just so you know, there is a moon pie underneath this ice cream
A recent Times article addressed some new research about self control. A sentence that jumped out at me was: “self-control isn't just about deprivation, but more about managing conflicting goals.” This immediately made me think of some Christian bloggers talking about sexual ethics in terms of self control. For self control to apply to sexual ethics (using this definition), that would mean that “having sex” and “being a Christian” are in some sort of direct conflict. Which seems odd. Of course you can qualify the sex and the Christian to make this work a little better, but before we do that let’s consider my favorite analogy for sex: eating.
One of the main examples for self control used in the article (and the accompanying photo) was that of food and dieting. The implication is that the conflicting goals are that you want to be thin but you want to eat this ice cream Sunday. And let me stop you right there. Because that is actually the entire problem. Interestingly enough, Times also published another article yesterday called How to Talk to Your Kids About Their Eating Habits: Very Carefully. In it, the author discusses a recent JAMA Pediatrics study where “scientists found that kids whose parents talked to them about eating by focusing on the children’s weight or size — telling them either that they were heavy or could get fat if they continued to eat the way they did — were more likely to adopt unhealthy heating behaviors such as going on extreme diets, fasting or using laxatives, or pick up eating disorders like binge eating.” The study’s lead author advises parents to “ avoid bringing attention to how your child looks or how much they weigh; instead, talk to them about being healthy and don’t compare them to others or to an ideal, reference weight.”
Switching back to the self-control article, let’s consider this statement: “The highly self-controlled showed a distinct difference from those with less discipline over their lives. They tended to avoid creating situations in which their goals would conflict, and reported fewer instances of having to choose between short-term pleasure and long-term pain.” In other words, they didn't pit their interests against each other like some sort of Celebrity Deathmatch c.2000. They aren't focused on suppressing their appetite for the sake of their physique. And they probably also aren't obsessed with suppressing their sexuality for the sake of their religious beliefs.
In the case of food, there is no conflict of interests if you reframe your goals so that they align. So maybe instead of “being skinny” your goal could be, “to feel good and healthy.” And maybe instead of “eat this ice cream Sunday” your goal could be, “to enjoy food.” Because here is the beautiful thing, those goals aren't mutually exclusive. Because when you have an eating disorder, your desire to eat and your desire to be thin are front and center and in direct conflict. Even if your eating disorder is binge eating, you are still not enjoying food. Binge eating, by definition, involves eating until you feel sick and uncomfortable. Usually you are consuming unusual quantities (and sometimes bizarre and random types) of food very quickly. Enjoying your food involves really tasting it. It involves being free from obsessive and consuming thoughts about food and body size. It involves listening to and respecting your body when it says: “I’m hungry” or “I’m full.” Which consequently, is a key component of feeling good and being healthy. The obsession isn't on calories or what foods are “good” or “bad.” It is about listening to your body’s need for nutrition and recognizing how your body responds when you fill that need in different ways (e.g., cupcakes for breakfast are fun for special occasions, but they sort of make me feel tired and icky two hours later so it’s not a great every-day kind of thing.)
Let’s say we tried to replicate that goal alignment with sex and Christianity. Instead of pitting them against each other as though they represent some zero-sum game, what if we considered for a moment that they could be aligned? So rather than qualifying them (e.g., having pre/extra-marital sex and being a good Christian) and maintaining the conflict/mutual exclusivity, let’s go ahead and just start from scratch. What if the goal is to honor your body, honor your relationships, and honor your faith/personal values (I’m trying to use more inclusive language here, feel free to sub “honor your WWJD bracelet” or whatevs). When you honor your body/relationships, you are honoring your personal values. And vice-versa. And here is the thing that gets controversial, but maybe (just maybe!) someone can honor her own body/relationships differently than someone else?! Not unlike the way two people can enjoy different foods or have a different “ideal/healthy” weight. Honoring your body would preclude subjecting it to undue risks; it would also preclude ignoring or demonizing aspects of it (including your sexuality). And honoring your relationships would mean establishing consent, communicating effectively and respectfully, honoring and respecting one another’s feelings, etc.
And so what I’m saying here is, let’s drop the self control and sexuality business. Self control involves conflict and mutually exclusive goals. It involves the idea that there is value and a pay off in waiting; ignoring the fact that (as the Marshmallow study even admits): “The decision to delay or not to delay hinges, in part, on the individual’s values and expectations with regard to the specific contingencies. In a given situation, therefore, postponing gratification may or may not be a wise or adaptive choice.” Instead, let’s find a way to create mutually aligned goals. Goals that value thoughtful autonomy. Because forcing some external standard or expectation on someone (as Alfie Kohn points out) is diametrically opposed to the goal of helping them to be independent thinkers. And independent thinking is a good thing. I promise. It is what differentiates religions from cults. So let's go ahead and honor that, mmkay?