Guest Post: Sex, Love, and Relationships in the 20th Century

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February 18, 2015 by rebelwithalabelmaker

Dear Mom:  I didn’t write this one either.  I do, however, think it’s great, and I bet you will too.

Some number of years ago, I started asking all the sex educators I know a simple question: If you had a room full of clergy, what would you tell us to make us better ministers?

Now, I asked this question of every big-shot sexuality educator I encountered. I asked Carol Queen of the Center for Sex and Culture in SanFrancisco, I asked Megan Andelloux on the east coast, and Charlie Glickman, and Reid Mihailko and David Jay, Laura Antoniou, Annie Sprinkle and Joani Blank, and Tristain Taormino and Mollena Williams. I talked to academics and activists, sexologists and sex workers, porn stars and bloggers. I talked to people in all kinds of places and in all sorts of venues. And a remarkable thing happened. They all had almost exactly the same response:

  1. Wow. Nobody’s ever asked me that before.
  2. Thank you.
  3. Let’s start with shame.

Let’s start with shame, they said, and let’s look at the role organized religion has played in perpetuating a culture where people are disconnected from their bodies, divorced from pleasure, embarrassed by their own arousal.

Let’s talk about creating healthy clergy, they said, clergy who are comfortable in their own sexual identity and expression, who are educated and can offer solid, fact-based advice that does not violate the values and tenets of their faith.

We cannot talk about sex, love, and relationships without addressing shame. Even in our enlightened 21st century, even in the sexually liberated Bay Area, we must talk about shame when we talk about sex and sexuality.

Shame is what keeps us silent, shame is what prevents us from really communicating with our partners about what we want. Shame is fed by our fear of being wrong, or sick, or unworthy in some way. Shame is projected anticipatory rejection: it is the voice inside that says “if you really knew me, you would not love me.”

Shame can keep people who love each other in the dark, making each guess what the other wants or likes or doesn’t like. Until we can let go of shame and communicate clearly, we are stuck trying to read our partners’ minds and that’s always a losing game.

Some time ago, I was at a class taught by my colleague Megan Andelloux from Rhode Island. It was a sort of “sexuality 101” class at a Boston-area branch of Good Vibrations, a retail outlet and educational resource center originally founded in 1977 here in the bay area by Unitarian Universalist Joani Blank. Part of the class was being filmed by MTV and featured a young couple who wanted to learn more about sexuality to improve their marriage. My friend Megan is a force of nature and by the end of the one-hour class, these young people looked a bit shell-shocked.  When the MTV interviewer asked for a reaction, the young woman said “I feel like I should go to church and repent for even being here. She told us about stuff I didn’t know the human body could do!”

I saw the staff cringe. Inside, my heart broke.

When the television cameras were turned off, I approached them, one at a time, asking how they were, and identifying myself as both a sexuality educator and as an aspiring minister.

I spoke first to the husband, mentioned what I had heard his wife tell the interviewer, and asked his thoughts and if he was OK. He replied that he’d always been taught that masturbation was a sin, and that they’d learned about a lot more than masturbation in that night’s class. He seemed conflicted – like he thought the new information was good, but that it contradicted what he’d been taught was right and true.

I asked him if he thought God loved us, and he said yes. I asked him if he thought God gave us gifts to enjoy, and he said yes again, but with a touch of nervousness, so I took a different tack and asked him what his favorite food was. He looked startled, but told me his favorite food was rice and beans. OK, I said. What’s your favorite music? He didn’t hesitate: Jazz. And what’s your favorite kind of art? He thought for a moment, and declared that modern art was his favorite.

We talked then about how our bodies are a gift from God. There is no earthly, scientific reason why his taste buds appreciate the flavor of rice and beans while mine like corned beef, I said. Those variations are a gift from God. The taste buds are wired to the pleasure centers of our brains, by design, and they give us pleasure. That’s a gift – from nature, from God, from whatever you’d like to call it.

The same thing is true with our auditory senses – there is no reason for him to enjoy jazz more than other types of music other than the beautiful gift of the natural diversity of human experience which is God’s glorious creation. Music hits the pleasure centers of our brain as well – that pleasure is a gift from the divine.

We went through the same process for pleasure from our other sense. There is no reason for him to like one thing and me another, really, only the wonderful diversity of the human experience.

Finally, I told him this: “Our skin in the largest organ our body has. It is wired for pleasure in thousands of ways, just like our mouths and our ears and our eyes. I cannot believe that a god who loves us and gives us these amazing gifts would give us our skin, equip it in a way to bring us great pleasure, and then instruct us not to enjoy it. I just can’t.”

“But the Bible says it’s all a sin …” the man said.

We talked about how ancient laws were created to control and manage people and resources, and to make sure those ancient Hebrews survived the exodus. Laws were created that punished any behavior, from food preparation to sexual activity, which did not lead immediately to more children to secure the survival of the Hebrew people. Those laws were written down and codified in the ancient texts and they remain today, long after we have advanced understanding of food refrigeration, germs, and human reproduction.

We talked about sin and about how sin is the stuff that separates us from God, and I offered that perhaps the most holy and beautiful thing we can do is to love another person and share pleasure with them. Sin, I said, is when we don’t respect that other person and use them for our own ends. That’s not loving and giving, and that’s when it gets into the neighborhood of sin.

I left him talking with the course instructor and went to have a very similar conversation with his wife. We talked about her favorite food, music and art, and then we talked about the church she grew up in (Roman Catholic). “Me too,” I said, and her eyes opened wide. Yes, I assured her, there are clergy who understand what it means to hold traditional moral values, and who understand that pleasure in itself is not sinful, but a gift from God.

There were a lot of trained sexuality educators in the store that evening, but none were equipped to handle questions about morality and religion. Sex educators are specifically trained to not engage with questions of morality, to not make judgments about people’s sexual practices, but to encourage them to healthy expressions. These young folks were conflicted by the “morals-free” or “judgment neutral” sex-positive information they had received and the rigid, sometimes contradictory, moral, doctrinal lessons they had learned in church.

I was able to bridge that gap a little bit and make room for them to consider a way to retain much of what each thing had to offer.

The primary lesson Megan taught that night was about communication. She encouraged the lovers to talk to each other, to talk about what they liked and what they didn’t like and to lovingly and playfully explore themselves and each other. That’s the largest part of what the thing we know as love is made of – communication. Oh, sure, there’s chemistry. Pheromones are real, as is oxytocin and endorphins and lots of other natural chemicals created when we fall in love. But loving relationships – however they are structured – require communication, and communication is undermined by shame.

Yesterday was St. Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is a curious tradition. Started by the ancient Romans, it was initially a fertility ritual in which drunken men sacrificed a goat and a dog, and whipped women with the hides of the freshly sacrificed animals. Women who were struck were believed to be blessed with ease in childbirth that year. There were other rituals associated with the three-day feast of Lupercalia, including a lottery of names drawn from a jar to determine assigned sexual pairings that lasted either the length of the festival, or, if the two people actually liked each other, a full year.

This party was later associated with the name Valentine after Rome executed two different men named Valentine, several years apart, but on February 14. In the 5th Century, Pope Gelasius I co-opted the pagan revelry with a celebration of the two martyred Christians, and made it a more polite, dressed, and less drunken holiday. The part about romantic love came from the pens of Shakespeare and Chaucer, and when Hallmark printed its first line of Valentines’ Cards in 1913, well, you see what has happened. A once sacred drunken revelry of lust and fertility has been twisted into a saccharine coated commercial event celebrating heteronormative monogamy.

In a unique celebration of heteronormative monogamy, you may have heard some noise recently about the release of the 50 Shades of Grey movie. For those who are unaware of the cultural and media phenomenon of which I speak, let me explain as succinctly as I can: 50 Shades of Grey is a movie adaptation of the first in a series of three erotic novels written by E.L. James. The novels are based loosely on characters from Twilight, itself a series of novels and romantic fantasy movies about brooding, angst-ridden sparkly vampires.

Now romance and erotica and fantasy fiction, even badly written stuff, is not bad in and of itself. I applaud anyone who writes fiction. I’ve tried it and found it exceedingly difficult. The problematic parts of the 50 Shades phenomenon is the way it represents a relationship that is patently abusive as “dangerously romantic.”

In the novel, the romantic lead, handsome billionaire Christian Grey, engages in stalking behavior, showing up at the workplace of the object of his affections – Anastasia. He puts a trace on her cell phone and becomes very possessive of her. He engages in behavior that is manipulative and intimidating, maximizing the power differential between them. He warns her away, which is textbook typical behavior for narcissistic abusers, then brings her back to his hotel when she is too drunk to consent. He isolates her from her family and friends, and in a relationship contract in which she has little to no agency to negotiate, he dictates the terms of her behavior within and without their relationship, down to the clothes she will wear and the food she will eat. He threatens and manipulates and bullies her into doing what he wants. That’s not romance, folks. That’s abuse.

The type of sexual activity they engage in is neither as outrageous nor as dangerous as some claim. What is more disturbing is the novel’s portrayal of Christian Grey as the troubled, perhaps unstable, wounded adult survivor of child sexual abuse, and the insinuation that his penchant for alternative forms of sexual expression are due to unresolved trauma issues.

Sexuality, and the diverse and wondrous ways humans express it, is a gift from the divine. Creative forms of sexual expression can be just that: creative forms of expression of intimacy and connection. A person need not be mentally unstable to enjoy any kind of sexual activity. All of it – so long as it is consensual and all parties have agency – is a gift from God. To force anyone – and coercion counts – to engage in any sexual behavior they don’t want to do is not “wooing” one’s partner. It’s sexual assault. And nobody deserves it. No means no. If your partner doesn’t respect your “no,” come talk with me or with Jeremy, after church or later. We can get connect you with some support.

In this day and age, we receive lots of messages about what sex, love and relationships ought to be. I cannot tell you what your love life should look like, nor should I. What I can talk about is healthy boundaries, agency, respect, and consent. Sex should not hurt unless you want it to. What matters is that you are respected, happy and fulfilled, and not attempting to live up to a false standard established by popular culture.

The bottom line is that sexuality, however we may experience and enjoy it, is a gift from a joyful, loving creator. Like any gift, it can be misused and abused, but it is still a gift, and ideally, to be treasured and cherished and enjoyed.

May it be so.


Dawn Fortune is a Unitarian Universalist Candidate for Ministry presently serving as Intern Minister at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, California. Dawn is a graduate of Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts, and is enrolled in the Certificate for Sexuality and Religion program at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

A longtime activist with sexuality and gender minorities and progressive political causes, Dawn is keenly interested in issues of social, sexual and economic justice. Ze has been a community organizer, fundraiser, Teamster, bus driver, bridge worker and home repair contractor. Hir interests in church work include anti-racism education, class issues, anti-bullying efforts and diversity work, as well as community outreach and building interfaith coalitions.

Born and raised Irish Catholic, Dawn became a UU in the early 1990s, has been active in a number of churches in Maine, and Massachusetts, and served as a hospital chaplain in Providence, Rhode Island.

When not studying, teaching, or preaching, Dawn is a self-employed home repair contractor.

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