Today, author Erin Cupp guest posts here at Roman(tic) Catholic, with her thoughts on purple elephants, bodice rippers and unresolved sexual tension. Read on…
When I became a Christian (not even Catholic yet, mind you—I had my heart set on finding some nice, respectable, non-denominational church near my college at the time), I already knew I had to let go of a few things in order to follow Jesus. I have often spoken of the night when I stood over my dorm hall’s trash can, my tarot cards in hand, saying, “I guess this is it.” I remember watching those cards–my connection to a future that I could pretend was mine, could pretend was certain–as they cascaded into a place where I could no longer reach them.
I have often spoken of that experience, of letting go of that one source of immediate gratification. I’ve never really spoken about throwing out another: my trashy romance novels.
The more of my Bible I read, the less I could reconcile my bodice-rippers with Matthew 5: 27-29. Also, the more I read my Bible, the less I could deny the fullness of the truth to be found in the Catholic Church, but that’s another story for another blog post. Anyway, I knew what Jesus said about keeping our minds as pure as our actions, but that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know why. Why would an ostensibly good and loving God want us to keep our eyes, even our thoughts, for our spouses alone? If our thoughts are just between ourselves and God, then why should He care what we think?
He cares because He wants our actions to be rooted in thought. Pure water only comes from pure well, right?
Anyway, there are enough people smarter than I who have written plenty about why God’s plan for us as whole, sexual persons is a good one. What there aren’t, however, are enough people who’ve given us imaginative examples of how to treat each other as whole persons outside the bedroom. Oh, don’t get me wrong: check any of those links and a dozen more, and you’ll get lots of theological discourse (all good, but some of it dry and complicated) about the goodness of the sexual relationship lived in balance with creation and developed both inside and out of the bedroom. But how do we bring all that to life on a daily basis? Besides that, there’s a ton of advice out there on “what not to do,” and more specifically for the single folks, “How far is too far?” It’s good to know our boundaries, but our human brains need to be told more than “Don’t think of a purple elephant.” If we only hear about what we need to avoid, we have nothing positive to fill our minds and have a more difficult time leaving the bad behind us.
Maybe I haven’t been looking in the right places, but we need more examples of what to do. We need less negative and more positive. After all, isn’t the positivity of the gift what Theology of the Body is all about?
My friends, what our reading brains need is a little bit more UST.
UST? What’s that? All my fanfic peeps will know that UST stands for Unresolved Sexual Tension. That’s the stuff that made The X Files so good for so long. It’s what happens daily, hourly, by the minute outside of “celebrating the sacrament.” It’s the charged conversations, gestures, glances and more that build the foundation of the chemistry that makes a devout Catholic marriage the steamiest marriage around.
But where are we going to learn these things, how to brew that UST? We might get a bit of it on TV (see X Files reference above), but it never lasts, does it? Not long enough for us to gain many helpful examples of how to keep that tension going in our relationships.
But what about those bodice-rippers I threw out? What about those erotica fanfics I didn’t let myself read back in the day? There are more than fifty shades of books out there that fill our imaginations with thoughts about people other than our spouses. You can go ahead and tell yourself that that’s not pornography, but you’re gonna have a hard time proving that to me. What can we have instead of literary porn if we want to read romance?
Why do we want to read romance anyway? Because we learn by reading. We learn so much about our humanity specifically when reading fiction. Where non-fiction can give us the how-to, fiction can breathe life and relationship into the “to do list” in a way that a self-help book just can’t. So if we need to learn more UST in order to keep SPICE in our marriages, the last thing we need is more “what not to read.” Why don’t we have more examples of UST available to us?
Oh, sure, Jane Austen was the queen of UST. Charlotte Bronte gave us Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, and they brought us boatload of UST. Elisabeth Gaskell in North and South, Wives and Daughters… shall I go on? Those books are still with us, but they’ve been around for quite a while and, while timeless, don’t give us any examples of contemporary UST. Mr. Thornton never sent Margaret Hale an emotionally-charged text message.
So where are the present-day stories of UST? Well, check with the Catholic Writers Guild. We’re working on it. As for me, when I wrote Don’t You Forget About Me, I set about to incorporate as much UST into the novel as I could. I wanted to give readers an example of how a relationship can blossom and grow between two people who have to work out both chemistry and conflict before they take their relationship in any other directions. AnnMarie Creedon gave us a whole book-worth of UST in Angela’s Song. Emily’s Hope by Ellen Gable is a by-turns angsty, by-turns sweet series of vignettes showing how UST was left to blossom or turn sour, depending on the wills of the persons wielding it.
Fair warning: there is a danger in overtantalizing yourself with UST-laden fiction. You can only benefit from UST fiction if you use it to inspire communication, not to get stuck in watching how imaginary people are panting after each other like deer with no running stream in sight. As in all things, moderation! But if you want to learn by reading some ways to put the UST into your life, Catholic romance can be an excellent investment. Check out the novels in the previous paragraph. If you’re looking for more titles that will give you a Catholic take on UST, take a look at the winners of the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval.
Are you still not finding what you want to read? Then join the CWG and write some yourself! There’s certainly a need for it.