Feelings in a marriage should include fear?

As the reproductive health care battleground becomes criss-crossed with trenches of advancing legislation, I have been remembering a conversation about the Catholic position on birth control that I had in my undergrad days.

I was Christian, back then, and although not Catholic, I had heard and appreciated several homilies by the priest for the Catholic student group. For a course in interfaith dialogue, I decided to have a conversation with the priest about birth control; I knew even then that pregnancy would be extremely risky for me, so I took the matter rather personally.

The priest was able to defuse my nascent anger and fear by implying that Catholic women in situations like mine might be able to get a note signed by the Pope to make birth control okay, or something like that. And then he made an argument that I found strangely moving: he said that the marriage relationship is a very special one, and that “we just don’t know” what kind of changes birth control might create in that relationship, or how it would change the feelings between a man and his wife.

Which goes to show that a celibate man and a not-yet-sexually-active young woman can seriously contemplate arguments about reproductive health care that a woman who actually faces these issues would simply laugh at. From my current position, I do laugh, although it’s tinged with despair, because now I can answer that priest’s hypothetical.

You want to know the feeling that is preserved by not using birth control? Fear.

For a woman who doesn’t want to become pregnant, not using birth control means that sex is inextricably bound up with fear: fear of becoming pregnant, fear of what that might mean, whether it is a danger to her own life or the threat of sliding deeper into poverty with one more mouth that she can’t feed. Fear that surrounds sex, and that, as a result, is in some way also attached to her husband.

These days, I think that priest told me more truth than he meant to. Deep down, the Catholic church, like other forced-birthers, wants to use fear and childbearing to control women. That’s the kind of oh-so-precious relationship they want to protect: one where women are either safely controlled within the confines of marriage and childbearing, or forced to the margins of society as unmarried outcasts.

I won’t stand for it. And I certainly won’t lay down and let it happen. So I hunker down in the trenches and try to use my fear to feed the flame of anger, to keep my courage warm.

About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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11 Responses to Feelings in a marriage should include fear?

  1. Sixwing says:

    OK, so this is Not News.
    But it has (seriously!) just occurred to me that people who do this, who say that “special feeling” needs to stay around —

    – they feel anticipation.

    They aren’t terrified of pregnancy or the whole reproduction process. They think it’s a good thing. (Which, for most people, it probably is. Not for me.) Not the terror that gripped me until I got sterilized. Not the tired, worn-down fear of not being able to support a child. Not the near-Lovecraftian horror of having your body overtaken by a separate organism. (Yes, this is really how I feel about the whole process. It disgusts and frightens me to a degree that’s actually hard to put into words.)

    But yeah. For someone who -doesn’t- feel anticipation, but rather fear, going on about how special that feeling is strikes me as disconnected at best, or more likely, just plain awful.

    • Literata says:

      Thanks for being honest about being another woman who doesn’t feel just “anticipation” at the idea of a pregnancy. I think the way that all the other possible feelings could be so easily dismissed is why this framing is so horrible…and why it’s actually more like the Quiverfull movement than bears thinking about. Quiverfull is at least honest about how women are supposed to feel about this; it strikes me that Catholicism does more misdirection but desires most of the same goals.

      • Sixwing says:

        Yikes. D:
        I don’t know enough about Catholicism to say anything smart here, but the situation you describe above certainly lines up with that observation.

        The narrative of IF woman -> wants baby -> anticipates pregnancy -> WHEN happy couple -> yay babies! is so strong that I think people have a hard time remembering that it’s just one of many possible reactions and situations.

    • isabelcooper says:

      Likewise.

      I know many friends who have children, or want to, and I’m happy for them. For me? Pregnancy seems like xenomorph invasion crossed with…well, ever seen the end of Akira? That sort of thing. No. Hell no.

  2. Laiima says:

    I’m another (former Catholic) woman who never *happily* anticipated pregnancy. (Try dread.) When I was sexually active before marriage, I sometimes used *3* forms of birth control at once, to make absolutely, positively sure I did not conceive. Once I married, I was always on the pill until Spouse got a vasectomy, 10 years in. And it was only after that, that I could completely relax during sex.

    I grew up hearing from both parents that ‘another’ pregnancy could kill my mother — she and my youngest brother both almost died during his birth. My parents had been using b.c., but feeling guilty. It was only then, I think, that they stopped trying for more children, because the prospect of my father trying to raise 4 small kids as a widower didn’t strike anyone as a good idea, no matter what the Catholic Church said.

    The Church is anti-women. Period.

  3. cheyinka says:

    (I lurk and very infrequently (probably about yearly) comment at Slacktivist; that’s where I saw a link to this post.)

    I think Sixwing is right on the money about “that feeling that they think should stick around is anticipation”; as a Catholic woman, if I had felt terror or dread about pregnancy before I got married, that would have been a huge warning sign to me that I should not get married at all, not as long as I felt that way. If someone said to me, “Cheyinka, I’m a Catholic woman who believes everything the Catholic Church teaches, and yet when I think about the chance that I might get pregnant after my fiance and I marry, I feel terror and horror, not anticipation,” I would think that that feeling was a strong suggestion that she shouldn’t marry, or shouldn’t marry yet. (I don’t think a feeling like that would say the same about a non-Catholic, or even a Catholic who disagrees with the Catholic Church about birth control.) I believe that not everyone has a vocation to marriage, and that part of discerning a vocation is seeing whether there’s a strong emotional reaction, one way or another, to part of that vocation. I don’t think this means that I want other women to feel fear, or that because I didn’t I don’t care if they do or not. (Nor do I think it means that I think the options are fear or loneliness.)

    • Literata says:

      Hi, Cheyinka! Glad to have your point of view. I really do understand where you’re coming from; for someone who accepts the idea of marriage as a vocation, I can see how that works. And I can see how a priest might counsel a devout Catholic woman about possibly having a vocation as a nun if she absolutely couldn’t get pregnant.

      But for me…what it amounts to is a statement that because I drew the short straw in the realm of health, I don’t get to have a sex life. Since I see that as a pretty basic right, it comes across as very, very oppressive and denying of who I am as a person.

      And quite frankly, since the Church hasn’t always been that great about making sure that women had choices, I wonder how many women in the past have had an experience like mine. I’m willing to bet quite a few.

      • cheyinka says:

        I don’t think I’ve ever thought of “having a sex life” as a right; it makes the “if you’re against contraception, you’re against women being treated as people” argument make sense to me, even if I still don’t agree with said argument. Hmm.

        I tend to think that marriage-as-one-of-several-vocations is better for women than “either you’re married, or you’re not-married, and obviously married is better,” which some religious groups still seem to think, but I agree that the Catholic Church has not always been great about choices for women, especially poor women. I do think there’s a difference between “well, theoretically, a woman might be called to marriage, religious life, or singlehood, but in practice someone might see religious life as a consolation prize, or not even be able to enter religious life due to circumstances she can’t control”, and “deep down, the Catholic Church wants to use fear to control women”, though.

        • Literata says:

          I am certainly not arguing that all members of the Catholic hierarchy are consciously or deliberately using fear to control women. But I think, functionally, that is what happens. I suspect that some people partially realize that and are okay with it, to different degrees, and that a small number of people consciously recognize it and think it’s a Good Thing. Plus, I think the Church has been made aware of it enough in the last century or so that if they really didn’t want their actions to have that outcome, they could have reconsidered their actions.

          As for sex being a right, well, I think it’s part of who I am and of my biology, not something that can be turned on or off at will. Therefore, I think it’s a right to have a positive, healthy relationship with those aspects of my body and mind, and that trying to deprive me of that is useless at best and extremely harmful at worst.

          With that in mind, if the Church wasn’t so explicitly against any kind of sex other than married hetero PIV, I would have less of an argument here. But that’s the real problem – I’m supposed to simply deny, ignore, and suppress one whole aspect of my being, one which is very important to me, a part of my identity, a fundamental part of my joy and delight in the world. If I, personally, wanted that, I can see how it could be a part of a religious life; but for me, it sends the message that I am broken, and I don’t deserve to be myself or have that joy or deep form of relationship with anyone else.

  4. Literata says:

    For a bit of an update to this, Rick Santorum has now weighed in, saying that he would eliminate all federal funding for contraception because “It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things,” like having sex without getting pregnant. He explains: “[Sex] is supposed to be within marriage. It’s supposed to be for purposes that are yes, conjugal…but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen…This is special and it needs to be seen as special.”

    So, according to him, me having sex with my partner is not special, and because it’s imperfect, I shouldn’t be allowed to do it – or I should have to risk my life for it?

    Santorum is right that contraception allows women to “do things,” but not in the way he means. Contraception allows women to be something other than baby-producers without having to give up any potential for sexual relationships with men. For women who are attracted to men, that means they get to have a relationship and do other things as well. Forced-birthers are being more and more clear that they don’t want that to be possible.

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