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. . . justice, or the lack of it, always involves bodies
The national conversation, indeed the raging national debate and finger-pointing, focused on sexual abuse, assault, and rape has many layers. None of this is about sex, not real sex, joy, passion, love, between or among consenting persons—it is about the use of sex to violate another/others.
And yet, as I will argue later in this piece, our social squeamishness about sexual honesty, our phobia about talking openly about sex, is a critical element in our national failure to deal with widespread, and so often hidden, abuse and assault.
Let me examine two other aspects that also have touched me. Both involve gender roles as enforced by our culture. Both are about bodies—as I never tire of saying, justice, or the lack of it, always involves bodies.
The first is the contrast between the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasy Ford and Judge, now Justice, Kavanaugh at the final hearing on his nomination to the Supreme Court. The second is an article by Monica Hesse of the Washington Post, “Dear Dads: Your daughters told me about their assaults. This is why they never told you.” I discuss this below.
I need not spend much time on the first, it having been discussed in many places by many people. But what I do want to say is how clearly the two people reflected the expected, indeed demanded, gender role of women as calm, reasonable, self-effacing, gracious, cordial, concerned about the other person, gentle, etc., and men as strong, assertive, angry when necessary (and so often necessary). not giving any quarter, not caring about others, not even acknowledging others (especially women and children).
Justice Kavanaugh raged; Dr. Ford smiled. Justice Kavanaugh sneered at Senators, especially women; Dr. Ford spoke deferentially and softly.
As many have noted, Justice Kavanaugh appeared to be coming from the place of righteous indignation, a visceral reaction to what he, and many others, perceived to be an assault on his place of honor and white male privilege as one who began with a silver spoon in his mouth and has carefully made sure it was never removed. How dare you question, undermine, my carefully constructed persona and and record!
This leads me to another, and related, set of gender roles, namely those governing the relationships among fathers and daughters (and sons, too). Monica Hesse discusses how often daughters (and sons, too) do not tell their fathers about the sexual abuse, assault, and rape they endure. They don’t even talk about the catcalls and rude whistles and comments they endure on the street or the gender-based discrimination and lack of respect and advancement in the workplace.
Some men are now asking their daughters, and maybe sons as well, if there is anything they should know, anything that their children did not tell them earlier, perhaps from shame, or fear of talking about sexual matters, or, as Hesse points out, because they fear their fathers cannot handle the pain they have endured (or are still enduring). Aside: this seems to me a deep tragedy in the current situation—it’s not just women like Dr. Ford and so many others who endured something earlier, but also the women, and men, who are currently enduring such horrors. What is the silencing and dismissals by so many authorities, e.g., President Trump, doing to them?
Hesse reviews communications she has received from many victims, and notices how many are now telling their fathers for the first time about rape and abuse, as well as how many are choosing not to tell. Those in the latter group still don’t think their fathers can handle the emotional upset, or they fear their fathers will rage like Justice Kavanaugh (but go much further by attacking their attacker and even killing him and ending up in jail), or they feel so much gratitude for all their father has done for them that they don’t want him to feel even a hint of ingratitude. One son says that he won’t tell because “manliness” is so important to his father.
And I admit to being disappointed by those who are choosing not to tell. I can’t and won’t criticize them for an intensely personal decision. Still, I hope they will stay open to the possibility of self-revelation, and self-empowerment, at some point.
I believe they will gain, their fathers (and mothers) will gain, and frankly, all of us will gain, too.
The more honest we are with each other the better our society works.
This leads me to raise an issue that regular readers of this blog may recognize from prior posts: namely the inability of our society to engage in honest conversation about sex, sexual expression, and sexuality.
As I said above, sexualized abuse, mistreatment or rape are not forms of sex. They are methods of abuse and domination and violation/violence.
But I believe part of the problem we have with being honest about violations of bodies and the people who inhabit them is our squeamishness to talk about sex in the first place. It seems clear to me that this is definitely true when it comes to raising sons.
I turn 72 on the date of publication of this post and as I read articles and books and testimonies about how we are teaching our children about sex and relationships things don’t feel all that different than when I was a pre-adolescent and teenager. In so many locales sex education focuses mainly on “just say no” and “wait until you’re married.” Actually, in my youth, we had only “wait, it’s a sin before marriage,” which did not stop many of my peers from being sexually active (and I imagine some being predatory and violent).
I read of how some parents talk to their daughters about being safe, taking precautions; they may even tell sons something similar. And of course, how “no means no,” but even more how consent is more than simply allowing something to be done by one person (or more) to another (others). Consent is an active agreement by both (all) parties. Anything short of that is non-consensual, abusive, and violative behavior. It does not appear to me that that message is getting through to boys, or many grown men either.
What is also so often missing is testimony about the power and beauty of sex and sexuality, how when engaged in with sensitivity and care for each other(s) it can enrich life, because sex is a powerful, and can be a liberating, force in our bodies and lives.
I think that can begin by teaching the beauty and power of masturbation, the safest form of sex, not only in terms of avoiding pregnancy and STDs but also in terms of not harming any person (with one caveat: using images that encourage violence and violation as a form of stimulation do cause harm).
Just think how different it could have been for Dr. Ford if Brett Kavanaugh (or whomever violated her) and other high school boys had either jerked off by themselves or engaged in a circle jerk.
I am not sure we have gotten far beyond the days when Dr. Joycelyn Elders, U.S. Surgeon General, was forced to resign by President Clinton on December 10, 1994 for responding openly, and affirmatively, to an honest question about masturbation.
Bodies are at risk in so many ways, of course not just sexually but also in terms of lack of food, healthcare, water, and exercise, not to mention war, police violence and crime—and at the most basic level of social interaction, simple respect by each of us for all the bodies with whom we come into contact as well as those we never know.
Our political climate as revealed in the past several weeks certainly is working against such respect, certainly as it involves our sexual beings. It is time to own our failings and work together to create change.
Just think what a different world it would be . . . .
(Malachi is on leave this month.)
I have been thinking a lot about shame lately—both because it has been in the news and because it has not been.
Take former New York Mayor and Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani—the man I used to call “Bulliani” when I was one of his constituents—who said of Stephanie Clifford (more widely known as Stormy Daniels):
“So Stormy, you want to bring a case, let me cross-examine you. Because the business you were in entitles you to no degree of giving your credibility any weight,” Giuliani told an audience in Tel Aviv, adding later, “I’m sorry I don’t respect a porn star the way I respect a career woman or a woman of substance or a woman who … isn’t going to sell her body for sexual exploitation.” (ABC News June 6, 2018)
The thrice married Guiliani—who had affairs before ending each marriage (to legalize the affair—doesn’t use the word “shame,” but the bite of his words has the same effect as saying, “Shame, Shame, Shame! I can see and hear many righteous Christian women in my home town wagging their fingers, tut-tutting, and saying, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
What I have always found revealing is that the language of shame is rarely used about murder or theft or embezzlement but is so often attached to sexual acts and behavior. The shaming reflects the virulent and deep-seating sex phobia that permeates the land. And it is women who are expected to bear the shame.
Which is one of the reasons I am grateful to Pope Francis expressing “shame and sorrow” over the actions of pedophile priests (NPR August 16, 2018). For once, we have a man expressing shame about the actions of men who engage in sexual abuse and exploitation.
The words feel good, even though the lack—so far—of concrete action does not. Being ashamed, expressing shame, and remorse, is good, but the repentance and reparations have yet to come. Based on what has been revealed by the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, even more revelations are coming (New York’s Attorney General is now engaged in a similar project).
But what clearly is missing, at least in most cases, are expressions of shame by many of the perpetrators. The perpetrators include not only the actual abusive priests, but also their organizational superiors who often turned a blind eye toward the behavior or simply moved the offending priest to another location where he could start again. So, many need to express shame, remorse, repentance, and together find ways to make reparations.
Payoffs by dioceses and others to victims, with clauses that prohibit them from talking about what happened, are neither remorse or reparations, they are hush money to avoid public scandal. They keep the victim ensnared in a silence that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to deal constructively with their own feelings and find ways to reclaim the parts of their lives that were severely damaged.
Which brings us back to Stormy Daniels. She has decided to break the silence, and confront the denials by one Donald J. Trump and throw the settlement she agreed to back in the face of her former lover and his attorney. In other words, she has decided not to carry the shame any more.
One could make a case that, as “the other woman,” she owes Melania Trump an apology, but the person far more responsible for making such an apology is the man to whom Melania is married (and was married at the time of the affair). Don’t look for that to happen any time soon.
But as a porn star, indeed as a self-respecting businesswoman/sex worker who made money by being sexually available, needs make no apology—unless she over-charged for her services or performed the agreed upon acts in poor ways. No shame, no blame unless the services did not meet the standards as advertised and agreed upon.
This was consensual sex, friends. Unlike the priests and their victims, both boys/men and girls/women.
Oh, speaking of non-consensual sex, how about all the celebrities and corporate executives (men in all cases, except one so far I think) accused of abusive behavior? None of that appears to have been consensual.
Some of them have expressed regret for “any pain they caused,” and many have lost their jobs—but few, if any, are suffering any economic loss. So many have “golden parachutes” built into their contracts—and/or their employers really don’t want to go through a trial with all of its attendant bad publicity—that they seem to land on their financial feet quite nicely. Buyouts leave them with good nest eggs to cushion the loss of status. And a few already seem to be attempting come-backs of one sort or another—and I predict more will try—which surely does not feel to me like feeling any shame.
I have done some things in my life of which I am not proud, and even feel shame. I remember when I, as a county commissioner, backed down when one of our county department heads threatened to expose what he called my “strange sexual habits visiting porn stores” if I persisted in my complaint about the mistreatment of two gay male constituents who were overheard having sex in their tent at a county park in my district. I still feel the sting of that, and have spoken and written about the shame I feel. I wish I could find the two men and say it to their faces.
I acted to save my political and marital neck, at the expense of the dignity of the two men. I went on to win re-election (before deciding to hang up politics to go to seminary). Talk about a golden parachute.
And of course, there are the years of my marriage when I denied my own gay identity, and frankly the quality and quantity of sexual care my wife deserved, not to mention the pain my coming out, separation, and divorce caused her and our daughters. Much good came of all that, too, but I still carry a sense of shame. It long ago stopped immobilizing me and I have fully owned my role in all the pain, have been forgiven by all involved and have even forgiven myself, but the shame is still there. I realize it will never be erased.
The shame of Mr. Trump, the priests and their superiors, and all the celebrity and big business men will not go away either, even if they never own it. But we’d all, and especially their particular victims, be better off if they stood up like real (I am tempted to say “men” because of the ancient, and generally wrong, idea that men are the strong ones) people who own not only their glory but all the rest of their character and behavior, too.
Just think what a different world it would be if we all took responsibility, full responsibility, for all our conduct, if we all strove to be accountable at all times. Those who can lead us in that direction are the real heroes in my book.
. . . we have to find more ways to talk openly and positively about sex and bodies and spirituality
Malachi is on leave this month
All justice is embodied justice; all injustice is embodied injustice.
I was reminded of that maxim—which I long ago adopted as a central key to understanding how the world works and doesn’t work—when I encountered an article in Huffington Post, “LGBTQ Adults in U.S. Less Likely to Have Jobs and Be Insured, Study Finds.”
It must be noted immediately that the title of the article is misleading in that it appears to include transgender persons in the study. However, the study itself dealt only with sexual orientation, and there is no mention of gender variant or transgender persons in the report. Nor did the study indicate any awareness of queerness. My guess is that were a similar study done for those categories there would be an even greater disparity of outcomes as regards employment and health. It seems clear that in the U.S. attitudes towards transgender persons are considerably more negative than those toward LGB persons. I doubt most people, outside the LGBTQ world, even know much about being queer (and of course, many within the community debate use of the term).
Despite legal gains and significant shifts in public attitudes, the reality remains that being, or being identified as, lesbian, gay, and bisexual carries considerable penalty and loss for many (and in some places, there even have been gains for transgender persons but the penalties are far more pervasive, often involving violence).
It is in the everyday interactions among people, among living and breathing human bodies, where deep, negative, often unacknowledged, attitudes and practices remain operative.
The study described in the article, led by Brittany Charlton, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, confirms the results of earlier studies in showing that “overall, both male and female sexual minorities were about twice as likely to have been unemployed and uninsured over the prior year compared to straight peers. They were also more likely to report poorer health and quality of life.”
Charlton and her team also note that “Most of the study participants were white and their families had middle-to-high household incomes.” She says that this indicates “we may have underestimated levels of employment, being uninsured, and having poor health-quality of life.”
So, as always, race and class play a significant negative role.
I doubt many readers here will be surprised by the results of this study, although maybe some might have thought that later results would be less negative than those from 1996 and 2004. That does not appear to be the case. This would indicate the depth of resistance that remains in the U.S. towards LGBTQ equality. And this study does not include the social attitudinal and legal effects of the Trump administration’s overt negativity towards those in sexual and gender minority communities.
Indeed, reports indicate that anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2017 nearly doubled from the prior year. According to a report by NBC News, “People of color were disproportionately represented in the findings and constituted the majority of victims. In total, 37 of the 52 victims were people of color. Thirty-one of the victims were black and four were Latinx. Twenty-seven of the victims were transgender women, and 22 of those victims were transgender women of color. Cisgender (non-transgender) men accounted for 20 of the homicides, most of which were related to “hookup violence,” the report states.
So what is my point? Again, we know we have a long way to go—that gains are not enough, and that some gains are already undermined, and more may be.
My point in highlighting this survey and other reports is simply this: we have to find more ways to talk openly and positively about sex and bodies and spirituality.
It is especially important for us to link sex and bodies with spiritual life, if for no other reason than that so many retain old artificial divisions based on ancient understandings that the body is the site of unclean and even evil thoughts and acts while the spirit is pure and holy.
But frankly, we need to do this for a larger reason—namely that everyone will be helped when we, all of us, can see the divine in all things, including our bodies and sexuality. And we will not get there without also showing that the wide variety of bodies and sexual practices are good and blessed and holy (assuming there is always consent for any sexual activity).
I can say I am continually frustrated within my own faith movement, Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), because of deep unwillingness to acknowledge and share our various sexual lives and practices. Indeed, this blog began initially by me alone, in response to that frustration, to try to start conversation. Few seemed to notice, especially within MCC.
Then, Malachi joined me and thanks to his openness and courage the range of experiences and topics grew significantly. Still, few joined the readership.
My frustration is particularly acute because we promote each of our blog posts through various MCC social media fora, and have been doing so the entire time. Still, few join.
What is particularly vexing is that MCC was founded on sex, namely to overcome the reality that open and self-affirming lesbian and gay people were regularly denied full membership and leadership in Christian churches generally and were often hounded out and deeply damaged. It was because of sex that the Rev. Elder Troy Perry called the first service on October 6, 1868.
Yes, it will be 50 years this fall since that first service in living room of Troy Perry’s little pink house (isn’t that delicious?) in Los Angeles.
In the Jewish traditions out of which Christianity emerged, 50 years was the time of jubilee. At the end of seven cycles of Sabbath years, according to Leviticus 25:8-13, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly evident.
That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee to you. In it you shall not sow, neither reap that which grows of itself, nor gather from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you. You shall eat of its increase out of the field. In this Year of Jubilee each of you shall return to his property.(11-12)
What will Metropolitan Community Churches celebrate this Jubilee year? Will it be how we have survived (right now more or less by the skin of our teeth)?
Or will it be to return to the original vision God had for Troy and us—to truly blow the trumpet of liberation for sexual minorities and all people who see the divine in our intimate, embodied relationships, to become the teachers of the Church universal, the beacons of hope and joy, and justice, in and for all bodies?
Let us pray.
Malachi and Robin find themselves very busy with many things, and realized the best thing for them is to skip July. So, if you came here thinking there would be a new post, this is it.
Until we’re back, for real, August 8th.
In the meantime, enjoy sex, bodies and spirit in your life!!!
. . . some ways we incorporate our sexuality and spirituality in our lives to be authentically ourselves
As is our practice, Malachi and I engaged in conversation about this month’s installment of SexBodiesSpirit. Neither of us had an idea of a topic (usually one of us does). We both have had very busy and demanding days of late so we weren’t sure what might emerge.
But we enjoy talking with each other, learning from each other, and over the course of an hour or so we decided to write about our respective contexts in terms of the issues and lives involved in sex, bodies and spiritual life. Although we share many ideas and ideals about these deeply entwined subjects, we engage them quite differently. We hope that our readers will see some of the possibilities for their own lives, and will resonate with our understanding that there is a wide variety ways to be sexual, to be embodied, and to be spiritual.
Some of our differences may be generational and age-related, and gender-related, too (me labeled and socialized as male and he labeled and socialized as female until he chose to claim his true gender identity). I was born in 1946, Malachi in 1988. Even more than our age difference is the great disparity in the social contexts in which each of us came to adulthood. Baby Boomers (me) experienced one set of social norms, Gen Y (Malachi) folks another.
I now identify as queer, even gender queer in some respects at least, but when I came out as gay in the early 80’s the word queer was still an epithet for most. It took me 20+ years since then to begin to consider queerness as my identity of choice, and only in the past several years have I fully embraced it.
What this means in terms of sex, for me at least, is that after giving up my professed heterosexuality and embracing my same-sex self, I engaged in vanilla sex with some initial men, and then with my first male partner, then with various one-night stands (and a few jerk-off clubs in New York) until my now 20+-year monogamous marriage with Jonathan. It never even crossed my mind to consider three-ways (in fact, one early lover, not long after I came out, wanted that and I reacted with horror and disgust, partly due to my dislike for the proposed partner but mostly due to my gut rejection to the very idea). I had never even heard of kink and BDSM! And it has only been in the past decade or so that polyamory has become a more wide and accepted practice.
All of this is to say that sexually I am pretty tame. Of course, my age and the resulting diminished drive and capacity for sex plays a role, too.
And yet my mind, my soul—and indeed my body (nude as much as possible in this body-fearing world) in some ways I am only beginning to understand—feel very much alive and sexy. I love sex even though I don’t have a lot of it!
And I am thrilled to have learned so much from Malachi and others about kink, BDSM, and polyamory—I am grateful to be alive at a time in history when so many old sexual taboos and shackles are being removed. Even when they are not my practices, I revel in the possibilities, for myself perhaps and certainly for others. Who knows how much freer I can yet become, and even more how much more liberation is in store for our world?
This very much informs my theologizing, my queer theologizing. Indeed, it may be most accurate to say that my sexual horizons and my embodiment, are now in synch with my spiritual and theological orientation. They are all working together in ways unknown to me before.
I have long believed that my higher power, whom I call God, is a totally loving being, a totally caring Creator, who empowers us to live whole lives, filled with love and passion and justice and self- and other-care, and strength and gentleness and much, much more. In the past 10 years or so, I have come to understand that our bodies, yours and mine and everyone else’s, are the centers and vehicles of our wholeness, and that sexuality, sex in all its myriad (and consensual) forms is the energy driving the movement toward wholeness. I say sex or sexuality but I mean a perhaps a more capacious term too, namely the Eros (or Body) of God.
What do I mean by the eros of God, the body of God? For me, it’s pretty simple, though it may not be so for others. The body of God is how I refer to what many call The Creation, the entire created order, all life forms not just humans, you and me and every other human being and creature and object of any sort. It’s all God from start to finish and all of it together makes up God’s body.
I often use the two terms, eros of God and body of God, interchangeably, because I find it difficult to separate them, but for our purposes I will say that the eros of God is the energy that infuses the body of God. As a queer theologian, it seems clear to me that one cannot have the body without the energy, which is why I so often use them together and interchangeably.
What I now know, and believe from the depths of my soul and body (and those two terms, so often seen as distinct, are a complete unity to me), is that God speaks to me through my body, with the divine Eros, and makes that eros mine too. I have long said, “There is always more with God,” and now I see that that is not just a mental or theological construct but actually comes directly to and through me in body, sex and spirit.
I don’t know if I can make this unity as clear to my readers as it is to me, but I hope it may give the reader some sense of why—despite a seemingly limited sex life these days (and through my entire life)—I can now stand and say, Luther-like and with great joy and thanksgiving, “My God, my sex, my body, my spirit—all one without exception and without end.” And I stand and pray it is so for Jonathan and my children and grandchildren, Malachi and other friends and colleagues, and my neighbors and certainly my readers, indeed the entire world.
This feels to me like a manifesto, a rootedness so strong that I proclaim it to the world in joy and hope and certainly in love. You read it here first.
But I will have more to say (here and elsewhere) over the coming months and years about this and its implications for Christianity (and especially my own MCC movement and other progressive religious movements in and outside Christianity), and in our shared political and social life in the United States and the world.
I don’t engage in partnered or solo sex all that often these days, but if I am paying attention, if I allow true God/erotic consciousness to engage me I can, and often do, have moments of connectivity with Eros, with the whole of who I am and the greater whole, that provide unique feelings of deep satisfaction and bliss, forms of orgasm, every day. I hope and pray that whatever shapes your sex life, your Eros, take, that this is true for you, too.
Sometimes I think it’s easy for me to forget the context of my life in integrating the work that I do, the work that I am passionate about, the work that fills and nurtures my spirit. As Robin and I sat down to do our monthly discussion about the things going on in our lives and what we might want to write about, he made the comment that this collaboration, this project, writing about sexuality and bodies and spirituality was grounding for him. It was a way for him to focus on these things that fed his spirit in a way that it wasn’t often fed.
I mulled over that a bit because I have a somewhat different experience. I am a professional kinkster and live my entire life talking about sexuality, about bodies, and somewhat about spirituality. This project feeds my need for connection with the spiritual, with the Holy, with God, but it integrates very easily into the rest of my life. Although our beliefs and ideas tend to converge and synthesize well together, Robin and I do come from divergent experiences in many different aspects, and we decided to take this month to write about some of our own contexts and the ways in which we incorporate our sexuality and spirituality into our lives in ways that feel authentic- and also in ways that we can then come together and talk about it.
I commented above that I am a professional kinkster. My sole means of income comes from working within the kink and BDSM communities: as an educator, as a ropemaker, as an event producer and promoter, as event staff. I spend my life surrounded by people for whom kink is an common part of their lives. But I also spend my life talking about sex, and the manifestations of sexuality. I spend a lot of time talking about intersection: the intersections of oppression within subgroups and subcultures, the idea that the things we do in the kink community are sometimes non-consensually done outside of the kink community, and having an awareness of how we engage and interact with hard parts of our sexuality that feel loaded with shame, stigma, or trauma.
I make bondage rope for a living. It seems perfectly normal to me to say, “I make rope,” when people ask me what I do, and I have to step back and remind myself that my lexicon is often different than other people’s (the most common response I get to that statement is, “What do you mean?” because rope is not a common part of every person’s life.)
The truth is, I have desensitized myself to a world and a life that is vastly divergent from most people’s experiences, and I no longer have any sense of what is “normal” and what isn’t. I recognize that this often creates a communication barrier between myself and others: I don’t know how to begin to talk about what I spend my time doing without first giving an in-depth primer about the kink scene and the social structures and norms of that space. Something as common in my world as the sentence, “I’m going to camp and looking for some pick-up play, specifically a sadistic rope scene,” takes a lot of explaining: what “pick-up play” is, what a “scene” is, how this is different than bedroom bondage or sexually-based kinks, what “camp” is, etc.
This isn’t something that’s foreign to me. I often feel like this when trying to talk about gender, something I have been analyzing for as long as I can remember to the point where my construction and understanding of gender is useless without the foundational groundwork of primers and Gender 101 classes and a working understanding of the binary system, what it is, and why it’s important to dismantle. But in trying to talk about or explain my gender, I am often very aware of the gap between myself and the people asking the questions, and it can feel difficult to bridge that gap in a quick, casual conversation.
My life is somewhat inaccessible, and that’s something I have to reconcile when I focus in on this project. My baseline assumptions, ideals, and beliefs are the product of years of struggling with different ideas and concepts, and I don’t always know how to condense those things down into something short, sweet, and accessible.
I don’t think this is bad, but I do think it’s something I need to be aware of. Because for me, it’s easy to integrate my sexuality, my relationship with my body, and my spirituality together. I have constructed my life to be able to think and talk about these things freely and surrounded myself with people with whom these discussions are commonplace. I have to step back and recognize that what seems easy to me is only easy because of the opportunities I have been afforded (a product of a generation that popularized language around BDSM, gender, and sexuality to make these things more accessible) and the ways I have been able to construct my life and income.
That being said, I think it’s still possible, regardless of everything else, to find ways to think and challenge yourself around these topics. To find people with whom you can share your experiences and thoughts and fears and struggle with the oppressive systems we work within. I think it’s possible to find a way to invite the holy into your bedroom, recognize the holy in your body, and find ways to bring these things together in a way that feels authentic for you.
I recognize that most people cannot live the way I do. Most people can’t- and don’t want to- spend their entire lives talking about sex, thinking about gender, teaching about oppression, and so forth. So the question I have for you- which is often the question I ask Robin- is, “What’s your ‘in’?” How do you access these things? What about what we talk about resonates with you? Where you do find your spirit calling you to explore, and what pathways and avenues are available to you?
How do we access these parts within ourselves that haven’t yet found an outlet, a way to be fully embraced? It doesn’t need to be as all-or-nothing as I (and in many ways, Robin as well) have done.
Where is the sexuality resonating in your spiritual practice? Where is your spirituality calling out to you to challenge your understanding of freedom, autonomy, and oppression? Where in your body does your sexuality resonate?
The context of my life affords me the opportunity to live these things fully, every day. And I love my life for it, as complicated as it can be sometimes (particularly while raising a child on the brink of preteen years). And although our experiences are divergent, I love that Robin and I are able to come together to share our thoughts and feelings with one another and with readers. But I think, sometimes, I lose sight that the conclusions work within the specific framework of my life, and aren’t necessarily possible for everyone. And that’s ok. The idea is never to tell others what is authentic for them; the idea has always, for me, been about helping people find new ways to ask questions, to challenge themselves, to seek more authentic relationships with one another, with themselves, and with God.
That is, I believe, what we are ministers, teachers, parents, community members, and friends do: not necessarily give answers, but share our experiences in hopes of sparking new questions.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What are your perspectives, your sense of self about sex, bodies, spirit? Have they changed over the years? How do you experience the unity of these three central parts of our lives? Do you, or are they separate and distinct? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Mark Your Calendar! August 8th (or thereabouts), right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit. Our apologies for being too busy to post on July 11.
The truth is we have to make room in our lives to say yes.
When I was a young man, indeed until last year, I never thought of becoming The Naked Theologian. And although I wrote a few poems over the years—often as a way to celebrate an event—I never thought of myself as a poet. And I did not think of myself as gay until I was 35—even though I had long had sexual fantasies about boys (when I was a boy) and men. And after I graduated from a Ph.D. program in theology and could not find a job teaching the subject, I thought I was done with that.
I never thought, I never thought, I did not think of myself, I thought I was done with that.
There’s a theme here: Thinking can keep you stuck.
I don’t mean one should never think, but over the course of my 71 years I have come to understand, albeit slowly and still imperfectly, that some good stuff happens when I stop thinking and start feeling.
Feeling certainly has a mental component, but when I don’t pay attention to how my body is carrying the feeling I miss vital aspects of myself. Indeed, my experience tells me that I often miss prompts, messages from God.
I love Jonathan, my husband of 20+ years, but our marriage might never have come about if I had reasoned away my feelings of anger and jealousy when he, as then my dear friend of six years for whom I had not felt any erotic draw, began chasing after a comely young man on the beach at Fire Island. Who knew Jonathan and I would become lovers and best friends for life? I think God knew we were a good match, but it took me, and him, some time to figure it out.
Or maybe it was less about figuring things out and more about allowing space for God to fill us with gifts.
Yes, for me, it’s about God, or if you prefer, the Universe. I believe, I know, God is always up to something new, something more. Life is so much richer than any of us can ever fully know, but then we, or at least I, work pretty hard to keep the riches within bounds, within the container of what I think my life is and should be, within the boundaries of the world within and around my socially informed consciousness.
I now realize that making room for new things, allowing space for new things to happen, getting out of the way for life to show us something new—or maybe even show us things that have been in and around us for a long time that we have been avoiding or denying—is the key to rich, vibrant spiritual living.
As some readers will know, I claim several identities. I am a Queer, or maybe just I am queer. I am a nudist/naturist. I am a theologian. I am a poet. I am a father and grandfather. I am a husband. And brother and uncle, and a cis gender male. I am even a Christian, and certainly a citizen. I am a gardener. I am a dog lover and owner.
Some of those identities may seem distinct from others, and some newer, some not so new. But they are all connected in the human person that is me.
The identities and their connectivity are still evolving. Indeed, the evolution that is me is ongoing. For instance, I only began naming myself as a nudist/naturist a year or two ago (I can’t be more precise because it was a process that I now realize began when I was a teenager). About the same time, I began to think about writing as The Naked Theologian.
This particular evolution also required that I reclaim an identity I thought (!!!) I had set aside: theologian. And more than that, queer theologian. And even more recently, I have immersed myself in theopoetics–a way of theologizing that prioritizes the body, experience, and emotion–quite different from the classic discipline of systematic theology in which I was trained.
But I doubt any of that would have happened had I not listened to a voice I heard in 2014 at 10,000 feet in Yosemite National Park, a voice that told me, “The writing keeps crying out.” I have no doubt that God spoke through the trees who (not which) uttered those words, calling me home to what I now see as my vocation: writer. (Of course, that moment was preceded by many others that got me there.)
In the mountains, that call was not very specific. But two days after I came down and home to Richmond, I attended a reading and talk by Natasha Tretheway, then U.S. Poet Laureate. This had not been planned—I saw a newspaper item, and felt a pull to go.
I found a friend there, Dorothy Fillmore, who I discovered in that moment writes wonderful poetry. She and Natasha Tretheway challenged and inspired me to take my first poetry class (with Dorothy) and have not been the same since. I keep taking such courses today.
Why do I share this journey? It’s simple really. The journey is not over, of course. And that’s the point.
I am not in charge of this journey and never have been. I have made choices, of course, and often I used my mind to figure things out.
But the real source of the power, and the wisdom is in my body, in the times when my mind let down its guard and I could feel the movement of the One I call God, Spirit, the One who stops me long enough to hear a voice while I sat naked on that mountain, to the voice I heard while sitting in Rosh Hashanah service at the Or Ami Congregation in Richmond telling me to step away from pastoring to engage in political organizing for equality, to the voice I heard while on retreat in the chapel at Richmond Hill to trust God to give me what I need to get through trying times at the church I served, to the voice I heard on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn in2002 to set aside my hurt and anger at the Episcopal church and accept my call as a pastor (in Metropolitan Community Churches), the voice I heard in Milford, Michigan more than twenty years before that told me to leave political life and go to seminary and serve God and God’s people, the voice I heard at the Episcopal Divinity School on Brattle Street in Cambridge telling me to come out as a gay man.
Not one of those voices, and others earlier and later too, was just in my head. In fact, my head had tried, and succeeded, and still tries and succeeds, in stopping them many times.
So I keep being reminded, praise God, to get out of my head and into my body—where God keeps troubling and guiding my soul, keeps speaking truth, keeps putting divine hands on and in my life. So it’s time to stop this writing for this moment. And listen. And feel. And live into the rich future God yet has for me.
As a highly analytical person, one of the things I struggle the most with is “getting out of my head.” Being present in the moment, not overthinking. Existing in my body instead of using my thoughts to disconnect from the sensations I am experiencing. I have a hard time relaxing and trusting my instincts- which is probably why, when I feel a pull of God calling in my life, I struggle so hard with it.
I appreciate and respect that calls to movement and change are never easy. In fact, I have come to believe that struggling with a call is part of the call itself. It’s part of faith- the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. So it makes sense to me that the movement of God in my own life comes in ways that are harder for me to trust. They’re intuitive, instinctive. They require me to “trust my gut” and, for all intents and purposes, “get out of my head.”
As we are transitioning from winter into spring and the weather gets warmer, this is something I have been thinking a good deal about. I’m not someone who deals with cold very well, and spend most of the winter trying to ignore the sensations of my body- which means getting deep into my head and focusing on the thoughts and internal contemplation as a means of distancing myself from my physical reality of being cold. But as it gets warmer, and my skin feels more comfortable again, it’s easier to be more present-aware because I am enjoying the sensations of warm on my skin.
I’ve been thinking about this because it’s almost become second nature for me to distance myself from my body in different ways when the sensations my body is experiencing are uncomfortable. And by doing this, it also means that I fall into this habit during other periods of anxiety or discomfort- which includes sex, or moments where I feel the call of God stirring in my life. My default is to sink into my analytical mind and overthink everything, rather than experience the sensations of my body, however uncomfortable they may be.
It has been a period of so many transitions: seasonal transitions in tandem with life transitions. In particular, I have been at a place where I have wanted to make the work I do in the kink and BDSM community more sustainable and financially viable, but I haven’t quite known how to do that. As I was contemplating different ways to move out of food service industry and into full-time kink work, I was offered an opportunity to become a ropemaking apprentice with a friend who has been making and selling rope for over seven years and is a well-known ropemaker inside the kink community.
It’s not that I think that God is calling me to be a ropemaker, specifically. The call I felt stirring was subtler and much more powerful- follow your passion. It was a call to move beyond the “safety net” of food service industry jobs and take a blind leap, in some respects, into an opportunity that sets me on a path to making my life more sustainable. And I wanted to follow it, absolutely. But I didn’t want to give up my safety net.
I began the apprenticeship, but also maintained my outside job. Between the two, I ended up overworking myself, and got sick. It forced me to stop and reconsider how I was choosing to listen and follow this tug of opportunity that was presented to me. And in that moment I realized: I needed to make room in my life for the things I wanted, or I was distancing myself from this call as much as I distance myself from my body when I am uncomfortable.
There is a terrifying element of trust in all of this. The idea that “I don’t know where this is going or how this is going to work out, but I trust that you have led me here for a reason, God.” I wanted to cling to my own safety nets, maintain my other job (which, while I loved it, was emotionally and physically taxing as well as in the midst of many changes and transitions). The truth is, we have to make room in our lives to say yes. Getting out of our heads means taking risks sometimes. It means we do things- not recklessly, but without analyzing every possible outcome and conclusion. It means we trust that things will go well, instead of looking for every opportunity where things might go wrong. Overanalyzing is often looking for a reason to say no, rather than trusting our instincts to say yes.
Getting out of our heads means we have to be willing to experience our own discomfort. Our own fears and insecurities and uncertainties. It means that we have to let go of control, make space, and experience our lives fully- the good and the bad. It means we takes risks when our gut is telling us that’s the direction we need to move. It means being present, saying yes, and letting go of whatever safety nets we have built- because those nets are no longer a help, but a hindrance to our goals.
It means making room. When God calls us to move in some direction in our lives, sometimes we have to let other things go to make room. I needed to leave my other job; as much as I loved its goals and purpose, it had become and physically and emotionally taxing in a way that was not sustainable, it was a pull on my time that I couldn’t sustain, and I knew I would be leaving regardless. When I got sick, it was a moment for me to get out of my head, experience the sensations of my body, make some hard decisions, and follow my gut- wherever that leads me.
For me, I find that it’s rarely the thing itself that is the call, but the intention of the thing. It’s not about becoming a ropemaker (although I do love it and enjoy it and plan to do it for quite some time). It’s about setting the intention that I wanted kink to be more financially sustainable and was unsure how to do it, and the opportunity presented itself to me. I don’t think this is where I will end up “forever,” but I think it’s a step down a path that is built on following my passions. It’s an opportunity to move to a different place in my life, and that intention is perhaps the most powerful- and terrifying- part of all.
Getting out of my head isn’t easy. If I stop to think too hard, I think of every way this could go wrong and fail. I second-guess myself, my abilities, my contributions. I want to stay in the safe area of customer service- not because I love it, but because I’ve done it so long that I’m good at it. It’s comfortable.
But God rarely allows us to stay too comfortable for long. And when we state our desires into the universe, they are heard. So this season- this season of transience and transition- the themes seem to all interconnect and weave together into their own safety net of sorts: let go of control. Get out of your head. Say yes. Make room. Let go, and let God.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
How have your perspectives, your sense of self, your choices, changed over the years? How do you identify the sources which have helped you to change, have led you in new directions? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Mark Your Calendar! June 13th (or thereabouts), right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.
These bills have continued a dangerous trend in online censorship of discussions of sex.
The sex police are at it again.
In a society so rife with sexual scandals involving men (and the occasional woman too) in high and powerful places it seems somehow hypocritical when righteous Senators and Representatives legislate yet one more obstacle to the safety and honest labor of sex workers.
Yet, that is what they have done, by passing the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)/Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SOSTA). FOSTA was passed by the House and the Senate passed SOSTA, and then they were combined into one law, now awaiting what seems to be the almost certain signature of President Trump (of course, with him, it’s not done until its actually done and he can’t take it back).
Here is relevant language from the bill:
“§ 2421A. Promotion or facilitation of prostitution and reckless disregard of sex trafficking
“(a) In General.—Whoever, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (as such term is defined in defined in section 230(f) the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230(f))), or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.
“(b) Aggravated Violation.—Whoever, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (as such term is defined in defined in section 230(f) the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230(f))), or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person and—
“(1) promotes or facilitates the prostitution of 5 or more persons; or
“(2) acts in reckless disregard of the fact that such conduct contributed to sex trafficking, in violation of 1591(a),
shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 25 years, or both.”
The casual observer might well feel good that Congress has taken a step to stop sex trafficking. I certainly want sufficient tools to combat the horrors of forcing people to be sexual with others against their will (certainly when children are involved but also adults who are coerced into being the sexual tools of others). So, this law ought to make me feel good, right?
Sadly, no. There are two aspects to the legislation which feel especially egregious to me. First, the act conflates sex trafficking with legitimate, chosen sex work by using the term “prostitution” as that which is subject to its provisions. Thus, sex workers, not just sex traffickers, are affected by the law.
Second, the act has the very clear potential to increase risks to the safety of sex workers. By holding web hosting companies and others responsible, and subject to jail time and fines, when they knowingly allow ads and other notifications of prostitution on their sites, the law actually can contribute to the inability of sex workers to screen clients. How is this so?
Basically, web companies and others don’t want to be involved in federal or state investigations and lawsuits due to sex-focused advertising. A zealous prosecutor can quickly make things expensive and burdensome for a company. What is the solution? Stop accepting advertising that promotes sex (prostitution in the language of the act).
And that is already happening. The upshot is that sex workers are forced back on the streets without ways to screen clients. Craigslist, which had closed down its erotic notices section in 2010 in response to earlier legal problems, now, as the result of this law, has closed down its “Personals” section, which many individuals who are not sex workers used for sexual hook-ups.
Which is why I speak of the sex police.
This new law, while having a commendable intent to prevent sex trafficking, adds yet one more layer to the criminalization, or at least prohibition, of consensual sex acts between and among adults (with and without compensation).
Indeed, it perpetuates the mistaken notion that the government can and should stop sex work. This is not unlike the unsuccessful campaign to end drinking by banning the sale of alcohol. Prohibition acts in the states and the constitutional amendment were passed but drinking did not stop. If that campaign were going on now, it seems likely that the advocates would, like the sex-focused Congress now, penalize online promotion of drinking alcohol.
In both blogs, there is a recognition of the centrality of sex to the lives of human animals. And there is a positive valuation of various consensual ways people endeavor to exercise their sexual muscles, to live in ways that reflect their own sexual desires and attitudes in concert with willing others.
These two points—the centrality of sex in our lives and the honoring of the various consensual ways we are sexual—are base line, theological, spiritual values for me. They are grounded in my belief that every body, every single body—regardless of size, gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, age, and all other ways we humans set up to draw lines around individuals and groups of people—is beautiful and reflects the Creator. The entire universe—every human and non-human being as well as all rocks, molecules, trees, everything—is, for me, the Body of God, and each of those is valued in itself for carrying divine DNA to make that Body.
And key to this is the energy source which keeps it all going. I call that source eros, the divinely inspired and desired power of connection among us all. Sex is the opportunity for making connection.
So, instead of continuing efforts to penalize people for wanting sex, we should be encouraging an openness to it, a celebration in fact of our desire for connection. Desire is not encouraged or made possible through coercion—that is abuse and rape—but through creating safe conditions that make it possible for us to explore and share our sexual selves with others.
I wish I thought the President would veto the legislation, but I know it will not be so (even though the Justice Department raised some concerns about possible restraint of speech).
We need to promote the decriminalization of sex acts among consenting adults and oppose efforts which perpetuate old attitudes about the evil of sex. Congress has failed that test, again.
Recently, Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA). SESTA closes the loophole in section 203 of the Communications Decency Act, in which websites were not liable for the content users produced and shared on their website. FOSTA makes online ads for prostitution a federal crime- either posting the ads or hosting the content.
Please let me be clear: sex trafficking is a horrendous violation of human rights and should be prevented and stopped. There is no equivocation on this fact. FOSTA/SESTA does not achieve this goal; in fact, it makes it harder to catch those dealing in human trafficking as they are forced to go “underground” and limit internet exchanges. So not only does this bill not do what it was designed to do, it also makes consensual sex work significantly more dangerous.
I have many friends who are consensual sex workers- adults who have been in the industry for years and continue to stay in the industry of their own volition. Some enjoy the work; others view it as a job. A friend recently pointed that out we place expectations on consensual sex workers such as “is the job fulfilling?” and “do you feel empowered by your work?” She pointed out that we do not require “fulfillment” or “empowerment” or any such conditions on other jobs- grocery baggers, fast food workers, taxi drivers, etc. Some find it fulfilling; others do it for a paycheck; she argued that requiring sex work to be considered “fulfilling” in a specific way was still placing moralistic judgement on the work. For her, it is a job; she doesn’t love it and doesn’t hate it, but it pays the bills and she’s been in the industry long enough that she has a good client base and is able to work relatively safely.
I say all this to say- consensual sex work is, like any other profession, a job. There are good days and bad days. I don’t pretend that there aren’t risks associated with sex work, but I do recognize that requiring that those doing the work feel a specific way about the work (a) continues to reinforce this idea that sex work isn’t work in the same ways we view other jobs as work and (b) makes it harder for sex worker to talk about “bad days,” because the default answer is almost always, “Well, why don’t you stop doing it then?”
One of the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA is that it shuts down online ads for prostitution- including the ads of consensual sex workers. This means that advertisements leading people to personal websites where workers are able to screen clients safely (rather than being forced to meet in person) are now illegal. This forces many workers who do not already have a client base to engage in higher-risk sex work (including, but not limited to street-based sex work and meeting clients in-person for screening). This also means that sharing information about sex work in online forums- such as exchanging names and information of bad clients, or tips for how to screen new clients- is now a federal crime.
Websites such as craigslist have already taken steps, such as shutting down it’s personal section rather than face prosecution for hosting prostitution ads. The craigslist personals section covered everything from sex work ads to people looking for random hookups local to their area. Fetish websites such as FetLife have put out their own guidelines for complying with FOSTA/SESTA, which means those who advertise the exchange of goods for sex (which sometimes includes professional dominatrices, or pro-dommes) will be subject to having their accounts deleted, and any mention of prostitution in any form will be deleted from the website- including those who engage in consensual interactions where they roleplay prostitution scenarios.
The implications of these bills are vast and with the ambiguous language, are able to be interpreted quite broadly. Conflating consensual sex work with sex trafficking does a disservice to both groups- in fact, I know of no group more vocal in stopping the abuse of sex trafficking than sex workers. FOSTA/SESTA not only puts consensual sex workers in a significantly more dangerous position, and not only does it elevate safety measures for sex workers (such as online screening) to a federal prostitution charge, but it makes it harder to catch those engaging in sex trafficking, driving them offline and forcing them to create new networks that are not as easy to track as online networks.
These bills have continued a dangerous trend in online censorship of discussions of sex. It is unclear how these bills might impact things like the #MeToo movement (more on that here) or censor online discussions of sex at all (a comprehensive look at the impacts of FOSTA/SESTA can be found here). The reality is, this bill is an atrocious piece of legislation that impacts everyone- but specifically makes sex work more difficult, more dangerous, and does not protect victims of sex trafficking.
We must do more to fight trafficking and protect and support victims of sex trafficking. But measures such as FOSTA/SESTA, however good-intentioned they might be, do significantly more harm than good and do not achieve their goal. We need to look at ACTUAL measure to protect victims- many suggestions and resources come from within the sex work community. Criminalizing consensual sex work in an effort to protect victims of trafficking not only removes the autonomy of adults to make their own decisions about their employment- never mind choices about their bodies- by conflating all sex work as a form of trafficking, but it also removes a vital, necessary resource toward ending trafficking- the resources and knowledge of sex workers who are connected to the sex industry. Sex workers are far more knowledgeable about the sex industry than those peering in from the outside with a savior mentality, and have been fighting trafficking for years, often without legal and social support. It’s time to stop criminalizing sex work and focus on supporting sex workers- which will do more to end trafficking than ambiguous, blanket-statement legislation written by those who don’t fully understand the implications of these actions.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think about sex work? What do you know about it? What should government do to stop sex trafficking? And not do? How do you define sexual freedom? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Mark Your Calendar! May 9th, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.
Our sense of safety, of self, of ideology, all of these things lay within our comfort zones . . . .
Robin and I recently spent some time discussing comfort zones- for me, particularly, the nuanced difference between “comfort zone” and “gut instinct.” The distinction between the two, I think, is difficult to ascertain sometimes because stepping outside of our comfort zones and having a gut feeling about something can often feel much the same.
But let’s back up and talk about what comfort zones are. At the most basic level, our comfort zone is where we feel the most safe. We know our surroundings, we know the people we are engaging with, the know the circumstances, and we don’t feel threatened in any capacity. Our sense of safety, of self, of ideology, all of these things lay within our comfort zones.
And that’s a great place to be! It’s good to feel calm and self-assured and safe. I think we all need a respite from hard emotional, psychological, and spiritual work sometimes. The problem with comfort zones, though, is that staying within them too long often leads to stagnation.
My mother is fond of reminding me that “we don’t change until it hurts bad enough.” Growth, change, they all come from tension, from butting up against something we thought we believed and finding our beliefs questioned. And in order to do that, we have to be outside of our comfort zones.
I spend a lot of time in therapy, parsing out my unusual comfort zones. I am, for example, perfectly comfortable walking around naked in (designated) public spaces, having sex in public, tying people up, getting tied up, talking about sex hypothetically,
saying, “I love you,” and so forth. But it feels immensely outsides my comfort zone- that is, it makes me very uncomfortable and, in some ways, vulnerable to the point of feeling unsafe- to instigate sex with a partner, or identify and communicate something that I want. I once noted in my journal, “Why is it easier to say, ‘I love you,’ than it is to say, ‘I want to fuck you’?”
Because comfort is subjective, based on each of our personal and interpersonal experiences. Comfort zones are the boundaries drawn as a result of trauma and struggle, as well as positive experiences. But perhaps that’s a key point in all of this- comfort zones are based on boundaries, a separation of safe and not-safe, a delineation between what reinforces and supports our beliefs and what challenges them.
It’s the foundation of how we draw boundaries in general: boundaries with one another, boundaries with ourselves. Which is where we have to talk about the nuances between comfort zones and gut instinct. Because where pushing outside of comfort zones can be a really positive thing and lead to self-introspection and change, gut instinct is often there to help keep us safe. It’s the feeling that something is off, something isn’t quite right. And that feeling is important, too; that’s often what happens when our bodies pick up on subtle cues that we aren’t consciously aware of. And that edge, that discomfort, that heightened awareness when our gut instincts kick in… often feels much the same as stepping outside of our comfort zones.
The difference is, of course, that one is a perceived lack of safety, whereas the other might be alerting us to something legitimately dangerous. It’s important that we press outside our comfort zones for growth and change, but it’s also important that we listen to our gut instincts. So how do we know, in moments of discomfort, which is which?
For me, especially because my understanding of comfort is fairly warped, I often have to play, “What’s the worst that could happen?” in my mind to remind myself that there is no actual danger in being outside my comfort zone. So, for example, when I am in a position where I want to instigate sex with a partner, and I get that terrified feeling that comes along with that desire, I have to remind myself that the worst that can happen is that my partner isn’t interested and declines. And then I remind myself that that’s not even a bad outcome because I feel so grateful to be with people who trust me enough to not only state their desires, but to state their lack of desire. Someone saying “no” helps me trust that they really mean “yes” when they say yes. There is no actual danger here; only growth and positive communication.
On the other hand, if I’m walking down the street and I start to feel uncomfortable, I do the same thing. I think about what the possible outcomes are. I think about “what area” I’m in, and whether the reactions I’m having are coming from a place of internalized racism (is this a predominantly black part area, and how is that influencing my sense of safety?) I think about the experiences I’ve been having (have I seen anyone? How have those interactions been?) and use as much information as I can to decide whether I’m just… a white person outside of my comfort zone (which I can use as an opportunity for growth and change and tackling my own internalized racism) or am I someone that people are interacting with in a violent or unwelcome sexual way where I should be concerned about my own safety?
I appreciate, for example, that this blog and these discussions often fall outside of people’s comfort zones. We butt up against the status quo, the “accepted” mainstream doctrine for Christianity and Christian belief in openly- deliberately- discussing sexuality and the miracle of our bodies with respect to our faith practices. But there is no danger here. There is thought, hopefully well-articulated for the most part, and discussion, and lived experience. There are people on the other end of these words that don’t have the answers, but want to push ourselves outside the spiritual comfort zone to find new ways of connecting with and understanding ourselves, one another, and the holy. It may be discomforting. It may make us angry, or scared, or uncertain, or all of the things that happen when we decide to question deeply held beliefs.
But at the end of all of this, there is God, smiling as we struggle with complexities of what it means to be human and seek to worship as authentically as we know how. There is a quote that comes to mind from Thomas Merton’s prayer, “Thoughts in Solitude,” though I first heard it paraphrased from a TV show: “I don’t know how to please you, Lord, but I think the fact that I want to please you pleases you.”
I believe that God is pleased when we push ourselves outside our comfort zones, seeking to grow and change and understand God, ourselves, the world, and each other better. Our comfort zones provide a good respite from the daily struggles of the world, a reprieve when we are exhausted, but we cannot live there all the time, for it a place of quiet rest, and not necessarily a place of vibrant growth.
“I would like to do that with (or for or even to) you, but it’s not in my comfort zone.” Over the years of my life, I have said this a few times, probably more than I remember. It also has been said to me.
What is a “comfort zone?” One definition I found says, “a place or situation where one feels safe or at ease and without stress.” Obviously, there can be locations which always, or at least generally, feel like comfort zones—home, I hope, although I know that is not the case for too many—but there also can be specific episodes or situations in other places that can feel like they are within our comfort zone. Sometimes, we even find new zones.
It is tempting, and for me often the case, to stay in traditional (for me) comfort zones and to live only in places and situations that are clearly comfortable, and to avoid those that don’t feel that way. As a well-privileged white cis gender male with extensive education and a middle class background, it is not difficult to live only in my social comfort zone. However, there are times when I, we, must act beyond our comfort zones.
My comfort zone does not include stepping into the midst of an argument between two or more people that is turning ugly and seems to be heading toward violence. But I might have to do it anyway, if I want no further violence, bloodshed or irreversible outcomes. Of course, this depends on my investment in the people (and possibly institutions) involved, and potentially my desire for safety for all of us, including me.
Right now, I feel myself being more of an agitator than is my usual comfortable practice—I like to think of it as being one of Saint Bayard Rustin’s “angelic troublemakers”—on social media sites linked to my faith community, Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC). The details don’t matter here, but what is causing me to act up more than normal is a desire to resist and overcome the debilitating and oppressive power of white supremacy in our history and our present that has been and is infecting policies and practices of our leadership and others.
Doing this feels outside my comfort zone, and yet it also feels right. But sometimes, I feel skittish. I recently reposted an important notice from a leader who was resigning her posts because as an African American woman she no longer feels recognized and heard. I began that post with the words, “This will probably get me in trouble……” Fortunately, I was called on those words, and edited them out, realizing they were only designed to shield me from the discomfort and/or anger of others.
Here is irony: My search for a definition of “comfort zone” lead me a link to the “Comfort Zone,” a novelty and party store that I know, from visits, carries a large array of sex toys, “adult” videos, sexy clothing (especially for women). I have gone there to purchase lube and cock rings. It would not be comfortable for many (probably most) people to visit this store (ironically, I only learned about it because it is next door to our veterinarian’s clinic).
But of course, this blog, Sex Bodies Spirit, is also outside the comfort zone of many people. I started it, joined a little later by Malachi (praise God!) and we then added a monthly online teaching, through Metropolitan Community Churches, but it certainly did not draw much interest from clergy and members (we had, and have a few fans from MCC). The monthly teaching no longer exists.
I think that is a loss for the church, but you can’t easily get people to leave their comfort zones. Indeed, church communities are notoriously skittish about talking about sex. Not doing sex, just talking about it, openly, positively, maturely—as if it were a key part of being human (which, of course, it is).
As regular readers of this space know, I like being naked. I would like to be naked more of the time than I am (at this time of year our house is too chilly). And I wish there were beaches and other venues in the near vicinity where I could be naked when I want.
But, as Malachi and I talked about the topic of “comfort zones” 10 days ago, I realized that I had some anxiety about being one of two presenters and discussion facilitators in an online venue where the next topic is nudity. Titled “Naked and Unashamed,” Rev. Dr. Frank Dunn and I will discuss various spiritual aspects of nudity. We will even be nude, and encourage others to do the same if that is within their comfort zones. [This is through Jonathan’s Circle, a group of men, started by Frank some years ago, who participate in various ways to learn more about sexuality and spirituality and their connections.]
I have been trying to discern the nature of my anxiety. I can’t believe it is being naked on camera. I have posed naked in front of dozens of people, ridden my bike naked through the streets of Philadelphia with a thousand other naked people in front of many times that number of clothed Philadelphians, and posted full-frontal nude pictures of myself on my personal blog, “The Naked Theologian.” As the name of that blog says, I am quite willing to be identified with nakedness, and to be seen naked. I even read a poem at a public reading in my town about my fantasy of dancing naked in the town square, how others joined in, and we decided to make it an annual event (no one commented or asked me about it afterwards).
So what is going on? What part of me is being challenged?
I have puzzled about this, and have concluded that for some reason I do not fully understand this particular naked adventure is making my commitment to nudism more real than it has been. Indeed, as soon as I wrote that sentence, I decided to crank up the heat in my study and take all my clothes off.
It certainly feels good to do that, and it helps me understand that, at least in some ways, I am more comfortable naked than clothed. Don’t get me wrong, clothes matter to me (I enjoy color and my own ideas of my style), but if I could, I would live naked all the time.
I have found a new comfort zone.
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What are your comfort zones? Do you ever venture beyond one or more of them? If so, under what circumstances? If not, why not? How in touch are you with your various comfort zones? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Mark Your Calendar! April 11, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.
As we head toward the middle of February, the world paints itself in pinks and reds, expressions of affection, anatomically incorrect hearts and overpriced flowers, and a myriad of ways to say, “I love you,” carefully crafted by greeting card companies (and usually accompanied by an abundance of glitter). It’s Valentine’s Day, a strange and perplexing holiday in which we are, in general, encouraged to express love and affection for those in our lives- specifically romantic entanglements.
Certainly, those who are unpartnered are encouraged to celebrate the love of friends and family, and parents are encouraged to celebrate love for their children (usually assuming their children are prepubescent), and children are encouraged to send well-wishes to other students in their classes (even the bully that takes their lunch money), but the reality is, Valentine’s Day is a couple’s holiday, a time to celebrate That Special Someone in your life. I suppose I sound a bit pessimistic about the whole business; Valentine’s Day tends to strike me as a capitalist, consumer holiday intended to reinvigorate the market after the inevitable lull immediately following Christmas.
My somewhat cynical and skeptical perspective on Valentine’s Day may seem antithetical to the purpose of the holiday- after all, shouldn’t we take any and all opportunities to express our love and affection for the people we care about? I think a part of me rebels at the mandate- this is the day that we show how much we love one another- because a part of me believes, much like the Christmas spirit, that we should seek to live with that in our daily lives, and not once or twice a year.
As a polyamorous person, I also struggle because there are few (if any) representations of the ways that I love. No one is my “everything,” nor do I have a “love of my life.” I have those that I love deeply, those that I hope to grow old with, those that I have known and loved now for over half of my life, those with whom I have deep, committed partnerships that do not include a sexual component, those for whom sex is the basis of our relationship (but that is a kind of love, too, for me). The point is, dividing my time and trying to find ways to express and share the multitudes of affection and love and care that I have in my life is an overwhelming task anyway, let alone trying to cram it all into one day.
And as I begin to think about non-monogamy, I immediately think of kink, and the ways that affection is something expressed in BDSM. Without consent and thorough discussion, of course, much of what we do in kink and BDSM would be considered abusive…and as I am mulling over Valentines day, I cannot help but think of intimate partner violence and non-consensual interactions within couples. I think of the couples going out to dinner and a movie, those who are meeting someone for a first date, and wonder how many people will have sex that night because they feel they “owe” it to their partner to do so? How many people will be coerced, manipulated, or forced into sexual situations because someone else has their heart set on getting laid on the lover’s holiday?
Perhaps this is a dark and pessimistic way to think about Valentine’s Day, but it’s a difficult thing to stomach when we celebrate a day dedicated to couples and partnerships but consistently silence those who speak out about intimate partner violence. The rise of #MeToo has certainly shown the dangers and fears that women experience- not just single women who are dating, but women who are married or in long-term relationships (and this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of assault and abuse men experience, and the added weight of toxic masculinity making it that much harder to break the silence there).
These things also bring me to thoughts of sending my daughter to school on Valentine’s Day: will she get one of those small, store-bought valentine’s from someone in her class, asking her to be their girlfriend? At 9 years old, she’s struggling to understand what that even means. Will she have to give out valentines to her classmates- from the boy she has a crush on to the kid that makes fun of her and picks on her? I appreciate and respect the idea that no one be excluded and everyone gets a valentine, but I also struggle with the idea of teaching children to offer mandatory affection to those who consistently cross their boundaries.
But I also think about my own partners, the people that I love deeply and dearly. I think about bringing home flowers for one, because he likes getting flowers, and flowers for the other, because people rarely bring him flowers. I think about the texts I’ll send that day- one to a similarly-cynical lover that will express affection while recognizing that the whole thing is ridiculous; one to a sweetheart who appreciates small recognitions and gestures more than they are able to articulate; one to someone who takes immense pleasure in the moments of care and affection, whatever the purpose or reason behind them. I think about how we all work together to make it work.
I don’t particularly care for Valentine’s Day, not because I dislike the sentiment, but because it feels flat, one-dimensional, and only accessible to that part of the population who has managed to find someone they resonate with. I love the idea of expressing love, care, and affection in consensual, non-coercive ways… but I don’t think that is well-encompassed in Valentine’s Day.
Show love. Express care, express gratitude, tell the people that you love them that you do, often and frequently. But do it every day… and not one the one day of the year where roses are overpriced and Hallmark has found every possible iteration of “I love you” in glittery, cursive script. Celebrate on Valentine’s Day with the ones you love… and the days before, and the days after, until love is the permeating presence in your life.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Be My Valentine!
It rolls off the lips and the pen pretty easily. And often feels good.
But what if it doesn’t?
I remember some years of singlehood when there was as much pain as joy on this day. I am sure I am not the only one.
There is also the question of determining just who is my Valentine? My husband, surely, but are there others, or is this really only about mates?
When they were little and I was divorced from their mother, I sent Valentine’s to my three daughters. Then a friend pointed out that as they reached puberty it might be a little creepy. I stopped sending them. Now I send to my three- and six-year-old granddaughters. I assume I will stop at the appropriate moment.
The traditional, overwhelming heterosexism of this social custom makes me wonder if I would have sent Valentines to my sons or will send them to any grandsons that may yet bless our lives?
But there are more customs, or history, of this day which make it more problematic than I used to understand. Like most major celebrations, some of the details can create conflicting emotions. Christmas—because the date which the church chose was intended to supersede the Roman holiday of Saturnalia—comes to mind.
Valentine’s Day seems to have had a far more checkered past. According to National Public Radio,
From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.
The Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked,” says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.
The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.
In addition to the date, Ancient Rome may also be responsible for the name. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.
Still what’s history got to do with it? Maybe more.
This holiday has become a wonderful midwinter jolt to commercial activity. Prior to the development of improved printing techniques in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, most people made handmade Valentine greetings.
Now, the Greeting Card Association claims more than one billion cards are exchanged (150 million in the United States). While the number startled me when I first encountered it, it reminded that the holiday is popular in places outside the U.S.! This compares to 2.6 billion cards exchanged at Christmas. Still, when you add in chocolate and flowers and other gifts of endearment, Valentine’s Day is a commercial high point.
February also is Black History Month. I used to hear complaints from Black people that, of course, it is the shortest month of the year! I don’t know if they were being ironic or angry, or most likely both. It seems clear to me that the first half of Black History Month often gets subsumed by preparations for and celebrations of Valentine’s Day.
I do know that Black History Month grew up organically in the African American community, instigated largely by the late and renowned historian, Carter G. Woodson. He was inspired by how in the 1890s local and state Black communities had begun having celebrations of Black History Week, built around the adjacent birthdays of two heroes, Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). Great man that Lincoln was, it is Douglass whose birth and life deserve far more attention than they receive. An interesting note: Douglass, born a slave in Maryland without a birth record, decided as an adult that his birthday, known to be in February, should be on February 14—because he remembered that his mother kept calling him her “little Valentine.”
Tonight, my husband and I are planning to go out for a Valentine’s Day dinner, something we have not done in some years. I intend to offer a toast to Douglass at dinner, and I intend in the days leading up to and including February 14 to make small efforts on Facebook and elsewhere to raise awareness of Douglass. His love for himself and his people furnish an excellent example of love in action.
As a queer theologian, I am unsettled by Valentine’s Day. Honoring the martyrdom of the first St. Valentine’s by the Roman Catholic Church is understandable, indeed commendable. But presumably it was their love of God and Jesus that got them killed. Now we use the day to honor people with cards and gifts. Where is the day to honor those who sacrifice for love?
It all feels too much like what we do with the birth of Jesus—make it a feast for ourselves rather than understanding and honoring the demands and possibilities of love that knows and accepts no boundaries.
Would Valentine’s Day not be better spent engaging in “love projects”—organizing and undertaking actions to create change in the lives of others? How about something as simple as going to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or women’s shelter to offer help? What about spending the day with a shut-in who would be glad for some attention or maybe a trip to the store or a movie?
Is not love more than a feeling, more than a way we feel about one person or even a few special people? Is it not more than cards, flowers, and candy? Is it not a way of life to be shared with all, for all, through all?
I have come to believe that love is an orientation toward life, it is how God calls us to live each moment of our lives. The central question becomes not so much who do I love but how do I love—how do I love myself and the world, enough to risk it all, like Frederick Douglass, to create change? He was not martyred, but he gave unstintingly of himself to the cause of his people to rise above the vileness of slavery and Jim Crow, to create in their own eyes, if not in the eyes of most others, the beloveds of God they were and are.
For me, today is Frederick Douglass Day at least as much as Valentine’s Day.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
How do you feel about Valentine’s Day? Do you have only positive memories or are they mixed? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.