Truths of Sex

focusing on liberating possibilities through sex contributes to living out divine commands to love and to do justice

by Malachi and Robin

Introduction:

Next Thursday, March 16th, we will co-host a discussion on Creating Space, particularly in worship: creating space for different ideas, beliefs, communities, and perspectives. Creating space can be a difficult process that requires us each to examine our own internal biases, prejudices, and desires about what we want from our churches and communities. And yet, it is important that we start somewhere- and, for us, that “somewhere” is based in a firm belief in sexual and bodily liberation.

So today, we offer these truths, not as a manifesto, nor as a comprehensive perspective, but as a starting point. These sexual truths for Christians (and all other humans) give us a place of common ground from which to begin, and provide a foundation on which to stand as we work to bridge those things that so often are used to keep us divided.

Some Current Background

We read a recent gruesome newspaper account of abuse by an English evangelical Christian leader, John Smyth (“Dozens Say Christian Leader Made British Boys ‘Bleed for Jesus’”).

revrobin2-023Once again, we learn of someone who claims to be spiritual using violence to enforce his version of sexual morality—in this case, beating boys bloody for masturbating, for watching pornography, for “having indecent thoughts.” And his reign of terror, while beginning with boys at the oldest boarding school in England, Winchester College, continued in Zimbabwe when he was sent away by the very Christian charity he ran because of an investigation into his barbaric practices, and more recently in South Africa.

He was arrested in Zimbabwe for homicide in the pool death of a 16-year-old boy at a camp he ran, but eventually charges were dropped. In February, he was removed from work with youth by a church in South Africa, following claims of inappropriate behavior (but without proof of criminal acts).

This story is not new, of course, but its gruesomeness is shocking, almost as much as the reality that once again church authorities are complicit, with law enforcement it seems, in covering up the crimes—until they have gone on so long and become global that denial is no longer viable.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nWe focus on it not because the story is new, but because it is depressingly familiar—and because it is not only Mr. Smyth and those who abetted his behavior who bear responsibility for the evil he has done. Frankly, it is a religious movement, our faith, Christianity, which continues to look the other way when it comes to opening a responsible conversation about sex and faith.

We don’t mean a dialogue promoting safe sex, although that is critical—any spiritual community that does not put condoms and dental dams in the restrooms and does not promote sex education for its youth (and even its 20-somethings) is guilty, in our view, of at least social/spiritual negligence.

What we are proposing, however, is a conversation that begins grounded in the truth that sex is not only good, but also is divinely created for our well-being and our pleasure. But it must be more than an affirmation of sex as a godly thing, more than offering a hymn or two to extol the beauties of creation and creating.

What is really needed is attention to specifics, to naming body parts, to sharing joys of sex acts, to sharing fears of sex acts as well—basically being very open and honest about the range of feelings, practices, and desires among us. We are beginning to think we need something akin to Luther’s 95 Theses, perhaps a list of Sexual Truths for Christians (and All Other Humans).

It could begin this way (please know we do not intend this to be comprehensive or final).

Sexual Truths for Christians (and All Other Humans)

  • ·         Open and honest conversation in religious and social settings about sexual desires and issues is the right of every person. It also is the right of any person to decline to participate in any part of such conversations that feel oppressive or harmful. However, objecting to the conversation on the basis of biblical teachings or some version of “God’s Law” is not sufficient to end the conversation, it is instead a beginning point for dialogue on the question of authority and self-realization in our sexual lives.
  • ·         Sexual positions are as varied and variable as the people who engage in them. None are right or wrong, only to be evaluated on their efficacy to produce pleasure and satisfaction for the parties involved.
  • ·         Ways of being sexual can change over time—persons who consider themselves primarily or exclusively engaged in different-sex sex or same-sex sex, or any other orientations or preferences, are free to try whatever option pleases them and helps them to become more the person God creates them to be.
  • ·         There are as many genders as there are people, and each one is beautiful and desirable.
  • ·         Masturbation is a God-encouraged way to love oneself, and even to do so with another or others.
  • ·         Nudity is beautiful and a way of praising God.
  • ·         There is no part of the human body that is not beloved of God, no part that is not beautiful, whatever its function(s). This includes the anus, a site of intense sexual pleasure for many.
  • ·         Consensual monogamy is no more moral than consensual non-monogamy.
  • ·         No person shall be denied the opportunity to engage in any sexual act or activity that they view as positive and life-affirming, provided such act or activity does no harm to others. This includes practices known as BDSM and kink, and all non-traditional forms of sexual living.
  • ·         No person shall be forced to engage in any sexual act or activity that is offensive to them or that they view as harmful to their physical, social or spiritual well-being.
  • ·         Neither the Bible nor God mandates only one way to be sexual.
  • ·         Every person can choose how they wish to live sexually, choices that may be made on an ongoing basis as more about sex is revealed in their lives and by others around them.
  • ·         God made us to be able to live as sexual beings, because God understands that the eros, the life energy, released and shared in sex can be an agent of communication, a way to bring people together
  • ·         Sexualized violence, that is, doing injury to another or others through bodily penetration, beatings, verbal attack or the like is not sex, it is violence and must be treated as such by legal and ecclesiastical authorities.

As stated above, this is far from an exhaustive treatment of our need to establish a new code of sexual living for Christians.

Both of us have a rich history in MCC—Robin as as an ordained clergyperson and Malachi as a member from a young age—proud to claim a heritage in a religious movement begun in 1968 to free lesbian and gay Christians from the tyranny of heterosexist, patriarchal views and rules about sexuality. And as believers and sexual beings, we have been agitating for many years for wholesale change in our sexual ethics and theologies.

We remain discouraged that even that tradition, with its rich history of teaching the wider church about sex in the 1970s and 80s, and showing the way in caring for those stricken and dying with HIV/AIDS into the 90s, has lost its way. We write this blog each week, and once each month, on the third Thursday, we offer online teaching about issues of sex, bodies and spirit. Our audience for both remains small. And few are clergy or other religious leaders.

In the United States we are going through trying times. We suspect that many think that talking about sex is not what is needed right now. Surely, we have much to struggle about, work against, in areas where the new administration is turning things upside down and backwards.

However, it is clear to us that focusing on liberating possibilities through sex in our lives can contribute to living out the divine command to love and to do justice, that indeed we can undermine all the historical forces determined to take us back to old days of narrowness and fear by claiming and proclaiming the freedom God gives us in our embodied, sexual, spiritual selves.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

Have you wondered where God ends and sex begins? What if there is not really a boundary? What if God is part of, central to, our sexual pleasure? How do you experience sex as a force in your life that impacts your spirituality and your mental well-being, and how do those other aspects affect your sex?  And how can we find ways to talk about this in church, how can we bring God and sex and God’s people into the same space, the same sanctuary? 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 on THURSDAY, March 16th 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: “Creating Space,” particularly in worship is our focus: creating space for different ideas, beliefs, communities, and perspectives. Creating space can be a difficult process that requires us each to examine our own internal biases, prejudices, and desires about what we want from our churches  and communities. And yet, it is important that we start somewhere- and, for us, that “somewhere” is based in a firm belief in sexual and bodily liberation. So mark your calendar to be with us for this important conversation on March 16! 

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.

Eros: The Language of Relationality

Following last week’s discussion of non-monogamy, Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell continue to explore our connections to ourselves, our partner(s), the Holy in an exploration of the language of relationality.

 Introduction:

 Sexuality is a form of language, language that brings together body, mind, and spirit. It is embodied language that uses not only our voices to speak or our hands to write but also can use those means and all other parts of our body to communicate.

It is a language of connection, intended in its highest and best use to bring bodies together (this may include genital sexual activity or not, depending on what feels right). That connectedness has divine roots, the eros of God, to bring us together as humans and to bring us into union with the divine. It is the language of relationality.

As such, it is a powerful language, perhaps the most powerful. And, like all language, it can bless and honor and affirm, or it can hurt and harm and abuse.

All close relationships have an erotic component—again, not necessarily to do with genital sexual activity, but rather a foundation of connectivity from the eros of God, the central part of God who desires connection with us and our connection with all others.  We are drawn to each other from that foundation.

revrobin2-023Robin:

I want to turn to some thoughts about patterns of relational health and their opposite, relational dis-ease or disorder. Our relationships—including our friendships, even our connections with neighbors, co-workers, fellow congregants—require us to pay great attention to the processing of this divinely inspired erotic language. I will draw some of this from experience with my husband.

  • Learn from what went wrong. He and I become very angry with each other at times. Any relationship that avoids all expressions of anger is probably not really alive. Yet, these times can be so very hurtful. We say things that come from inner places of harm, perhaps from childhood demons and injuries. We cannot stop this entirely from happening, but in time, we learn to pull back and re-position ourselves to talk through with less anger what has happened. We can on occasion become stronger through the entire process. And I think we engage in these angry outbursts less than we used to.
  • Check out what is going on. Sometimes, such moments are created by perceptions by one or the other of us that we are not receiving sufficient attention from the other, or perhaps even a thought that the other is paying too much attention to someone else, or we are not touching each other enough or the other touched another too much.
  • Someone be the adult. It is, of course, vital that the one on the receiving end of the first statement, perhaps said in high-volume anger or even in soft but cutting tones, try not to respond in kind. This is easier said than done. We each know how to maximize the pain of the other in the simplest and most basic ways. That is one of the things intimacy teaches us, and shows us the power of this erotic connective language. Fortunately, it also teaches us how to offer healing.
  • Pay attention to all the signals. Thus, relationships, because they are built upon and utilize the power of eros, require that we pay close attention to many dynamics—facial expressions, tone of voice, types and places of touch, listening, smelling, e.g.—both in times of joy and ease and in times of pain and disruption.
istock_000002721387xsmall
http://relationship-bliss.com/unhappy-relationship/

In a monogamous relationship, and in relationships with multiple sexual partners or other significant relationships, these dynamics can be heightened by so many factors of ordinary life—unhappiness with our work, or an argument with a colleague, bodily pain that won’t go away, disconnection from other family and loved ones, and many other things. Thus, it takes self-awareness to avoid letting a build-up of unhappiness lead to tensions that can create an explosion.

There is one more area I want to briefly explore. We all carry sexual memories which can have an impact on our sexual relationships today.

  • Use the entire vocabulary. I remember some incidents from my post-coming out, single days—when I sought sex with men as a way of self-discovery and affirmation—that carry some vestige of pain to this day. In one incident, I was told that I should give up on being gay because my penis was too small. More than my organ was badly deflated. In another incident, a man I had taken to bed told me, after a few minutes, that he could not continue. “I feel nothing,” he said. Of course, I felt a lot after that.

I admit to still feeling the sting of these moments, even if only in a memory bank that I don’t visit very often. But what both of them did was let their penises do their thinking. And, of course, I was letting my penis do a lot of my thinking, too. I can look back and see signs that neither of these men would be a good fit for me. But I was so eager and sexually hungry and they were very handsome and seemingly available. Why should I not give it a try?

This is not, in my view, holistic erotic relationality. And it is using one part of the body to speak for the whole body, denying the possibility of deep connection.

I say this not to deny or demean the urgency and power of sexual desire, nor to judge myself or even them for insensitivity or hunger, but rather to say that it is important to use the whole vocabulary of this embodied erotic language to experience, and to give, to participate in, real and whole relationality, body, mind, and spirit.

We are made for connection. But it takes effort and attention and self-education and growth, and being fully present as much of the time as possible.

Malachi:Malachi Grennell

Thinking about the language of relationality reminds me of my upbringing. Growing up in
a lesbian household has had some incredible benefits (as well as complications) in my development as an integrated, sexual adult. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons I learned from my parents was the emphasis on finding a partner that was “good to me and good for me.” I always knew the gender of my partner wouldn’t matter; the focus was on how we treated one another, not the aesthetics of our relationship.

This is a lesson I have carried with me and believe that it strongly applies to the discussion of non-monogamy: what the relationships look like matters less than how the people in the relationships treat one another.

I have heard a lot of people who practice non-monogamy state, “I am my own primary partner.” (a subject I have written about at length here) In essence, this just means that someone has a strong relationship with themselves: they are centered, grounded, self-aware, accountable, etc. But I also see this as an important aspect of monogamy as well: the best of relationships can fail without a strong understanding of self. And for those of us who believe that we are created in the image of God, I would argue that a strong sense of self is a sense of the God, indeed the presence of God, within each of us.

Building a strong sense of “self” can be difficult in a world that inundates us with superficial perspectives without cultivating a sense of accountability for our actions. I have found that these types of self-check-ins are a necessary part of non-monogamy, but I have learned that most of the conversations have more to do with being honest about where we are at, taking accountability for our own emotions and feelings, and working together to figure out how to keep the relationship strong. In that spirit, these are some of the things I have had to check in with myself about on multiple occasions:

  • Know yourself. Know what you want and need from a relationship. Know what things are deal-breakers for you. Know what things are red flags. Know what things are preferences. Learning to differentiate between “needs” and “wants” can be vital, particularly in attracting relationships that can be mutually nurturing and beneficial. It’s nearly impossible to get your needs met without first understanding what they are and how to verbalize them.
  • Understand how to get your needs met. Determine what things you want and/or need from your partner, what things you want and/or need from friends and other communities, and what things you want and/or need to
    relationships
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    provide for yourself. Remember that we are community-oriented beings: having friendships outside of a sexual relationship is important, necessary, and healthy, regardless of whether we are monogamous or non-monogamous.

  • Allow time and space to be comfortable with your emotions. Name them and try to understand where they are coming from. Determine the difference between emotions like jealousy and envy. Try to understand your own insecurities and how you can combat them. Find low-stress, loving ways to bring up your emotions and discuss them with your partner(s).Remember that you may not be able to control how you feel, but you can control how you act. For example, I always think of a good friend of mine who has a 72-hour rule in dealing with anger: she waits 72 hours before she brings up something that made her angry. More often than not, she’s forgotten about whatever it was after three days; if not, she has taken some time to reflect and is able to approach the conversation in a much healthier way.
  • Understand the intention of agreements. It’s really easy to accidentally break trust with a partner by breaking the intention of an agreement. Understand the purpose of agreements you make. Understand what insecurities you might be struggling with if you’ve asked for a specific agreement. Understand what insecurities your partner might be struggling with. In my opinion (and in my experience), it’s easier to maintain agreements when the intention is well-understood.

While these might be concepts that could be applied to any relationship (family, coworkers, friendships, etc.), it becomes more complicated when we are trying to navigate relationships that have a sexual component. How we connect with and relate to ourselves and our bodies directly impacts how we are able to relate to our partners (and our partner’s bodies).

I know that when I am dealing with some disconnection with my body and myself, it becomes much harder to have a sexual relationship with my partner, which is difficult for them. As people who practice non-monogamy, this can get incredibly complicated: if we are not consistently having sex with one another, it becomes more difficult to navigate the sexual relationships we have with other people. We are more prone to jealousy, sadness, and frustration than usual, and deconstructing those emotions can be time-consuming, painful, and complicated.

Conclusion

It is vital that we find ways to maintain our connectedness with ourselves, which is a lesson we each wish we had learned much younger. Our first relationship is with ourselves and, by extension, our first relationship is with the God within each of us. So whether we are sexually monogamous or non-monogamous, our strength and connectedness with our partner(s) is often a direct extension of our strength and connectedness with ourselves. Perhaps focusing less on aesthetics and more on substance will help us all be more in touch with ourselves, more in tune with God, and more connected with our partner(s).

 

Partner or Partners: What Works for You?

By Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell

Introduction:

 Non-monogamy is a loaded topic, especially within most Christian contexts. This seems to be due to church teachings that monogamy is the only righteous, sanctified option for sexual activity. It used to be one man and one woman; now, it is one person for one person.

But there is a problem with all this certainty. It is not grounded in reality. Most clergy are well aware that there are many people who are not monogamous in their congregations, as well as in the wider world. Some of them, of course, slip, and are filled with regret, remorse, and even shame. Others, however, choose to live non-monogamously.

It is time we got real about this. It is time to talk, openly and honestly, and to listen to each other (not just to those who advocate for, even live in, monogamy).

Robin:revrobin2-023

I remember the first time I encountered intentional non-monogamy. It was 1974, I was newly married. Judy and I were living in my hometown, a very conservative community 40 miles northwest of Detroit.

nickbsteve.wordpress.com
nickbsteve.wordpress.com

Three 20-something men moved in next door. They were unlike other young men in my experience. I never saw them kiss, but I did see them hug, fairly often, and their hugs went on longer than I was used to—actually there was not much male-to-male hugging of any length in those days!

One day, two of them were sitting outside when I came home and they called out to me. One of them said, “We’re sort of newlyweds, too.” I was taken aback, but I swallowed and said some sort of congratulations, as I admitted not ever knowing men who were married. And then I asked, assuming the two of them were the happy couple, how their friend felt about this. They laughed and said all three of them were married to each other.  One said, “We sleep together and everything, just like you and your wife.” I have no memory of what I said, except I know I was in some sort of shock.

Sadly, within two months they had been asked to leave, because some violence arose when one or more of them became very angry.  I can admit now to being fascinated—I was well in the closet in those days (even though I grabbed looks at the centerfolds in Playgirl whenever I could).

About ten years later, when I was in seminary in Massachusetts and well out of the closet, I met three young neighbor men who identified themselves as lovers. They also did not last too long as a unit/family—they seemed like nice guys, and I remember wondering what it would be like to be sexual with some combination of them.

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freevector.com

I had one other opportunity to experience non-monogamy, what might be called polyamory.  After I came out in seminary, my first steady male lover was a visiting scholar who taught classics at a prestigious small Midwestern college. We became what felt to me like boyfriends, although we had not yet attached a label to “us.”

After a couple of months of seeing each other regularly, Jim (not his real name) told me his lover was coming for a visit. I had not known he had a lover until then—the way he had spoken of this man helped me to think of him as a roommate (how naïve I was). And they wanted me to join them not only for dinner but also for sex. He told me that this was their way: Jim traveled a lot and had lovers in various places and when Roger (not his real name) visited, they would have a three-way. Several years later, I met another friend of Jim who confirmed that he had lovers in many places and this was their regular practice.

I was hurt by what felt like Jim’s betrayal and insensitivity. So, I declined the request, and I also told Jim I did not want to stay connected with him. I think I was right in my reaction—at least to what felt like Jim’s inability to be honest with me up front.

But there is more:  I had seen pictures of Roger and his appearance really turned me off. So that was another reason I said, “No thanks.”  Yes, I was hurt by Jim keeping secrets from me, but, had Roger been a hot guy, would I have decided to give it a try? I cannot be certain.  I was sexually adventurous in those days—the delayed adolescence often experienced by gay men who lived as straight in high school—and I well could have said yes.

I have known others who live in various non-monogamous configurations. Several very dear friends, including professional colleagues—people I know to be honorable, loving, and faithful—have been or are in long-term non-monogamous relationships/marriages.

This is real. I accept the legitimacy of their choices, even as I affirm and cherish my own monogamous marriage of 18+ years with Jonathan. And I can say that I have learned from these friends about honesty and relational integrity.

I am tired of being quiet about all this, of colluding, even passively, in the shaming of good people, not to mention wanting to be true to God who creates us for love in all sorts of ways, conditions, and practices.

Malachi:Malachi Grennell

I was first introduced to the concept of non-monogamy when I was in my early twenties. I met a cute guy while out dancing who mentioned his girlfriend early in the conversation. Although I was trying to be respectful that he was in a relationship, the sexual tension built between us as the night went on and we exchanged numbers before parting ways. Not long after, I received a text from him that said something along the lines of, “I’m not necessarily off-limits. Want to get together and talk?”

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This experience led me to be in the first triad of my life. With no real understanding of what I was doing, I found myself in a relationship with two individual people, as well as in a relationship with their relationship. Although there were three of us involved in the relationship, we practiced something I now understand is called “poly fidelity”: the relationship was closed to the three of us. I did not date outside of the two of them, and they did likewise.

The various relationships dissolved for a number of reasons, but that experience started me down the path to understanding and accepting myself as a non-monogamous person. But it was a complicated and often-murky path forward; I was working without a framework and didn’t know who I could talk to that might have some supportive, helpful advice. I had never met anyone that was non-monogamous before, never mind someone who was successfully non-monogamous. Now, in a successful 5-year non-monogamous relationship, I feel like I have a much better foundation to work from, but part of that has been the explosion of resources and conversations around non-monogamy in the past 8-10 years.

We need to be a part of these conversations. The reality is, as people of faith, it is necessary and important that we have frank, open dialogue about both monogamy and non-monogamy. Both are perfectly valid premises from which to base our relationships; one is not better than another. So often, those who practice non-monogamy treat it as though it is an enlightened state that anyone can reach if they would free themselves from petty emotions like jealousy (a stance with which I wholly disagree). Others who practice monogamy are sometimes made to feel as though it is an outdated concept and fight against that, delegitimizing non-monogamy in the pursuit of defending monogamy. In reality, both are perfectly viable approaches to relationship. Yet without dialogue around non-monogamy, it remains a secret part of who we are, and those secrets are part of what keep us from authenticity and a sense of belonging. Your relationship is not my relationship, and that’s ok. There is room at the table for all of us.

 Interested in participating in the discussion? Please join us Friday, March 18th at 2 PM EST for an ongoing conversation on Sex and Spirit, led by Metropolitan Community Church. This month, Malachi will be facilitating the conversation on non-monogamy. All are welcome and encouraged to attend, regardless of religious or denomination affiliation.

Click here* to join the call!

(*Please note: this is a teleconference on AdobeConnect that allows for webcam feed as well as audio. You do have the option to opt out of the webcam feature; however, please be aware that others will not. If you have a headset, that allows for minimal feedback and echo during conversation.)