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

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

by Malachi Grennell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you experienced sexual violation–rape, attempted rape, unwanted advances you did not feel empowered to stop, pressure from an employer, or a customer or anyone who has economic power over you, to be sexual? Do you know how to ask and wait for yes (and do you actually do that), or are you trained to think that the other person has the responsibility, the power, to say no? Are you regularly on guard against sexual advances because of prior experiences, or has it not occurred to you that many people, mostly women but men as well, go around afraid? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

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

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

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

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

There’s Beauty in Every Body

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

Malachi:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin:

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

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

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

Donald Trump pointing at Marco Rubio soshable com
soshable.com

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

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

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

older men at beach fabgreyfox com
fabgreyfox.com

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

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

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

Hillary Clinton angry puzzled nypost com
NYPost.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can change the world, body by beautiful body.

 

 

 

 

 

When ‘Stuff’ Gets in the Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Einstein ThinkingAlike kcbob com
kcbob.com

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

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

gay love Roman figures haaretz com
haaretz.com

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

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

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

Queering Christianity amazon com
amazon.com

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

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

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

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

This is my decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Depo-Testosterone
Depo-Testosterone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever had difficulties maintaining intimacy in your relationships? Has your work or career made it difficult for you to be open about your sexuality? What are some other barriers to your ability to be authentic and open in your sexuality? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

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

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

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

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

Sexual Repression: Systemic and Personal

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

by Malachi Grennell and Robin Gorsline

Introduction:

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

Malachi:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin:

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

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

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

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

teenage-and-sexual-problems hormonals slideshare net-11-638
slideshare.net

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

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

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

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

real-jewish-wedding-chuppah-ceremony themodernjewishwedding com
themodernjewishwedding.com

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

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

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01
Daniel Helminiak visionsofdaniel.net

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

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

naked het couple stick figure line through fengshuichat com
fengshuichat.com

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

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

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

priest-shhh-akacatholic com
akacatholic.com

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

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

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

What types of sexual repression have you experienced? Did they come from family, peers, the church, or other places? How have those experienced shaped, helped, or hindered your sexual expression as an adult? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

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

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

What Will the Children Say?

It’s taken me years to get even remotely comfortable talking about sex… there is still a long way to go.

by Malachi Grennell and Robin Gorsline

Malachi: 

This past week, I have had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time with two dear friends of mine and their one-year-old son. One evening, after the baby had gone down for the night, the three of us sat talking and the conversation turned to parenting- and sex.

Malachi GrennellWe were sharing stories of some of our struggles as parents (a role that we have each come into this past year: the two of them with the birth of their son; me through developing a co-parenting relationship to our (Kase and I’s) goddaughter). Our goddaughter (who we affectionately refer to as Kiddo) is 7, and I have had a series of interesting conversations with her that have led me to ponder how we talk about sex in healthy, age-appropriate ways with children.

A few anecdotes to contextualize this situation: when she was four, Kiddo asked for a whip for Christmas. When asked why she wanted a whip, she responded, “I think people would like it if I hit them with it.” In the South, spanking kids is something that is considered normal and encouraged, and her primary parent decided to try to spank her as a consequence for something. Her response to being was to ask for more- which quickly put an end to that as a consequence method. She has also commented that, if the tooth fairy came, she would pee in his or her mouth (her words).

These are the innocent statements made by a seven year old with an active imagination, that’s true… there is nothing inherently or intentionally sexual about them. And yet, all of her parents are kinky and laugh, recognizing that there is a good chance she will grow up to be as well. But it led me to wonder how (and when) to provide information to her about alternative types of sexuality. The obvious answer, of course, is to bring it up when talking to her about masturbation, or perhaps sex in general. Except that conversations about sex only really come up when talking about babies.

gay_family truthrevolt org
truthrevolt.org

She and I have had many conversations about where babies come from. We talk about biology, about bodies with eggs and bodies with sperm and bodies with uteruses (for a really amazing book that deals with conception and pregnancy without ever mentioning gender, check out What Makes a Baby ). She has some understanding that babies are a product of the mingling of an egg and a sperm inside of a uterus. She might even have some understanding that one of the ways sperm enters a body is through sex, but I don’t think she has a firm idea of what sex is.

Which leads me to this point: how to we introduce and talk about sex as a recreational activity (and not just simply a means to an end, e.g. conception)? Forget kink; how do we address the idea that sex is something that we do because it feels good and is a way to be intimate with someone we care about? As parents, we are one of the primary sources of information for our kids- and what they don’t learn from us, they learn from school (such as sex ed) or other peers.

sex ed craziness nytimes com
nytimes.com

I remember the sex education I received from my peers in the guise of dirty jokes and juicy gossip, and it makes me shudder. I would like to inform and equip Kiddo to be better prepared to than that.

In truth, though, I want to raise her in a better informed world. I want to raise her in a world where her body is not criminalized and debated in public arenas. I want to raise her in a world where she doesn’t see her sexuality as a hindrance or a thing to feel shame about, but is excited and equipped to explore her sexuality in safe, responsible ways.

I want to raise her in a world that celebrates all of who she is. And yet, I wonder if I struggle so much to find the entry points for these conversations because we as adults are not accustomed to having these conversations. We have no framework to allow sex to be a part of normal, adult conversation. When we do choose to explicitly reference it, we do so in euphemism (“We’re going to have some alone time” wink wink) or in self-serving ways (“I’m gonna get laid/lucky tonight!”)

lesbian couple with kids familydiv org
familydiv.org

We talk about having age-appropriate conversations with children, and that is incredibly important. As a queer person, I know I worry that I will say too much, or push a conversation, and I worry about what’s age-appropriate. Queer parents often feel that sense of scrutiny…we work hard to have families and, once we do, want to make sure that we do it exactly right because we want to prove that we are just as capable as heterosexual parents. Besides, the queer community (particularly gay men and bisexual people) have been accused of being “obsessed with sex,” so there is a certain trepidation about bringing up sex at all.

We talk about having age-appropriate conversations with children. But what, I wonder, is the appropriate age to talk about sex as a pleasurable activity (and not just a means to an end)? By the state of United States culture, it seems that many of us haven’t reached it yet! We don’t talk about sex as a part of our lives. We have very little framework to help us create safe space to talk openly about sex and allow it to be a part of our conversations.

If we aren’t doing it, then how can we hope to model that type of behavior? As a child of queer parents, I know that my understanding of sex was severely limited… what I took away from the conversations was not mechanics or concepts of intimacy, but an overwhelming sense of shame. Although my parents never said it, I knew that sex was something to be ashamed of. Once I updated my understanding of the mechanics of sex (I confess, the physics of heterosexual sex made no sense to me until I started watching porn- not the best method of sex education, but a helpful lesson in the technicalities), I started working on my emotional hangups. It’s taken me years to get to a point where I feel even remotely comfortable talking about sex… there is still a long way to go.

Carlos McKnight

Last week, Robin and I talked about the terrifying political climate after the Republican National Convention. Since then, we have seen the Democratic National Convention seek to provide an alternative to the alarming display the previous week. While I think there were many important concepts discussed at the DNC, I am reminded that the next president will nominate judges to the Supreme Court, and I have a seven year old girl looking to (among others) me for guidance.

This election is not just about us, but about the world we shape for the generations that follow. I want to live in a world that is well-informed, and I want to shape the next generation to be thoughtful contributors. I want people in Kiddo’s generation to be able to push beyond what we are fighting for now. I want us, as adults, to know how to have these conversations with one another so that we are able to impart these lessons to the next generation. I want us to be comfortable enough with ourselves that we are able to answer questions without imparting a sense of shame. But most of all, I want us to actively be a part of creating a better world for those who follow after us.

Robin:

“Kids say the darndest things!” Those of a certain generation (mine) will remember how Art Linkletter mined that truth to make money with a book of the same name, as well as part of his “House Party” radio program. In 1998, Bill Cosby found the same rewarding path for several years on television.

revrobin2-023What these venues featured were kids saying “cute” things, definitely not using “bad” language or, e.g., sexual or excretory terms.  However, my experience with children features some differences. My daughter Emily, while enrolled in Cambridge, MA public schools in 1984, came home to ask me, “Daddy, what does ‘fuck’ mean?” (a word neither her mother nor I ever used). She was in First Grade, age 6. Of course, she did this at the playground in front of her younger sisters, and waited, as they did, for an answer.

Bear in mind I had already had to try to explain to her, and to them, what “being gay” meant—I had responded by talking about  “liking men and the company of men,” and then stumbled about when she asked in response if I would still want to spend time with her and her sisters!

Frankly, I do not remember what I said in response to the playground query, except I am sure I strongly suggested she did not use the word again (which probably only heightened interest).

Art Linkletter Kids say the darndest things barnesandnoble com
barnesandnoble.com

Fast forward to this year, last week in fact. Our five-year-old granddaughter (who shall remain nameless), realizing her mother was getting frustrated with her two-year-old sister’s slow response to a request to find her diaper, said, “Susie (name changed to protect the innocent), where’s your fuckin’ diaper?”

What a difference 32 years can make. And yet, have things really changed in any important way?

Things have changed in terms of conversations about sex. In some respects, there is more openness. But note that our granddaughter’s sentence, correct in terms of everyday usage, continues the pattern of negative value being connected to sexual “street language.” (See our blog, “What’s Your Body Language?”) And just because she can use the word in a grammatically correct way doesn’t mean she has any more idea what the term means than did her aunt before.

national enquirer nationalenquirer com
nationalenquirer.com

Sexual scandals are reported more easily and fully these days—there always seems to be some celebrity and/or politician embroiled in compromising photo-sharing or sightings on a nude beach or having a sex video flying around cyberspace. Sex certainly still sells—that has not changed—still brings readers and customers.

But what about actual conversations among adults?  Surely, many use “fucking” and other exclamatory and negative terms. But do we talk about sex, really talk about it, even in private spaces?

The other day, when Malachi and were trying to find a time for our weekly editorial conference, he proposed an evening time. I texted back that I would not be available because Jonathan and I had carved out time for us, and we would, I hoped, be having sex at the time mentioned. After I wrote the text, I thought “You can’t say that,” and then I thought, “Oh yes you can, this is Malachi, and he not only knows you and Jonathan have sex, you know he and his husband (and others) have sex, and you sometimes talk about it in preparation for writing this blog. You both even write about it!”

Then I thought one more thing: “Wouldn’t it be great if I felt comfortable saying things like that to other loved ones, not just the co-editor of a blog about sexuality and spirituality and my very dear friend?”

Of course, six months ago, when Malachi were friends but were not yet colleagues on this blog, I would not have texted, or certainly said, anything about Jonathan and me having sex.

friends talk sex periods poop pinterest com
pinterest.com

Relationships matter. In truth, I have only two other relationship (besides with Jonathan) in which I might make that statement (two gay male friends of mine with whom I have discussed some of my sexual function issues).  I want to change that. I want my sex talk with others to reflect not only troubles but also the sheer joy and celebration of sex with my husband. And I want it to be more commonplace. I have written an honest and open (what others might label “explicit” or NSFW) poem about recent sex with Jonathan, and I am trying to decide where to publish it (Jonathan likes it).

I don’t want to use language I have heard some use, things like (as someone, usually a man, heads out on a date), “I hope I get lucky tonight” (wink, wink). I not only want to use the word “sex,” but also I want it, at least in my case, to be about mutuality and shared pleasure (and if about masturbation, my own).

Last week, we wrote against the backdrop of the Republican National Convention. This week, the Democrats have completed their gathering.

And what a difference! They gave openly lesbian and gay speakers, and a Transgender speaker, prime times to speak (I don’t know if they provided that to an openly bisexual person).  Many of the non-LGBT speakers spoke positively about LGBT people. And there are no platform planks about bogus methods to “cure” same-sex attraction nor linking sex only to reproduction or repealing a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

Also, a search on the internet revealed no reports about a boom in business for male sex workers, as at the GOP event in Cleveland. Maybe that’s because there were many more out, self-affirming gay men already at the convention?

bill-hillary-chelsea wnd com
wnd.com

But one thing remains the same at both conventions. Nobody talked openly about sex. Former President Clinton had an opportunity to lament the effect on his presidency and his family from his affairs (especially the one with an intern) but nary a word from him, or Chelsea or Hillary either. We all know that when people talk about Hillary’s toughness, it refers not only to negotiating with dictators but also to hanging “tough” with her husband. But it is not discussed except in hushed and judgmental side conversations.

Think how much more healthy it would be for them , and us, if we could get it out in the open—we don’t need to judge him, or her, but we can understand the situation as human. It could be a time of education for many.

We could be more real about the power and divine roots of sex, and its centrality in our lives.

love makes family familydiv org
familydiv.org

Maybe then we could talk more openly with our children about it, too, not only to tell them about reproduction, how the parts work, but even to talk about pleasure and joy it can bring (as well as the potential for pain possible with such a great power). We could talk openly with them about masturbation, no longer giving messages about its dangers as they discover its pleasure (leaving people confused).

When Emily posed that question in 1984, I was only 18 months or so out of the closet, recently divorced, and still dealing with a lot of internalized homophobia. There is no way I had the conceptual understanding or language I have today to speak affirmatively about sex.

its not the storkWould I have had a different conversation with my daughter then? Perhaps (I really don’t remember what I said). I do know I would have had different conversations with her and her sisters as they grew up.

It is not my place to speak with my granddaughters about sex (unless they ask), but I can share my thoughts with their parents. And that I will do, knowing how much they love their daughters and how I trust them to do the very best they can to insure bright futures full of love and joy for each girl—futures that include the kinds of sex that bring them joy and fulfillment God intends for them.

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

What do you think? How do you feel about talking with children and youth about sex? Have you done it? How did it go? Can you share from your experience things the rest of us might need to know? Or are you troubled and uncertain?  Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

New Educational Adventure!

third Thursday
discoverpittsfield.com

Please plan to join us on the third Thursday of each month at 3:00 pm ET for a one-hour online educational and discussion session with Malachi and Robin! First session: August 18, 2016! Stay tuned for further details (Note: available for CEU credits for MCC Clergy).