What’s Your Comfort Zone?

Our sense of safety, of self, of ideology, all of these things lay within our comfort zones . . . .

Malachi:

DSC_0599Robin and I recently spent some time discussing comfort zones- for me, particularly, the nuanced difference between “comfort zone” and “gut instinct.” The distinction between the two, I think, is difficult to ascertain sometimes because stepping outside of our comfort zones and having a gut feeling about something can often feel much the same.

But let’s back up and talk about what comfort zones are. At the most basic level, our comfort zone is where we feel the most safe. We know our surroundings, we know the people we are engaging with, the know the circumstances, and we don’t feel threatened in any capacity. Our sense of safety, of self, of ideology, all of these things lay within our comfort zones.

And that’s a great place to be! It’s good to feel calm and self-assured and safe. I think we all need a respite from hard emotional, psychological, and spiritual work sometimes. The problem with comfort zones, though, is that staying within them too long often leads to stagnation.

My mother is fond of reminding me that “we don’t change until it hurts bad enough.” Growth, change, they all come from tension, from butting up against something we thought we believed and finding our beliefs questioned. And in order to do that, we have to be outside of our comfort zones.

I spend a lot of time in therapy, parsing out my unusual comfort zones. I am, for example, perfectly comfortable walking around naked in (designated) public spaces, having sex in public, tying people up, getting tied up, talking about sex hypothetically,

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Photo by NearlyCandy Photography

saying, “I love you,” and so forth. But it feels immensely outsides my comfort zone- that is, it makes me very uncomfortable and, in some ways, vulnerable to the point of feeling unsafe- to instigate sex with a partner, or identify and communicate something that I want. I once noted in my journal, “Why is it easier to say, ‘I love you,’ than it is to say, ‘I want to fuck you’?”

Because comfort is subjective, based on each of our personal and interpersonal experiences. Comfort zones are the boundaries drawn as a result of trauma and struggle, as well as positive experiences. But perhaps that’s a key point in all of this- comfort zones are based on boundaries, a separation of safe and not-safe, a delineation between what reinforces and supports our beliefs and what challenges them.

It’s the foundation of how we draw boundaries in general: boundaries with one another, boundaries with ourselves. Which is where we have to talk about the nuances between comfort zones and gut instinct. Because where pushing outside of comfort zones can be a really positive thing and lead to self-introspection and change, gut instinct is often there to help keep us safe. It’s the feeling that something is off, something isn’t quite right. And that feeling is important, too; that’s often what happens when our bodies pick up on subtle cues that we aren’t consciously aware of. And that edge, that discomfort, that heightened awareness when our gut instincts kick in… often feels much the same as stepping outside of our comfort zones.

The difference is, of course, that one is a perceived lack of safety, whereas the other might be alerting us to something legitimately dangerous. It’s important that we press outside our comfort zones for growth and change, but it’s also important that we listen to our gut instincts. So how do we know, in moments of discomfort, which is which?

For me, especially because my understanding of comfort is fairly warped, I often have to play, “What’s the worst that could happen?” in my mind to remind myself that there is no actual danger in being outside my comfort zone. So, for example, when I am in a position where I want to instigate sex with a partner, and I get that terrified feeling that comes along with that desire, I have to remind myself that the worst that can happen is that my partner isn’t interested and declines. And then I remind myself that that’s not even a bad outcome because I feel so grateful to be with people who trust me enough to not only state their desires, but to state their lack of desire. Someone saying “no” helps me trust comfort zonethat they really mean “yes” when they say yes. There is no actual danger here; only growth and positive communication.

On the other hand, if I’m walking down the street and I start to feel uncomfortable, I do the same thing. I think about what the possible outcomes are. I think about “what area” I’m in, and whether the reactions I’m having are coming from a place of internalized racism (is this a predominantly black part area, and how is that influencing my sense of safety?) I think about the experiences I’ve been having (have I seen anyone? How have those interactions been?) and use as much information as I can to decide whether I’m just… a white person outside of my comfort zone (which I can use as an opportunity for growth and change and tackling my own internalized racism) or am I someone that people are interacting with in a violent or unwelcome sexual way where I should be concerned about my own safety?

I appreciate, for example, that this blog and these discussions often fall outside of people’s comfort zones. We butt up against the status quo, the “accepted” mainstream doctrine for Christianity and Christian belief in openly- deliberately- discussing sexuality and the miracle of our bodies with respect to our faith practices. But there is no danger here. There is thought, hopefully well-articulated for the most part, and discussion, and lived experience. There are people on the other end of these words that don’t have the answers, but want to push ourselves outside the spiritual comfort zone to find new ways of connecting with and understanding ourselves, one another, and the holy. It may be discomforting. It may make us angry, or scared, or uncertain, or all of the things that happen when we decide to question deeply held beliefs.

But at the end of all of this, there is God, smiling as we struggle with complexities of what it means to be human and seek to worship as authentically as we know how. There is a quote that comes to mind from Thomas Merton’s prayer, “Thoughts in Solitude,” though I first heard it paraphrased from a TV show: “I don’t know how to please you, Lord, but I think the fact that I want to please you pleases you.”

I believe that God is pleased when we push ourselves outside our comfort zones, seeking to grow and change and understand God, ourselves, the world, and each other better. Our comfort zones provide a good respite from the daily struggles of the world, a reprieve when we are exhausted, but we cannot live there all the time, for it a place of quiet rest, and not necessarily a place of vibrant growth.

Robin:

“I would like to do that with (or for or even to) you, but it’s not in my comfort zone.” Over the years of my life, I have said this a few times, probably more than I remember.  It also has been said to me.

What is a “comfort zone?” One definition I found says, “a place or situation where one feels safe or at ease and without stress.” Obviously, there can be locations which always, or at least generally, feel like comfort zones—home, I hope, although I know that is not the case for too many—but there also can be specific episodes or situations in other places that can feel like they are within our comfort zone. Sometimes, we even find new zones.

It is tempting, and for me often the case, to stay in traditional (for me) comfort zones and to live only in places and situations that are clearly comfortable, and to avoid those that don’t feel that way. As a well-privileged white cis gender male with extensive education and a middle class background, it is not difficult to live only in my social comfort zone. However, there are times when I, we, must act beyond our comfort zones.

My comfort zone does not include stepping into the midst of an argument between two or more people that is turning ugly and seems to be heading toward violence. But I might have to do it anyway, if I want no further violence, bloodshed or irreversible outcomes.  Of course, this depends on my investment in the people (and possibly institutions) involved, and potentially my desire for safety for all of us, including me.

Right now, I feel myself being more of an agitator than is my usual comfortable practice—I like to think of it as being one of Saint Bayard Rustin’s “angelic troublemakers”—on social media sites linked to my faith community, Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC). The details don’t matter here, but what is causing me to act up more than normal is a desire to resist and overcome the debilitating and oppressive power of white supremacy in our history and our present that has been and is infecting policies and practices of our leadership and others.

Doing this feels outside my comfort zone, and yet it also feels right. But sometimes, I feel skittish. I recently reposted an important notice from a leader who was resigning her posts because as an African American woman she no longer feels recognized and heard. I began that post with the words, “This will probably get me in trouble……” Fortunately, I was called on those words, and edited them out, realizing they were only designed to shield me from the discomfort and/or anger of others.

Here is irony: My search for a definition of “comfort zone” lead me a link to the “Comfort Zone,” a novelty and party store that I know, from visits, carries a large array of sex toys, “adult” videos, sexy clothing (especially for women). I have gone there to purchase lube and cock rings. It would not be comfortable for many (probably most) people to visit this store (ironically, I only learned about it because it is next door to our veterinarian’s clinic).

But of course, this blog, Sex Bodies Spirit, is also outside the comfort zone of many people. I started it, joined a little later by Malachi (praise God!) and we then added a monthly online teaching, through Metropolitan Community Churches, but it certainly did not draw much interest from clergy and members (we had, and have a few fans from MCC).  The monthly teaching no longer exists.

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I think that is a loss for the church, but you can’t easily get people to leave their comfort zones. Indeed, church communities are notoriously skittish about talking about sex. Not doing sex, just talking about it, openly, positively, maturely—as if it were a key part of being human (which, of course, it is).

As regular readers of this space know, I like being naked. I would like to be naked more of the time than I am (at this time of year our house is too chilly). And I wish there were beaches and other venues in the near vicinity where I could be naked when I want.

But, as Malachi and I talked about the topic of “comfort zones” 10 days ago, I realized that I had some anxiety about being one of two presenters and discussion facilitators in an online venue where the next topic is nudity. Titled “Naked and Unashamed,” Rev. Dr. Frank Dunn and I will discuss various spiritual aspects of nudity. We will even be nude, and encourage others to do the same if that is within their comfort zones. [This is through Jonathan’s Circle, a group of men, started by Frank some years ago, who participate in various ways to learn more about sexuality and spirituality and their connections.]

I have been trying to discern the nature of my anxiety. I can’t believe it is being naked on camera. I have posed naked in front of dozens of people, ridden my bike naked through the streets of Philadelphia with a thousand other naked people in front of many times that number of clothed Philadelphians, and posted full-frontal nude pictures of myself on my personal blog, “The Naked Theologian.”  As the name of that blog says, I am quite willing to be identified with nakedness, and to be seen naked. I even read a poem at a public reading in my town about my fantasy of dancing naked in the town square, how others joined in, and we decided to make it an annual event (no one commented or asked me about it afterwards).

So what is going on? What part of me is being challenged?

I have puzzled about this, and have concluded that for some reason I do not fully understand this particular naked adventure is making my commitment to nudism more real than it has been. Indeed, as soon as I wrote that sentence, I decided to crank up the heat in my study and take all my clothes off.

It certainly feels good to do that, and it helps me understand that, at least in some ways, I am more comfortable naked than clothed. Don’t get me wrong, clothes matter to me (I enjoy color and my own ideas of my style), but if I could, I would live naked all the time.

I have found a new comfort zone.

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

What are your comfort zones? Do you ever venture beyond one or more of them? If so, under what circumstances? If not, why not? How in touch are you with your various comfort zones? 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.

Mark Your Calendar! April 11, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.

 

Weighing In

I have a long, hard, complicated relationship with my body and weight . . . .

Malachi:

It’s that time of the year: New Year’s Resolutions, fad diets, pressure to “lose the holiday pounds,” and so forth. Everywhere I look, I see advertisements and products designed to encourage weight loss- particularly weight loss for women.

I have a long, hard, complicated relationship with my body and weight. As someone who was socialized female, I felt- and sometimes, still feel- the pressure and expectations to look a certain way, to have a certain body type. I developed an eating disorder in my late teens that manifested as an addictive process- an addiction to ephedrine-based diet pills.

When I stopped taking diet pills, it was partially because I looked at myself in the mirror one day, and it was like I was seeing my body in focus for the first time. I looked emaciated; you could count every rib without trying too hard. I looked straight down at my stomach, though, and realized that, from my perspective, I still looked fat. Still had a small pouch of untoned skin that I needed to get rid of.

I knew then that if I didn’t stop, this would kill me.

My weight, moreso even than my gender, is where most of my body dysmorphia is. I am larger-framed for a woman and small-framed for a man; even my body doesn’t like to conform to social expectations. I am, by BMI charts, still considered “overweight” at 5’9” and 160 pounds- never mind that my bone structure and frame aren’t taken into account for things like BMI.

I have an incredibly warped understand of what I think my body looks like versus what my body actually looks like. One of the most amazing (and, in many respects, healing) things I have done is look at photographs of myself in rope suspension. In those photographs, I look strong, competent, capable. My body looks how I mostly want my body to look. It’s disorienting and difficult, sometimes, to reconcile the images I see in photographs with the person looking back at me in the mirror, but I do that work every day.

Photo credit

This time of year is particularly difficult. With so much social pressure to lose weight and get in shape, I feel that pressure viscerally. I feel the old urges and habits creeping up. I have had to learn to differentiate between habits that support me getting healthier versus those that are aimed at getting thinner, and critically analyze whether I am doing something because I want to get closer to the internal image I have of myself, or whether I’m doing something because I want other people to see me in a specific way.

And that’s an important point: I have a habit of dating people who are physically in much better shape than I am, and compounded with my already-warped understanding of my body, makes me feel incredibly self-conscious when lying naked with people who have well-developed abdominal muscles and lean, thin frames. I have to remember (often with conscious mental reminders) that I do not need to change my body for the people I am attracted to. Clearly, if I’m lying naked beside them, they are already attracted to me!

I remember, about two years ago when my partner and I were actively trying to get pregnant, I was on prenatal vitamins, which shifted my weight distribution to make me curvier (and I’ve already got plenty of curve). Several of the women that lived near me commented that I was getting “thick,” a phrase often used in the black community to compliment a women on the size of her thighs and butt. I remember having incredibly conflicted feelings- recognizing that the comment was a compliment, feeling self-conscious about how I was carrying my weight, recognizing that beauty standards and “thinness” are incredibly racist constructs that discount the body shapes of many women of color, feeling uncomfortable about people making comments about my body at all. I’m not sure I was ever able to reconcile those feelings, beyond recognizing that discomfort with having my weight distributed in a particular way was an incredibly racist outlook on bodies… but I still didn’t know how to shake my fear that I was gaining weight.

Photo: honey_bare

This past weekend, I attended a two-day rope suspension intensive with a sweetheart of mine that culminated in each of us doing a series of different ties that focused on transitioning a body through various positions in rope. The person I was with videotaped first him tying me, then me tying him. As I watched the videos later, I was astounded at what my body looked like in someone else’s rope (I usually tie myself in different positions, and don’t have as many images of being tied by other people). He chuckled a bit as I kept exclaiming, “But… is that really me?!” at the video as we watched it, reminding me that that is what I look like. Watching that video felt eye-opening to me, to really see and experience how my body moves, where the musculature is well-defined, how my first person perception is immensely skewed when compared to the third-person perspective I got to see through watching the video.

These two experiences stand out vividly as reminders that what other people see and appreciate about my body are not the things I see. They are reminders that what we see is based on our own experiences: gender, cultural, racial, social, socioeconomic, etc. What we see and value, both in ourselves and in others, is directly connected to the things we are taught to appreciate through social and environmental influences. As a result, it can be difficult to divorce what we do for ourselves from what we do to gain approval from other people.

It’s hard to differentiate what actions I take because I want to look good for other people, and what actions I take because I want to get closer to my internal “ideal” of what I think I should look like- particularly when that “ideal” might not be attainable for my body type (I will never, for example, be a 6’4” cis man with broad shoulders, which is what I think I should look like about half the time. I will also never be a 5’4” cis woman that fits into petite clothing, which is often the other image I have in my mind of what I think I should try to look like).

I think it’s good to be healthy. I think it’s good to do things that promote a sense of comfort in our own skin. But in this culture- one that pressures women (in particular, although I absolutely appreciate that there is pressure on men as well) to look a certain way (particularly for the benefit of attracting men)- it can be hard to differentiate what we do for ourselves versus what we do for the benefit of other people.

What is your ideal image of yourself? Is it something that is attainable? Why is that your ideal, and how is it different than how you currently see yourself? Are there any roadblocks that might prevent you from seeing or realizing when you have hit your ideal image of yourself? And most importantly, regardless of anything else, how can we learn to love, appreciate, and honor the bodies we have now- even as we take steps to support the health of our bodies? We must ask ourselves these questions before giving in to the latest diet, the newest weight loss miracle drug, before we start obsessing over calories and starving ourselves so that we can “afford” to have a piece of cake. These things are things that have the potential to do harm to our bodies if not done carefully and with a lot of critical thought.

We must learn how to love the skin we are in, so that, if we decide we want to take steps toward changing it, we do so with love and not from a place of self-deprecation and shame. This is something I remind myself every day, because we are all still works in progress.

Robin:

I stripped and stepped on the scale Monday morning—part of my weekly ritual upon rising. I looked down and frowned. No matter how I stood, the reading was 185. Damn!

I had hoped for 180, or at least 182—it was 183 the previous Monday. For more than two months, I have been using an iPhone app called “Lose it,” seeking to reduce my weight from 202 to 180. I have done well with this easy way to track my caloric intake and exercise. Despite this setback, I remain confident that I will get to 180.

Why am I doing this?

For one thing, I realized that as I age (I am now 71) my health will be more stable without excess weight. The friend who introduced me to this app, a man of similar age and build to me, had similar thoughts—and when I saw him it was clearly working. So I decided to try.

But, and this is a big “but” (my other butt is not huge but ample), I also admit I want to look good. This is especially so now that I have become an avid nudist, hanging out when I can with other naked folks (and by myself too). Further, I am seeking to do some life (nude) modeling for artists and photographers. Wouldn’t it be great if I lost much, if not most, of that “spare tire” around the middle? Wouldn’t I look better, as well as feel better?

For whom? For me, or for others? Or is it both?

I had not done much self-analysis about all this until Malachi and I talked recently. As he described the pressure woman-identified people feel from society to look a certain way, to be thin, to fit into a bathing suit without any fat showing, to wear certain types of clothing to look sexy in alluring bodies, I realized that men, especially gay men, are not immune to this either. But I know the most severe social pressure is applied to women to “look good.” In our patriarchal, sexist-dominated culture where abuse and rape run rampant, that translates into “look sexy.”

All this is big business, too. Weight-loss products and anti-aging treatments and surgery are highly profitable for many companies and others. In that sense, it is hard, perhaps impossible, to stay centered in a seeking one’s own well-being without simultaneously viewing our bodies as commodities to be trimmed and shaped and made acceptable and desirable to the greater culture.

I want to push against all this pressure. I will say here, as I often say, every body, every single body, is beautiful and worthy. Period. All God’s creatures are beautiful! I believe that with all my heart and soul.

And I also know that I can draw back in some horror, I pray not disgust, when I see someone, of any gender, in what medical practitioners would consider a very obese state (but of course, I am not a medical professional, and besides no one asked me for a diagnosis). I do correct myself, and do my best to suspend any judgment, even seeking, where appropriate, to be friendly.

So the social rules and patterns are powerful. We are victims and we are perpetrators, too. At least I am, based on what I know are my own reactions. I suspect others can feel my judgment even as I try to reign it in. As several friends have told me over the years, they assume others are judging them for their weight, and it colors their own sense of self and behavior.

What a loss for them, and for the rest of us! We are helping people, good people, feel bad about themselves, and that inevitably means they can, will, be less productive as individuals, less positive about life, and less willing to participate to the vitality of our common life.

As part of my preparation for this piece, I checked on my BMI (body mass index), that medical model of adult body fat, and discovered that when I started my effort at losing weight at 202 pounds I had an “overweight BMI” of 26.7. If I had weighed just 26 pounds more, at 228, I would have had an “obese BMI” of 30.1. Yikes, I can tell you I was above that not too many years ago.

And when I reach my goal weight of 180, I will register a “normal BMI” of 23.7. Whew! A normie. I actually reached “normality” at 189 pounds. Thirty-nine pounds (on my height of 6’1”) separates me from obesity and “normality.”

Make no mistake. I am glad to have lost weight, and part of that is because I like how I feel.  I also like being able to wear 36”-waist jeans instead of 38s (and to think there was a time when I wore 42).

I also enjoy looking at myself in the mirror more than I used to, partly because I like the fact that my little dick and balls hang better and thus look bigger, now that some of my abdominal fat is gone.

But this is also reflects my desire to claim what I feel is my inner spiritual identity as a lean and lanky cis-bodied man. So, this weight-loss effort is part of a self-improvement, self-actualization, project. I realize that until I began to take seriously living naked as much as possible (not so possible at this cold time of year) I did not treat my body all that well. This change has been good.

Our motives and intentions matter.  And it is vital that we understand at the same time that we do not engage our own bodies, and the bodies of others, in a social vacuum. My dream for myself is to shed the pounds and the unhealthy attitudes, and to activate, claim and honor, from my deepest soul and body, the whole human being I am created to be. And my dream for our world, certainly our body-phobic, body-obsessed U.S. culture, is that everyone can do that.

Stop the blame, stop the shame. Honor, respect and care for all.

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

How do you feel about your weight, your body image? Do you judge yourself for being overweight, or over-skinny, or for something else? Is your health more important to you than your appearance, or is it the other way around? 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.

Mark Your Calendar! February 14, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.

Summer of Transformations

Robin: 

revrobin2-023The three months since our hiatus began in late June have been filled with adventure and change for me.  I think of this as “My Naked Summer,” but this is about more than taking off my clothes. Another way to understand this time is to realize how much I have made friends with my own body, and in the process become more deeply connected with my soul.

I began this process with a four-day spiritual retreat at The Woods, an LGBT clothing optional campground near Lehighton, PA, in the Poconos. I packed gear and drove the 150 miles, excited to be on my way.  I pitched my tent, hiked trails and found secluded spots for periods of contemplation of nature, my life, and God.

Robin journaling at The Woods
Quiet time at The Woods

I had been unsure about why I desired a naked retreat, but as soon as I had a few hours of walking around sans clothes, with other people similarly undressed (and some dressed, too), I felt this great elation. I thought to myself, “this is the way I would like to live all the time.”  It seems clear to me that God called me there to learn this truth.

When I returned from camping, I knew I had to find more ways to be naked outdoors and among people. The ninth annual Philadelphia Naked Bike Ride in September beckoned. I am so glad I went—I experienced great joy hanging out with upwards of a thousand other naked or mostly naked folks, riding for more than two hours through downtown Philadelphia.

That’s me riding in Philadelphia, “Bare Is Beautiful” painted on my chest

There is a palpable sense of happiness and freedom in every group of naked people I have ever known, and this was no exception. It felt good to experience the approval of so many “textiles” watching us on every street, too. You can read more about it, and see a short video clip of me riding (note: you will see naked bodies) here as well as a reflection on the ride and my feelings before I went here

Again, I realized how much I yearn for nudity outside my home. So, right after I returned from Philadelphia I began learning more about several nudist groups I had joined but with which I had yet to connect.

The first result of that search is an event that sent my spirit soaring: standing, sitting, and lying nude in the studio of a photographer and artist. I was photographed extensively in various poses and then he spent an hour drawing my genitals. I loved the experience with the camera—my whole body felt alive, and I stopped worrying about my “Imperfections”—and want more, but watching him draw my dick and balls—he sat less than two feet in front of my sitting body—was fun and so very affirming. In that time, I shed more of my embarrassment (and shame) about my small “package” than in all the therapy and self-affirmation over many years. I look forward to more, even hoping to hire out for modeling in art classes.

Photo by J. Wayne Higgs (also shown drawing)

But this is about more than baring my body. Through that I am connecting more deeply with my soul. As I have become more comfortable with my physical being I have experienced a new sense of self as a gender queer cis gay male lover, Christian theologian and poet.

It feels like another coming out—there have several over the years in addition to coming out as gay in 1982—this time as a free, or at least freer, spirit, willing to move beyond a lifetime of obeisance to social norms. Even when I violated a norm, say sexuality in the 80’s, I compensated in other ways so no one would forget what a good guy I am.

I am still a good guy, at least I try to be, but that no longer includes hiding the beauty of my body, indeed the beauty of all bodies and it means being even more determined to talk about sex (and race, so connected to all this) in religious contexts—in fact, it means that I am becoming a more active, committed advocate for greater body and sexual openness in our society.  I am surely glad to continue this work with Malachi.

Soon I will change the name of my personal blog, “Make Love. Build Community,” to “The Naked Theologian.”  This new blog is not intended to focus on naked bodies, but it will not hide them (including my own) either.

My intention is to provide resources for an ongoing movement of free thinkers and free bodies, especially within, but not limited to, faith communities.  Liberation, justice, freedom are always about bodies. When our bodies are free, we have a better chance to be free in our whole selves, and to promote the freedom of others.

I recognize the risk of rejection and disapproval by some, but the call of God on my soul, and my body, is strong, and I am now, at 71, ready to respond to that call with renewed energy, joy, love and hope.

What a summer it has been, and what adventures lie ahead!

Malachi:

This has been a period of transformation. In many ways, this has been the culmination of lessons that began early this year and came to fruition throughout the course of the summer.

When Robin and I decided to take a hiatus from writing, I admit a sense of relief. This had begun to drain me more than feed me, and I had a summer of conferences and conventions looming that I knew would take every ounce of emotional strength I had. So I confess, I welcomed the respite, although I have missed the discussions Robin and I would have every week to reflect and prepare. As much as I needed the break, however, God does not. Though I wasn’t doing this particular work, I began to recognize that this may have been by design. After all, God had some work to do on me.

Much of what we have written about in the past is our own internal sense of our relationships with ourselves and the holy, how that manifests through the expressions of our bodies and the work of our hands and the exploration of our sexualities. For me, these things have come together in a singular way: learning rope.

photo by honey_bare

Rope (and rope bondage) is often portrayed as a sexual activity, a way to restrain a partner during intimacy. In reality, though, it is so much more than that. Rope can be performative (for those who are familiar with aerial silks, it’s not dissimilar). It can be meditative, it can be cathartic, it can be connective, it can be spiritual. For me, specifically, rope isn’t inherently sexual, but is a way for me to let go of anxiety around my body and body language. Because I spend so much time aware of my presentation- am I being open and accessible with my body language, or closed down and unapproachable? What do people see when they look at me, and is it what I want them to see?- rope gives me a respite from that. Someone else is arranging my body and positioning. Someone else is in control of what my body presents, how it moves, what it’s saying. It’s a specific type of comfort and freedom that’s difficult to explain, but it’s a place I have found a lot of peace.

This summer, I found connection unlike anything I have experienced in years with someone through tying with them. At one of the kink events I attended early in the summer, I met someone to whom I was immediately attracted who is part of the rope community, which is a subculture inside the larger BDSM community. He and I did a rope scene together in which he tied and moved me in various ways, and through that interaction, we both recognized a chemistry and connection that we both wanted to explore further. That dynamic quickly became sexual, and we have spent the summer building a relationship that feels mutual, balanced, and pushes both of us- both inside and outside of rope.

In August, I worked another event at which I was able to witness one of the most breathtaking rope performances I have ever seen. The performer took herself through a series of different body positions and manipulations through different ways of tying, creating an image of a chrysalis, and then cutting herself free. It was transformative- both the content of the performance, but also the impact it had on me.  Watching this ignited a passion in me- I wanted to learn how to do that– and I decided to begin-again- the journey of learning how to tie.

I’ve dabbled in learning rope before, but it hasn’t been the right time, and it’s never stuck. My own fears about being “bad” at rope often got in my own way, and I didn’t seek out the resources to learn how to be better. Immediately after watching the performance, however, I had a conversation with a friend who handled me a small length of rope and taught me two or three things to practice to get started, supporting my first steps in this journey. Not long thereafter, I had a conversation with someone who is the first person I ever tied with, explaining that I wanted to start learning, but I wanted to do so in a space that was more queer and femme-focused- voices that, much like in mainstream culture, are often drowned out by the voices of cis white heterosexual men. They concurred, and began organizing a monthly rope skill share at their home with a collection of queer and femme people who love rope. It has been in that space, more than any other, that I have found confidence, community, and support.

These interactions- meeting my now-sweetheart, watching that performance, and joining a queer rope group- have been the foundations of my explorations inside of rope. The performance was a catalyst to get involved in a community on which I have been on the periphery for years. The rope group gives me a safe place to learn and try new things without fear of judgement when I (inevitably) mess up. My sweetheart who, coincidentally, is also an engineer, built a rig in my home so that I could have a space to practice more. And through rope, I am constantly learning and challenging my own sense of perfectionism and fear of failure through the process of learning something new and very skill-based. I have found a deep peace when I tie, something that feels calm and meditative, something that feels like a way to deepen connection with my own body while simultaneously stepping out of self-consciousness. I am learning how to feel strong in my body, how to view my body as a source of strength and power.

Although in many ways, rope has felt like the catalyst, the reality is that there has been so much work to prepare myself to be open to new ways of engaging. Rope is a manifestation of openness and, while it is the most prominent, it is not the only one. New relationships, different means of understanding and articulating boundaries, and a powerful sense of autonomy and self-expression have all come from a sense of openness and willingness to be vulnerable and honest. That openness needed some time to settle and feel sustainable and safe, and for that, I am still immensely grateful that Robin and I took a period of time to pause and reflect. But we are- and I am- back now, and excited to push forward on the powerful and transformative journey of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.

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

Have you experienced transformation through your body? If not, do you want to? What does your body teach you spiritually? Have you experienced profound change due to taking a break from work or studies or some other activity? 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.

Mark Your Calendar! November 8, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.

A Summer without Body Shaming?

let’s come from a place of loving our bodies . . . .

Malachi:

My day job is in a coffee shop. The past week or so that I’ve been working, I’ve noticed a14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_n significant uptick in the number of sugar free, nonfat, no whipped cream drinks that have been ordered. As I’m chatting with customers while making their drinks, I’m hearing a lot of comments like, “Time to get that beach body back!” or “Gotta lose these pounds now that it’s getting warmer!” or some variation thereof.

There is also an increase in gym membership deals right now (I know this because I have been shopping around for a gym, and all of a sudden, there are a whole bunch of really attractive offers). There are also more and more ads on social media for “lose 10 pounds in a week!” or some new fad diet or reminders that we may have fallen off the New Year’s Resolution, but now is a great time to recommit. All of this is to say, it seems to be the season where people are focusing more and more on their figures.

And I think it’s great to be healthy. Please let me say this first: being healthy, caring for and supporting our bodies is a great thing to strive for. But far too often we equate “thin” with “healthy,” and around this time of year, we are more focused on how we will look in a bathing suit (or naked) than we are on making substantive changes that will have a long-term effect on our overall health.

From this perspective, I think we need to be really careful about how we approach these warmer months, and be aware of our capacity for body-shaming… not just other people, but ourselves. I would hope that people wouldn’t make negative or derogatory comments

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Link

about another person’s body, but we know that those comments happen, and they are immensely hurtful. But as much as we need to ensure that we do not do that to others, we also have to be careful that we are not body-shaming ourselves.

Again, this comes down to the focus on health vs thinness. If we are saying to ourselves, “I don’t feel very good in my body and I want to get healthier,” that’s one thing. But if we are focusing on appearance and thinness, then we run the risk of shaming ourselves for our bodies which, in and of itself is hard enough, but it also has a cascading effect.

In this society, we tend to associate certain physical traits with certain character traits (which is the heart of systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). We associate thinness with success, beauty, responsibility, self-control. We tend to associate heaviness with laziness, out-of-control (particularly eating habits), irresponsible (especially with food choices), and not attractive. So when we view ourselves as not-thin and reinforce those messages, we are also reinforcing the connotations of those messages: that we are not attractive, or make poor choices, or aren’t responsible, or are lazy.

For example, it’s easy to slip from, “I really need to lose a few pounds,” to, “If I were motivated enough, I would start walking around the block,” or “I feel so guilty for eating that brownie; why did I do that?” or “No one will be interested in me if I look like this.”

The truth is, health and weight are related, but they aren’t the same thing. Some bodies

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Link

are simply larger than other bodies. I have friends who are larger than I am, but significantly more healthy in their consistency of working out and how they eat. Conversely, I have other friends with significantly more unhealthy habits, but a high metabolism, so they are consistently thin and slender.

I have a history of diet pill abuse and addiction. I remember the positive reinforcement I got when I was underweight and how much harder it was to quit, knowing I would have to endure comments about gaining weight. It has taken a long time to learn to love the body that I have, and I still have to be careful. I’ve joined a gym recently, but only after having long conversations with my partner about where I was coming from (wanting to be in better shape) to make sure I wasn’t in a toxic place of self-shaming and wanting to be thin.

We don’t always know what’s going on with someone else’s body. But we can be aware of what’s going on with our own. So as we approach these warmer months of bathing suits and shorts, nudity and tank tops, let’s come from a place of loving our bodies. A place of perfectbody.jpgnot comparing ourselves to an unachievable (and very white) beauty standard. We can want to improve, strengthen, and support our bodies. We can seek to be healthier. But if our bodies are temples, then approaching them with self-deprecating messages isn’t the way that we make space for them to be holy places.

Let’s be kind to ourselves, and be aware of the messages we are sending to ourselves, and strive to love the bodies that we have- rather than listen to the messages of the bodies we are told we should aspire to have.

Robin:

I have heard several people in the past couple of days speak about getting back to the gym—“summer’s coming,” one said, “and I want to look my best!”  Frankly, I have seen that friend naked and I think they already look fabulous. But I understand that most, if not all, of us have insecurities about our bodies, specifically about how they look—not only to others but also to ourselves.

I have been talking about looking for a new bike because I want to start regular riding. Around our home are some good streets for riding, including bike lanes, and I want to enjoy them and outdoor exercise. I also need to build lower- and mid-body strength and flexibility.

But the biggest impetus for me to ride now is to be prepared to participate in the World Naked Bike Ride in Philadelphia on September 9, 2017 (click here for more information, and let me know if you are interested in sharing it with me). But this is not a competitive or long-distance event, so I don’t need lots of preparation.

What I do want (as opposed to need) is to look my best. When I take my clothes off in public I don’t want excess body fat, I want to be, and feel, lanky (see “Who Is Your Type?” for more about my lankiness), sleek, while riding and while standing around with lots of other unclothed, and even clothed, people. I want to look my best in photos, too (and I hope there will be photos).

I remember my New Year’s resolution to lose 10-15 pounds—the commitment I failed to keep for more than a couple of weeks, if that.  Why did I drop the ball, not the pounds? I think a major reason is that I need more incentive to eat less and exercise more.

It doesn’t even have to be the beach or a naked event. We are getting ready to change wardrobes, too, wearing fewer and less bulky clothes, making our bodies more visible. We want to look our best, and for many In our culture, that seems to mean “thin,” or at least not “fat.”

Who tells us that? And how are “thin” and “fat” defined? How do we feel about whatever category in which we, or others, place us?

According to a standard BMI (Body Mass Index) chart from the National Institute of Health, I am overweight, not obese. Do both mean fat? Probably, at least not thin.

According to a different standard, offered by the Smart Body Mass Index, my weight is appropriate for my age, height, and sex. So I am not overweight? Not fat? But am I thin?

I want to be thin!!!

BMIAccording to the standard chart, I’d have to lose 22 pounds to be “normal” (as opposed to “overweight,” “obese,” and “extreme obesity.”) What is that? I have never thought of myself as normal, and don’t intend to do so now.

The use of that word on the government chart speaks volumes about the feeling so many have about our bodies.  We want to be “normal” and seek some sort of “Good Bodies Seal of Approval” for ourselves—and most of all we want to feel we can apply the approval to ourselves. But we are sure we fall short. We are not normal; the (mostly white) models in magazines are normal, our neighbor without any visible body fat is normal, the hunky guy or curvy woman at the gym is normal. We are not.

So we carry shame, or at least embarrassment.

beauty pageant swimsuit competitionFemale-bodied persons generally carry the heavier burden, because they, more than male-bodied persons, are subject to constant aesthetic scrutiny—standards about everything from hip and breast size to hair and makeup (they are the ones expected to wear make-up), and certainly weight. Some of this is not under their control—hip and breast shape, if not size, come with the body. Genes count—even though they are rarely considered by those who judge.

But that is not to say that men don’t have issues, too. I have known some really gorgeous men—by worldly standards as well as mine—who carry negative feelings about at least some aspect of their bodies. For some, it can be penis shape and size, or it can be “spindly” legs or flat butts, and just like women, they come with the body (working out doesn’t always change legs or butts on men). There are men, as there are many more women, who feel they can never be thin enough.

I don’t want that sort of thinness and I do not suffer from anorexia, but I want to lose my belly. The rest of me is pretty good for a 70-year-old man—not muscular but not seeking big biceps, etc. I wouldn’t mind being more toned and defined, but it is the belly that really gets to me.

Of course, my husband loves my belly. And I love his belly. But I want mine gone. This has at least something to do with the fact that my father had a belly, too. He had spindly legs and while strong—he spent his days in physical labor—was not muscular. But his belly was big. I never liked how it looked.

food plus feelingsBut there are social factors at work, too. Pictures of beautiful (mostly white) people who are thin do much to create the social standard that beauty is thin. Moreover, incessant advertising about the joys and coolness of fast food and good feelings when enjoying desserts, lead many to adopt unhealthy eating habits.

I know from personal experience that it is easy for parents to use food as a way to incentivize good behavior, and even to use food to convey love. As a parent, I hope I did not do either of those too much. I know as a child that my parents used food to anesthetize feelings, their own and mine, and to convey their love for me and each other.

In fact, I was a skinny kid until about age 10 when my father began making a large batch of peanut butter milkshakes to share with me every night. In one school year, I went from skinny (early lankiness) to overweight, teetering toward really fat. I have been fighting it ever since.  The only time I have ever been thin since then was when I was diagnosed with adult mononucleosis at age 36—considered a very serious illness at that age—and lost more than 70 pounds. Then I was truly skin and bones. Too thin.

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naturalian.blogspot.com

I have woven personal history with some social commentary because body image is both a major social issue and a deeply personal one. We carry our own feelings, our shame and disappointment in ourselves, but that personal reality affects those around us, too.

We are at our most spiritually and emotionally healthy, as individuals and a society, when we realize that no body—including our own—whatever its shape or condition, reflects anything other than our innate beauty as beloveds of God.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

How do you feel about your body? Why What standards do you apply in evaluating it, and where do they come from? When and how do you judge the bodies of others, or don’t you do that at all? If you do this, what is the source of the criteria by which you judge others’ bodies? 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.

Can Prayer Be Erotic?

By not entering into communication with God with our whole bodies, what are we missing in the conversation?

Robin:

I remember a time more than 20 years ago, when, as a striving doctoral student in systematic theology, I gave a paper at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. All I remember are comments from two more senior people in the academy. They both said, rather vehemently, that “desire” is not a theological category.

AAR logo_slideshowI was surprised. I did not make such a claim overtly in my paper. But as they spoke, it dawned on me that their analysis of what underlay my argument was correct, even though I thought they were wrong in their judgment. Desire is a theological category because desire is of God.

Let me quickly add this caveat: not everything we desire is godly, part of God’s desire for our lives, any more than everything we claim is love actually meets God’s understanding of love. But the activity and reality of desire are gifts from God.revrobin2-023

I will now fast forward to a time several weeks ago when I was enjoying an evening with nudist friends—a social group that gathers monthly for a party in a private home. I have met some lovely people through this group, including a young man who is becoming a dear friend.

The rules of the group preclude sexual activity—this is true of almost all nudist, or naturist, groups—and as one happily committed to monogamy in my marriage, I would not participate were it otherwise. And yet, I find desire.

The people, perhaps numbering 30, come in all shapes and sizes, colors, nationalities, and sexualities. I am not aware of transgender people, but I could be wrong. Certainly, all genders are welcome.

nude dinner groupSome of the body appearances are more appealing to me than others. I have my gay tilt toward the male ones, of course, but as nudists often say, all the bodies are beautiful, just as they are. And in some way or other, I desire connection with them all. Not sex, but desire.

Frankly, I find it easier to start connections with new people who are naked than with people who are clothed.  Naked people have removed a layer of protection, we’re more vulnerable. Vulnerable people make connections more easily.

Here’s where my theological point comes in: In my experience, God wants us to connect more—with God of course, but also with each other. That’s why I think naked bodies—the ones God gave us for which we eventually become responsible—are beautiful, powerful  expressions of the divine. Each human body is an image of God, and more than that, each is a means, an opportunity, to create connection.  I call this connectivity “eros.”

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde

Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde first introduced me to the erotic as something more than physical sex, calling it “an assertion of the lifeforce of women.”  I think that is true of male-identified persons, too. I know it is true of me.

Lorde also said “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.”

At this party, I also witnessed a sign of eros. Several of the men, at various times in the evening, exhibited full or partial erections. I do not know precisely what they were feeling, but imagine they found some other body alluring, or perhaps something someone said or did gave them a charge, or perhaps they were just feeling happy. Who knows, maybe all of the above?

What I know is that such a beautiful sight touched me. I’ll admit they were good-looking men but my reaction was not so much about them, or even wanting them, as it was about me. What I felt, rather keenly, was my desire for an erection of my own.

Regular readers of this space know of my erectile dysfunction and issues related to my prescribed treatment of testosterone replacement therapy. Erections are not very common for me.

erectionsBut then, even when earlier I could more easily get hard, I never did except during sexual encounters or solo masturbation. For a long time, I carried shame about my small cock, and even as I worked at shedding that I still felt an erection was only for private times, only for having sex. I had bought into our culture’s view that bodies are mostly meant to be hidden, and certainly male bodies with visible erections.

But as I gazed upon these men I realized the truth of Lorde’s observation. I was experiencing myself—feeling my own embodiment in a deep way (partly through something I could not achieve then)—and experiencing strong feelings of desire, of connection, feelings that in that moment felt chaotic because I was being drawn simultaneously more deeply into myself and toward others.

I did not seek sex with them, or they with me, and yet I wanted to connect with them. I wanted to talk with them, I wanted to learn more about them in general as well as to learn more about what caused them to get hard in that moment.I wanted, and I still want, to see the world through their eros as well as my own.

I am not sure I am explaining this very well, because I think I am still trying to figure it out. But as I continue to reflect, I am coming to understand that my erotic feelings—certainly those I share with my husband, but also those I experience at other times by myself and with others, too, including in more common moments like feeling the sun on my body or the touch of soil as I dig in the garden or observing or participating in a moment of human connection or human/animal connection—are a form of prayer. Eros is for me embodied prayer, a prayer for connection with myself, with others, and with God.

upraised hands prayerI have read a number of articles and books about body prayer. None of them mention the genitals and anus. It is as if we cannot mention that part of God. But God will not be stopped or ignored.

The good news for me is that whether I get a really good erection ever again (and I’m working on it—more about that another time) or not, God continues to desire me and I God, and others, too.  I know I will continue to call out “O God, O God,” when I ejaculate (dry or wet) because God is in that moment of chaotic, exuberant joy. And I know I will continue to be blessed by my own eros and the eros of others—with and without obvious arousals, just by being open to, and desiring, each other, the world, and God.

Let us pray.

Malachi:


When I think about prayer, I have the quintessential image in my mind of someone kneeling by their bed, hands folded, head bowed, saying their prayers before bed. I must have gotten this image from pamphlets and movies because that’s never something that was a part of my life or experience growing up, nor is it something I really do now.

Thinking about prayer makes me think a little about worship, and how the image in my mind of worship is also very different than my physical experience of worship. The word “worship” brings to mind the image of being in church on a Sunday morning, perhaps hands raised, in celebration of God. And while I have worshiped that way at different

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points in my life, I don’t currently have a home church I am attending…but I certainly still worship.

I can’t help but think about the intention of these ideas- the intention of prayer and the intention of worship. To me, the intention, the purpose of worship is to celebrate: to celebrate a God who loves and cares for us, to celebrate that we are made in God’s image and that God is in each one of us. “The God in me recognizes and honors the God in you.” We can worship with our whole bodies. We can worship through dance and singing, through cooking and sharing conversation, through cultivating gardens and protesting, and yes, we can absolutely worship through sex. If our intention behind our actions is one of honoring and celebrating our creator, then I call that worship.

So what, then, could be said about prayer? I believe the intention of prayer is desire and connection: we want a shift in something in our own lives, or we want someone we care about to be lifted up, or we just want to put something out there, outside of ourselves, because it feels too big for us to carry alone. And if those actions we take outside of church that are done with intention of celebration can be worship, can’t those things done with the intention of desire and connection be a form of prayer?

It’s something I haven’t thought much about before, to be honest. I’ve certainly appreciated sex as an act of worship, but I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of it as a form of prayer. But it makes sense to me that

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prayer is something I have often felt disconnected from- I have a hard time, sometimes, sitting with my own desire. And I’ve learned to listen to those things that are mirrored disconnections in my life, because they are often related. If I am feeling disconnected from my own ability to name my desires, then prayer becomes that much more difficult because I’m not always sure what I am bringing to the conversation.

Prayer is, to me, an active conversation. It’s one in which we bring ourselves and our desires and lay them out honestly- both with ourselves and with God. I don’t think prayer requires us to know the answers- in fact, many times, I think we come to prayer because we don’t. But I do think that we have to have the awareness of what we want from ourselves, from one another, from God, to be able to name it in some capacity. It’s vulnerable. We may be saying, “I can’t do this alone.” We may be saying, “I need help and guidance.” I think about the times- particularly this most recent time- where I have struggled with my own sexual relationships, and how thinking of my own needs and desires as a form of prayer might have helped in those situations.

I also think of how many people will have sex following the death of a loved one. It’s often called an affirmation of life- in our grief of losing someone, we affirm that we are still living, still capable of feeling connected and good in our bodies. I wonder if that, too, can be thought of as prayer- raising up our grief, our desire for healing and wholeness and connection.

Prayer can also, of course, be celebratory, coming from a place of gratitude and thankfulness. Prayers of connection and reconnection.

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Prayer is hope. And worship and prayer are intrinsically intertwined, I think. We can act out of a place of celebration and desire simultaneously: celebration for what is and desire for what comes.

But prayer is, I think, a conversation we have with our whole bodies- not just with bowed heads, speaking words aloud or in our minds. That is absolutely a form of prayer, and a valid one, but I think we miss something of the conversation if that’s the only way we can envision prayer.

I think about conversations and communication styles. A vast majority of our communication is non-verbal: facial and body expressions are a crucial part of how many people communicate. By not entering into communication with God with our whole bodies, what are we missing in the conversation? What are we holding back by viewing prayer within such rigid parameters? How might we envision new ways of praying that include the use of our bodies, minds, and spirits- a conversations from our whole selves?

I know, for me, that I’m going to struggle with this idea for a while. I’m going to have to think about what it means to communicate my desires as an act of prayer. I’m going to have to think about what it means to have conversations with God with my whole body- to do so with intention and purpose, instead of thinking arbitrary thoughts toward God when it’s convenient for me. So I am thinking more about how to relate to and connect with the idea of prayer- one that fits with how I worship, rather than something I saw in a movie. I don’t have answers, but I do have a fervent desire to be more connected. And it seems desire is a good place to begin.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

What are your desires? Do the sexual ones feel holy? Do you recognize any type of eros in your life? How do you experience sex as a force in your life that impacts your spirituality and your mental well-being, and how do those other aspects affect your sex? Can you imagine sex as prayer? Do you think God participates in your sexual life? Does your sexual life connect you with God? 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 two weeks, THURSDAY, March 16th 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.

Truths of Sex

focusing on liberating possibilities through sex contributes to living out divine commands to love and to do justice

by Malachi and Robin

Introduction:

Next Thursday, March 16th, we will co-host a discussion on Creating Space, particularly in worship: creating space for different ideas, beliefs, communities, and perspectives. Creating space can be a difficult process that requires us each to examine our own internal biases, prejudices, and desires about what we want from our churches and communities. And yet, it is important that we start somewhere- and, for us, that “somewhere” is based in a firm belief in sexual and bodily liberation.

So today, we offer these truths, not as a manifesto, nor as a comprehensive perspective, but as a starting point. These sexual truths for Christians (and all other humans) give us a place of common ground from which to begin, and provide a foundation on which to stand as we work to bridge those things that so often are used to keep us divided.

Some Current Background

We read a recent gruesome newspaper account of abuse by an English evangelical Christian leader, John Smyth (“Dozens Say Christian Leader Made British Boys ‘Bleed for Jesus’”).

revrobin2-023Once again, we learn of someone who claims to be spiritual using violence to enforce his version of sexual morality—in this case, beating boys bloody for masturbating, for watching pornography, for “having indecent thoughts.” And his reign of terror, while beginning with boys at the oldest boarding school in England, Winchester College, continued in Zimbabwe when he was sent away by the very Christian charity he ran because of an investigation into his barbaric practices, and more recently in South Africa.

He was arrested in Zimbabwe for homicide in the pool death of a 16-year-old boy at a camp he ran, but eventually charges were dropped. In February, he was removed from work with youth by a church in South Africa, following claims of inappropriate behavior (but without proof of criminal acts).

This story is not new, of course, but its gruesomeness is shocking, almost as much as the reality that once again church authorities are complicit, with law enforcement it seems, in covering up the crimes—until they have gone on so long and become global that denial is no longer viable.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nWe focus on it not because the story is new, but because it is depressingly familiar—and because it is not only Mr. Smyth and those who abetted his behavior who bear responsibility for the evil he has done. Frankly, it is a religious movement, our faith, Christianity, which continues to look the other way when it comes to opening a responsible conversation about sex and faith.

We don’t mean a dialogue promoting safe sex, although that is critical—any spiritual community that does not put condoms and dental dams in the restrooms and does not promote sex education for its youth (and even its 20-somethings) is guilty, in our view, of at least social/spiritual negligence.

What we are proposing, however, is a conversation that begins grounded in the truth that sex is not only good, but also is divinely created for our well-being and our pleasure. But it must be more than an affirmation of sex as a godly thing, more than offering a hymn or two to extol the beauties of creation and creating.

What is really needed is attention to specifics, to naming body parts, to sharing joys of sex acts, to sharing fears of sex acts as well—basically being very open and honest about the range of feelings, practices, and desires among us. We are beginning to think we need something akin to Luther’s 95 Theses, perhaps a list of Sexual Truths for Christians (and All Other Humans).

It could begin this way (please know we do not intend this to be comprehensive or final).

Sexual Truths for Christians (and All Other Humans)

  • ·         Open and honest conversation in religious and social settings about sexual desires and issues is the right of every person. It also is the right of any person to decline to participate in any part of such conversations that feel oppressive or harmful. However, objecting to the conversation on the basis of biblical teachings or some version of “God’s Law” is not sufficient to end the conversation, it is instead a beginning point for dialogue on the question of authority and self-realization in our sexual lives.
  • ·         Sexual positions are as varied and variable as the people who engage in them. None are right or wrong, only to be evaluated on their efficacy to produce pleasure and satisfaction for the parties involved.
  • ·         Ways of being sexual can change over time—persons who consider themselves primarily or exclusively engaged in different-sex sex or same-sex sex, or any other orientations or preferences, are free to try whatever option pleases them and helps them to become more the person God creates them to be.
  • ·         There are as many genders as there are people, and each one is beautiful and desirable.
  • ·         Masturbation is a God-encouraged way to love oneself, and even to do so with another or others.
  • ·         Nudity is beautiful and a way of praising God.
  • ·         There is no part of the human body that is not beloved of God, no part that is not beautiful, whatever its function(s). This includes the anus, a site of intense sexual pleasure for many.
  • ·         Consensual monogamy is no more moral than consensual non-monogamy.
  • ·         No person shall be denied the opportunity to engage in any sexual act or activity that they view as positive and life-affirming, provided such act or activity does no harm to others. This includes practices known as BDSM and kink, and all non-traditional forms of sexual living.
  • ·         No person shall be forced to engage in any sexual act or activity that is offensive to them or that they view as harmful to their physical, social or spiritual well-being.
  • ·         Neither the Bible nor God mandates only one way to be sexual.
  • ·         Every person can choose how they wish to live sexually, choices that may be made on an ongoing basis as more about sex is revealed in their lives and by others around them.
  • ·         God made us to be able to live as sexual beings, because God understands that the eros, the life energy, released and shared in sex can be an agent of communication, a way to bring people together
  • ·         Sexualized violence, that is, doing injury to another or others through bodily penetration, beatings, verbal attack or the like is not sex, it is violence and must be treated as such by legal and ecclesiastical authorities.

As stated above, this is far from an exhaustive treatment of our need to establish a new code of sexual living for Christians.

Both of us have a rich history in MCC—Robin as as an ordained clergyperson and Malachi as a member from a young age—proud to claim a heritage in a religious movement begun in 1968 to free lesbian and gay Christians from the tyranny of heterosexist, patriarchal views and rules about sexuality. And as believers and sexual beings, we have been agitating for many years for wholesale change in our sexual ethics and theologies.

We remain discouraged that even that tradition, with its rich history of teaching the wider church about sex in the 1970s and 80s, and showing the way in caring for those stricken and dying with HIV/AIDS into the 90s, has lost its way. We write this blog each week, and once each month, on the third Thursday, we offer online teaching about issues of sex, bodies and spirit. Our audience for both remains small. And few are clergy or other religious leaders.

In the United States we are going through trying times. We suspect that many think that talking about sex is not what is needed right now. Surely, we have much to struggle about, work against, in areas where the new administration is turning things upside down and backwards.

However, it is clear to us that focusing on liberating possibilities through sex in our lives can contribute to living out the divine command to love and to do justice, that indeed we can undermine all the historical forces determined to take us back to old days of narrowness and fear by claiming and proclaiming the freedom God gives us in our embodied, sexual, spiritual selves.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

Have you wondered where God ends and sex begins? What if there is not really a boundary? What if God is part of, central to, our sexual pleasure? How do you experience sex as a force in your life that impacts your spirituality and your mental well-being, and how do those other aspects affect your sex?  And how can we find ways to talk about this in church, how can we bring God and sex and God’s people into the same space, the same sanctuary? 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 on THURSDAY, March 16th 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.

Workshop description: “Creating Space,” particularly in worship is our focus: creating space for different ideas, beliefs, communities, and perspectives. Creating space can be a difficult process that requires us each to examine our own internal biases, prejudices, and desires about what we want from our churches  and communities. And yet, it is important that we start somewhere- and, for us, that “somewhere” is based in a firm belief in sexual and bodily liberation. So mark your calendar to be with us for this important conversation on March 16! 

When Bodies “Betray” Us

Sometimes our bodies, our hearts, and our minds are working on different wavelengths, and we have to figure out how to sync them all up.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

I haven’t spoken much about it, but over the past year, I’ve had some serious issues in my sexual life.

These issues were not specifically related to my attraction to anyone else. My sex drive simply… shut off. Things that used to feel pleasurable simply… didn’t anymore. It’s not that they felt bad, exactly (although the longer it went, the more guilt and shame I felt, and those feelings began to make sexual touch feel bad). It’s that things that used to feel sexually arousing had about as much sex appeal as scratching my elbow.

I still don’t know what caused this or why. I also don’t know what made my sex drive turn back on, or why- it was like a switch got flipped and suddenly, I had interest in sex again. In fact, I had interest in sex AND interest in all the sex I hadn’t had over the last 10 months. It was sex over-drive.

Until the switch flipped back on, though, the truth of the matter was, I could barely have sex with my partner, and it was incredibly difficult on both of us. Perhaps the only thing that made it easier on him was that I also wasn’t having sex with anyone else- myself included. I masturbated when my body simply demanded an orgasm as a basic necessity- much as you use the bathroom when your body informs you that you need to go. But I didn’t really get any pleasure out of it- sex with myself or with others felt more mechanical than connective.

I am terrified that that will happen again. That I will wake up tomorrow and find no interest in sex. And the next day, and the next day, and so forth. My partner is wonderfully patient with me, for which I can never be grateful enough, but I know this long stretch of minimal sexual interaction was incredibly difficult. It was incredibly hard not to take it personally, or feel like I just wasn’t attracted to him. And as much as I tried to explain that it wasn’t about him, it was still an understandably hard time for both of us.

I wanted to fix it. I felt incredibly broken and felt an immense amount of pressure to fix
my sex drive, fix myself, fix our relationship. Every night, we would go to bed, and I could loss-of-libidofeel him wanting to ask, but holding it in. I could feel myself trying to pep-talk myself into it: “You love him. He’s beautiful. You are attracted to him. You want to be intimate with him. You want to, dammit!” But try as I might, I couldn’t feel connected to my sexual self… which also meant I couldn’t feel connected to his sexual self. And so I would hold him, and think, “Maybe tomorrow. Maybe I can do it tomorrow.” And I would feel how much it hurt him, and I would think, “You’ve got to fix this. You’ve got to do this. Tomorrow. You have to deal with this tomorrow.” But tomorrow would come, and it would happen all over again.

Sometimes, our bodies do things that we don’t understand. It can be their way of telling us that something’s up. Our connection is broken, somewhere, and it’s trying to mend, but it needs our help. Sometimes there is something we aren’t focusing on that we need to- sometimes, it’s our mental health (I started seeing a therapist partway through this process, and it has helped immensely), or physical health. Sometimes, our bodies are changing, and those changes impact our ability to be sexual. And sometimes… sometimes it’s just that there is a lot of tension, stress, and pressure and our bodies are energetically exhausted.

Sometimes, our minds really want something and our bodies won’t cooperate. On a more lighthearted note, I recently began sleeping with someone who was designated male at birth, and interacts with his penis in a sexual way. We were fooling around a bit, and he looked at me, somewhat sheepishly, and said, “I think I’m having a bit of…performance anxiety.” And then we spent a few minutes talking about how “getting hard” isn’t necessarily the same as “being aroused”- that he was incredibly turned on, he just couldn’t get hard in that moment.

Oh.

I didn’t even know that was a thing that could happen. I knew, of course, that it was possible for people with penises to get hard without necessarily being aroused, but I never realized that the opposite could be true. I also know that it’s completely possible to want to want to be sexual, but not have the energy for it.

The point of all of this is that sometimes, our desires and our actions don’t always match up. Sometimes our bodies, our hearts, and our minds are working on different wavelengths, and we have to figure out how to sync them all up. And that can be incredibly hard- no pun intended.

passionAnd there isn’t an easy answer for these things. The breakdown and disconnect comes from different places for different people for different reasons. Figuring out how to reconnect with ourselves can be a difficult process- especially when we’re exhausted, or don’t have the time or the energy to deal with it right now.

From someone who went through a 10 month dry spell, I highly recommend dealing with it before it becomes a prolonged thing. Because at some point, you’re not just dealing with a disconnection within yourself; you’re dealing with a disconnection from your partner(s), and you’re dealing with the guilt and shame that goes with that.
I wish I knew an easy way to do that. I wish I knew what really caused the disconnect for me in the first place, and what helped bridge it, so that I don’t fall back into that place. It’s not a place I want to be. So while I am feeling strong and connected and sexual and in touch with these parts of myself (and my partner), I am doing the work I can to maintain and strengthen that connection. I am doing the work- difficult as it may be- to understand what broke down in the first place. Our sexual selves are an extension of ourselves, and sometimes the breaks have nothing to do with sex, exactly… the break is simply an extension of brokenness somewhere else inside ourselves that we need to address.

It’s a poignant reminder that taking the time to heal the disconnections within ourselves can also help strengthen the intimate relationships that sustain us, and remembering that our sexual connection with ourselves enables our capacity for a sexual connection with others. For some, they do not want, seek, or desire a sexual relationship with others- and that’s totally fine. But for others of us, who do desire those things, we have to constantly do the work of being whole, real, connected people, and listen to what our bodies are telling us.

revrobin2-023Robin:

The old adage, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” feels increasingly apt as I age.

I am reminded of this sexually when despite almost a decade of TRT (Testosterone Replacement Therapy) intended to help me cope with ED (erectile dysfunction)—ever notice how we make initials out of things as a way to code them, for ease of communication to be sure, but also perhaps as a way to avoid saying certain words in public—I continue to experience a lack of penile hardness far more often than I want.

I have alluded to this in this space before, but it seems like the right time to explore what for me is a sensitive topic, and to include how physical limitations can impact emotions—for in truth, there are times when even the spirit can seem weak.

I don’t think I am alone among those born with penises when I say I have a complex relationship with mine. As I have said  before, I have struggled (and do still to some degree) with its small-ish size.

I used to comfort myself with the knowledge that when erect it measured 5.5 inches (yes, many, perhaps most, of us, measure), which is the average length of an erect penis according to those who study these things. But now, sad to say, it is more like 4.5 inches. I have moved to below average.

banana erections healthtap com
healthtap.com

But my husband has never complained and seems to like my little guy. So, all should be well, right?

Well, not so fast. TRT helped overcome ED at least a little for a year or two. But hard still was not really happening. So I tried pills, a pump, even injecting something into my cock just before sex (so romantic to say to my husband, “Okay, dear, I’m done, can you please take the syringe to the disposal container in the kitchen? Then hurry back!”). It didn’t do much either. Cialis on a daily basis  (unlike ingesting it just before sex) worked wonders, but then it lowered my already low blood pressure to dangerous levels. No more Cialis.

Herbs seem to help a little, maybe, and walnuts are said to be good for erections. I like walnuts, so I eat some most days (have to watch how many, however, due to fat content). So we “limp” along.

I did learn from a wonderful doctor I saw once in Richmond that my little guy was suffering from disuse. So I began to masturbate regularly (have written about this here before—“It Gets Better”).  And that can help in sex with my husband, sometimes as well.

But lately, I have not even been that keen on jerking off. What’s going on?

uses-of-testosterone-ageonics-medical
Ageonics Medical

And the last several times he and I have made a date for sex I confess I did not feel much of the usual anticipatory arousal. Nor did I have much luck getting hard—a little when he stroked me, but it did not last when he stopped. Even his penetration, while feeling okay, did not get my juices going or my guy to rise to the occasion (being fucked is usually a turn-on for me and I get hard and often ejaculate with great joy).

I am writing this history about my flesh not simply to confess or even to ask for sympathy (although it would be accepted). I am writing because I know I am not alone among men with these issues, and because I believe talking openly about sex is vital to survival, indeed to thriving. I know that is true for me, but I believe it is true for others, too. I also know men are not the only part of the human race with sexual issues.

I also feel quite sure that all this is having an impact on my emotions, as my emotions are having an impact on my physical self—and all of it is having an impact on my spirituality, my God connection.

This embodied self which is me—sexual body, spiritual body, emotional body—is subject to analysis from different disciplines, different perspectives, but it is at the same time a unity in which the various parts interact to create me at any given moment. Of course, this creation is not affected only from within me and my parts, but also by the social body/bodies of which I am a part.

prayer-patheos
patheos.com

But here’s the deal for me, at least as I see it. This recent lack of sexual interest is linked, I believe, to my lack of interest in a daily God connection. I am having a dry spell, and it is not just in one of my private parts.  My focused prayer life, like my sex life, has been off-balance.

What makes this really interesting, to me at least, is that another part of my life—my writing, especially poems—has been more lively of late. I may not be expressing much through my genitals or through prayer time, but I have been really enjoying written ejaculations. In fact, poetry composition requires considerable foreplay and massaging to find just the right word, and the process often feels very erotic to me (no matter the subject of the poem).  So maybe I have been more erect than I knew?

Is this just a question of balance—pulling back (or out) just a bit from writing and inserting a bit more God time and/or sex-play—so that the various parts of me receive adequate attention and produce appropriate levels of expression?

writingpoetry-tl-shreffler-1
TL Shreffler

It sounds too simple, frankly, but I know it is not easy. What is easy, because, it is well-learned from our culture and religion, is to separate these aspects and treat only one at a time. I have spent a lot of energy trying to find a pill or cure for ED. I often turn to some new prayer or practice or commitment to make time for God. I engage a therapist to figure out what feelings need to change and how to change them.

What I do not often do is explore the links among these parts (and others), and certainly not to explore how they could help me to be more me, more potent, in all parts of my life.

I really like using the word potent, or potency—because it has two fields of meaning. The first is about forcefulness, effectiveness,  persuasiveness, cogency, influence, strength, authority, power.  Those are aspects I want associated with my poetry and other writing, and also descriptive of God’s place in my life (and my place in God). The second meaning, according to the dictionary, is “a male’s ability to achieve an erection or to reach orgasm” (I want the “or” to be “and”).

I want a potent life. God wants that for me, too. And for you, for all of us. That’s my belief, my truth.

aliveOf course, there is a limitation in this word, in the second part. But I know many potent women, and I trust you do, too. Some of them have been, and are, my teachers. And I sure know potent trans folk, whatever their genital configurations (some teachers here, too)! They may not achieve erect penises or ejaculate semen, but they do stand very tall and they certainly give forth powerful self-expression.

I am a whole person, continuing to come into my wholeness, my potency. I hope and pray, and believe, that is true for you, because that is what God wants for each, all, of us. And if you don’t feel it right now, stay open, there is always more with God.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

Have you had sexual “dry spells?” How did it feel? Did you do anything to move out of it, or did change just happen? How do you experience sex as a force in your life that impacts your spirituality and your mental well-being, and how do those other aspects affect your 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.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us in about two weeks, THURSDAY, March 16th 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.

polyamory-symbol-happy-parties-com
happy-parties.com

Workshop description: We are still working out the precise content, but we will be discussing how to help church leaders and congregations open up sexual conversations, and to be open to people of differing sexual practices. Stay tuned for more specifics, and in the meantime mark your calendar to be with us on March 16!