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 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.

consent sussexstudent com

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.


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?

yellow line boundary with 2 sets of shoes soberrecovery com

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.

Noam Chomsky on social freedom pinterest com

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.

Pastor preaching howafrica com

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.

hearinggod barbwire com

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

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.

4 thoughts on “When Does Freedom Become Oppressive?”

  1. Thanks for this, another candid and articulate blog piece.

    I find the consent part quite helpful and on the whole relatively easy. The YouTube clip I’m glad to know about, as it deals with an issue that keeps coming up in various contexts I find myself in, in some of which I have responsibility for articulating norms and limits. My counsel to myself and others is to remember that when someone says yes or no it is not about the asker, it is about the person responding.

    Robin, your story about the sermon, as you would expect and know, rings bells for me. I have never had exactly that experience, but I’ve come close. I can’t add anything to the points you have already made except to say that everything is contextual. The very comments made by your hearers attests to that. People hear something within a variety of overlapping contexts: their relationship with the person speaking, their own experiences in the past, their expectations and positions, what the surrounding culture approves or disapproves of (usually a mass of contradicting teachings and pronouncements), and so on.

    The issue for me is not so much freedom as it is authenticity. (I suppose that the two really are inseparable.) I find that at this point in my life, I have built a stable persona, or perhaps a series of fairly stable personae, which people look upon and imagine that they are seeing me. Those personae are in fact a part of me–they are my constructions after all–but I know that they do not accord with much of what is known to me but not known to others. (The Johari Window comes to mind: some things are known to both you and me, some things are known only to you, some only to me, and some unknown to us both.) The issue for me is most of the time around that quadrant in which some things are known only to me about me. How much of that do I reveal? To whom? How? And Why? Even after six decades, I still struggle with the tension between adapting or not. I have a 3×5 card above my desk bearing four questions: (1) what today will I not try? (2) whom today will I not please? (3) what today will I not edit from my speech? (4) how today will I not conform? Most of the time I cannot and do not answer those questions because I simply do not know. But I nonetheless keep the questions before me because behind them is the larger question of what I have that I want to share with the world and whether or not that sharing is important enough to override my own fears around losing respect, affection, or even entire relationships.

    Every time I choose to disclose some piece of information about myself, I am by necessity putting the person to whom I am disclosing it in the position of dealing with that information. Much of the time, particularly if I play it safe and run no real risks, the person can take that information and integrate it without trouble. But the more volatile the information, the more inconsistent it is with the person’s understanding of me, the more difficulty that person has with my information. I suspect that my experience of coming out as a gay man was like that of most people coming out (and we are all of us all the time coming out of something, one way or another). There were folks who were not surprised and who had no difficulty accepting the information. There were folks who were mildly surprised but who had a pretty deep trust of me allowing them to process that information. There were those who did not trust me very much, and to my chagrin my disclosure simply occasioned them to shut down any possibility of relationship. But the persons who had the hardest time in some sense were the persons who knew me best (family members), whose trust of me was deepest, and whose relationships with me were supremely important to them and to me. In some cases it took them years to appropriate the information I gave them. Why? Because it literally changed their view of reality, it shook their world. And that, I think is the key. People have a hard time granting you or me or any of us the freedom that we might desire, in relation to how greatly that freedom disturbs their own world. And that, of course, is so complex a matter that it is impossible to do anything about it but guess.

    The way we frame things frequently dictates the way we handle them. A person I did not know well at all said something to me when I was going through that enormously difficult period of coming out. He listened to my rehearsing how I could not do thus and such because I was a priest, or so and so because I was a husband, or this or that because I was a father, or something else because I was gay, and so forth. He spoke. “You’re trying to protect everyone from their own pain.” And that was true. When I confront my own tendency to edit what I think I will pay dearly for in the loss of affection, understanding, inclusion, or control, I run by me the question, “Whom am I protecting? And is it their own pain or mine that I am about to ask them to deal with?” It does not necessarily resolve my uncertainties about what to share or not to. But it does frequently help me to determine whether the disclosure is largely to relieve pressure on my part and how important that relief is to my own integrity.

  2. And as usual, another thoughtful, articulate reply. Thanks! Your end point about protecting others is very salient to me. I am working as volunteer clergy in a church and I am very conscious that some there think, because of their awareness that this blog exists (although I doubt that many have visited it), that all I do is think and write about sex. And while Jonathan knows about this blog, we don’t talk about it unless I bring it up. Other family members, some of whom surely know about it because I post every new entry on my Facebook page, have yet to comment–and that is true of most others on my Facebook page. Every week, as I write on whatever topic Malachi and have chosen, I am aware that there things I am not comfortable sharing and there are other things that I realize I have never shared publicly before. I do get nervous at times. I know I fear being marginalized by “the good people” and relegated to “the freaks” who are naked all the time and have endless erections (even though I have difficulty having one now and then), etc. I also share this blog on various Facebook pages related to my denomination, Metropolitan Community Churches, and I have a few clergy colleagues and lay people who offer affirmations. Most are silent (not even a “Like”), and I occasionally worry when someone will object or seek to have me punished in some way (even though I think in MCC that is unlikely). I am unsure this makes many of them uncomfortable, fearing their own feelings and those of their loved ones and fellow religious folks. I am sad about that, but at the same time, it provides the fuel to keep going. I want to model freedom to be open and life-giving.

    What I know is true for me is that as I age and encounter barriers to the sexual practices I have known most of my life, I am discovering that when I am more open, less secretive, I can still feel sexual, and in some ways, far more than when I was younger and seemingly more easily active. The mind is our most erotic organ, and I am feeling more fulfilled today than ever. This is so good, that, while I still worry about others and have no desire to give offense, I am less and less inhibited. Thus, life is richer, and more full.

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