequent dances. At night, peering through a chainlink fence, I could see bright lights, people twirling, a few couples strolling around or sneaking a canoodle beneath the shade of trees.
I armored myself against amore by thinking, “These are experiences I shall never have in this life. I won’t hug a girl, won’t kiss one… or do any of that other stuff. So, I must make my peace with such a lack and somehow rise above it.”
However, amid my long stretch at “the sem,” I realized a giant hurdle that stood between me and the altar was the priesthood’s third vow, that of obedience. It grew to an unscalable height as I got to know the bosses of the diocese, people whom I’d ultimately be forced to obey. Men like its bishop, Coleman F. Carroll, who sought in vain to plaster over his grumpy core with a garrulous bonhomie.
THE MALE GAZE
A same-sex subculture at the seminary also popped up in a few confusing ways. Father R, our priest who taught biology, unbosomed himself of comments that I deemed rather weird. He pointed out on a diagram where the most sensitive parts of a penis were located — quite handy advice if one wished to masturbate or give a someone else a blow, despite such amusements being banned by the Faith as mortal sins. He also joked, using a goofy Italian accent, about the human anal sphincter as being, “a most ex-squeeze-it muscle.”
Also within our orbit was a group of seminarians of rather ladylike aspect. Whenever a skit or a theatrical part could mean dressing up in drag, they dove for that chance like a shot. And when not performing, these guys tended to clump together and giggle.
In contrast, the priest who came on to me seemed quite straight. It’s why I never suspected that I was being groomed. Father C taught us English, history, and writing courses. It delighted me that he and I could converse about Pound, Eliot and Faulkner, in a deeper way than I could with any classmate. It made me feel an intellectual equal. It also pleased me that he took my flailing stabs at crafting poems seriously. He’d regularly give my pieces close reads, and offer constructive criticism.
It thrilled me, then, that our relationship proved strong enough and special enough that we could devise a plan to go see a film together, this on a weekend when the seminary had emptied out — all students had been sent home for a break.
SLEIGHT OF HAND
Which film did Father C select? A literary one: Zeffirelli’s “Romeo & Juliet.” Critics had acclaimed it as a top cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare. That this film also was reckoned as romantic, even erotic, well, it was pure coincidence.
I then was all of 17, owned a motorcycle, and thought myself remarkably adult for my years. In truth, I remained a naïve and inexperienced kid. And my supposed maturity was about to undergo a test of daunting rigor. I rode my bike up to the sem, Father C requisitioned a faculty car, we trotted off in the early evening to watch the movie. When we returned, he invited me to his room to discuss it.
His place was on the top floor of one of the seminary’s two high school buildings; at the time, he was its resident prefect. He had a small suite of two rooms: a front office with chairs, a desk and a couch, and a back bedroom. For restroom facilities, however, he had to use the dorm’s general bathrooms.
As we nattered on about the film, Father C surprised me by asking if I’d care to sip some whiskey. Why yes, I would! How kind of him to offer, and how adult of me to accept. He poured us some tawny fluid over ice in a pair of tumblers, and as we sipped we proceeded to debate what The Bard might’ve liked, or not, about this version of his tragedy of the star-crossed lovers. He poured me some more.
WADE IN THE WATER
Then he said brightly, “Hey, why don’t we go for a swim?” Odd suggestion. However, the seminary did boast a good pool, and I’d never been in it at night, and I was feeling warm and relaxed and up for something different. I pointed out that I didn’t have a swimsuit. Father C said that was okay, he could loan me a spare one. He displayed the wares on offer: a couple of Speedos.
On Florida’s more sybaritic beaches, such rigs were dubbed “banana hammocks.”
Right then, I should’ve known our evening was about to veer off the rails. However, I aimed to be polite, so I said sure, and retired to the dorm bathrooms to change into his skimpy gonadal sling. On our way out to the pool, he kept staring at me, which, more than the whiskey, had me feeling a mite strange. Once in the water, he kept on staring, as if seeking to transmit a message via telepathy. However, I was not receiving. I’d come to swim, and that was precisely what I intended to do.
One of my favorite pool activities, then as now, was to swim breath-hold underwater laps, deploying the breaststroke. I was moving steadily along on the bottom when I ran into Father C’s legs. He’d positioned himself to intercept me. When I surfaced to find out what the hell he wanted, he said, “Aha! You come forth from the briny deep… and no one is waiting for you.”
Say what? No one? Aren’t you doing just that, Father C? And, um, not that I think I really hope to know, but what more precisely might it be that particular thing which you await?
SIDLE TO THE EXIT
Perhaps the guy was more than a little high, himself. Anyway, his outburst made me feel even stranger, as well as threatened. I told him I was done swimming, it was late, it was time for me to ride home. He acquiesced, and we returned to his suite. Whereupon he prevailed on me to have “one for the road.” Not wishing to depart on a rude note, I accepted.
Don’t know what Father C put in my drink other than booze, but it must’ve been something potent. Maybe a Valium. Fairly quickly, I felt woozy and the room spun. I plonked my tail down on his couch and fought to get my bearings. Father C smiled at me, said he was going to go shower off the pool’s chlorine, but he’d be right back.
The door closed. I looked at it. I understood I didn’t want it to open again. And if it swung open, I truly didn’t wish to see Father C come back through it. Next, I realized there was a simple thing I could do to ensure that this wouldn’t happen. I twisted the doorknob’s locking button — one final, triumphant chess move accomplished before I flopped over onto my back and passed out.
An hour, or an hour-and-a-half or so, ticked by.
MY WAKE-UP CALL
I was roused by a noise of soft yet frantic tapping on the door. Took me a second of befuddled reevaluation before I recalled where I was and the identity of the person seeking to get inside. I smiled grimly, yanked off my Speedo and let it plop in the center of his desk. I dawdled, taking my time as I pulled every stitch of my own clothing back on. I found great satisfaction in buckling my belt securely. Finally, I opened the door.
Father C stood there with the shriveled, sniveling demeanor of a whipped cur. During the long period when my untutored liver fought to cope with what he’d poured into me, that guy had been forced to sit or stand or perhaps kneel outside his own door with naught but his Speedo and a damp towel for company.
This actually had been a best-case scenario for him. Since if another priest happened to show up — and had glimpsed Father C in that condition, with a drunken young seminarian locked in his room — his whole sanctified career might’ve flamed out like a tumbling meteorite.
A development he’d likely begun to visualize.
This highly dignified and mildly pompous man who’d promenaded at the fore of many of my classes now resembled nothing so much as a puppy caught crapping on a carpet, who knows he’s busted, who lies on his side, guiltily touching nose to tail, and who rolls beseeching eyes as he begs not to be spanked.
I simply said good night, walked downstairs, kickstarted my motorcycle and rode on home.
COMING INTO COMPREHENSION
I never reported him to the faculty. In fact, I never sullied his rep before this moment by relating my tale to any other soul. He did seem to me to be sufficiently chastened. During my ensuing two years at the seminary, I was not quite rude to him, but I was completely cool. Father C’s opinions, to me, no longer held a single speck of value. And, of course, I’d never again put myself alone in a room with that SOB. Not until or unless the seminary pool froze over and a league of winged pigs could be seen playing ice hockey on it.
Meanwhile, my busy brain went on to formulate opinions of its own. Concerning same-sex matters, I realized that the lifestyle of the ancient Greeks had by no means come to an end during ancient times. My eyes had been opened. Clearly, the understandings about sex I’d been fed were highly superficial. Plenty of other stuff churned away below the surface of my culturally-promulgated suppositions.
It came as no real shock when another guy in my class, Seminarian J, invited me to his junior college dorm room for a few refreshing vodka gimlets, then asked me to give him a hug. He seemed sad, and he was a friend, so I gave him a hug. Then he said he needed something more. I told him he’d just gotten all he’d ever get, and walked out.
Six years after entering, I left that seminary for good. I graduated from FSU with a summa cum laude in English (with an emphasis on poetry), and rode a much bigger motorcycle all the way out to California. Six years after that, I returned to Florida for a visit.
Here’s a good spot for me to drop my favorite quote from Camus.
It’s from his famed novel, “The Plague”: “What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?” // “I don’t know. My… my code of morals, perhaps.” // “Your code of morals. What code, if I may ask?” // “Comprehension.”
THE BOYS IN THE BRAND
On this return trip, I made a point of visiting two of my former companions in the seminary. One was Seminarian T, who at that time was working with Haitian refugees, and later became an archbishop. The other was Seminarian J, now ordained and serving at a parish near the seminary. He’d tried to seduce me, but I took no umbrage, since we were about the same age, and there had been no subterfuge or predatory aspect. I still found this guy likeable, albeit at arm’s length.
In his parish rectory, I visited a while with Father J (the former Seminarian J). I also met another priest, an older man, Monsignor D, who had been my pastor when I was a kid. He was the cleric who’d enjoined me to enter the seminary way back when. After I saw these two guys together, it was obvious they were in an amorous relationship. All of their body language, the way they gazed at each other and spoke to each other made their affection palpable and vivid. We sat around a table, drank tea, and had a conversation in which they both urged me to return to the clergy. I demurred and said farewell.
I drove away thinking, “Whew! Saw signs of it before, yet never knew till now how gay the Church really is.”
At this point, decades later, I won’t allege that venerable outfit is entirely gay. However, I feel certain it’s an immense distance from being entirely straight. Whether the Church’s current inmates seek to gaslight us with solemn claims to the contrary, or not.
I could see how the institution might bend this way over the centuries, as a refuge for men who found life “in the world” brutal and cold, who felt more drawn to a life of calm contemplation and delicate artistry, and who enjoyed the messages of love and forgiveness — not to mention feeling drawn to each other.
Plus, they could score lots of chances to dress in fancy vestments whilst parading about before a worshipful throng. Looked at in a certain light, the aisle of a cathedral during high mass bears much more than a scant resemblance to a glittering fashionista’s runway. Right?
SO, CAN WE TALK?
A few other takeaways from my meditations upon these matters….
Celibacy is a spiritual practice of a high order, one that should be undertaken only by a select few. Making that practice a general requirement is ludicrous; it only sets your institution up for failure. Simple chastity — which could be defined as a caring and careful and moral use of sexuality — is a far more achievable and thus advisable goal.
Should priests be permitted to marry? Should women be priests? Sure, yeah, of course. Such developments would be only natural. In fact, even allowing priests to marry each other might make for a far more sanity-inducing set of rubrics. Accepting these changes could render the Church more honest, enduring, viable, and much healthier for all parties.
Monks can figure things out for themselves. By now, they should be good at it.
But, let’s fix this. Human society has got far bigger fish to fry. Like, survival.
Human sexuality is potent and pervasive, it’s also fungible. We enter this life as pan-sexual, able to seek pleasure and contact in all sorts of ways. But after we get our legs under us and move on through the years, our wild and unruly bushes progressively get pruned into a personal topiary, this via the snipping shears of cultural conditioning, discovered preference, and somewhat intended choices.
I myself have opted for a plain, white bread, cisgender palette. It’s what I can best handle without growing distracted or confused. Still, I endeavor to understand other paths, both to be able to relate personally to other individuals, and to render myself able to craft fictional characters who reflect humanity’s options.
If people don’t abuse each other and don’t scare the horses, as long as they see lies and betrayal and heartbreak as phenomena to shun, while seeing loyal, sincere and nurturing contacts as goals worthy of pursuit, I’ll make no argument against what anybody else chooses to explore.
Since, as a fiction writer, I’ll be exploring right alongside of them.
Yet only to a certain degree! By which I mean, only as far as I can see. Beyond that, I won’t presume.
Absent a comprehensive cultural education on our sexuality, all of us are left to find our own way.
It’s my heartfelt belief that good stories can help the process along