Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sex Happens. Even Among Christians.

It’s hard to figure out how to write a blog post on sexuality, when you work for the church.

Here goes.

Most humans are sexual beings. And in my experience, the church is mostly terrible at being honest about sex and sexuality. I did an informal social media poll of Christians, asking what messages they received from church growing up. Here are a few examples:
“Nothing”
“<crickets chirping>”
“I was going to hell” (from a gay man)
“Not to do it until you’re married”
“That it was shameful… all of it”
“Sex is bad – save it for the one you love”
 “If I had relied on church teachings, instead of the streets/cars/books, I still wouldn’t understand where my children came from”
“DIRTY BAD!”
“Nothing, except sex waited until marriage!”
“Evangelical youth group: No sex, no Disco (b/c it’s all about sex), sex is the DARK side, and: don’t talk abt it”

Here’s a great characterization of this stream of responses.

Plenty of respondents had other experiences to report. Several mentioned the PC(USA)’s (contentious) curriculum called “God’s Gift of Sexuality,” or the joint United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist Association curriculum called “Our Whole Lives.” Some attended churches where sexuality was discussed insofar as gay and lesbian inclusion was a part of the church’s work.

Here are a few other responses:
“Personal sex/sexuality: Nothing shaming or empowering. LGBTQ community was mentioned in sermons in a ‘stop oppression’ context”
“We had a class… Taught us to be ‘good stewards of our bodies,’ allowed us to ask questions safely, the teachers were open and not awkward”
“Actually had best sex ed class at church”

A few #facepalm moments cropped up, with one friend’s church showing Dr. Dobson videos, and a friend whose church had a progressive, sex-positive class, but whose evangelical summer camp included this ringer: “Masturbation is sinful because it sets up unrealistic expectations for your husband.”

Growing up, I learned from church that sexuality was to be contained to marriage (one man and one woman, of course), and sex in that context was great. I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn anything about masturbation. Once my dad preached about humans as sexual beings in a non-shaming way, but that’s all I remember.

My parents were pretty open about bodies, sex, and sexuality. They also wanted to impress upon my brother and me the importance of waiting to have sex until marriage. They did a pretty good job of explaining why. They told us that sex was a gift. They never used the words “pure” or “purity,” instead using “covenant.” We didn’t follow all of what my parents taught us, although I think my brother and I held onto the spirit of their teachings about healthy sexual expression.

And then I went to college. My understanding of sex and sexuality took a leap in a direction you might not anticipate.

I volunteered with the county health department doing harm reduction work. I handed out condoms in area bars and to people in the downtown area, as well as bleach kits for needle users. I distributed information about STD and HIV testing, and had conversations with people who needed information or resources in regards to their sexual health. Every bar night, I was on the receiving end of some older men joking they would like to try out the condoms with me (reinforcing my commitment to work against public gendered harassment, but that’s another post). I got involved in harm reduction work through a service learning trip in college, where we worked with Father River Sims, a priest committed to serving the people of the Tenderloin District of San Francisco with love, not judgment. (You can support his work here.)

I developed quite the disgust for germs and diseases, and plenty of appreciation for sex-positive messages: Bodies are beautiful! Sex is awesome! Sexuality is a fact of life! Humans are sexual beings! There are lots of different ways to respect sexuality and bodies! There are many ways to get a disease! The easiest way to avoid getting a disease is not having sex! Use protection! Communicate with your partner! These messages did not hinge on marriage conventions or the overbearing attachment between sexual activity and procreation. I learned that the conversation about sex workers and sex work is far more complicated than the narrative that sex work is (and therefore sex workers are) sinful, or the equally reductive narrative that all sex workers are engaged in this work because they are victims.

As a young adult, just when I was hanging around sex-positive public health educators, my denomination newly committed itself to restricting ordination to faithfully married straight people or completely celibate unmarried people. This was meant to target gay and lesbian people in ministry. The phrase “self-affirming practicing homosexuals,” often used by proponents of this particular ordination restriction, still makes me chuckle.

I was a member of a certain judicatory committee’s oversight of people on the ordination track. One person in this process was living with his partner. They were engaged to be married. They were heterosexual. I didn’t see how this person’s life could be an issue. But because of the regulations on the books, the committee decided they had to discuss his living arrangements. Three rather uncharitable thoughts popped into my head. The first was: “These two are smart! It costs way less for one household than for two separate households that are planning on merging anyway.” Theological education is expensive these days. The second was, “This generation doesn’t usually get married at 21. Welcome to the 21st century.” The third was: “Don’t they know that as many as 94% of all young adults have had some kind of pre-marital sexual experience? Do they really expect all people called to ministry are in the 6%?”

That regulation is no longer a part of my church’s polity. But somewhere along the line I had the revelation that church discussions about sexuality and gender identity were in part contentious because of genuinely faithful differences of belief, but also because much of the information held by church people was inaccurate and outdated, and certainly not based on the diverse messages about sexuality and marriage presented in the Bible.

I have a list of messages I wish Christians would hear at church:
-Masturbation is awesome.
-Sex is not necessarily about procreation. Each can happen without the other!
-Sex can be funny. Laugh-out-loud funny.
-Boys and men are just as responsible for their sexuality as are girls and women.
-Good sex involves respect for yourself and for the other person.
-Playing “hard to get” isn’t a real thing. It’s a rape culture lie. (And rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power.)
-Your pastor probably has sex. No need to fixate on that fact, please.
-More people than you know have had bad sexual experiences. Tread lightly and gracefully.
-Please don’t get married just because you want to have sex. Get married because you really want to be with this person FOREVER in this particular kind of relationship, even when your partner gets on your last nerve. Marriage is about respect, joint assets, combining family systems and creating a new one.
-Don’t judge or dismiss sex workers. This discussion is plenty complicated.

(Do you have any to add?)

For too long, the church has often placed limits around sex and sexuality that do not empower us to make good, healthy decisions about relationships, or leave too many of us clueless and insecure about our bodies. In a child sexual abuse prevention training, I was horrified to hear that children who do not know very much about their own bodies are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Knowledge really can be power.

I want the next generations’ conversations about sexuality, sex, gender identity, and relationships to resemble the second list of social media responses. The family and the church are the de facto locations where values around sex and sexuality are formed, and I want these communities to have the capacity for discussions based on accurate information, and theologically grounded values. The church can equip parents to approach conversations about sex and sexuality with children in healthy, honest, accurate, and appropriate ways.

Where shall we begin?

A few resources:





21 comments:

  1. Thank you for your post. I remember how helpful the PCUSA's "God's Gift of Sexuality" was when I used it to teach the youth group at the Latino church in Chicago where I worked as a seminarian.

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  2. Thanks, Felipe. I remember some of the discussions that took place around that curriculum. I'm glad it was helpful to you, and I'm hoping more churches take advantage of solid curriculum!

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  3. Thanks, Laura. This made me think about something Elizabeth Smart said about having always been taught to wait until marriage. After her ordeal, she could not undo the message that because she had had sex outside of marriage (or had been raped and was no longer a virgin) she was not worthy in the eyes of God.

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    1. Beth, I remember that, and I wish for a culture that does not propagate these messages. Rape is bad enough without the layer of culturally created shame.

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  4. thank you for your anecdotal insight. It is a discussion that needs to be be more in the forefront of church life but I wish that you expressed your thoughts on the nature of sex in the Biblical framework and how it reflects the unity of trinity and also the act as self giving and self fulfilling. I do have one pointed disagreement. Masturbation maybe awesome (if the goal is orgasm) but it is selfish and as a proponent of "rape culture" that gives license in the fantasy world (at least for men) for fostering an inner thought live that permits "non-consensual" sex. That is why pornography is rampant....it creates a fantasy world where a woman never says no...she is always eager...God sees sex as an expression of unity and the marriage an image of the church and Christ and the consummation as one of renewing vows of covenantal commitment.

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    1. Thanks for your response. I think the Bible has such a mixed witness on sex and sexuality, and on marriage, that I struggle to give it its due, if that makes sense. To me, there is no one framework set out by the Bible.

      My comment on masturbation is more likely in reaction to the implicit messages many receive about the act of masturbation somehow negating one's salvation (masturbate and then you go to hell). In my understanding, masturbation itself is neutral. It just is. The images, of course, that people carry with them, are culturally shaped and constructed. I had not thought of masturbation being a place where rape culture is reinforced. I am also confused as to why masturbation, if it is selfish, is so bad. My reading has led me to believe that masturbation is a natural way to learn one's body, and being familiar with one's body can lead to a healthier sex life between two consenting adults.

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  5. Awesome post and helpful resources. We're planning on addressing this head on at the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference. http://pym.thejopagroup.com/

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    1. Very cool! I look forward to hearing about that conference. Hope it goes well.

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  6. Laura;
    Wonderful post. Wish I had your courage because I can AMEN everything you have said. One of my/our good friends was a sex worker and was not a victim... you are so right that we misunderstand some if not much of that industry. Thank you for your courage and your clear-headed, open-hearted, Biblically-faithful start to this conversation.

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    1. Thanks for reading and for your comment! I'm quite nervous that what I say will be misconstrued, but I think that's a result of the ways in which many churches approach this topic. :-\ I look forward to continuing the conversation.

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  7. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing! :-) I've taught Our Whole Lives once or twice precisely because I wish I'd had it in my church growing up. (I was raised primarily in the United Methodist Church, but I have been a Unitarian Universalist more than twice as long as I was a Methodist.)

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    1. Thanks for the conversation and the retweet!

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  8. If someone who has looked at someone else to lust for them has committed adultery with them (which Jesus said), and masturbation involves that kind of thought process (it does, doesn't it?), then masturbation must be a sin. Like all other sins, it can be forgiven, of course... but it is still condemned biblically.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. It's safe to say I disagree with your reading, but I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. I do not believe lust is necessarily separate from love (are married partners free from lust?). I also do not totally agree that masturbation naturally engages in the sort of lust you describe (women tend to be less visually driven than men). Your comment is just the kind of Biblical reading I hope churches can challenge with a different view of sexuality grounded in our Christian tradition. I think this is not who is right, and who is wrong, but what is the conversation we can have that engages the whole of what it means to be both sexual beings and faithful people.

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    3. Ha, I just saw some research in which women are not necessarily less visually driven than men. So that may be wrong. But I hope you understand my commitment to the conversation, regardless.

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    4. If I might chime in...I think there's a tool to utilize in this discussion, called mindfulness. The concept is Buddhist, but I believe the practice can be beneficial universally,
      (which is beginning to show itself in research within the mental health field, to help people cope with anxiety, depression, and other diagnoses)however the point is this: What does any one individual get from masturbation? what I mean to say is, what emotions are happening, or being fed by, masturbation? I pose these questions to identify the type of mindset in which one would engage masturbation. Is the act of masturbation being used recreationally, with no thought in mind but the pleasure being experienced within one's own body? or is it being used to cope with loneliness, with another specific "person" in mind that the masturbating individual is "responding" to (which may be more accurately classified as lust, and may create ruminations which are not helpful in trying to engage healthy relationships with other people)?

      Take home point, I think it's important to inventory intent; what is happening in one's mind and in one's spirit when performing the physical act of masturbation?

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  9. As a youth, I would have been grossed out by an anatomical discussion about sex in church; that would have felt more appropriate in my health class at school (which did a good job). But I think the church can shine when we engage in conversations about relationships. What constitutes a just relationship? How does power affect relationships? Why is faithfulness important to relationships? What are unjust and abusive relationships? How should we relate to ourselves? From there, we can talk about sex as a sometimes part of some relationships. Masturbation, for example, is about our relationship to ourselves.

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    1. Andy, thanks for reading and commenting. This is great! The church can be such a perfect place to talk about relationships, which is a much more comprehensive discussion, and the perfect foundation to discuss sex and sexuality. I do know that sex and sexuality are much more than relationship to others (as you point out, relationship to ourselves is important!).

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  10. Though I can't say the church thoroughly prepared me for a healthy understanding of sex/sexuality I was impacted by one short series of classes offered at the church I attended in East Texas. (Conroe, TX to be exact) I was in the 5th grade at the time. It was in the 70's. East Texas in the early 70's was hardly the bastion of progressive thought, and yet the church offered these classes for young pubescent teens.


    I remember a few things from that class. 1. Your body is your body. 2. It is important to know your limits. 3. You explore to discover your limits 4. When you become uncomfortable in your exploration then you have found your limit. Respect your limit. That's not all we learned. I am confident we were told intercourse was reserved for marriage.

    That is really all I remember from the class. I was sitting with a friend several years ago pondering why we would have experienced such a class in the early 70's. Why would such a healthy, helpful perspective have been offered in the church at that time? One of the answers is that the Associate Pastor serving the church at the time and responsible for the coordination of these classes was gay. Of course he was in the closet at the time.

    He is no longer alive. I never got to tell him those classes have helped me throughout my life. I don't take for granted that in his own struggle to live into his sexuality he accomplished helping some of us to have a loving, realistic, healthy, faithful understanding of sex/sexuality.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response. It sounds like a pretty good class. I often ponder those whose struggles have made our lives just a little better. Or sometimes a lot.

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