It must be noted immediately that the title of the article is misleading in that it appears to include transgender persons in the study. However, the study itself dealt only with sexual orientation, and there is no mention of gender variant or transgender persons in the report. Nor did the study indicate any awareness of queerness. My guess is that were a similar study done for those categories there would be an even greater disparity of outcomes as regards employment and health. It seems clear that in the U.S. attitudes towards transgender persons are considerably more negative than those toward LGB persons. I doubt most people, outside the LGBTQ world, even know much about being queer (and of course, many within the community debate use of the term).
Despite legal gains and significant shifts in public attitudes, the reality remains that being, or being identified as, lesbian, gay, and bisexual carries considerable penalty and loss for many (and in some places, there even have been gains for transgender persons but the penalties are far more pervasive, often involving violence).
It is in the everyday interactions among people, among living and breathing human bodies, where deep, negative, often unacknowledged, attitudes and practices remain operative.
The study described in the article, led by Brittany Charlton, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, confirms the results of earlier studies in showing that “overall, both male and female sexual minorities were about twice as likely to have been unemployed and uninsured over the prior year compared to straight peers. They were also more likely to report poorer health and quality of life.”
Charlton and her team also note that “Most of the study participants were white and their families had middle-to-high household incomes.” She says that this indicates “we may have underestimated levels of employment, being uninsured, and having poor health-quality of life.”
So, as always, race and class play a significant negative role.
I doubt many readers here will be surprised by the results of this study, although maybe some might have thought that later results would be less negative than those from 1996 and 2004. That does not appear to be the case. This would indicate the depth of resistance that remains in the U.S. towards LGBTQ equality. And this study does not include the social attitudinal and legal effects of the Trump administration’s overt negativity towards those in sexual and gender minority communities.
Indeed, reports indicate that anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2017 nearly doubled from the prior year. According to a report by NBC News, “People of color were disproportionately represented in the findings and constituted the majority of victims. In total, 37 of the 52 victims were people of color. Thirty-one of the victims were black and four were Latinx. Twenty-seven of the victims were transgender women, and 22 of those victims were transgender women of color. Cisgender (non-transgender) men accounted for 20 of the homicides, most of which were related to “hookup violence,” the report states.
So what is my point? Again, we know we have a long way to go—that gains are not enough, and that some gains are already undermined, and more may be.
My point in highlighting this survey and other reports is simply this: we have to find more ways to talk openly and positively about sex and bodies and spirituality.
It is especially important for us to link sex and bodies with spiritual life, if for no other reason than that so many retain old artificial divisions based on ancient understandings that the body is the site of unclean and even evil thoughts and acts while the spirit is pure and holy.
But frankly, we need to do this for a larger reason—namely that everyone will be helped when we, all of us, can see the divine in all things, including our bodies and sexuality. And we will not get there without also showing that the wide variety of bodies and sexual practices are good and blessed and holy (assuming there is always consent for any sexual activity).
I can say I am continually frustrated within my own faith movement, Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), because of deep unwillingness to acknowledge and share our various sexual lives and practices. Indeed, this blog began initially by me alone, in response to that frustration, to try to start conversation. Few seemed to notice, especially within MCC.
Then, Malachi joined me and thanks to his openness and courage the range of experiences and topics grew significantly. Still, few joined the readership.
My frustration is particularly acute because we promote each of our blog posts through various MCC social media fora, and have been doing so the entire time. Still, few join.
What is particularly vexing is that MCC was founded on sex, namely to overcome the reality that open and self-affirming lesbian and gay people were regularly denied full membership and leadership in Christian churches generally and were often hounded out and deeply damaged. It was because of sex that the Rev. Elder Troy Perry called the first service on October 6, 1868.
Yes, it will be 50 years this fall since that first service in living room of Troy Perry’s little pink house (isn’t that delicious?) in Los Angeles.
In the Jewish traditions out of which Christianity emerged, 50 years was the time of jubilee. At the end of seven cycles of Sabbath years, according to Leviticus 25:8-13, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly evident.
That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee to you. In it you shall not sow, neither reap that which grows of itself, nor gather from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you. You shall eat of its increase out of the field. In this Year of Jubilee each of you shall return to his property.(11-12)
What will Metropolitan Community Churches celebrate this Jubilee year? Will it be how we have survived (right now more or less by the skin of our teeth)?
Or will it be to return to the original vision God had for Troy and us—to truly blow the trumpet of liberation for sexual minorities and all people who see the divine in our intimate, embodied relationships, to become the teachers of the Church universal, the beacons of hope and joy, and justice, in and for all bodies?
. . . some ways we incorporate our sexuality and spirituality in our lives to be authentically ourselves
As is our practice, Malachi and I engaged in conversation about this month’s installment of SexBodiesSpirit. Neither of us had an idea of a topic (usually one of us does). We both have had very busy and demanding days of late so we weren’t sure what might emerge.
But we enjoy talking with each other, learning from each other, and over the course of an hour or so we decided to write about our respective contexts in terms of the issues and lives involved in sex, bodies and spiritual life. Although we share many ideas and ideals about these deeply entwined subjects, we engage them quite differently. We hope that our readers will see some of the possibilities for their own lives, and will resonate with our understanding that there is a wide variety ways to be sexual, to be embodied, and to be spiritual.
Some of our differences may be generational and age-related, and gender-related, too (me labeled and socialized as male and he labeled and socialized as female until he chose to claim his true gender identity). I was born in 1946, Malachi in 1988. Even more than our age difference is the great disparity in the social contexts in which each of us came to adulthood. Baby Boomers (me) experienced one set of social norms, Gen Y (Malachi) folks another.
I now identify as queer, even gender queer in some respects at least, but when I came out as gay in the early 80’s the word queer was still an epithet for most. It took me 20+ years since then to begin to consider queerness as my identity of choice, and only in the past several years have I fully embraced it.
What this means in terms of sex, for me at least, is that after giving up my professed heterosexuality and embracing my same-sex self, I engaged in vanilla sex with some initial men, and then with my first male partner, then with various one-night stands (and a few jerk-off clubs in New York) until my now 20+-year monogamous marriage with Jonathan. It never even crossed my mind to consider three-ways (in fact, one early lover, not long after I came out, wanted that and I reacted with horror and disgust, partly due to my dislike for the proposed partner but mostly due to my gut rejection to the very idea). I had never even heard of kink and BDSM! And it has only been in the past decade or so that polyamory has become a more wide and accepted practice.
All of this is to say that sexually I am pretty tame. Of course, my age and the resulting diminished drive and capacity for sex plays a role, too.
And yet my mind, my soul—and indeed my body (nude as much as possible in this body-fearing world) in some ways I am only beginning to understand—feel very much alive and sexy. I love sex even though I don’t have a lot of it!
And I am thrilled to have learned so much from Malachi and others about kink, BDSM, and polyamory—I am grateful to be alive at a time in history when so many old sexual taboos and shackles are being removed. Even when they are not my practices, I revel in the possibilities, for myself perhaps and certainly for others. Who knows how much freer I can yet become, and even more how much more liberation is in store for our world?
This very much informs my theologizing, my queer theologizing. Indeed, it may be most accurate to say that my sexual horizons and my embodiment, are now in synch with my spiritual and theological orientation. They are all working together in ways unknown to me before.
I have long believed that my higher power, whom I call God, is a totally loving being, a totally caring Creator, who empowers us to live whole lives, filled with love and passion and justice and self- and other-care, and strength and gentleness and much, much more. In the past 10 years or so, I have come to understand that our bodies, yours and mine and everyone else’s, are the centers and vehicles of our wholeness, and that sexuality, sex in all its myriad (and consensual) forms is the energy driving the movement toward wholeness. I say sex or sexuality but I mean a perhaps a more capacious term too, namely the Eros (or Body) of God.
What do I mean by the eros of God, the body of God? For me, it’s pretty simple, though it may not be so for others. The body of God is how I refer to what many call The Creation, the entire created order, all life forms not just humans, you and me and every other human being and creature and object of any sort. It’s all God from start to finish and all of it together makes up God’s body.
I often use the two terms, eros of God and body of God, interchangeably, because I find it difficult to separate them, but for our purposes I will say that the eros of God is the energy that infuses the body of God. As a queer theologian, it seems clear to me that one cannot have the body without the energy, which is why I so often use them together and interchangeably.
What I now know, and believe from the depths of my soul and body (and those two terms, so often seen as distinct, are a complete unity to me), is that God speaks to me through my body, with the divine Eros, and makes that eros mine too. I have long said, “There is always more with God,” and now I see that that is not just a mental or theological construct but actually comes directly to and through me in body, sex and spirit.
I don’t know if I can make this unity as clear to my readers as it is to me, but I hope it may give the reader some sense of why—despite a seemingly limited sex life these days (and through my entire life)—I can now stand and say, Luther-like and with great joy and thanksgiving, “My God, my sex, my body, my spirit—all one without exception and without end.” And I stand and pray it is so for Jonathan and my children and grandchildren, Malachi and other friends and colleagues, and my neighbors and certainly my readers, indeed the entire world.
This feels to me like a manifesto, a rootedness so strong that I proclaim it to the world in joy and hope and certainly in love. You read it here first.
But I will have more to say (here and elsewhere) over the coming months and years about this and its implications for Christianity (and especially my own MCC movement and other progressive religious movements in and outside Christianity), and in our shared political and social life in the United States and the world.
I don’t engage in partnered or solo sex all that often these days, but if I am paying attention, if I allow true God/erotic consciousness to engage me I can, and often do, have moments of connectivity with Eros, with the whole of who I am and the greater whole, that provide unique feelings of deep satisfaction and bliss, forms of orgasm, every day. I hope and pray that whatever shapes your sex life, your Eros, take, that this is true for you, too.
Sometimes I think it’s easy for me to forget the context of my life in integrating the work that I do, the work that I am passionate about, the work that fills and nurtures my spirit. As Robin and I sat down to do our monthly discussion about the things going on in our lives and what we might want to write about, he made the comment that this collaboration, this project, writing about sexuality and bodies and spirituality was grounding for him. It was a way for him to focus on these things that fed his spirit in a way that it wasn’t often fed.
I mulled over that a bit because I have a somewhat different experience. I am a professional kinkster and live my entire life talking about sexuality, about bodies, and somewhat about spirituality. This project feeds my need for connection with the spiritual, with the Holy, with God, but it integrates very easily into the rest of my life. Although our beliefs and ideas tend to converge and synthesize well together, Robin and I do come from divergent experiences in many different aspects, and we decided to take this month to write about some of our own contexts and the ways in which we incorporate our sexuality and spirituality into our lives in ways that feel authentic- and also in ways that we can then come together and talk about it.
I commented above that I am a professional kinkster. My sole means of income comes from working within the kink and BDSM communities: as an educator, as a ropemaker, as an event producer and promoter, as event staff. I spend my life surrounded by people for whom kink is an common part of their lives. But I also spend my life talking about sex, and the manifestations of sexuality. I spend a lot of time talking about intersection: the intersections of oppression within subgroups and subcultures, the idea that the things we do in the kink community are sometimes non-consensually done outside of the kink community, and having an awareness of how we engage and interact with hard parts of our sexuality that feel loaded with shame, stigma, or trauma.
I make bondage rope for a living. It seems perfectly normal to me to say, “I make rope,” when people ask me what I do, and I have to step back and remind myself that my lexicon is often different than other people’s (the most common response I get to that statement is, “What do you mean?” because rope is not a common part of every person’s life.)
The truth is, I have desensitized myself to a world and a life that is vastly divergent from most people’s experiences, and I no longer have any sense of what is “normal” and what isn’t. I recognize that this often creates a communication barrier between myself and others: I don’t know how to begin to talk about what I spend my time doing without first giving an in-depth primer about the kink scene and the social structures and norms of that space. Something as common in my world as the sentence, “I’m going to camp and looking for some pick-up play, specifically a sadistic rope scene,” takes a lot of explaining: what “pick-up play” is, what a “scene” is, how this is different than bedroom bondage or sexually-based kinks, what “camp” is, etc.
This isn’t something that’s foreign to me. I often feel like this when trying to talk about gender, something I have been analyzing for as long as I can remember to the point where my construction and understanding of gender is useless without the foundational groundwork of primers and Gender 101 classes and a working understanding of the binary system, what it is, and why it’s important to dismantle. But in trying to talk about or explain my gender, I am often very aware of the gap between myself and the people asking the questions, and it can feel difficult to bridge that gap in a quick, casual conversation.
My life is somewhat inaccessible, and that’s something I have to reconcile when I focus in on this project. My baseline assumptions, ideals, and beliefs are the product of years of struggling with different ideas and concepts, and I don’t always know how to condense those things down into something short, sweet, and accessible.
I don’t think this is bad, but I do think it’s something I need to be aware of. Because for me, it’s easy to integrate my sexuality, my relationship with my body, and my spirituality together. I have constructed my life to be able to think and talk about these things freely and surrounded myself with people with whom these discussions are commonplace. I have to step back and recognize that what seems easy to me is only easy because of the opportunities I have been afforded (a product of a generation that popularized language around BDSM, gender, and sexuality to make these things more accessible) and the ways I have been able to construct my life and income.
That being said, I think it’s still possible, regardless of everything else, to find ways to think and challenge yourself around these topics. To find people with whom you can share your experiences and thoughts and fears and struggle with the oppressive systems we work within. I think it’s possible to find a way to invite the holy into your bedroom, recognize the holy in your body, and find ways to bring these things together in a way that feels authentic for you.
I recognize that most people cannot live the way I do. Most people can’t- and don’t want to- spend their entire lives talking about sex, thinking about gender, teaching about oppression, and so forth. So the question I have for you- which is often the question I ask Robin- is, “What’s your ‘in’?” How do you access these things? What about what we talk about resonates with you? Where you do find your spirit calling you to explore, and what pathways and avenues are available to you?
How do we access these parts within ourselves that haven’t yet found an outlet, a way to be fully embraced? It doesn’t need to be as all-or-nothing as I (and in many ways, Robin as well) have done.
Where is the sexuality resonating in your spiritual practice? Where is your spirituality calling out to you to challenge your understanding of freedom, autonomy, and oppression? Where in your body does your sexuality resonate?
The context of my life affords me the opportunity to live these things fully, every day. And I love my life for it, as complicated as it can be sometimes (particularly while raising a child on the brink of preteen years). And although our experiences are divergent, I love that Robin and I are able to come together to share our thoughts and feelings with one another and with readers. But I think, sometimes, I lose sight that the conclusions work within the specific framework of my life, and aren’t necessarily possible for everyone. And that’s ok. The idea is never to tell others what is authentic for them; the idea has always, for me, been about helping people find new ways to ask questions, to challenge themselves, to seek more authentic relationships with one another, with themselves, and with God.
That is, I believe, what we are ministers, teachers, parents, community members, and friends do: not necessarily give answers, but share our experiences in hopes of sparking new questions.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What are your perspectives, your sense of self about sex, bodies, spirit? Have they changed over the years? How do you experience the unity of these three central parts of our lives? Do you, or are they separate and distinct? 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! August 8th (or thereabouts), right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit. Our apologies for being too busy to post on July 11.
Our sense of safety, of self, of ideology, all of these things lay within our comfort zones . . . .
Robin 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,
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 that 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.
“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.
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.
As we head toward the middle of February, the world paints itself in pinks and reds, expressions of affection, anatomically incorrect hearts and overpriced flowers, and a myriad of ways to say, “I love you,” carefully crafted by greeting card companies (and usually accompanied by an abundance of glitter). It’s Valentine’s Day, a strange and perplexing holiday in which we are, in general, encouraged to express love and affection for those in our lives- specifically romantic entanglements.
Certainly, those who are unpartnered are encouraged to celebrate the love of friends and family, and parents are encouraged to celebrate love for their children (usually assuming their children are prepubescent), and children are encouraged to send well-wishes to other students in their classes (even the bully that takes their lunch money), but the reality is, Valentine’s Day is a couple’s holiday, a time to celebrate That Special Someone in your life. I suppose I sound a bit pessimistic about the whole business; Valentine’s Day tends to strike me as a capitalist, consumer holiday intended to reinvigorate the market after the inevitable lull immediately following Christmas.
My somewhat cynical and skeptical perspective on Valentine’s Day may seem antithetical to the purpose of the holiday- after all, shouldn’t we take any and all opportunities to express our love and affection for the people we care about? I think a part of me rebels at the mandate- this is the day that we show how much we love one another- because a part of me believes, much like the Christmas spirit, that we should seek to live with that in our daily lives, and not once or twice a year.
As a polyamorous person, I also struggle because there are few (if any) representations of the ways that I love. No one is my “everything,” nor do I have a “love of my life.” I have those that I love deeply, those that I hope to grow old with, those that I have known and loved now for over half of my life, those with whom I have deep, committed partnerships that do not include a sexual component, those for whom sex is the basis of our relationship (but that is a kind of love, too, for me). The point is, dividing my time and trying to find ways to express and share the multitudes of affection and love and care that I have in my life is an overwhelming task anyway, let alone trying to cram it all into one day.
And as I begin to think about non-monogamy, I immediately think of kink, and the ways that affection is something expressed in BDSM. Without consent and thorough discussion, of course, much of what we do in kink and BDSM would be considered abusive…and as I am mulling over Valentines day, I cannot help but think of intimate partner violence and non-consensual interactions within couples. I think of the couples going out to dinner and a movie, those who are meeting someone for a first date, and wonder how many people will have sex that night because they feel they “owe” it to their partner to do so? How many people will be coerced, manipulated, or forced into sexual situations because someone else has their heart set on getting laid on the lover’s holiday?
Perhaps this is a dark and pessimistic way to think about Valentine’s Day, but it’s a difficult thing to stomach when we celebrate a day dedicated to couples and partnerships but consistently silence those who speak out about intimate partner violence. The rise of #MeToo has certainly shown the dangers and fears that women experience- not just single women who are dating, but women who are married or in long-term relationships (and this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of assault and abuse men experience, and the added weight of toxic masculinity making it that much harder to break the silence there).
These things also bring me to thoughts of sending my daughter to school on Valentine’s Day: will she get one of those small, store-bought valentine’s from someone in her class, asking her to be their girlfriend? At 9 years old, she’s struggling to understand what that even means. Will she have to give out valentines to her classmates- from the boy she has a crush on to the kid that makes fun of her and picks on her? I appreciate and respect the idea that no one be excluded and everyone gets a valentine, but I also struggle with the idea of teaching children to offer mandatory affection to those who consistently cross their boundaries.
But I also think about my own partners, the people that I love deeply and dearly. I think about bringing home flowers for one, because he likes getting flowers, and flowers for the other, because people rarely bring him flowers. I think about the texts I’ll send that day- one to a similarly-cynical lover that will express affection while recognizing that the whole thing is ridiculous; one to a sweetheart who appreciates small recognitions and gestures more than they are able to articulate; one to someone who takes immense pleasure in the moments of care and affection, whatever the purpose or reason behind them. I think about how we all work together to make it work.
I don’t particularly care for Valentine’s Day, not because I dislike the sentiment, but because it feels flat, one-dimensional, and only accessible to that part of the population who has managed to find someone they resonate with. I love the idea of expressing love, care, and affection in consensual, non-coercive ways… but I don’t think that is well-encompassed in Valentine’s Day.
Show love. Express care, express gratitude, tell the people that you love them that you do, often and frequently. But do it every day… and not one the one day of the year where roses are overpriced and Hallmark has found every possible iteration of “I love you” in glittery, cursive script. Celebrate on Valentine’s Day with the ones you love… and the days before, and the days after, until love is the permeating presence in your life.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Be My Valentine!
It rolls off the lips and the pen pretty easily. And often feels good.
But what if it doesn’t?
I remember some years of singlehood when there was as much pain as joy on this day. I am sure I am not the only one.
There is also the question of determining just who is my Valentine? My husband, surely, but are there others, or is this really only about mates?
When they were little and I was divorced from their mother, I sent Valentine’s to my three daughters. Then a friend pointed out that as they reached puberty it might be a little creepy. I stopped sending them. Now I send to my three- and six-year-old granddaughters. I assume I will stop at the appropriate moment.
The traditional, overwhelming heterosexism of this social custom makes me wonder if I would have sent Valentines to my sons or will send them to any grandsons that may yet bless our lives?
But there are more customs, or history, of this day which make it more problematic than I used to understand. Like most major celebrations, some of the details can create conflicting emotions. Christmas—because the date which the church chose was intended to supersede the Roman holiday of Saturnalia—comes to mind.
From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.
The Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked,” says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.
The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.
In addition to the date, Ancient Rome may also be responsible for the name. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.
Still what’s history got to do with it? Maybe more.
This holiday has become a wonderful midwinter jolt to commercial activity. Prior to the development of improved printing techniques in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, most people made handmade Valentine greetings.
Now, the Greeting Card Association claims more than one billion cards are exchanged (150 million in the United States). While the number startled me when I first encountered it, it reminded that the holiday is popular in places outside the U.S.! This compares to 2.6 billion cards exchanged at Christmas. Still, when you add in chocolate and flowers and other gifts of endearment, Valentine’s Day is a commercial high point.
February also is Black History Month. I used to hear complaints from Black people that, of course, it is the shortest month of the year! I don’t know if they were being ironic or angry, or most likely both. It seems clear to me that the first half of Black History Month often gets subsumed by preparations for and celebrations of Valentine’s Day.
I do know that Black History Month grew up organically in the African American community, instigated largely by the late and renowned historian, Carter G. Woodson. He was inspired by how in the 1890s local and state Black communities had begun having celebrations of Black History Week, built around the adjacent birthdays of two heroes, Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). Great man that Lincoln was, it is Douglass whose birth and life deserve far more attention than they receive. An interesting note: Douglass, born a slave in Maryland without a birth record, decided as an adult that his birthday, known to be in February, should be on February 14—because he remembered that his mother kept calling him her “little Valentine.”
Tonight, my husband and I are planning to go out for a Valentine’s Day dinner, something we have not done in some years. I intend to offer a toast to Douglass at dinner, and I intend in the days leading up to and including February 14 to make small efforts on Facebook and elsewhere to raise awareness of Douglass. His love for himself and his people furnish an excellent example of love in action.
As a queer theologian, I am unsettled by Valentine’s Day. Honoring the martyrdom of the first St. Valentine’s by the Roman Catholic Church is understandable, indeed commendable. But presumably it was their love of God and Jesus that got them killed. Now we use the day to honor people with cards and gifts. Where is the day to honor those who sacrifice for love?
It all feels too much like what we do with the birth of Jesus—make it a feast for ourselves rather than understanding and honoring the demands and possibilities of love that knows and accepts no boundaries.
Would Valentine’s Day not be better spent engaging in “love projects”—organizing and undertaking actions to create change in the lives of others? How about something as simple as going to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or women’s shelter to offer help? What about spending the day with a shut-in who would be glad for some attention or maybe a trip to the store or a movie?
Is not love more than a feeling, more than a way we feel about one person or even a few special people? Is it not more than cards, flowers, and candy? Is it not a way of life to be shared with all, for all, through all?
I have come to believe that love is an orientation toward life, it is how God calls us to live each moment of our lives. The central question becomes not so much who do I love but how do I love—how do I love myself and the world, enough to risk it all, like Frederick Douglass, to create change? He was not martyred, but he gave unstintingly of himself to the cause of his people to rise above the vileness of slavery and Jim Crow, to create in their own eyes, if not in the eyes of most others, the beloveds of God they were and are.
For me, today is Frederick Douglass Day at least as much as Valentine’s Day.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
How do you feel about Valentine’s Day? Do you have only positive memories or are they mixed? 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! March 14, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.
Sex can be something that helps us feel less stressed in our pressurized lives . . . .
One of the gifts of Malachi and I writing together is the significant difference in our ages. I was born as an early Boomer (1946) and he was born right in the middle of the Millennials (1988), so there are times when our histories, our experience, are very different from each other. At the same time, each of us is embodied, each of us likes sex, and each of us is a person of faith. So we have fabulous, energized, and stimulating conversations, and we enjoy writing here, and teaching together in the Third Thursday series (see the end of this week’s post for details).
This week is a clear example of our distinctive starting points (and as regular readers know it is more than our generations that are different).
I encountered an article about the sex habits of Millennials, “Too Stressed to F&*K?” and forwarded it to Malachi. Then, we talked about it. The article, on a blog I read called “Pleazure Seekers,” discussed studies that show Millennials, single and partnered, are having less sex than others of their age cohort in earlier generations. The blogger, the father of two Gen Z/Millennials, is interested in understanding why this is so.
First, I confess that I tuned into the article before realizing it was about Millennials. I thought it might be about me. I know I sometimes feel too stressed even to masturbate. Certainly, my husband and I have made plans for sex, only for one, or sometimes both, of us to feel too tired when the time arrives (he is 13 years my junior so it is not always about age). We have even gone for significant lengths of time without sex. All this feels normal to me.
I am aware that studies have been done about older folks like me, and generally they reveal that old folks still like sex. I know I do (I jerked off today, for example).
But there is something to this “too stressed” business. I am feeling somewhat overwhelmed these days by feeling I have too much writing to do on too many topics and in too many genres. If I were not writing this blog each week, I am not sure when I would find time even to think about sex (well except today).
My angst will end, I know. But a whole generation having less sex? That is a great concern to me. As a society, a world, we need more sex, not less.
The writer of the article says he thinks Millennials are too tired—they work long hours, they have to be available for their jobs all the time (the iPhone curse), they have long commutes, they volunteer a lot (both on principle but also as a way to have good credentials for employers), etc. When I think about the Millennials I know, I can see some accuracy in his observation.
The trouble, as I see it, is that the habits they are learning now will be hard to change later in life. At least, that is how it has been for me. I did not become a workaholic late in life, I learned it when I was the age Millennials are now. I did not put the demands of others for my time and energy before my own when I passed 50. I started doing that as a teen and then really perfected it in my 20s and 30s. I got really good at it-so good I lived in denial about my soul’s desire to write until I was in my late 60s.
But this is about more than individuals, this is about our society.
The blog writer is correct that Millennials and GenZ folks are far more open-minded about sex—sexual orientation and sexual practices—and gender and gender identity than earlier generations. We are better as a world for their openness, and I believe they will continue to push society away from judgmentalism and narrowness and toward acceptance and celebration of human diversity. This can only be good.
However, we really need people slowing down for intimacy, including but not limited to the two-by-two or multiple partners varieties in bed. We certainly need people to pleasure themselves and we need all the other varieties of consensual erotic connection that God makes possible and in which human beings find pleasure and deep and abiding joy. We need friends to just sit together—close I hope but even not close is good—perhaps holding hands or sitting with arms around each other or lying side by side, even spooning.
Why do I feel so strongly about this, and at this time?
Much attention has been focused on an OpEd on May 30 in the Wall Street Journal authored by the President’s National Security Advisor, Gen. H.R. McMaster ,and the Chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, Gary Cohn. They wrote, outlining the President’s “America First” vision of foreign policy, “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”
Their focus is on the activities of nations and other actors in the international sphere—and as many have pointed out, the Trump foreign policy, and this articulation of it by McMaster and Cohn, is a clear repudiation of post-World War 2 U.S. foreign policy conducted by every administration, Republican and Democrat, since President Truman.
However, this is not limited to foreign policy. In many ways, the current administration encourages competition over cooperation here at home, and the fact that many feel the loss of economic stability in their lives also contributes to this behavior. And this privileging of advantage is exemplified in Congress these days, where little compromise happens, where political opponents become enemies. It is exemplified by the President’s tweets that belittle people with whom he disagrees.
And, I submit, it is exemplified in what the blog author says about Millennials. They are too tired from competing to cooperate, to worn out to crawl into bed together, too distracted even to play with their own genitals or curl up with a good friend (and I am not meaning only “friends with benefits”).
Many speak of resistance to the President’s policies and even resistance to him personally. We do need to stand up in opposition to harmful, hurtful policies and government actions.
But we need to resist at deeper and more personal levels, too. Three days before the Presidential Inauguration, the Huffington Post ran a piece by Alex Garner, “Queer Sex Is Our Greatest Act of Resistance.” It is a brilliant evocation of why Queer folk need to stay focused on and in our bodies. I was exhilarated by its honesty and power. I cheered.
But queer sex is not enough. Here is Garner’s conclusion—and it applies to all of us, queer, not queer, vanilla, kinky, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, polyamorous and other forms of consensual non-monogamy, etc.—and certainly Millennials of every persuasion:
Talk about sex. Our sexuality is at the core of our human experience. To not talk openly about it is to deny part of who we are. There is no shame in pleasure and intimate connections.
Have sex and lots of it. Push boundaries and explore. Find pleasure in your sexuality in the midst of the chaos and the insanity. Think about what it means to choose queer [or not queer] sex and to value queer [or not queer] sex in a world that tells us it’s wrong. When we fuck we resist.
Keep resisting. Fuck as if your life depends on it because with this new administration, it’s how we can fuck the status quo and upend the world we now find ourselves in.
Thus endeth my sermon for today. Go thou with other(s) or by yourself, and fuck, or whatever turns you on.
As much as sex can be a wonderfully joyous means of connecting with ourselves and our partners, it’s not always easy to make space to have a fulfilling sexual life. Work, day-to-day concerns (like getting the laundry and dishes done), kids, etc. all take time and energy, and sometimes, we find ourselves falling into bed next to our partners, worn out and too exhausted to intimately connect.
And that’s ok! Life can be stressful and exhausting sometimes, and it’s important to take time to make sure that we are getting enough rest and caring for ourselves. But it can be easy to slip into a pattern and suddenly weeks (or months) have gone by with no time to connect with our partner(s).
Sometimes, we address the situation by trying to create intentional time to be intimate. And that can be really effective- sometimes. But what happens when we have set aside time, and when that time comes, one (or both) partners aren’t feeling into it? Maybe it was a particularly hard day that’s difficult to shake off. Or perhaps the concept of “setting side time” makes sex feel more pressurized or obligatory…which never feels good, but certainly not when you’re trying to feel connected.
There are a lot of different ways that sex can feel pressurized. Feeling pressure to “perform”- particularly for those who were assigned male at birth and have a sexual connection to their penis- can lead to performance anxiety. I know personally, there have been times when I have been so aroused, it’s been difficult to reach orgasm. Other times, I have felt like if I didn’t have an orgasm, my partner would take it personally, which made it that much more difficult to relax and enjoy the sexual connection because there was an expectation of a certain outcome.
The ways that we put pressure, stress, and expectation on sex can be counterproductive.
Part of it comes from the ways that we define sex, intimacy, and connection. Sex and intimacy are often defined as a set of actions (e.g. penetration, orgasm, etc.), and we try to push ourselves to “go through the motions,” only to find that we don’t necessarily feel more connected to ourselves or to our partners afterward. This is a trap I have fallen into with my partner, and we both feel more drained after such encounters, rather than uplifted and connected. When sex is based on the actions, rather than the intention of connection, it can lead to feeling like another task on a to-do list, rather than a spiritual and intimate experience with someone we can about.
It’s a delicate balance. Sometimes, what we want is to experience a specific type of sexual intimacy and pleasure. Other times, what we want is to feel connected with ourselves and with our partner(s), and it’s not contingent on a specific sensation. In those cases, I wonder if we can find ways to make intimacy feel less pressurized so that we are able to relax and connect with one another even when life is busy and exhausting.
Small things, like intimate touch. Backrubs, foot rubs, facial massages are ways of helping your partner physically relax even when you’re both too exhausted for sex.
Mutual masturbation can be a way to achieve sexual release together. Laying naked together with no explicit sexual touching can also be very connective. These are a couple small ways to feel more intimately connected with our partner(s), but they really only address the symptoms, and not the deeper underlying problems.
The world we live in is fast-paced and stressful. Many people work multiple jobs just to make ends meet, and raising children, dealing with household tasks, etc. only add stress and pressure into already-hectic lives. Perhaps some of the issue is, “How do we connect sexually with ourselves and one another when we are exhausted and stressed out?” but I think it’s also important to think about, “How can we limit the amount of stress we
experience in our lives so that we don’t feel so worn out at the end of the day?”
I’m not sure there is an easy answer for this question. Small things, like making sure household tasks don’t pile up, can be immensely helpful, but only if all people involved are helping to keep that manageable- otherwise, it just adds one more task to one partner’s daily routine. The truth is, de-stressing our lives is a longer process of shifting our priorities, and shifting what things we have to make time for (like working and making sure bills get paid) and what things we choose to make time for. For many people who experience sexual attraction, maintaining a strong, intimate relationship is important… but sometimes, we choose to make time for other things, which cuts into the time we have for our partner(s).
When we see our sexual selves as a form of spiritual, physical, and emotional nourishment, it becomes a lot easier to make time for intimacy. It’s not something that depletes our resources, but helps them grow. While “in the moment” it can feel easier to succumb to the exhaustion, more often than not, we find that we are more rejuvenated and energized when our partnership(s) are strong, nourished, and sustained through sexual intimacy. I have experienced this several times with my partner- I have fallen into the “maybe tomorrow” rut, and found that, as that prolonged to another (and yet another) day, it became harder to instigate sex because it began to feel like a task that I was procrastinating doing. But when we were able to be connected and intimate with one another in ways that didn’t feel pressurized, I was able to recognize the ways in which that sexual relationship helped fulfill me as a whole person, rather than drain me with another thing I needed to do.
I speak, of course, as someone in my late twenties. There are certainly changing hormones as our bodies age that shift our physical needs and desires, but I believe that
our spiritual desire for sexual intimacy and connection remains, even when our bodies are not as responsive as we would always like. Then, more than ever, it is important to find ways to feel sexually connected without necessarily focusing on the “acts” of sex, and that comfort comes through a lifetime of practicing and reframing how we think about sex. I feel immensely lucky that I have had the opportunity to do some of this work as a younger person- although it’s difficult that the world we live in demands that young people have to learn these lessons in order to have and maintain healthy, sustainable sexual relationships.
Sex isn’t, of course, an obligation, and no one is entitled to our bodies without our consent. But sex also isn’t something to do because we haven’t done it in a while. Sex is something we can approach as a form of self-care, as a form of nourishment and fulfillment, to feel stronger and more connected with our partner(s). Sex can be something that helps us feel less stressed in our pressurized lives, if it doesn’t feel like another obligation on our already over-extended time.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
Are you having less sex than you want? Or are you too stressed to know? Do you make time for intimacy with your partner(s) and friends, or are you too busy? When was the last time you enjoyed a lazy afternoon with your body and/or with someone else’s body/bodies? Can you visualize the world as an erotic community, the earth as God’s gift of eros? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us in two weeks, THURSDAY, June 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Our focus will be “Creating Consent Culture in Our Churches.” Malachi and Robin will discuss how church leaders and members can foster an atmosphere of trust and exploration through mutual concern and consent while considering difficult topics such as various forms of sex, the spiritual ground of sex, and sexual attitudes and behaviors.
We must make more room in our churches and communities to talk about bisexuality, pansexuality, and queerness.
Reading one of the sex- and bodies-focused blogs I receive, my attention was drawn to the subject of bisexuality, a topic Malachi and I have not addressed in a focused way. So here goes.
The particular article, “And New on the Bisexuality Spectrum—‘Mostly Hetero’,” looks at a phenomenon recently under discussion among researchers, namely a nuancing of the traditional sexuality continuum. What caught my eye was the term “mostly hetero.” In response, I murmured “I am mostly homo.”
That “mostly” may surprise some readers, because I clearly identify myself as gay. But it was not always so. I was married for more than eight years (1974-83), and my wife gave birth to three daughters. I was the sperm donor, not through artificial insemination but through penile-vaginal sex. She and I had sex, and more than three times!
I loved Judy very much, but in reality our sex—much desired by her—was not so much for me about lust for her body (which was very sexy by many standards, not to mention her energy and winning personality) as it was to satisfy my own need for sexual release and to honor my commitment to her. I did not fantasize about men during our love-making, but I did the rest of the time. I never stopped looking at men.
When I finally accepted my same-sex desires, working with a therapist and coming out to Judy, and had my first male-male sex (other than one time of masturbation with a friend in our early teens), I suddenly knew why many talked about sex as the pinnacle of pleasure. The fireworks were there in a way they had not been with her.
But I wondered, off and on for a while, am I bisexual or homosexual? Still, over a relatively short time I became clear I am homosexual. On the traditional scale, first enunciated by Alfred Kinsey in the late 1940s, that is a 6. But I do find the occasional woman attractive enough to wonder what it would be like to be sexual with her.
So maybe I am a 5.5 or 5.7 or 5.8, not quite a 6.0. Mostly homo.
Yet, I never had sex with a woman after Judy. Not even close. And I had sex with many men during my times of being a single male. So my heterosexuality is very muted.
I know many gay men and lesbian women who are parents like me—children born during a marriage into which they entered before realizing, or finally accepting, they prefer sex with a person of the same gender. Most of these people report not being very happy in the marriage, but they had sex.
What this points to is the elasticity of sexuality, the wideness of the range of possibilities. I remember a lesbian friend who for decades was in a relationship with the woman of her dreams—when I got to know them there were no longer young, but there was no hiding their obvious love and joy each other; it was infectious to all around them. Then her wife died. A year or two later, she met a man and they fell in love. Many were shocked, and even angry.
Perhaps because I remembered how much I loved Judy, I called her to extend congratulations. She said to me that her new love was, in her mind and heart, just a male version of her wife.
So sometimes it is the person that makes the difference. A former male lover of mine was, like me, married. When he divorced, and we were sharing a seaside cottage with our respective daughters for a week, I seduced him. We were together after that for more than six years—and he has had a second husband for more than two decades. Was he gay before, or did things, he, just change? Or did he let some part of him, previously hidden, emerge?
Another way to see this is accept that sex and sexual orientation are not synonymous with affection and love. We are able to act sexually through our bodies—our genitals, our hands, our tongues—in ways that are not always synchronous with the social structure or construction of sexuality we have adopted (or has been given to us). And, as outlined above, these structures or constructions, these categories, are not always as fixed as we may wish. Human beings, human bodies, are complicated—no matter how much many want to get us each into one of the major boxes.
Hidden is a word many use about bisexuality. Bisexuals often complain about invisibility in the LGBT movement. They have a good argument. We know a lot about the L and the G—and more and more (although not enough) about the T, but precious little about the B.
I have heard many gay men and lesbian women claim that a person claiming the B is “just going through a phase,” or is “getting up the courage to claim their real identity” as L or G. This is so sad. It might be true in some cases, but so what? It still is not easy for everyone to come out, just because it is far easier than it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago. And, of course, it sounds so much like the judgment and jibes aimed at many gay and lesbian people on our own coming out journeys.
These attitudes are so much about making sure the boxes work, and that each person is in the right box. Indeed, the very term “bisexuality” rests on the concept that there are two genders, thus reinforcing the gender binary, and three sexual orientations—hetero, homo, and bi. Both concepts fail to account for the fluidity of sex and gender, indeed the fluidity of our bodies.
That does not mean that people should not claim bisexuality. I know people for whom it is an entirely accurate self-designation. They like to have sex with men and they like to have sex with women—most of them may lean in one direction or the other—while some are equal opportunity folks—however they lean or don’t, they refuse to deny themselves the opportunity to experience both. I think “both” is great. And “all,” too, as in pansexual (but that is another post for me).
So, is the hiddenness, the silence, about bisexuality because it is too complicated? That may be part of the explanation. But I think the far greater reason is that bisexuality, despite seeming to reinforce the boxes, really does call into question the fixedness of sexual identity, sexual orientation, and potentially even gender (more about this another time, too).
Sometimes, I chafe against labels, but I know they are useful for organizing ourselves. We do make choices and want to name them. So, in the name of opening up more about sex and bodies, we need to stop invisiblizing the bisexuals. Stand up for B!!!
It may help to think and write this way—LGBT, and we need to keep on doing this, too—LGBT. And LGBTQIA (bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, Intersex, and Ally/Advocate), too (WordPress won’t allow me to make the particular letters larger, which is what I hoped to show).
I find it difficult to jump into the topic of bisexuality, although it’s an important subject and one that needs to be talked about more, not less. The “B” in LGBT is often ignored, overlooked, or erased.
Often times, we use someone’s appearance to make an assumption about their identity. If we see, for example, a person presenting as male holding hands with someone who is presenting as female, we assume heterosexuality. If we see two people who appear to be of the same gender, we often assume homosexuality. Bisexuality isn’t something we tend to assume because it would require us to see the same person in a variety of situations in which they were holding hands with different people… and since monogamy (along with heterosexuality) are both the assumed default, that doesn’t tend to happen as often.
Bisexual folks are often faced with a lot of belittling and erasure of their identities: “Oh, you just can’t make up your mind,” or “You’ll sleep with anyone,” or “Well, you’re only bisexual when you’re single; once you have a partner, that kind of determines it, doesn’t it?” or “This is just a phase; you’ll settle on your identity eventually.” This kind of erasure is incredibly toxic and is predicated on the idea that someone else knows your identity better than you do. Tangentially, it feeds into the ideas of slut-shaming, or that having a lot of sex with different people is an inherently bad or negative thing.
And yet, sometimes, I have to confess, I have a hard time with bisexuality- partially
because of the way bisexual identities contribute to my erasure. “Bi-” means two, and bisexual is “sexual attraction to both genders.” And for some people, that’s a completely accurate assessment of their sexual orientation: they are attracted to men and women. For others, though, they take bisexual to mean “attracted to all genders,” without realizing that bisexuality is predicated on enforcing the gender binary (there’s that “bi-“ prefix again). There is no room for gender non-conforming in a binary world, and bisexuality is based on the idea that there are two genders, and someone is attracted to both of them.
It’s a tricky, nuanced line of discussion, because I don’t want to disrespect someone else’s identity or contribute to the erasure of who they are… but I also have to recognize that there is a level of bisexuality that makes me uncomfortable. Not because I care about someone being attracted to more than one gender, but because bisexuality implies by definition that there are only two genders, and I actively work against things that reinforce the gender binary. And so I’m not always sure how to have a discussion and dialogue around bisexuality. I feel conflicted about raising that up when greater visibility for one group of people directly contributes to erasure for another group- particularly a group of which I am a part.
A non-binary adaptation of bisexual is “pansexual;” that is, a sexual orientation that spans across gender binary and non-binary individuals and recognizes an attraction for a variety of types of bodies, identities, and presentations. At times in my life, I have identified as pansexual. In fact, in high school, I had a black side bag in which I wrote “PANSEXUAL” in white out across the front. What can I say, I was a pretty brazen high schooler.
I shifted from pansexual to queer when I realized that the way I fuck, the way I have relationships, the way I interact with sexuality and bodies is heavily informed by my politics and social analysis. My politics, as it turns out, are a direct result of my understanding and identity as a Christian, so in many ways, my faith has informed my identity as a queer person- including my sexual identity. And I think, at the heart of the erasure that many bisexual folks feel, they want to be seen as people who have the capacity to love different types of bodies, configurations, and identities. And I think it’s important that people feel seen in their sexuality, even if the way in manifests right now, or in this relationship, doesn’t paint the whole picture.
When queer femme-identifying people are seen holding hands with their male-presenting partners, they often feel the complexities of their identities are erased (I’ve written about this some in a piece Are You Queer Enough? and Femme Erasure in the Queer Community) or that, by “passing” as straight, they aren’t welcome in queer spaces. And that’s something we have perpetuated, beginning with things like bisexual erasure and not allowing people to live their authentic, sometimes complicated, truths.
We have bisexual (and pansexual, and queer) people in our churches, people whose identities don’t necessarily match up with how we see them presenting. We might assume that the couple that just walked in is a heterosexual couple, but in reality, he might be a queer transmasculine person, and she might be a femme lesbian. We may shun someone if, after ending a same-sex relationship, they begin to form a relationship with someone of the opposite gender. These are problematic behaviors- to ostracize or shun anyone based on their sexual orientation- that are often based in our own assumptions about who someone is based on how we view them, rather than how they view themselves.
We must make more room in our churches and communities to talk about bisexuality, pansexuality, and queerness. We must allow space for people to be seen and share their experiences authentically, and not worry about hearing the same toxic, damaging messages they hear elsewhere. Bisexuality and pansexuality are not myths, nor are they the result of someone “not being able to make up their mind.” People’s identities are not defined in comparison to their intimate partners; their identities exist regardless of the relationships they are in. It’s time we allow people to see and be seen for their whole selves, and not just the selves we feel most comfortable interacting with.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
What are your feelings about bisexuality? Are you, or have you ever been, bisexual? Do you think bisexuality is a valid sexual orientation? Why or why not? Do you have sex with a person of only one gender (as you and others define that) or more than one? Do you have fantasies about crossing the line? Do you watch sex films (aka pornflicks), and if so, do you watch people with only one orientation or do you sometimes see what others are doing? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us in two weeks, THURSDAY, June 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
One of our readers sent me a link to an article—she called it “horrible”—as a way of encouraging me and Malachi to keep writing. “Christians Are Not Called to Have Amazing Sex” by Rachel Pietka (read it here) is, in my view, an attempt to stall or reverse any movement within Christianity to talk openly, and most importantly, positively, about sex in all its varieties, and even more to stand aggressively against openness to premarital sex (and although it is not named, I am sure also against same-sex sex and other “abominations”).
The author’s main point seems to be to stop people from making sex into God. I am aware that there are people for whom sex is an idol—on a par with making tons of money or being at the pinnacle of social or career success or having a “perfect” body—and I even know a few men who think the cock (theirs and all others, too) is God. But by and large, in my experience within Christianity, even in Metropolitan Community Churches, there is a much greater danger that sex is the devil, Satan’s agent to lead us astray, and/or it is so spiritually dangerous that we should not talk openly about it. If we pretend not to know about it, then it will surely not bother us.
But that default position is not at all accurate. I grew up in a time when sex talk of any sort was really taboo. That did not stop people from having sex.
I remember when I was about eight (1954 or so), my mother’s best friend and her husband (she was a high school English teacher and he was the high school principal) invited people to their home for a reception in honor of their son and his new wife (a surprise to all because there had been no wedding invitations). What became immediately obvious was that the young woman was pregnant.
People sat around, sipping tea and maybe taking a bite of cake or cookie, in more or less stunned silence. No one knew what to say. We lived in a small conservative town 40 miles northwest of Detroit—and this sort of thing was not supposed to happen (never in the “better” families).
I have some small memory of the strangeness; I think I might have been the only child present but am not sure. I know my parents, shocked though they may have been (and they may have known of the situation in advance), would not have abandoned their friends.
What my mother recounted many times about the afternoon was her gratitude to her future son-in-law who came with my sister (she was friends with both newlyweds). He did not grow up in our town, and was in some ways a stereotypically “brash” Jew (there were no Jews in our town). He mingled with people and doggedly worked to create small-talk—breaking the silence. He was an actor, and for decades a well-regarded professional stage director, and he knew how to get people engaged. My mother often said, “Bentley saved the day.” But even he could not get people talking about what was really bothering them—and I am sure my mother was also glad of that!
I recount this story, well aware that much has changed in the 60 years since, but also well aware that in other ways little has changed. We still cannot really talk about sex.
And while we may agree when someone, like me or Malachi, speaks of sex as a gift of God or writes about the godliness of sex or divinely inspired eroticism, we never speak of it in church. When was the last time you heard the word “sex” used in a prayer in church or any public gathering? Is your sex life on your personal gratitude list? Or if in your mind it does not merit gratitude, is it on your prayer request list? Do you ask God for more sex, better sex, perhaps both?
My point is simply this: far from needing to police people’s desire to have good sex lives, we need to help all of us openly, joyfully, claim our desire for great sex, to pay attention to what kind of sex we want and even to learn more about how to get it.
And here’s the corollary for me: God wants us to have great sex, too. That’s why our bodies are wired the ways they are, we are created as sexual beings. How did we get here anyway? (I know its not nice or polite to think about our biological parents having sex, but I assure you they did).
So, I am going to pick up where my brother-in-law left off 50+ years ago: I am going to talk about bodies and sex.
I am sitting at my desktop writing this, and I am naked. Of course, being naked is not the same as sex. Being naked is simply being our authentic selves, not covering up our body, the body we have from God. We are created in the image of God, and thus our bodies are part of the divine portrait. After many decades of not feeling good about my body, I finally learning to like it, indeed love it. Nakedness helps.
Sitting here naked—which I like to be as much as possible—allows me to “touch myself” as I feel moved to do so. I run my hands over my chest, tousle and then smooth my unruly hair, rub my sore feet and aching back as best I can. And I touch my penis and testicles (I call them my cock and balls—someday I may write a piece on why I choose to say “cock” rather than “dick”).
And at times, I do more than touch them. I massage them, I stimulate them. I do this as I write—and not just when writing this blog focused on sex, bodies, and spirit; I do this when writing more heady and traditional theology or poetry or other social commentary. Sometimes, I do this while I am feeling stumped about a word choice or when I am trying to discern what the next paragraph or stanza should be. The situation may have nothing to do with sex, but my body, my genitals, crave some stroking. I respond, with pleasure. Sometimes, I just touch them to express self-love.
And of course, I also touch myself erotically when I think about a hot time with my husband (or even just picturing him) or a scene or a body I have seen online or a story I have read at Nifty Erotic Stories Archive, a place for gay men, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender (often but not always non-professional) writers to post their erotic stories (sorry, I don’t know the location for similar non-LGBT erotic writing—I am sure there are many). Nifty asks for donations to pay for the site, but it is accessible free of charge.
And of course, sometimes I get pretty worked up, and even ejaculate. That feels very good.
Okay, I have outed myself as a sexual being. I have done this to make two points: first, we need more openness, more celebration, not less, about sex—especially in churches, communities called together by God who loves sex and wants us to like it, too.
And second, it is up to us to lead the way. I am glad to start.
How about you? Maybe you’d like to out yourself, too. It can feel pretty good! Even godly.
We could start a new spiritual movement—or rejuvenate the old one. God would be pleased.
I have a habit of referring to myself as a “unicorn;” that is, a somewhat mythical being that doesn’t quite seem to be real. This spans across many different facets of my identity, but I bring it up here specifically because I am a second (and in some interpretations, third) generation queer person.
As I have spoken about elsewhere, I was raised in a lesbian family and identify as queer myself. But beyond that, many of the people who mentored and nourished my growth were also mentors to my parents, some of whom were old enough to be their parents. As a result, my family as I understood it consisted of people who have lived, and fought, as queer people over the span of three generations.
This directly impacted so many parts of my life- not the least of which was my concept of sex and personal sexual growth. In my life, neither my mothers (nor any other trusted adult in my life) told me that I should “wait until marriage to have sex.” For one thing, my parents (and most other adults in my life) were queer, and thus denied the rights of marriage. It would have been hypocritical at best to espouse a “no sex until marriage” code when it wasn’t one they were able to follow themselves.
Certainly, they had commitment and were, in the eyes of God, married, even if the state didn’t see it that way. Nonetheless, though, they didn’t tell me that I should wait until marriage- they told me that “if I couldn’t talk openly about it with my partners, then I probably shouldn’t be doing it with them.”
During sex education in high school, I certainly understood and heard the message that the best way to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies was to abstain from sex, but I was also exposed to information about birth control and barrier protection methods (I discovered later that I was immensely lucky for the sex education I received).
But beyond sex education in school, I found my growing sexuality supported and
encouraged by many of the adults around me, all of whom I met through church. For example, one woman was teaching me to drive stick shift, and over the course of the day, the topic of sex came up. She asked me if I felt comfortable masturbating, and encouraged me to do more of it, noting that some of the best sex of her life had been with herself.
Another adult encouraged me to “wine and dine” myself: that is, take myself on a date and allow self-pleasure to be the result of desire, rather than necessity.
But perhaps my favorite story is when I was coming home on a break from college at 18 and spending time at my godmother’s house. In college, I began to aggressively explore my sexual identity, and had been having copious amounts of sex with a variety of people. Feeling a little full of myself, I was recounting my sexual exploits to my godmother, who promptly asked me, “Are you being safe?” I looked at her with a puzzled expression and stated, “Well… everyone I’m sleeping with was assigned female at birth, so…”
She looked at me again, and said, “Ok. So, are you being safe?” I had no idea what she was talking about. She then went into her bedroom, came out with a box of nitrile gloves and a dental dam, pulled out a tub of ice cream from the freezer, and proceeded to teach me about safer sex methods, using the ice cream as a prop while she explained (and demonstrated, on the ice cream) how to use a dental dam.
I say all this to say, I had a very unusual experience in my own introduction to sex, and most of it came through the church, and from generations of queer people who had done the hard work to overcome much of their own sexual repression and were eager to counteract the puritanical social messages they knew I would receive.
Yet even I have hangups about sex. Despite their best efforts, I felt a sense of internalized shame about some of my own sexual desires, and still had to deal with the impacts of social messaging that taught me that desiring sex, as a woman, was shameful. But for me, so few of those messages came through the church- in fact, the church is where I found the most affirming messages about sex.
And that, to me, is the key, the crux of MCC. We have generations of stories and people that have struggled and fought to overcome their own sexual repressions. Why are we not leading the charge to be a Christian movement that not only accepts, but loudly rejoices in our existence as sexual beings? (I say this, of course, recognizing and respecting those who are asexual and do not necessarily identify as sexual.) In this regard, I don’t want to be a “unicorn”- I wish everyone had stories like mine, of going to a place of worship and finding not only acceptance, but open celebration and support of who they are as sexual beings.
I recognize that these conversations happened one-on-one, and not inside of worship. Yet we should know that our churches and our sanctuaries are places where we can find people with whom to have these conversations. We should know that our whole selves- including our sexual selves- will be celebrated and embraced when we walk through the doors of an MCC.
We receive so many messages about sex every day: messages using sex to sell us a product, messages telling us that certain types of sexual expression are wrong, messages that enforce the “right” kind of sexual behavior, messages that shame us for our sexual desires, messages that blame victims for sexual violence, and so forth. Shouldn’t our sanctuaries be a place of true refuge from the sexual oppression- and repression- that we face every day?
Silence is so often complicity. When so many others are speaking vocally in oppressive and repressive ways, why do we stay silent, or speak in whispers? What levels of shame and sexual repression do we still need to overcome in our own lives so that we may speak our truths? I challenge each of us to consider, deeply, the messages we have received over the course of our lives- the positive and the negative. Which have we done the work to reject, and which do we still carry with us? Which help our growth in community, with God, with one another, and which hinder it? Which feed the shame and silence, and which support the foundations to speak our truths?
We seek to live our lives out loud, but we must remember that our sexuality is a part of our lives, of our spirits, of our means of connecting with one another and with God. To silence that aspect of ourselves is to silence a portion of the holy that lives within each and every one of us.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
What are your feelings about talking about sex? Do you want to, but feel you can’t most places? What were the messages you received as your grew up about sex, and about talking openly about it? What role does shame play in your relationship with sex? If you 40 and older, what changes about sexual attitudes do you see in our culture today? Are you comfortable with them? Why or why not? If you are under 30, is society (and/or church) open enough or do you want more? Why or why not? Do you think we can mention sex in church with appreciation and candor? Do you pray about sex? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us next week, THURSDAY, June 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.