Sex, Gender, Fantasy, and Desire
How does a Catholic perspective on anthropology make it easier to understand the current crisis of understanding personal identity? This seems to be the underlying question in the book that Deacon Ray Biersbach, PhD has offered us.
He identifies four basic principles of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body and proceeds to flesh out the consequences from a psychological point of view. The philosophical and theological worlds have been better represented, but he does the job of bringing the psychological point of view to the forefront.
Principle 1: Sex: The Body Manifests the Person
Sex is understood as both a means to the end of human reproduction and as a powerful human experience. Looking at different psychological models, he analyzes especially the body/soul/spirit model and the laminate model. The first model is helpful in theological and moral discussions, but often lacks vigor in audiences of a more secular background. Here, the laminate model (integrating metaphysical and behavioral models) offers a powerful tool to “navigate applied human social sciences in personalistic terms,” (p. 14) even though it is less capable of handling values and theological and being issues. Many struggling with gender issues experience “that finding inner peace becomes their ultimate interior norm. For them, the body is not a manifestation or expression that is normative for the self.” (p. 23) So when gender dysphoria happens and is given full rein, “one unintended consequence is that people distressed about their sexual identity are blinded to the spousal meaning of the body.” (p. 23)
Principle 2: Gender: The Body has a Spousal Meaning
Biological sex refers to the biology of the male and female conditions, while gender
refers to the whole range of feminine and masculine traits such as: emotional and mental states, growth and development over time, social and interpersonal interactions, language and exchange of ideas, cultural roles of being male or female as discussed and lived over time and in local societies. (p. 41)
Something important is the self and the self-image that everyone has. This plays in strongly to how people achieve their personal identity. Sexual aspects of a person contribute to personal identity but are not the all-determining factor. Sexual orientation refers to the physical attraction that an individual experiences over the course of adult life. “We do well to accept the witness of so many that our sexual orientation is simply the way we are.” (p. 51) Biersbach presents the view that biochemistry has something to do with sexual orientation, but what we do with our natural endowment is important for us fulfilling God’s vision for our lives. “Psychotherapy clients cannot begin anywhere except where they are. Thus, the psychotherapist’s task is to bring empathy and the benefit of the doubt to every psychotherapeutic session, even if, for the therapist, none of the issues of sex and gender are resolved.” (p. 52) He has a very pastoral approach, but his concession to sexual orientation may be a little exaggerated. Gender identity is one’s self-identification as male or female. The conceptualization of gender identity is influenced by both environmental and biological factors. Attachment – based on the relationship with the mother especially during infancy – links to self-image and affects the way we express our gender through sex roles. Bartholomew’s theory posited that early connections or attachments with caregivers provided the prototype for later intimacy or lack of it in relationships with others. His theory proposed a four-pattern model: the secure model that welcomes intimacy, the avoidant pattern that shuns intimacy, and the resistant/ambivalent models that are hostile toward intimacy because of fear of the consequences. (p. 61)
Friendship plays an important role in helping us understand ourselves and often begins in similarity. It can be difficult to feel sufficient empathy. “To empathize with another person and for them to empathize with us, we each need to understand not only another’s T-F-A – thinking, feeling, and action – but their desires, wants, needs, and inclinations of the other.” (p. 69) It can be difficult to empathize with someone who is going through something different than what one is experiencing.
Principle 3: Fantasy: Sin Hides the Spousal Meaning of the Body
When there are particular fantasies in the imagination, these can be explored to find out the deeper significance for the person. If this happens during prayer, it may be the way that God is helping this person purify past trauma and other inappropriate decisions.
We can distinguish different types of attraction. Sexual attraction refers to the desire for sexual contact or sexual interest in another person. Aesthetic attraction is an appreciation of the appearance or beauty of another person without sexual or romantic attraction. Sensual attraction refers to interactions with others in a tactile non-sexual way, such as traveling, fine dining or wine-tasting. Intellectual attraction refers to an engagement with others at an intellectual level.
Intimacy is something that everyone longs for. It becomes difficult for those still dealing with past trauma.
Homosexual attraction can be somewhat understood as an effort to engage in romance without the effort of learning to empathize with the opposite sex.
Principle 4: Desire: Life in Christ Reveals the Spousal Meaning of the Body
“Central to understanding and healing gender identities is to acknowledge that for all of us how we shape and understand gender is driven by the desire to fulfill our desires… or our lack of them.” (p. 119) The Catechism reminds us that all sin derives from desire gone wrong. (cf. CCC 1866)
It is important to grow in responsibility. This includes having virtue and courage to do what is right. Embracing our sexuality correctly implies accepting the complementarity as well of the two sexes. In order to change behavior, it is less likely to make a total change immediately. It is more likely to achieve behavioral change over time and in stages. “Change is a process involving five stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.” (p. 133)
Biersbach, R. (2023). Sex, Gender, Fantasy, and Desire.