I Know It When I See It

. . . as sex- and body-positive Christians, how do we approach, address, and discuss porn in a positive way?

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [‘hardcore pornography’] and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”

-Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis vs. Ohio

13494904_10100653721109769_3022759221022255872_nMalachi:

This infamous quote describing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s understanding of pornography in 1964 fairly well encapsulates the difficulty in defining and delineating what is considered porn- or, in the context of this particular court case, what is considered “obscene.”

In the 52 years since this opinion was written, it has become even harder for us to really encapsulate what pornography is. I think we can agree that there is a difference between porn, art, erotica, and nudity, but trying to tease of the difference between these things becomes increasingly more difficult.

For example, nudity (the act of being naked) is not an act that is

Justice Potter Stewart
Justice Potter Stewart

inherently sexual in and of itself. Erotica and porn, however, both have a central sexual component (which often includes nudity), and art spans across genres. There are some who consider porn and erotica to both be types of art, and many more who consider the human body (e.g. nudity) to be a living work of art in and of itself.

The delineation wouldn’t matter as much if there was not a moralistic hierarchy associated with each category. Nudity can go many different ways: there are those who claim that nudity is immodest, while others claim that they are better able to commune with God when they are fully present in their bodies (and thus, the image of God). There are those who believe that, if something is categorized as “art,” it is supposed to inspire human emotion- both good and bad- and thus art is distinct from moralism. Others, however, feel the term “art” is overused to describe works that are obscene.

Engaging with erotica and porn, however, is generally assumed to be immoral by many who claim Christianity (in fact, most of the Western religious traditions speak out against porn and, to a lesser degree, erotica). There is a quote from the television show “The West Wing” in which a conservative Christian man asks, “If you can buy pornography on any street corner for $5, isn’t that too high a price to pay for free speech?” This question fairly well sums up much of the feeling of mainstream conservative Christianity with respect to pornography.

However, as sex- and body-positive Christians, how do we approach, address, and discuss porn in a positive way? I think we often fall into the habit of silence about things like porn usage because it can be hard to tease out exactly how this relates to our relationship with God.

I remember when I started taking testosterone, and my sex drive spiked rapidly, to the point that I needed to masturbate every day. If I didn’t, I was incredibly irritable and cranky. At times, I wasn’t “in the mood,” so to speak, but knew that I needed to find a way to get turned on enough to masturbate so that I could go about my day. At those points, porn was an incredibly useful tool to elicit certain physical responses to allow myself to have an orgasm.

IMG_0631Furthermore, I have participated in making porn. Not often, but I have had sex for money while being filmed: perhaps the most crude method of defining porn. Most of my reasons behind doing it were because I wanted to, but there was also the element of financial stress that led me to do it at the time that I did. I have also been photographed doing sexual acts when I go to kink conventions, and those photographs are for sale via the photographers hired by the company. I don’t know if that counts as porn, exactly, but goodness knows, there are plenty of naked pictures of me on the internet. I don’t think porn is an inherently bad thing. There are certainly problematic aspects about the industry (including, but not limited to, economic and financial distress, poor working conditions, and abuse/mistreatment of models, particularly women), but porn as a concept is not, to me, inherently bad.

With porn, we have to consider the aspects of fetishization and objectification. People searching for a specific type of porn (e.g. “trannys” or “big black cock”) are problematic because they tend to be dehumanizing. And while some people may like being objectified, many other people get tired of being seen as a one-dimensional object to fulfill someone else’s fetish…particularly when that objectification doesn’t end at the computer screen, but carries out in day-to-day life. They can also perpetuate oppressive stereotypes that are sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, etc. (from “women are submissive” to “black men have large penises” to “lesbians just need a man to come finish them off”). Each of these ideas are easy to find on most porn sites, and there are entire sites that are dedicated to a particular fetishization.

Is it wrong to be attracted to a particular aspect of a person? Of course not.

https://media.npr.org/assets/img/2014/02/01/craigslist-race-instagram_wide-3e3f9a9a0c770e95401c946ca3ec98feb7257608.jpg?s=1400
Craigslist: for when you have a racial preference in your partners, and no filter.

But the difference is, porn often allows us to be attracted to an aspect without considering the person. Porn also has the unfortunate byproduct of creating unrealistic expectations about sex. Porn is not necessarily about sex, but about performance of particular acts. Much as drag is about the performance of gender, porn is about the performance of sex (and much as drag bears little resemblance to gender as we see it in every day life, porn bears little resemblance to everyday sex).

Like anything, in order to interact with something in a healthy way, we have to understand what it is and why we are interacting with it. We can’t judge someone else’s intentions, but it’s important that we look at our own and try to understand (if we are consumers of porn) what it is we get out of it- including whether it impacts our expectations of our own sexual lives. I don’t think there is anything wrong with watching porn- regardless of whether someone is monogamous or polyamorous, porn can have a role in a person’s sexual satisfaction (both self-satisfaction and satisfaction with partners).

We know that our relationship with porn can be unhealthy. But is it

http://www.feministpornguide.com/periodictableoffeministporn.png
http://www.feministpornguide.com/periodictableoffeministporn.png

possible for our relationship with porn to be healthy or neutral (e.g. causing no harm or benefit)? I think it can be. I think porn can be an incredibly useful tool. But as with all things, it’s important that we have an analysis of the industries and products we consume. It is, for example, beneficial to pay for porn from companies that are known to treat their models well, rather that utilizing free porn that may come at the cost of a person’s well-being.

Recognizing that porn is a service (much like many other services we consume) and approaching consumption of the service in an ethical manner is important. It’s also important that we ensure we aren’t allowing our consumption of porn to interfere with our relationships- with ourselves, our partner(s), or God. In moderation, porn (like alcohol, working out, dieting, and many other things) is just fine. It is when we reach the extremes- either of our consumption itself, or the expectations and assumptions we make about other people- that porn becomes a detrimental aspect of some people’s sexual lives.

Robin:

Both Malachi and I are comfortable with nudity and have said so here . We think it healthy, fun, and body-affirming.

revrobin2-023However, one of the objections nudists often encounter is that baring all in “public” (a term that encompasses a wide range of circumstances) is “pornographic.” So what is pornography, what makes something pornographic?

As shown above, Justice Stewart famously remarked that he did not know how to define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. It was likely not his intention to open the door to a wide range of interpretations and definitions, but in effect what he is saying is that one person’s porn may be another’s art . . . or at least erotica.

Nudity, art, erotica, pornography……..four terms that often are used in connection with bodies, sexuality, and sexual activity.

In my view, the naked body is never pornographic, no matter the context, no matter the body. Human bodies are creations of God, gifts from God, in all our varieties and forms of beauty. We may well be naked when being sexual, but being naked does not equate to being sexual. Most nudists are quick to point out that being naked does not lead automatically to sex. Yet, being naked and sexual can be beautiful, wondrous.

large group of naked people
naturalian.blogspot.com

Regular readers of this blog know I have carried negative feelings about a part of my body, my penis or dick or cock or whatever name you use. Much of that has been healed, in part because I have been able to share it openly here. My shame—for that is what it was—is no longer a secret, and thus its power has been greatly reduced.

Another help has been to spend some time looking at pictures of small penises online, to let myself see the beauty of the men who share themselves, in celebration. This has involved seeing all sorts and conditions of men—old, young, thin, not thin, white, black, Asian, Latino, Native, tall, short, cute (to me) and not so cute, etc. On occasion, these pictures show men engaged in sexual activity, solo or otherwise.

Is all this pornographic? Not for me. It has been healing. I have felt God in it, showing me how creative God is in sculpting penises. It finally broke through to me that God did not punish me by giving me a small penis. God blessed me, and still blesses me, just as I am.

michelangelo David penis and hand this is cabaret com
thisiscabaret.com

It has also been useful in this exploration to look at art. Michelangelo’s sculpture of David is perhaps the most famous nude male ever. This hero has, thanks to the sculptor, a small cock, although it is bigger than Adam’s as pictured by the same artist on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I have seen more recent portrayals of the crucifixion with Jesus and the other two men hanging with him naked, and their dicks are of moderate size. None of this feels pornographic to me (of course, the crucifixion is ugly).

So what is porn?

A common definition is “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.” A legal definition may be “the depiction of sexual behavior that is intended to arouse sexual excitement in its audience.”

For the layperson, it may be hard to differentiate that from obscenity, which the Supreme Court has described as materials “utterly without redeeming social importance.” But obscenity is not limited to sexual acts.

porn
youtube.com

So the statue of David is not pornographic, even though it displays sexual organs, because it was not intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings. It might of course stimulate someone who is struggling with sexuality but that was not, presumably, the sculptor’s intent.

So, intent matters.

But I wonder how easy it is to sort out erotic feelings from emotional ones. One person would see those pictures of men with small organs and think “that’s erotic, and therefore pornographic.” But others, like me, may find emotional healing. In the process, I might even become sexually aroused, but the primary focus is emotional healing. And to me, that would have enormous social importance, helping me to become a more balanced, evolved person and therefore a better citizen, co-worker, leader, etc.

And then I have to wonder about the conflation of “erotic” with something negative. Personally, I like erotic feelings and often find them laden with positive emotional feelings and reactions as well.

Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve Christians Enjoying Nudity and Erotica

I have referred previously to an interesting website, “Christians Enjoying Nudity and Erotica” (click here to visit). The developer of that site, a male clergyperson who uses a pseudonym, which is exclusively oriented towards heterosexuality and marriage between a man and a woman (even as it contains many erotic pictures of men, and of women, which can excite sexual feelings in not only heterosexual persons but also those who are homosexual and bisexual), says

I confess that I simply love to see nudity. I also enjoy the sensuality and beautiful sexuality of erotica. But I am definitely not a fan of porn! In fact, I find the stuff uninspiring, un-stimulating, and unfulfilling. I hate it and how it depicts women and defiles men. . . . neither is erotica pornography no matter how much some writers would like to simplistically lump it all together. Porn can rightly be described using the degrading “F” word, or as someone “screwing” someone. Erotica depicts the sacred splendor of sexual activity between a man and a woman, and it can do so in a way that is redemptive and glorifying to God who gave us the gift of sex and designed our bodies to engage in and enjoy it.

So, perhaps we might say, following him, that porn is sex without heart, without larger meaning, without any spiritual or divine connection. Or we might say that porn is sex as a mechanical act, and/or a way to make money for those who control the production (not so much for the sexual actors). Porn is, we might say, a way to degrade women or others who are made into objects.

So what do I think? Porn is indeed in the eye of the beholder. The porn with which I am uncomfortable is whatever is done to make money for the producers without being sure the actors and the crew are well compensated (including for the actors at least some sort of royalty system). It is not the sex but the economics that make it porn.

Prior Lake RobinI don’t think individuals or couples or groups who take pictures of themselves to share, to give away, make porn. Sexting is not porn. Posting your naked picture or your video masturbating on the internet is not porn.

Personally, I don’t really have the guts to do it, but I admit I get turned on by the idea. I did write a piece about nudism for a blog (“A Naked Wholeness” at Jonathan’s Circle and I offered to let them use a full-frontal nude picture of me—the only one I have ever had taken—but the owner declined saying they did not use “explicit” pictures.  I was very excited by the idea of my picture appearing (and there is a more chaste version of the photo with my post.

Finally, back to those pictures of small cocks I looked at on the internet. Some of them were professional models and actors in commercial sex films. Most were ordinary men. It depended on the site. Not one of the sites charged money to view the pictures or even the videos (often excerpts from commercial fare, but also often just an ordinary guy or more than one).

anthony-weiner
former Congressman Antony Weiner biography.com

What I did realize is that what started out as a curative for me could become a habit. I realize there were days when I looked more than once. There were also whole stretches of time when I did not look. I hesitate to say I feared an addiction, although I am aware that some claim that about themselves and/or others.

But because of a special event at my church this weekend, some of us are fasting—food, fast food, alcohol, sex, overworking, etc. I have chosen to fast from looking at pictures of naked men with small or small-ish, or even larger, penises. In fact, I deleted the links so as to make a stronger commitment, and I have decided to not look for a longer than this week. I am thinking forever.

After all, the small cock I really like is mine. I don’t need to go on the internet for that. And if I want to see a bigger one, well . . . . I can stay home. And if I want to see more of them, of whatever size, I can go to a nudist gathering.

And the good news is that it will be more than me and my PC and screen.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

How do you feel about pornography? Do you see a difference from it and erotica? Do you utilize porn as part of your life, or have you at some other time ? Do you feel addicted to porn, or do you know, or suspect you know, someone else who is? Is a naked body a sign of sex for you? 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.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us THURSDAY, October 20th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 3, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 3” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

discoverpittsfield.com

discoverpittsfield.com

Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity to later medieval and Reformation eras, and perhaps into more modern times. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.

As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for clergy (.5 credit for each session) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although the primary focus is on clergy participation, everyone is welcome to attend.

Only Yes Means Yes, Part II: On Rape Culture

Content warning: Contains discussions of rape, sexual abuse, and trauma. Some discussions and/or images may be triggering.

Rev Dr.Tom Bohache:  As a rape survivor, I am always troubled when people say, “Rape isn’t about sex; it’s about violence,” for I think it both trivializes it and misses the point. It IS violence, but it is ALSO sex. The horror and outrage is that sex has been used as the vehicle to perpetuate violence, and the survivor’s sexuality has been (forever?) perverted by this act. Some of the lasting effects might be body shame, self doubt, fear of intimacy, and an unwillingness to engage in certain sexual acts. (In my case, it tainted receptive anal sex for me.)

Rev. Miller Hoffman: it feels tricky to me, Tom. Sex has become weaponized in rape, and folks like me are trying to distinguish between something that is mutual and consensual (sex) and something that is not (violence). I think the confusion between rape and sex may be at the heart of Brock Turner’s light sentence, for example: much less likely if he had assaulted her with a bat.

Rev. Dr. Bohache: Yes, there are many layers to the issue. But what bothers me is when people make a statement like the one I quoted without realizing the complexity. It feels dismissive.

Rev. Hoffman: Absolutely. Especially if that’s the response when we are trying to talk about rape’s impact on our sexualities.

revrobin2-023Robin: The dialogue above, on a Facebook page that hopes to continue conversations that began in October 2015 as part of an ongoing symposium, “Who Are We Really? Re-Engaging Sex and Spirit,” sparked conversation between me and Malachi, and we decided to share some of our own experiences and thoughts.

Two weeks ago, Malachi began the conversation with a powerful post, “Only Yes Means Yes”: On Consent and Cultural Influences.”

Before that, as we talked, I began by saying something to the effect that it might be a future topic, and that I might be able to write about it even though I had no personal experience of rape or sexual abuse.

No experience of rape or sexual abuse.

As the words came out of my mouth, they got stuck in the air just beyond my lips.

Then I was able to offer a correction to Malachi. I said I have no specific memory or evidence that I was abused but I have long carried the feeling I was. Based on embodied reactions to an uncle, I have long wondered if I had been abused by him when I was three years of age and left in the care of him and my aunt for a week or two (I was not terribly fond of my aunt, but I felt no revulsion for her, as did towards my uncle).

This uncertainty—and at times I feel more certain—has created in me a

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http://www.camelcitydispatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/HQFINAL.EditorialCartoon.ReportingRape.11.25.14-525×400.jpg

great empathy towards those who report with absolute certainty what happened to them. My inclination is toward believing the testimony of victims generally, but it is especially strong in the case of those battered, abused and murdered due to rape and sexual abuse.

This experience (of the feeling of violation at least) has also caused me to believe that these horrors happen far more often than most of us think, something with which those who collect statistics and are otherwise knowledgeable generally agree.  It has also caused me to be more open to listening to, and finding truth in, those who share experience and knowledge that contradicts my own.

One occasion causes me to be aware of this frequency as well as the need to listen to others–indeed to realize how thin the line can be between one person’s “no” (or lack of “yes) and another’s putting their “need” or sense of privilege ahead of any consideration of the right to safety and security for the body of another human being. This time I was the perpetrator.

During a time in my life when I was single, I became close to a young man whom I met through the Radical Faeries. I will call him Steve, a handsome and quirky guy who favored several European philosophers. We hung out together in Brooklyn and visited the beach on Fire Island. We had many conversations about philosophy, religion, and family. Over time, I became sexually obsessed with him. I made my desires clear, and he made his refusal clear, too. “I want to be friends, but I am not sexually attracted to you.”

That was a clear “no,” but I failed to heed it. One day, as we lay, naked, side by side, on the beach, I reached over and placed my hand on his genitals. He responded immediately by lifting my hand off his body and said “Don’t ever do that again.”

Immediately, I felt shame, and apologized. I told him I did not want to lose him as a friend. He said he too hoped we could remain friends. “Time will tell,” he said.

Soon, we no longer had any contact. I still feel shame and remorse–but it was not until Malachi and I had considerable conversation about consent that I remembered Steve and how I violated him.

I know I am not alone in violating the body of another–which is not an excuse, but is an acknowledgment that our culture has a lot of boundary violations going on, from hugging without permission to unacceptable sexualized touch to rape and other forms of intimate violence. This is, as I see it, all part of a “rape culture” which seems to create, or at least work alongside, other cultural influences and norms so that its adherents and practitioners get what they want, or stop others from getting what they deserve, by dismissing the embodied autonomy and innate worth of others.

https://sojo.net/sites/default/files/blog/shutterstock_109552409.jpg
https://sojo.net/sites/default/files/blog/shutterstock_109552409.jpg

This may not be rape as sexualized violence, but efforts to deny the value and beauty of bodies is nonetheless violation and it creates ongoing negative effects in how people view and relate to their own bodies. It is mental and emotional rape even if it is not physical.

A number of political and social leaders, including but not limited to Donald Trump, have drawn upon this to give public voice to what many older white men (and some younger ones, too) believe, namely that the claims of other people—racial groups other than white people, women, even gays and lesbians and certainly transgender people—are overblown, if not false, and are endangering our well-being as a well-organized, orderly society.

Their reaction to these and differences is not to listen, or even to ask questions, so they might learn about the experience of others, but to respond with dismissals, slurs, and belittlement. Alas, any of us can do that when we encounter difference, but it is possible to train ourselves to be more open. But we have to want to be open.

Trump’s ongoing belittlement of women—his crass responses to women who oppose him and the support he receives for and because of it—offer not only evidence of the ongoing power of rape culture but also send a clear signal to many, mostly men but probably also to some women who support these men, that he is “THE MAN.” And Mario Rubio’s effort to belittle Trump’s penis seems to have been, perhaps unconsciously, his attempt to say, “No, he is not THE MAN. I AM THE MAN!”

This takes me back to Tom Bohache’s initial comments when he wrote about the effects on the survivor’s sexuality.  So many people, so many of us, carry scars from this culture even if we do not carry scars from rape of our body, our person. And I believe far more of us than have said it are victims of specific acts of various forms of rape. How many of us carry a feeling of violation even if we cannot name it with any assurance or precision?

And although more women are victims of rape than men (misogyny and

http://cdn.youthkiawaaz.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/26/male-rapes-in-india/male-rapez.png
http://cdn.youthkiawaaz.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/26/male-rapes-in-india/male-rapez.png

patriarchy are alive and well), there are many men who, unlike my brave friend and colleague Tom, have yet to openly admit their histories. Another of my dearest friends has told me about his repeated gang rape in a Midwestern middle school bathroom.  I know he is bravely working to overcome the damage done to his own sense of self and sexuality, but it took him years even to recall the memory. My friend is one of the most open, caring people I know, but I know (and he knows) he also has much anger inside.

I wonder how many of the angry white men who cheer Trump and others—many of whom have legitimate grievances against an economic system that has shut them out—may also have rape or abuse histories yet to face and tell? Preying on their anger does them no good and undermines the well-being of many others, indeed wreaks social havoc.

As Miller Hoffman writes, “Sex has become weaponized in rape, and folks like me are trying to distinguish between something that is mutual and consensual (sex) and something that is not (violence).”

All of us need to stand, as best we can, in that space to distinguish, and promote, something that is mutual and consensual, speaking up, standing up, and opposing that which is not.

 

13494904_10100653721109769_3022759221022255872_nMalachi: Rape, sexual assault, consent violations: it’s a heavy topic, one that is full of emotions and (for some), triggers. It’s an abhorrent act that cuts at the heart of who we are as sexual people- perverting an act that is meant to be spiritual, holy, pleasurable, and fulfilling in order to commit violence on another body, to exert power and control over another person.

If sex is intended to be a reclaiming of our bodies and pleasurable selves, rape is the inverse, removing our capacity for choice, power, or pleasure from the equation. It is not connective and mutual, but one-sided and isolating. It is a violent act.

And this is just the act itself. This does not take into account the fairly

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https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/49/9b/08/499b0866e01571ef9288ce988ae223d2.jpg

horrendous process of reporting rape in an environment that associates rape of masculine people as a sign of weakness (which often leads to the underreporting of rape on assigned male bodies), and rape of feminine people as a consequence for existing (the comments on the victims clothing, state of sobriety, location, and/or lack of company are more than enough to insinuate that a woman is responsible for her rape by wearing clothes that support her sexuality, choosing to consume alcohol, walking down the street, or simply being alone).

A couple weeks ago, I began to contextualize the concept of rape culture as part of a larger response to Rev. Tom Bohache’s and Rev. Miller Hoffman’s dialogue on facebook about the language and implications when talking about rape.

The conversation highlights aspects of a survivor’s story- including long-term effects and language that we use to designate the difference between consensual acts and acts that are rooted in seeking to hold power over another person.

First, I have to state that I appreciate the importance of the distinction for many: particularly for women and those assigned female at birth, there is an inherent cultural disbelief of a survivor’s story, or a sense that a victim “deserved it.” Because the cultural response is to automatically doubt the victim’s story, phrases like “it’s not sex, it’s violence” become important because they are another way to say, “This was not my fault. I did not have a choice in this.”

In a somewhat-separate facet of my life (my involvement with kink and BDSM communities), I am actively working with several organizations who are trying to (a) navigate allegations of consent violations within the community; (b) instate better policies to keep people safer at events; and/or (c) seek to update reporting processes and be transparent in accountability and addressing consent violation reports. One particular discussion thread that is vital to the conversation is centering the victim’s experience and requests in the healing process. Rev. Tom Bohache makes this

http://www.virginia.edu/sexualviolence/images/affirmative_consent.png
http://www.virginia.edu/sexualviolence/images/affirmative_consent.png

important point that his voice feels diminished and/or silenced by creating the hard line between sex and rape.

In many ways, I understand that hard line and why it is drawn. Rev. Miller Hoffman points that we need ways to distinguish between the act of sex and the atrocity of weaponizing sex- a distinguishment of intention, rather than acts. We don’t want to see any relation between the consensual, sacred aspect of our sexualities and the brutal perversion of sexual expression through rape.

But what is “sex”? Is it simply a mechanical, technical act, a pelvic thrusting motion, a combination of hands and lips that combine to produce a physical sensation? If sex is nothing more than a physical act, then I absolutely see that it is harder to differentiate between the two based on the physical components.

For me, though, sex gets a little more complicated. In BDSM, I have seen people have orgasms fully clothed with no genital touch. I have seen people having sex without having an orgasm. I have seen people having orgasms from pain stimuli. I have seen the exact same two scenarios happen- someone tied up in artistic rope- and for one person, the act is sexual, for the other, it is not.

I still struggle to define what sex is. For me, it most often comes down to the vague, “people are having sex if they consider the actions occurring between them consensual, sexual acts,” which inherently diverges from “rape” in both consent and intention.

We have to all be desiring to do what we are doing for it to be sex, for me. Anything else isn’t automatically, de facto “rape”… there are a whole lot of different interactions that happen between “sex” and “rape.” Those grey areas are not talked about enough, and those gray areas are the entire premise of rape culture.

But as important as the phrase, “That wasn’t sex, that was violence” can be to some survivors (although, clearly, as Tom said, that phrase undermines his own experience in how rape has impacted his ability to be a consensually sexual adult), it is a phrase we cling to because it separates us into us-vs-them. Good people and bad people. Good people don’t rape and rape is violent. Rape is about power. I’m a good person. Therefore, I don’t use sex in violent ways or use it to exert power over others.

http://www.pcar.org/sites/default/files/u14/pyramid.jpg
http://www.pcar.org/sites/default/files/u14/pyramid.jpg

But when the focus is only on the black-and-white, sex vs. rape, it minimizes the numerous areas between those two things. I have had situations in which I pushed, coerced, or misread someone else’s interests. Now certainly, when someone said no, I stopped, but the point is, there is a violence when we push our own desires onto someone else. Kissing someone when they don’t want to be kissed. Touching someone when they’re intoxicated. These situations impact someone’s capacity for sexual expression in future situations- sometimes extensively. Rape is not the only form of sexual violence, and without minimizing the atrocities of rape, I think we can also come to understand the ways in which we have used (or seen others use) sex as a means of power and/or selfish intention.

Does this mean we are inherently bad people? No. Does this mean that rapists should get a pass for the atrocities they commit? Absolutely not. Holding people accountable is absolutely necessary, and there is an immense amount of trauma and pain associated with healing from rape. But I think, in many ways, it can be an oversimplication to say “Rape isn’t sex, it’s violence.” Not because that narrative is untrue or not important, but because sex is not purely a mechanical act, and I have found that there are many ways for sex to be weaponized and used as a power tactic.

Recognizing that we need to find a way to differentiate these things is important. But similarly, we have to ensure that, in our desire to separate out the differences in both understanding and semantics, we are not doing so in a way that continues to silence the voices of survivors.

 

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

How do you feel about the culture you are currently a part of? Do you feel as though you are living in a rape culture? Can you think back to times in your own sexual history where there wasn’t enthusiastic consent from all parties? How do you feel about the phrase, “Rape isn’t sex, it’s violence.”? 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.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please feel free to join us THURSDAY, September 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 2, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 2” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise as well as If We Can’t Talk About It, We Shouldn’t Be Doing It to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond Judaism and Jesus to early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.

As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for clergy (.5 credit for each session with participation) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although the primary focus is on clergy participation, everyone is welcome to attend.

If We Can’t Talk About It, We Shouldn’t Be Doing It

Robin:

My survey of early Christian teachings about sexuality (in preparation for next week’s online workshop), largely through the eyes of the historian Peter Brown, leaves me overwhelmed with how much our ancestors struggled over the place and power of virginity in the life of faith. It is as if the call for chastity before marriage in our own day—the abstinence before marriage movement, or saving yourself before marriage—came alive two thousand years ago. But of course, it is the other way around.

revrobin2-023The ancient world of early Christianity was very different from our own. For one thing, life expectancy was shockingly low—2nd Century citizens of the Roman Empire were born into a world where life expectancy was less than 25 years of age. Jewish teaching responded to this fact by emphasizing reproduction to maintain Israel and keep it strong.

But Christian writers and spiritual teachers in the first several centuries after Jesus talked about sexuality differently, and were far from one voice about it. Some felt that people did not have time to be just pleasuring their bodies; they needed to deepen their souls, connect with their spirits, and get ready for death. Others understood that young people might want or need to be sexually active with a spouse in order to reproduce, but they could at a later age opt for what was often called continence within their marriage. Another, Clement of Alexandria, accepted that people would be sexually active but wanted it done, echoing earlier upper-class Roman attitudes, with dignity; and he was clear sex was only for procreation.

valentinus-1kiu29x
Icon representing Valentinus blogs.uoregon.edu

Still others, often associated with the gnostic teacher Valentinus, believed that their spiritual well-being, indeed their being in and of itself, depended on being part of small communities of students (we might say seekers today) centered around a single spiritual teacher. These communities were, surprisingly in an era so clear about gender hierarchies, composed of both women and men, and required sexual abstinence for their successful and long-lived functioning.

As I write about these strands of our religious history, and prepare for next week’s online workshop—“Roots of Sex Negativity in Western Christianity, Part 2” at 3 pm ET here —I keep thinking about conservative Christian struggles to govern sexual behavior today. How much have things changed?

On the one hand, things have changed a lot. Pre-marital sex is not only the norm, but it is openly acknowledged (in my childhood, even adolescence—back in the social unenlightened times—it existed of course, but was talked about only in hush-hush tones, if at all, and always with shame attached).  Any negative judgment seems muted.

Nudity used to be rather modest, with the showing of some skin considered as much as was allowed. Now, films display bodies, mostly female but more and more male, in all their glory, and some of the more respectable tabloid press (New York Post, e.g.) run stories about celebrities at nude beaches and elsewhere with pictures. True, women’s breasts and all genitals are covered with bar,, stars or headlines, but a quick online search reveals the full picture.

new-york-post-melania-trump
twitchy.com

Generally, I think all of this is healthy. In my own pastoring, most of the couples who came to me for spiritual conversations before commitment or marriage were already living together, or at least being sexually active together. I did not discourage this, or certainly judge it—and not only because most of these couples were same-gender-loving people who lacked widespread support for their love. I had come to the conclusion that practice helps, and not just in bed.  In addition, way too much has traditionally been made about a woman’s intact hymen, creating an easy double standard—and I also believe that Christian theology which depends on the virginity of Mary is oppressive to women, and all the rest of us.

Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve from homepage of Christians Enjoying Nudity and Erotica

As for nudity, my only misgiving is how much of the exposure feeds on sensationalism and titillation. I devoutly pray we will someday as a culture get over our shame about our own bodies so we can validate all bodies.  For a website promoting this from a sex-positive perspective—albeit only heterosexual  and partnered sex within marriage but a positive view of masturbation—visit “Christians Enjoying Nudity and Erotica” at http://www.genesis2twenty5.com/index.html .

There is of course another view, in particular as regards pre-marital sex. The movement for abstinence before marriage got a major impetus from the HIV/AIDS epidemic and from the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STD).  One way to avoid even the possibility of one of those serious outcomes is to abstain from all sexual relations.

In addition, proponents claim that better marriages result. I offer a caveat on their behalf: this is really only aimed at heterosexual couples, because the movement promoting abstinence does not actually believe non-heterosexual people should marry, and in reality cares little, if anything, about the quality of lives of gay and lesbian people.

Proponents even claim psychological studies support the desirability of abstinence, but many psychologists and others say they are misusing data, and that some of the studies, including a heavily publicized one conducted by a scholar at Brigham Young University, are deeply flawed (see an example here).

sex-before-marriage-troubles
pinterest.com

In addition, those promoting abstinence rely on the general view of biblical texts which is that sex is limited to married persons. However, some scholars, point to texts that are not so clear. For example, American Baptist biblical scholar Jennifer Knust points to the Book of Ruth as showing premarital sex as a blessing. This is, however, a minority view among church leaders despite many public surveys of younger church members in most denominations that record widespread premarital intercourse and oral sex.

I detect differences, perhaps subtle but nonetheless important, between the spiritual teachers and leaders of the first several centuries and those of today promoting abstinence. Those long ago were trying to grasp the difference Jesus and his ministry made in their lives and the lives of those who came to the faith. They felt a new spirituality and believed it impacted their sexual and social lives, requiring them to dissent from existing social patterns.

Today, Focus on the Family and others, often well-meaning I am sure, are trying to stop the shift of cultural influences that challenge established sexual practices.  This is so, even though most of those who engage in pre-marital sex do not aim so much to challenge religious beliefs—which they often view as either outdated or irrelevant—as to simply live open lives in concert with others around them.

sexual revolution
sexualityanthro316.blogspot.com

In addition, those of long ago did not expect to change the rules of society—they were trying to build and sustain a movement, but had little, if any, idea they would change Roman society. Too many of them were being martyred to think that way. They did, however, believe that ultimately God would change everything.

The conservative leaders today really are engaged in cultural wars, and despite what appears to be an uphill climb, they seek to win. They want control of sex again, something that religion in the United States seems to have had prior to the 1960s. Thankfully, however, they do not seek to make us all virgins!

 

Malachi:

Malachi GrennellNext week, Robin and I will be holding the monthly Sex, Bodies, Spirit educational webinar. In light of this, we decided to discuss a modern version of an ancient debate: the morality of sex outside of marriage. In particular, we wanted to look at Abstinence Only Sex Education (AOSE) and recognize the ways in which this discussion is much, much older than we often think.

I remember my first sex education class. Specifically, it was called “Family Life,” and it began in the fourth grade. The boys in the class were taken to another room to do something fun with science, and the girls from another class were brought in and we learn about menstruation, puberty, and the beginning discussions of sex (which were, in essence, don’t do it). If the boys asked what we were doing, we were instructed to tell them that it was a “woman’s conversation.”

So many things about this initial conversation were problematic, but I am

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http://yvonnechase.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/SEX-BEFORE-MARRIAGE.jpg

grateful they were contrasted with the lessons I learned at home. Since I grew up in a lesbian household before gay marriage was legal and my biological mother conceived me with my biological father out of wedlock, they were hardly in a position to enforce the “no sex without marriage” line. I was told instead that “if I couldn’t talk about it, I shouldn’t be doing it,” which seemed a much more mature, practical approach to sex education.

The conversation about sex outside of marriage- particularly from a Christian perspective- is an old one, and something that is full of misogyny and anti-woman sentiment. For example, many have heard the adage that “prostitution is the oldest profession”… and plenty of religious writing has broached the subject of prostitution, but the indictment always seems to come down on those offering the services, rather than those partaking (and traditionally, more women than men have engaged in prostitution out of economic necessity…when a husband died or was incapable of working, women needed to find a way to provide for their families even when no jobs were available to them).

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-rLyD1lNQIAc/Tcg0kG1Wd_I/AAAAAAAAA3g/fTmSZbPYP6g/s1600/socjes.gif
http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-rLyD1lNQIAc/Tcg0kG1Wd_I/AAAAAAAAA3g/fTmSZbPYP6g/s1600/socjes.gif

The birth of Christianity is a synthesis of different cultures: on one hand, Jewish culture, which celebrated the family, and needed to procreate in order to flourish; and Greco-Roman cultures, from which much of modern philosophy was born. Christianity effectively synthesized the thoughts of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates that valued spirit over flesh and viewed women as second-class citizens, useful only as incubators for life given to them by male seed with Judaism, creating a hierarchy that celibacy was better than marriage, but marriage was much better than sex outside of commitment, for only through marriage could the sexual union between a man and a woman be holy.

In fact, most of the discussions about sex in Christianity assume a gold standard of sexual relationship, and discuss all other actions as abominable. If you’re going to be sexual, then you must get married, and the only acceptable configuration of that is a male/female partnership; any deviation (homosexuality, masturbation, female pleasure, prostitution and later, contraception and abortion) were unquestionably sinful.

We can easily see the traces of this line of thinking in modern day AOSE programs. One of the largest criticisms of a study supporting AOSE  is that this particular study did not have the same moralistic slant that most AOSE programs (e.g. people were not characterized as bad or immoral people if they engaged in sex before marriage).

Historically, as well as in the present-day, we see the largest push-back against comprehensive sex education (CSE) from Christian communities. But framed within the context of the larger discussions of sexual morality inside of Christian communities, this is one of many fights that stem from the same basic root.

The point is, the discussion about sex outside of marriage is a much older

http://genderbodyandmind.weebly.com/uploads/1/6/6/5/16659556/4118570_orig.jpg
http://genderbodyandmind.weebly.com/uploads/1/6/6/5/16659556/4118570_orig.jpg

conversation than simply sex education.  It is important to note that Jesus made little comment about sexual practices- the overarching message and teaching of Jesus encouraged people to make informed, educated choices, rather than accept a force-fed theology of the status quo. The point was not to tell people what to believe or how to manifest those beliefs, but to provide as much information as possible.

In fact, I feel very strongly that Jesus would have advocated for CSE (which covers abstinence as well as contraception and STI prevention). We think of interaction with God as a miracle, complete with trumpets blowing and a light ray coming down, but I am reminded of the familiar parable of the man and the flood: a man hears that his town is going to flood and, despite multiple rescue attempts, insists that he is a religious man, God loves him, and God will save him. When we ultimately drowns, he demands an answer from God. God replies that he sent a radio report, a rowboat, and a helicopter, and asks the man, “What the heck are you here?”.

Sometimes, miracles do not look like what we expect them to look. And in a day of HIV and antibiotic-resistant STI infections, we need a miracle. But I’m not sure the answer is simply, “Don’t have sex.” I think the miracle we need is a different approach: encouraging people to talk openly about sex, providing education to people starting to explore their sexual identities, and encouraging a more mature approach to sexuality. God has sent us education, opportunity, and empowerment to speak. Like my moms always taught me, if we can’t talk about it, we shouldn’t be doing it.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think about sexual abstinence before marriage? Did you practice that before you were married? Do you support sex education in public schools? Should it be required in all schools (including schools run by religious bodies which oppose discussion of birth control and abortion and homosexuality? Did you receive sex education in school? What was it like? Did it give you information you did not already have? What are the roles of religion and religious institutions in people’s sex lives? 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.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please feel free to join us THURSDAY, September 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 2, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 2” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

discoverpittsfield.com

discoverpittsfield.com

Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond Judaism and Jesus to early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.

As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for clergy (.5 credit for each session with participation) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although the primary focus is on clergy participation, everyone is welcome to attend.

“Only Yes Means Yes”: On Consent and Cultural Influences

Content warning: This post contains discussions of sexual trauma and history of sexual assault and harassment

by Malachi Grennell

Malachi GrennellRecently, Robin and I began to have some interesting conversations around a Facebook post discussing one person’s response as a survivor of sexual assault. Specifically, the post addressed how this person felt about the delineation between sex, rape, and violence. In thinking about this post, I realized that my understanding and response is entirely dependent on my understanding of a particular cultural context- specifically, the context of rape culture.

Robin and I plan to discuss this specific post more in-depth in a couple weeks. Before we are able to do that, though, we wanted to take this week to talk a little about the concept of rape culture, because this is a multifaceted, complex term that is often misinterpreted and misunderstood. Beyond the complexity, though, it is easy to feel as though we are not affected by rape culture if we have not been survivors (or had immediate family or friends that are survivors) of rape or sexual assualt. But the reality is, rape culture is everywhere and affects every single person.

Rape culture, at its core, is the idea that we live in a culture that fosters

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http://america.pink/images/3/2/4/6/2/1/5/en/1-means.jpg

situations for rape through both explicit and implicit sanctioning of certain behavior. Rape culture teaches us, for example, that consent is synonymous with “No Means No,” rather than the idea that “Yes Means Yes.” The difference is subtle, but powerful. “No Means No” implies that a person pushes for what they want until they hear “no” rather than asking for what they want and waiting for a “yes.” It assumes all people are capable of saying no (that, for example, power differences do not exist in the socializing of men and women wherein both are equally empowered to say no- something we know is absolutely not true. Men are taught to be forward and aggressive; women are taught to be diplomatic and accommodating. This makes the “No Means No” method immensely ineffective when those who are taught to push are the only people socially empowered to say no.)

I remember being 19 and riding the train to visit a partner and his family. It was a long train ride, and I took an Ambien to sleep through most of the ride. As I woke up, the person beside me was going to the café car and offered to get me a drink. I accepted and we talked for a bit when he came back. He made me a little uncomfortable, so I tried to get out of the conversation by saying that I was still a bit tired and was going to go back to sleep. He stopped talking, and I settled in, quiet and still, but not sleeping.

After a few minutes I felt something on my leg. I shifted and the pressure on my leg lifted. I figured I must have imagined it. After a few more minutes, though, I felt something on my leg again, around my knee and realized it was his hand. I was frozen, panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I knew that I should say no, but I didn’t want to draw attention to what he was doing and I was terrified of causing a scene. While I was trying to figure out how to respond, his hand kept moving further up my leg and I shifted again, hoping he would stop. His hand stopped moving when I shifted, but the pressure didn’t relieve. I began a mantra to “just breathe, just breathe” in my head while I tried to figure out what to do. As long as he believed I was asleep, he was going to continue touching me. The only choice I felt like I had was to be fully awake and talking to him, because at least when we were talking, he wasn’t touching me.

http://thehoopla.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/dontbe.jpg
http://thehoopla.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/dontbe.jpg

Could I have theoretically said no? Of course. But the power dynamics present in that situation made me feel like I couldn’t: I was a teenager, and he was a much older man. I was stuck sitting next to him on a train for another hour or so, and I didn’t want to cause a scene (because that idea was ingrained very deeply from a very young age: do not cause a scene.) But rape culture says that because I didn’t resist, or say no, or ask him to stop, that I wasn’t really assaulted. Even though he put his hands on me in a way that I did not want and did not consent to. Even though he only made advanced when he thought I was unable to resist (i.e. while I was asleep).

Rape culture places the burden of preventing rape on the people who are raped, rather than the people doing the raping. I have met very few women who were not taught the trick of carrying their car keys between their fingers or keeping a rolled stash of quarters in their purses to hold while walking to the car. One of my mothers certainly discussed tactics to keep me safe, many of which included an insinuation that men are inherently unsafe, and it was up to me, as a young woman, to protect myself from predatory men.

The truth is, we are all influenced by rape culture. I know I personally have been in situations where I realized, in retrospect, that I put pressure

https://russasianbeautysecrets.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/key-knuckles.jpg
https://russasianbeautysecrets.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/key-knuckles.jpg

on someone to have sex with me who didn’t appear to be enthusiastically into it. Did I rape someone? Absolutely not. But did I push for my own agenda when they didn’t seem really excited about coming to bed with me? I did. And I think these are the times when rape culture is the toughest: we do not have to be rapists (or survivors of rape) to be influenced by rape culture. The ways that we are taught to approach and navigate sexual situations is problematic. We don’t like to talk about sex. We don’t like to talk about what we’re doing, or ask for what we want. So instead of talking about it, we do it and hope that it’s ok with the other person (or hope, if it’s not ok with the other person, they will say something). It passes the burden of responsibility to the recipient, rather than taking responsibility for our own desires.

I remember a specific situation when I was in my early twenties and I was working as a line cook in a restaurant. The way the kitchen and restaurant was set up, customers could come sit at the counter to eat and, from that vantage point, watch the cooks prepare the food. Sometimes the wait staff was busy or in the middle of a break, and I didn’t want customers to watch their food sitting under a hot window, so from time to time, I would take food to customers who were sitting at the counter, and often strike up conversations with them.

There was one gentleman in particular that came in frequently, and he would always ask me about my day, how I was doing, making polite conversation. He seemed a little awkward, but fairly harmless, and we would talk for a minute when I brought out his food. After a few weeks, a coworker informed me that that customer had asked for my schedule because “I cooked his food the best” and only came in when I was working. I started to get wary and tried to find reasons not to talk to him, but he sat in a seat where he could always watch me and if I didn’t look busy enough, would start to talk to me, even when I was behind the grill.

On one particularly busy day, he came in and I was having a hard time. He sat for several hours, but it was apparent that I was not going to give him any attention. He left, but handed his waitress a note to pass on to me. She handed it to me with a smile and said, “Compliments to the chef!” When I opened the note, I read that he noted I looked stressed and encouraged me to call him when I got off work so I could come to his house and relax, with his number at the bottom.

https://russasianbeautysecrets.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/key-knuckles.jpg
https://russasianbeautysecrets.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/key-knuckles.jpg

I remember each piece of this story so vividly because it caused such a visceral reaction but I couldn’t explain why. He was just being a nice guy, right? So why did I suddenly feel so nauseous? He didn’t actually do anything… and yet, I began to hyperventilate. I was terrified. I was terrified he was sitting in his car, waiting in the parking lot for when I got off work. I was afraid to come to work the next day. I explained the situation to my boss who gave me a couple days off and, when the customer came in, told him I had transferred elsewhere. I never saw the man again.

Was I raped in this situation? Of course not. Do I think I would have been pressured to have sex with him if I had called him? Absolutely. That was almost certainly what he wanted from that exchange, and I was terrified of what would happen if I refused. I didn’t feel like I was able to tell him no because he wasn’t asking a direct question. As I have grown to understand consent better, I understand that there are many things about this situation that are not ok: he was stalking me at my place of work (by asking for my schedule and only coming to my job when I was there). He was manipulating and pressuring me into something I didn’t want without being transparent in his emotions- he had plausible deniability because he never mentioned sex, even though that was almost certainly what he was seeking.

A culture that fosters this type of behavior is incredibly problematic, and it is something that affects all of us. It informs how we understand sex and sexual dynamics, how we approach people we are attracted to, how the world responds to us. The situation I described was complicated by workplace dynamics (I was, to some degree, financially dependent on maintaining a good relationship with customers, even as a cook). But culture is built out of the intersections of different dynamics, and we must actively work to change toxic culture.

This is a large (and seemingly unattainable) task. But it starts with smallyesmeansyes things. An understanding that someone’s bodily autonomy is their own- so ask before you hug someone. Not asking as you’re reaching out with arms open and entering their space, but as you greet them: “Hello! It’s great to see you! May I give you a hug?” and waiting for a response before moving forward. It’s asking your partner- whether you’ve been together 2 days or 25 years- “May I remove your shirt? May I touch your back? Can I go down on you?” etc. It’s not asking what the victim did wrong, but asking for what the victim needs to feel safe. It’s not allowing friends to catcall people on the street from a stoplight, or make sexually objectifying comments about a stranger’s body. If we begin to foster a consent-focused atmosphere- one in which we ask people for a yes, rather than wait for them to set a boundary we may have already crossed- we go a long way in changing what is acceptable in our culture.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

Have you experienced sexual violation–rape, attempted rape, unwanted advances you did not feel empowered to stop, pressure from an employer, or a customer or anyone who has economic power over you, to be sexual? Do you know how to ask and wait for yes (and do you actually do that), or are you trained to think that the other person has the responsibility, the power, to say no? Are you regularly on guard against sexual advances because of prior experiences, or has it not occurred to you that many people, mostly women but men as well, go around afraid? 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.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please feel free to join us THURSDAY, September 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 2, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 2” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

discoverpittsfield.com

discoverpittsfield.com

Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond Judaism and Jesus to early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.

As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for clergy (.5 credit for each session with participation) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although the primary focus is on clergy participation, everyone is welcome to attend.

There’s Beauty in Every Body

Can we not see each body as yet another exposure of God’s endless and delightful diversity . . .

Malachi:

Malachi GrennellThis week, I have been challenged (in several different ways) to examine very public expressions of gender expectations (and, when those expectations are not met, the ridicule used to dehumanize another person). One such instance is the experience of Olympian Caster Semenya. The other, surprisingly, are the naked statues that appeared of Donald Trump.

First, Caster Semenya. For those who are unfamiliar with her, she is the

Photo credit: The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/aug/21/caster-semenya-wins-gold-but-faces-scrutiny#img-1
Photo credit: The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/aug/21/caster-semenya-wins-gold-but-faces-scrutiny#img-1

South African Olympic gold medalist for the women’s 800 meter. She has also faced fierce scrutiny for being “too masculine.” In 2009, she was subjected to “sex tests” to affirm that she was “truly a woman.” In 2011, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) passed a ruling restricting the amount of testosterone permissible in female athletes. Women with hyperandrogenism- the production of higher than average levels of testosterone- were either barred from competing or subjected to a series of medical interventions including hormone suppressants, hormone replacements, and genital surgery (more information here and here). In July of 2015, the court of arbitration for sport suspended the IAAF decision and gave them two years to prove how much advantage women with hyperandrogenism have over those who produce “average” levels of testosterone. No longer forced to be on hormone suppressants, Semenya ran the women’s 800 meter in 1 min, 55.28 sec- a personal best, a national best, and the fifth fastest  time in Olympic history.

Photo Credit: The Verge http://www.theverge.com/2016/8/18/12538672/nude-donald-trump-statues-union-square-los-angeles-indecline
Photo Credit: The Verge
http://www.theverge.com/2016/8/18/12538672/nude-donald-trump-statues-union-square-los-angeles-indecline

Also this week, the anarchist collective, INDECLINE placed five naked statues of Donald Trump in major cities across the United States. The statues, titled “The Emperor Has No Balls” depict an unflattering (but quite realistic) image of a nude Trump: large stomach, cellulose-filled buttocks, lines and wrinkles, and a tiny penis with no testicles. An aptly-named piece, I suppose. The comments to the piece range from comedic to cruel. The New York City Parks Department, for example, commented that the “NYC Parks stands firmly against any unpermitted erection in city parks, no matter how small.” (Sam Biederman, a parks spokeman). But outside of cheeky comments like that (which are problematic in their own right), there were also the comments that referred to the depiction of Trump as “grotesque,” “disgusting,” “nauseating.”

Here we have two cases of people who have been singled out in specific ways that relate to transgressions of gender standards and expectations. Now, certainly, it’s not as simple as that. If there was any doubt, I detest Donald Trump and his hateful rhetoric, his misogynistic comments, his racist ideology, his fear-mongering tactics, and his abhorrent ways of addressing those with whom he disagrees.  Donald Trump is a fairly disturbing political figure on many levels- but I do not hate his body. I do not hate the lines and wrinkles that come from aging. I do not hate the cellulose bumps and varicose veins that can come from not being model-thin. And I certainly do not hate the sight of a small penis- one that looks somewhat like mine- small, yet present, and lacking in testicles. No, I certainly do not hate that- but I do have strong feelings about the size of someone’s penis (or the presence/lack thereof of testicles) in some way referencing his masculinity.

And in the case of Caster Semenya, it’s certainly more complicated than

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Simone Biles http://www.nbcolympics.com/sites/default/files/field_gallery_photos/29March2016/Simone-Biles_NUP_171788_3775.jpg

hormones. Simone Biles, the first woman of color to win an all-around title at the world championships, came under fire in 2013 from the 11th place finalist from Italy, who stated that “next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too.” When trying to spin her comments, spokesperson David Ciaralli commented that “the Code of Points is opening chances for colored people (known to be more powerful) and penalizing the typical Eastern European elegance…” So the conversation about muscular women is not limited to Semenya; it’s pretty careful to include all athletic women of color in stating that “colored people” are “known to be more powerful.” So we see here that this is not simply a case of discomfort with women who have hyperandrogenism; simply an issue based on the assumption that black women are more muscular and therefore have an unfair advantage.

These two cases bring to light how strongly our culture is dominated by the expectations of gender and, furthermore, just how narrow those expectations are. Deviation from that (or, in the case of Trump, a depiction of deviation) is a source of mockery. Semenya isn’t “woman” enough to compete in women’s athletics. The insinuation is that Trump is not a “real man” through an artistic depiction- and his lack of manliness comes directly from his lack of testicles and the size of his penis.

To put it in another context: we do not say that large men should not play

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http://www.clipartkid.com/images/74/football-player-clip-art-WsFyAN-clipart.gif

football because it gives them an unfair advantage. We do not say that smaller-framed women should not be jockeys. Instead, we recognize that certain bodies are well-suited to certain activities (on a competitive level)- and furthermore, those “well-suited bodies” fall within our expectations of gender. Men who play football are large and muscular (as we expect men to be); female jockeys are small and petite (as we expect women to be). We only hear an uproar when someone transgresses gender expectations (e.g. women are too masculine; men are emasculated)- and use that transgression both as a source of mockery as well as an argument for why they are “unfit” for a particular activity.

Another piece of my week included a community discussion in the local kink community on consent, a conversation catalyzed by a prominent member of the community allegedly breeching someone’s consent. A comment was made in that discussion that I keep turning over in my mind. In discussing how we shift the culture of our community and make further strides in being consent-minded, one person mentioned that, in America, we tend to view friendships in terms of support and loyalty. And that’s fine, the person said, but we don’t simultaneously view our friendships in terms of criticism. Their point was that, as friends, our goal should not be to simply blindly support one another’s actions, but to hold one another accountable. The mark of a true friend is one who will tell you when you are right- but will also tell you when you are wrong. And that piece of it, the person said, is the part that we so often forget.

We must learn to tell one another when they are wrong. We must be willing to call one another out, in love and friendship, when their actions

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http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-MSt3OAwlDKk/UpBCbz1dfYI/AAAAAAAAAJU/g5CQpoO5Vx0/s1600/tdor.png

are reinforcing concepts that are not congruent with justice, fairness, and equality. We must be willing to tell our friends, “Hey. This is an incredible athlete whose hormone production is, quite frankly, none of our business.” We must be willing to say, even in our distaste of Trump, “Hey. Body shaming someone is never ok. Let’s debate the issues and not sink to his level of demonizing someone for their appearance.”

We absolutely must learn to address these small issues- these microaggressions- that we see in the world around us. And those conversations are hard. We have a tendency to hear criticism as a character attack- perhaps because we are used to criticisms like those leveled at Semenya and Trump. But criticism is how we grow, how we come to understand and, through understanding, question the norms of the culture around us. I truly believe that friendship- and through friendship, community- and through community, culture- is stronger when we are not willing to allow this kind of “gender policing.” When we are not willing to allow “small” racist comments. When we are not willing to let others define masculinity and femininity for us.

Robin:

revrobin2-023I have little use for Donald Trump—he of blowing only his own horn, hurting others, telling lie after lie—but I object to one of the attacks on him.

You may have seen the image—I really don’t want to replicate it here, and Malachi has posted it above, once is enough—and I hope that when you did you were as unhappy as me. To put it simply—I am not a fan of shaming anyone for their body, even The Donald.

As a man of approximately his age, I am perhaps more sensitive than many readers here, not to mention his being pictured with a small penis that doesn’t look much different from mine. As readers of this blog may remember, I have been shamed about my own and, of course, Mr. Trump claims his is big.

Donald Trump pointing at Marco Rubio soshable com
soshable.com

He has every right to correct statements made about him, of course, but I do wish he had said, “Well, Senator Rubio, I don’t care about yours because I have no idea what the size of anyone’s penis, or lack thereof, has to do with being President. “  That would have shut down the demeaning debate and been a generous, and significant, contribution to undermining our society’s ways of body shaming—not to mention a corrective to his reputation for sexism and his history of insulting women (especially on their appearance).

As transgender people challenge the rigid gender binary, and as lesbian and gay people continue to challenge the formerly widely held views of what is real love and marriage and sexual  attraction, we are often confronted with opportunities to speak up for equality. To do that is vital.

But, equally vital is to speak up in situations that can be more subtle and more challenging, situations that often involve deeper attitudes towards bodies, indeed bodies which we may have been taught to view with some negativity.

older men at beach fabgreyfox com
fabgreyfox.com

Some gay men can be dismissive, often mean, about older men. I recently saw on a queer news site complaints that a proposed nude gym would be overrun by “men who are old and whose bodies hang everywhere except where we want them to hang” (that is very close, if not precisely, an exact quote).  And on the other end, other gay men make fun of young ones (“twinks”) and others make fun of older men who like twinks (men in their late teens and early 20’s who look very boyish) and vice versa.

Lesbians can have their own biases, depending on preferred body types and presentations, against “femmes” or “butches,” among other variables.

And cis gender women, of any sexual orientation, in the public eye are held to a nearly impossible standard.  They must appear very feminine while simultaneously conveying a toughness that is well . . . really tough . . . but not so tough that their femininity is in question. The situation of Hillary Clinton comes to mind.

Hillary Clinton angry puzzled nypost com
NYPost.com

The Olympics and other athletic competitions also raise issues about women’s bodies, and perhaps even men’s bodies, too. Some women, Caster Semenya of South Africa comes to mind, are viewed as too “masculine” to be women.

Commentators are sure a woman who runs as fast as she does cannot possibly be a woman. She must be a man, and they claim proof for that conclusion because she has the hormonal condition known as hyperandrogenism (a high level of testosterone which appears to create significant androgyny) which occurs in some women.  Pictures of this amazing athlete, running in the 800-meter race, seem pretty gender neutral by traditional standards. But then so do her excellent competitors. And pictures of her and her wife at their wedding ceremony don’t look different to me than pictures of some of the lesbian couples I have married.

Caster Semenya and Violet Raseboya wedding citizen co za
Caster Semenya (right) and Violet Raseboya on their wedding day citizen.co.za

Many men, like me, have hypogonadism (literally meaning small gonads, like those shown on the Donald Trump statue, especially if you receive testosterone replacement therapy). Are we now women? And what of male gymnasts and dancers—does their grace imply a certain femininity that means they are in the wrong bodies (despite being well-built and strong)? Do we have to check their genitalia or run hormone tests to be sure they are men?

White racism is about bodies, too, about judging which body shades and hair and eyes are good and which are in some way deficient or bad or ugly or dirty. Judgments among people of color about other people of color can operate like this, although given their relative, and shared, lack of social power it is not racism.

All this focus on bodies which, according to some at least, deviate from standards whose source we do not really know, so often boils down to body shaming. We must push back against it.

There is no body . . .  let me repeat that . . .no body (not just nobody but no . . . body) deserves to be shamed. Every body . . . again . . . every body is beautiful. [Note: the edit function in Word alerts me to the fact that I have a space between “every” and “body,” and should join the two words to make one word, everybody. I refuse in this case because I want to be sure the reader knows I mean every single. glorious, god-created and blessed body in the world.] No exceptions.

And that means that we, and I include myself in this, must learn to stop our mental judgments when an “obese” man or woman comes into view, or when we encounter a person with a skin condition that appears unpleasant or ugly to well-trained eyes (meaning conditioned to think that wrinkles or pockmarks in the skin or folds or blotches are signs of ugliness).

Aydian Dowling trans advocate lets-sexplian tumblr com
lets-sexplain.tumblr.com

Here also is one of the ways transphobia plays out. We simply do not know what to do with people who claim to be men but we wonder if they have penises or women who we think may have them—not to mention petite men and tall, big-boned women with deep voices. Before they can make the changes they wish (what used to be called “in transition”), and even after, trans people may indeed be, and feel like, victims. But we need to move, and let (and help) them move, from that location to a full-throated, heartfelt celebration of the selves they know they are.

We make victims out of people whether they are victims or not. Some people may have been victimized by maltreatment or exposure to diseases or injuries in war or on the job, but not one of them is ugly. Each remains beautiful. The same is true of people whose bodies simply do not meet the standards set by fashion and media or our ideas of what constitutes a particular gender.

Can we not see each body as yet another exposure of God’s endless and delightful diversity, whether in the body from their birth or a body they have chosen to change or one that has been changed by circumstances beyond their control?

I hope you agree with me that this is a significant piece of our work to change the world.

The way to help bring a world with such values into being is to speak up every time any one—not just Donald Trump speaking about Carly Fiorina or Megyn Kelly—says or writes anything that denigrates the body of another person, or suggests that based on their criteria and what they see, a particular person is in the wrong gender category and/or belongs in a category deserving of shunning or shaming or segregation, based on their body type, age, color, or other criteria irrelevant to their humanity.

This, of course, also means being comfortable in, and indeed celebrating, our own bodies. I am getting there, and I hope you are, too.

We can change the world, body by beautiful body.

 

 

 

 

 

When ‘Stuff’ Gets in the Way

The truth is, I’ve been having trouble being sexual at all lately. . . .

revrobin2-023Robin: Writing, or talking, about sex often pushes limits, sometimes self-imposed, sometimes imposed by others, and sometimes by what we think others will say, think, or do in response.

Those limits can be connected to a primary personal relationship—e.g., what a partner or partners in primary personal relationship like or do not like sexually as that relates to your shared sexual lives, or what they are comfortable with your sharing about them. Or they can be about an institutional relationship—e.g., what your sharing might cost you in terms of employment. Or, they can be limits based on family connections—e.g., how your children or siblings or others will react to what you reveal.

Today, I am testing limits I feel by being an ordained clergy person, a professional in ministry who treasures a relationship with a church, both a local congregation and a larger denomination (or as I prefer to say about Metropolitan Community Churches, a movement).

You can't say that in church jasonkoon net
jasonkoon.net

To some extent, I have already done this by writing pretty openly about nudity, masturbation, and other topics not often talked about at church. But I am going to go further today, depending on the choice you as a reader make.

Many people at the church where I serve as volunteer clergy on staff—as Writer-Theologian in Residence, no less (a wonderful title, I admit! and great joy as ministry)—are aware of my interest in the connection between sexuality and spirituality. A dozen or so attended a recent workshop I led on the topic. Some probably even read this blog. So far, they have not kicked me out.

But I can tell you that the fear that someone in the congregation or denomination, leader or not, will become angry and begin a campaign to evict me is very much part of my life. I know in my heart that I would never write to hurt someone or to create trouble for the church I truly love since I walked in the door of MCC New York in 2001, the church that saved my spiritual life (and thus really my life) and that ordained me in 2002.

Einstein ThinkingAlike kcbob com
kcbob.com

And I know that some of this fear has little to do with MCC, and more to do with a lifetime spent struggling within the Christian church at large. Notice, I do not call this a struggle with Christianity—because although I have tussled and continue to tussle with what I believe as that relates to what “the church” says, I have never seen this as a struggle. That is simply the work every believer needs to do. As we grow and change we must negotiate with our faith, with our Lord and the Holy Spirit, with God. But they are partners with whom I feel safe sharing everything.

The church does not feel like such a partner, especially when it comes to sex. Some of that I recounted last week (see Sexual  Repression, with link). Here I want to talk more about how my emerging sexuality and sexual practices create in me anxiety and even fear (if you have been following this blog, you know that at 69 I am on a wonderful journey of embodied sexual self-discovery).

gay love Roman figures haaretz com
haaretz.com

Recently, I wrote my first-ever erotic poem. It recounted love-making that Jonathan and I shared, as well as my sexual energy and feelings before and after. It is pretty explicit, as they say, using a slang term for a body part, and describing what we each did, and how we reacted ecstatically. I also, perhaps even more shockingly, related this directly to Jesus (and my certainty that he did these things, too) and how God is pleased when we engage in sexual pleasure. Indeed, I think God is more than pleased, God is relieved that we are using the gifts God gives us for connecting and feeling joy in our bodies and spirits. I believe God receives it as worship, as our giving thanks.

I shared the poem with Jonathan who said he really liked it.  He also liked the piece on nudism I wrote for the blog at Jonathan’s Circle (a movement of men led by a dear priest friend of mine focused on exploring the links between men’s spirituality and sexuality). He even agreed with me that I should use a frontally nude picture of myself with it. As it turns out, that violates the website rules and so they used a more chaste photo. At any rate, Jonathan may not be the best judge of how the church will react—he encouraged me to publish the poem, too.

Then I shared the poem with two friends—a gay man and a lesbian woman, both very spiritual, one engaged in church and one who feels turned away—whose taste and judgment I deeply respect. They both raved about it. They too want me to share it more widely.

Queering Christianity amazon com
amazon.com

So what holds me back from sharing it here? I feel certain that church folk will raise a holy stink and the clergy will have to let me go, and if they don’t, the church board will vote to do it for them. I love these colleagues—among the very finest pastors with whom I have ever worked, not to mention just being fabulous human beings—and don’t want to cause them any more trouble than they already have. And if it does not happen at the local level, I feel certain the denominational leadership will do something—like removing me from co-leading a working group focusing on racial reconciliation (which would break my heart).

As I have recounted elsewhere (in my essay in Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, “Faithful to a Very Queer-Acting God Who Is Always Up to Something New”), when I spoke in a sermon at MCC Richmond about a time I masturbated to an artist’s rendering of Jesus, some people reacted angrily. Some of them did so because they felt I had breached propriety. Others said they felt unsafe, and for some of them it involved being victims of sexual abuse. That is serious. I had no desire to hurt anyone, certainly not people I cared about who had been hurt in that ugly way. I felt very unclean for that.

Others came to me relieved, to share their own secrets and shame, because, as they said, I had made myself vulnerable and now they trusted me enough to do the same. After listening to them, I felt not only relief but also gratitude that I had followed what seemed to me like a strong urging from God to share so openly (knowing that as any preacher should know, just because you think you are hearing God correctly, does not mean you are).

Those two responses continue to haunt me. Which will guide me?

This is my decision.

There is a difference between sitting in a pew listening to a sermon, and sitting somewhere in your space (private or public) reading a blog. The reader has a choice the listener does not.

So, with great trepidation, as well as considerable excitement, I am going to share links to each of the blog posts.  Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware); it’s your choice from here on out.

First, “A Naked Wholeness” is available on the blog for Jonathan’s Circle.

Thou shall have sex and be holyThe poem, “Holy Hardness,” is available on a wonderful blog, GayShiva: Pursuing the Spirituality of the Male Body, curated by a friend of mine from Jonathan’s Circle.

Whatever your choice, I hope you will let me know, and especially if you would let me know what you think of whatever you read, either or both the piece on nudism and the erotic poem. Or, if you choose to read neither, I would like to know why you made that choice.

I continue to hope this blog can be a dialogue, but It can only be that if readers make comments. Otherwise, it is a dialogue between me and Malachi, but a monologue with the rest.

And know that whatever your choice, it is okay by me. And if it serves your spiritual well-being, then for sure it is a good choice, too.

Malachi GrennellMalachi: Last week, Robin and I discussed our personal histories with sexual repression in preparation for our Third Thursday workshop this week on the history of sex negativity within Western Christianity. With this blog’s focus on sex and sexuality, it can be easy to focus on the ways that we are working on strengthening our own sexual expressions and freedoms. What can be harder, however, are discussing the ways in which sexuality may be difficult for either/both of us to express at various times.

I am both polyamorous and kinky, both identities that often have some inherent sexual component for me. So between the discussion of kink events or discussions of dates or sexual liberation, it is difficult to address the reality that, for some time now, sex has been something that has been increasingly difficult for me.

Depo-Testosterone
Depo-Testosterone

When I was younger, before I started testosterone, I had a fairly high sex drive. I noticed that my sex drive tended to be higher than that of many of my partners, and I felt somewhat embarrassed by it at times. Overall, however, my high sex drive didn’t bother me… I became particularly good at masturbation and self-satisfaction.

When I started taking testosterone (often referred to as “T”), my sex drive spiked. Masturbation became a daily requirement, an integrated part of my getting-ready regimen. I would get up, use the bathroom, shower, jack off, brush my teeth, get dressed, and go about my day. I found that, on days where I didn’t have time/energy to masturbate, I was much more irritable, cranky, and short-tempered. So whether or not I was “in the mood,” it was important for me to masturbate each day.

When I met my now-spouse, I had been on T for several years and had an incredibly high sex drive. Coupled with New Relationship Energy (NRE), we had quite an extended period of time where we would have sex every day, multiple times a day. It was wonderful and amazing (and certainly not sustainable in the sense that neither of us got a lot done during that time).

After we had been together for several years, I decided to go off of T for a

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http://images.medicaldaily.com/sites/medicaldaily.com/files/styles/headline/public/2014/08/26/couples-feet-bed.jpg

variety of reasons. Coming off of T, I noticed a shift in my sex drive. I started going a couple days without masturbating and noticed that I was not unreasonably irritable. Truthfully, it felt like a bit of a relief from feeling a constant sexual pull.

But my sex drive continued to decrease. At that time, I was dating someone else, and NRE was helping maintain my sexual interest, but after a while, my lack of sex drive began impacting our relationship as well. It was an incredibly difficult time for my partner (with whom I was not having sex) and myself (because I knew that this relationship dynamic was hurting him).

At that point, we used a kink event to help us reconnect sexually. The first time I attended what has now become a staple event in my life, I felt my

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http://www.polyvore.com/cgi/img-thing?.out=jpg&size=l&tid=144025376

sex drive re-ignite and was so excited to be having sex with my partner again. It solved the problem of that extended “dry spell,” but it didn’t solve the deeper problem.

The truth is, I’ve been having trouble being sexual at all lately. There are times when I have a strong desire for sexual intimacy, but it’s not consistent, and it goes as quickly as it comes. And for me, it turns into an anxiety spiral: I get anxious that my partner and I haven’t been having sex and I know that’s something they’re wanting more of, and I want to do that, but it feels pressurized, and I don’t want sex to feel like an obligation on either of our ends.

Being honest about these things is scary. I’m so in love with my partner. I’m so attracted to them, and think that they are a beautiful, incredible human being. It’s not a lack of attraction, but a feeling in my body- or perhaps, a lack thereof. It’s as though a part of body has turned off, and I’m not entirely sure what to do about it or how to navigate it.

I wish I knew how to explain what this feels like inside my body, but it’s not a feeling; it’s an absence of. I am, in many ways, unaware of my body as a sexual entity until a situation arises in which I realize that it has been awhile, and I begin to feel a deep sense of shame and anxiety that make intimacy all but impossible. It is immensely frustrating and I’m not sure how to reawaken that part of me that so desperately desires sexual intimacy… and not just intimacy with anyone, but intimacy with my partner, the person I love and have made a life with.

In this context, it feels difficult, sometimes, to be a person that spends so

much time talking about sex. Whether in this blog or in kink, so much of my life is spent talking about sex in one form or another and I think it’s important to be transparent. Sex isn’t always easy for me right now. In fact, more often than not, it’s incredibly difficult- and that difficulty has compounding effects. It’s hard for me that it’s hard for my partner. It’s hard for my partner that I can talk about sex so much, but have so much difficulty

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http://cdn.skim.gs/images/he2jdvqqmttas7z7nlvu/

having it. It’s hard to be in a body that, for so long, has had an incredibly high sex drive that has greatly diminished.

Sex is not always easy. It isn’t always simple- sometimes our hangups from the past impact our ability to have healthy sexual dynamics as adults. Sometimes our fears get in the way and it feels like an insurmountable wall. And in this case, I’m not sure what the answer is. I haven’t figured it out yet. This is not a retrospective contemplation on an already-solved problem, but midway through the mess of trying to figure it out. I’ve begun seeing a therapist to try to work through some of my own issues. I’m trying to find ways to be intimate that feel safe and good and authentic with my partner. I’m pushing myself as much as I can, but this is a hard period to go through.

Although I imagine every long-term partnership struggles with dry spells and “keeping the intimacy alive,” there is no one way to navigate these particular issues because each person is different. The best we can do is be honest- with ourselves, with our partners, with our trusted confidants. As a person who is polyamorous and kinky, this becomes particularly important as I navigate sexualized spaces and multiple relationships. It’s not always easy. It’s certainly not always pretty. Relationships (and sex) can be hard, and it’s ok to admit when things are hard. They can’t get better until we do.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

Have you ever had difficulties maintaining intimacy in your relationships? Has your work or career made it difficult for you to be open about your sexuality? What are some other barriers to your ability to be authentic and open in your sexuality? 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.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please feel free to join us THURSDAY, August 18th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 1, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Rev. Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

Workshop description: In this first session, Rev. Robin and Malachi lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.

As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for clergy (1 credit for each session with full participation) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although the primary focus is on clergy participation, everyone is welcome to attend.

Sexual Repression: Systemic and Personal

I remember being ashamed of my body and sexuality, even from a very young age.

by Malachi Grennell and Robin Gorsline

Introduction:

Next week, on August 18, in the first monthly installment of the online workshop, “Sex, Bodies, Spirit,” Rev. Robin and Malachi are going to take a look at the roots of sex-negativity and sexual repression within Western Christianity. In preparation for this workshop, we have read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise as well as contemplated our own experiences with sexual repression. You can learn more about the workshop, and how you can participate, at the end of this blog.

Malachi:

Malachi GrennellIn some ways, I feel as though my understandings and experiences with sexual repression retrospectively change as I have a better understanding of the world around me. For much of my life, for example, I felt that, because I was raised in a lesbian home, I didn’t experience sexual repression. I know now, of course, that although I was raised in a somewhat open and affirming home, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a lack of sexual repression.

I spent a considerable amount of my pubescent teenage years terrified of  getting pregnant (and, as a result, terrified of having sex with cis-male people). When I tried to discuss birth control with one of my mothers, I got a 2 hour lecture about the dangers of hormonal birth control in teenage women and an offer to buy me a vibrator to take care of my own sexual urges without risking pregnancy. I declined and never broached the subject again.

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I think back on this conversation with mixed emotions. On one hand, I did learn some valuable information about the biology of hormonal birth control and its effectiveness over the long-term. On the other hand, the conversation felt as though it didn’t actually address the issues I was dealing with. I wanted to find a way to be intimate with my then-boyfriend of nearly 3 years; my mom was trying to help me find a way to satisfy my sexual desires. I had already figured out masturbation- that didn’t answer my deeper question about how to be sexual while protecting myself from unwanted pregnancy.

Although I grew up in a lesbian household, I still had incredibly heteronormative ideas about what constituted “sex.” Penetration was the dividing line between foreplay and sex (regardless of what (fingers, dildos, etc.) was doing the penetrating) and the role of masturbation was a stop-gap when intimacy with another person wasn’t possible and urges needed to be managed. The concept of masturbation as a sacred act- or even one that could be done with a partner- was a foreign concept that didn’t enter my sexual consciousness until my early twenties, when I met my spouse.

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This is perhaps one key element that has been vital to the concept of sexual repression (and subsequent liberation): defining what sex “is.” The way that sex is currently defined (usually penis-in-vagina, or PIV) leaves a lot to be desired. Beyond the increased risk for the transmission of STI’s, it allows us to lie to ourselves about what we are doing. If we are struggling with sexual repression and therefore have shame, etc. around engaging in “real” sex, then this provides a loophole for us to be intimate with another person without ever admitting what we are actually doing.

In addition to all of this, I grew up with one mother who desperately wanted me to be a heterosexual woman because she didn’t want me to suffer and struggle with my sexuality (as she had). While I’m sure she feels differently now, at the time, her desire for me to be a heterosexual woman was very much interpreted by my teenage self as an internalized homophobia. If she loved and was happy with her life and identities, why wouldn’t she want that for me? Or better yet, why wouldn’t she simply encourage me to be authentic and love myself rather than fixate on a “gold star standard” of relationship practices? In all of this, I understood “heterosexual woman” to be better than “homosexual woman”- and “transmasculine queer man” is definitely not on the list of things she wanted for me. But even growing up in a lesbian home, I felt a certain sense of shame and fear to “come out” to my mother… when I first started dating a girl, but even more so as a trans person.

I hope she sees herself and her life with more joy than she seemed to then. I say this, but recognize that she still mispronouns me (refers to me as “she” and “girl” and “daughter”) despite the fact that I have been out as trans for over 10 years now. I believe she sees some things as better than others, and I think she wanted “better” for me than what I have, which is sad, because I think what I have is pretty dang awesome.

(Since I have lesbian mothers, I recognize that referencing “my mother” can be confusing. One of my mothers, an MCC pastor, is incredibly affirming- I have referenced her in previous posts. The mother to which I am referring now is my biological mother.)

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I don’t want to digress too far, but sexual repression was very much a part of my upbringing- even being raised in a queer home. I have come to recognize that there is a different level of scrutiny that queer families had in the late 80’s/early 90’s that, perhaps, prohibited discussions of sex even more drastically than heterosexual families of the same time. I remember being ashamed of my body and sexuality, even from a very young age. It wasn’t always something my parents said, but it was an attitude… an internalization of self-shame that was incredibly transparent to my childhood and teenage self.

I started having sex when I was 16. When I went to college (just after my 18th birthday), years of sexual repression came pouring out of me, and I started sleeping with anyone I could. I wasn’t safe and responsible. I didn’t get tested and didn’t often use barriers (because I was sleeping with people who were assigned female at birth, I was woefully ignorant that STI transmission could still occur). As often happens when something is considered taboo (e.g. alcohol, sex, etc.), when we are able to access it, we don’t often proceed with caution or moderation. Years of sexual repression coupled with a fear of being “bad in bed” led me to sleep with many, many people in a very short period of time.

I’m sure I didn’t always practice the best consent methods (not in the sense of forcing/coercing someone, but in the sense of “no means no” rather than “yes means yes” consent model). I didn’t have the tools to navigate the world as a responsible, sexual adult; instead, years of pent-up sexual longing exploded out of me in the span of a few months. I felt like everyone else had already been having sex for years and knew what they were doing and I was going to get left behind. The perhaps most frightening of all, because I was so out of touch with myself, my body, and my sexuality, when others turned their attentions to me, I didn’t always know how to say no…or believe that I was allowed to say no.

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There were a couple of women I knew through church that I felt comfortable talking to, but I still worried they would judge me for my actions because, well…they were church folk. Much to my surprise (and relief), one of them taught me about dental dams, safety, and STI testing. But there wasn’t a place I knew I could go to talk about my fears and concerns. MCC was a safe haven for LGBT folks, and the LGB part, at least, related to who we were sexually attracted to… and yet. If there was ever a place or opportunity to talk about sex, it was not geared toward the young adults (and I learned, after showing up to a workshop on HIV, that my parents got very uncomfortable talking about sex when I was in the room). There was no place to ease the pressure and talk, and I didn’t see the people around me talking about it, which meant that everyone else had it figured out, and I was lost.

Sexual repression has very much been a part of my upbringing, intentionally or not. As I have begun to do more work to parse through some of my own hangups, I realize how much of them come from a place of fear, shame, and secrecy. As we pivot toward a discussion about the roots of sex-negativity in Western Christianity, I encourage each person to consider ways in which they have had to battle/navigate sexual repression (both in and out of the context of faith). Understanding the history of our faith within the context of our own lives can be a powerful step toward healing and bridging these tender places inside each of us.

Robin:

I don’t know when I first heard words that told me that sex was a bad thing, but I imagine that was when I realized that it was not to be talked about.  As children, we often learn not only from what adults say but also what they do not say, and certainly their body language in both instances.

revrobin2-023I certainly knew in 4th Grade, as I entered puberty, that my fantasies about Bob S. (and a few other boys, but especially Bob) in my class were something to keep to myself.  And in 6th grade, I knew that the delight of another friend, Bob H., at seeing Bob S. naked and describing his “amazing, really big” penis, was somehow embarrassing, if not wrong (as well as feeling jealous that I did not see it, too). Now, much of this is what I imagine most, if not all, adolescents (at least in the United States) go through, struggling to figure out what to do with these burgeoning hormones sweeping through parts of our bodies and overwhelming our brains.

On the one hand, we want to know more, and on the other, we fear raising the subject. For most of us, the silence is deafening, broken only by various comments among contemporaries, many of which simply add to the confusion.

This is where, for me at least, the church comes in.

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I grew up in a small Midwestern Episcopal Church, not a hellfire and brimstone kind of place, but a calm, ordered environment where we read three biblical passages every Sunday and the priest expounded on at least one of them. I was blessed to have a priest, beginning in my middle adolescence and many years beyond, who was especially enamored of the Hebrew texts, but he certainly spoke about the Gospel and Paul and other writings.

I have no memory of ever hearing that good man speak openly against sex, but then I never heard him speak for it, either. Mostly, what I heard rarely was, if ever, about bodies at all, except when he taught about the war between flesh and spirit; flesh=bad (or at least dangerous), Spirit=good.

[There were two times he was very clear with me personally: one was to tell me, “I will find help for you,” when I told him I had sexual feelings for other men; the other was when he told me not to come back to church again, when I wrote him from seminary to come out as a gay man. ]

This is most interesting to me now, because of what I have learned about Jewish attitudes toward sex, going back to the earliest days of that faith, including the encouragement to married couples to have sex on the Sabbath in order to “hallow the day,” as Daniel Helminiak writes in “Sex as a Spiritual Exercise,” which you can find here. )

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Of course, that specific teaching did not apply to me until much later, but that good priest eventually presided at my wedding, and he did not speak of that with me and my wife-to-be in our pre-marital sessions. My memory is further that I was relieved that he did not speak of sex at all with us, given the fact that he knew of my strong homoerotic desires when I had gone to him while in college seeking help (he referred me to a psychiatrist with whom I worked for the better part of a year, but ultimately, years later, after marriage, children, and divorce, her help was insufficient to erase my desires).

I recount this not to criticize this spiritual guide (who gave me much wisdom) so much as to suggest that the powerful anti-sex proscriptions of Christian practice wreak havoc with many lives. Where does all this come from?

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Malachi and I will be talking more about this on August 18 at 3 p.m. EDT during this month’s MCC online workshop, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity” on Sex, Bodies, Spirit, but I can say now that I share Helminiak’s view that most of this is not due to actual Christian texts, and certainly not Jesus, and not even so much to Paul, but rather to the influence of non-Christian philosophies and movements which the Church took in and laid over the top of those texts and our Lord.  In saying that, I am still holding church fathers of old and of now (and I count myself among this latter number) responsible for what happened, and what still happens.

Indeed, what some MCC veterans say about the time, early in our movement, when the church talked more openly about sex, may parallel what happened to the early church. The desire for members, indeed even for survival, and certainly as part of what seems to be a natural human desire to “fit in,” has caused MCC to stop such talk, to even stop making the connection between our founding and sex (for more on this point, see my earlier post in another online venue, “What’s Sex Got to Do with It?”).

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Given that Christianity is grounded in the claim that God incarnated God’s self in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and that in doing so validated yet again the centrality of embodied spiritual life (the Hebrew biblical texts are, again and again, a demonstration of God’s activity in, among and through human bodies), it seems odd to say the least that we now hide our bodies so much. And I am not meaning only in the opposition to, and embarrassment of, nudity (although as a nudist myself, I do mean that), but also in how we so rarely speak about our bodies positively in spiritual terms.

As a lifelong participant in Christian worship, I am hard-pressed to think of more than a handful of times, other than in prayers for the sick, when bodies have even occasioned a brief mention. As for sex, or sexuality, I can think of no times, not even really in prayers for justice for LGBTQI people. Never sex.

This silence reminds me of the time, when I was in high school, I told my parents, “I think I might be homosexual,” and they simply looked at each other and returned to watching the television program I had interrupted, not saying a word. And it reminds me of the time my mother caught me masturbating. “Stop that disgusting thing right now!” she said and then left the room, never to speak of it again.

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In my view, the church has abdicated our responsibility to teach about, indeed to encourage practice of, the amazing and powerful link between our bodies and our spiritual selves. The sex-negativity of Western Christianity has allowed other forces—often in our day, corporations and advertisers, and media seeking followers—to make bodies and sex commodities to be pedaled, often through intentional titillation right up to the edge of “decency” (whatever that means) and teasingly to bump the boundary a little further at times. The result is that sex is not exactly an “open secret”—it seems we cannot get away from it ever, especially today on social media and the internet—but at the same time it is such a secret, a subject we all know about but know at the same time it is one that we should never really engage.

We will never change this if we do not figure out how we got here, and commit to a long struggle to undo the deep damage done to the world, and especially to billions of wonderfully embodied beloveds of God right here, right now.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What types of sexual repression have you experienced? Did they come from family, peers, the church, or other places? How have those experienced shaped, helped, or hindered your sexual expression as an adult? 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.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please feel free to join us THURSDAY, August 18th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 1, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Rev. Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

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 Workshop description: In this first session, Rev. Robin and Malachi lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.
As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for clergy (1 credit for each session with full participation) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although the primary focus is on clergy participation, everyone is welcome to attend.