This is sort of a response to some of yesterday's comments but not really.
The point that was made in the comments was that the problem with Catholic priests commenting about sexual fantasies is that they don't know what they are talking about. Well, maybe they don't and maybe they do. Every Catholic priest was once a teenage boy ...
In any case, I think people can meaningfully think about experiences they have never had. I think that, for example, a fabulously wealthy movie star can do a convincing portrayal of someone working for minimum wage at a fried chicken restaurant in small town Mississippi. And I think a middle class high school kid from Finland really can sing and play the blues and I think a woman can understand male experience and vice versa.
It takes hard work and imagination but it can be done.
The problem with Monsignor Pope's observations about sexual fantasy is not that he couldn't have understood an experience he presumably doesn't have anymore but that he did not succeed in understanding it. And that may not be entirely his fault.
The truth is that it takes a lot of courage to understand ourselves well enough to really connect with others (and connect with ourselves). It's much to deal with any one of a number of preset identities and thrust them upon the people who make us a little uncomfortable. That, oddly enough, is what I think Monsignor Pope's did when he wrote about sexual fantasies. He began with the moral conclusion and then imagined the kind of inner experience that would support that conclusion. He didn't begin with the often puzzling if not downright weird ways we actually react.
Who knows why we fantasize? I don't. It isn't just about sex. Every culture in the world has a strong element of fiction and fantasy. How to make believe is one of the first things we teach children.
There is also a long line of moralists going back through time who have attacked our tendency to make believe. Monsignor Pope's argument descends from Plato through Saint Augustine through the modern anti-porn movement.
Augustine got more heated up about tragedy than porn. It bothered him, as it should bother us a little, that we can watch a tragic story on stage or the screen or listen to a sad song and cry about it while people right next to us suffer and we do nothing about it. The world is full of people who need love while we entertain ourselves with fantasies about love. There is a truth on Monsignor Pope's side of this: there are husbands and wives who sit feeling lonely and neglected while their spouse shows more interest in a fantasy than in them.
But it does not follow that the relation between fantasy love and real-life neglect is causal; it is not necessarily the case that these people neglect their spouses because they have fantasies. In some cases maybe they do but it much more likely that fantasy will increase someone's level of arousal and make them more likely to please their spouse.
The option that Monsignor Pope did not consider is this: what if fantasy can helps us to give ourselves more freely and completely to others? Or, and this is the point I am building towards, what if fantasy helps women to give themselves more freely and completely to the men they love? Because I think there is a difference between men and women here.
Think of a non-sexual example. Francine loves skiing and she is sitting at her desk working and she closes her eyes a moment to daydream about skiing. Does anyone seriously think even for a second that this moment of fantasizing makes her less likely to go skiing this weekend?
Okay, critics may say, but what about the content of the fantasy. If Francine lives in an eastern town with a small ski hill and she fantasizes about going to Vail, won't that make her more likely to be dissatisfied with what she has? I don't think so. I think the woman who is already dissatisfied with her local ski hill may well be more likely to fantasize about Vail but I don't think fantasizing about Vail will make the woman who enjoys skiing on her local hill less satisfied with it.
The thing is that women who know how to be satisfied tend to get satisfaction and women who don't know how to get satisfaction don't get it. Fantasizing about sex is one of the things women do to make their bodies respond. Think of it this way, if you want to smile you can just pull up the corners of your lips but if you want to be really smile you need to think of some happy thought first.
The thing about fantasy, however, is that it is fantasy. It doesn't have to be real and it follows its own rules and those rules are different from real life. What women fantasize about does not have to be anything like what they'd really want. In fact, there is no reason why the two should connect. It's fantasy after all.
Okay, but what about men? This is supposed to be the Manly Thor's Day post and here I am talking about women and their fantasies all the time. Well, here is where I will concede some ground to Monsignor Pope, it is different for men. I can't speak for all men but I tend not to fantasize during sex.
Not for any terribly profound moral reason. I don't have and never have had much trouble making my own body respond. For me the difference between good sex and great sex is the woman's reaction. When she is really aroused and excited things are better. Much, much better. If fantasy is going to get her there, then I want her to fantasize.
I'm going to get there anyway whether I fantasize or not and I'd rather she dressed up and flirted with me to warm me up because that is much more satisfying than my sitting around daydreaming about what she might do. That requires some considerable effort and role playing on her part. That is she has to get into her role for the occasion.
Why can't she just be herself? Well she is being herself but herself is a number of diverse roles that she can adopt for different occasions. And it isn't always easy for a woman to move from one to another.
Fantasizing will help her do this for exactly the same reason that visualizing success helps athletes achieve success. I want her to think about the kind of fantasy that will get her aroused and then behave in a away that parallels but does not correspond exactly to that fantasy. And, I'll be honest, I want her to do it for me. I see her willingness to sit down and fantasize this way—helped by whatever else helps her, dressing up, wine, music or even some self-stimulation—to get herself warmed up for love as a generous act to me. Because it is.
And that is difficult for her.
The challenge for me as a man is creating and sustaining an atmosphere where she will feel comfortable enough to fantasize about what she wants to fantasize about because it arouses her and opening the door to let me in on that experience. It is all the more difficult because her needs vary and often vary to the point of completely contradicting one another. But I can deal with it if I am willing to be a man about it.