Putting Sex back into Christmas

Robin:

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.

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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!

Malachi:

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-

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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

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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!

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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.

Who Needs An Excuse?

We must work together to change a sex-negative culture . . . .

Malachi:

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Photo Credit: Nearly Candy Photography

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.

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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

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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.

Robin:

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.

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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!

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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.

nudist groupI 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!

elder sexOn 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.