When Does Freedom Become Oppressive?

. . . in our own personal sexual revolutions, we must also be aware of how we are taking up space in the world around us . . . .

by Malachi Grennell and Robin Gorsline

Last week, there was a wonderful and thoughtful comment discussion-primarily between Robin and a reader named Matt- clarifying some of the statements in the original post (see “Is Sex Work?”). As the discussion started to wrap up, Matt stated that “‘sexual freedom’ and ‘consent’ are only truly meaningful if one is free – legally, socially, and economically – to choose to withhold them.” We think this is a wonderful, eloquent way to phrase a sentiment that couldn’t be truer: our “yes” is only as powerful as our “no” is empowered. That got us talking with each other about our own ideas and experience around giving and withholding consent as it relates to sexual freedom. As we talked, we decided to share some of  that with our readers.

Malachi: 

Malachi GrennellMatt’s observation and my conversation with Robin got me thinking about consent and models of consent- there is a very large difference between “choose to say no” (the model that we in the United States are raised and inundated with, which assumes consent until someone states a boundary) and “choose to say yes” (in which a person asks at each escalating step of intimacy, “May I (fill in the blank)?” which gives the other person the opportunity to say yes or no. (For an excellent resource to help understand and discuss consent check here).

I still remember my first date with my partner, Kase. After a wonderful night of dinner and conversation (after which, I must confess, I knew I was smitten), it was nearing one in the morning, and there was a significant amount of tension between us. He asked if he could kiss me (I said yes). Then he asked if he could touch my arm, my back, take off my shirt, kiss my neck, and so forth. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had because I felt like I was with someone who wanted me to be present, and wanted to touch me in ways that felt good for me (not just ways that felt good for him). After five and a half years, we don’t necessarily do that every time we are intimate or close, but sometimes- particularly if one of us is having a difficult time, struggling with old trauma, or just feeling particularly sensitive- we go back to consciously seeking verbal consent more frequently. It is a powerful way of showing one another that we love, support, and respect each other- and we still have the choice to say no, no matter how long we’ve been together.

I have to say, from my own personal experience, summoning the ability to say, “No,” in situations where you are working against the assumption of your consent is a lot harder than being offered the opportunity to say yes. When the “yes” is assumed, what power does our “no” have?

Don't touch my fucking hair sussexstudent comIt is said that “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” This likewise applies to the conversations around sexuality- my sexual freedom ends where someone else’s body begins. But we know this- we understand that touching people without permission is a violation of consent-or do we? Stories of total strangers touching a pregnant woman’s belly (learn more here), people getting touched, grabbed, or groped in public by total strangers (more here), and African American people who experience those who claim whiteness touching their hair without asking (more here) – make me think that maybe we didn’t learn that elementary lesson that we shouldn’t touch what doesn’t belong to us. I can’t help noticing that many (not all, but many) of these issues disproportionately affect women because so often, women’s bodies are considered public domain and, more often than not, are told that “it’s a compliment”. But ideally, we shouldn’t touch another person’s body without their permission- that is an appropriate limit to sexual freedom.

I think that we understand that there must be some limitations on sexual freedom. So how do we choose which limitations are appropriate and which are not- not only with our sexual freedom, but with our discussions of sexuality in general? At what point are we ensuring that the dialogue is open, and at what point are we forcing others to engage in a conversation in which they do not wish to participate?

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When Robin and I initially began to co-author this blog, I found myself in an interesting situation. My family is on social media, and friends with both Robin and myself. Now, I didn’t want to stifle or self-censor my conversations about myself, my sexuality, my relationship with my body, etc. I wanted to write as authentically and passionately as I could about these various topics and be able to “share” my writing on social media platforms…and yet. And yet I was aware that my parents wouldn’t want to read that. They wouldn’t feel comfortable reading about my role in BDSM or my thoughts on masturbation- not because they are particularly prudish, but because they’re my parents and I’m their child, even if I am their adult child.

So rather than wait for them to click on a link that both Robin and I were posting and put them in an uncomfortable situation, I called my parents up and told them about this project. I let them know that I would be co-authoring this blog, and that these were some of the topics we might be covering. I let them know that I had no problems with them reading and participating in the conversation, but if they chose to do so, I didn’t want to hear about their discomfort in reading about my sexuality. I did the best I could to inform them so that they could make the best decision for themselves and their comfort levels- and to my knowledge, none of them read this blog, and I am absolutely ok with that. I get the freedom to discuss what I want to discuss, while they get the freedom to not be exposed.

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The platform matters and it’s all about ensuring people can give informed consent. We have to allow people to “opt in” rather than force people to need to “opt out.” We do not, for example, force anyone to read this blog, nor are we trying to trick people into reading it by disguising the subject matter. But in our churches- how do we allow people to opt in to the conversations during services (see Robin’s discussion)? How do we create space to have these dialogues and discussions without forcing every person to interact- whether or not they want to? How to we make sure that people are informed enough to make the best decision for themselves?

These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers. Right now, we tend to shy away from and avoid these conversations because we don’t want to force people to talk about sex, and as a result, non-consensually limit sexual freedom for those who do want to have open, frank conversations. Conversely, if we start talking about it all the time, everywhere, we also limit the freedom of those who don’t want to engage in those conversations. The compromise is to create space where people can engage if/when they want to- they can opt in to the conversation, rather than opt out. But creating opt-in consent models in just one area of our lives can feel awkward and disjointed. In general, in our interactions with one another, cultivating an understanding of when we are giving others an opportunity to say yes versus waiting for others to say no can go a long way in creating space for conversations, whether they are hard or playful, platonic or sexy.

Sexual freedom can be a powerful force, something that transforms how we interact with ourselves and with our sexual partner(s). But in our own personal sexual revolutions, we must also be aware of how we are taking up space in the world around us. How we interact with consent in our daily lives- with strangers, friends, coworkers, and lovers- can be a vital aspect to promoting sexual freedom for everyone, as well as embodying new forms of sexual freedom within ourselves. As Matt said, sexual freedom and consent are only meaningful if one is free…to choose to withhold them. We have to ensure that as we continue to explore our own understandings of sexuality and gender that we do not infringe upon the capacity for others to do the same, in ways that feel good and authentic to them.

Robin: 

revrobin2-023As readers of this blog know, I, like I think most people, have sexual conflicts within my own self, my own mind and body. Lifelong body issues, including shame, and now the effects of aging and other health conditions, as well as a new found sexual energy at a relatively advanced age, give rise to contestations entirely within my own psyche and body.

Moreover, these conflicts are often played out within social contexts, not only my marriage of course, but also in my pastoral and theological vocation. To put it simply: church is a central arena of sexual conflict for me.

What am I free to say and do in church—in worship, in classes and small group discussions, with and among various individuals and informal gatherings? What am I free to write in ecclesiastical contexts?

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When does what I say or do in such church settings impinge on the freedom of someone else to not receive my words or see or participate in my behavior, even if only indirectly? Where does the freedom to be me end? The classic answer is that it ends where the freedom of my neighbor begins.

But how do I know where that is? If I ask someone if they would be bothered, or offended, if I were to use a certain word or to discuss a certain topic, does not the asking potentially involve me in violating their freedom? Or should I just self-censor if I think there is any reason to think they would be offended?

Readers of this blog will not be surprised if I say that I think many of us do far too much self-censoring of that sort about sex, knowing that someone most likely will be offended if, in public places especially, we say much of anything about that topic. So we just don’t talk about it in any substantive, or certainly personal, way.

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I believe that has contributed greatly to sex and body negativity in our culture, and perhaps especially in religious life (for me, that means churches). That negativity leads to repression of LGBT people, refusal to respect transgender people, body judgmentalism, etc. And it surely is connected to misogyny, the hatred and disrespecting of women and, I believe, racism (people who call themselves white feeling and acting superior to those with darker-skinned bodies).

It may help if I discuss an actual incident in which the exercise of my freedom, my power as a pastor, caused some others to feel disrespected and others to feel freed.

Some years ago, I preached a series of four sermons about sex and spirit. I gave the congregation considerable notice when these would occur because I wanted to be sure people were not surprised, and if they wanted to stay away they could do so. I also admit that I hoped some people would come who did not usually participate in worship at the church.

But, the reality of how this worked is not so simple as giving notice. No one in the congregation knew exactly what I was going to say, so the possibility existed that one or more persons might be offended. As it turns out, my brief description of masturbating to a representation of Jesus, in the final sermon, did offend some. Two people walked out. Others spoke to me later expressing displeasure, even anger, Some expressed a lack of trust in me going forward. On the other hand, some others thanked me for being honest.

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I should say one thing about my freedom, too. I really resisted using this incident in a sermon. In fact, I really resisted doing the entire series. I felt pressure—from members of the congregation, and from God in various ways—to tackle the subject from the moment the congregation adopted a mission statement that included an affirmation of “the holy integration of spirituality and sexuality.” People wanted me to discuss that so they would understand what it means.

Frankly, I knew doing so was likely to cause trouble. I had learned the lesson about not talking about sex in church very well. So, I waited more than three years to do so. But people would ask and I would feel the hot breath of God when they did. Finally, I gave in and scheduled the series, for August, a time of often lower than usual attendance, And I was, I think, pretty cautious during the first three sermons (some people who objected to “the masturbation sermon,” as it became known, told me they were shocked that I did that after the more benign tone of the prior ones).

At any rate, this experience raises important issues.

At what point does my freedom to tell the story of that self-pleasuring (a sign, even in some ways a divine sign, for me, of recovery from a serious illness) impinge on the freedom of others not to know? TMI, too much information, some said.

As the pastor, I had the power of the pulpit. Some said I abused it. Several said it raised old issues of abuse for them. Others said it freed them to trust me enough to tell me about histories of abuse (and other sexual “secrets) that they usually kept hidden.

To use the test articulated so well by our reader Matt, those who were angered, or hurt, were not free not to hear unless they chose not to come to the series at all. If they came to church and sat in the sanctuary, they would hear the words before they could stop me, or choose to leave. On the other hand, if I felt I could not speak, then my freedom was denied.

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I have struggled with this before and after, down to the present moment. Did I hear God correctly? Did I have to include that incident in the sermon? I should note here that I took it out of the written text several times and only added it back on Sunday morning and put a box around it and created a segue before it so I could decide in the moment whether to speak it or not. I kept an internal dialogue going that morning, asking God to relieve me from saying it. God did not do so. I took a deep breath and spoke the words.

However, I want to be clear. I don’t hold God responsible. That is not my view of God. I have been given agency by God, I am an adult, responsible for my choices. I knew it would create some upheaval. I chose to do it anyway.

It reminds me of my decision to begin this blog. I can tell a good number of my friends on Facebook (I always post my writings when they appear in public on my Facebook page) don’t want any part of this particular blog. I also know there are people at the church where I am active who think all I care about, all I talk about, is sex. I am pretty sure my daughters and other family would be glad if I stopped.

But a blog is different. People can, and do, choose not to read it. Speaking, as a preacher in a sermon or just talking as an individual in a group at church or anywhere is different. When we speak, people hear us, whether they want to or not.

freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear brainyquote com
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On the other hand, if we never speak an unpleasant truth, nothing will ever change. As a leader and teacher, with passions about human liberation and justice, that is unacceptable to me.

So, it becomes, at least for me, doing my best to find or create opportunities to speak, to write, thoughtfully, with care, to tell the truth I need to share—opportunities that allow as much as possible for people to be given notice and to be able to make their own choices. And on occasion, I know I will decide I need to say or write something that will anger at least some people. I need to pray for guidance, I need to ask forgiveness, I need to listen to their anger and hurt, and to pray for their healing.

The truth is that the lines are not always clear, and when they are, it also is possible they need to crossed. Not every line deserves to be enforced every time, even as all of us deserve, and have, the right to resist such transgression.

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

What do you think? What are your thoughts on sexual freedom and its limits? Please share below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.

Is Sex Work?

Sexual freedom is an important component to being our authentic selves

by Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell

Introduction: Last week, Robin and Malachi each responded to the open-ended question, “What is sexual freedom?” This week, we are expanding on these ideas by exploring sex work in the context of sexual freedom. Discussing our thoughts, feelings, and relationships with this complex and emotionally charged idea, we find a lot of common ground in our conclusions, even though we are coming from somewhat different perspectives.

revrobin2-023Robin:

Writing about my own emerging sexual freedom last week led me to think about the forces outside ourselves that deny that freedom. Social pressures that create sex-negativities are often created and sustained by religious beliefs and practices. Christianity, strangely for a faith built on God’s human embodiment, has much to answer for in terms of body- and sex-negativity.

But it is not just the church that uses negative judgment to control, and even imprison, sexuality and sexual expression. The legal system codifies sex negativity through legal restrictions, especially by limiting sexual freedom through laws criminalizing some kinds of sex among consenting adults.

Of course, not all legal restrictions on sexual activity are based on sex-negativity. For example, the protection of minors from sexual abuse by adults (and by adults against other adults) is absolutely necessary, as are laws against sex slavery. Those who have no, or limited, ways to protect themselves need legal protection.

pump
http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/ephemera/29385/supporting-male-sex-workers

However, based on things some gay men have told me over the years, I also know that the prohibition against sex with a minor is not necessary in all cases. Over the years, I have heard numbers of men say that when they were under age they benefited greatly from sex with an older man (or older men). This was especially evident in earlier decades when same-sex activity was so hidden, and carried far more opprobrium than is true today.  The attentions of an older man, even an authority figure, helped them claim their own sexual power and needs, and these men are grateful. As we know others had different experiences.

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http://theorbital.co.uk/decriminalisation-sex-workers/

But what about the buying and selling of sex, usually called prostitution? Last September, in response to the raid on the Rent Boy headquarters in Manhattan  I wrote on another blog a piece supporting the decriminalization of sex work (see Sex Is Good. Why Is It Illegal?).  I wrote this from the relatively safe perspective of an older gay man who has never paid for sex, and known only a couple of sex workers.  As I look back on that post now, I realize I felt an unconscious twinge of envy and regret: I never had enough sense of my own freedom and worthiness as a sexual being to even consider using my body that way. Now I think I wish everyone could feel free enough to consider it if they wish.

The issue seemed clear to me then, but as Emily Bazelon wrote in the New York Times Magazine on May 8, this is an emotional issue, a real hot button these days especially among women—a serious, hard-edged debate between many feminists who want to free sex workers from the work by ending prostitution and, on the other side, female (and some male) sex workers who want to have their work respected and treated as legitimate employment.

Part of the emotion is class- and race-based, as it certainly reflects the deep and powerful effects of misogyny and patriarchy. The argument for decriminalization—this is not the same as making prostitution legal and regulating it—seems to be made largely by white women who make a good living selling sex by choice (white privilege and class origins are very much in play here). Others may feel differently, especially those (mostly women and girls) who are coerced through human trafficking and other criminal forces into selling their bodies for survival (theirs and often their children). These are so often women of color, in our own nation and from oppressed and war-torn places around the globe.

It is this latter group of (mostly) women worldwide that causes many feminists, including leaders such as Gloria Steinem, to participate in the Abolitionist Movement, vigorously calling for harsh penalties on men who buy sex in order, they claim, to bring prostitution to an end. The movement draws its name from the heroic anti-slavery movement of the 19th century. And given the proportion of women of color victimized globally, it may be an apt connection.

Yet is it the same? Surely, anyone who sells the sexual use of the body of someone else without

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free participation by that body is a slaver. But what if the person has a choice about whether to allow their sexual services to be offered for sale? Is that still slavery? And if the person offers her or his own body, and the customer pays the agreed-upon price, is that slavery? If there is no force, is it slavery?

And further, will we ever be able to end sex for sale? Should we? If a woman or man needs to make money and realizes they have, in their own bodies, a commodity that others would want to touch  and be touched by, hold and be held by, lick or suck or penetrate or be licked or sucked and penetrated by, should we deny them the right to engage in such a transaction? No law on the books is broken if people do that without the exchange of money (unless one party is below the age of consent). We say they have the right to their own bodies and the use thereof (except for some religious groups who would say it is wrong outside legal marriage).

sexworker2
http://www.sexworkeurope.org/users/turnoffthebluelight

So, it would appear that it is the money that makes it wrong.  But I knew a woman who helped herself pay for college through sex work. I have lost track of her, but she said it was actually often pleasurable and that she probably would continue after college (at least until she had enough years in her vocational field to be making better money). And I know a man who supplements income from office work by giving erotic massages that can include sexual acts—in order to help support his aging mother and extended family.

They appear to enjoy the work. I read others who feel the same way. A good place to see all sides of sex work is a blog called Tits and Sass.

Sex is a very powerful instrument of power, both to raise up our own power and potentially that of others, and at the same time a way to hold down others.  Prostitution seems to have deep roots in the patriarchal control of women in general and women’s bodies in particular. Every woman was (is) assumed to belong to some man and that man gets to determine what she does with her body and with whom. Pimps act this way, of course, but patriarchy begins with fathers and husbands who make claims on women beginning at birth and continuing throughout life. This patriarchal attitude also affects how some men regard and treat young boys  who live on the street after being kicked out of their homes for being gay.

“Speak up for all who cannot speak for themselves for the rights of all who are destitute.” Provberbs 3:18, from http://www.cre8tivegroup.com/clients/threedom

So, I hope we all agree that has to change, radically. Some change has been happening of course, thanks to the work of feminism and some allies among men, too. But so much more needs to be done. Decriminalization helps us get the focus off sex—letting consensual sex with or without money exist without penalty—and can, I think, help us focus on the real issue, namely the control of women and their bodies by men (and even other women in some cases).  Instead of penalizing people who choose to make their living through sex, we can prosecute the slave traders and pimps and criminal syndicates that violate women. Of course, this will also require that we work to eradicate social and economic conditions that often drive women into working in these ugly and demeaning conditions.

For millennia, women who stray from this system of control, especially as it has been exercised through sex, have been shamed, called fallen women, sluts, prostitutes, etc. Shame is a very powerful emotion so often connected with sex.

The effort by some women to say “No” to that shame is, for me, an example of sexual freedom. We need more women making such claims, not only about sexual activity but also dress codes and religious roles, not to mention fighting glass ceilings, etc. We, especially men with various kinds of privilege, need to help women all over feel empowered to make their own choices, just as we need all of us fighting the exploitation of all people, women, men, children, through distortions of sex that become abusive, enslaving, violent and violative.

One thing Malachi and I are committed to do is to help people talk about sex, in order to value it as a central element of our humanity, a means of holy conversation through our bodies (and not limited to our genitals).  I see sex workers as allies in this work. And I pray that together we—more than the two of us, and more than all the sex workers, indeed a growing number of caring people—can end sexual tyranny and usher in a new era of sexual joy, freedom and peace.

Malachi GrennellMalachi:

Sex work is one of those topics that I could talk about for a very long time and still barely scratch the surface of my feelings. It’s something of a complicated relationship that starts, like many parts of my sexual journey, with Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg.

I’ve written in other places about my relationship with this particular book, but Feinberg’s novel was the starting point of so much of my sexuality that it keeps coming up in these discussions. The portrayal of sex workers in that novel shaped a perspective that is different from the mainstream narrative (sex workers are all drug addicts, desperate for money, desperate in general, not given the freedom to make their own decisions, cheap and/or untrustworthy people, women that need to be saved, etc.). In fact, any generalizations I had about sex workers were completely different: I believed that they were strong, powerful people, balancing authentic relationships against the illusion of intimacy, fierce, independent, no-nonsense people who were able to work with or without their clothes on which, like the main character of the novel, awed me at the time.

Of course, I have since learned to stop making generalizations about any group- or, at least, be aware of what generalizations I am making. But my bias has always slanted in favor of sex workers, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many of my friends and lovers have been involved in sex work, and it’s something that I have contemplated for many years. The truth is, although I wouldn’t consider myself a sex worker, the second cisgendered man I had sex with was someone that I was paid to have sex with, and it is recorded on film- I was paid to shoot porn. At that point in IMG_0631my life, I was considering whether I felt like I could work as female (although I had been on testosterone for several years and “passed” as male most of the time) and whether or not I could work on camera. That particular situation was unhealthy for me and I chose not to pursue it beyond that one time, but every so often, I consider whether I would be interested in working either as a professional dominant or an escort- not on camera, and not as strictly male or female, but as “myself” (at least, with respect to my gender). As a transgender person, that can be a little more complicated, and between being such a niche market and navigating legality, I haven’t pursued either of those avenues at this time…which isn’t to say that I won’t someday.

The legality issues of sex work are incredibly complicated and frustrating. Legalization ends up being almost as bad as criminalization because it creates particular parameters (read: boxes) around the concepts of “appropriate sexuality,” creating further definitions of what constitutes “real sex” and what doesn’t, and further dividing “normal sex” from alternate sexual expressions (e.g. fetishes). Personally, I support decriminalization, which would cease to make sex work illegal; however, I do not think that legalization (creating new legislation for government regulation and control of the industry) would be as beneficial.

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http://wwav-no.org/news-reports-continue-to-incorrectly-link-increased-sex-trafficking-to-large-new-orleans-events

In this, please let me be clear: assault is still assault, rape is still rape (and not “theft of goods” as stated by Judge Teresa Carr Deni in 2007 or Columnist Mary Mitchell in 2015). Similarly, sex trafficking (buying and selling people- particularly young women and girls- as sexual objects) is an abhorrent practice, and I am absolutely against trafficking, and think that assault and/or rape should be reported and prosecuted- but, of course, the statistics on rape cases that get reported, prosecuted, and lead to an eventual conviction are terrifying and show that, quite clearly, rape and sexual assault is already not well-handled. But let’s focus our energy and resources toward ending abuse, rather than criminalizing what consenting adults do between the sheets (whether or not there is money involved).

The truth is, there are people who are sex workers who are drug addicts. There are people who are desperate for money and are offered an opportunity to do something that is outside of their comfort zone but, out of desperation, do it anyway. There are people who are working under pimps and don’t want to be in the life anymore but don’t see a way out. Those are real, true, honest narratives that can’t be ignored. But there is also a narrative of claiming sexuality through sex work- a narrative of choosing to engage in sex work out of desire, rather than desperation. That is an authentic narrative too, but it’s one that makes us uncomfortable. We want to see sex workers as either morally bankrupt or hapless victims looking to be rescued. Why does it make us so uncomfortable that some people might choose to engage in sex work without being forced, coerced, or just inherently “bad” people?

Among many reasons, I believe that it holds up a mirror, in some respects, for many of us. It’s a brazen claiming of sexuality. It is a defiant refusal to

sex work is real work
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buy into these ideas that we should be ashamed of our sexuality, that it should be a secret, that we shouldn’t want what we want. I don’t believe that everyone should be a sex worker- but I do think that those who are more comfortable with their sexuality, who actively work to feel confident and authentic in their sexual identities often don’t have the same visceral response to sex workers as those who have not done some of that work. It reminds me a lot of faith- those who are fairly secure in their faith tend to not need the same types of external affirmations that those who are not as secure (and have nowhere to go with the questions). When we know who we are- truly know our authentic selves, and work to reflect that image externally- I think we become a lot less concerned about what everyone else is doing and are able to simply move on with our lives.

Sex workers are not necessarily more “sexually free” than anyone else. I would argue that there is a certain freedom in wanting to engage in sex work and having the capacity to be engaged in ways that feel safe and healthy because our choices are limited by our opportunities. Last week, I stated that I think that “freedom is an understanding of the choices available, and the ability to have informed consent in what choices (and, for some, what limitations) we put on our sexual relationships.” I think this is absolutely applicable when discussing sex work: when someone is not able to give informed consent, or when someone doesn’t understand the choices available to them and is therefore forced or coerced into sex work, that is not freedom. But if someone is able to make the decision to go into sex work fully informed and consenting, then they should be free to do so, free from judgement or conviction of others.

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Conviction and legality is something concrete that we can do something about. Judgement is harder. In a world that fears, disdains, and undermines women’s sexuality, sex work is a reflection of the misogyny and patriarchal beliefs of this culture. “Hung like a porn star” is a testament to a man’s penis size and, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, penis size = importance. But most women do not talk about “tits like a porn star”… in fact, when someone’s breast size is compared to a porn star’s, it’s usually an insinuation that the woman has had implants (in this case, bigger = fake). This is one of many example of how we, as a society, continue to perpetuate these double standards, holding up men’s bodies and sexuality as a measure of importance while women are “asking” to be sexualized if they looked a certain way.

Sexual freedom can be a powerful force, and it’s important to remember that we are bound by much more than institutional laws- we are bound by social customs, expectations, and mass media that continue to feed ideas that are, at their core, oppressive and toxic concepts.  Sexual freedom is an important component to being our authentic selves… and as we become more comfortable with ourselves, we may find that we have less need to judge the lives of others.

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

What do you think? What are your thoughts on (or relationship with) sex work? Please share below (or at the individual sites for Malachi’s and Robin’s personal stories), or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.

What Is Sexual Freedom?

. . . each of us travels the freedom road in order to live whole, holy lives

by Malachi Grennell and Robin Gorsline

This question arose out of our regular weekly editorial conference. We often have some pretty deep conversations as we ponder the inevitable question, “What shall we write about this week?”

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As we talked about some current reading and events, we began to reflect on what it means to be sexually free, and it quickly became our focus. And as we talked, we realized that given our various particularities, we might have very different things to share.

Hence, this blog is really in three parts.

Freedom looks different for each of us (and that is true for all of us, not just Malachi and Robin). Paul wrote in Galatians 5:1,” For freedom Christ has set us free.” For us, as Christians, that means each of us travels the freedom road in order to live whole, holy lives. And the freedom we find, the freedom we receive from God and make work in our own lives, is valid and righteous and beautiful, so long as it honors the freedom of others, so long as it encourages and sustains the freedom of others. Indeed, freedom is meant to grow.

We hope you will read both. And share your thoughts, too.

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

What do you think? What is your idea of, or relationship with, sexual freedom? Please share below (or at the individual sites for Malachi’s and Robin’s personal stories), or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.

What Is Sexual Freedom? Malachi Responds

. . . sexual freedom feels like the ability to make choices about our bodies . . .

by Malachi Grennell

In thinking about sexual freedom, the first thought that pops into my head is, “Well, freedom stands opposed to constraints. We are free when nothing bars our way to fulfillment.” But as I think about this, I’m not sure this is exactly the correct sentiment: I think freedom is an understanding of the choices available, and the ability to have informed consent in what choices (and, for some, what limitations) we put on our sexual relationships.

For example, someone that is monogamous because monogamy is the only option that was ever presented to them is not necessarily “free;” they are simply doing what they know to do, whether or not it is healthy for them. Someone who chooses to pursue monogamous relationships because they feel that that is the relationship structure that feels most authentic to who they are…that, to me, is freedom.

I don’t think that constraints are inherently bad when they are chosen with intention and understanding. Limitations can keep us safe and healthy. For example, as a non-monogamous person, my partner and I have limitations on what types of sex we have outside of our relationship:

http://www.scarleteen.com/
http://www.scarleteen.com/

neither of us have sex with people without barriers (condoms, dental dams, gloves, etc.) to minimize the risk of disease transmission. Am I less “free” because of it? Yes, in some respects: it impacts some of the technical aspects of sexual relationships, but I also chose and consented to this particular limitation because it keeps me (and my partner, and our sexual partners) safe, and there is a type of freedom in that safety as well.

For me, my biggest hang-up (and perhaps, largest self-imposed obstacle to sexual freedom) is my discomfort with communicating desire. I have a

http://quotesgram.com/
http://quotesgram.com/

difficult time asking for what I want sexually. Now, my sexual relationships are incredibly fulfilling and satisfying and I’m quite happy in them, but something I have struggled with for years is my difficulty in stating, “I want (fill in the blank).” It comes from different places: at times, it comes of a place of feeling like I don’t deserve to feel certain types of pleasure, at times it comes from fear of rejection, at times it comes from a place of being fairly satisfied with what’s currently happening (or satisfied enough not to ask for something different), at times it comes from a place of genuinely not knowing what I want.

This is a constraint on my sexual identity and relationships that I don’t like and have been actively working to overcome this for years- and have made great progress, although it’s still something that I have to be very aware of. And in this way, I feel that my own sense of sexual freedom in inhibited in a way that I don’t like- but the issue is more than just a sexual one. It’s a sense of worthiness (which directly relates back to socialization and women wanting for the sake of wanting); it relates to sexual trauma, survival mechanisms, and shame (include feeling like my desires were shameful in and of themselves); it relates to feeling uncomfortable with my body and skin and trying to incorporate desire into that discomfort.

Sexual freedom is a tricky thing because I can’t limit it to simply my sexual self. My idea of sexual freedom also includes an aspect of freedom in my body and an understanding of gender dynamics which also includes an understanding that gendered expectations are not the same across cultures, so there needs to be an element of dismantling racism and culturalism, which also means shifting our understanding of class dynamics (which also ties pretty directly into sexual freedom anyway), and the whole thing is a gigantic, circular discussion of the different ways that oppression affects our ability to be whole, authentic people.

BDSM_acronym
BDSM acronym

As a person who has friends who are (or have been) sex workers- and as a person who has considered sex work at points in my own life-sexual freedom feels like the ability to make choices about our bodies- including using our bodies for income if we want (there is a fantastic quote from an Ani DiFranco song that goes “I want you to pay me for my beauty/I think it’s only right/cause I have been paying for it/all of my life”). As a member of the BDSM community, sexual freedom is about finding safe and creative ways to explore fantasies with informed and enthusiastic consent, to feel safe to discuss and try new things, to experience new sensations and do so in ways that feel good and empowering and authentic and safe. As a queer person, sexual freedom is the ability to be a sexual person without the threat of violence because of the audacity to be a sexual person. As a trans person, sexual freedom is not erasing my experiences as a sexual person- as a woman, I received a good deal of sexual harassment and some sexual assault and violence, and I still carry that with me even though I don’t identify as female. As a trans person who identifies as male but does not always “pass,” many people who don’t know me often believe that I am a man transitioning to a woman, and I receive much of the fetishization, sexualization, and objectification that transwomen experience- so although I am not a transwoman, sexual freedom is, for me, freedom from existing as a sexual object (rather than a human being).

Sexual freedom can be a lot of different things, depending on where we are coming from and through what lens we are viewing freedom. There is “freedom to” and “freedom from,” and cultivating those things takes different kind of work and different kind of energy. I am, in so many

glogster.com
glogster.com

ways, more “free” now than I was at previous points in my life- and I think that’s good. It is a sign, to me, that I am continuing to shift and change and allow myself to be transformed. Yet I am finding, as I consider and explore the idea of sexual freedom, that as I allow myself the “freedom to…” (explore aspects of BDSM, be in healthy non-monogamous relationships, tackle old trauma and demons, etc.), I find myself in the position of seeking “freedom from…” (objectification, harassment, erasure, etc.) In short: “freedom to” feels like the ability to make an informed choice or decision about ourselves as sexual people, whereas “freedom from” feels like a systematic oppression we are seeking to escape or remove. And I think both are crucial and vital: we cannot impact systematic oppression without allowing a shift in ourselves, and we cannot shift in ourselves until we have an understanding of the options available to us. We must find a way to cultivate both.

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

What do you think? What is your idea of, or relationship with, sexual freedom? Please share below (or at the combined site for Malachi’s and Robin’s personal stories), or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.

What Is Sexual Freedom? Robin Responds

Sexual freedom [is] a fundamental way to be fully human . . .

by Robin Gorsline

Mona Eltahawy kb dk
Mona Eltahawy kb.dk

I come to this topic fresh from reading an article in the New York Times, “Sex Talk for Muslim Women,” by Mona Eltahawy. She writes about her decision, at age 29, to throw off the shackles of being told she must wait until marriage to a man to be sexually active. She now writes and speaks publicly in a campaign to help other women, Muslim and not, who are victimized by cultures that seek to control or eliminate women’s sexuality and sexual expression. She is a freedom fighter of the first rank. I am in awe of her absolutely vital work.

My story, as a privileged white male, a gay-identified guy with a few peculiarities in my gender portfolio, is far less inspiring and world-changing. However, I think it does speak to certain important issues. And it is critical for me to tell it, for my own sense of self and for what I hope will help others to remove inhibitions that do not serve one’s physical or mental health.

no pants zone wanelo com
wanelo.com

I had two moments of sexual freedom just three days ago. The first happened Sunday evening while Jonathan and I watched television. I was not wearing pants (it is my custom in the house to go at least pants-free, and wearing less if the temperature cooperates), and I looked down at one point at my penis.  As I did, I thought, “You know, you are really cute.”

This may not seem like much to you, but it is a really big deal for me. It represents tremendous progress, I call it liberation. Readers of this space know I have a small penis, and that I have lived my post-puberty life self-conscious about it, actually much of the time not feeling good about it. Usually, like many men, if it is visible I try to get it to look bigger. But on this occasion, I just liked what I saw.

This is a first time for me. Yes, for the first time I have ever, without trying to convince myself, I felt my little guy is just fine the way he is. That is a revolution for me. I feel free—freed from the foreboding that has followed me everywhere for as long as I can remember, freed from the feeling of less-than about something that is not of my doing and I cannot change, freed from the sadness that accompanied me and the anger and resentment that I was dealt a bad hand that underlay it.

I like my penis polyvore com
polyvore.com

This is all new for me, and I am not certain it is sustainable, but I do know this, I feel lighter, happier, more centered in wholeness than I have felt in a long time. This may seem like a big claim, perhaps out of proportion to the issue, but it is nonetheless true for me: I no longer need to carry the burden of feeling like a freak (and I have never said that out loud before, because it is only now that I have a little distance that I can even admit it is how I felt).

Also, I do not think there is any accident that I had another liberating moment later that night. Jonathan and I went to bed that night, and had agreed ahead of time that we would make love. And we did. It was great! We love each other very much, and our lovemaking showed it. We have enjoyed sex with each other for more than 18 years and I expect that to continue until we are no more.

erectile dysfunction health24 com
health24.com

But I was unable to ejaculate. It happens to me fairly frequently, partly to do with age, and partly to do with long-term testosterone replacement therapy (one of the side effects of such therapy is reducing, if not eliminating, the work of the testes which produce both testosterone and semen).  I use the testosterone gel  in response to abnormally low levels and to help counteract ED (erectile dysfunction).  I have not written about this in this space before, and may well say more later, but this condition certainly affects many older guys like me, but also many others, including men in their twenties.

Still, the sex was great. And, I thought maybe with some masturbation I would still ejaculate. So I pleasured myself lying in bed, using my favorite 100% pure organic coconut oil, for a while. It felt good, but I did not achieve orgasm.  After a few minutes, I went to sleep.

Then, about 3:30 pm I woke enough to realize my penis was pretty hard. Right away, I wanted to stroke it, and so I did. It felt so good. I looked at Jonathan sleeping by my side, and I felt his body, too. A great feeling of joy came over me, and I lay there masturbating. I did that, off and on, never too vigorously but with a feeling of deep pleasure, for the better part of two hours, drifting off to sleep a little and then waking up enough to enjoy more pleasure.

dont-knock-masturbation-its-sex-with-someone-i-love-quote-1
picturequotes.com

At some point, I began to feel tears. They were not tears of sadness but gratitude, and happiness. I realized it was the first time I had done this in bed with someone beside me. It felt so freeing. I could not see my penis in the dark, but I knew, now, how beautiful it is and how much I like and enjoy it.

Once again, I felt free, freed from hang-ups about self-pleasuring being something to do furtively and in a hurry, freed again from shame about my penis, freed from worrying about not ejaculating, freed to simply enjoy the waves of pleasure which engulfed me from time to time in the two hours, freed to admit that I not only love Jonathan for all he is but also that he is a sex object for me, a creature whose body I desire to explore and celebrate as I also explore and celebrate my own.

These two instances of sexual freedom are nothing compared to how Mona Eltahaway and Muslim (and other) women struggle to overcome vast, powerful social and religious machinery that denies them sexual agency, nor are they on the scale of those young women  and men in this country who are imprisoned by religious authorities who tell them sex is only to be enjoyed only after marriage, nor are they weighted with the heaviness of trans folks and others, including closeted LGB folks, who struggle to find their sexual voices when they are told to keep their bodies silent, nor can they compare to the struggles of African American women  and men so often defined by and controlled by sexualized stereotypes in our white privileged culture.

But, still, I am a new person as a result. I am more fully the embodied human being God created, and continues to create, me to be. That’s a big deal, for me, and for everyone else who gets to experience their own liberation.

make love not war maniacjoe com
maniacjoe.com

Sexual freedom for me means to draw upon the gift of human sexuality as we have received it as a fundamental way to be fully human, and to do so without being shamed or controlled by others who are afraid not only of the bodies and sexuality of others but also of their own.

I came of age in the 60s—graduating high school in 1965—but it is only now that I am really claiming the sexual freedom about which so many spoke in those days. Then, I could understand it mentally, philosophically, even theologically, but now I understand it in my body, my whole body. Thank you, God, and thank you to so many who have helped me along the way.  I know there may be more in the years ahead.

Who knew it would be like this: I am my most sexually free, so far, as I prepare soon to turn 70.  But I am not surprised really; God often chooses the unlikely candidates to let divine truth shine through.

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

What do you think? What is your idea of, or relationship with, sexual freedom? Please share below (or at the combined site for Malachi’s and Robin’s personal stories), or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.

Puzzling Through the Pieces: A Conversation

We really do have preconceived assumptions, and gender is probably the most obvious (yet so often hidden) and powerful one . . .

By Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell

Introduction:

These past two weeks, we have been exploring our relationships with our bodies- specifically, our experiences with gender. Two weeks ago, Malachi opened the discussion with some of his experiences, then Robin continued the discussion last week. This week, we decided to come together and record our conversation, exploring the vulnerabilities in writing these pieces for each of us, examining some of the assumptions we have (and face) when entering these conversations, and acknowledging shifts in perspective as we have grown and changed.

Malachi GrennellM: You and I have both said that these were vulnerable things for us to write… I didn’t know if we wanted to address that a little bit. We don’t really say it in either of our pieces, at least not directly, but it is. It can be easy to think, you know, “Oh, this is so easy to write,” or “They must do this so easily,” but I think there’s something to acknowledging that this was hard, for both of us.

revrobin2-023R: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I thought about this back when I had Jonathan read my post…and I was very nervous. He said when he finished, “Darling, that’s wonderful. It’s beautifully written, and you’re so brave and honest…I’m so proud of you, it’s just wonderful!” I was overwhelmed by that because that was not what I expected. I expected him to be appreciative, but saying, “Are you sure? Should you say this?” etc. Later, I thought, I was so concerned about this person, who is the most intimate person in my life, but there’s nobody else that I know where I would worry; then I thought, well, that’s not true. There are tons of people who, if they read what I wrote, I would experience some kind of anxiety about that. But if it went viral… there were would be a lot of unknown people, and I could probably care less about that. But there is a lot of vulnerability… that was very real to me. And we do need to talk about that, because that’s what we are encouraging people to do!

M: Well, and I think, in being vulnerable, I’ve learned over the course of my life that the things that make me feel vulnerable and exposed are not the things that make other people feel vulnerable and exposed. I can talk about sex and sexuality all day long…yet I didn’t say it in my post, but I told you, I have a lot of queer shame around sleeping with this one particular person. And so I feel a little vulnerable talking about, you know, as a radical queer blah-blah-blah person, sleeping with this cis-gender, heterosexual man who is kind of an asshole because it makes me feel  like I’m faking my politics, faking my beliefs. But it’s interesting because I feel like I’m an open book, until I realize that the things that make me feel vulnerable are just…different. And I wonder if sometimes I come off as seeming very vulnerable or seeming very open, but never actually being forced to push myself…and then when I do, it doesn’t necessarily seem like it.

R: I hear that… I’ve certainly done some talking over the years that I think has put people off, and it usually has been around sexuality or sex. At the same time, for me, talking about it so openly… talking about the size of my penis is, for me, a vulnerable place on one hand, and on the other, it’s an effort at self-healing because it’s something I have carried all my life. I’ve never been entirely comfortable and I’m working really hard to become comfortable with it and finding it easier to do but part of that is because I’m opening up about it and not just pretending it doesn’t exist…and that kind of feeling can come from letting yourself be vulnerable and working through it.

M: I definitely agree with that.

R: Everyone could be helped if we could lead some kind of revolution, if you will, so that more and more people became more vulnerable. So we can talk about… like you’re talking about with this guy where you feel two-faced, and just being really open about it: “So the sex is good,” and that’s important too. Or body issues, whether it’s mine, or a woman with small breasts, or someone embarrassed about a scar, or feeling overweight or being too skinny…or no muscle, or whatever. It seems to be what you and are I finding ourselves doing, and I think it’s our purpose, which is maybe to set examples of openness. And the heavens haven’t fallen yet. They may, but they haven’t yet.

M: That’s something to think about…if this ever got big, people could go back and read these older posts. That’s the thing with the internet…if you put it up there, it’s there forever.

R: (laughs) Sure. But I would be, I think, happy if that happened. I know I would be. But I’m also not going to stop talking about it… I mean, there may come a time when I don’t need to talk about my small penis anymore, but it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t need to talk about it all the time, but when it’s appropriate and part of the conversation, I now feel much more able to say it. The first time I mentioned it on this blog…I was very oblique about it: “I don’t have a porn star’s body,” or something like that . . . if you read between the lines, and you were a thoughtful gay man, or even a man, you might think, “Oh, I bet he has a small dick,” or something, but it was very carefully scripted. And that felt risky in that moment, actually…so I’ve come a long way.

M: I do remember you writing that, it was right before you and I started writing together. So, you have come quite a long way and, you know, in not a whole lot of time. These things do shift, sometimes fairly quickly.

R: Well, part of it is having you, for me, having a partner, having a colleague. It makes a huge difference…it helps a great deal to have someone I trust to have these conversations with. In the process, I go through quite a lot of stuff. People need people to talk to, to have a trusted person to talk to. But you need that as a precursor, as a place to test out some stuff…you can say it more to other people once you figure out your feelings.

Malachi GrennellM: Yeah, absolutely… I’m a big fan of verbal processing in general. I think it’s really helpful to have someone that’s not the person that you’re engaged in whatever with- whether it’s a relationship or sex, I’m a big fan of having a person to talk to. The other thing I find really interesting…for me, as a trans person, I think there are a lot of assumptions about how I’m supposed to feel about my body that are not true for me. I don’t have gender dysphoria, I don’t have any problem with the anatomical configuration of my body. I like my body just fine now with some adjustments from testosterone. But I don’t want bottom surgery that would give me a penis, and I don’t necessarily want top surgery…my discomfort in my own skin has more to do with weight than gender, but I feel like there’s this assumption that, because I’m trans, I have to have certain feelings about my genitals and my anatomy that aren’t actually there. I think we have assumptions about what people are going to have concerns about because of their identity…How many of these conversations do we go into with assumptions about what we think someone else is going through?

revrobin2-023R: I think that’s a very good point. Yeah, I don’t know why I have such a feeling about my penis. It’s a long-time feeling…I’ve recorded some incidents that happened to me that made it feel much more important. I’ve carried those with me, even though I understand how nonsensical they are and wrongheaded the men were…I should rephrase that …not that they were so wrongheaded; they had their own needs and feelings and prejudices and whatever, and I didn’t need to take it in the way that I did, but I did. And there are whole things, on Tumblr, for example, that are devoted to men with small penises, and I started looking at them sometimes because I find it helpful to “put myself in context” if you will. I don’t spend a lot of time there, it’s not my “thing”…so that when I may see a guy with a big one, I think “That’s nice,” but then I also think, “Yeah, but… mine’s nice too.” But what you just said about trans people and yourself in relationship to expectations…and how that can be true of men and women and anyone, we do make assumptions about what’s important based on our own things, rather than what’s important to the person themselves. And I know men talk about various things besides penis size…muscle, weight, age… I mean, here I am aging. I have skin that isn’t as great looking- compared to what it was- and that bothers me, but it doesn’t have the same impact. It’s interesting how these things take deep root in us. How we look out in the world is affected by these phobias or fears or sense of inadequacy.

M: It’s interesting to me…I remember being a teenager and looking at older couples and thinking, “I could never be attracted to someone who looked like that”…and now I’m dating people who look like that, and I’m very attracted to them, but much less attracted to that younger, 18-year-old look. As we change, not only does our relationship with ourselves change, but what we find attractive changes. I’m wondering if there is something to be said, for a relationship between how we feel about ourselves and our own bodies and our own comfort with our bodies changing and how we express our outward desire who we are attracted to. I don’t know that there is, and I don’t know that that’s always true, but I wonder if there is some connection there between our inability to be comfortable with ourselves as growing, aging people that wants to cling to that sense of being “young and beautiful,” because this culture very much reveres the beauty of youth.

R: I think it is interesting…I think about, for myself, Jonathan is 13 years younger than I am. When we became a couple, he was very boyish…what’s interesting to me, I came across a picture from him at that time and I was surprised at how different he looked even though he’s the same basic person. And I thought, “Gosh, I really liked him then, but I REALLY like him now.” This earlier picture was adorable and sexy and cute and he was a wonderful human being and smart and all the things he is now… but there is something about the “now” person that is infinitely more attractive to me. So I can say that about him, but I struggle to say it about me, even though I’ve had the experience of saying, every decade, that “these are the best years of my life,” and it’s been true every time. But I often ignored my body- that wasn’t part of the calculation. Part of the reason for doing these things with you and the MCC online conference about sex and spirituality last fall is I want to change my relationship with my body. I think I’m more at peace with it, even though I still have issues. I’m not ignoring it anymore.  I have the luxury of being a white, gay male… a white male who could pretend my body wasn’t a big deal. I was a brainy person, and a spiritual person… but I didn’t put my body with my spirit. I didn’t let my body be a part of my spirituality, especially after I left the radical Faeries and got back into church full-time. That’s something to say…that’s true. I put my body on the shelf when I came back to be a pastor.

M: That’s a thing, that’s something I struggle with as a person of faith and I am a Christian and I love the church, but I also love so many of the pagan spaces I have been in that allow for a synthesis of bodies and spirituality. We miss something in that, as Christians, and that resonated with me as well.

R: Well, something I might want to mention as a part of our conversation…at General Conference, I would like to set aside some time to talk about these things. One of the things that occurs to me is how out there do I want to be? Because it occurs to me, I would like a little nude time with folks…I don’t know even know if I want to do it, but part of me does.

M: This has to do with vulnerability…..when you say to colleagues, let’s go get naked, not in sexual ways just be naked. You said at beginning, “people may stop speaking to me.” A concern or fear…How do we talk with people about things that make us feel scary, vulnerable?

R: It is so important to have people to talk with, which is a big part of the reason I am thinking about these things at General Conference. Trying to create more community….

Looking at your piece, fairly near the end, where you are talking about being in the mathematics program, and how the gender thing plays out there for you, partly because of being raised in one environment with women as female yourself, and living another way now, or both ways, your way of course, and noticing how few women there were. People expected you to be a boy in how you speak and act, and it is more complicated for you given your body and experience. This is about how we make assumptions, we see people and expect them to feel and be and behave a certain way. We really do have preconceived assumptions, and gender is probably the most obvious (yet so often hidden) and powerful one, race too, but with gender the division is 50/50 between two genderized groups, and it begins at the moment of birth…..Congratulations, you have a baby boy, or you have a baby girl.

M: Its funny, I’ve been looking at baby shower things. Can you believe, they have whole games to guess the sex of the baby. I had never heard this before; the centerpiece of the shower is guessing or revealing the sex of the baby. I have not been part of this baby shower world. I did not realize how focused people are on the sex of the baby. Most of my friends are queer, and not having babies. There are things like cake where it is either pink or blue and when you cut the cake it comes out pink or blue to show the sex. What!? That’s insane. I had no idea!

revrobin2-023 R: Yes it is very acute, and very real. We just make a whole series of assumptions about who a person is based on our perception of their gender. Which is back to the trans things, why the trans movement is so upsetting. Here are people who are changing sides, at least that is how it is perceived so often; even though they are not two opposite things, and even though you and others do not necessarily change their bodies, at least in terms of genitals. Your body is such a contravention of the mode because you haven’t removed your vagina and put a penis in its place, or reduced or removed your breasts, and yet you are making a claim–you are not going around saying I AM A MAN but you are making a claim for masculinity, or maleness, and your body doesn’t correspond in some ways. You’re not alone in this, but trans people really make it clear  how variable bodies are. For so many non-trans people, it seems always to be all about the genitals. When I was so intensely engaged in the marriage debate in Virginia, so much opposition to marriage equality was focused on genitals. So many claim that you have to have a man put his penis inside the vagina of the women to be marriage, saying it is about children, but its not really, it’s about genitals. Of course, marriage is not just about genitals; if that’s all it is, it won’t last long

M: Same thing with the “are you a boy or girl? It’s a fixation on the genitals, and people get really uncomfortable when you point that out.

R: When people like you who are more ambiguous in their gender presentation, or even unlike you, perhaps no facial hair, I would wonder how they saw themselves, and people whose names that are not clear about gender (like mine!), I sometimes felt this great need to get people into a box. Eventually, it dawned on me, why do I need to know? They were human beings and that is what counts. Why do I want to know? Maybe a few circumstances I might need to know, but most of the time is none of my business.  They can share if they wish, but if not I don’t need to know. I don’t think I am alone. We need to help people see this, to see the power of the assumptions and the need to get people in the right box.

Malachi Grennell M: It makes me think … [my partner] Kase and I have this kind of joke, about two kinds
of being androgynous…people where you don’t have enough gender characteristics and others where you have too much. With people like me, with breasts and facial hair, it’s “what do you see first?”, or like Kase, with no obvious signals, no facial hair, etc., and people confront him, “What are you?” How we interact with different bodies is very revealing.

 R: The assumptions though are very dangerous because they really are about control, not about encouraging or enlarging life, but keeping it under control, especially keeping women under control first I think.

 M: Oh yes. One of the first things we do as children is to learn to compartmentalize things, get things into boxes. This leads us to these assumptions. We believe the world is the way we saw it as children, and that’s just not true.

 R: With the whole earring thing for me, people look, and depending on the group or setting, some people seem to look more and look oddly. I also remember a little boy in an office waiting room, and he said to me, “Why are you wearing girls earrings?” He was very matter of fact,   probably age 5 or 6. His mother shushed him, and I said, “Oh its okay. What makes you think the earrings are boy or girl.” He just kind of looked at me, and his mother said, “That is a good point, the earrings are not people, they don’t have to be boys or girls.”

 M: Kids are so much better about gender things. I love it.  “Why does that girl have hair on her face,” talking about me. I love the things that kids see as gender, I have long hair so I must be a girl even though I have facial hair. Of course, the parents get uncomfortable, and I am like whatever….

 R: Our granddaughters, our marriage is just as normal for them as anything. When I visit by myself, or call alone, they ask right away where is Grampa? Its just normal (and they don’t ask about my earrings either). So they are open. How do we help adults get there?

M: Some of it will be generational.  I was part of the first wave of kids being raised openly by gay parents. Now kids have gay grandparents, my sister’s kids have a bunch of grandmothers. At some point it becomes normal even more than for my generation. So it is not necessarily queerness that will be their struggle; they will have their own body or sexual thing. It might be non-monogamy as the thing to get over, its becoming bigger and bigger, more talked about all the time. We’ve deconstructed  interracial marriage, not that racism is gone, still horrible racism, but gay marriage too. We’ve seen the same basic arguments about normalcy and boxes applied to 6,7,8 different things and hopefully we can get over it.

 R: Clearly, one of our missions with this blog, and other things we hope to do, is to help undo assumptions, contributing to deconstructing assumptions, reducing the power of assumptions

M: Yeah, God, I think, doesn’t deal with assumptions, but with where and who people actually are.

R: Amen!

Conclusion:

We could go on and on, so much more to say, to share. What we do know, what is our fervent belief, is that people need to be more open, to talk more. It so often comes down to trust, not only trusting another person, as important as that is in being open, but also in trusting God, trusting God to have made us beautiful in ourselves. The way we are made, in all our variety—as the Psalmist (139:14) says, “I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made, wonderful are your works”—is worthy of celebration. It is time to stop hiding ourselves, stop walling off parts of ourselves that don’t fit someone’s idea of what is normal, stop pretending other people who are different are less than us, or abnormal. Oh, the beauty of creation lies in its infinite variety.

It really is a spiritual thing to be open, to share ourselves, to share our differences, our particularities, because in doing so we praise the Creator, and in doing so, we claim more life, not less.

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

What do you think? What is your gender experience, your embodied gender journey? Please share below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.