Joseph McBride believes that forcing young men to repress their sexuality is unhealthy, ineffective, and ultimately abusive.
No kidding—the title of a sex manual I had to read when I attended Catholic high school in the early 1960s was Modern Youth and Chastity. It was written by a Jesuit priest, and its lesson was simple: “Don’t Do It.”
That advice didn’t prove very helpful to me at the time. My anxieties over how to reconcile the repressive teachings of the church with my naturally developing sexual desires led me to a physical and psychological breakdown in my senior year. I learned some valuable lessons in that process about how not to deny the sexual impulses common to us all, but it took me longer to learn how to handle them. Today, we like to think we live in a more enlightened age, but the old specter of sexual repression has reared its vicious head in new ways, so our “modern youth” often are caught in a similarly painful vise between what their bodies demand and what society tells them.
When I read my memoir of that tumultuous period in my life, The Broken Places, I tend to look at my younger self as a boy I once knew, someone I like and wish I could help, as me-but-not-me. That kind of distancing is one reason you write a memoir. It also helps you understand your past and exorcise your obsessions. Although that is a helpful process, it doesn’t entirely work, since there is no such thing as “closure.” But I hope that my experiences in the sexual Dark Ages will be of some benefit to younger readers today. I offer here five hard-won lessons I gleaned from my struggles with sexuality in the days before the Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s.
1) Don’t Do It is advice that simply does not work.
Today we hear of the “abstinence movement” being foisted on young people. Sure, they need to learn how to handle sexual desires responsibly and carefully, especially in a time when sexually transmitted diseases are more rampant. But counseling the denial of basic sexual impulses is a fool’s errand. It can only lead to terrible fear and confusion, as well as to evasiveness and rebellion. Few people today become priests or nuns, and even in the Catholic Church, as we’ve seen, celibacy often is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Leveling with young people about their changing bodies and emotions is much more valuable advice than the kind of warnings we received in Modern Youth and Chastity and its variant edition, Instructions on Dating for High School Boys.
That pamphlet, which I read while attending Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, was taught to us by its author, our school disciplinarian, the late Father Jerome Boyle, S.J., a grinning sadist who also whipped our asses with a sawed-off golf club for all manner of transgressions.
It’s obvious that there was a strong sadomasochistic component in that kind of discipline, which would get an educator arrested today but was approved of by our parents in a misguided attempt to keep us in line. Father Boyle’s sex manual, or anti-sex manual, warned against becoming aroused by the near occasions of sin, which lurked just about everywhere: “A few cannot read a decent book, or a magazine like the Catholic Digest, without getting into a tizzy.” His apocalyptic rhetoric took on familiarly harrowing Cold War overtones. “Controlling sex,” our rod-wagging school disciplinarian pointed out, is “like controlling an atomic bomb.”
As I write in The Broken Places, “What Instructions on Dating for High School Boys drilled most indelibly into my mind was its explanation of how one can tell when kissing becomes mortally sinful. This was known as ‘THE FEAR RULE.’ That rule came into play whenever I found myself in dangerous proximity to a girl: ‘The first three letters stand for frequent, enduring, and ardent. The final letter R stands for the reason. The rule says that kissing, or, for that matter, any physical expressions of affections that are frequent, enduring, and ardent, are invariably directly stimulating. Therefore, no reason apart from marriage can justify them. Bestow such marks of affection, and you appropriate to yourself privileges to which you are not entitled. You are putting your sex faculty into actual operation. This reasoning is hard for many young couples to see. It is still harder for them to accept. But accept it they must. It is God’s law.’
“So what I took from this sacred formula was that kissing passionately was mortally sinful, and you would burn in Hell for it, at least if it was Frequent, Enduring, and Ardent: FEAR. As Father Boyle told us personally when we timidly queried him in class, all three states had to occur simultaneously: Kissing was not mortally sinful if it was frequent but not enduring, or if it was enduring but not ardent. Apparently ‘THE FEAR RULE’ sanctioned occasional, brief, tepid kisses. At least that way you wouldn’t burn in Hell just for making out; you’d only go to Purgatory for a couple of years.” I took this all mumbo-jumbo very seriously.
2) Prior evidence that repression doesn’t work began to accumulate for me in Catholic grade school.
It was bad enough we were given hellfire-and-brimstone indoctrination that sex was evil per se (I never really understood why there had be two commandments out of ten warning against sex, but I got the point). But I also had an insane nun in third grade at St. Bernard’s Grade School in Wauwatosa, a disturbingly attractive woman named Sister Magdalena, who took out on me her obscure frustrations (probably at least partly sexual in nature; the word “sadomasochism” again comes to mind). She assigned each girl in the class a long wooden ruler to whack me over the head if I did anything wrong; all day for the first semester I was being beaten over the head by the bruiser of a girl sitting next to me and other girls passing my desk.
In the second semester, my desk was moved to the front of the classroom, with my back to the other students, which was even worse because I felt so ostracized. And one day the nun shoved me into the broom closet and had the rest of the class push on the door to keep me inside. Part of me feels as if I am still in that closet.
Just as damaging in my early days was the strict segregation of the sexes. We were discouraged from talking with girls, and once when I walked a girl home at lunch for a few days, I was warned by the pastor not to do so again. And we were warned by the nuns not to look at “dirty pictures.” There was a drugstore down the hill from our school that sold magazines with semi-nude pictures of women, the tame sort allowed in the fifties. Naturally, because they were prohibited, this piqued my interest, and I began studying the skin mags intently every day after school.
My fascination would become an obsession with what passed for pornography in my high school years (1961-65), i.e., the girl-next-door nudes in Playboy and airbrushed nudist magazines. I was learning how unhealthy it is to be discouraged from having curiosity about seeing what the other half of the human race looks like in its natural state. Prohibiting such curiosity leads to both guilt and rampant prurient obsession as a substitute for actual interaction with girls. Because I hadn’t been able to talk with girls in grade school and was physically abused by them, I naturally was inept and afraid about dealing with the opposite sex in high school. I went to a couple of dances, but when the girls behaved rudely, I stopped going and never talked to a girl again until I had the good fortune to crack up and be put in a mental hospital.
3) That experience saved my life. Partly because a girl came up and talked to me.
Kathy Wolf was a troubled but brilliant young woman who in that benighted age had been poorly diagnosed. She was labeled as “schizophrenic,” had been subjected to shock treatments, and was suicidal. We had a giddy romance that turned sour by the end of that summer, when her demons became more and more uncontrollable. She had three personalities; for two weeks, she thought she was Barbra Streisand. But in my process of relaxing with her and sharing thoughts and feelings, and enjoying making out with a young woman who had few sexual inhibitions, I was learning about life. Unfortunately, Kathy was too troubled to survive. While I was getting better, she was destroying herself. But I owe everything to her.
4) Although our relationship inevitably fell apart, it readied me for the Sexual Revolution of the sixties.
I did a lot of sexual experimenting in college and beyond, after I moved to Hollywood in the seventies, but I was still overly fixated on sex as fallout from my earlier warping. My libido was spinning out of control in other ways; too much liberation can be as daunting and confusing as too much repression. Eventually I managed to find some balance between my uncontrollable impulses and the realities of dealing with adult women with needs of their own and with whom I could develop a more mature way of relating. I learned how to treat sex as a natural component but only one aspect of a healthy relationship.
5) My nightmarish early experiences with sexual repression in an era that systematically misrepresented human nature might seem more troubling than what most young people go through today.
But human nature doesn’t fundamentally change, and adolescents in every time and place have many challenges to deal with as their bodies and emotions evolve and society fights back against those natural impulses. Today’s youth may not often be given chastity manuals (except in certain fundamentalist circles), but they are inundated with sexual imagery that must seem bewildering. They also are faced with questions about gender identity that most kids in my generation didn’t have to deal with because we didn’t know they even existed. Gay, lesbian, and transgender youths now face issues more complex than we most of us could have imagined in the days when masturbation was considered the most urgent sexual problem for Catholic teenage boys.
I can only advise frankness between parents and children and teachers and the most generously understanding attitude by parents toward what their kids are going through as they struggle toward adulthood. Any attempt to stifle that process is doomed to failure and runs the risk of damaging and even destroying a young person. The choices between “Modern Youth and Chastity” are not that simple. In a world full of psychological imperatives and social choices that seem to keep multiplying every year, when we deal with youthful sexuality, we need to be open to complexities and careful experimentation and, above all, to absolute honesty rather than indulging in evasion and denial.
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