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.
Matt’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?
It 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?
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.
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.
As 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.