Teaching Christian Sexual Ethics: Reflecting on Week One

Last Thursday marked the beginning of my time as an adjunct professor teaching Christian Sexual Ethics at the Candler School of Theology. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach this class not only because once upon a time I was a Candler student who wished that such a course was offered during my matriculation, but also because I understand the necessity and value of a course such as this at such a time as this. So, with the first week behind me yet ever on my mind, I want to reflect on it.

The first day of class is often “getting to know you” time and my first day of class was no different. I spent time, with varying levels of success, introducing students to the overall structure of the class, though in telling them about the structure of the class I completely missed telling them about the class as in, “What is Christian Sexual Ethics?” I did a brief lecture that laid a foundation for the first quarter of the class, the section that will deal with historical documents that have influenced the discourse of and on Christian Sexual Ethics. I trotted out the usual suspects: The ones such as Paul, Plato, and Augustine who set the body against the soul or flesh against the spirit. Aquinas and his virtue-based approach to the body and sex. Then we quickly went through how sexual ethics turns topical in the 19th-21st century. Finally I asked the students, what is it that they want and need from the course. The answers were varied. We spent the second half of class discussing a few chapters in Michael Coogan’s God and Sex, a book that I recommend to people who are interested in beginning their study, in sober fashion, of what the Bible really says about sex. It was a lively discussion where students shared their understanding of the text, their theoretical perspectives adjacent to it, and personal experiences within their lives and their contexts.

It felt like a good class but it was only the first day. Since the class I have been thinking about the kind of space I want to create for the students, something that I could not have decided until I had an opportunity to meet and engage with them in the classroom. Now that I have done that once I am reflecting on what I think the task of a Christian Sexual Ethics teacher is, particularly as I see the ways in which students are hungry for knowledge, knowledge that will deconstruct the myth and production of sex and sexuality as the Christian Church has constructed it, for the sake of church contexts they may be leading or will lead in the future, and the knowledge that will give them a new ethical code to follow.

It is my belief that in teaching Christian Sexual Ethics one does not, necessarily, just prescribe a way forward. That is, the job of the person who teaches Christian Sexual Ethics is not to promote what to think but it is to promote how to think about what we have been thinking about the discourse at large. It is to test and approve or disapprove the ethic of Christian Sexual Ethics, particularly that which is prone to be regulatory. Thus I promote no new ethic that can be conceived of as in line with a new normal or that which would be conceived of as liberal, but I desire to take every side of the discourse, consider it in context, consider it outside of its context regarding the way it has been taught, and then think through the ways in which we might move forward with or from it.

I consider what one student said on the first day about presenting “alternative ideas,” which, in her definition, was not about actual alternative ideas but about how we make room for those who believe in the tradition–or what more progressive to liberal Christians might call the “conservative” teachings of the church. How do we talk to those for whom abstinence before marriage is still the model, purity is de riguer, marriage is between one man and one woman, etc? I felt this student deeply because it reminded me that space must be made for a multitude of views and that there is a possibility that someone could believe in the traditional teachings of the church on sexual ethics and if that is the case, how do we make room for that and ensure that if one stays close to traditional views they do no harm in the process? Because I am under no delusion that one can remain within the realm of tradition or the traditional and not toe the line of doing harm that can do violence either physically or metaphysically. How do we hold views that may be considered more liberal without making them the norm and categorical imperative? How do we help people own their sexuality wherever they fall on the spectrum not presuming that an interest abstinence denotes being a prude or a robust sex life denotes a whore? Can we break the binary that both implicitly and explicitly suggests to be tradition is to be repressed and to be liberal is to be liberated? Is there something in between all of this?

To teach Christian Sexual Ethics toward the end of liberation cannot always mean teaching liberal, it includes teaching what is considered liberal but it is not only that. It talks to tradition and contends with it and permits space for separating the wheat from the chaff in those teaching so that it might be possible to utilize the theoretical frameworks of a tradition to more liberating ends. Just as we are fully human and fully divine beings, we require a full conversation that includes all we can consider about how we move through the world as the embodied divine, little words made flesh. With this in mind we move forward entrusting one another with a full range of being and thinking through who and how we are on this earth and we wrestle with that on every level. We create space to wrestle with the implications of our commitments to our bodies and to God and to help determine for ourselves how to reconcile these two seemingly disparate modes. It is not only about how we live as faithful and sexual beings but how we think about how we live in accordance with that way of being.

At the conclusion of this course I hope that students might be able to articulate where they have been and where they are going in light of the sources and resources that have been set before them over the course of the semester and that given all of this they might leave different than they came, whatever that looks like.

So once more unto the breach I go to teach Christian Sexual Ethics, hoping that I do the topic justice, uncovering what is unjust and just about our reflections on and utilization of sexual ethics in our tradition and hoping that I help students see a way forward for themselves and their contexts.

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Why the Nate Parker Case Matters Now

Over the weekend old news about Nate Parker surfaced. 17 years ago Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, who he co-wrote The Birth of a Nation with, were involved in a rape case while they were roommates at Penn State in 1999. The victim said that she was raped by the two men after passing out in their room following a night of drinking while Parker and Celestin said that the sex was consensual. Parker, who had consensual sex with the victim on an earlier occasion was, somehow, acquitted and Celestin was convicted and then had it overturned in an appeal. The victim, whose name we don’t know, dropped out of Penn State, attempted suicide twice, and committed suicide in 2012 according to recent reports. Fast forward to 17 years later…

Parker is at the height of his career with his film The Birth of a Nation being talked about as an Oscar contender. But now his past has come back to haunt him and some discussions of it are inordinately focused on how it may affect his chances at an Oscar:

Fox Searchlight, Nate Parker Confront Old Sex Case That Could Tarnish ‘The Birth Of A Nation’

Nate Parker’s College Rape Trial Raises Questions for ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Release

Is This the First Controversy of the 2017 Awards Season?

The industry is concerned that they may not see a return on their investment and their rising star might fall. This feels kind of familiar to me, as familiar as a father who, during his child’s sentencing for raping an unconscious woman said, “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Turner was convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault, sentenced to six months in jail, three years on probation, and will have to register as a sexual offender. His lenient sentence was attributed to his whiteness and privilege and his people’s desire to see him flourish after this hard time in his life. In many ways, Parker’s case reads the same.

There seems to be a need to protect men in power or on the brink of power in sexual assault cases. Parker is joining a line of men in Hollywood–and other men in power–with sexual assault cases on their personal resumes: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, and the scores of others we don’t know about. I’m reminded of a story I pitched a year ago on Bill Cosby, rape culture, and Christian silence only to have a man in a position of power tell me that “outing” Cosby at the time–which was around the time of the South Carolina confederate flag debate–would be a distraction. As if we couldn’t address both. I was discouraged and felt like this man also shared a part in rape culture by keeping silent and trying to keep me silent–don’t worry, I did end up writing about Cosby, Christian Silence and Rape Culture on my personal blog. But this is just another example how men in power protect other men in power. (Want another example, check out this season of Orange is the New Black.) Hollywood’s interest is to protect these men because of the investment they made in them and Parker is just the latest. This isn’t an attack on him because he’s a black man on the come up, it’s par for the course for his position in the industry and for this day and age when talk of sexual violence is becoming commonplace. Given this, Parker’s PR has clearly been on their grind if his mealy-mouthed statements are any indication:

“I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.”

“The reality is, this is a serious issue, a very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical. The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up. … I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college.”

Maybe “mealy-mouthed” isn’t a fair description of his statement, it’s more than a mealy-mouthed statement and yet it is still less than what is necessary at a time when narratives of sexual violence are still more determined by men than they are by the women who are most affected by it. Parker tries to pay general attention to those affected by sexual violence, but in his particular role in enacting violence he, nor Celestin, take explicit responsibly for their actions and that feels violent to me.

I have a problem with the fact that the discussions of this are being couched in terms of how this will affect The Birth of a Nation‘s chance at the Oscars or its general release. That ought not be the issue and Parker’s deflecting from the problem of that framing is disheartening. I get it, Parker wants to tell Nat Turner’s story and wants America to face the truth of its history. But this encounter with his own part in the history of sexual violence is also an opportunity for him and America, particularly American men, to face the truth of the role they play in normalizing sexual violence. Parker’s statement turns away from the gross reality of how sexual violence narratives are scripted for men in positions of power. They are swept under the rug and a “not guilty” sentence is interpreted as innocence while the victim suffers in silence. Their stories can be revised and edited in such a way as to make the men the victims and cancel the real victim out. In this case, the spotlight is on Parker and Celestin but they are using it to focus on the wrong thing, themselves, their project, and their families as some kind of scapegoat that absolves them from anyone ever thinking they could do harm. All of this is the result of failing to recognize how easy it is for sexual violence narratives to be minimized and how they–Parker and Celestin–are a part of the problem.

17 years later this still matters because the effects of sexual violence have no statute of limitations, not for the victim, not for the suspect, not for anyone involved. We need a different word from Parker and Celestin, one that doesn’t deflect to their project and who they’ve become before it takes a long, hard look at the effects of a crime they committed 17 years ago and how the stories we tell about rape always matter. An accusation of rape always matters. A rape case always matters. The victim of rape always matters and Parker and Celestin seem blithely unaware that, 17 years later, this still matters as if it happened yesterday because rape matters.

 

 

 

A Not So Sweet Spot: Questioning the Performance of Sexual Liberation

Note: The following post has strong sexual language and content. 

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend Sweet Spot, an evening of “high energy, heart pumping, fist pounding, laugh out loud pop erotica performance art.” The evening featured spoken word artists, singers, burlesque dancers, a sexologist, comedians, a miniature sex toy shop and much more all focused on one thing, sex and the acquisition of pleasure. I must admit that from the onset I was hesitant about attending this particularly after I watched a promo video for it. It looked like it was above my sexual pay grade and like it would be filled with moments that would make me clutch and break my non-existent pearls. It turned out that it wasn’t above my sexual pay grade, it was–in my opinion–beneath me and did a particular kind of violence.

The show started out innocently enough with some jokes, a pledge that included putting our hands over our “hearts”–hearts defined as private parts–and the rules of engagement otherwise known as “How Not to Cockblock Yourself.” The host for the evening, a petite young woman wearing a bedazzled ringmaster costume, told the women that the two ways we cockblock ourselves is sitting with either our arms or legs crossed. She directed us to uncross both and allow our “hearts” to breathe and be free. I appreciated this opener for no other reason than it was clever, not for its ability to help a room full of men and women keep their legs open for whatever may come. What followed the opener was a series of performances which started with a woman reading erotic fiction. I’ve never read erotic fiction, so it was interesting to listen to someone do a dramatic reading. It was also the moment when I realized that “dick” and “pussy” were the only words I would hear for the next few hours and it felt like an assault each time I heard it. This was the beginning of what I felt like was a particular kind of violence. But I tried to suspend that judgement until I saw more.

sweetspotphoto

The son of a preacher man reciting erotic poetry–and I’m not talking about Songs of Songs either.

The show continued with a burlesque dancer from Jamaica who was actually pretty good and had the most amazing back tattoo I’d ever seen, so that was a moment of reprieve. After her were two spoken word artists, the first was the son of a preacher reading from, “Fellatio 3:16.” I’m sure you can imagine my shock at the title but that was just the beginning of the profane as he said things such as,

I will read a scripture off your clit.
You can suck Lazarus back to life.

The violence of those words struck me particularly because I am a Christian woman. I understand it was the play on words given his context and upbringing, but I couldn’t help but be bothered. He invoked the homiletic style of charismatic black preachers to get the crowd riled up and aroused, but, to me, it just felt profane and reckless. I teetered between a dropped jaw and nervous laughter, and trying to find something redemptive about what I was hearing.

Another spoken word piece was performed by Sweet Spot Nation founder, Ainsley Burrows, and featured yet more lust-filled allusions such as,

I will eat the magnesium out your cum
I’ve got enough dick to raise your IQ and make you lower your standards at the same damn time.

His performance was slightly more invasive because he stared me and my friend down intently during moments in his routine.  By this time my reactions were part laughter, part silence, and part observing everyone around me to see their reactions.

In the midst of all of this there was also the condom throwing that was off-putting. Yes, condom throwing. A multi-pack of condoms and lubricants sponsored by the Stand Up 2 HIV Atlanta campaign was provided for each seated guest. I thought it was a nice touch for the evening given the public health concern that HIV is within urban cities such as Atlanta. But at no point in my time there–it could have happened after I left–did I hear a plug for the program or even gratitude for contributing the condom gift bags. Instead I saw many of the condoms being thrown at the artists and performers as if it were a form of currency. I was disappointed, to say the least, in the extreme waste of an important resource in the fight against HIV.

Though I’ve mentioned my feelings about the violence instigated through language throughout the night, it actually didn’t occur to me what was taking place until a sexologist hit the stage halfway through the show. She focused on teaching women and men how to get and give the best possible orgasm and she claimed that many don’t get there because of the aggressive nature in which some approach the sexual event. She encouraged men to take their time with women instead of acting like attack dogs and encouraged all to acknowledge the sensitive and delicate nature of our sexual organs and told women to breathe. But it was the juxtaposition of hearing someone talk about how we should be more gentle and patient in sex while hearing coarse, abrasive language that made me realize the entire situation was troubling and mimicked a particular kind of violence.

So what is this violence? I believe that violence is not just in the realm of the physical, it can be verbal and mental. Thus when I speak of the violence at Sweet Spot, it was violence through speech and through making the sacred profane. Whether it was through using Scripture as a template to talk dirty or language that made sex seem like one long rough porn fantasy, I wasn’t convinced of any sexual liberation.

As a culture we’ve long struggled for and against sexual liberation for years. Those who have fought for it are the pioneers and offspring of the sexual revolution. Those against it have primarily been conservative Christians. I want to clarify that though I am Christian–I consider myself progressive–I am not opposed to sexual liberation. I am, however, opposed to sexual liberation that results in uncritical ways of being sexual. I believe in responsible freedom which still requires some limitations and reflection on what is expedient. As it pertains to sex and sexuality narratives, I’m interested in what repeated narratives do and how they form and/or inform us. So, in the case of my time at the Sweet Spot where I was assailed by coarse language–and flying condoms, I wondered what that language did to people. How that language might have been the reason that men attack women in the sexual act–I’m not talking about rape here but the aggressive way that some men descend upon women in the sexual event because they heard that is the way. I thought about what it means to be a black person whose sexuality has almost always been regarded as animalistic and aggressive and I wondered if words such as “dick” and “pussy” play into that or are they part of our culture’s way of expressing ourselves sexually. Are the words our own or did we get them from someone else who is still determining our sexual selves? Are there different ways of speaking about sex that don’t rely on an allusion to violence? (Think about the popularity of the phrase, “I’ll beat the pussy up” in urban music.)

There are so many questions that came out of my Sweet Spot experience that made me wonder if the artists and audience were truly sexually liberated or sexually oppressed and just performing an idea of liberation. And of course the question of whether I’m the sexually oppressed or repressed person is up for discussion too. That is another reflection I’m taking up, but that is also much too predictable a conclusion to draw at this point. It’s too easy to say that the person who walks away from an event such as the Sweet Spot feeling anything but aroused and liberated is sexually repressed. It doesn’t leave room for a critique that could be useful to all parties involved. This is not to disregard pop erotica as a genre, but it is to stretch our understandings of the genre’s form and function in our communities, psyches, and selves.

PS: Lest anyone read this and think I had a completely bad experience I did enjoy myself during the break between acts when they played a lot of ratchet Top 40 music and, like I mentioned earlier, the burlesque performer and her awesome back tattoo was great too. Maybe my next excursion should be to a burlesque show. 

Defending Descent: On Cinematic Rape and Retribution

Disclaimer: One, the conclusion of Descent starring Rosario Dawson is given away here so if you’d prefer not to have this spoiler you may look away now, but I encourage you stay for it is that conclusion which paves the way for my broader analysis. Two, this blog touches on the topic of rape which may be touchy subject for some because of their direct or indirect experience. Please know that I write this as a woman has not directly or indirectly experienced rape in reality but only through cinema. If you have experienced it, I’d encourage you–if you can–to stay and read along and add voice to this discussion so that it may be full and not lacking in perspective. Thank you for reading.

This weekend I watched a man get raped by another man and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was in a film entitled Descent in which Rosario Dawson plays a college woman who gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor and exacts revenge by planning for the perpetrator to get raped by another man. I watched the film with a close male friend whom, during the rape scene between the two men, turned  to look at me a several times and each time my eyes were glued to the screen. He couldn’t draw my attention away from it. It was 10 minutes of violent thrusting, name-calling, and shaming and I could not be moved to either talk about how excessive it might have been or turn it off all together. After the film was over I sat on my couch in silence with my eyes still hooked on the television screen. My heart was beating quickly and my mind was running a million miles per minute. My friend commented on how excessive he thought the rape scene was and all I could remember saying is that it made sense. He repeated that he felt it was excessive for the film and still I repeated, “It makes sense.” My logic throughout the 10 minute rape scene and in conversation with my friend was that for decades we have watched women get raped in film and on television. I watched Kristy Swanson’s character Kristen get raped in John Singleton’s college campus drama Higher Learning. In the second season of a Different World Freddie Brooks almost gets raped by her date Garth Parks. I watched Buffy almost get raped by Spike. In Gossip Girl I watched Chuck Bass attempt to rape two women in one episode. In For Colored Girls Only, Yasmine/Yellow gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor. There is the rape scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange which is edited out in most versions. I also hear that there is a rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in which the main female character gets raped through sodomy. When I saw each of these movies or television shows I didn’t anticipate having to sit through a rape scene, but alas I did. And sadly, these movies don’t add up to even half of the movies with rape scenes in them.

Countless are the movies and television shows in which women get raped or are in another way sexually assaulted. As a woman, I am almost too used seeing other women get defiled in the media either through the dramatic portrayal of rape, sexual assault, or through the popular coerced or voluntary objectification of women in music videos. But when I watched the rape revenge in Descent I felt something. Maybe it was redemption for all the years of women being raped in cinema and real life. To be clear, I don’t believe in this type of personal retributive justice, because in the end it most likely will not resolve anything. This is illustrated in Descent‘s final scene as Dawson turns toward the man raping her assailant and, with tears in her eyes, silently conveys that this is no revenge at all. One reviewer of the movie, called it a demagogic feminist exploitation revenge drama, but to do so is to misunderstand the project of feminism which is not employed well in this film. For it to be a true demagogic feminist exploitation revenge, the movie would not end with the man in power but would end with Dawson’s character reclaiming herself. I believe the true feminist revenge is to not let rape define and shape you into anything other than a woman who reclaims herself–but maybe I have just been reading too much Camille Paglia and the movie does indeed represent feminist revenge.

But,lest I get too far away from my original point,  I do think watching that scene, unwilling to turn my eyes away from it, made me much more certain that personal retributive justice is not what I believe in. I derived no pleasure from the scene but in refusing to take my eyes off of it, even when my friend tried to divert me, was me implicitly saying, “Sit through this, get comfortable with it,” because I have gotten comfortable with rape over the years. And yes, I admit that is part of this, that I wanted a male to sit through a scene of another male getting raped without averting his gaze, I wanted him to be comfortable with it. The day after I asked my friend if his maleness affected his ability to accept the prolonged rape scene to which he said it didn’t, he just believes that it was excessive in film and not right in reality. We also had a conversation about the possibility of females being a little more open to watching it unhindered because it could serve as cinematic redemption to the pervasive rape culture. We have no answer to the aforementioned query. So maybe my reaction was my own and not representative of what many women might find agreeable, but I am curious to know if there are any women or men out there who may find this type of revenge dramatically portrayed helpful or harmful to rape culture as we know it? If you have seen Descent what might you suggest as an alternative ending? If you are a feminist or a womanist–because I can’t neglect that a part of this film was the power dynamic between this white man and Dawson’s “ethnically ambiguous” self which he insulted during the rape–what is your response to this film? And, generally speaking, what do we make of the rape in cinema, its prevalence, its portrayal of the act, the power dynamic, etc?