Just think what a different world it would be . . . .
(Malachi is on leave this month.)
I have been thinking a lot about shame lately—both because it has been in the news and because it has not been.
Take former New York Mayor and Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani—the man I used to call “Bulliani” when I was one of his constituents—who said of Stephanie Clifford (more widely known as Stormy Daniels):
“So Stormy, you want to bring a case, let me cross-examine you. Because the business you were in entitles you to no degree of giving your credibility any weight,” Giuliani told an audience in Tel Aviv, adding later, “I’m sorry I don’t respect a porn star the way I respect a career woman or a woman of substance or a woman who … isn’t going to sell her body for sexual exploitation.” (ABC News June 6, 2018)
The thrice married Guiliani—who had affairs before ending each marriage (to legalize the affair—doesn’t use the word “shame,” but the bite of his words has the same effect as saying, “Shame, Shame, Shame! I can see and hear many righteous Christian women in my home town wagging their fingers, tut-tutting, and saying, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
What I have always found revealing is that the language of shame is rarely used about murder or theft or embezzlement but is so often attached to sexual acts and behavior.The shaming reflects the virulent and deep-seating sex phobia that permeates the land. And it is women who are expected to bear the shame.
Which is one of the reasons I am grateful to Pope Francis expressing “shame and sorrow” over the actions of pedophile priests (NPR August 16, 2018). For once, we have a man expressing shame about the actions of men who engage in sexual abuse and exploitation.
The words feel good, even though the lack—so far—of concrete action does not. Being ashamed, expressing shame, and remorse, is good, but the repentance and reparations have yet to come. Based on what has been revealed by the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, even more revelations are coming (New York’s Attorney General is now engaged in a similar project).
But what clearly is missing, at least in most cases, are expressions of shame by many of the perpetrators. The perpetrators include not only the actual abusive priests, but also their organizational superiors who often turned a blind eye toward the behavior or simply moved the offending priest to another location where he could start again. So, many need to express shame, remorse, repentance, and together find ways to make reparations.
Payoffs by dioceses and others to victims, with clauses that prohibit them from talking about what happened, are neither remorse or reparations, they are hush money to avoid public scandal. They keep the victim ensnared in a silence that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to deal constructively with their own feelings and find ways to reclaim the parts of their lives that were severely damaged.
Which brings us back to Stormy Daniels. She has decided to break the silence, and confront the denials by one Donald J. Trump and throw the settlement she agreed to back in the face of her former lover and his attorney. In other words, she has decided not to carry the shame any more.
One could make a case that, as “the other woman,” she owes Melania Trump an apology, but the person far more responsible for making such an apology is the man to whom Melania is married (and was married at the time of the affair).Don’t look for that to happen any time soon.
But as a porn star, indeed as a self-respecting businesswoman/sex worker who made money by being sexually available, needs make no apology—unless she over-charged for her services or performed the agreed upon acts in poor ways. No shame, no blame unless the services did not meet the standards as advertised and agreed upon.
This was consensual sex, friends. Unlike the priests and their victims, both boys/men and girls/women.
Oh, speaking of non-consensual sex, how about all the celebrities and corporate executives (men in all cases, except one so far I think) accused of abusive behavior? None of that appears to have been consensual.
Some of them have expressed regret for “any pain they caused,” and many have lost their jobs—but few, if any, are suffering any economic loss. So many have “golden parachutes” built into their contracts—and/or their employers really don’t want to go through a trial with all of its attendant bad publicity—that they seem to land on their financial feet quite nicely. Buyouts leave them with good nest eggs to cushion the loss of status. And a few already seem to be attempting come-backs of one sort or another—and I predict more will try—which surely does not feel to me like feeling any shame.
I have done some things in my life of which I am not proud, and even feel shame. I remember when I, as a county commissioner, backed down when one of our county department heads threatened to expose what he called my “strange sexual habits visiting porn stores” if I persisted in my complaint about the mistreatment of two gay male constituents who were overheard having sex in their tent at a county park in my district. I still feel the sting of that, and have spoken and written about the shame I feel. I wish I could find the two men and say it to their faces.
I acted to save my political and marital neck, at the expense of the dignity of the two men. I went on to win re-election (before deciding to hang up politics to go to seminary). Talk about a golden parachute.
And of course, there are the years of my marriage when I denied my own gay identity, and frankly the quality and quantity of sexual care my wife deserved, not to mention the pain my coming out, separation, and divorce caused her and our daughters. Much good came of all that, too, but I still carry a sense of shame. It long ago stopped immobilizing me and I have fully owned my role in all the pain, have been forgiven by all involved and have even forgiven myself, but the shame is still there. I realize it will never be erased.
The shame of Mr. Trump, the priests and their superiors, and all the celebrity and big business men will not go away either, even if they never own it. But we’d all, and especially their particular victims, be better off if they stood up like real (I am tempted to say “men” because of the ancient, and generally wrong, idea that men are the strong ones) people who own not only their glory but all the rest of their character and behavior, too.
Just think what a different world it would be if we all took responsibility, full responsibility, for all our conduct, if we all strove to be accountable at all times. Those who can lead us in that direction are the real heroes in my book.
The truth is we have to make room in our lives to say yes.
When I was a young man, indeed until last year, I never thought of becoming The Naked Theologian. And although I wrote a few poems over the years—often as a way to celebrate an event—I never thought of myself as a poet. And I did not think of myself as gay until I was 35—even though I had long had sexual fantasies about boys (when I was a boy) and men. And after I graduated from a Ph.D. program in theology and could not find a job teaching the subject, I thought I was done with that.
I never thought, I never thought, I did not think of myself, I thought I was done with that.
There’s a theme here: Thinking can keep you stuck.
I don’t mean one should never think, but over the course of my 71 years I have come to understand, albeit slowly and still imperfectly, that some good stuff happens when I stop thinking and start feeling.
Feeling certainly has a mental component, but when I don’t pay attention to how my body is carrying the feeling I miss vital aspects of myself. Indeed, my experience tells me that I often miss prompts, messages from God.
I love Jonathan, my husband of 20+ years, but our marriage might never have come about if I had reasoned away my feelings of anger and jealousy when he, as then my dear friend of six years for whom I had not felt any erotic draw, began chasing after a comely young man on the beach at Fire Island. Who knew Jonathan and I would become lovers and best friends for life? I think God knew we were a good match, but it took me, and him, some time to figure it out.
Or maybe it was less about figuring things out and more about allowing space for God to fill us with gifts.
Yes, for me, it’s about God, or if you prefer, the Universe. I believe, I know, God is always up to something new, something more. Life is so much richer than any of us can ever fully know, but then we, or at least I, work pretty hard to keep the riches within bounds, within the container of what I think my life is and should be, within the boundaries of the world within and around my socially informed consciousness.
I now realize that making room for new things, allowing space for new things to happen, getting out of the way for life to show us something new—or maybe even show us things that have been in and around us for a long time that we have been avoiding or denying—is the key to rich, vibrant spiritual living.
As some readers will know, I claim several identities. I am a Queer, or maybe just I am queer. I am a nudist/naturist. I am a theologian. I am a poet. I am a father and grandfather. I am a husband. And brother and uncle, and a cis gender male. I am even a Christian, and certainly a citizen. I am a gardener. I am a dog lover and owner.
Some of those identities may seem distinct from others, and some newer, some not so new. But they are all connected in the human person that is me.
The identities and their connectivity are still evolving. Indeed, the evolution that is me is ongoing. For instance, I only began naming myself as a nudist/naturist a year or two ago (I can’t be more precise because it was a process that I now realize began when I was a teenager). About the same time, I began to think about writing as The Naked Theologian.
This particular evolution also required that I reclaim an identity I thought (!!!) I had set aside: theologian. And more than that, queer theologian. And even more recently, I have immersed myself in theopoetics–a way of theologizing that prioritizes the body, experience, and emotion–quite different from the classic discipline of systematic theology in which I was trained.
But I doubt any of that would have happened had I not listened to a voice I heard in 2014 at 10,000 feet in Yosemite National Park, a voice that told me, “The writing keeps crying out.” I have no doubt that God spoke through the trees who (not which) uttered those words, calling me home to what I now see as my vocation: writer. (Of course, that moment was preceded by many others that got me there.)
In the mountains, that call was not very specific. But two days after I came down and home to Richmond, I attended a reading and talk by Natasha Tretheway, then U.S. Poet Laureate. This had not been planned—I saw a newspaper item, and felt a pull to go.
I found a friend there, Dorothy Fillmore, who I discovered in that moment writes wonderful poetry. She and Natasha Tretheway challenged and inspired me to take my first poetry class (with Dorothy) and have not been the same since. I keep taking such courses today.
Why do I share this journey? It’s simple really. The journey is not over, of course. And that’s the point.
I am not in charge of this journey and never have been. I have made choices, of course, and often I used my mind to figure things out.
But the real source of the power, and the wisdom is in my body, in the times when my mind let down its guard and I could feel the movement of the One I call God, Spirit, the One who stops me long enough to hear a voice while I sat naked on that mountain, to the voice I heard while sitting in Rosh Hashanah service at the Or Ami Congregation in Richmond telling me to step away from pastoring to engage in political organizing for equality, to the voice I heard while on retreat in the chapel at Richmond Hill to trust God to give me what I need to get through trying times at the church I served, to the voice I heard on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn in2002 to set aside my hurt and anger at the Episcopal church and accept my call as a pastor (in Metropolitan Community Churches), the voice I heard in Milford, Michigan more than twenty years before that told me to leave political life and go to seminary and serve God and God’s people, the voice I heard at the Episcopal Divinity School on Brattle Street in Cambridge telling me to come out as a gay man.
Not one of those voices, and others earlier and later too, was just in my head. In fact, my head had tried, and succeeded, and still tries and succeeds, in stopping them many times.
So I keep being reminded, praise God, to get out of my head and into my body—where God keeps troubling and guiding my soul, keeps speaking truth, keeps putting divine hands on and in my life. So it’s time to stop this writing for this moment. And listen. And feel. And live into the rich future God yet has for me.
As a highly analytical person, one of the things I struggle the most with is “getting out of my head.” Being present in the moment, not overthinking. Existing in my body instead of using my thoughts to disconnect from the sensations I am experiencing. I have a hard time relaxing and trusting my instincts- which is probably why, when I feel a pull of God calling in my life, I struggle so hard with it.
I appreciate and respect that calls to movement and change are never easy. In fact, I have come to believe that struggling with a call is part of the call itself. It’s part of faith- the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. So it makes sense to me that the movement of God in my own life comes in ways that are harder for me to trust. They’re intuitive, instinctive. They require me to “trust my gut” and, for all intents and purposes, “get out of my head.”
As we are transitioning from winter into spring and the weather gets warmer, this is something I have been thinking a good deal about. I’m not someone who deals with cold very well, and spend most of the winter trying to ignore the sensations of my body- which means getting deep into my head and focusing on the thoughts and internal contemplation as a means of distancing myself from my physical reality of being cold. But as it gets warmer, and my skin feels more comfortable again, it’s easier to be more present-aware because I am enjoying the sensations of warm on my skin.
I’ve been thinking about this because it’s almost become second nature for me to distance myself from my body in different ways when the sensations my body is experiencing are uncomfortable. And by doing this, it also means that I fall into this habit during other periods of anxiety or discomfort- which includes sex, or moments where I feel the call of God stirring in my life. My default is to sink into my analytical mind and overthink everything, rather than experience the sensations of my body, however uncomfortable they may be.
It has been a period of so many transitions: seasonal transitions in tandem with life transitions. In particular, I have been at a place where I have wanted to make the work I do in the kink and BDSM community more sustainable and financially viable, but I haven’t quite known how to do that. As I was contemplating different ways to move out of food service industry and into full-time kink work, I was offered an opportunity to become a ropemaking apprentice with a friend who has been making and selling rope for over seven years and is a well-known ropemaker inside the kink community.
It’s not that I think that God is calling me to be a ropemaker, specifically. The call I felt stirring was subtler and much more powerful- follow your passion. It was a call to move beyond the “safety net” of food service industry jobs and take a blind leap, in some respects, into an opportunity that sets me on a path to making my life more sustainable. And I wanted to follow it, absolutely. But I didn’t want to give up my safety net.
I began the apprenticeship, but also maintained my outside job. Between the two, I ended up overworking myself, and got sick. It forced me to stop and reconsider how I was choosing to listen and follow this tug of opportunity that was presented to me. And in that moment I realized: I needed to make room in my life for the things I wanted, or I was distancing myself from this call as much as I distance myself from my body when I am uncomfortable.
There is a terrifying element of trust in all of this. The idea that “I don’t know where this is going or how this is going to work out, but I trust that you have led me here for a reason, God.” I wanted to cling to my own safety nets, maintain my other job (which, while I loved it, was emotionally and physically taxing as well as in the midst of many changes and transitions). The truth is, we have to make room in our lives to say yes. Getting out of our heads means taking risks sometimes. It means we do things- not recklessly, but without analyzing every possible outcome and conclusion. It means we trust that things will go well, instead of looking for every opportunity where things might go wrong. Overanalyzing is often looking for a reason to say no, rather than trusting our instincts to say yes.
Getting out of our heads means we have to be willing to experience our own discomfort. Our own fears and insecurities and uncertainties. It means that we have to let go of control, make space, and experience our lives fully- the good and the bad. It means we takes risks when our gut is telling us that’s the direction we need to move. It means being present, saying yes, and letting go of whatever safety nets we have built- because those nets are no longer a help, but a hindrance to our goals.
It means making room. When God calls us to move in some direction in our lives, sometimes we have to let other things go to make room. I needed to leave my other job; as much as I loved its goals and purpose, it had become and physically and emotionally taxing in a way that was not sustainable, it was a pull on my time that I couldn’t sustain, and I knew I would be leaving regardless. When I got sick, it was a moment for me to get out of my head, experience the sensations of my body, make some hard decisions, and follow my gut- wherever that leads me.
For me, I find that it’s rarely the thing itself that is the call, but the intention of the thing. It’s not about becoming a ropemaker (although I do love it and enjoy it and plan to do it for quite some time). It’s about setting the intention that I wanted kink to be more financially sustainable and was unsure how to do it, and the opportunity presented itself to me. I don’t think this is where I will end up “forever,” but I think it’s a step down a path that is built on following my passions. It’s an opportunity to move to a different place in my life, and that intention is perhaps the most powerful- and terrifying- part of all.
Getting out of my head isn’t easy. If I stop to think too hard, I think of every way this could go wrong and fail. I second-guess myself, my abilities, my contributions. I want to stay in the safe area of customer service- not because I love it, but because I’ve done it so long that I’m good at it. It’s comfortable.
But God rarely allows us to stay too comfortable for long. And when we state our desires into the universe, they are heard. So this season- this season of transience and transition- the themes seem to all interconnect and weave together into their own safety net of sorts: let go of control. Get out of your head. Say yes. Make room. Let go, and let God.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
How have your perspectives, your sense of self, your choices, changed over the years? How do you identify the sources which have helped you to change, have led you in new directions? 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! June 13th (or thereabouts), 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.
Each year at Christmas, we encounter the biblical description of what has become known as the Virgin Birth (not to be confused with“ immaculate conception,” which says the conception of Mary was immaculate). We have two sources for this, chapter one of both the Gospel according to Matthew and according to Luke. Mark is silent, as is John. This “pure” way of Jesus’ conception maintains a powerful hold for many believers.
Long ago, I became convinced that this is theological make believe, dreamt up by those who felt that the Messiah could not be the Messiah if he were the product of the sexual activity of his parents. If he is going to be the Son of God, surely God must be his father, right?
Of course, this denies the fact that for me, and most Christians, and Jews, too, every human being is born a child of God. Whether this is literal or figurative is important but does not take away the power of the connection between humanity and the divine One. Without God, the Source of all life, we would not be here.
I remember when I served as a seminary field education intern at an Episcopal congregation in Brookline, MA, I was assigned to meet weekly with the women’s Bible study group. When I told them we would read the birth account from Matthew and from Luke for the following week, one of the members, an older woman born in England, said, “You won’t require us to believe in the virgin birth will you?” Others supported her.
I assured them we did not have theological litmus tests in the group. During our subsequent discussion of the texts, most of the women, some of whom were mothers, spoke very plainly about their belief that Jesus was the child of Mary and Joseph in all respects. The mothers spoke movingly about the birthing experience, including knowing that, whether their husbands were allowed to be present or not (this was 1981 and these births had taken place considerably earlier when the presence of fathers in the delivery room was less common), they shared the intense feelings—the pain and the joy—with the partner who shared the responsibility for creating and caring for this new life.
I was very moved. I thought about the stories of the birth in the stable, how Joseph is pictured as being there with Mary and the baby and how he took them to Egypt for safety against the rampage of King Herod. I also thought about the birth of my daughters, perhaps most powerfully the first but with all three, and how I was present in the delivery room and how I heard angels singing and creation cheering as Judy’s labor pains became more and more intense, then gave way to birth. Each time I felt overwhelming joy and awe. I wept, I thanked God again and again for bringing me and Judy together in the first place and then blessing our marriage and love-making and being on the parenting journey with us. We—Judy, God and I—were a threesome creating life.
I say love-making, but of course I mean sex. Over the course of our almost nine-year marriage, Judy and I had sexual intercourse—more than three times—that resulted in the births of three girls. Some people say, “We’re trying to make a baby.” It is a nice way of saying they are having sex, and hope sperm and egg will meet and mate.
For some reason we can’t talk about it. I think a key reason for that is the idea that Jesus had to be born without human sexual activity in order to be holy. In order to be better than every other human he could not be conceived in the usual way. That sets up a system in which human sexuality is devalued. I admit to not being an expert about ancient attitudes toward sex, so it is entirely possible, I imagine likely, that the devaluing of human sexuality was already a common social idea.
Either way, today we can’t even talk about sex in general, really talk about it, honestly and seriously without innuendo and jokes (often offensive). Currently, much conversation is, rightly, focused on the misuse and abuse of sex, and that soul-searching and fundamental change must continue.
Still, I want us as a society, and certainly those of us who are Christians, to find ways to talk more openly about the beauty and power of sex. One way to do that is to put the sex back in Christmas, or more accurately to jettison the Virgin Birth in favor of the real conception and the real birth which brought Jesus into the world.
According to polls, most Americans believe in the facticity of the Virgin Birth. Many Christian theologians and clergy, probably most, see it as an essential doctrine. “To remove the miraculous from Christmas is to remove this central story of Christianity,” according to Gary Burge, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. “It would dismantle the very center of Christian thought and take away the keystone of the arch of Christian theology.”
Burge, and many others share this view: If Jesus was not virgin-born, then he was not the son of God; if he was not the son of God, then he was just another crucified man and not the sacrifice that would redeem the sins of the world. (To read a journalistic account of this debate, click here)
I want to be clear on one point: I do not question the power of God to do this impregnating, but I do question whether God would see the need to undermine the power and beauty of divinely-inspired creation in order to anoint a human as Messiah.
God likes sex, wants us to have more of it—with consent—and enjoy it more, not only during the acts but to be able to talk about it and enjoy it openly in anticipation and memory. Indeed, I think if we could get sex really out in the open it would be less susceptible to abuse.
So, here’s to Mary and Joseph, who got it on and created Jesus of Nazareth. Thanks be to God!
Perhaps this is less of a risqué statement now than it would have been at other points, but as we approach the Christmas season, I have to make a confession: I have never believed in the immaculate conception, nor the concept of the virgin birth.
This is, perhaps, a strange thing because, after all, isn’t the virgin birth a central aspect of the Christmas story and, in fact, the entirety of the Christian faith? I remember having a conversation with someone- I believe it was my mother, while she was in seminary- and we were discussing the concepts of virgin birth and immaculate conception. She told me that what makes the story of Mary unusual isn’t the claim of impregnation while maintaining virginity-
historically, queens would make this claim as justification for what made their sons fit to rule over other men; they were not just men, but half-gods, conceived through divine intervention and ordained by deity to rule. No, what made Mary’s claim uncommon wasn’t that she claimed immaculate conception, but that she did so as a commoner. She was not a queen and she was in no position to bear children destined to rule over others.
Understanding that history solidified my belief that Mary was not, in fact, a virgin. I don’t know how she was impregnated, but I assume one of two things happened: either she had premarital intercourse with someone (perhaps Joseph, perhaps someone else), or she was sexually assaulted and became pregnant as a result. Either way, I think there are powerful messages in the concept of the Christmas story that are missed when we cling to a belief in the virgin birth story.
I think we find an incredible story of mercy. A story that shows us the power of God to take a horrific experience (such as assault or rape) and transform it into something healing and powerful. Do I think that the birth of Jesus is a justification for the traumatic experience of rape? Of course not; I’ve never ascribed much to an “ends justify the means” mentality. Rape is, in and of itself, a traumatic, horrific experience, and to live through it (and bear children as a result of it) is atrocious. But the world is full of trauma and horrific experiences that people must figure out how to live through (as we continuously work to eradicate sexually-based violence), and in the story of Mary, I see an immense capacity for healing and transformation after a violating experience.
How can we come to heal from our own traumas and begin to see the experiences that shaped us in new ways? Without minimizing the horror of violence visited upon bodies, how can we realistically move through these experiences to come to a new way of existing in our world? Perhaps we become brazen, like Mary. Perhaps we speak up, and speak our truth. For her, her truth was that she was carrying a child destined to become the King of Kings, the Messiah. She was scorned and ridiculed for her truth, yet she spoke it anyway. What truth can we speak from our own wounds and traumas?
On a less heavy note, my preference is to believe that Mary had premarital
sex. Perhaps she was working as a sex worker, or perhaps she and Joseph got caught up in a moment of passion. Regardless, she broke social mores and bore the consequences of that. And God didn’t care. God is not bound my social rules, nor is God bound by expectations and social hierarchy. This child would be the vessel through which others would come to know and understand God, a message made that much more powerful in understanding that his roots are less than pristine.
What a message- we do not have to be perfect, or come from perfect circumstances, to be a vessel for God. We do not have to meet social criteria or man-made rules to be anointed and appointed. We are Enough, just as we are, not in spite of where we come from, but because of it. Mary had sex outside of wedlock and bore a child who would be known as the son of God. What further proof do we need in the awesome mercy of God, in the miracle of the Christmas story, in the power of our own sexuality to form and build and create?
I want to put the sex back into Christmas because I think the sex is important. I think that we have a rich, powerful story that explores the awesome power of sex to build and form connection, to create life- not just “life” in the sense of a child, but “life” in the sense of creating new life within each of us, allowing space for ourselves to grow in the power of God through our sexual experiences and expressions. Focusing on the virginity and purity of the story, for me, takes away from the awesome power of God to transform our lives- our very human, imperfect lives. Taking the sex out of Christmas allows us to cling to these ideas of purity and morality, an anti-sex sentiment that runs rampant in Christianity when, in fact, the origin of our faith is most likely rooted in sexual exploits that defied social rules!
Sex is good. And quite frankly, what I see in the Christmas story is one of God saying, “I don’t care if you signed the piece of paper before you fuck; I care that you live lives of intentionality and care, that you are willing to see the miracle of your existence and hear me when I speak your name. I care that you will listen to my call, even when others around you do not understand, even when others around you disagree, I want to know that you remain steadfast in your love for me.” And that is what I get out of Christmas: a story of healing. One of transformation. One where a young woman proudly claimed her right to bear children ordained by God. One where God shucks off the limiting rules of humanity and reminds us that God cannot be constrained by our limited perspectives on purity.
This is a message of hope, yes. One of power and transformation. But it is not found through ignoring, minimizing, or disregarding our sexual selves, but found through claiming, owning, experiencing them fully, and hearing when the voice of God speaks our names.
The 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Everyone knows about them , but no one will talk about them or acknowledge them.
Jonathan and I have become invested in a television drama called “A Place to Call Home,” about a “to the manor born” family in Australia. We like it for superb acting, engaging plot lines, and the general lack of violence (Note: it is available through Acorn TV, “the best British streaming TV,” –we access it through ROKU).
As the first season unfolded, the characters became increasingly complex, and we got hooked, especially as one by one various characters revealed secrets. In some ways the main theme of the program is the hiding and disclosing of family secrets. As you might imagine most of them involve sex in one way or another.
As I told Malachi about the program, we began to realize we had each experienced, and even yet experience, some aspects of keeping, being, and revealing secrets [as you might expect, his experience is less “mainstream” than mine].
As a pastor, I heard secrets. Many, if not most, of them were about abuse of various kinds, especially sexual abuse and violence in the home. Most people would tell about it as they sought to explain feelings they wanted to change—attitudes and fears that had been induced by the ugly behavior.
Of course, in a church community with many LGBT people, and in a relatively conservative area (Richmond, Virginia) some members felt they had to keep their sexual orientation and non-cis gender feelings secret—either due to family issues or potential loss of jobs and housing, or all of the above. However, non-LGBT people also talked about secrets, many of them related to sex.
Two very dear friends of mine have harrowing histories of sexual abuse—one due to boys forcing sex on him in the boys’ bathroom at school, and the other due to a parent being utterly inappropriate in describing to my friend in some detail the parent’s disgust at sexual behavior by the other parent in their marriage. Both friends continue to feel effects from these incidents, many years later.
In fact, my friend who suffered from sexual assault had blocked the memory for decades. It came out in intensive therapy due to sexual issues with my friend’s partner. My friend acknowledged a feeling of sexual “frozenness” (my word) and sought help to be freed. It is a work in progress.
I hid my sexual attraction to men until I was in my mid-30s. But I had realized it much earlier, and on two occasions broke my silence. The first time I told my parents, and they seemed to listen but then returned to watching television. They simply did not know what to do with their 16-year-old son standing in the middle to the living room telling him he was “homosexual” (five or six years before Stonewall). And then, when I was in college, I told my priest and asked him what to do. He spoke to my parents, and then, with their permission and my acquiescence, arranged for me to see a therapist.
Supposedly, after some months I was “okay,” at least “better.”
I did not entirely fool myself, however—for example, Playgirl magazine came into being a year or two before I was married in 1974 and I ordered a subscription, allegedly for my new wife. I was sad when she showed little interest in it, and I—who had eagerly consumed the pictures in each issue—had no excuse to renew it.
And before we were married, she asked me about an observation by a friend of hers in our small town that I was “homosexual.” I assured her I was not—that the therapist I had seen while in college had “cured” me.
When I did come out to her, she told me she had never quite let go of fear that her friend had been right. And my mother told me that she had felt relief as we had several children. Surely, she reasoned, I could not be “that way” if we were having babies! But she also told me, after I came out, that a cleaning woman had found a copy of Playgirl in a file drawer in the room where I occasionally slept when staying over to help her care for my invalid father.
I had a secret, but so did they. Secrets breed secrets.
Why do we keep sexual secrets?
One answer is shame. “There is no part of being human about which Americans feel more shame than sex,” says Marty Klein, a sex therapist writing in Psychology Today.
But why shame? One reason, according to Klein, is “sexual exceptionalism—the idea that sex is different than everything else, and needs special rules to govern it.”
One “rule” is the prohibition on the public display of naked bodies. That prohibition seems to rest on the idea that nakedness equals sex (an equation strongly disputed by naturists).
I have long been enamored of nudity, my own and that of others. I like being naked. But I think I made a mistake when, years ago, I was naked, with other naked male friends, at the beach when my daughters, then in their teens and pre-teens, were present. I have carried shame about that behavior.
My shame became more acute after my half-sister, the daughter of my father from his first marriage, told me that our father went around the house, when she was a teen, without his pants on and thus showing his genitals (she told me this 20 year
s after he died). She hated it, as did her mother. This never happened in the home in which I lived with our father and my mother (not hers).
Thus, I continue to worry that my writing about nudity—and perhaps choosing at some point to call myself “The Naked Theologian”—will once again cause me to engage in shameful behavior, at least toward my daughters. As I ponder and pray about that possibility I keep wondering if I need to give my daughters “veto power” over my decision.
Then, I think about church. Do I give “veto power” to the people at church who don’t like my writing about sex and bodies, and most assuredly would not be comfortable with “The Naked Theologian?”
Church of course, is a major contributor to rules about sex. Many church people, and others, even think that sex is the major focus of the Bible.
There is a lot of sex in various parts of the text, and there are texts that contain prohibitions and judgments. But there are other texts, other stories, which do neither (and even “normalize” things prohibited elsewhere). In fact, as Jennifer Wright Knust writes in Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, “When read as a whole, the Bible provides neither clear nor consistent advice about sex and bodies. . . .”
One way to reduce the power of sexual secrets, and move forward in overcoming abuse and violence, is to discard the idea that the Bible is a reliable sex manual. Then we might begin allowing God into our all parts of our lives, including sex.
I suspect God would like that, and we’d be happier, and safer, too.
I’ve been the family secret. In fact, in many ways, I’m sure I still am, partially of my own choosing, partially of my family’s choosing. I haven’t stayed in touch with most of my family of origin- my grandmother asks my mother about me, but beyond that, I don’t know that much of my extended family really makes an effort to know much about my life. After all, I was the illegitimate child born out of wedlock and raised by lesbians- they were, for much of my life, the “family secret.” Now, I’m a transgender, queer, non-monogamous, kinky sex educator. At some point in the journey of my life, my extended family stopped reaching out to me. My family is no stranger to secrets.
Family secrets are a complicated thing. Whether they are born from a place of shame or an attempt to “keep the peace” at family gatherings, they’re like the big pink elephant in the room. Everyone knows about them , but no one will talk about them or acknowledge them. I think that’s the thing that makes them “secrets”… it’s not so much that they “aren’t known,” but simply that they “aren’t acknowledged.” It’s not, for example, that anyone had any misconceptions about my parent’s relationship: they were obviously more than friends and roommates, and very clearly were lovers. It wasn’t a secret in the sense that no one knew they were partners. It was a secret in the sense that their partnership was never publicly acknowledged or respected as equal to other people’s partnerships. I certainly felt that tension in how I was accepted (or not accepted) as family with my non-biological mother’s family.
Being the family secret is a form of silencing and erasure. It’s a way for people who are supposed to love us unconditionally to choose not to see a part of who we are. For queer people especially, it entirely removes our capacity to exist in the world as whole people: spiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual. Our sexuality, our genders, our relationship configurations and familial configurations are erased, hidden, and ignored; our capacity to be sexual beings is denied.
This month, we celebrate Pride month. Pride at being able to live authentically, to be who we are- all of who we are- when so many of us have lived for a long time as the family secret. Perhaps it’s not coincidence that the subtle verbal acknowledgement of one queer person to another used to be, “Are you family?” We made our own families, families where we found unconditional love and support when we refused to allow who we are to be a secret, something to ignore and work around, a burden, a discomfort.
This week, we also honor the one-year anniversary of the fatal shooting at Pulse
nightclub where 49 young people lost their lives in a tragic hate crime aimed at permanently silencing queer people of color. The queer community- particularly queer communities of color- are no stranger to secrets, either. I think of those people who may have been outed simply by being at Pulse that night- both those who died, and those who lived and suffered the consequences of trauma. What families who had skirted around, never acknowledged, or tried to ignore the sexuality of a loved one must be feeling. I think of the toll of family secrets, and the crushing weight of regret that sometimes comes when we realize we have forever lost an opportunity to show unconditional love.
We are- our queerness, our lives, the ways we love and fuck and connect and build families- we are working against a lifetime of being taught that who we are should not be acknowledged. That who we are makes people uncomfortable, that it causes waves, that it is better kept a secret. We celebrate Pride as a response to these messages, a deliberate way of opening up our own family secrets- and in many ways, opening up our families. One of my mothers has a beautiful phrase that I have adopted as a mantra in my own life: “the only eggshells in this house are in the fridge.” We don’t tiptoe around truth and reality and important conversations because they are uncomfortable.
In my adult, chosen family, I hope we never have family secrets. As I continue to raise my goddaughter, I hope that she never feels the sense of silencing, the shame, the shifts in language, the awkwardness that I felt as a child growing up. I hope she never feels that she is part of a family secret- and a source of family shame.
As a trans, queer person myself, I consciously make the choice not to engage with much of my extended family. Not because I think they are bad or incapable of changing, but because I am not willing to do the things my parents did (and to some degree, still do) to self-silence, to shift, to alter who they were. I am not willing to pretend to be something- or someone- I am not. So perhaps, for them, I exist in the stories my mother tells about me, however twisted and convoluted she presents my life. I recognize that, in many ways, she is still in the same place of seeking love, acceptance, and affirmation for her life, struggling against being the family secret while also wanting to keep the peace. I know that the ways she represents my life aren’t accurate; it’s her choice to make, and it’s mine to not engage with my families of origin to give a more accurate perspective.
We each come out in our own ways, at our own times. Pride reminds us- and the anniversary of Pulse reminds us- how dear, how precious, how important authenticity is. Our sexuality is not inconvenient. Our sexuality does not need to be a secret or something danced around in awkward pauses over family dinners. Now, more than ever, it is vital that we see our sexuality as a part of the whole image of who we are. Now, more than ever, we cannot afford to be silent or circumnavigated. Now, more than ever, we must break our own silences- in whatever ways they manifest- and refuse to be the family secret.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
What is your relationship with family (or community) secrets? Have you been asked to hold the secrets of others? Have you felt like you were “the secret” in some capacity? 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 TOMORROW, 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.
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.