Honest Talk about Sexual Violence

We need to start recognizing and naming sexual violence when we see it.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

Robin and I recently had a discussion around two distinct issues that had come to our respective attention: Robin heard about incidents where, after being expelled from college for committing a sexually violent act, those accused decided to fight the expulsion in court. I have been closely following a new trend called “stealthing,” in which men are removing condoms during sex without the knowledge of their partners. (For more information, see here and here).

I will let Robin speak more to the first issue, as he is more knowledgeable about that situation, but the rise of “stealthing” is an escalating trend of sexual violence rooted in patriarchal and sexist ideals. The action itself is bad enough- it is, at bare minimum, a violation of consent- but often it’s the intention behind the action that brings it back to power structures, hierarchy, and oppression.

There are websites devoted to helping men learn how to “stealth” effectively- tricks for getting the condom off without their partner knowing as well as discussions about intent which range from “condoms are uncomfortable and limit the ability to receive pleasure, and sex is about pleasure, so you should be able to experience it fully” to “it’s your right to spread your seed and reproduce and no one has the right to prevent you from doing this.” It elevates the comfort, safety, and security of men over that of women (I have only heard of stealthing occurring in heterosexual dynamics; I have not yet heard of this trend reaching gay men)- not to mention “dominance” of men over women.

There are plenty of people that I currently sleep with that I would refuse to sleep with if they didn’t wear a condom. Wearing a condom during genitally penetrative sex is a

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requirement, partially because of pregnancy, but mostly because of the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Now, if I had a conversation with a partner, knew what they had been tested for, and made a conscious choice to possibly expose myself to whatever risks that carried, that’s one thing. But for someone to remove a condom without my knowledge- and without knowing that he may have done this before, with other people- I lose not only the ability to consent, but also the agency to determine whether I am willing to risk my health.

I have had a terrifying situation in which a sweetheart and I were about to engage in penetrative sex, and they had put a condom on. Right before they entered me, they realized that the condom had come off, and we immediately stopped and assessed the situation, and they put another condom on and we were able to continue. But in that moment, I realized that I would not have known unless he said something- it would have been very easy for someone in his position to continue, and I wouldn’t have known any different until later. (Thankfully, he was just as panicked as I was).

In that situation, it was incredibly important that I be able to trust my sexual partner. However. I think it’s also important to state that victims of stealthing are not to blame for these situations. The person who does the action (removes the condom without knowledge or consent) is responsible for the harm they cause.

It’s a difficult and nuanced thing to parse out. I have nothing against casual sex- goodness knows, I’ve engaged in plenty of casual sex with people I didn’t know very well. And I don’t want to imply in any capacity that if someone is the recipient of sexual violence based on having casual sex, that that is in any way their fault. But I do want to underscore the vulnerability many sexual partners experience and the importance of building, establishing, and maintaining trust in sexual relationships- particularly if you are not monogamous, or aren’t in a steady relationship and are just casually dating. The

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vulnerability that someone could very easily do this without your knowledge. The vulnerability that you are trusting someone with your body, your safety, and possibly your future (if you were to get pregnant)… these are things that are becoming increasingly more important to think about as trends such as “stealthing” are on the rise.

It’s also entirely possible that people in established relationships- ones where trust has been developed- do this to their partners. Again, the blame for this lies solely on the person who removes the condom. This is in no way meant to shame people for engaging in sexual activities, or insinuating that they “should have known better.” That type of thinking is indicative of rape culture, and I recognize that my consistent- nearly repetitive- assertion that it is never the victim’s fault is my own attempts to actively combat that type of thinking. Putting ourselves in vulnerable positions does not mean that we are at fault when someone takes advantage of that vulnerability.

Regardless of circumstance, thought, I think that it’s extremely important that we call this what it is- sexual violence. Not an accident, not a misunderstanding, not a “gee, that sucks,” but intentional sexual violence. Putting ourselves in a vulnerable position does not mean that we are to blame when someone takes advantage of that vulnerability. Sex has risks associated with it, and we do the best we can to mitigate those risks. But when we are in a vulnerable state, and someone introduces new risk without our knowledge or consent, this is sexual violence.

In this culture, we are conditioned to view sexual violence in a very specific way. We

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expect it to look like how it is portrayed in media- a person walking alone in an alleyway gets jumped by a group of strangers- but the reality is, sexual violence doesn’t always (or even often) look like that. Sexual violence is usually more insidious and manipulative- and often comes from a friend or trusted individual.

We need to start recognizing and naming sexual violence when we see it. We need to distance ourselves from the Hollywood version and make an effort to see- and combat- actual forms of sexual violence. And it starts by recognizing that trends like stealthing are dangerous, damaging, and contribute to rape culture in a variety of ways. The intimacy and vulnerability of sex can be an incredibly powerful aspect of our physical, emotional, and spiritual connection with someone. But when that vulnerability is exploited, then it perverts that which is sacred.

Robin:

revrobin2-023A recent article in the Washington Post caught my attention and my concern. Entitled “College Men Use Anti-Bias Law to Fight Sex-Assault Findings,” the author recounted a trend among male collegians who have been punished and/or expelled from college for rape and other sexual violence to sue to collect damages, have their expulsion removed from the college record, and even obtain re-admission (link here).

Frankly, I felt angry as I read about men who seem determined to erase what they did and move on with no penalty. Male privilege, male supremacy, strike again!

I tried to balance that with a few instances in which there might be false reports of assault (most experts in this area is that the percentage of false reports is well less than 10%; many cite the figure of two percent), and that sometimes there might even be violations of due process in college administrative procedures. But that just reminded me how inadequate the so-called criminal justice system, and its collegiate parallel for student discipline, is in actually solving social problems.

Another reason for my anger is that rape is severely under-reported (most authorities say 90+% go unreported). Most authorities say sexual violence is the most under-reported violent crime in the United States. Given this, while I feel for someone falsely accused, I find myself not all that interested.  Given how many rapists get away with ruining the lives of others, why should I, we, care?  This may sound harsh, and perhaps I would feel differently if a friend of mine was among those falsely accused.

Report ItThe high proportion of under-reporting is due to many factors. Authorities often cite these: fear of retaliation, uncertainty about whether a crime was committed or if the offender intended harm, not wanting others to know about the rape, not wanting the offender to get in trouble, fear of prosecution (e.g. due to laws against premarital sex), and doubt in local law enforcement.

Based on conversations with both women and men over the years, my observation is that there are two main reasons: fear of not being believed, and shame that it happened. Both are, in my view, the clear result of living in a predominantly patriarchal world. The first and largest number of victims are women and children. But men are raped and violated, too. Patriarchy is male power granted dominance, a system in which men (first and foremost white men with economic privilege) hold the power and women, and men who are seen by some men as ‘not real men” or “less-than men” are largely excluded from it. The most ugly and severe outcome of patriarchal systems is misogyny, the hatred of women for being women.

Rape unreportedThis reality is reflected in results from a 2015 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of college students. “Asked about things students could do to prevent sexual assault, 93 percent said it would be effective if men respected women more.” (See “College students remain deeply divided over what consent actually means”)

If men respected women more. Now that’s a concept!

Feminism has helped women make gains, and the rise of the LGBT equality movement has helped create significant social change. However, it was 1995—only 22 years ago—that Hillary Clinton shook the global, and U.S., political world with her declaration, in Beijing, that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” And she echoed that point of view in 2011—only six years ago—by declaring in Geneva that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”

Most interesting to me is that no one of her stature and influence had said either thing up to that time. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election provides a certain irony; the same Hillary Clinton was defeated by a man who famously claimed to grab women “by the pussy” at will.

Hillary Clinton 2That candidate, now the President of the United States, recently spoke up as a character witness for a media personality who has been repeatedly charged with sexual assault and abuse—to the point that his employer, Fox News, removed him from the air (so far, he has not used his millions in severance payments to sue). The President experienced no discernible decline in popularity due to his unsought observation. It seems to have been more of the “locker room talk” that he claimed was the source of his “pussy” comment—in other words, boys will be boys.

Other facts bear out how in the United States progress for equality is slow. Only 29 chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies (5.9%) are women. In the current Congress, there are only 104 women (19.4% of 535 members).

Here a few other relevant facts more directly about sexualized violence:

  • Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted
  • Young people are at the highest risk of sexual violence; Ages 12-34 are the highest risk years for rape and sexual assault.
  • 1 out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime
  • Young women are especially at risk. 82% of all juvenile victims are female. 90% of adult rape victims are female.
  • Females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
  • Women ages 18-24 who are college students are 3 times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence. Females of the same age who are not enrolled in college are 4 times more likely.
  • Men and boys are at risk of sexual violence. About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
  • 1 out of every 10 rape victims are male.
  • Males age 18-24 who are college students are five times more likely than non-students in the same age group to be victim of rape or sexual assault
  • 21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN females, and 4% of non-TGQN males.

every 98 secondsKnowing all this, what do we do about it? And specifically, what do people of faith do about it?

I will write more about this in future posts, but I will say here that the first thing is to talk about it. Not hide it. And that means breaking the silence in church not only about sexual violence but also sex in general, as well as focusing on gender equality and overcoming misogyny.

Those are central to our mission on Sex, Bodies, Spirit, because we believe they are central to living as God creates and calls us to live—honoring all, caring for all, sustaining life.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

Have you, and/or someone(s) you care about and love, been the victim of sexual violence? Was it reported? If so, what happened? If not, how are you, or they, dealing with it now? What do you think can be done to reduce, if not eliminate, sexual violence? 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.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us next week, THURSDAY, May 18th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

On May 18, our topic will be . . . .

“Old Story, New Threats: Creating Responses to Religious Oppression”

The growing movement to claim “religious liberty” as a way to discriminate is not new. The history of Metropolitan Community Churches reflects decades of LGBT people being kept out and kicked out of churches which claimed that our sexuality and gender identity and expression offended their theologies. In a new era of discrimination masked as religious liberty, LGBT people are not the only groups experiencing religiously-based oppression. As we seek to come together and unite, our responses in this historical moment are critical to the future not only of our faith but also our country and wider world. Malachi and Robin intend to draw on the experience of MCC and others to suggest ways we can work together to promote true liberty and justice for all. Join the conversation!

If You Think It, You Can Kink It

More often than not, kink isn’t about whips and chains so much as it is about finding a way to creatively express who you are.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi: 

Truthfully, I feel like I could write pages and pages on my experiences in kink and BDSM. I jokingly say that I’ve been kinky since I was 5 (which is only partially a joke), but in all honesty, kink has been such a vital part of my life, particularly in the past 6 years.

Completing our three-part series, “Sacred, Not Secret” on Thursday, January 19th, Robin and I will talk more from an educational and spiritual perspective on kink and BDSM. So today, I just want to write about what I have learned from kink, both from the community and from my sexual partners.

Before I get into that, though, a few words on language, semantics, and assumptions: “kink” and “BDSM” are often used interchangeably, although they mean different things. “BDSM” is a multifaceted acronym that means “Bondage/Discipline, Domination/Submission, Sadism/Masochism.” There are other dynamics that can fall under this heading (for example, M/s relationships are “Master/slave” relationships, rather than Masochist/Sadist dynamics), but in general, BDSM is describing certain intentions behind actions. S/M implies an intention of pain applied/received, D/s implies a level of emotional power exchange, B/D implies an intention of physical power exchange.

“Kink,” on the other hand, is more of an action, a thing you do. “My kinksBDSM_acronym are…” is a common beginning of a sentence, followed by a list of things a person likes doing. They may or may not come with a BDSM intention (For example, someone might have a kink for sex in public (exhibitionism), but only when it’s done in an established D/s relationship. Someone else might just have a kink for exhibitionism, but no interest in a D/s relationship.)

So, the two certainly overlap (think of a Venn diagram), but they are not synonymous. The other big assumption I want to tackle before diving into my own lessons learned is this: not all kink and BDSM is sexual. This is probably the hardest one to grasp, because I think non-kinky people (usually referred to as “vanilla”) can understand that some people need certain things in order to have an orgasm. Here we get into the distinction between “kink” and “fetish”: a fetish is defined as something someone requires in order to have sexual arousal. Fetishes are inherently sexual; kinks are not.

I tend to define kink as “anything that is used to help deepen and further your connection to yourself and/or your relationships with others.” Which is a really big and nebulous definition, but it incorporates kink as catharsis, kink as spirituality, kink as sexuality, kink as art, kink as community. Which brings me to…

If you can think it, you can kink it

It’s cheesy, but I have absolutely learned that anything (and when I say anything, I mean anything) can be a kink. From glitter to food to leather cleaning to smoking cigars to drinking coffee to cleaning to body painting to… the list is endless. And maybe this seems silly, but it has given me a place to allow my creativity to flourish. You think it would be fun if we ran around a field and play-wrestling and smacking each other with glitter? Let’s do it! I think it would be awesome to inflict pain via direct impact (e.g. kicking and punching someone) while periodically stopping to drink shots of coffee? Hey, let’s make this happen! You want to find a way to face a difficult and traumatic situation in your life by recreating it in a safe way? Let’s talk about what that means to you. It brings you great joy and peace to do someone’s dishes as a way of expressing your care for them as 10866118_10100347062366349_6573193232652256420_owell as quiets your own thoughts and helps you feel calm? I have a sink and plenty of dishes.

More often than not, kink isn’t about whips and chains so much as it is about finding a way to creatively express who you are. It’s silly and goofy and absurd and sometimes it’s hard and difficult and powerful, but it can just be… fun.

Learn yourself, know yourself

In kink, similar to poly, it is of the upmost importance to know what you want and, I would argue, work to understand those desires. If you like pain, great! What kind of pain? Sharp, stingy, thuddy, dull? How much pain? Rate on a scale of 1-10 the level that you enjoy experiencing. Do you want to stay at that level, or get pushed beyond it? Do you like small amounts of intense pain or long, slow amounts of a steady buildup of pain?

You like being restrained? Great! Do you enjoy the feeling of being unable to move? Or does it help you feel more present in your body? Does it make you feel afraid or safe to be tied up? Do you only want to be tied to furniture (e.g. a bed) or would you be interested in doing artistic rope?

malachi-rope
Photo Credit BDSLR

Knowing and understanding your desires not only helps you be able to talk about and ask for the things you want, but it also helps you understand what similar things you might also be interested in trying. For example, if you like being restrained because you enjoy the feeling of not being able to move, you might also like certain types of rope suspension (and not just handcuffs to the bed). If, however, you like being restrained because it helps you feel more present in your body, then you might also be interested in experimenting with different stimuli (pain, sensation, etc.) to see how that might contribute (or detract) from the feeling.

Understanding where we are coming from is crucial, not just because it helps us articulate what we want, but also because it helps inform and guide enthusiastic, informed consent.

Consent isn’t sexy; it’s mandatory.

Ok, so I think consent is also sexy. But it is mandatory to get consent before interacting in any way with another person. Different communities do this differently, but for me, I recognize that my lessons inside both radical and kink scenes (both of which, for me, were consent-focused) has made me more aware of the ways in which I interact with people outside of those settings.

I ask before I hug someone, unless I know them well enough that we have given one another permission to hug without asking. I ask before I touch someone else’s things- be it a book on someone’s book shelf, or sitting on someone’s bed. I am aware of how close I am standing to people in line at the coffeeshop, aware of people’s personal space, aware of body language signals that imply whether or not it is welcome to approach someone. I ask before broaching emotionally-loaded conversations to make sure that the person I’m talking to is in a space to have those conversations.

It comes from navigating spaces in which enthusiastic consent is expected. As I was saying above, knowing where a desire is coming from is a vastly important aspect of the kink scene because of enthusiastic,

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informed consent. For example, if someone wants a situation (also called a “scene”) that will cause them a lot of pain because they like the endorphins, that’s a very different situation than someone who wants to do a scene that will cause them a lot of pain because they are dealing with a traumatic experience and want to find a cathartic way to deal with that. The person inflicting the pain might be fine with the former, but not able to deal with the emotional fallout from the latter (and that is completely fine). So we have to have consent- not just to be touched in certain ways or subjected to certain sensations and experiences, but also to decide what situations we want to engage in.

Fear

Kink is an amazing way to face all kinds of fears. For me personally, kink has truly helped me dismantle many of my thoughts, feelings, and assumptions about my interactions with cisgendered men and allow myself to be physically and emotionally vulnerable and connected in a way that I had not experienced before. Allowing cismen to tie me up, for example, has been a really powerful experience for me- not just because I like the feeling of rope, but also because I put myself in a position where someone had power over me, and I had to yield to that feeling of vulnerability and learn to trust that I was safe.

I have utilized kink to deal with sexual trauma, fear of queer-bashing, internalized distrust of cismen, feelings of inadequacy, and fear of the unknown. I hope that I would have found a way to confront these fears outside of the kink scene; however, for me, the kink scene was immeasurably helpful in propelling my own healing in these areas, and I do not feel like I would be in the place that I am without my engagement in the kink scene.

I have a hard time imaging what kind of image this paints for someone who is not intimately involved in kink or BDSM (see Robin’s observations below). Kink is so many things to so many people, and the only blanket statement I can make about kink is that you can’t make any blanket statements. Every person’s experiences are different and come from a different place.  Kink has taught me a lot about who I am and how I want to navigate the world. My way isn’t the only way, but it feels real and authentic to me. Kink has helped me be a better version of myself: more honest and open, better able to articulate and hold to boundaries, to understand the process the world that I live in. I celebrate who I am- the serious and the goofy, the sexual and the platonic, the spiritual and the embodied, and watch the lines between these black-and-white dichotomies slowly fade to gray.

Robin:

revrobin2-023About a year ago, as I sat at a meeting, a church lay leader told the group that she and her partner were in a dominant/submissive relationship. I was delighted by her honesty, her courage, and frankly also intrigued because she suddenly seemed like a more interesting person than I had imagined.

At that point I had no real knowledge of what she meant. What I was sure about is that she and her partner were not the only people in the congregation with those interests and practices in their lives. Her revelation was related to the discussion—namely how to talk about sex in a church context—and helped frame and explain her point of view, but it was not central to our main topic. Still, I now note with interest that I did not seek her out later to learn more, despite my usual interest in all things sexual.

You can't say that in church jasonkoon net
jasonkoon.net

There are several reasons for this, I think.  The first may be that this whole subject felt scary to me. It certainly presses all my internalized buttons about feeling a need to appear “normal.” Not just in church, but in our society generally, dominant/submissive sex or life in general is not considered mainstream.  Nice people avoid this, or at least avoid talking about it, and certainly do not admit to being interested or involved.

Of course, in another sense this is nonsense. We live in a world where we are dominated in one way or another, and many, maybe most, if not all, of us, are dominant sometimes. Just think about our current political realm. I doubt I need to use names of some dominant people very much in the headlines these days. Those of us who are parents, not to mention bosses or owners of various enterprises, have certainly dominated others at times. The truth is we, or at least I, live in denial about the place of dominance and submission in life.

And I am aware, now, that I had a preconceived idea about what dominant/submissive meant—mainly that one put the other through pain. I am not a big fan of pain of any sort.

The reality, as I am learning, is that being “dom and sub” is not so simple. Yes, some activities are about physical pain. But others can be more about psychological needs—as Malachi has told me, for example, being submissive can be an opportunity to let go of all your needs to meet some internalized standard or set of standards about your looks or behavior, standards that for many of us are heavy burdens to bear through most of our lives.

So, as Malachi and I prepare to lead an online discussion on kink/BDSM, I am learning more about this way of sharing and celebrating lives and bodies. I know that people engage in activities that meet their needs—emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual—and that is good for them, and for the rest of us, too, when people are finding personal satisfaction and fulfillment. What I also know is that I can learn from them about what they do and why they do it, and in the process I will learn more about myself. I may even discover something I want to do that I never knew about, or even knew I wanted.

So far, I have only delved a little, with Malachi’s help, into the world of what practitioners usually call “kink,” what I and others, if we are feeling particularly sophisticated, may call BDSM (activities, often sexual but not always, involving bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomacocism), I have read articles and watched a lecture and visited a website, fetlife.com.  It is all very educational for me.

fetlife-logoAs I perused fetlife.com, I did not think there would be anything to catch my fancy, but I have discovered that exhibitionism is a popular activity. That certainly is something I have long known was part of me and as part of my education I am seeking to learn more.

What I am already learning is that there are many kinds of exhibitionism; and as I continue looking around, I discover that the larger world of kink seems almost limitless. Malachi told me, “if you think it, you can kink it,” and I am beginning to see that truth.

This raises up a positive attribute I am seeing in my explorations, namely that “kinksters” know what they want and they say so. They also appear to know how much of it they want and how often, and any limits they need to set. I think many of us could learn from this, especially perhaps when it comes to sex. Frank conversations with our partner(s) are, I observe, too rare in many more traditional relationships. Many of us are victims of an old attitude of “don’t talk about it” when it comes to sex. Frankly, our sex lives, and the world, would be a better place if many of us were more honest about sex, if we really named our needs and desires.

The other thing I am observing is the centrality of consent and trust. Kinksters know that for their needs and desires to be met they need others whose needs and desires also are deserving of respect. And this means honoring limits as well as dreams and fantasies. All of this builds trust. And trust is key to good sex, as in all forms and venues of intimacy.

Imagine if our entire world could learn that while sex can often be playful, it is not a game of one getting something from another or one lording it over others. It is about satisfaction and joy and deep feelings of wellness and pleasure for all involved.

tie me up
http://www.polyvore.com/cgi/img-thing?.out=jpg&size=l&tid=144025376

And then there is play. BDSM people often enact what they call “scenes,” meaning that by dreaming and planning together they create shared time for pleasure and intimacy—time that involves their bodies as well as a setting and often some sort of equipment or toys. Costumes can be involved, too. If the scene is complicated, or involves new types of activity to one or more of the participants, practice may be necessary. This can sound serious, but like much satisfying play, sexual or otherwise, organization can be important, and even practice can be pleasurable.

There is so much more to kink than these few notes. I am learning that it is not all about sex. Some rope tying I watched did not seem sexual to me and I was even bored through much of it. But it seemed satisfying to the participants.

So, I am beginning to see that this is all more involved than I could have imagined—and very rich and satisfying for those whose needs and desires it satisfies.

What seems clear to me is that once again I can learn from others whose desires, attitudes, and activities are different from my own. There is no room for judgment, no need for fear. Instead, we can affirm people who are consensually pleasing, supporting, and even stretching each other. The world needs more of that, not less.

I hope you will join us next Thursday, January 19 online for further remarks from Malachi and me, and a time for participants to share their thoughts and feelings, too. Details below.

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

Who has impacted your understanding of how you navigate the world as a sexual and/or queer person? What people have had an impact on your experiences and pushed you to be the best versions of yourself? What was it about those people that made such a substantial impact? 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.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us THURSDAY, January 19th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Workshop description:

Sacred, Not Secret, Part 3: Beyond the Norm

We invite you to join us on Thursday, January 19th for the third part of the series, “Sacred, Not Secret” where Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline continue to discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. On January 19, they will continue to explore non-normative relationship structures and practices, focusing this time on kink and BDSM. This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of these sexual activities, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to practitioners–because do not doubt that you know and interact with them, in church and elsewhere.

Recordings of the workshop presentations by Malachi and Robin are being made available periodically.

When Does Freedom Become Oppressive?

. . . in our own personal sexual revolutions, we must also be aware of how we are taking up space in the world around us . . . .

by Malachi Grennell and Robin Gorsline

Last week, there was a wonderful and thoughtful comment discussion-primarily between Robin and a reader named Matt- clarifying some of the statements in the original post (see “Is Sex Work?”). As the discussion started to wrap up, Matt stated that “‘sexual freedom’ and ‘consent’ are only truly meaningful if one is free – legally, socially, and economically – to choose to withhold them.” We think this is a wonderful, eloquent way to phrase a sentiment that couldn’t be truer: our “yes” is only as powerful as our “no” is empowered. That got us talking with each other about our own ideas and experience around giving and withholding consent as it relates to sexual freedom. As we talked, we decided to share some of  that with our readers.

Malachi: 

Malachi GrennellMatt’s observation and my conversation with Robin got me thinking about consent and models of consent- there is a very large difference between “choose to say no” (the model that we in the United States are raised and inundated with, which assumes consent until someone states a boundary) and “choose to say yes” (in which a person asks at each escalating step of intimacy, “May I (fill in the blank)?” which gives the other person the opportunity to say yes or no. (For an excellent resource to help understand and discuss consent check here).

I still remember my first date with my partner, Kase. After a wonderful night of dinner and conversation (after which, I must confess, I knew I was smitten), it was nearing one in the morning, and there was a significant amount of tension between us. He asked if he could kiss me (I said yes). Then he asked if he could touch my arm, my back, take off my shirt, kiss my neck, and so forth. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had because I felt like I was with someone who wanted me to be present, and wanted to touch me in ways that felt good for me (not just ways that felt good for him). After five and a half years, we don’t necessarily do that every time we are intimate or close, but sometimes- particularly if one of us is having a difficult time, struggling with old trauma, or just feeling particularly sensitive- we go back to consciously seeking verbal consent more frequently. It is a powerful way of showing one another that we love, support, and respect each other- and we still have the choice to say no, no matter how long we’ve been together.

I have to say, from my own personal experience, summoning the ability to say, “No,” in situations where you are working against the assumption of your consent is a lot harder than being offered the opportunity to say yes. When the “yes” is assumed, what power does our “no” have?

Don't touch my fucking hair sussexstudent comIt is said that “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” This likewise applies to the conversations around sexuality- my sexual freedom ends where someone else’s body begins. But we know this- we understand that touching people without permission is a violation of consent-or do we? Stories of total strangers touching a pregnant woman’s belly (learn more here), people getting touched, grabbed, or groped in public by total strangers (more here), and African American people who experience those who claim whiteness touching their hair without asking (more here) – make me think that maybe we didn’t learn that elementary lesson that we shouldn’t touch what doesn’t belong to us. I can’t help noticing that many (not all, but many) of these issues disproportionately affect women because so often, women’s bodies are considered public domain and, more often than not, are told that “it’s a compliment”. But ideally, we shouldn’t touch another person’s body without their permission- that is an appropriate limit to sexual freedom.

I think that we understand that there must be some limitations on sexual freedom. So how do we choose which limitations are appropriate and which are not- not only with our sexual freedom, but with our discussions of sexuality in general? At what point are we ensuring that the dialogue is open, and at what point are we forcing others to engage in a conversation in which they do not wish to participate?

facebook-children ecommercetimes.com
ecommercetimes.com

When Robin and I initially began to co-author this blog, I found myself in an interesting situation. My family is on social media, and friends with both Robin and myself. Now, I didn’t want to stifle or self-censor my conversations about myself, my sexuality, my relationship with my body, etc. I wanted to write as authentically and passionately as I could about these various topics and be able to “share” my writing on social media platforms…and yet. And yet I was aware that my parents wouldn’t want to read that. They wouldn’t feel comfortable reading about my role in BDSM or my thoughts on masturbation- not because they are particularly prudish, but because they’re my parents and I’m their child, even if I am their adult child.

So rather than wait for them to click on a link that both Robin and I were posting and put them in an uncomfortable situation, I called my parents up and told them about this project. I let them know that I would be co-authoring this blog, and that these were some of the topics we might be covering. I let them know that I had no problems with them reading and participating in the conversation, but if they chose to do so, I didn’t want to hear about their discomfort in reading about my sexuality. I did the best I could to inform them so that they could make the best decision for themselves and their comfort levels- and to my knowledge, none of them read this blog, and I am absolutely ok with that. I get the freedom to discuss what I want to discuss, while they get the freedom to not be exposed.

consent sussexstudent com
sussexstudent.com

The platform matters and it’s all about ensuring people can give informed consent. We have to allow people to “opt in” rather than force people to need to “opt out.” We do not, for example, force anyone to read this blog, nor are we trying to trick people into reading it by disguising the subject matter. But in our churches- how do we allow people to opt in to the conversations during services (see Robin’s discussion)? How do we create space to have these dialogues and discussions without forcing every person to interact- whether or not they want to? How to we make sure that people are informed enough to make the best decision for themselves?

These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers. Right now, we tend to shy away from and avoid these conversations because we don’t want to force people to talk about sex, and as a result, non-consensually limit sexual freedom for those who do want to have open, frank conversations. Conversely, if we start talking about it all the time, everywhere, we also limit the freedom of those who don’t want to engage in those conversations. The compromise is to create space where people can engage if/when they want to- they can opt in to the conversation, rather than opt out. But creating opt-in consent models in just one area of our lives can feel awkward and disjointed. In general, in our interactions with one another, cultivating an understanding of when we are giving others an opportunity to say yes versus waiting for others to say no can go a long way in creating space for conversations, whether they are hard or playful, platonic or sexy.

Sexual freedom can be a powerful force, something that transforms how we interact with ourselves and with our sexual partner(s). But in our own personal sexual revolutions, we must also be aware of how we are taking up space in the world around us. How we interact with consent in our daily lives- with strangers, friends, coworkers, and lovers- can be a vital aspect to promoting sexual freedom for everyone, as well as embodying new forms of sexual freedom within ourselves. As Matt said, sexual freedom and consent are only meaningful if one is free…to choose to withhold them. We have to ensure that as we continue to explore our own understandings of sexuality and gender that we do not infringe upon the capacity for others to do the same, in ways that feel good and authentic to them.

Robin: 

revrobin2-023As readers of this blog know, I, like I think most people, have sexual conflicts within my own self, my own mind and body. Lifelong body issues, including shame, and now the effects of aging and other health conditions, as well as a new found sexual energy at a relatively advanced age, give rise to contestations entirely within my own psyche and body.

Moreover, these conflicts are often played out within social contexts, not only my marriage of course, but also in my pastoral and theological vocation. To put it simply: church is a central arena of sexual conflict for me.

What am I free to say and do in church—in worship, in classes and small group discussions, with and among various individuals and informal gatherings? What am I free to write in ecclesiastical contexts?

yellow line boundary with 2 sets of shoes soberrecovery com
soberrecovery.com

When does what I say or do in such church settings impinge on the freedom of someone else to not receive my words or see or participate in my behavior, even if only indirectly? Where does the freedom to be me end? The classic answer is that it ends where the freedom of my neighbor begins.

But how do I know where that is? If I ask someone if they would be bothered, or offended, if I were to use a certain word or to discuss a certain topic, does not the asking potentially involve me in violating their freedom? Or should I just self-censor if I think there is any reason to think they would be offended?

Readers of this blog will not be surprised if I say that I think many of us do far too much self-censoring of that sort about sex, knowing that someone most likely will be offended if, in public places especially, we say much of anything about that topic. So we just don’t talk about it in any substantive, or certainly personal, way.

Noam Chomsky on social freedom pinterest com
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I believe that has contributed greatly to sex and body negativity in our culture, and perhaps especially in religious life (for me, that means churches). That negativity leads to repression of LGBT people, refusal to respect transgender people, body judgmentalism, etc. And it surely is connected to misogyny, the hatred and disrespecting of women and, I believe, racism (people who call themselves white feeling and acting superior to those with darker-skinned bodies).

It may help if I discuss an actual incident in which the exercise of my freedom, my power as a pastor, caused some others to feel disrespected and others to feel freed.

Some years ago, I preached a series of four sermons about sex and spirit. I gave the congregation considerable notice when these would occur because I wanted to be sure people were not surprised, and if they wanted to stay away they could do so. I also admit that I hoped some people would come who did not usually participate in worship at the church.

But, the reality of how this worked is not so simple as giving notice. No one in the congregation knew exactly what I was going to say, so the possibility existed that one or more persons might be offended. As it turns out, my brief description of masturbating to a representation of Jesus, in the final sermon, did offend some. Two people walked out. Others spoke to me later expressing displeasure, even anger, Some expressed a lack of trust in me going forward. On the other hand, some others thanked me for being honest.

Pastor preaching howafrica com
howafrica.com

I should say one thing about my freedom, too. I really resisted using this incident in a sermon. In fact, I really resisted doing the entire series. I felt pressure—from members of the congregation, and from God in various ways—to tackle the subject from the moment the congregation adopted a mission statement that included an affirmation of “the holy integration of spirituality and sexuality.” People wanted me to discuss that so they would understand what it means.

Frankly, I knew doing so was likely to cause trouble. I had learned the lesson about not talking about sex in church very well. So, I waited more than three years to do so. But people would ask and I would feel the hot breath of God when they did. Finally, I gave in and scheduled the series, for August, a time of often lower than usual attendance, And I was, I think, pretty cautious during the first three sermons (some people who objected to “the masturbation sermon,” as it became known, told me they were shocked that I did that after the more benign tone of the prior ones).

At any rate, this experience raises important issues.

At what point does my freedom to tell the story of that self-pleasuring (a sign, even in some ways a divine sign, for me, of recovery from a serious illness) impinge on the freedom of others not to know? TMI, too much information, some said.

As the pastor, I had the power of the pulpit. Some said I abused it. Several said it raised old issues of abuse for them. Others said it freed them to trust me enough to tell me about histories of abuse (and other sexual “secrets) that they usually kept hidden.

To use the test articulated so well by our reader Matt, those who were angered, or hurt, were not free not to hear unless they chose not to come to the series at all. If they came to church and sat in the sanctuary, they would hear the words before they could stop me, or choose to leave. On the other hand, if I felt I could not speak, then my freedom was denied.

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barbwire.com

I have struggled with this before and after, down to the present moment. Did I hear God correctly? Did I have to include that incident in the sermon? I should note here that I took it out of the written text several times and only added it back on Sunday morning and put a box around it and created a segue before it so I could decide in the moment whether to speak it or not. I kept an internal dialogue going that morning, asking God to relieve me from saying it. God did not do so. I took a deep breath and spoke the words.

However, I want to be clear. I don’t hold God responsible. That is not my view of God. I have been given agency by God, I am an adult, responsible for my choices. I knew it would create some upheaval. I chose to do it anyway.

It reminds me of my decision to begin this blog. I can tell a good number of my friends on Facebook (I always post my writings when they appear in public on my Facebook page) don’t want any part of this particular blog. I also know there are people at the church where I am active who think all I care about, all I talk about, is sex. I am pretty sure my daughters and other family would be glad if I stopped.

But a blog is different. People can, and do, choose not to read it. Speaking, as a preacher in a sermon or just talking as an individual in a group at church or anywhere is different. When we speak, people hear us, whether they want to or not.

freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear brainyquote com
brainyquote.com

On the other hand, if we never speak an unpleasant truth, nothing will ever change. As a leader and teacher, with passions about human liberation and justice, that is unacceptable to me.

So, it becomes, at least for me, doing my best to find or create opportunities to speak, to write, thoughtfully, with care, to tell the truth I need to share—opportunities that allow as much as possible for people to be given notice and to be able to make their own choices. And on occasion, I know I will decide I need to say or write something that will anger at least some people. I need to pray for guidance, I need to ask forgiveness, I need to listen to their anger and hurt, and to pray for their healing.

The truth is that the lines are not always clear, and when they are, it also is possible they need to crossed. Not every line deserves to be enforced every time, even as all of us deserve, and have, the right to resist such transgression.

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What do you think? What are your thoughts on sexual freedom and its limits? Please share below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.