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What Celibate Guys Don't Know

It looks like the Vatican has been reading Mary Douglas. In a recent letter on the perils of feminism, the Pope's top theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, explains the official Catholic view of gender, which is firmly rooted in preserving fundamental distinctions, such as that between male and female.

Introducing the first of her well-stated denunciations of Ratzinger's letter, Echidne says:

I'm very happy to be enlightened about these questions by a man who is a celibate, of course.

The sentiment is echoed in the comments by Bryan:

I have a real hard time accepting the opinion of someone who has foresworn normal relations with half the population of the planet and then presumes to lecture others on that group.

Now, to some degree Ratzinger brings this line of attack on himself. He argues that women's nature is tied up in motherhood, and talks about "the spousal character of the body, in which the masculinity or femininity of the person is expressed." Unless he's been doing something the Pope doesn't know about, Ratzinger has disclaimed any personal acquaintance with the subject matter at hand.

From the perspective of someone who thinks womanhood is about more than making babies, though, the comments from Echidne and Bryan seem strange. The only way to understand women is to have sex with them?

I agree with the general principle that a person's experience affects how likely they are to know about a topic and how justified their pronouncements on it are. What's I don't agree with is the idea that the basic relationship between men and women is a sexual one, and that knowledge about the other sex is contingent upon that kind of relationship.

I would say that relying on sexual relationships for information about the opposite sex is likely to give you quite a skewed view of what the other half is like. I don't exactly have a long sexual history at the moment, but even if I were to wind up sleeping with a lot of people, my lovers would hardly constitute a representative sample of women. There are lots of types of women -- conservatives, those substantially older or younger than myself, etc. -- who are no less women despite the fact that I would be unlikely to want to have sex with them. Likewise, if Ratzinger were to get married, it would likely be to a submissive woman who believed deeply in Catholic orthodoxy. For one to be able to discover the essence of a sex by being intimate with one of its members, sex differences would have to be consistent and obvious.

A variety of interactions with members of the opposite sex (as well as with your own sex, as a sort of control treatment) is necessary to build up an empirical picture of what characteristics (if any) pertain to them as a group. A similar process applies to making generalizations about your own sex as well -- I can say precious little about maleness based strictly on my own life, but things get better if I can compare notes with other men.

I'm no fan of the requirement of priestly celibacy, and it's certainly plausible that Ratzinger has little contact of any kind with women. But there's no necessary reason why a celibate person (or a strictly homosexual one) can't learn a good deal about the opposite sex.


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