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.
These bills have continued a dangerous trend in online censorship of discussions of sex.
The sex police are at it again.
In a society so rife with sexual scandals involving men (and the occasional woman too) in high and powerful places it seems somehow hypocritical when righteous Senators and Representatives legislate yet one more obstacle to the safety and honest labor of sex workers.
Yet, that is what they have done, by passing the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)/Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SOSTA). FOSTA was passed by the House and the Senate passed SOSTA, and then they were combined into one law, now awaiting what seems to be the almost certain signature of President Trump (of course, with him, it’s not done until its actually done and he can’t take it back).
Here is relevant language from the bill:
“§ 2421A. Promotion or facilitation of prostitution and reckless disregard of sex trafficking
“(a) In General.—Whoever, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (as such term is defined in defined in section 230(f) the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230(f))), or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.
“(b) Aggravated Violation.—Whoever, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (as such term is defined in defined in section 230(f) the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230(f))), or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person and—
“(1) promotes or facilitates the prostitution of 5 or more persons; or
“(2) acts in reckless disregard of the fact that such conduct contributed to sex trafficking, in violation of 1591(a),
shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 25 years, or both.”
The casual observer might well feel good that Congress has taken a step to stop sex trafficking. I certainly want sufficient tools to combat the horrors of forcing people to be sexual with others against their will (certainly when children are involved but also adults who are coerced into being the sexual tools of others). So, this law ought to make me feel good, right?
Sadly, no. There are two aspects to the legislation which feel especially egregious to me. First, the act conflates sex trafficking with legitimate, chosen sex work by using the term “prostitution” as that which is subject to its provisions. Thus, sex workers, not just sex traffickers, are affected by the law.
Second, the act has the very clear potential to increase risks to the safety of sex workers. By holding web hosting companies and others responsible, and subject to jail time and fines, when they knowingly allow ads and other notifications of prostitution on their sites, the law actually can contribute to the inability of sex workers to screen clients. How is this so?
Basically, web companies and others don’t want to be involved in federal or state investigations and lawsuits due to sex-focused advertising. A zealous prosecutor can quickly make things expensive and burdensome for a company. What is the solution? Stop accepting advertising that promotes sex (prostitution in the language of the act).
And that is already happening. The upshot is that sex workers are forced back on the streets without ways to screen clients. Craigslist, which had closed down its erotic notices section in 2010 in response to earlier legal problems, now, as the result of this law, has closed down its “Personals” section, which many individuals who are not sex workers used for sexual hook-ups.
Which is why I speak of the sex police.
This new law, while having a commendable intent to prevent sex trafficking, adds yet one more layer to the criminalization, or at least prohibition, of consensual sex acts between and among adults (with and without compensation).
Indeed, it perpetuates the mistaken notion that the government can and should stop sex work. This is not unlike the unsuccessful campaign to end drinking by banning the sale of alcohol. Prohibition acts in the states and the constitutional amendment were passed but drinking did not stop. If that campaign were going on now, it seems likely that the advocates would, like the sex-focused Congress now, penalize online promotion of drinking alcohol.
In both blogs, there is a recognition of the centrality of sex to the lives of human animals. And there is a positive valuation of various consensual ways people endeavor to exercise their sexual muscles, to live in ways that reflect their own sexual desires and attitudes in concert with willing others.
These two points—the centrality of sex in our lives and the honoring of the various consensual ways we are sexual—are base line, theological, spiritual values for me. They are grounded in my belief that every body, every single body—regardless of size, gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, age, and all other ways we humans set up to draw lines around individuals and groups of people—is beautiful and reflects the Creator. The entire universe—every human and non-human being as well as all rocks, molecules, trees, everything—is, for me, the Body of God, and each of those is valued in itself for carrying divine DNA to make that Body.
And key to this is the energy source which keeps it all going. I call that source eros, the divinely inspired and desired power of connection among us all. Sex is the opportunity for making connection.
So, instead of continuing efforts to penalize people for wanting sex, we should be encouraging an openness to it, a celebration in fact of our desire for connection. Desire is not encouraged or made possible through coercion—that is abuse and rape—but through creating safe conditions that make it possible for us to explore and share our sexual selves with others.
I wish I thought the President would veto the legislation, but I know it will not be so (even though the Justice Department raised some concerns about possible restraint of speech).
We need to promote the decriminalization of sex acts among consenting adults and oppose efforts which perpetuate old attitudes about the evil of sex. Congress has failed that test, again.
Recently, Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA). SESTA closes the loophole in section 203 of the Communications Decency Act, in which websites were not liable for the content users produced and shared on their website. FOSTA makes online ads for prostitution a federal crime- either posting the ads or hosting the content.
Please let me be clear: sex trafficking is a horrendous violation of human rights and should be prevented and stopped. There is no equivocation on this fact. FOSTA/SESTA does not achieve this goal; in fact, it makes it harder to catch those dealing in human trafficking as they are forced to go “underground” and limit internet exchanges. So not only does this bill not do what it was designed to do, it also makes consensual sex work significantly more dangerous.
I have many friends who are consensual sex workers- adults who have been in the industry for years and continue to stay in the industry of their own volition. Some enjoy the work; others view it as a job. A friend recently pointed that out we place expectations on consensual sex workers such as “is the job fulfilling?” and “do you feel empowered by your work?” She pointed out that we do not require “fulfillment” or “empowerment” or any such conditions on other jobs- grocery baggers, fast food workers, taxi drivers, etc. Some find it fulfilling; others do it for a paycheck; she argued that requiring sex work to be considered “fulfilling” in a specific way was still placing moralistic judgement on the work. For her, it is a job; she doesn’t love it and doesn’t hate it, but it pays the bills and she’s been in the industry long enough that she has a good client base and is able to work relatively safely.
I say all this to say- consensual sex work is, like any other profession, a job. There are good days and bad days. I don’t pretend that there aren’t risks associated with sex work, but I do recognize that requiring that those doing the work feel a specific way about the work (a) continues to reinforce this idea that sex work isn’t work in the same ways we view other jobs as work and (b) makes it harder for sex worker to talk about “bad days,” because the default answer is almost always, “Well, why don’t you stop doing it then?”
One of the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA is that it shuts down online ads for prostitution- including the ads of consensual sex workers. This means that advertisements leading people to personal websites where workers are able to screen clients safely (rather than being forced to meet in person) are now illegal. This forces many workers who do not already have a client base to engage in higher-risk sex work (including, but not limited to street-based sex work and meeting clients in-person for screening). This also means that sharing information about sex work in online forums- such as exchanging names and information of bad clients, or tips for how to screen new clients- is now a federal crime.
Websites such as craigslist have already taken steps, such as shutting down it’s personal section rather than face prosecution for hosting prostitution ads. The craigslist personals section covered everything from sex work ads to people looking for random hookups local to their area. Fetish websites such as FetLife have put out their own guidelines for complying with FOSTA/SESTA, which means those who advertise the exchange of goods for sex (which sometimes includes professional dominatrices, or pro-dommes) will be subject to having their accounts deleted, and any mention of prostitution in any form will be deleted from the website- including those who engage in consensual interactions where they roleplay prostitution scenarios.
The implications of these bills are vast and with the ambiguous language, are able to be interpreted quite broadly. Conflating consensual sex work with sex trafficking does a disservice to both groups- in fact, I know of no group more vocal in stopping the abuse of sex trafficking than sex workers. FOSTA/SESTA not only puts consensual sex workers in a significantly more dangerous position, and not only does it elevate safety measures for sex workers (such as online screening) to a federal prostitution charge, but it makes it harder to catch those engaging in sex trafficking, driving them offline and forcing them to create new networks that are not as easy to track as online networks.
These bills have continued a dangerous trend in online censorship of discussions of sex. It is unclear how these bills might impact things like the #MeToo movement (more on that here) or censor online discussions of sex at all (a comprehensive look at the impacts of FOSTA/SESTA can be found here). The reality is, this bill is an atrocious piece of legislation that impacts everyone- but specifically makes sex work more difficult, more dangerous, and does not protect victims of sex trafficking.
We must do more to fight trafficking and protect and support victims of sex trafficking. But measures such as FOSTA/SESTA, however good-intentioned they might be, do significantly more harm than good and do not achieve their goal. We need to look at ACTUAL measure to protect victims- many suggestions and resources come from within the sex work community. Criminalizing consensual sex work in an effort to protect victims of trafficking not only removes the autonomy of adults to make their own decisions about their employment- never mind choices about their bodies- by conflating all sex work as a form of trafficking, but it also removes a vital, necessary resource toward ending trafficking- the resources and knowledge of sex workers who are connected to the sex industry. Sex workers are far more knowledgeable about the sex industry than those peering in from the outside with a savior mentality, and have been fighting trafficking for years, often without legal and social support. It’s time to stop criminalizing sex work and focus on supporting sex workers- which will do more to end trafficking than ambiguous, blanket-statement legislation written by those who don’t fully understand the implications of these actions.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think about sex work? What do you know about it? What should government do to stop sex trafficking? And not do? How do you define sexual freedom? 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! May 9th, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.
We must work together to change a sex-negative culture . . . .
We have just finished out Halloween and with it, the season of costuming and playing dress-up…both for kids and for adults. And once again this year, I found myself immensely frustrated at the options for Halloween costumes…both for kids and adults, particularly femme and female-presenting people.
There is a quote from the movie “Mean Girls” that sums it up very succinctly: “Halloween is the one day of the year that women can dress like sluts and no other girls can say anything about it.” As much as I wish this were a Hollywood-ized exaggeration, I look at the costume options available for women and find that to be poignantly true. Sexy cops, sexy firefighters, sexy postal workers, sexy this, sexy that.
My issue with this is two-fold: first, this starts at a very young age and, while I respect that children often develop their own sense of sexuality at various ages, sexualizing children’s costumes is, to me, a pretty disturbing thing. That’s a whole different conversation, although it does bear mentioning (as I have a nine year old daughter, I felt this very personally this year).
The bigger issue I have with this trend, though, is not that women are expressing their sexuality, but rather, that there needs to be an excuse, some sense of having “permission” to exist as a sexual being. The fact that Halloween- a time in which we dress up and “pretend” to be somethingother than what we are- is a time when women are encouraged to claim their own sexuality lends itself to the idea that, at other points, women should not express their sexuality. If we pretend to be something other than what we are for Halloween, then what does it say about what we “allow” women to be in terms of sexual expression the other 364 days of the year?
This isn’t something that’s limited to Halloween, although that is theexample most on my mind at the moment. But we have to create these opportunities where it’s ok for people to claim their sexuality as a part of their whole selves… almost as though it is a hiatus from “real” life. Never mind that women are chronically sexualized by other people on a daily basis… women are allowed to be seen as sex symbols, sex objects, but not allowed to claim and own their sexuality as their own, lest they be seen as “sluts” (as though having a healthy and full sexual life is a negative thing, never mind that we encourage the same behavior in men that we shame in women).
I had a friend recently describe interactions with me as “dripping with sex appeal.” They clarified that it was not that I was inappropriately sexual toward anyone, but that the way that I inhabit my body and move through the world is one in which my sexuality is an active part. I remember hearing this and feeling immensely uncomfortable, as though I had broken some unspoken rule about how we were “supposed” to engage with other people. Should I find ways to limit and/or minimize the extent to which my sexuality influences the way I interact with others?
I don’t think the problem is that I am too sexual; I think the issue is that we are so used to compressing people down into non-sexual boxes and not allowing them to be the full expressions of who they are: physical, spiritual, sexual, mental, emotional. There is a vast difference between “sexualizing another person for our benefit” and “allowing other people to exist as a sexual being.” I think, sometimes, we seek to distance ourselves so much from the former that we also diminish the latter. As a result, we give into a culture that allows for discrete moments of permission that allow people to claim their sexuality in obvious ways, but minimizes it at other times.
Juxtaposed against this, I think of the times I spend in the kink community, particularly the week-long, outdoor camping events. One of the hardest things about leaving that space is the recognition that we have to put on our “normal” clothes, go back into the world, and try to adjust our behavior to something that is considered more socially acceptable, which comes down to compressing our sexual selves back into a box. I’ve never been particularly good at that, and it’s not something I want to get better at. I do not want to look for excuses to exist as, among other things, a sexual being, nor do I believe that claiming one’s own sexuality is “asking for” harassment, catcalling, etc.
We live in a world impacted by sexuality and sexual expression, regardless of how we experience sexual attraction (or whether we experience sexual attraction at all). We live in a world that actively seeks to diminish our capacity to experience and express ourselves as sexual beings, instead offering moments of respite in which we can express these things without fear of social reprise or stigma. We live in a world that stigmatizes sexuality- particularly the sexuality of women (rather than the perceived sexuality of women for the pleasure of men).
There aren’t easy answers or solutions to these things, but I believe it
begins with small changes. Wear that risque shirt. Wear the pants or skirts or fabrics or shoes or makeup that make you feel sexy in your body- not for anyone else, but for yourself. Claim your sexuality as something that is a part of you, for you, rather than something that is on display for the approval (or disapproval) of others. Share that article on your facebook page about safer sex practices or ways to spice up your sex life or interesting facts about BDSM or whatever thing it is that you read and wondered if it was “too much” to share on social media. Write erotica that expresses your sexual fantasies. Change your language in small ways: rather than the “walk of shame” the morning after sex, think of it as a walk of victory. Rather than thinking someone is a slut because they have multiple sexual partners, try to think how cool it is that someone is in touch with their own experience of sexuality that they are able to explore it in many different ways. Consider how you might respond to a behavior if it was done by someone in a different demographic: if a man did it, would it feel as taboo? How do your reactions change if that person is a person of color, older or younger than you, etc.?
We must work together to change a sex-negative culture. We must actively work to change the ways we talk and think about sex… and who is “allowed” to exist as a sexual being, versus who must be given permission (and under what circumstances). We must change the way we claim and view our own sexuality… not as a taboo, isolated part of ourselves, but as simply a part of ourselves that coexists with many other facets of who we are. Owning and claiming these things are necessary and vital- both to changing the culture of how we view sex and sexuality, but also to how we view ourselves as whole, integrated beings. We exist in a sexualized world, and many of us experience a sense of our own sexuality. What a joy it would be to be able to exist comfortably within ourselves as, among other things, sexual people, taking another step toward integrating our minds, our bodies, and our spirits as one.
As Malachi and I talked the other day about this week’s blog, he mentioned the over-sexualizing of Halloween costumes for women. As he explained more about it, I realized I was ignorant of this phenomenon. One reason is because I pay little attention to Halloween (but a quick Google search confirmed a high preponderance of costumes for women designed to present the wearer as a sex object). Also, as a gay man, I pay little attention to what women wear on Halloween.
But as we talked further, it became clearer to me that this emphasis at Halloween is part of the hiding of sex. If many can leer and wink at Halloween, then it makes it possible to pretend that sex is something only to be brought out at specified, sanctioned times, and thanks to sexualizing women specifically, they remain objects. Patriarchy wins again.
That got me thinking about other times we sexualize something so we can “play” with sex without actually really being open about it.
For example, there is the wedding night. In today’s culture, where most couples have already lived and slept together, the wedding night is less fraught with anticipation and anxiety, but there are plenty of couples who have “saved” themselves. And, I still hear people making suggestive remarks about the wedding bed.
Then, there is the bachelor party for a straight male partner—inviting a sex dancer or worker is sometimes part of the celebration, in observation of the “last time” the about-to-be married person is supposed to experience sex outside marriage. I am less familiar with bachelorette parties, but do know they sometimes take place in a club or other venue with male strippers.
Less obvious perhaps is special occasion sex—on an anniversary or birthday, of the day of or after a promotion or new job, or winning an award or prize. I don’t meant to suggest there is a problem with this per se, but I do think it can fall into a pattern of needing a reason to be sexual. I sometimes joke with my Jewish beloved that the Torah instructs a husband to satisfy his wife as part of the Sabbath observance. I appreciate what I call the earthiness of Judaism in this, especially as compared to so much Christian prudery and shame. Imagine if Sunday, or going to church, became an occasion to have sex (not during worship but because of it)! And imagine if we could talk about it!
Indeed, in my view, Christianity is a, if not the, major culprit in creating and perpetuating sex and body negativity (and in many ways patriarchy and misogyny as well). The irony of this is stunning, not just because of our Jewish roots but also because allegedly we celebrate God come to earth in embodied form. As Richard Rohr writes, “Christians worship Jesus because he did not forget but fully lived the union of human and divine. . . The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Note that it does not just say “Jesus,” but “flesh.”
Sadly, we are left with no record of Jesus actually living as a sexual being. I have long believed that the wedding at Cana was an occasion after which Jesus enjoyed sex with someone (a male or female disciple or another partner or even his wife). Nor was that the only time Jesus acted on sexual desires; despite the tradition, he did not die a virgin. The tradition’s reliance on his conception as a “pure” act rather than messy human intercourse also contributes to sex negativity.
I want to come at this another way, too, to point out that there are times when we can be so determined that there not be sex that sex can sound like something bad (to be clear, when I say sex, I mean consensual sexual activity; anything else is abuse and violation). As a recently confirmed nudist, I note that most nudist or naturist organizations push very hard against the common misconception that gatherings of naked people automatically lead to sex. Indeed, it is vital that participants, women and men and people who present as either or both, feel safe to be completely exposed.
At the same time, I sometimes experience the efforts to create safety as sex-negative, almost as if nudists never have sex or don’t like sex or think sex is bad. This is tricky in U.S. culture where non-full-frontal nudity—female and male—in an advertisement is used to create desire leading to buying the product. Corporations sexualize bodies in order to make a sale—it is acceptable to be a sexy model in an ad. Of course, only certain types of bodies are used in this way—I am unlikely to see my 71-year-old, wrinkled body, or any other older person’s unclothed body, used to sell anything!
On the other hand, I have noticed recently a growing number of articles in various publications about elder sex. The first point often seems to be that is okay, even good, for older people to be sexual. Some of my contemporaries tell me they are grateful for this while pointing out that they have been doing it all along, with or without permission. That is surely true for me.
My soul and body tell me that that sex is a regular part of life, to be enjoyed as often as possible, because it can be so much fun and contribute to the well-being of consenting people enjoying themselves and experiencing divinely-inspired union(s). Being sexual is a gift each of us, and all of us, receive as part of human wholeness. We don’t need an excuse or permission to be wholly ourselves. I pray we stop setting up some people and groups as sex objects, and denying the sexuality of others, as a means of keeping this most natural of human activities under tight control.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
Have you ever felt or do you feel you need a reason, other than desire, to have sex? Have you ever felt, or do you feel, you feel you need permission to have sex? Have you participated in “special occasion” sex, and if so, how did it feel? 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! December 13, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.
. . . slut-shaming implies that women who express their sexuality are less-than. And that is exactly what is happening with Melania Trump.
This election season has been a rollercoaster. Perhaps that’s an understatement; this election season has been a tumultuous, seemingly never-ending cycles of news reports and un-Presidential soundbites. Many of us- myself included- were simply praying for the day when it would come to an end.
I think we had false expectations of what that would mean. I think many of us assumed that Clinton would win, and we could stop hearing news reports of Trump making derogatory comments about women, sexual assault, gold star families, disabled reporters, war heroes and…well, just about everyone, really. I think we thought that the end of the election meant the end of Donald Trump. The election results, tragically, have shown us a very different, harsh reality.
So Donald Trump is the President-Elect of the United States. Donald Trump, the man who brags about sexual assault (“grab them by the pussy”), using references to women’s periods to insinuate that they are overly emotional (“she was bleeding out of her eyes, she was bleeding out of her…wherever”), calling women “fat, pigs, not a 10,” and referenced his daughter’s sex appeal (“…what a beauty, that one. If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father…”).
Ok, so Donald Trump is a sleazy man with the focus of a pubescent boy. That’s…not fine, but it seems to be the reality (for the record, there is no issue with young people of any gender exploring their sexuality and understanding their bodies in puberty. There is, however, an issue with a 70 year old man that doesn’t appear to have matured beyond that.)
But unfortunately, with the election results in, we are still hearing a lot of sexist, anti-women rhetoric- and it’s not coming from Donald Trump (or even Republicans), but from liberal-minded individuals, particularly Democrats.
Images comparing different first ladies, looking much how we expect put-together, professional women to appear, are then juxtaposed with Melania Trump’s nude modeling images, with captions like, “Stay classy, America!” and “How did we get from this…to THIS”.
The insinuation in these images is, of course, that Melania is not “classy” enough to be first lady, and that her history as a model (particularly as a nude model) makes her unfit to be first lady. Much of this is reactionary, particularly after much of the gender and race-based insults aimed at Michelle Obama over the past 8 years. But that doesn’t not make it ok.
First of all, we weren’t electing a first lady; we were electing a president. And, quite frankly, while I appreciate that couples talk and influence one another’s perspectives, ultimately, our criticisms need to be aimed at Donald Trump, not Melania. But second, there is absolutely nothing wrong with nude modeling. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. And those who speak on equality, justice, fairness, etc., but then shame Melania for the ways in which she has used her body sound, at best, hypocritical.
Slut-shaming is a real thing. It’s enforcing and supporting different sexual ideals for men and women. It’s rewarding male promiscuity while assuming any woman who has had sex with more than one person is a slut. It is finding ways to denigrate women for having the same times of sexual relationships that men are permitted to have.
In short, slut-shaming implies that women who express their sexuality are less-than. And that is exactly what is happening with Melania Trump.
Please understand: I do not like the Trumps at all. And the hateful, vitriolic that comes from Donald Trump is not ok. But it is not more ok when liberally-minded people utilize a woman’s sexuality to insult her (or her husband). There are plenty of things to complain about in the Trump family. Melania’s sexuality or nude photo shoots are, quite frankly, the absolute least of my concerns.
Furthermore, Melania is very archetypically, stereotypically beautiful. She was a supermodel, and was able to utilize her physical appearance for financial gain. It’s perfectly reasonable to talk about unrealistic standards of beauty in the United States. It’s absolutely appropriate and necessary to address the ways in which people who don’t look like Melania struggle with body issues. But we do not build ourselves up by tearing others down. I can appreciate that she is beautiful without resenting the fact that I
don’t look like her. I don’t want to look like her, but I don’t build up my own self-image by tearing her (and those who look like her) down.
In addition, the implications that someone who is beautiful cannot also be intelligent are incredibly insulting to women across the world, including previous first ladies. Insinuating that she will be a less-than first lady because she shot nude photographs is about more than just “class” (an extremely white, patriarchal term). It’s buying into the idea that the more beautiful someone is, the less intelligent they are. Utilizing someone’s physical appearance to make a comment on their intelligence is what Donald Trump does.
Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” They’ve gone low, and many have gone low with them. Criticize Donald Trump, absolutely. But his wife’s physical appearance isn’t the point of the conversation, nor should it be the focus of his presidency. It’s time to remember what we are fighting for. Don’t buy into these stereotypes. Resist the urge to take these cheap shots and focus instead on the important issues. Her ability and freedom to celebrate her body should be applauded, not mocked. Otherwise, in some ways, we are all no better than Donald Trump.
We have been through the most sexually consequential presidential campaign and election in American history—and that’s saying something when we remember Bill Clinton’s affairs in his first campaign (and later), the rumors about Jefferson’s slave concubine in 1800 and later, and scandal when Grover Cleveland married a much younger woman.
I wish I could say that the cause of sexual openness was greatly advanced by this election, but I cannot. I can say that more women have learned the importance of speaking up when they are victimized by abuse that uses sex for its power, physical and mental abuse that damages the sexuality of its victims, and in some ways diminishes all of us. I am hoping that more men learned the importance of standing with these victims, and also to speak up for themselves when they are victims, and for other men who are victimized.
This election did not further the cause of our society being able to conduct open, thoughtful, honest conversations about sex. As a society, we remain shut down and ashamed by sexuality, by sex, including our own.
Of course, we are inundated with sex every day, much of it used to sell products as well as, in some cases, to promote, sell, people (pictures of movie stars, porn, etc.).
Rarely, if ever, however, has our political system used sex directly to promote leaders. Oh yes, there have been a few times when male political leaders have appeared shirtless—Paul Ryan, Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy—but only ones whose bodies are relatively lean, well-built, young-ish. There also was former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown who posed for Cosmopolitan long before running for office.
However, no woman in a prominent political position, or even local office, has been viewed as a sex symbol, and certainly has not appeared naked, or even partially so. Until now.
Our new First Lady, Melania Trump, a former fashion model, has been photographed without any clothes on, her hand mostly covering her genital area. The photo is not one casually snapped at a clothing optional or nude beach; she is modeling and the shot, including very lovely breasts, conveys a message of desire.
Of course, there have been comments, even a graphic comparing that picture of Melania to one showcasing the glamor of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Nancy Reagan and Michelle Obama. It was not meant as a compliment to our new First Lady.
In other words, she is supposed to feel shame, or at least we are.
I don’t. And I hope she doesn’t either.
Baring her body was, and is, not only not a crime, but it is not immoral or wrong. We need to get over the fixation on nudity as dirty.
I did not vote for him, and can’t imagine doing so if he seeks re-election. And of course I did not vote for her. She comes as part of the electoral deal; I just hope he does not dump her for a newer model now that he has won the big prize.
I do feel shame that my country has elected a man to be President who seems to view women, or least the younger, nubile ones, as meat for his sexual dining pleasure. His attitudes, and apparent behaviors, are not sexy in my book. They are boorish and ugly, using sex as a “thing” and as a way to trump-et his sense of patriarchal superiority and entitlement.
And frankly, I feel shame that two of the Republican men seeking their party’s nomination discussed the President-elect’s penis size. What that has to do with anything about being president is beyond me (after all, the President doesn’t really need a penis, does she?). I would not have minded so much if they had gotten naked—although I somehow doubt that, despite his self-avowed excellent temperament, the President-elect is much to look at (Senator Rubio might be better).
But shame because a model, or a First Lady, is naked? No way.
She is a beautiful woman, although this particular photograph does little for me—and not just because I am more interested in men’s bodies than women’s. In reality, I would rather see her smiling and naked.
Of course, other bodies, or at least penises, were involved in this election. Hillary Clinton cannot do much without someone managing to mention Bill’s hyper-active one, not to mention Anthony Weiner’s self-exposure to young girls and others. This latter organ may well have cost her the election, due to the FBI review of his computer containing many of Clinton’s emails.
So, we have the spectacle of men who should be ashamed because of their behavior, and a woman some want to shame because she openly shares her beauty, the very beauty that God gave her.
Let me be clear. I do not think it matters if she is conventionally beautiful or not. Or even young. Old bodies are good, worth sharing and admiring, too, even those of the President-elect and Secretary (and former President) Clinton.
Indeed, perhaps we should ask all candidates (and potential First Spouses) for President (maybe other offices, but it might be best to start with a small group) to share not only their tax returns but also nude pictures. Or they could debate in the nude. That might help them be more real in the rest of the campaign, knowing that we know what they look like without any physical masks. It might even discourage some from running (not necessarily a bad thing, although I would be sad if this were due to body shame).
And perhaps the United Nations could insist that world leaders shed the armor of their clothes when they address the General Assembly and Security Council. It might reduce saber rattling when leaders appear more vulnerable.
I am actually grateful to Melania Trump for breaking a barrier and perhaps helping us as a nation get more real about sex and bodies. I also think God is pleased; after all, she is made in the image of God. As is her husband, and all the rest of us, too.
However, it is up to us to carry this forward. Malachi and I continue to be clear about the need for more conversation in U.S. culture, and especially in churches, about sex . But much of the time it feels like we are talking only to each other.
You can help, by posting a comment, and even sharing this blog with others.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think influences your sexuality and sexual expression? Have you ever noticed a deviation from your expectations of your sexuality? Do you find that there are certain traits that turn you on? 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 THURSDAY, November 17th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST. 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 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.
Sacred, Not Secret, Part I: Beyond the Binary
What turns you on? Is your attraction based on anatomy, gender identity, or something else entirely?
Sacred, Not Secret is a three-part series beginningThursday, November 17 at 3 PM EST/19:00 UTC in which Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin Gorsline, authors of the blog Sex, Bodies, Spirit, discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. This month, they go “beyond the binary” of gay and straight to explore the fluidity of sexual desire, and explore ways that we can be an open, affirming space for people- not in spite of our sexual relationships, but because of them!
As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for MCC clergy (.5 credit for each session) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although a primary focus is on clergy education, everyone is welcome to attend and participate.
I remember being ashamed of my body and sexuality, even from a very young age.
by Malachi Grennell and Robin Gorsline
Next week, on August 18, in the first monthly installment of the online workshop, “Sex, Bodies, Spirit,” Rev. Robin and Malachi are going to take a look at the roots of sex-negativity and sexual repression within Western Christianity. In preparation for this workshop, we have read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise as well as contemplated our own experiences with sexual repression. You can learn more about the workshop, and how you can participate, at the end of this blog.
In some ways, I feel as though my understandings and experiences with sexual repression retrospectively change as I have a better understanding of the world around me. For much of my life, for example, I felt that, because I was raised in a lesbian home, I didn’t experience sexual repression. I know now, of course, that although I was raised in a somewhat open and affirming home, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a lack of sexual repression.
I spent a considerable amount of my pubescent teenage years terrified of getting pregnant (and, as a result, terrified of having sex with cis-male people). When I tried to discuss birth control with one of my mothers, I got a 2 hour lecture about the dangers of hormonal birth control in teenage women and an offer to buy me a vibrator to take care of my own sexual urges without risking pregnancy. I declined and never broached the subject again.
I think back on this conversation with mixed emotions. On one hand, I did learn some valuable information about the biology of hormonal birth control and its effectiveness over the long-term. On the other hand, the conversation felt as though it didn’t actually address the issues I was dealing with. I wanted to find a way to be intimate with my then-boyfriend of nearly 3 years; my mom was trying to help me find a way to satisfy my sexual desires. I had already figured out masturbation- that didn’t answer my deeper question about how to be sexual while protecting myself from unwanted pregnancy.
Although I grew up in a lesbian household, I still had incredibly heteronormative ideas about what constituted “sex.” Penetration was the dividing line between foreplay and sex (regardless of what (fingers, dildos, etc.) was doing the penetrating) and the role of masturbation was a stop-gap when intimacy with another person wasn’t possible and urges needed to be managed. The concept of masturbation as a sacred act- or even one that could be done with a partner- was a foreign concept that didn’t enter my sexual consciousness until my early twenties, when I met my spouse.
This is perhaps one key element that has been vital to the concept of sexual repression (and subsequent liberation): defining what sex “is.” The way that sex is currently defined (usually penis-in-vagina, or PIV) leaves a lot to be desired. Beyond the increased risk for the transmission of STI’s, it allows us to lie to ourselves about what we are doing. If we are struggling with sexual repression and therefore have shame, etc. around engaging in “real” sex, then this provides a loophole for us to be intimate with another person without ever admitting what we are actually doing.
In addition to all of this, I grew up with one mother who desperately wanted me to be a heterosexual woman because she didn’t want me to suffer and struggle with my sexuality (as she had). While I’m sure she feels differently now, at the time, her desire for me to be a heterosexual woman was very much interpreted by my teenage self as an internalized homophobia. If she loved and was happy with her life and identities, why wouldn’t she want that for me? Or better yet, why wouldn’t she simply encourage me to be authentic and love myself rather than fixate on a “gold star standard” of relationship practices? In all of this, I understood “heterosexual woman” to be better than “homosexual woman”- and “transmasculine queer man” is definitely not on the list of things she wanted for me. But even growing up in a lesbian home, I felt a certain sense of shame and fear to “come out” to my mother… when I first started dating a girl, but even more so as a trans person.
I hope she sees herself and her life with more joy than she seemed to then. I say this, but recognize that she still mispronouns me (refers to me as “she” and “girl” and “daughter”) despite the fact that I have been out as trans for over 10 years now. I believe she sees some things as better than others, and I think she wanted “better” for me than what I have, which is sad, because I think what I have is pretty dang awesome.
(Since I have lesbian mothers, I recognize that referencing “my mother” can be confusing. One of my mothers, an MCC pastor, is incredibly affirming- I have referenced her in previous posts. The mother to which I am referring now is my biological mother.)
I don’t want to digress too far, but sexual repression was very much a part of my upbringing- even being raised in a queer home. I have come to recognize that there is a different level of scrutiny that queer families had in the late 80’s/early 90’s that, perhaps, prohibited discussions of sex even more drastically than heterosexual families of the same time. I remember being ashamed of my body and sexuality, even from a very young age. It wasn’t always something my parents said, but it was an attitude… an internalization of self-shame that was incredibly transparent to my childhood and teenage self.
I started having sex when I was 16. When I went to college (just after my 18th birthday), years of sexual repression came pouring out of me, and I started sleeping with anyone I could. I wasn’t safe and responsible. I didn’t get tested and didn’t often use barriers (because I was sleeping with people who were assigned female at birth, I was woefully ignorant that STI transmission could still occur). As often happens when something is considered taboo (e.g. alcohol, sex, etc.), when we are able to access it, we don’t often proceed with caution or moderation. Years of sexual repression coupled with a fear of being “bad in bed” led me to sleep with many, many people in a very short period of time.
I’m sure I didn’t always practice the best consent methods (not in the sense of forcing/coercing someone, but in the sense of “no means no” rather than “yes means yes” consent model). I didn’t have the tools to navigate the world as a responsible, sexual adult; instead, years of pent-up sexual longing exploded out of me in the span of a few months. I felt like everyone else had already been having sex for years and knew what they were doing and I was going to get left behind. The perhaps most frightening of all, because I was so out of touch with myself, my body, and my sexuality, when others turned their attentions to me, I didn’t always know how to say no…or believe that I was allowed to say no.
There were a couple of women I knew through church that I felt comfortable talking to, but I still worried they would judge me for my actions because, well…they were church folk. Much to my surprise (and relief), one of them taught me about dental dams, safety, and STI testing. But there wasn’t a place I knew I could go to talk about my fears and concerns. MCC was a safe haven for LGBT folks, and the LGB part, at least, related to who we were sexually attracted to… and yet. If there was ever a place or opportunity to talk about sex, it was not geared toward the young adults (and I learned, after showing up to a workshop on HIV, that my parents got very uncomfortable talking about sex when I was in the room). There was no place to ease the pressure and talk, and I didn’t see the people around me talking about it, which meant that everyone else had it figured out, and I was lost.
Sexual repression has very much been a part of my upbringing, intentionally or not. As I have begun to do more work to parse through some of my own hangups, I realize how much of them come from a place of fear, shame, and secrecy. As we pivot toward a discussion about the roots of sex-negativity in Western Christianity, I encourage each person to consider ways in which they have had to battle/navigate sexual repression (both in and out of the context of faith). Understanding the history of our faith within the context of our own lives can be a powerful step toward healing and bridging these tender places inside each of us.
I don’t know when I first heard words that told me that sex was a bad thing, but I imagine that was when I realized that it was not to be talked about. As children, we often learn not only from what adults say but also what they do not say, and certainly their body language in both instances.
I certainly knew in 4th Grade, as I entered puberty, that my fantasies about Bob S. (and a few other boys, but especially Bob) in my class were something to keep to myself. And in 6th grade, I knew that the delight of another friend, Bob H., at seeing Bob S. naked and describing his “amazing, really big” penis, was somehow embarrassing, if not wrong (as well as feeling jealous that I did not see it, too). Now, much of this is what I imagine most, if not all, adolescents (at least in the United States) go through, struggling to figure out what to do with these burgeoning hormones sweeping through parts of our bodies and overwhelming our brains.
On the one hand, we want to know more, and on the other, we fear raising the subject. For most of us, the silence is deafening, broken only by various comments among contemporaries, many of which simply add to the confusion.
This is where, for me at least, the church comes in.
I grew up in a small Midwestern Episcopal Church, not a hellfire and brimstone kind of place, but a calm, ordered environment where we read three biblical passages every Sunday and the priest expounded on at least one of them. I was blessed to have a priest, beginning in my middle adolescence and many years beyond, who was especially enamored of the Hebrew texts, but he certainly spoke about the Gospel and Paul and other writings.
I have no memory of ever hearing that good man speak openly against sex, but then I never heard him speak for it, either. Mostly, what I heard rarely was, if ever, about bodies at all, except when he taught about the war between flesh and spirit; flesh=bad (or at least dangerous), Spirit=good.
[There were two times he was very clear with me personally: one was to tell me, “I will find help for you,” when I told him I had sexual feelings for other men; the other was when he told me not to come back to church again, when I wrote him from seminary to come out as a gay man. ]
This is most interesting to me now, because of what I have learned about Jewish attitudes toward sex, going back to the earliest days of that faith, including the encouragement to married couples to have sex on the Sabbath in order to “hallow the day,” as Daniel Helminiak writes in “Sex as a Spiritual Exercise,” which you can find here. )
Of course, that specific teaching did not apply to me until much later, but that good priest eventually presided at my wedding, and he did not speak of that with me and my wife-to-be in our pre-marital sessions. My memory is further that I was relieved that he did not speak of sex at all with us, given the fact that he knew of my strong homoerotic desires when I had gone to him while in college seeking help (he referred me to a psychiatrist with whom I worked for the better part of a year, but ultimately, years later, after marriage, children, and divorce, her help was insufficient to erase my desires).
I recount this not to criticize this spiritual guide (who gave me much wisdom) so much as to suggest that the powerful anti-sex proscriptions of Christian practice wreak havoc with many lives. Where does all this come from?
Malachi and I will be talking more about this on August 18 at 3 p.m. EDT during this month’s MCC online workshop, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity” on Sex, Bodies, Spirit, but I can say now that I share Helminiak’s view that most of this is not due to actual Christian texts, and certainly not Jesus, and not even so much to Paul, but rather to the influence of non-Christian philosophies and movements which the Church took in and laid over the top of those texts and our Lord. In saying that, I am still holding church fathers of old and of now (and I count myself among this latter number) responsible for what happened, and what still happens.
Indeed, what some MCC veterans say about the time, early in our movement, when the church talked more openly about sex, may parallel what happened to the early church. The desire for members, indeed even for survival, and certainly as part of what seems to be a natural human desire to “fit in,” has caused MCC to stop such talk, to even stop making the connection between our founding and sex (for more on this point, see my earlier post in another online venue, “What’s Sex Got to Do with It?”).
Given that Christianity is grounded in the claim that God incarnated God’s self in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and that in doing so validated yet again the centrality of embodied spiritual life (the Hebrew biblical texts are, again and again, a demonstration of God’s activity in, among and through human bodies), it seems odd to say the least that we now hide our bodies so much. And I am not meaning only in the opposition to, and embarrassment of, nudity (although as a nudist myself, I do mean that), but also in how we so rarely speak about our bodies positively in spiritual terms.
As a lifelong participant in Christian worship, I am hard-pressed to think of more than a handful of times, other than in prayers for the sick, when bodies have even occasioned a brief mention. As for sex, or sexuality, I can think of no times, not even really in prayers for justice for LGBTQI people. Never sex.
This silence reminds me of the time, when I was in high school, I told my parents, “I think I might be homosexual,” and they simply looked at each other and returned to watching the television program I had interrupted, not saying a word. And it reminds me of the time my mother caught me masturbating. “Stop that disgusting thing right now!” she said and then left the room, never to speak of it again.
In my view, the church has abdicated our responsibility to teach about, indeed to encourage practice of, the amazing and powerful link between our bodies and our spiritual selves. The sex-negativity of Western Christianity has allowed other forces—often in our day, corporations and advertisers, and media seeking followers—to make bodies and sex commodities to be pedaled, often through intentional titillation right up to the edge of “decency” (whatever that means) and teasingly to bump the boundary a little further at times. The result is that sex is not exactly an “open secret”—it seems we cannot get away from it ever, especially today on social media and the internet—but at the same time it is such a secret, a subject we all know about but know at the same time it is one that we should never really engage.
We will never change this if we do not figure out how we got here, and commit to a long struggle to undo the deep damage done to the world, and especially to billions of wonderfully embodied beloveds of God right here, right now.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What types of sexual repression have you experienced? Did they come from family, peers, the church, or other places? How have those experienced shaped, helped, or hindered your sexual expression as an adult? 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 feel free to join us THURSDAY, August 18th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 1, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Rev. Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Workshop description: In this first session, Rev. Robin and Malachi lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.
As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for clergy (1 credit for each session with full participation) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although the primary focus is on clergy participation, everyone is welcome to attend.