Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Dash of Delicious Sin: The Legacy of a Catholic Girlhood

By Donna George Storey

All I can say is, thank God I was raised Catholic.

I must confess—and I do love to confess—that my upbringing was not especially devout. I wasn’t dressed up in a plaid skirt and knee socks and sent off to a Catholic school to be terrorized by nuns. My parents spoke cynically about the arrogance of certain parish priests in my hearing. When I was caught masturbating while watching TV in the family room, God’s wrath was never invoked. I was merely told, albeit with a disapproving frown, “you do those things in private.” I don’t even remember being warned to wait for marriage before I had sex. When I was thirteen, I informed my parents I didn’t want to go to weekly Mass anymore because I believed God was everywhere, and they calmly stopped attending themselves. “We were going for you so you would get a good moral foundation,” they told me. I was shocked their faith was so evanescent—and regretted that I hadn’t spoken up years sooner.

For many years after that I didn’t give my Catholic roots much thought. Sure I had twenty-four cousins and could still genuflect and cross myself without blinking an eye. I’d feel a mild twinge of anger whenever someone spoke disparagingly of Catholic superstition and backwardness—you’d be surprised how that centuries-old prejudice lingers on, especially among Episcopalians, our sister religion. Yet it was only when I began to write erotica that I truly realized: you can take the girl out of the Church, but you can never take the Church out of the girl. And I discovered I didn’t mind at all.

A notably high percentage of us smut scribblers were raised Catholic or describe our upbringings as “religious.” Or maybe I just pay more attention when I encounter the story of a fellow apostate? However, at least in my experience, there can a beneficent relationship between sex and sin if you serve yourself the proper dash of the latter to suit your taste.

This topic sent me back to a favorite book of mine, Jack Morin’s The Erotic Mind: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Sexual Passion and Fulfillment. The book is full of gems of wisdom for erotica writers. For example, the author observes “we are born sensuous and sexual, but we become erotic as we receive both overt and subtle messages about ourselves [from our parents and our culture].” In other words “eroticism is the process through which sex becomes meaningful.” Which, I would argue is yet another way of describing the difference between erotica and porn: erotica attempts to answer the why as well as the how of a sexual encounter.

Although Morin is a sex therapist, his “erotic equation” is just as useful for an erotica writer, as Charlotte Stein suggested in her post.

ATTRACTION + OBSTACLES = EXCITEMENT

No question about it, if you want a surefire recipe for a page-turning story create a character who desires something profoundly then make up lots of conflict to come between her and that desire. Violating social and religious prohibitions is a major obstacle. Because Catholics have been taught that God watches disapprovingly over every non-marital, non-procreational desire, we even get our own special mention in this regard. In Morin’s study of people’s most arousing fantasies and real life experiences, 69% (no mistake, that number?) of those raised Catholic mentioned the naughtiness factor as a key component compared to 37% of the general group. When I read this, I immediately recalled an occasion when a friend sanctimoniously told me she believed “sex isn’t dirty, it’s a beautiful act of love.” To which I silently replied, oh, my how terribly boring that would be if it were true!

Although my parents were not crushingly anti-sexual, I must have received plenty of repressive messages from Church and society, because even today I find sex naughty in a most delicious way. Accordingly, my characters are always feeling “lust spiked with shame” or they wrestle with the fact that being a bad girl makes them feel so good. I feel pretty good when I write erotica, too, which in itself overcomes so many society-wide, religion-blind prohibitions about women having desire and speaking the truth about it.

A dash of sinfulness not only makes the sex itself a little spicier, Morin argues, it can enhance the happy ending as well. He tells anyone reveling in the naughtiness of indulging in forbidden pleasure (pretty much all of us “civilized” folk to some degree), “Your disobedience becomes a demonstration that your desires are superior to the pitiful prohibitions that dare to dampen your enthusiasm. Guilt reveals its richest aphrodisiac potential when it is not forgotten, but vanquished.” Every act of sexual pleasure thus becomes a story of a desiring human overcoming “thou shalt not” to attain liberation. Perhaps if I hadn’t been raised Catholic, society’s anti-sex leanings alone would be enough to add these luscious layers of complexity to simple arousal and orgasm, but I still like to think I have as much fun as I do in bed because of all those Sundays spent in church. (Hey, it’s more comforting than regretting those hours I could have been reading the comics!)

There are other ways Catholicism nourishes my erotic sensibility and my stories. As Lisabet Sarai shows so provocatively in her post, the trappings of the Roman faith lend themselves well to a sizzlingly sexy tale. Holy robes, vows of chastity, confessionals, stained glass, incense, marble statues of beautiful mothers and young men in loin cloths suspended on crosses, Catholicism is imbued with ritual and sensuality, the sheer excess of which caused a Protestant revolution. It also makes for a great D/s dynamic. I’ve yet to write an explicitly Catholic tale, but every story of mine you’ll find in a BDSM anthology draws from that dark, deep well of childhood memory.

And last but not at all least, I see only now that those Masses I once found so dull instilled in me a sense of sacred space and a hushed awe of transcendent and transporting experiences. The more I write, the more I realize what a sacred endeavor all creativity can be. As a child watching the priest transform wafers into the body of Christ, I was a voyeur. As an adult in bed with my lover or sitting before my keyboard transforming a blank file into a story, I take on the role of priestess in my own spiritual practice. I still feel a mild frisson of transgression just to type these last words. They are sacrilege by orthodox reckoning. But I’m glad too I have the distance to smile at the lingering legacy of my Catholic girlhood and take just a dash of sin to enhance my pleasure.

It’s the perfect recipe for me in my writing and my life.

Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical tale of an American woman’s love affair with Japan. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Penthouse, Best American Erotica, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, and Best Women’s Erotica. She also writes a column for the Erotica Readers and Writers Association, “Cooking up a Storey,” (http://www.erotica-readers.com/ERA/AR/Erotica_Authors_Resources.htm) about her favorite topics— delicious sex, well-crafted food, and mind-blowing writing.


10 comments:

  1. Hello, Donna,

    What a great post! Typically erudite ;^) Not too many of our guests provide footnotes! Thanks for sharing your insights.

    (I wasn't brought up Catholic, by the way. But I had a close girlfriend who wanted to be a nun. She taught me a lot!)

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

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  2. As an adult in bed with my lover or sitting before my keyboard transforming a blank file into a story, I take on the role of priestess in my own spiritual practice.

    What a delicious statement!

    I was not raised Catholic either, but good fortune has "blessed" me some lovely exposure to, and participation in, rebellion against Catholic restrictions.

    Yum.

    Thanks for your intelligent and revealing insight into the "how to" of turning lemons of piety into erotic lemonade.

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  3. Thank you, Lisabet! My aunt is nun and I've spent way more time in convents than you'd expect, but it is educational. I owe my friends for some good story lines too ;-).

    And Craig, well, it sounds like your friends have provided you with inspiration, too! Now I'm thirsty for lemonade....

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  4. Donna - thought provoking entry. My mind is whirling, and that's a good thing.

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  5. This was an excellent post. As someone from an intensely relgious past I also experience what you;re describing as this tension between Catholicsm and sensuality. I also like your comment that is sex wasn't dirty but a beautiful act of love - oh, how dull. One of these days one of my characters will find an occasion to say that.

    Garce

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  6. I loved this post, Donna! I appreciated the things you shared from Morin's book as well as the interweaving of it with your own offerings.

    "'Your disobedience becomes a demonstration that your desires are superior to the pitiful prohibitions that dare to dampen your enthusiasm. Guilt reveals its richest aphrodisiac potential when it is not forgotten, but vanquished.' Every act of sexual pleasure thus becomes a story of a desiring human overcoming 'thou shalt not' to attain liberation."

    I found that so cool I don't even know how to describe it.

    I really loved your post's conclusion, especially this:

    "The more I write, the more I realize what a sacred endeavor all creativity can be. . . . As an adult in bed with my lover or sitting before my keyboard transforming a blank file into a story, I take on the role of priestess in my own spiritual practice."

    Thank you so much for writing and sharing this.

    (Also, Craig—love "lemons of piety into erotic lemonade"!) :))

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  7. Whirling tends to be a good thing for me, too, Kathleen! And Garce, yeah, the easiest way to squash my libido is to start in on the "beautiful act" euphemisms. Dirty, sweaty, profane is where it's at, lol!

    Thank you, too, Emerald. I know you've traveled some similar paths and glad to know it resonated.

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  8. Donna,

    Sorry for the delayed reply. I really enjoyed your post. It confirms my long-held theory that, for a writer to write about the ramifications of sin, they need to understand the concept on several levels.

    Thank you for providing so much food for thought.

    Best,

    Ash

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  9. A fellow apostate says this is a post we need more of in erotica writing world. Morin's book sounds thoughtful and useful on many levels. “Your disobedience becomes a demonstration that your desires are superior to the pitiful prohibitions that dare to dampen your enthusiasm. Guilt reveals its richest aphrodisiac potential when it is not forgotten, but vanquished.” That is one delicious insight...and I agree, you don't need to be raised hard-core (*chuckles*) Catholic to take its legacy and run with it. The why, always as interesting as the how.

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  10. When I was eleven years old, and had just barely discovered sexual feelings, the Catholic Church told me I was now a mortal sinner---quite possibly destined to spend all eternity in hell. This was a devastating blow: as a mortal sinner, I was now far from God's grace, out in some kind of cold, black darkness of the soul. I felt a sickening dread that stayed with me for my whole adolescence. I was so terrified that I literally never touched myself again until I was nearly 18.

    My parents WERE crushingly anti-sexual, too---no more so than the Church, though. If a little guilt and shame add spice, too much is soul-killing. But it was the cruelty of the Catholic Church's teachings that caused me finally to leave it as a young adult. How wonderful that you've transformed all of those threats and prohibitions into your personal erotic liberation!

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