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Erotic Attunement

Parenthood and the Ethics of Sensuality between Unequals

Heightened awareness of the problem of sexual abuse has led to deep anxiety over adults touching children—in nearly any context. Though our society has moved toward increasingly strict enforcement of this taboo, studies have shown that young children need regular human contact, and the benefits of breastfeeding have been widely extolled. Exploring the complicated history of love, desire, gender, sexuality, parenthood, and inequality, Erotic Attunement probes the disquieting issue of how we can draw a clear line between natural affection toward children and perverse exploitation of them.

Cristina L. H. Traina demonstrates that we cannot determine what is wrong about sexual abuse without first understanding what is good about appropriate sensual affection. Pondering topics such as the importance of touch in nurturing children, the psychology of abuse and victimhood, and recent ideologies of motherhood, she argues that we must expand our philosophical and theological language of physical love and make a distinction between sexual love and erotic love. Taking on theological and ethical arguments over the question of sexuality between unequals, she arrives at the provocative conclusion that it can be destructive to completely bar eroticism from these relationships.


“Traina broaches this ‘touchy subject of sensual relations’ with poise and sensitivity without even the slightest hint of sensationalism. The multidisciplinary nature of her study is both its strength and its weakness. On the one hand, this study is potentially vulnerable to criticism for covering too many bases at once and doing a disservice to all. On the other hand, it is precisely through this integrating multidisciplinary approach that Erotic Attunement stands out from the crowd for its breadth of analysis, and its compelling and thought-provoking conclusions. Traina’s message is one that all ethicists, parents, and theologians should pay close attention to.”

Theology and Sexuality

Erotic Attunement is an interdisciplinary tour de force and both a compelling read for nonprofessionals and a basic reference for religious ethicists. Traina has mastered an impressive, exhaustive range of research that took her not only back to Augustine, Aquinas, Aristotle, and Plato, but also into recent studies on sex and the brain, developmental psychology, neonatology, and sex offenders and victims of sexual abuse, as well as a host of other sources.—Christine E. Gudorf, Florida International University

Christine E. Gudorf

“In this book, Cristina Traina takes her point of departure from the unsettling yet widespread experiences of sensual delight and pleasure that women feel in their young children, arguing that we neglect the reality and importance of nonsexual sensuality at our peril. This is a potentially explosive topic, but Traina’s approach is anything but sensationalistic. Drawing on a range of theological and secular perspectives, she argues that sexual desire and pleasure represent only one possible expression of a more general eroticism of delight and pleasure in the other, which pervades all our intimate relationships, including those which are not (and should not be) sexual in nature. It would be a mistake to deny or condemn these sensual or erotic feelings—rather, our immediate aim, in considering the sensual dimensions of human relationships, should be to distinguish between positive and appropriate expressions of our delight in one another, as opposed to those which are distorted or abusive. This is a brave, timely, and very important contribution to theological ethics.”

Jean Porter, University of Notre Dame

“Beautifully written and centered on the experience of women breastfeeding their children, Cristina Traina takes up the experience, research, and debate on women and the erotic into a moral argument that recovers eros and the affective bonds of life. This is more than a major contribution in feminist scholarship; it is a model of interdisciplinary scholarship on the foundations that shape what we study, on what we need to study given what we know across fields of study, and on what this means for ordering our lives together.”

Timothy Sedgwick, Virginia Theological Seminary

“This is a courageous book, and it will also be a controversial one. Cristina Traina addresses the taboo subject of parents’ sexual feelings for their children, beginning with something as ordinary, natural, and beneficial as breastfeeding. She teaches us that human desires, drives, and goods are not always harmonious, and that it is counterproductive to deny that they exist. Virtue is the ability to restrain, balance, and nurture desires appropriately, with the good of the vulnerable other foremost. More broadly, this is a unique and important statement about the meaning of moral responsibility given the actual disharmonies in human nature.”

Lisa Sowle Cahill, Boston College

Table of Contents


1.       Erotic Maternity

2.       Eros Veiled? Configuring Women’s Desires

3.       The Androcentrism of Desire

4.       The Victory of Freudianism: It’s All Sex

5.       The Right to be Touched

6.       Abuse and Attachment

7.       Deling with Desire

8.       Untangling Eros: Toward an Ethic of Sensuality

9.       Pleasure and Protection

Conclusion: Erotic Attunement

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