Summer of Transformations

Robin: 

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

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

Robin journaling at The Woods
Quiet time at The Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by J. Wayne Higgs (also shown drawing)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malachi:

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

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

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

photo by honey_bare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you experienced transformation through your body? If not, do you want to? What does your body teach you spiritually? Have you experienced profound change due to taking a break from work or studies or some other activity? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

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

I Know It When I See It

. . . as sex- and body-positive Christians, how do we approach, address, and discuss porn in a positive way?

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [‘hardcore pornography’] and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”

-Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis vs. Ohio

13494904_10100653721109769_3022759221022255872_nMalachi:

This infamous quote describing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s understanding of pornography in 1964 fairly well encapsulates the difficulty in defining and delineating what is considered porn- or, in the context of this particular court case, what is considered “obscene.”

In the 52 years since this opinion was written, it has become even harder for us to really encapsulate what pornography is. I think we can agree that there is a difference between porn, art, erotica, and nudity, but trying to tease of the difference between these things becomes increasingly more difficult.

For example, nudity (the act of being naked) is not an act that is

Justice Potter Stewart
Justice Potter Stewart

inherently sexual in and of itself. Erotica and porn, however, both have a central sexual component (which often includes nudity), and art spans across genres. There are some who consider porn and erotica to both be types of art, and many more who consider the human body (e.g. nudity) to be a living work of art in and of itself.

The delineation wouldn’t matter as much if there was not a moralistic hierarchy associated with each category. Nudity can go many different ways: there are those who claim that nudity is immodest, while others claim that they are better able to commune with God when they are fully present in their bodies (and thus, the image of God). There are those who believe that, if something is categorized as “art,” it is supposed to inspire human emotion- both good and bad- and thus art is distinct from moralism. Others, however, feel the term “art” is overused to describe works that are obscene.

Engaging with erotica and porn, however, is generally assumed to be immoral by many who claim Christianity (in fact, most of the Western religious traditions speak out against porn and, to a lesser degree, erotica). There is a quote from the television show “The West Wing” in which a conservative Christian man asks, “If you can buy pornography on any street corner for $5, isn’t that too high a price to pay for free speech?” This question fairly well sums up much of the feeling of mainstream conservative Christianity with respect to pornography.

However, as sex- and body-positive Christians, how do we approach, address, and discuss porn in a positive way? I think we often fall into the habit of silence about things like porn usage because it can be hard to tease out exactly how this relates to our relationship with God.

I remember when I started taking testosterone, and my sex drive spiked rapidly, to the point that I needed to masturbate every day. If I didn’t, I was incredibly irritable and cranky. At times, I wasn’t “in the mood,” so to speak, but knew that I needed to find a way to get turned on enough to masturbate so that I could go about my day. At those points, porn was an incredibly useful tool to elicit certain physical responses to allow myself to have an orgasm.

IMG_0631Furthermore, I have participated in making porn. Not often, but I have had sex for money while being filmed: perhaps the most crude method of defining porn. Most of my reasons behind doing it were because I wanted to, but there was also the element of financial stress that led me to do it at the time that I did. I have also been photographed doing sexual acts when I go to kink conventions, and those photographs are for sale via the photographers hired by the company. I don’t know if that counts as porn, exactly, but goodness knows, there are plenty of naked pictures of me on the internet. I don’t think porn is an inherently bad thing. There are certainly problematic aspects about the industry (including, but not limited to, economic and financial distress, poor working conditions, and abuse/mistreatment of models, particularly women), but porn as a concept is not, to me, inherently bad.

With porn, we have to consider the aspects of fetishization and objectification. People searching for a specific type of porn (e.g. “trannys” or “big black cock”) are problematic because they tend to be dehumanizing. And while some people may like being objectified, many other people get tired of being seen as a one-dimensional object to fulfill someone else’s fetish…particularly when that objectification doesn’t end at the computer screen, but carries out in day-to-day life. They can also perpetuate oppressive stereotypes that are sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, etc. (from “women are submissive” to “black men have large penises” to “lesbians just need a man to come finish them off”). Each of these ideas are easy to find on most porn sites, and there are entire sites that are dedicated to a particular fetishization.

Is it wrong to be attracted to a particular aspect of a person? Of course not.

https://media.npr.org/assets/img/2014/02/01/craigslist-race-instagram_wide-3e3f9a9a0c770e95401c946ca3ec98feb7257608.jpg?s=1400
Craigslist: for when you have a racial preference in your partners, and no filter.

But the difference is, porn often allows us to be attracted to an aspect without considering the person. Porn also has the unfortunate byproduct of creating unrealistic expectations about sex. Porn is not necessarily about sex, but about performance of particular acts. Much as drag is about the performance of gender, porn is about the performance of sex (and much as drag bears little resemblance to gender as we see it in every day life, porn bears little resemblance to everyday sex).

Like anything, in order to interact with something in a healthy way, we have to understand what it is and why we are interacting with it. We can’t judge someone else’s intentions, but it’s important that we look at our own and try to understand (if we are consumers of porn) what it is we get out of it- including whether it impacts our expectations of our own sexual lives. I don’t think there is anything wrong with watching porn- regardless of whether someone is monogamous or polyamorous, porn can have a role in a person’s sexual satisfaction (both self-satisfaction and satisfaction with partners).

We know that our relationship with porn can be unhealthy. But is it

http://www.feministpornguide.com/periodictableoffeministporn.png
http://www.feministpornguide.com/periodictableoffeministporn.png

possible for our relationship with porn to be healthy or neutral (e.g. causing no harm or benefit)? I think it can be. I think porn can be an incredibly useful tool. But as with all things, it’s important that we have an analysis of the industries and products we consume. It is, for example, beneficial to pay for porn from companies that are known to treat their models well, rather that utilizing free porn that may come at the cost of a person’s well-being.

Recognizing that porn is a service (much like many other services we consume) and approaching consumption of the service in an ethical manner is important. It’s also important that we ensure we aren’t allowing our consumption of porn to interfere with our relationships- with ourselves, our partner(s), or God. In moderation, porn (like alcohol, working out, dieting, and many other things) is just fine. It is when we reach the extremes- either of our consumption itself, or the expectations and assumptions we make about other people- that porn becomes a detrimental aspect of some people’s sexual lives.

Robin:

Both Malachi and I are comfortable with nudity and have said so here . We think it healthy, fun, and body-affirming.

revrobin2-023However, one of the objections nudists often encounter is that baring all in “public” (a term that encompasses a wide range of circumstances) is “pornographic.” So what is pornography, what makes something pornographic?

As shown above, Justice Stewart famously remarked that he did not know how to define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. It was likely not his intention to open the door to a wide range of interpretations and definitions, but in effect what he is saying is that one person’s porn may be another’s art . . . or at least erotica.

Nudity, art, erotica, pornography……..four terms that often are used in connection with bodies, sexuality, and sexual activity.

In my view, the naked body is never pornographic, no matter the context, no matter the body. Human bodies are creations of God, gifts from God, in all our varieties and forms of beauty. We may well be naked when being sexual, but being naked does not equate to being sexual. Most nudists are quick to point out that being naked does not lead automatically to sex. Yet, being naked and sexual can be beautiful, wondrous.

large group of naked people
naturalian.blogspot.com

Regular readers of this blog know I have carried negative feelings about a part of my body, my penis or dick or cock or whatever name you use. Much of that has been healed, in part because I have been able to share it openly here. My shame—for that is what it was—is no longer a secret, and thus its power has been greatly reduced.

Another help has been to spend some time looking at pictures of small penises online, to let myself see the beauty of the men who share themselves, in celebration. This has involved seeing all sorts and conditions of men—old, young, thin, not thin, white, black, Asian, Latino, Native, tall, short, cute (to me) and not so cute, etc. On occasion, these pictures show men engaged in sexual activity, solo or otherwise.

Is all this pornographic? Not for me. It has been healing. I have felt God in it, showing me how creative God is in sculpting penises. It finally broke through to me that God did not punish me by giving me a small penis. God blessed me, and still blesses me, just as I am.

michelangelo David penis and hand this is cabaret com
thisiscabaret.com

It has also been useful in this exploration to look at art. Michelangelo’s sculpture of David is perhaps the most famous nude male ever. This hero has, thanks to the sculptor, a small cock, although it is bigger than Adam’s as pictured by the same artist on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I have seen more recent portrayals of the crucifixion with Jesus and the other two men hanging with him naked, and their dicks are of moderate size. None of this feels pornographic to me (of course, the crucifixion is ugly).

So what is porn?

A common definition is “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.” A legal definition may be “the depiction of sexual behavior that is intended to arouse sexual excitement in its audience.”

For the layperson, it may be hard to differentiate that from obscenity, which the Supreme Court has described as materials “utterly without redeeming social importance.” But obscenity is not limited to sexual acts.

porn
youtube.com

So the statue of David is not pornographic, even though it displays sexual organs, because it was not intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings. It might of course stimulate someone who is struggling with sexuality but that was not, presumably, the sculptor’s intent.

So, intent matters.

But I wonder how easy it is to sort out erotic feelings from emotional ones. One person would see those pictures of men with small organs and think “that’s erotic, and therefore pornographic.” But others, like me, may find emotional healing. In the process, I might even become sexually aroused, but the primary focus is emotional healing. And to me, that would have enormous social importance, helping me to become a more balanced, evolved person and therefore a better citizen, co-worker, leader, etc.

And then I have to wonder about the conflation of “erotic” with something negative. Personally, I like erotic feelings and often find them laden with positive emotional feelings and reactions as well.

Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve Christians Enjoying Nudity and Erotica

I have referred previously to an interesting website, “Christians Enjoying Nudity and Erotica” (click here to visit). The developer of that site, a male clergyperson who uses a pseudonym, which is exclusively oriented towards heterosexuality and marriage between a man and a woman (even as it contains many erotic pictures of men, and of women, which can excite sexual feelings in not only heterosexual persons but also those who are homosexual and bisexual), says

I confess that I simply love to see nudity. I also enjoy the sensuality and beautiful sexuality of erotica. But I am definitely not a fan of porn! In fact, I find the stuff uninspiring, un-stimulating, and unfulfilling. I hate it and how it depicts women and defiles men. . . . neither is erotica pornography no matter how much some writers would like to simplistically lump it all together. Porn can rightly be described using the degrading “F” word, or as someone “screwing” someone. Erotica depicts the sacred splendor of sexual activity between a man and a woman, and it can do so in a way that is redemptive and glorifying to God who gave us the gift of sex and designed our bodies to engage in and enjoy it.

So, perhaps we might say, following him, that porn is sex without heart, without larger meaning, without any spiritual or divine connection. Or we might say that porn is sex as a mechanical act, and/or a way to make money for those who control the production (not so much for the sexual actors). Porn is, we might say, a way to degrade women or others who are made into objects.

So what do I think? Porn is indeed in the eye of the beholder. The porn with which I am uncomfortable is whatever is done to make money for the producers without being sure the actors and the crew are well compensated (including for the actors at least some sort of royalty system). It is not the sex but the economics that make it porn.

Prior Lake RobinI don’t think individuals or couples or groups who take pictures of themselves to share, to give away, make porn. Sexting is not porn. Posting your naked picture or your video masturbating on the internet is not porn.

Personally, I don’t really have the guts to do it, but I admit I get turned on by the idea. I did write a piece about nudism for a blog (“A Naked Wholeness” at Jonathan’s Circle and I offered to let them use a full-frontal nude picture of me—the only one I have ever had taken—but the owner declined saying they did not use “explicit” pictures.  I was very excited by the idea of my picture appearing (and there is a more chaste version of the photo with my post.

Finally, back to those pictures of small cocks I looked at on the internet. Some of them were professional models and actors in commercial sex films. Most were ordinary men. It depended on the site. Not one of the sites charged money to view the pictures or even the videos (often excerpts from commercial fare, but also often just an ordinary guy or more than one).

anthony-weiner
former Congressman Antony Weiner biography.com

What I did realize is that what started out as a curative for me could become a habit. I realize there were days when I looked more than once. There were also whole stretches of time when I did not look. I hesitate to say I feared an addiction, although I am aware that some claim that about themselves and/or others.

But because of a special event at my church this weekend, some of us are fasting—food, fast food, alcohol, sex, overworking, etc. I have chosen to fast from looking at pictures of naked men with small or small-ish, or even larger, penises. In fact, I deleted the links so as to make a stronger commitment, and I have decided to not look for a longer than this week. I am thinking forever.

After all, the small cock I really like is mine. I don’t need to go on the internet for that. And if I want to see a bigger one, well . . . . I can stay home. And if I want to see more of them, of whatever size, I can go to a nudist gathering.

And the good news is that it will be more than me and my PC and screen.

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

How do you feel about pornography? Do you see a difference from it and erotica? Do you utilize porn as part of your life, or have you at some other time ? Do you feel addicted to porn, or do you know, or suspect you know, someone else who is? Is a naked body a sign of sex for you? 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, October 20th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 3, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 3” 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. 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.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to 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. In this session, we will move beyond early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity to later medieval and Reformation eras, and perhaps into more modern times. 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 (.5 credit for each session) 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.