I Almost Lost Focus

I haven’t written in a while for a variety of reasons. I’ve not been sure about how I want to write about sex and sexuality on this blog in the midst of a world that tirelessly talks about sex. I have many drafts from things I’ve written in response to current events such as the Duke Porn Star and the book that incensed a nation of parents, “It’s Perfectly Normal.” I didn’t publish those stories because I felt they were just reactive and I didn’t want to be a part of the multitude of voices that always have something to say with very little qualification or credibility for saying it. So I’ve tried to find my way and think through what is expedient in regards to talking about sex here and beyond and I’m finally getting to the point where I think I’m ready to come back. But this return was almost not.

A few weeks ago I was interviewing for a job I really wanted and all was well until they told me that I wouldn’t be able to speak or write about sexuality or sexual ethics because it would be a conflict of interest with the organization’s work. I was shocked. Even though I don’t write about sexuality all day, everyday–as you can very well tell from the skeletal nature of this blog–I still believe that work in the field is essential to my life’s calling. The CEO of the organization even pointed out that it seems I get a lot of energy out of talking about and thinking through matters of sexuality. But I also wanted the job because I saw it as a really great opportunity to broaden my professional experience in another area. So I told the team that I could deal with not writing or speaking about sexuality in exchange for a larger goal. I even cracked a little joke by saying, “I can still read books about it, can’t I?” They laughed and we continued with the interview, yet the thought of letting go of the opportunity to write and speak about something important to me weighed heavily on me. When I was done with the interview I called a trusted friend and told her about it and she agreed with the answer that I gave them and talked me through my concerns. It seemed more than logical to take a break from writing and speaking about sex in order to get in on the ground level of some really great and important work within its own right. But I was still discouraged about the possibility that lingered. I know I have a long-term commitment to studying, writing, speaking, teaching, reflecting, on matters of sex and sexuality and I know that’s important to me. I didn’t know for sure, however, if I should jettison that for something that I am much less certain about. Sure I was excited about the organization’s work, the possibilities within the position, and even my brilliantly bright future colleagues, but would that be selling myself short? Long story short, I didn’t get the job.

The official reason for not getting it wasn’t even about all the energy I get from talking about sex or my feeble attempt at proving I’d be fine without writing/writing about–at least as they tell it. It was about the organization needing to reassess their staffing needs. I can’t help but think it was also about God trying to keep me on track. I don’t speak in these terms often because I don’t like to presume what God is or isn’t doing in my life, but I am hoping that this is one of those times where God was doing something particular. The last few months have been bleak for me and I haven’t always been certain about where I’m going, so it meant something that someone took an interest in me and felt my experience impressive. I felt like I mattered again. I needed this opportunity in more ways than one. I couldn’t wait to move and start a new life and I was even delaying plans I’ve been talking about for a while. But just like that the plans changed and it seemed like I was being told to stay the course. And so here I am. No regrets. 

Earlier this week I had a chance to speak with a group of people living with HIV/AIDS about faith and sexuality and it was the most vibrant discussion I’ve had. I did the same talk at a church as few months ago and I felt like I was pulling teeth with the congregants, but this week’s group had so much energy around the topic. Interesting because they are a group of people whom some in a church context would say are “marked” because of their deleterious sexual behavior. Yet those people were the most faithful I’ve encountered and the most fearless as well. They didn’t feel entitled to anything. They had no bourgeois Christian laurels to rest on. They just have this lived experience and the certainty that God is still with them. If it wasn’t for not getting that job I wouldn’t have been able to have that experience with the group and to remember what is most important not only to me but to others. So here I go, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. I don’t know where any of this will lead me but I am glad to not have given up so easily.

 

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The Southern Baptist Sex Summit and Me: It’s Bone Picking Time

A few days ago news broke that leaders in the Southern Baptist church will hold a Sex Summit in Nashville, Tennessee where they will talk about pornography, teen sex, homosexuality and how pastors can talk to their congregations about human sexuality in an over-sexed world. This was intriguing to me for reasons not limited to my academic interest in studying Christian sexual ethics but because of my own experience in the Southern Baptist church.

A little known fact about me is that I spent a fair amount of my teenage years in a Southern Baptist Church. My mom and I were members of a large Southern Baptist church where we were one of a handful of black families in attendance Sunday after Sunday. We both went to Sunday school and I was quasi active in the youth ministry. This was the first church I became a member of and I was baptized in this church. One more significant thing happened in that large Southern Baptist church, it was the church where I pledged to not have sex until marriage. Through the “True Love Waits” campaign I made a pledge in front of my mother and a room filled largely with white people, to abstain from sex until marriage and keep myself pure. My pledge was sealed with a chintzy gold-coated metal ring. Armed with “The marriage bed is undefiled,” I was held responsible for keeping my sexual desires in check without an adequate discussion about what those desires would feel like and how I can embrace them without burning in hell. I knew how to say “No” before I knew what I was saying no to. There was a large gap in my understanding of sexuality that the very institution that initiated the pledge wasn’t trying to fill and little did I know how problematic that would be. Before long I broke that ring along with my pledge.

There are many like me who, in their high school years took a pledge to abstain from sex before marriage and, for one reason or another, they broke it. In fact, a study done in 2003 showed that 6 out of 10 people who took the TLW pledge in college ended up breaking it and of the 40% who said they were abstaining from intercourse 55% of them admitted to having oral sex. But few people have gotten to the root of why young people are breaking this pledge. I believe that part of the reason that many young people broke their pledge to abstinence is because of the incomplete education they received regarding sexuality in the church.  In my experience the church specializes in shallow teachings on sexuality that do nothing more than tell people to beat their flesh into subjection without really allowing them to think through and discover what this flesh is all about. People are taught that the flesh is a hard thing to control instead of being taught that it is something we have control of and we ought not be scared of it. We can master it in a way that isn’t guided by fear-mongering that implies it will devour us every time we have a warm, tingly feeling. So many topics are tip-toed around and treated as taboo when the reality is, many pastors would be surprised about what their young people know about sex. Hell, many young people would be shocked to know what some of these pastors are doing behind closed doors and it has nothing to do with the marriage bed, but that’s for another day and post. I believe it is time for the church to stop demonizing the flesh in regards to sexuality, to stop throwing around the same tired scriptural references that are never interpreted correctly, so that we may arrive at a healthy, holistic understanding of who we are in Christ, faithful and sexual creatures. I say all of this as someone who still has a commitment to the church. I’ve not abandoned it and have no intentions of abandoning it ever, hopefully. And so my goal is to take up the work of helping the church have these hard conversation about sexuality and desire in the sanctuary. And this, finally, has everything to do with why I want to attend the Sex Summit.

More than 15 years ago the Southern Baptist church gave me a sexual ethic before I knew what a sexual ethic was and it nearly ruined me. Because it was planted in me during a stage in my moral development when I was amenable to conformity out of fear of consequences, it took root in me and those roots are strong. I have spent years pulling up those roots and trying to discover what is the appropriate sexual ethic for Christians or how and when should an ethic be established. I’m generally curious about how many denominations go about teaching sexual ethics to their youth and young adult, but with the Southern Baptist Sex Summit I feel like I can get in on the ground floor and see what exactly it is that pastors are teaching each other in regards to sex. The Southern Baptist Church’s position on sexuality states “We affirm God’s plan for marriage and sexual intimacy–one man, one woman, for life. Homosexuality is not a “valid alternative lifestyle.” The Bible condemns it as sin. The same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals. They too may become new creations in Christ.” Oh to pick apart this statement, like, “If homosexuality isn’t a valid alternative lifestyle, what is a valid alternative lifestyle?” “And why are they still using the term “homosexual” or “”homosexuality” as if they are still in 1952–the moment in time when the American Psychological Association categorized it as a sociopathic personality disturbance in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM). By 1974 it was categorized as a sexual orientation disturbance.” To use these terms is to treat the LGBT community with clinical gloves, as pure disorders without the possibility that there is some order. I say this as someone who, as of three years ago, JUST removed the term from my own vocabulary after writing it in a paper and having a professor correct me. He told me that “homosexual” is a clinical term that has negative connotations and I should use “LGBT” in future reference. This was in a school of theology, granted not a Southern Baptist school, but a school concerned with educating future faith leaders and scholars of the world. A school interested in how we care for God’s people and that is a universal concern not limited to denominational doctrine. Southern Baptists are not excluded in learning how to speak of God’s children, all of them. So I want to know how they will unpack their statement on sexuality and if any of it will be reworked for language and for logic.

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I’m curious, having looked at the Sex Summit speakers, how a group comprised largely of white men and one black man–and one black woman who will only participate it brief reflection session–are going to talk about sexuality from sexual behavior to sexual preference. How will such a racial and gender imbalanced group handle the vast field of sexuality and dare to teach other leaders how they should be teaching it. I will be honest in saying that I feel some kind of way about the multitude of men who will be in that space, the ones teaching and the ones being taught because the Southern Baptist church “recognizes the biblical restriction concerning the office of pastor, saying: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” So if I am understanding correctly, a bunch of men–mostly white–are going to teach a bunch of other men–probably also mostly white–about what they should be teaching in their churches about sexuality. And these churches will probably be comprised of more women than man, people of color, impressionable teenagers, etc. This should be really interesting…

I’ve said a lot but I’d love to hear from my readers who have experience in the Southern Baptist church, especially those who took a True Love Waits pledge. How did that work out for you? Did you keep the pledge/are you still keeping it? How long? If you broke it, how long until you broke it and why? If you were attending a conference such as this or could send in questions, what would you ask? Let’s talk about it.

Knowledge of Sexual Self: A Missing Piece in the Abstinence Discussion

A few years ago a young man who was abstaining from sex asked me how one navigates abstinence when they are looking to get married. He wondered what most Christians who are abstinent or celibate wonder, “How will I know if the sex will be good with my spouse if I don’t get to have it before marriage?” He asked me because I was outspoken about abstinence and saving myself until marriage and, in my mind, I also hoped he asked because he was thinking about saving himself for me. Given this I told him what was becoming a routine response for me to this question, “The God who created us knows all of our wants and needs, including our sexual desires. God knows we want good sex and so, if we are obedient to God in waiting for the one God has for us, God will ensure that our partner will be the perfect sexual fit”–no pun intended and pun intended all at the same damn time. I honestly believed what I told him, though I had no evidence it being true. It was something passed down to me from various sermons, Bible studies, and books I read about being a young, single Christian. I think the young man bought my spiel for a little while, after all it is kind of convincing when you package it up and leave sexual satisfaction to God. How can you  argue with that? God will supply all my sexual needs according to his riches in glory, right? Lately I’ve been thinking, wrong.

My conversation with that young man happened about four years ago and since then, many young Christian men and women–or men and women from Christian backgrounds–have spoken up about their experience of living under such teachings. A Salon article entitled “My Virginity Mistake” was such an account.  shared her story of “marrying Jesus” as a teenager under the banner of a purity campaign held by her Baptist Church. Henriquez would go from marrying Jesus to marrying her college sweetheart only to discover that she wasn’t sexually attracted to him and possibly not interested in sex at all. The marriage ended in divorce and Henriquez ended up discovering, well after the fact, that she was into sex after all. She discovered that she could have good sex with a variety of different people and especially within marriage, but this discovery was due to the realization that she just couldn’t wait to have sex until marriage. In her conclusion she said, “I learned that sex is important enough not to wait.” Now I’m not here to argue for or against premarital sex, though I do have some particular views about it that I will share at another time. I want to argue for something else that I believe is missing from the abstinence education/discussions.

Of Henriquez’s sexual experience with her first husband she says, “I admit that I was no willing student but he was no teacher either.” She commented on zoning out and making lists during sex and on having a very active kissing life before marriage because that is all they had. Henriquez’s situation seems like that of someone who is waiting for things to happen, of having an expectation of how things should be without the proper education of how they actually are and the role that we play in making things better. No one or no institution is more at fault for this than the church which tends to reduce sex to that which you don’t do before marriage yet once you get married you are supposed to go from 0-60 and discover your inner sex god or goddess. The church which teaches its members, particularly the young and single, that the flesh should be beat into subjection, masturbation is sin, and all sexual feeling must be dampened. The church which ignores full-bodied discussions on sexuality because its view of sexuality is so tied up in sin that they can’t recover it. Given this insistence on displacing sex and sexuality within the church, it is no wonder that people get married and get into trouble. Granted this is not everyone’s story but this is enough people’s story.

Relevant magazine tried to touch on this issue through an article entitled “Christians Are Not Called to Have Great Sex.” The writer, Rachel Pietka, went through some of the more recent stories of Christians who vowed abstinence until marriage only to get married and have disappointing sexual experiences. Pietka’s argument is, as the titles states, Christians aren’t called to have great sex because we are supposed to have a different view of sex. She says, “Although sex is indeed God’s gift to us, Christians are not directly commanded by God to have great sex.” She says this because sexual compatibility doesn’t–or shouldn’t–matter to Christians it means that sex is not–or shouldn’t be–our God. And as she concludes the article she claims that “bad sex is an opportunity to rejoice in suffering (1 Peter 4:13) and to be further conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).” Now I am not even going to touch her strange proof texting work–even though I have touched it by calling it strange. I will say that I disagree with her about God not directly calling Christians to have good sex. There may not be a commandment in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt have good, great or mind-blowing sex,” but along the lines of what I told that young man years ago, I do believe God wants people to have great sex. I believe it is a part of the sacred covenant of marriage, that the two who come together under God as one do so in pleasure and acknowledge that the capacity for pleasure produced between them is great. If two people are joined together under God in love, great sex is a part of the equation, but it also necessary to understand what makes sex great between two people. More Christians than not are consumed by the dominant culture’s definition of what great sex is, a definition that is sometimes unrealistic for the culture that created it. Great sex may be closer than most people think, but because they have some unrealistic expectation about what sex is supposed to be like, they totally miss the point. So how do abstinent and the celibate get to great sex in marriage? I believe that part of that greatness happens well before the wedding night.

You see, what a lot of these discussions of abstinence before marriage are missing a reflection on knowledge of the sexual self. So much time is spent ensuring that young men and women remain chaste by any means necessary that little to no time is spent discussing whom they are as sexual beings. Rarely does anyone trust adolescents, teenagers, or even adults with their sexuality and instead they rely on fear-mongering that says “No” to anything related to sex. no1This creates men and women who know nothing about themselves as sexual beings aside from knowing they must deny anything related to sex. When a person is not trusted with handling their own  sexual desires, how can they then trust those desires with another? If they are repeatedly told not to touch themselves how will they know their capacity for experiencing pleasure? If they experience sexual attraction to someone but they immediately categorize it as bad and wrong, how will they de-program those years of learning and associate sexual attraction with that which is positive? What is at the root of all of this, for me, is a move toward educating people on how to function with knowledge of sexual self in way that acknowledges sexuality. Complicated, sometimes inconvenient, but always beautiful sexuality. Acknowledges sex and sexuality as healthy and integral parts of the human experience that should be understood on an individual basis before it understood as part of a relationship. (This is where I think so much failure lies, in making people’s only understanding of sex and sexuality in relation to another person in marriage. And I won’t even get into what I think is the patriarchal undertone of it all–that’s another post for another day. And I digress…)  And, of course, to do all of this under God whom, I believe, is less restrictive than the Christian tradition makes God out to be. I believe–or at the very least hope–that God is concerned about the holistic health of people and that God’s primary tool of educating is not “No” but “Yes,” “no,” “maybe,” and “let’s talk about it.” It is an open discussion on sex and sexuality that doesn’t depend on fear-mongering, negligence, and ignorance but thrives on trust and transparency.

Given this, there has to be a way for the church to teach young people about themselves as sexual beings in ways that promote sexual health and, that almost cliché term, “sexual positivity.” I’d love to see the church move beyond “no” and begin to break ground in “knowing.” That knowing requires open, honest, and candid discussions about sexuality. The type of conversations that might make people uncomfortable but  because they are held within a church context, they provide a safe space which breaks down discomfort. I know what I envision may seem too ideal, but it is time for this to move into the realm of the real, particularly because the church wants to have so much control over sexuality in the first place, why not actually participate in the discussion, in a real way? There can be no more silence on the topic of sexuality and there can be no more reliance on sexual negativity as a teaching tool. No one learns from “no” alone. And even though “no” has its place in this discourse it can’t be the primary answer when you are aiming to raise sexually healthy people. Sexually healthy individuals who might go on to be sexually healthy and satisfied in marriage or a committed relationship because they were taught to embrace, not negate, their sexuality.

Long story short, I believe an abstinent or celibate man or woman’s possibility of having great sex in marriage will only be increased when they understand who they are both under God and as sexual beings. Knowledge of God is integral and believing that God desires those whom God brings together to have a great sexual relationship is a part of that knowledge. Knowledge of self–sexual and otherwise–is pivotal in making great sex a reality. And I believe that in abstinence, one can move toward great sex if they begin to know and own who they are sexually now. Think of it as a sexual spin on “Be the wife or husband you want now.”

At this point I know you’ve read a lot but I just couldn’t resist posting this interesting little illustration that is sadly a pretty realistic depiction of abstinence education in the Christian context.

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So what do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Lark News and Abstinence in Marriage

Earlier today a friend shared a news story with me about a Christian couple who, after abstaining from sex for the 14-months of their relationship prior to their wedding, decided to remain abstinent during marriage. My first thought was, “Why?” This sentiment was shared by many others who were in the room and saw the article. “Why?” “That’s crazy!” “They must not want children.” Those were some of the responses the story yielded. I asked my friend to send it to me because I just knew it was something I needed to write about but I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say. Well it turns out that I have a few things to say concerning this matter. So let’s get to it.

First off, the Christian couple in question, Jon and Darla Crocker, are a fictional couple created by online comedy news site Lark News which satirizes Christian culture, specifically evangelical Christian culture. The story originally appeared on Lark News in September 2012 and has been making its rounds again for reasons that I’m not sure of. What is interesting to me about this story is people’s reactions. It seems that most people believe the story is true, which I can understand if you are looking at it from a stereotypically Evangelical Christian perspective.

Here you have a Christian couple practicing abstinence, a practice that is fairly common among pre-marriage Evangelical Christian couples–with varying degrees of what defines one as abstinent because I have known couples who swore off french-kissing before marriage because its potential to arouse while other couples consider everything except for sex to be permissible. But just when you expect them to break their pledge because they’ve taken their vows, this couple reversed the trend and decided to remain abstinent. When I read this, despite the fact that the story documented the couple remaining abstinent in marriage, it wasn’t shocking to me. Yes I wondered why they were doing it, but I never questioned their truth. Of course it is possible that this couple who dedicated themselves to abstinence before marriage have decided that they wanted to remain so in marriage. I understood it on the grounds of being someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in churches that have only given me sex-negative education. I went through a “True Love Waits” campaign in high school and subsequently broke my ring in both the literal and figurative sense. I have sat through plenty of sermons about the dangers of having sex before marriage and how, even if I slept with my betrothed, my relationship would go up in flames because it is now being driven by “the flesh.” I have spoken to married people who, though sexually active within marriage, find it difficult to erase the sex-negative teachings of the church out of their consciousness. So given all of this it isn’t too far-fetched that I would believe a story about a couple who chooses to stay abstinent after the wedding day and two years into marriage.

I admit that it is sad that I could believe a story like this because of what I view as the church’s overwhelmingly pessimistic view of sex for anyone who isn’t already married or on the way to being married. I admit that there are churches that have sex-positive teachings–though I’ve never been to one of those churches. I’m concerned about what it means to believe a story like this before I am doubt it. But I am also slightly challenged by it.

After I moved away from the crowd during my first look at the story and away from the screen on my second look I wondered, “What could be so wrong if this was actually the case?” As someone who desires to do work in sexual ethics in the theoretical realm an academic and practically as a sexuality educator, it occurred to me that it was necessary to engage the question from an unconventional perspective. What if abstaining in marriage is right for these people for reasons unbeknownst to us? What if this is a form of justice for these two people and it is not a matter of their being so heavily indoctrinated by the church to believe that sex is negative, but they are acting against the world which has made sex necessary by any means? Now do not misunderstand me when I say this, I do know that there are scriptural claims–Godly demands even–for sex within covenant relationships and narratives about sex outside of covenant relationships, but I also believe that there is a possibility that the revelation of God might also lead two people to abstain for a time–or forever–within marriage. And there is scriptural claim for even that. So what if that is the case? How does that change our response to a story like this? We can become so used to claiming our right to sex that we forget that there are people who view sex as such a privilege that they can’t enter into it lightly, even within marriage.

I’m going to end this abruptly just because I don’t know how to end it otherwise. I took the time to write about this because this has resonated with me in a particular way and reminds me of the work that I have ahead of me as, prayerfully, a doctoral student and as a future sexuality educator. Stories like this remind me of my passion for the people that the church has miseducated regarding sex and it convicts me not to get so swallowed up in our culture’s dominant narrative and assessment of sex that I forget about my tradition’s views, both the harmful and helpful perspectives.

If you’ve made it this far in the post I’d love to hear your thoughts. Could you ever be pro-abstinence in marriage even temporarily? Could you believe such a story about an abstinent couple if you heard it? What has the church taught you about sex that you find helpful or harmful? Let’s talk about sex.