Is Sex Work?

Sexual freedom is an important component to being our authentic selves

by Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell

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

revrobin2-023Robin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rentboy-splashpage
http://static.lgbtqnation.com/assets/2016/02/rentboy-splashpage.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malachi GrennellMalachi:

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

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

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

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

Sex-Work-Is-Not-Trafficking
http://wwav-no.org/news-reports-continue-to-incorrectly-link-increased-sex-trafficking-to-large-new-orleans-events

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

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

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

sex work is real work
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/290341507196812575/

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

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

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http://g01.a.alicdn.com/kf/HTB1GsE.KpXXXXXhXXXXq6xXFXXXT/2032173686.jpg

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

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

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

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

Puzzling Through the Pieces: A Conversation

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

By Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell

Introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

M: I definitely agree with that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R: Amen!

Conclusion:

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

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

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

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

Puzzle Pieces of God: Examining Gendered Socialization

By Malachi Grennell

Last week, Rev. Robin and I wrote a bit about the “bathroom bill” controversy and our personal relationships with public bathrooms. This week, Robin is taking some well-deserved time with family, so I wanted to continue in the discussion of our relationships with our bodies by broadening out a bit and talking about social messaging.

As a trans person, my relationship with my body is something I have cultivated- and that hasn’t always been an easy journey. Social expectations tell me that I have to look, act, and speak in a certain way to be perceived as male while ingrained lessons and female socialization fight against those behaviors (since they often feel contradictory), and sometimes, I feel stuck: stuck in a binary system, stuck with a mismatched conglomeration of pieces that don’t fit together. When I think about my relationship with my body, it feels a little like I’m trying to put together a puzzle, but there’s no guiding image and

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someone mixed up all the pieces from a bunch of different puzzles, so I’m not always sure which pieces I need and which are extraneous (or, perhaps, belong to someone else’s image).

The reality is, though, that every single one of us has to work to cultivate some kind of relationship with our bodies, and our social experiences are a part of that relationship. We have a plethora of messages about what women “should” do (e.g. shave body hair, have a trim waistline, grow hair long, wear makeup, etc.) as well as what men “should” do (e.g. have a certain penis size, build muscle, always be rational and logical without showing too much emotion, make the first move, be attracted to women). Some of these expectations are impossible due to genetic factors, while others are personal preferences. Regardless, though, creating the “perfect man” and “perfect woman” archetype is dangerous and damaging on many levels, not the least of which perpetrates systematic oppression through racism (the ideal body is a white one, based on white standards); sexism (women’s strengths are considered the inferior of a binary dichotomy: emotion is less valuable than reason, and women are assumed emotional while men are assumed rational); classism (those who can afford surgeries, expensive makeup, laser hair removal, etc. vs those who are “stuck” with the body they have); the list goes on.

I think it’s good to cultivate a relationship with your body that is healthy and positive, and if doing things like going to the gym or shaving your legs helps with that, then awesome! The difference is whether we do things because we think we are supposed to or whether we do things because we legitimately like doing them. Furthermore, are we perpetuating systematic violence and oppression with our expression of our bodies or simply striving to be the best “us” we can be, one that is created in the image of God?

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The difference is in our intention and how we allow social conditioning to impact our decisions. When we think about our ideal body, is it a reasonable expectation of goals for the bodies we have? Or is it an unrealistic desire to look like the models in the magazines? The role of social conditioning on gendered expectations is powerful and pervasive and it can be difficult to untangle. The expectations of gendered socialization extend beyond our physical relationships with our bodies, but also focus on emotional and psychological components as well. And for most of us, our expectations are not limited to simply how we believe we should and shouldn’t behave, but extend to include how others should behave and further, assign motive to those behaviors.

Recently, I had an interesting experience. A few weeks ago, a lover came to visit and stay with us for a few days. It’s a somewhat complicated relationship, but he is someone that is a bit notorious for his sexual escapades in some circles, and would probably be referred to as “player” by many people. Overall, we had a good time, but at one point, I noticed that he didn’t seem particularly interested in having sex. I started to feel irritable and resentful and couldn’t figure out what was going on, and suddenly realized- I was feeling rejected. But further than that, I started to feel undesirable in general- and realized that I was assigning motive, intention, and judgement to the situation that didn’t need to be there.

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I interpreted his lack of desire to be sexual as a rejection of me in general: because this one person wasn’t interested in having sex in this one moment, it meant that I was (in general) undesirable-a feeling that was exacerbated by the fact that he is such a player. If he doesn’t want me, then clearly I am not desirable. It was an interesting situation because it reminded me that, as someone who was raised as female, I was very much inundated with messages that my worth as a person directly corresponded to other people (specifically, men’s) evaluation of my sexual desirability.

The truth of the matter was, my friend was actually tired and starting to get a little sick, and felt comfortable enough to not feel a pressure to perform. But my reaction and response reminded me how much my socialization and upbringing still impacts me- even as someone who has worked through a lot of their baggage around gender and gendered assumptions. I thought I had overcome many of these ideas, but was an important reminder to me that this is constant work that needs to be revisited from time to time because those messages are still out there. Even if I don’t identify as female, I am tuned to hear those messages because they were targeted at me for so long.

Similarly, when I was working toward my undergraduate degree in traditional mathematics, I began to notice less and less women in my traditional mathematics courses- but plenty of women in the courses where math students overlapped with the teaching program. In short, many of the women in the mathematics program were training to be teachers- which is wonderful, except that, by my final semester, there was only one woman who remained in the upper-level math courses (she

how_it_works
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and I quickly bonded and are still good friends). One of the things we talked about is the difference between men and women answering questions in class: men tend to have less fear of being wrong, whereas women tend to want to be absolutely sure and worry about “saying something stupid.” She and I often had similar fears about speaking up in class. Yet, for me, most people read and identified me as male and expected me to act according to masculine socialization, yet my brain was still operating from a place of female upbringing and socialization about “being wrong” in a math class. This discrepancy between how people expected me to act and how I was conditioned to act created some awkward social moments and made it difficult to connect to the some of the men in the math department… which was tricky because most of the students in the math department were men. It’s a form of social isolation that is subtle and difficult to identify, but it can impact our capacity to form relationships and make social bonds when we act outside of the social expectations of our perceived gender.

The goal, of course, should be to understand the social nuances of how gender presents itself and decide what fits and what doesn’t. The reality, of course, is much more complicated than that. The messages we get about how men and women “should” behave (never mind gender non-conforming folks, like myself) have lasting, and often damaging, impacts on how we relate to ourselves, our bodies, and other people…and these message can be so subtle, we don’t often notice them consciously.

We are all created in the image of God. To deem ourselves not worthy, less-than, or inferior is to claim that God is all of these things as well. We must combat the messages of how we believe men and women “should” behave. These archetypes not only create impossible standards that can be damaging for those who can’t attain them, but they are also rooted in systematic oppression- those who don’t fit a white, heterosexual, cisgendered narrative (and behave and present accordingly) become “othered” and pressured to compensate.

We are all pieces of a larger puzzle, reflecting the image of God. We’re not necessarily working off a guiding image, and sometimes it can be easier to want to be a different piece: a different shape, a different color, fitting into a different pattern. But without each of us living our authentic selves, being our authentic selves, the image is incomplete. No one piece is more important than another piece. In order to be able to see the image of God, we must first be able to truly see the beauty in the image of ourselves. Should we strive to be the best version of ourselves that we can be? Of course. But the best “us” that we can be is to reach for and honor the image of God within ourselves, rather than constantly trying to compensate for failing to be the image of God presented in someone else.

Does Size Matter? Does Blood Count?

Let’s engage in real discussion about bodies and sexuality in ways that don’t require someone else to be put down . . .

We are a culture that is simultaneously obsessed with sex while instilling a sense of shame and belief that our bodies are inherently “not good enough.”  Remember Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl in 2009—the shock and horror expressed by so many at the sight of a female breast on national television resulted in moralistic finger-pointing and efforts to make sure such exposure would never happen again.

Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction thedailybeast com
thedailybeast.com

As mentioned last week, advertisers take advantage of this by creating a sense of envy in each of us by portraying models that embody characteristics we find desirable. We compare ourselves to these models and find ourselves coming up short. Perhaps this is why we are addicted to sex scandals in the media: as uncomfortable, and even terrible, as it is for the people caught in the midst of a media blitz, it provides a sense of triumph for the rest of us:  we can see that these people and these bodies we had previously (and perhaps somewhat unconsciously) cast as superior in our minds are truly no different than, and perhaps morally inferior to, us.

The danger, however, is one that is instilled in each of us from childhood. From anti-bullying talks and lessons many of us heard from parents, we know that the way to feel good about ourselves should never come at the expense of someone else. Unfortunately, we see this happening time and time again, even showing up in the discussions and debates from presidential candidates. But even further than simply an underlying sense of shame and degradation, we see the roots of sexism and racism present in how these comments are both presented and interpreted.

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Marco Rubio stated that Donald Trump has small hands and “you know what that means.” And, of course, many (if not most) of us do: small hands (or small feet) in some way indicates that a man has a small penis, and in this society, we have an underlying message that size=importance. And, of course, Trump took the bait and made sure everyone knew Rubio was wrong (“I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.”).

There is a sentiment, perhaps unconscious but nonetheless real, among white men in particular that penis size has some bearing on their importance. The porn industry has played on this by objectifying and fetishizing the image of “big black men” with small, white women for years, promoting what began in our deep racialized past. Not only are comments such as these designed to humiliate and/or denigrate a person based on a barometer that has no bearing on fitness for high political office, but it is a sentiment predominantly perpetrated by white men because there are other assumptions rampant in this society that are directly related to the penis size of black men (and it has very little to do with holding high office). The racial double-standard is one that is easily overlooked, but must be discussed if it can ever be dismantled.

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To our knowledge, no one has talked about the size of Barack Obama’s penis. That may be because he does not present as a “big Black buck” fresh off the plantation,  but the loathing towards the President, expressed by so many people who consider themselves white, surely has some roots in this ugly mythology.

And of course, what does this equation mean in relation to the women who seek office, and those who seek to compete in corporate boardrooms and politics? If penis size=importance, then women are entirely left out of the discussion.

Or, if a woman is strong (e.g., Hillary Clinton), she can be seen as too much like a man, yet still held to different standards. She lacks a penis but she makes up for it by being “tough,” often seen as “strident,” meaning she is not soft and feminine (also see Freud and others on “penis envy”). Where a man is described as a “strong leader” or “innovative thinker,” women who display similar attributes are considered “control freaks” or often just considered “bitchy.”  This further connects to a distinctly feminine bodily activity:  menstruation.

female period-glitter thepulpzine com
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Donald Trump, reacting to Megyn Kelly’s unwelcome questions, stated that she was  “bleeding from her eyes… bleeding from her…wherever.” Clearly meant to insinuate that Ms. Kelly’s comments were the result of a hormone-induced menstrual cycle, it not only serves to put down Ms. Kelly, but also reaffirm the idea that women who are menstruating are not capable of having informed, logical discussions.  Women are expected to be emotional… but not too emotional.

It is striking that, while men are evaluated about their “manhood”  based on something they are ultimately expected to take pride in (their penis and penis size), women are judged based on something that they are supposed to hide and be ashamed of (menstruation). There have been outrages on social media platforms because photos of women- fully clothed- with spots of period blood on their pants were taken down as obscene (ironically, in a set of photographs designed to show the realities, struggles, and shame around menstruation).

tampax-pearl-updated2The truth is, these attacks are not only irrelevant to the discussion of presidential candidates, but they are reinforcing social stigmas and prejudices. Furthermore, they are creating a model as leaders that says we should behave this way–that when someone disagrees with you, you should bully them and shame them about something that is not relevant to the topic at hand. Rather than modeling adult, professional methods of disagreement, we see our potential future leaders resorting to tactics that are being undermined in kindergarten, elementary, and high school classrooms where young people are being taught alternative models of behavior.

And our concern is that in both these cases and others, political discourse is sexualized without anyone actually have to use the word “sex.” These are examples of sexual innuendo which is rife in our culture.

The use of (often barely) coded language reveals an essential truth, namely that the only way we can talk openly, publicly about sex and certain body parts is through circumlocutions, indirection, and in many cases through anxious humor (Rubio’s remarks were met with nervous laughter from the crowd, according to news reports).

sex-ed-2 henajafri wordpress com
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But it is no surprise to us that this sort of conversation is happening in public, since it clearly happens all the time in less public venues. The idea that hand/finger size correlates to penis size is pretty common, and there are many people who don’t think women can be trusted with challenging tasks because of their inability to be rational at least a few days each month.

Increasingly, what was once private, even taboo, is now becoming public. But there is a difference between ‘public” and being “open.” Most men and probably many women don’t know how to have easeful conversations about menstruation, and the entire culture is pretty much in denial publicly about male and female body parts “down there.”

This is true even as there is a trend on parts of cable television, and in film, to show penises, and as many continue to press for more women in leadership roles in business and government.

We are a society hung up on sex but afraid to admit it. And we surely are afraid to admit that we engage in all sorts of assumptions and judgments based on bodily appearance.

We must do better. Let’s engage in real discussion about bodies and sexuality in ways that don’t require someone else to be put down in order for us to feel empowered.

Eros: The Language of Relationality

Following last week’s discussion of non-monogamy, Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell continue to explore our connections to ourselves, our partner(s), the Holy in an exploration of the language of relationality.

 Introduction:

 Sexuality is a form of language, language that brings together body, mind, and spirit. It is embodied language that uses not only our voices to speak or our hands to write but also can use those means and all other parts of our body to communicate.

It is a language of connection, intended in its highest and best use to bring bodies together (this may include genital sexual activity or not, depending on what feels right). That connectedness has divine roots, the eros of God, to bring us together as humans and to bring us into union with the divine. It is the language of relationality.

As such, it is a powerful language, perhaps the most powerful. And, like all language, it can bless and honor and affirm, or it can hurt and harm and abuse.

All close relationships have an erotic component—again, not necessarily to do with genital sexual activity, but rather a foundation of connectivity from the eros of God, the central part of God who desires connection with us and our connection with all others.  We are drawn to each other from that foundation.

revrobin2-023Robin:

I want to turn to some thoughts about patterns of relational health and their opposite, relational dis-ease or disorder. Our relationships—including our friendships, even our connections with neighbors, co-workers, fellow congregants—require us to pay great attention to the processing of this divinely inspired erotic language. I will draw some of this from experience with my husband.

  • Learn from what went wrong. He and I become very angry with each other at times. Any relationship that avoids all expressions of anger is probably not really alive. Yet, these times can be so very hurtful. We say things that come from inner places of harm, perhaps from childhood demons and injuries. We cannot stop this entirely from happening, but in time, we learn to pull back and re-position ourselves to talk through with less anger what has happened. We can on occasion become stronger through the entire process. And I think we engage in these angry outbursts less than we used to.
  • Check out what is going on. Sometimes, such moments are created by perceptions by one or the other of us that we are not receiving sufficient attention from the other, or perhaps even a thought that the other is paying too much attention to someone else, or we are not touching each other enough or the other touched another too much.
  • Someone be the adult. It is, of course, vital that the one on the receiving end of the first statement, perhaps said in high-volume anger or even in soft but cutting tones, try not to respond in kind. This is easier said than done. We each know how to maximize the pain of the other in the simplest and most basic ways. That is one of the things intimacy teaches us, and shows us the power of this erotic connective language. Fortunately, it also teaches us how to offer healing.
  • Pay attention to all the signals. Thus, relationships, because they are built upon and utilize the power of eros, require that we pay close attention to many dynamics—facial expressions, tone of voice, types and places of touch, listening, smelling, e.g.—both in times of joy and ease and in times of pain and disruption.
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In a monogamous relationship, and in relationships with multiple sexual partners or other significant relationships, these dynamics can be heightened by so many factors of ordinary life—unhappiness with our work, or an argument with a colleague, bodily pain that won’t go away, disconnection from other family and loved ones, and many other things. Thus, it takes self-awareness to avoid letting a build-up of unhappiness lead to tensions that can create an explosion.

There is one more area I want to briefly explore. We all carry sexual memories which can have an impact on our sexual relationships today.

  • Use the entire vocabulary. I remember some incidents from my post-coming out, single days—when I sought sex with men as a way of self-discovery and affirmation—that carry some vestige of pain to this day. In one incident, I was told that I should give up on being gay because my penis was too small. More than my organ was badly deflated. In another incident, a man I had taken to bed told me, after a few minutes, that he could not continue. “I feel nothing,” he said. Of course, I felt a lot after that.

I admit to still feeling the sting of these moments, even if only in a memory bank that I don’t visit very often. But what both of them did was let their penises do their thinking. And, of course, I was letting my penis do a lot of my thinking, too. I can look back and see signs that neither of these men would be a good fit for me. But I was so eager and sexually hungry and they were very handsome and seemingly available. Why should I not give it a try?

This is not, in my view, holistic erotic relationality. And it is using one part of the body to speak for the whole body, denying the possibility of deep connection.

I say this not to deny or demean the urgency and power of sexual desire, nor to judge myself or even them for insensitivity or hunger, but rather to say that it is important to use the whole vocabulary of this embodied erotic language to experience, and to give, to participate in, real and whole relationality, body, mind, and spirit.

We are made for connection. But it takes effort and attention and self-education and growth, and being fully present as much of the time as possible.

Malachi:Malachi Grennell

Thinking about the language of relationality reminds me of my upbringing. Growing up in
a lesbian household has had some incredible benefits (as well as complications) in my development as an integrated, sexual adult. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons I learned from my parents was the emphasis on finding a partner that was “good to me and good for me.” I always knew the gender of my partner wouldn’t matter; the focus was on how we treated one another, not the aesthetics of our relationship.

This is a lesson I have carried with me and believe that it strongly applies to the discussion of non-monogamy: what the relationships look like matters less than how the people in the relationships treat one another.

I have heard a lot of people who practice non-monogamy state, “I am my own primary partner.” (a subject I have written about at length here) In essence, this just means that someone has a strong relationship with themselves: they are centered, grounded, self-aware, accountable, etc. But I also see this as an important aspect of monogamy as well: the best of relationships can fail without a strong understanding of self. And for those of us who believe that we are created in the image of God, I would argue that a strong sense of self is a sense of the God, indeed the presence of God, within each of us.

Building a strong sense of “self” can be difficult in a world that inundates us with superficial perspectives without cultivating a sense of accountability for our actions. I have found that these types of self-check-ins are a necessary part of non-monogamy, but I have learned that most of the conversations have more to do with being honest about where we are at, taking accountability for our own emotions and feelings, and working together to figure out how to keep the relationship strong. In that spirit, these are some of the things I have had to check in with myself about on multiple occasions:

  • Know yourself. Know what you want and need from a relationship. Know what things are deal-breakers for you. Know what things are red flags. Know what things are preferences. Learning to differentiate between “needs” and “wants” can be vital, particularly in attracting relationships that can be mutually nurturing and beneficial. It’s nearly impossible to get your needs met without first understanding what they are and how to verbalize them.
  • Understand how to get your needs met. Determine what things you want and/or need from your partner, what things you want and/or need from friends and other communities, and what things you want and/or need to
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    provide for yourself. Remember that we are community-oriented beings: having friendships outside of a sexual relationship is important, necessary, and healthy, regardless of whether we are monogamous or non-monogamous.

  • Allow time and space to be comfortable with your emotions. Name them and try to understand where they are coming from. Determine the difference between emotions like jealousy and envy. Try to understand your own insecurities and how you can combat them. Find low-stress, loving ways to bring up your emotions and discuss them with your partner(s).Remember that you may not be able to control how you feel, but you can control how you act. For example, I always think of a good friend of mine who has a 72-hour rule in dealing with anger: she waits 72 hours before she brings up something that made her angry. More often than not, she’s forgotten about whatever it was after three days; if not, she has taken some time to reflect and is able to approach the conversation in a much healthier way.
  • Understand the intention of agreements. It’s really easy to accidentally break trust with a partner by breaking the intention of an agreement. Understand the purpose of agreements you make. Understand what insecurities you might be struggling with if you’ve asked for a specific agreement. Understand what insecurities your partner might be struggling with. In my opinion (and in my experience), it’s easier to maintain agreements when the intention is well-understood.

While these might be concepts that could be applied to any relationship (family, coworkers, friendships, etc.), it becomes more complicated when we are trying to navigate relationships that have a sexual component. How we connect with and relate to ourselves and our bodies directly impacts how we are able to relate to our partners (and our partner’s bodies).

I know that when I am dealing with some disconnection with my body and myself, it becomes much harder to have a sexual relationship with my partner, which is difficult for them. As people who practice non-monogamy, this can get incredibly complicated: if we are not consistently having sex with one another, it becomes more difficult to navigate the sexual relationships we have with other people. We are more prone to jealousy, sadness, and frustration than usual, and deconstructing those emotions can be time-consuming, painful, and complicated.

Conclusion

It is vital that we find ways to maintain our connectedness with ourselves, which is a lesson we each wish we had learned much younger. Our first relationship is with ourselves and, by extension, our first relationship is with the God within each of us. So whether we are sexually monogamous or non-monogamous, our strength and connectedness with our partner(s) is often a direct extension of our strength and connectedness with ourselves. Perhaps focusing less on aesthetics and more on substance will help us all be more in touch with ourselves, more in tune with God, and more connected with our partner(s).

 

Partner or Partners: What Works for You?

By Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell

Introduction:

 Non-monogamy is a loaded topic, especially within most Christian contexts. This seems to be due to church teachings that monogamy is the only righteous, sanctified option for sexual activity. It used to be one man and one woman; now, it is one person for one person.

But there is a problem with all this certainty. It is not grounded in reality. Most clergy are well aware that there are many people who are not monogamous in their congregations, as well as in the wider world. Some of them, of course, slip, and are filled with regret, remorse, and even shame. Others, however, choose to live non-monogamously.

It is time we got real about this. It is time to talk, openly and honestly, and to listen to each other (not just to those who advocate for, even live in, monogamy).

Robin:revrobin2-023

I remember the first time I encountered intentional non-monogamy. It was 1974, I was newly married. Judy and I were living in my hometown, a very conservative community 40 miles northwest of Detroit.

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Three 20-something men moved in next door. They were unlike other young men in my experience. I never saw them kiss, but I did see them hug, fairly often, and their hugs went on longer than I was used to—actually there was not much male-to-male hugging of any length in those days!

One day, two of them were sitting outside when I came home and they called out to me. One of them said, “We’re sort of newlyweds, too.” I was taken aback, but I swallowed and said some sort of congratulations, as I admitted not ever knowing men who were married. And then I asked, assuming the two of them were the happy couple, how their friend felt about this. They laughed and said all three of them were married to each other.  One said, “We sleep together and everything, just like you and your wife.” I have no memory of what I said, except I know I was in some sort of shock.

Sadly, within two months they had been asked to leave, because some violence arose when one or more of them became very angry.  I can admit now to being fascinated—I was well in the closet in those days (even though I grabbed looks at the centerfolds in Playgirl whenever I could).

About ten years later, when I was in seminary in Massachusetts and well out of the closet, I met three young neighbor men who identified themselves as lovers. They also did not last too long as a unit/family—they seemed like nice guys, and I remember wondering what it would be like to be sexual with some combination of them.

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I had one other opportunity to experience non-monogamy, what might be called polyamory.  After I came out in seminary, my first steady male lover was a visiting scholar who taught classics at a prestigious small Midwestern college. We became what felt to me like boyfriends, although we had not yet attached a label to “us.”

After a couple of months of seeing each other regularly, Jim (not his real name) told me his lover was coming for a visit. I had not known he had a lover until then—the way he had spoken of this man helped me to think of him as a roommate (how naïve I was). And they wanted me to join them not only for dinner but also for sex. He told me that this was their way: Jim traveled a lot and had lovers in various places and when Roger (not his real name) visited, they would have a three-way. Several years later, I met another friend of Jim who confirmed that he had lovers in many places and this was their regular practice.

I was hurt by what felt like Jim’s betrayal and insensitivity. So, I declined the request, and I also told Jim I did not want to stay connected with him. I think I was right in my reaction—at least to what felt like Jim’s inability to be honest with me up front.

But there is more:  I had seen pictures of Roger and his appearance really turned me off. So that was another reason I said, “No thanks.”  Yes, I was hurt by Jim keeping secrets from me, but, had Roger been a hot guy, would I have decided to give it a try? I cannot be certain.  I was sexually adventurous in those days—the delayed adolescence often experienced by gay men who lived as straight in high school—and I well could have said yes.

I have known others who live in various non-monogamous configurations. Several very dear friends, including professional colleagues—people I know to be honorable, loving, and faithful—have been or are in long-term non-monogamous relationships/marriages.

This is real. I accept the legitimacy of their choices, even as I affirm and cherish my own monogamous marriage of 18+ years with Jonathan. And I can say that I have learned from these friends about honesty and relational integrity.

I am tired of being quiet about all this, of colluding, even passively, in the shaming of good people, not to mention wanting to be true to God who creates us for love in all sorts of ways, conditions, and practices.

Malachi:Malachi Grennell

I was first introduced to the concept of non-monogamy when I was in my early twenties. I met a cute guy while out dancing who mentioned his girlfriend early in the conversation. Although I was trying to be respectful that he was in a relationship, the sexual tension built between us as the night went on and we exchanged numbers before parting ways. Not long after, I received a text from him that said something along the lines of, “I’m not necessarily off-limits. Want to get together and talk?”

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This experience led me to be in the first triad of my life. With no real understanding of what I was doing, I found myself in a relationship with two individual people, as well as in a relationship with their relationship. Although there were three of us involved in the relationship, we practiced something I now understand is called “poly fidelity”: the relationship was closed to the three of us. I did not date outside of the two of them, and they did likewise.

The various relationships dissolved for a number of reasons, but that experience started me down the path to understanding and accepting myself as a non-monogamous person. But it was a complicated and often-murky path forward; I was working without a framework and didn’t know who I could talk to that might have some supportive, helpful advice. I had never met anyone that was non-monogamous before, never mind someone who was successfully non-monogamous. Now, in a successful 5-year non-monogamous relationship, I feel like I have a much better foundation to work from, but part of that has been the explosion of resources and conversations around non-monogamy in the past 8-10 years.

We need to be a part of these conversations. The reality is, as people of faith, it is necessary and important that we have frank, open dialogue about both monogamy and non-monogamy. Both are perfectly valid premises from which to base our relationships; one is not better than another. So often, those who practice non-monogamy treat it as though it is an enlightened state that anyone can reach if they would free themselves from petty emotions like jealousy (a stance with which I wholly disagree). Others who practice monogamy are sometimes made to feel as though it is an outdated concept and fight against that, delegitimizing non-monogamy in the pursuit of defending monogamy. In reality, both are perfectly viable approaches to relationship. Yet without dialogue around non-monogamy, it remains a secret part of who we are, and those secrets are part of what keep us from authenticity and a sense of belonging. Your relationship is not my relationship, and that’s ok. There is room at the table for all of us.

 Interested in participating in the discussion? Please join us Friday, March 18th at 2 PM EST for an ongoing conversation on Sex and Spirit, led by Metropolitan Community Church. This month, Malachi will be facilitating the conversation on non-monogamy. All are welcome and encouraged to attend, regardless of religious or denomination affiliation.

Click here* to join the call!

(*Please note: this is a teleconference on AdobeConnect that allows for webcam feed as well as audio. You do have the option to opt out of the webcam feature; however, please be aware that others will not. If you have a headset, that allows for minimal feedback and echo during conversation.)