Christine O’Donnell has certainly managed to keep things interesting in her campaign (witchcraft?). I am not here interested in defending O’Donnell as a political figure. But I do want to take up one of the remarks that led to a media sensation. O’Donnell has been almost universally pilloried for her remarks on masturbation. She dared to remark that, "Lust in your heart is committing adultery, and you can’t masturbate without lust." This remark has led her to be mocked as naive, puritanical, idiotic, etc.
I want to examine her claim in a serious way. My starting point is going to be a relational ontology. Man is by nature a social animal. To be a person means both ‘being a subject’ and ‘being in relationship’. This anthropology (rooted in Aristotle, the Trinitarian Christian tradition, and phenomenological schools of 20th century European philosophy) stands in stark contrast to the radical individuality of the modern project.
Another starting point is going to be the language of the gift. As John Paul II puts it in his Theology of the Body, “through the hermeneutic of the gift we approach the very essence of the person.” Man is only fully man when he enters into gift relations with others.
Let’s reflect on some passages from Genesis. While originally we were naked without shame, at some point there was a change. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” (Gen 3:7)
This is a new situation (see the adverb “then”). One might wonder, did they not even notice their nakedness before? Is this a move from ignorance to knowledge? JPII argues not, that careful reading of Gen 2:25 and 3 leads “necessarily to the conclusion that it is not a question here of passing from not knowing to knowing.” Instead, what this “then” indicates is a radical change in the meaning of the nakedness of man before woman and woman before man. There has been a fundamental change in our experience of the body and its meaning. The new experience is what we call shame – a particular kind of fear.
Here is how JPII describes it:
“In the experience of shame, the human being experiences fear with regard to his “second self” (for example, woman before man). This is substantially fear of one’s own self. With shame the human being manifests almost instinctively the need of affirmation and acceptance of this “self” according to its rightful value. … Almost keeping one human being away from the other, it seeks at the same time to draw them closer personally, creating a suitable basis and level to do so.”
Shame is really an act of self-defense, defense against being treated as an object of sexual use. The woman knows that she is not a “thing”, that she is not a mere object meant for someone else’s appropriation or use. But her experience teaches her that men (gripped by lust, which I will soon define) tend to objectify women’s bodies. So she keeps him away (covers herself) in order that she may draw him closer in the personal sense.
Before this ‘then’, the body simply expressed a personal reality. They “see and know each other will all the peace of the interior gaze” (JPII). This “interior gaze” means a sight of the body that reveals a personal mystery expressed through the body. They say the dignity of the other person inscribed in his or her body. There was no shame or fear, “perfect love casts out all fear (1Jn4:18).
But after the “then”, the body can become an object (non-person) for others. The body ceases to be an expression of the person. So we cover ourselves up not because nakedness is bad or shameful in itself, but in order to protect our dignity from the “lustful look” that would treat our bodies as objects instead of expressions of an internal personal reality. The “lustful look” fails to respect our dignity as persons.
What is lust on this view? Well it is really quite Levinasian in its reading. Behind the “egology” of the modern subject, man is relational. At the very center of the meaning of personhood is receptivity, what Levinas calls “passivity beyond all passivity”. This receptivity of the other, and our debt to give to the other, is announced in the “face of the Other”. What the “face” says is “thou shall not kill”. In other words, the face screams ‘I am not reducible, I am not an object here for your appropriation.’
This receptivity, receiving, and openness to the Other (in and through our bodies) which is the genuine meaning of personhood (a relational term) is to be distinguished from grasping. With lust, the “relationship of gift is changed into the relationship of appropriation” (JPII). Lust refers to the tendency to grasp or possess, to reduce the other person or to objectify them. It is a forgetfulness of the face of the other. The “face” is both visible and not visible, it is the body that we see but it is also the body that we do not see, for we too often do not see the body as an expression of a personal reality. To nutshell it for those interested in 20th century European thought, lust is very close to what Heidegger calls “technological thinking” or to what Levinas calls the errors of “egology”.
This error in thinking is really an error of the “heart”. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt 5:27-28). This is the move from mere ethics to ethos. Ethos signifies an interior form of morality. Instead of stopping at the level of action, it penetrates inside. This always reminds me of Heidegger’s remark that “the essence of technology is nothing technological”. The issue is not an issue of outward appearance, it is rather a question of comportment. Sex “looks” the same whether it is done in lust or love. But the interior difference, whether the body is looked on with receptivity as an expression of a personal reality or with the grasping of appropriation, is what makes all the difference.
So what does this have to do with O’Donnell and her remarks on masturbation? Well, can’t we conclude from this that pornography is pure evil? Pornography is, plain and simple, the lustful grasping and appropriation of an other as a mere object for my self-gratifying consumption. That is pretty much pornography in a nutshell, is it not? And isn’t O’Donnell right when she suggests that lust is a condition for the possibility of masturbation?