Bisexual (In)Visibility

We must make more room in our churches and communities to talk about bisexuality, pansexuality, and queerness.

 

revrobin2-023Robin:

Reading one of the sex- and bodies-focused blogs I receive, my attention was drawn to the subject of bisexuality, a topic Malachi and I have not addressed in a focused way. So here goes.

The particular article, “And New on the Bisexuality Spectrum—‘Mostly Hetero’,” looks at a phenomenon recently under discussion among researchers, namely a nuancing of the traditional sexuality continuum. What caught my eye was the term “mostly hetero.” In response, I  murmured  “I am mostly homo.”

That “mostly” may surprise some readers, because I clearly identify myself as gay. But it was not always so. I was married for more than eight years (1974-83), and my wife gave birth to three daughters.  I was the sperm donor, not through artificial insemination but through penile-vaginal sex. She and I had sex, and more than three times!

I loved Judy very much, but in reality our sex—much desired by her—was not so much for me about lust for her body (which was very sexy by many standards, not to mention her energy and winning personality) as it was to satisfy my own need for sexual release and to honor my commitment to her.  I did not fantasize about men during our love-making, but I did the rest of the time. I never stopped looking at men.

don't assume gay or straightWhen I finally accepted my same-sex desires, working with a therapist and coming out to Judy, and had my first male-male sex (other than one time of masturbation with a friend in our early teens), I suddenly knew why many talked about sex as the pinnacle of pleasure.  The fireworks were there in a way they had not been with her.

But I wondered, off and on for a while, am I bisexual or homosexual? Still, over a relatively short time I became clear I am homosexual.  On the traditional scale, first enunciated by Alfred Kinsey in the late 1940s, that is a 6. But I do find the occasional woman attractive enough to wonder what it would be like to be sexual with her.

So maybe I am a 5.5 or 5.7 or 5.8, not quite a 6.0. Mostly homo.

Yet, I never had sex with a woman after Judy. Not even close. And I had sex with many men during my times of being a single male. So my heterosexuality is very muted.

lesbian couple black with kids
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I know many gay men and lesbian women who are parents like me—children born during a marriage into which they entered before realizing, or finally accepting, they prefer sex with a person of the same gender. Most of these people report not being very happy in the marriage, but they had sex.

What this points to is the elasticity of sexuality, the wideness of the range of possibilities. I remember a lesbian friend who for decades was in a relationship with the woman of her dreams—when I got to know them there were no longer young, but there was no hiding their obvious love and joy each other; it was infectious to all around them. Then her wife died. A year or two later, she met a man and they fell in love. Many were shocked, and even angry.

Perhaps because I remembered how much I loved Judy, I called her to extend congratulations. She said to me that her new love was, in her mind and heart, just a male version of her wife.

So sometimes it is the person that makes the difference. A former male lover of mine was, like me, married. When he divorced, and we were sharing a seaside cottage with our respective daughters for a week, I seduced him. We were together after that for more than six years—and he has had a second husband for more than two decades.  Was he gay before, or did things, he, just change?  Or did he let some part of him, previously hidden, emerge?

sex is not love so no confusion hereAnother way to see this is accept that sex and sexual orientation are not synonymous with affection and love.  We are able to act sexually through our bodies—our genitals, our hands, our tongues—in ways that are not always synchronous with the social structure or construction of sexuality we have adopted (or has been given to us). And, as outlined above, these structures or constructions, these categories, are not always as fixed as we may wish. Human beings, human bodies, are complicated—no matter how much many want to get us each into one of the major boxes.

Hidden is a word many use about bisexuality. Bisexuals often complain about invisibility in the LGBT movement.  They have a good argument. We know a lot about the L and the G—and more and more (although not enough) about the T, but precious little about the B.

I have heard many gay men and lesbian women claim that a person claiming the B is “just going through a phase,” or is “getting up the courage to claim their real identity” as L or G. This is so sad. It might be true in some cases, but so what? It still is not easy for everyone to come out, just because it is far easier than it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago.  And, of course, it sounds so much like the judgment and jibes aimed at many gay and lesbian people on our own coming out journeys.

sex my gender doesn't fit in your boxes
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These attitudes are so much about making sure the boxes work, and that each person is in the right box. Indeed, the very term “bisexuality” rests on the concept that there are two genders, thus reinforcing the gender binary, and three sexual orientations—hetero, homo, and bi. Both concepts fail to account for the fluidity of sex and gender, indeed the fluidity of our bodies.

That does not mean that people should not claim bisexuality. I know people for whom it is an entirely accurate self-designation. They like to have sex with men and they like to have sex with women—most of them may lean in one direction or the other—while some are equal opportunity folks—however they lean or don’t, they refuse to deny themselves the opportunity to experience both. I think “both” is great. And “all,” too, as in pansexual (but that is another post for me).

So, is the hiddenness, the silence, about bisexuality because it is too complicated? That may be part of the explanation. But I think the far greater reason is that bisexuality, despite seeming to reinforce the boxes, really does call into question the fixedness of sexual identity, sexual orientation, and potentially even gender (more about this another time, too).

labels can limit usSometimes, I chafe against labels, but I know they are useful for organizing ourselves. We do make choices and want to name them. So, in the name of opening up more about sex and bodies, we need to stop invisiblizing the bisexuals. Stand up for B!!!

It may help to think and write this way—LGBT, and we need to keep on doing this, too—LGBT. And LGBTQIA (bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, Intersex, and Ally/Advocate), too (WordPress won’t allow me to make the particular letters larger, which is what I hoped to show).

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

I find it difficult to jump into the topic of bisexuality, although it’s an important subject and one that needs to be talked about more, not less. The “B” in LGBT is often ignored, overlooked, or erased.

Often times, we use someone’s appearance to make an assumption about their identity. If we see, for example, a person presenting as male holding hands with someone who is presenting as female, we assume heterosexuality. If we see two people who appear to be of the same gender, we often assume homosexuality. Bisexuality isn’t something we tend to assume because it would require us to see the same person in a variety of situations in which they were holding hands with different people… and since monogamy (along with heterosexuality) are both the assumed default, that doesn’t tend to happen as often.

Bisexual folks are often faced with a lot of belittling and erasure of their identities: “Oh, you just can’t make up your mind,” or “You’ll sleep with anyone,” or “Well, you’re only bisexual when you’re single; once you have a partner, that kind of determines it, doesn’t it?” or “This is just a phase; you’ll settle on your identity eventually.” This kind of erasure is incredibly toxic and is predicated on the idea that someone else knows your identity better than you do. Tangentially, it feeds into the ideas of slut-shaming, or that having a lot of sex with different people is an inherently bad or negative thing.

And yet, sometimes, I have to confess, I have a hard time with bisexuality- partially

bisexual symbol
Bisexual Symbol

because of the way bisexual identities contribute to my erasure. “Bi-” means two, and bisexual is “sexual attraction to both genders.” And for some people, that’s a completely accurate assessment of their sexual orientation: they are attracted to men and women. For others, though, they take bisexual to mean “attracted to all genders,” without realizing that bisexuality is predicated on enforcing the gender binary (there’s that “bi-“ prefix again). There is no room for gender non-conforming in a binary world, and bisexuality is based on the idea that there are two genders, and someone is attracted to both of them.

It’s a tricky, nuanced line of discussion, because I don’t want to disrespect someone else’s identity or contribute to the erasure of who they are… but I also have to recognize that there is a level of bisexuality that makes me uncomfortable. Not because I care about someone being attracted to more than one gender, but because bisexuality implies by definition that there are only two genders, and I actively work against things that reinforce the gender binary. And so I’m not always sure how to have a discussion and dialogue around bisexuality. I feel conflicted about raising that up when greater visibility for one group of people directly contributes to erasure for another group- particularly a group of which I am a part.

A non-binary adaptation of bisexual is “pansexual;” that is, a sexual orientation that spans across gender binary and non-binary individuals and recognizes an attraction for a variety of types of bodies, identities, and presentations. At times in my life, I have identified as pansexual. In fact, in high school, I had a black side bag in which I wrote “PANSEXUAL” in white out across the front. What can I say, I was a pretty brazen high schooler.

pansexual pride
Pansexual Pride

I shifted from pansexual to queer when I realized that the way I fuck, the way I have relationships, the way I interact with sexuality and bodies is heavily informed by my politics and social analysis. My politics, as it turns out, are a direct result of my understanding and identity as a Christian, so in many ways, my faith has informed my identity as a queer person- including my sexual identity. And I think, at the heart of the erasure that many bisexual folks feel, they want to be seen as people who have the capacity to love different types of bodies, configurations, and identities. And I think it’s important that people feel seen in their sexuality, even if the way in manifests right now, or in this relationship, doesn’t paint the whole picture.

When queer femme-identifying people are seen holding hands with their male-presenting partners, they often feel the complexities of their identities are erased (I’ve written about this some in a piece Are You Queer Enough? and Femme Erasure in the Queer Community) or that, by “passing” as straight, they aren’t welcome in queer spaces. And that’s something we have perpetuated, beginning with things like bisexual erasure and not allowing people to live their authentic, sometimes complicated, truths.

We have bisexual (and pansexual, and queer) people in our churches, people whose identities don’t necessarily match up with how we see them presenting. We might assume that the couple that just walked in is a heterosexual couple, but in reality, he might be a queer transmasculine person, and she might be a femme lesbian. We may shun someone if, after ending a same-sex relationship, they begin to form a relationship with someone of the opposite gender. These are problematic behaviors- to ostracize or shun anyone based on their sexual orientation- that are often based in our own assumptions about who someone is based on how we view them, rather than how they view themselves.

We must make more room in our churches and communities to talk about bisexuality, pansexuality, and queerness. We must allow space for people to be seen and share their experiences authentically, and not worry about hearing the same toxic, damaging messages they hear elsewhere. Bisexuality and pansexuality are not myths, nor are they the result of someone “not being able to make up their mind.” People’s identities are not defined in comparison to their intimate partners; their identities exist regardless of the relationships they are in. It’s time we allow people to see and be seen for their whole selves, and not just the selves we feel most comfortable interacting with.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

What are your feelings about bisexuality? Are you, or have you ever been, bisexual? Do you think bisexuality is a valid sexual orientation? Why or why not? Do you have sex with a person of only one gender (as you and others define that) or more than one? Do you have fantasies about crossing the line? Do you watch sex films (aka pornflicks), and if so, do you watch people with only one orientation or do you sometimes see what others are doing? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us in two weeks, THURSDAY, June 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. 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 sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Previous month’s sessions can be watched here.

Sex, God, and Unicorns

divine-energy-healing-waves-spirit-dove-durand

Robin:

One of our readers sent me a link to an article—she called it “horrible”—as a way of encouraging me and Malachi to keep writing. “Christians Are Not Called to Have Amazing Sex” by Rachel Pietka (read it here) is, in my view, an attempt to stall or reverse any movement within Christianity to talk openly, and most importantly, positively, about sex in all its varieties, and even more to stand aggressively against openness to premarital sex (and although it is not named, I am sure also against same-sex sex and other “abominations”).

The author’s main point seems to be to stop people from making sex into God. I am aware that there are people for whom sex is an idol—on a par with making tons of money or being at the pinnacle of social or career success or having a “perfect” body—and I evrevrobin2-023en know a few men who think the cock (theirs and all others, too) is God. But by and large, in my experience within Christianity, even in Metropolitan Community Churches, there is a much greater danger that sex is the devil, Satan’s agent to lead us astray, and/or it is so spiritually dangerous that we should not talk openly about it. If we pretend not to know about it, then it will surely not bother us.

But that default position is not at all accurate. I grew up in a time when sex talk of any sort was really taboo. That did not stop people from having sex.

I remember when I was about eight (1954 or so), my mother’s best friend and her husband (she was a high school English teacher and he was the high school principal) invited people to their home for a reception in honor of their son and his new wife (a surprise to all because there had been no wedding invitations). What became immediately obvious was that the young woman was pregnant.

pregnant womanPeople sat around, sipping tea and maybe taking a bite of cake or cookie, in more or less stunned silence. No one knew what to say. We lived in a small conservative town 40 miles northwest of Detroit—and this sort of thing was not supposed to happen (never in the “better” families).

I have some small memory of the strangeness; I think I might have been the only child present but am not sure. I know my parents, shocked though they may have been (and they may have known of the situation in advance), would not have abandoned their friends.

What my mother recounted many times about the afternoon was her gratitude to her future son-in-law who came with my sister (she was friends with both newlyweds). He did not grow up in our town, and was in some ways a stereotypically “brash” Jew (there were no Jews in our town). He mingled with people and doggedly worked to create small-talk—breaking the silence. He was an actor, and for decades a well-regarded professional stage director, and he knew how to get people engaged. My mother often said, “Bentley saved the day.” But even he could not get people talking about what was really bothering them—and I am sure my mother was also glad of that!

I recount this story, well aware that much has changed in the 60 years since, but also well aware that in other ways little has changed. We still cannot really talk about sex.

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

And while we may agree when someone, like me or Malachi, speaks of sex as a gift of God or writes about the godliness of sex or divinely inspired eroticism, we never speak of it in church. When was the last time you heard the word “sex” used in a prayer in church or any public gathering? Is your sex life on your personal gratitude list? Or if in your mind it does not merit gratitude, is it on your prayer request list? Do you ask God for more sex, better sex, perhaps both?

My point is simply this: far from needing to police people’s desire to have good sex lives, we need to help all of us openly, joyfully, claim our desire for great sex, to pay attention to what kind of sex we want and even to learn more about how to get it.

And here’s the corollary for me: God wants us to have great sex, too. That’s why our bodies are wired the ways they are, we are created as sexual beings. How did we get here anyway? (I know its not nice or polite to think about our biological parents having sex, but I assure you they did).

So, I am going to pick up where my brother-in-law left off 50+ years ago: I am going to talk about bodies and sex.

Robin naked at desk 1_edited-1I am sitting at my desktop writing this, and I am naked. Of course, being naked is not the same as sex. Being naked is simply being our authentic selves, not covering up our body, the body we have from God. We are created in the image of God, and thus our bodies are part of the divine portrait. After many decades of not feeling good about my body, I finally learning to like it, indeed love it. Nakedness helps.

Sitting here naked—which I like to be as much as possible—allows me to “touch myself” as I feel moved to do so. I run my hands over my chest, tousle and then smooth my unruly hair, rub my sore feet and aching back as best I can. And I touch my penis and testicles (I call them my cock and balls—someday I may write a piece on why I choose to say “cock” rather than “dick”).

And at times, I do more than touch them. I massage them, I stimulate them. I do this as I write—and not just when writing this blog focused on sex, bodies, and spirit; I do this when writing more heady and traditional theology or poetry or other social commentary. Sometimes, I do this while I am feeling stumped about a word choice or when I am trying to discern what the next paragraph or stanza should be. The situation may have nothing to do with sex, but my body, my genitals, crave some stroking.  I respond, with pleasure. Sometimes, I just touch them to express self-love.

And of course, I also touch myself erotically when I think about a hot time with my husband (or even just picturing him) or a scene or a body I have seen online or a story I have read at Nifty Erotic Stories Archive, a place for gay men, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender (often but not always non-professional) writers to post their erotic stories (sorry, I don’t know the location for similar non-LGBT erotic writing—I am sure there are many). Nifty asks for donations to pay for the site, but it is accessible free of charge.

And of course, sometimes I get pretty worked up, and even ejaculate. That feels very good.

sex is divine arealrattlesnake com
arealrattlesnake.com

Okay, I have outed myself as a sexual being.  I have done this to make two points: first, we need more openness, more celebration, not less, about sex—especially in churches, communities called together by God who loves sex and wants us to like it, too.

And second, it is up to us to lead the way. I am glad to start.

How about you? Maybe you’d like to out yourself, too. It can feel pretty good! Even godly.

We could start a new spiritual movement—or rejuvenate the old one. God would be pleased.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

I have a habit of referring to myself as a “unicorn;” that is, a somewhat mythical being that doesn’t quite seem to be real. This spans across many different facets of my identity, but I bring it up here specifically because I am a second (and in some interpretations, third) generation queer person.

As I have spoken about elsewhere, I was raised in a lesbian family and identify as queer myself. But beyond that, many of the people who mentored and nourished my growth were also mentors to my parents, some of whom were old enough to be their parents. As a result, my family as I understood it consisted of people who have lived, and fought, as queer people over the span of three generations.

This directly impacted so many parts of my life- not the least of which was my concept of sex and personal sexual growth. In my life, neither my mothers (nor any other trusted adult in my life) told me that I should “wait until marriage to have sex.” For one thing, my parents (and most other adults in my life) were queer, and thus denied the rights of marriage. It would have been hypocritical at best to espouse a “no sex until marriage” code when it wasn’t one they were able to follow themselves.

Certainly, they had commitment and were, in the eyes of God, married, even if the state didn’t see it that way. Nonetheless, though, they didn’t tell me that I should wait until marriage- they told me that “if I couldn’t talk openly about it with my partners, then I probably shouldn’t be doing it with them.”

During sex education in high school, I certainly understood and heard the message that the best way to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies was to abstain from sex, but I was also exposed to information about birth control and barrier protection methods (I discovered later that I was immensely lucky for the sex education I received).

But beyond sex education in school, I found my growing sexuality supported and

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Hitachi Magic Wand Photo Credit

encouraged by many of the adults around me, all of whom I met through church. For example, one woman was teaching me to drive stick shift, and over the course of the day, the topic of sex came up. She asked me if I felt comfortable masturbating, and encouraged me to do more of it, noting that some of the best sex of her life had been with herself.

Another adult encouraged me to “wine and dine” myself: that is, take myself on a date and allow self-pleasure to be the result of desire, rather than necessity.

But perhaps my favorite story is when I was coming home on a break from college at 18 and spending time at my godmother’s house. In college, I began to aggressively explore my sexual identity, and had been having copious amounts of sex with a variety of people. Feeling a little full of myself, I was recounting my sexual exploits to my godmother, who promptly asked me, “Are you being safe?” I looked at her with a puzzled expression and stated, “Well… everyone I’m sleeping with was assigned female at birth, so…”

She looked at me again, and said, “Ok. So, are you being safe?” I had no idea what she was talking about. She then went into her bedroom, came out with a box of nitrile gloves and a dental dam, pulled out a tub of ice cream from the freezer, and proceeded to teach me about safer sex methods, using the ice cream as a prop while she explained (and demonstrated, on the ice cream) how to use a dental dam.

I say all this to say, I had a very unusual experience in my own introduction to sex, and most of it came through the church, and from generations of queer people who had done the hard work to overcome much of their own sexual repression and were eager to counteract the puritanical social messages they knew I would receive.

Yet even I have hangups about sex. Despite their best efforts, I felt a sense of internalized shame about some of my own sexual desires, and still had to deal with the impacts of social messaging that taught me that desiring sex, as a woman, was shameful. But for me, so few of those messages came through the church- in fact, the church is where I found the most affirming messages about sex.

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And that, to me, is the key, the crux of MCC. We have generations of stories and people that have struggled and fought to overcome their own sexual repressions. Why are we not leading the charge to be a Christian movement that not only accepts, but loudly rejoices in our existence as sexual beings? (I say this, of course, recognizing and respecting those who are asexual and do not necessarily identify as sexual.) In this regard, I don’t want to be a “unicorn”- I wish everyone had stories like mine, of going to a place of worship and finding not only acceptance, but open celebration and support of who they are as sexual beings.

I recognize that these conversations happened one-on-one, and not inside of worship. Yet we should know that our churches and our sanctuaries are places where we can find people with whom to have these conversations. We should know that our whole selves- including our sexual selves- will be celebrated and embraced when we walk through the doors of an MCC.

We receive so many messages about sex every day: messages using sex to sell us a product, messages telling us that certain types of sexual expression are wrong, messages that enforce the “right” kind of sexual behavior, messages that shame us for our sexual desires, messages that blame victims for sexual violence, and so forth. Shouldn’t our sanctuaries be a place of true refuge from the sexual oppression- and repression- that we face every day?

Silence is so often complicity. When so many others are speaking vocally in oppressive and repressive ways, why do we stay silent, or speak in whispers? What levels of shame and sexual repression do we still need to overcome in our own lives so that we may speak our truths? I challenge each of us to consider, deeply, the messages we have received over the course of our lives- the positive and the negative. Which have we done the work to reject, and which do we still carry with us? Which help our growth in community, with God, with one another, and which hinder it? Which feed the shame and silence, and which support the foundations to speak our truths?

We seek to live our lives out loud, but we must remember that our sexuality is a part of our lives, of our spirits, of our means of connecting with one another and with God. To silence that aspect of ourselves is to silence a portion of the holy that lives within each and every one of us.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

What are your feelings about talking about sex? Do you want to, but feel you can’t most places? What were the messages you received as your grew up about sex, and about talking openly about it? What role does shame play in your relationship with sex? If you 40 and older, what changes about sexual attitudes do you see in our culture today? Are you comfortable with them? Why or why not? If you are under 30, is society (and/or church) open enough or do you want more? Why or why not? Do you think we can mention sex in church with appreciation and candor?  Do you pray about sex? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us next week, THURSDAY, June 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. 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 sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Previous month’s sessions can be watched here.

Old Story, New Threats: Creating Responses to Religious Oppression

Thank you for stopping by. Due to the press of several projects, we are not posting today. But we do hope you will join us for a timely discussion of religious liberty and oppression tomorrow, May 18–the next in our monthly series of Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online, sponsored by the Office of Formation and Leadership Development of Metropolitan Community Churches.

Please join us  from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. 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 sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to or after the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

As noted above, our topic will be . . . .

“Old Story, New Threats: Creating Responses to Religious Oppression”

Not welcome matThe growing movement to claim “religious liberty” as a way to discriminate is not new. The history of Metropolitan Community Churches reflects decades of LGBT people being kept out and kicked out of churches which claimed that our sexuality and gender identity and expression offended their theologies. In a new era of discrimination masked as religious liberty, LGBT people are not the only groups experiencing religiously-based oppression. As we seek to come together and unite, our responses in this historical moment are critical to the future not only of our faith but also our country and wider world. Malachi and Robin intend to draw on the experience of MCC and others to suggest ways we can work together to promote true liberty and justice for all. Join the conversation!

And stop by here again next Wednesday, May 24, for a new blog post!

Honest Talk about Sexual Violence

We need to start recognizing and naming sexual violence when we see it.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

Robin and I recently had a discussion around two distinct issues that had come to our respective attention: Robin heard about incidents where, after being expelled from college for committing a sexually violent act, those accused decided to fight the expulsion in court. I have been closely following a new trend called “stealthing,” in which men are removing condoms during sex without the knowledge of their partners. (For more information, see here and here).

I will let Robin speak more to the first issue, as he is more knowledgeable about that situation, but the rise of “stealthing” is an escalating trend of sexual violence rooted in patriarchal and sexist ideals. The action itself is bad enough- it is, at bare minimum, a violation of consent- but often it’s the intention behind the action that brings it back to power structures, hierarchy, and oppression.

There are websites devoted to helping men learn how to “stealth” effectively- tricks for getting the condom off without their partner knowing as well as discussions about intent which range from “condoms are uncomfortable and limit the ability to receive pleasure, and sex is about pleasure, so you should be able to experience it fully” to “it’s your right to spread your seed and reproduce and no one has the right to prevent you from doing this.” It elevates the comfort, safety, and security of men over that of women (I have only heard of stealthing occurring in heterosexual dynamics; I have not yet heard of this trend reaching gay men)- not to mention “dominance” of men over women.

There are plenty of people that I currently sleep with that I would refuse to sleep with if they didn’t wear a condom. Wearing a condom during genitally penetrative sex is a

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requirement, partially because of pregnancy, but mostly because of the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Now, if I had a conversation with a partner, knew what they had been tested for, and made a conscious choice to possibly expose myself to whatever risks that carried, that’s one thing. But for someone to remove a condom without my knowledge- and without knowing that he may have done this before, with other people- I lose not only the ability to consent, but also the agency to determine whether I am willing to risk my health.

I have had a terrifying situation in which a sweetheart and I were about to engage in penetrative sex, and they had put a condom on. Right before they entered me, they realized that the condom had come off, and we immediately stopped and assessed the situation, and they put another condom on and we were able to continue. But in that moment, I realized that I would not have known unless he said something- it would have been very easy for someone in his position to continue, and I wouldn’t have known any different until later. (Thankfully, he was just as panicked as I was).

In that situation, it was incredibly important that I be able to trust my sexual partner. However. I think it’s also important to state that victims of stealthing are not to blame for these situations. The person who does the action (removes the condom without knowledge or consent) is responsible for the harm they cause.

It’s a difficult and nuanced thing to parse out. I have nothing against casual sex- goodness knows, I’ve engaged in plenty of casual sex with people I didn’t know very well. And I don’t want to imply in any capacity that if someone is the recipient of sexual violence based on having casual sex, that that is in any way their fault. But I do want to underscore the vulnerability many sexual partners experience and the importance of building, establishing, and maintaining trust in sexual relationships- particularly if you are not monogamous, or aren’t in a steady relationship and are just casually dating. The

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vulnerability that someone could very easily do this without your knowledge. The vulnerability that you are trusting someone with your body, your safety, and possibly your future (if you were to get pregnant)… these are things that are becoming increasingly more important to think about as trends such as “stealthing” are on the rise.

It’s also entirely possible that people in established relationships- ones where trust has been developed- do this to their partners. Again, the blame for this lies solely on the person who removes the condom. This is in no way meant to shame people for engaging in sexual activities, or insinuating that they “should have known better.” That type of thinking is indicative of rape culture, and I recognize that my consistent- nearly repetitive- assertion that it is never the victim’s fault is my own attempts to actively combat that type of thinking. Putting ourselves in vulnerable positions does not mean that we are at fault when someone takes advantage of that vulnerability.

Regardless of circumstance, thought, I think that it’s extremely important that we call this what it is- sexual violence. Not an accident, not a misunderstanding, not a “gee, that sucks,” but intentional sexual violence. Putting ourselves in a vulnerable position does not mean that we are to blame when someone takes advantage of that vulnerability. Sex has risks associated with it, and we do the best we can to mitigate those risks. But when we are in a vulnerable state, and someone introduces new risk without our knowledge or consent, this is sexual violence.

In this culture, we are conditioned to view sexual violence in a very specific way. We

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expect it to look like how it is portrayed in media- a person walking alone in an alleyway gets jumped by a group of strangers- but the reality is, sexual violence doesn’t always (or even often) look like that. Sexual violence is usually more insidious and manipulative- and often comes from a friend or trusted individual.

We need to start recognizing and naming sexual violence when we see it. We need to distance ourselves from the Hollywood version and make an effort to see- and combat- actual forms of sexual violence. And it starts by recognizing that trends like stealthing are dangerous, damaging, and contribute to rape culture in a variety of ways. The intimacy and vulnerability of sex can be an incredibly powerful aspect of our physical, emotional, and spiritual connection with someone. But when that vulnerability is exploited, then it perverts that which is sacred.

Robin:

revrobin2-023A recent article in the Washington Post caught my attention and my concern. Entitled “College Men Use Anti-Bias Law to Fight Sex-Assault Findings,” the author recounted a trend among male collegians who have been punished and/or expelled from college for rape and other sexual violence to sue to collect damages, have their expulsion removed from the college record, and even obtain re-admission (link here).

Frankly, I felt angry as I read about men who seem determined to erase what they did and move on with no penalty. Male privilege, male supremacy, strike again!

I tried to balance that with a few instances in which there might be false reports of assault (most experts in this area is that the percentage of false reports is well less than 10%; many cite the figure of two percent), and that sometimes there might even be violations of due process in college administrative procedures. But that just reminded me how inadequate the so-called criminal justice system, and its collegiate parallel for student discipline, is in actually solving social problems.

Another reason for my anger is that rape is severely under-reported (most authorities say 90+% go unreported). Most authorities say sexual violence is the most under-reported violent crime in the United States. Given this, while I feel for someone falsely accused, I find myself not all that interested.  Given how many rapists get away with ruining the lives of others, why should I, we, care?  This may sound harsh, and perhaps I would feel differently if a friend of mine was among those falsely accused.

Report ItThe high proportion of under-reporting is due to many factors. Authorities often cite these: fear of retaliation, uncertainty about whether a crime was committed or if the offender intended harm, not wanting others to know about the rape, not wanting the offender to get in trouble, fear of prosecution (e.g. due to laws against premarital sex), and doubt in local law enforcement.

Based on conversations with both women and men over the years, my observation is that there are two main reasons: fear of not being believed, and shame that it happened. Both are, in my view, the clear result of living in a predominantly patriarchal world. The first and largest number of victims are women and children. But men are raped and violated, too. Patriarchy is male power granted dominance, a system in which men (first and foremost white men with economic privilege) hold the power and women, and men who are seen by some men as ‘not real men” or “less-than men” are largely excluded from it. The most ugly and severe outcome of patriarchal systems is misogyny, the hatred of women for being women.

Rape unreportedThis reality is reflected in results from a 2015 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of college students. “Asked about things students could do to prevent sexual assault, 93 percent said it would be effective if men respected women more.” (See “College students remain deeply divided over what consent actually means”)

If men respected women more. Now that’s a concept!

Feminism has helped women make gains, and the rise of the LGBT equality movement has helped create significant social change. However, it was 1995—only 22 years ago—that Hillary Clinton shook the global, and U.S., political world with her declaration, in Beijing, that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” And she echoed that point of view in 2011—only six years ago—by declaring in Geneva that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”

Most interesting to me is that no one of her stature and influence had said either thing up to that time. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election provides a certain irony; the same Hillary Clinton was defeated by a man who famously claimed to grab women “by the pussy” at will.

Hillary Clinton 2That candidate, now the President of the United States, recently spoke up as a character witness for a media personality who has been repeatedly charged with sexual assault and abuse—to the point that his employer, Fox News, removed him from the air (so far, he has not used his millions in severance payments to sue). The President experienced no discernible decline in popularity due to his unsought observation. It seems to have been more of the “locker room talk” that he claimed was the source of his “pussy” comment—in other words, boys will be boys.

Other facts bear out how in the United States progress for equality is slow. Only 29 chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies (5.9%) are women. In the current Congress, there are only 104 women (19.4% of 535 members).

Here a few other relevant facts more directly about sexualized violence:

  • Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted
  • Young people are at the highest risk of sexual violence; Ages 12-34 are the highest risk years for rape and sexual assault.
  • 1 out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime
  • Young women are especially at risk. 82% of all juvenile victims are female. 90% of adult rape victims are female.
  • Females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
  • Women ages 18-24 who are college students are 3 times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence. Females of the same age who are not enrolled in college are 4 times more likely.
  • Men and boys are at risk of sexual violence. About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
  • 1 out of every 10 rape victims are male.
  • Males age 18-24 who are college students are five times more likely than non-students in the same age group to be victim of rape or sexual assault
  • 21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN females, and 4% of non-TGQN males.

every 98 secondsKnowing all this, what do we do about it? And specifically, what do people of faith do about it?

I will write more about this in future posts, but I will say here that the first thing is to talk about it. Not hide it. And that means breaking the silence in church not only about sexual violence but also sex in general, as well as focusing on gender equality and overcoming misogyny.

Those are central to our mission on Sex, Bodies, Spirit, because we believe they are central to living as God creates and calls us to live—honoring all, caring for all, sustaining life.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

Have you, and/or someone(s) you care about and love, been the victim of sexual violence? Was it reported? If so, what happened? If not, how are you, or they, dealing with it now? What do you think can be done to reduce, if not eliminate, sexual violence? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

discoverpittsfield.com
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Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us next week, THURSDAY, May 18th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. 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 sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

On May 18, our topic will be . . . .

“Old Story, New Threats: Creating Responses to Religious Oppression”

The growing movement to claim “religious liberty” as a way to discriminate is not new. The history of Metropolitan Community Churches reflects decades of LGBT people being kept out and kicked out of churches which claimed that our sexuality and gender identity and expression offended their theologies. In a new era of discrimination masked as religious liberty, LGBT people are not the only groups experiencing religiously-based oppression. As we seek to come together and unite, our responses in this historical moment are critical to the future not only of our faith but also our country and wider world. Malachi and Robin intend to draw on the experience of MCC and others to suggest ways we can work together to promote true liberty and justice for all. Join the conversation!

Passive Bodies, Active Bodies

. . . the majority of our communication is non-verbal . . . .

Malachi:

I was spending time with a friend this past weekend, and I realized that they tend to speak in passive voice during conversation. Passive voice is a means of communicating that centers the object of the sentence, rather than the subject (for example, “I walked the dog” is active, whereas “The dog was walked by me” is passive). It’s an unusual style because it tends to feel ambiguous and somewhat awkward.

This got me thinking about communication in general, particularly because the majority of our communication is non-verbal. We have language to differentiate active and passive language when it comes to the words we use; however, I am beginning to think that extending that to our non-verbal communication could have a powerful effect on how present we are able to be in our bodies.

I feel like, for example, that I tend to speak actively but move in my body very passively. I allow things to happen to me, rather than acting upon the world around me. I have written elsewhere about my complicated relationship with acknowledging and expressing desire, but my partner used to say that I needed permission before I felt comfortable wanting something. That is, I needed to know that the desire was reciprocated before I was willing to acknowledge my own desires independently. I have a tendency to wait for things around me to settle before deciding where I want to position myself in my relationships and environments.

I don’t feel like this is the healthiest way to live, because it is reactionary

and responsive, rather than proactive. It also feels a bit dishonest, because

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it creates an image of wanting the same things as someone else, when it’s really more of an acceptance of what is being offered. If I existed less passively in my body- that is, if I were more willing to claim my own desires upfront- then I might find that myself and someone else want completely divergent things, and it could spare both of us a lot of heartache to realize that earlier on in a relationship.

Don’t get me wrong; I think there are times when existing passively is important and necessary. Moments, for example, where we recognize that the privileges afforded to us by our gender (or gender presentation), race (or presentation of race), ability, sexual orientation, authority, etc. put us in greater positions of power than those around us, we may actively choose to exist passively in our bodies in order to center or elevate those voices that are less commonly heard. But I think the key here is “actively choosing.” Passive movement isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I think doing so with intention is vital. Not only does it allow us to consider the complexities and intersections of oppression (and how we fit into them), but it also helps keep us grounded and centered in our bodies, even in those moments that we are existing more passively.

As someone who was assigned and socialized female through my childhood and teenage years, I think that women in particular are conditioned toward passive movement. Women are taught to endure microaggressions (such as unwarranted catcalling or comments that someone should smile) as compliments thrust upon them by strangers. Women are taught to be somewhat sexually submissive, allowing men to “make the first move.” When discussing sexual assault, women’s behavior (how much she had to drink, what she was wearing, what part of town she was in, etc.) is often centered, rather than the assaulter’s behavior. I don’t know if there can be a clearer case of the expectations of passive movement- where the object (the behavior of the woman who was assaulted) is the focus, rather than the subject (the behavior of the assaulter) or the action itself (the assault).

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In this way, I feel like passive movement and existence in our bodies contributes to rape culture. I say this, not at all meaning that “people passively allow themselves to get raped,” but that, when you have one group of people who are expected to allow things to happen and one group who is expected to do things, we end up in a toxic cycle. Rape culture (which, by definition, centers the actions of the receiving party, rather than the actions of the perpetrating party) very much enforces the passive existence of women and feminine-of-center individuals.

And while I am making generalizations here, I absolutely appreciate that there are men and masculine-of-center individuals who also tend toward passive movement for any number of reasons. I don’t mean to erase or discount those experiences, but I can only speak from my own personal experience and, having transgressed across gender lines a few times, I feel very strongly that the emphasis on men is active body language, whereas the emphasis on women is passive.

So how do we negotiate our relationship with our body language? How do we begin to center ourselves- when it’s appropriate- with our movements, our bodies, our actions? Like so many things, it is a sense of self-awareness, an active engagement in how our bodies move and interact with the world.

Do we allow the world to wash over us, to act upon us? Do we find ourselves reacting rather than acting more often than not? And if so, why is that? Where does that come from within each of us? It’s a form of being disconnected from ourselves, from our bodies, from our actions, from our desires. When and how might we shift from passive to active language with our bodies?

I don’ t know that there are universal answers to these questions. Every

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person moves through the world differently, and has to decide for themselves how they want to act and interact. For myself, though, I want to make a more intentional effort to be active in my body language- and more than just active, but proactive. To hear and honor the messages my body is telling me instead of the messages I have received from society that the needs of other should always surpass my own. I see the value and importance of taking up space and centering myself as the subject of my own life, rather than a passive object upon which life happens to.

Better yet, though, I am learning to see the value and importance in the wants, needs, and desires of my body. I am not willing to allow so much of my communication in the world to be so passive, and in order to get what we want, we must be willing to acknowledge what we want- and don’t want. As we grow into ourselves and new ways of understanding how we move through the world, may we do so with intention and deliberate action, rather than putting ourselves last in the focus of our own lives.

Robin:

Recently, during a conversation about sex and sexuality, I was asked if I revrobin2-023identify as a “top” or a “bottom.”

I found myself stammering a bit, not because I objected to the question
(although it feels old-fashioned) but because I felt unsure how to answer. In my early days as an out gay man, the term for some of us who enjoy being fucked and fucking another was “versatile.”  I don’t know if that terminology appears on today’s online sex sites or not. But after a little hemming and hawing that is the way I answered my friend.  After all, my husband and I have some routines we often (although not always) follow, and they involve us in various positions.

But when Malachi suggested we focus on active and passive bodies this week, I thought of that conversation—knowing that this is larger than just positions and practices during sex.

Speaking personally, I began to ask myself some questions. How do I stand, how do I walk, how do I, as the saying goes, carry my body (what an odd linguistic construction)? How do I sit in a chair, how do I place my body in a group of people?

posture chart-final-CopyWhen I was a full-time solo pastor, I recognized the importance of body language—both my own and learning to read others. I was the leader and wanted to convey authority and competence yet I also wanted to convey openness and enough vulnerability for people to want to trust me and talk to me. I don’t know how successful I was; I suspect I confused some people!

At the open communion in an MCC worship service, it is customary to offer the communicant prayer with the bread and cup. Clergy and lay servers alike have to learn to pay attention to body signals. Some people want you to practically hug them (as the hug you) during prayer while others slgnal keeping up to an arm’s length distance. There are subtle variations between those two poles. Respecting these signals is critical to the person being able to receive the blessing of the holy meal.

Gender often plays a significant role. Women are usually raised to listen, men to talk. But that is not about just speech patterns. In fact, speech is not the most important and powerful way we communicate. Our posture, the way we take up space, the tilt of our head, the direction of our eyes, all these and many other factors convey far more than the words from our mouths.

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The man who conveys his desire to listen—body seeming relaxed, looking directly at the speaker, perhaps head tilted just a little, nodding in comprehension or even agreement (perhaps a slight smile or murmur), conveys a different message from the man whose body seems tense, who is looking at his watch or beyond the speaker, not nodding but indicating an impatience and a desire to speak. There are women who exhibit these behaviors, too. Gender is important, but it is not necessarily determinative of every person or interaction. Many of us have learned, often due to work requirements or other needs, to overcome at least some of our early conditioning.

That conditioning may be the result of gendered socialization, but it also may be the result of other factors, including things that happened to us. I remember as a child, and even as a teenager, being uncomfortable in gatherings of my father’s family. They all were loud, talking over each other, and they also took up space—I mean by that they sat, stood, and walked in ways that made sure others knew they were not only in the room but also intended to take charge, even to be the center of the action. There was a lot of dominance behavior going on, even among the women.  I suspect the women learned it in self-defense.

Overacted VII generally shut down in those gatherings, unless someone specifically invited me to speak. Then I often stammered, despite intelligence and an ability to speak. I still engage in variations of that today. In a class or other group, I tend to be quiet. A professor in seminary told me that she loved to read what I wrote for her, but was disappointed by how little I shared aloud in class.

There is an exception to this general pattern. I am a comfortable public speaker.  Give me a role that requires me to not only speak but also stand up and assume center stage, and I will do it. That was true long before pastoring, but it served me well in that role, too.

So, active or passive?

I am tall, but do not stand and walk tall. Like many tall people, though far from all, I slouch. Recent, ongoing back pain is causing me to pay more attention to posture, so I think I am learning a bit about living in my tall body. Plus, as I wrote recently, I am seeking to claim what I think is my natural lankiness (see “Who Is Your Type?” ). That pain is also causing me to pay more attention to how I sit as I write. I also am using an adjustable height desk, so I write for 30-45 minutes while seated, and then shift and do the same while standing.

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I really like writing, and even reading, while standing at the desk. I usually spend my days at home naked, and there is something very empowering for me to stand, naked, and write. I feel like I am claiming my body in a new, active, way.

I also attend some meetings regularly, sometimes sitting in a circle of chairs and other times at a table. I have been noticing lately that when sitting in a circle I tend to fold myself up, and when at a table I lean in with my head resting on my hand (my arm cocked at the elbow). As at my desk, I am paying more attention to my posture, and shifting to sit up tall.

Active or passive? It seems I lean toward passive, with a new commitment to become more active. This comports well with how I am coming to understand my life pattern for the past 50+ adult years. I am seeing now that I have lived a reactive life, doing what arrived in front of me whether it was actually mine to do or not.

Today, as I claim my vocation as a writer, learning to work on my own without an institutional structure to govern and guide me, I am becoming more active.

Neither passive or active is wrong or bad, of course. I am just hoping for more balance between the two. Surely, we are engineered for both—that reflects the largeness, the depth and width and breadth of God and God’s desire for us to be ourselves—and I am grateful to be broadening my horizon.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

How do identify your body and the ways you interact with others? Passive or active? Some of both? What difference does the context make? Do you see patterns in your body behavior and attitude that reflect, and do not reflect, social conditioning, gender roles, etc.? 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.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us in about three weeks, THURSDAY, May 18th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. 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 sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.