Congregations and WAY Beyond: The Story of UU Milf Club

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February 21, 2015 by rebelwithalabelmaker

To be clear, there is some serious Photoshopping in that title.  Unitarian Universalist Milf club, as a description of this group…  well, it’s inaccurate to the point of silliness.  Less than half of them have ever been to the Church, and only something like four are regular attendees.  The club part is a little inaccurate, too…  they’re a loosely affiliated group and it’s hard to tell where the borders are.

I stand by the “Milf” descriptor though, although I need to mention that it is an ultimately self-claimed name.

I remembered about the club a few days ago, when a friend sent me an article about a great new innovation in teaching coming out of Saskatoon.

“Have you heard of this?” asked my friend.

“Sure.” says me, “someone from Milf club is behind it”.

“Figures” says my friend.  “That Milf club is a force to be reckoned with.”

Flashbacks.  To years ago when we were meeting regularly.  I remember a bunch of us, flopped on the floor of a living room somewhere, talking about education and how children learn.  I remember my friend’s idea–just a glimmer of “can I do this?” at that stage… and the rest of us nudging her forward with support and advice. Mostly advice.  How so many of us experienced these shifts in our lives, and–

I am getting ahead of myself.

The story starts about five years ago:

Me:  Gary, how do you put on eyeshadow?

Gary:  Why do you ask me stuff like that?  How would I know?

Me:  It falls under head and neck, which is your area of specialization, right?

Gary:  Seriously.  Do you have any idea what I do at work?

Me:  There are three colours in this thing I bought, but I only have two eyes.  How is this supposed to work?  Does the lightest one go on your nose, then?  Is that what is meant by “powder my nose”?  Seriously.  You need to help me figure this thing out so I will fit in at this party.

Gary (just frowns at me)

Me:  Bring me the Internet.

Natasha had sent this email to a bunch of moms she thought were really cool, who were interested in living and raising their children in ethical ways.  That’s how she described it, anyway, which in retrospect is a bit inadequate because… doesn’t pretty much every mother want to raise their children in ethical ways?  Maybe she just didn’t want to say “granola-hippies” outright.

Also, the mothers she invited happened to be astonishingly pretty.  Which normally doesn’t matter so much, but when gathered together like that they made a very intimidating-looking group of people.  Flashbacks to high school.  Then I thought “good thing I wore this eyeshadow”.  Which, by the way, made me look like I’d been punched in the eye.  Not even both eyes.  Just the one.  And then I thought “wait, nobody else appears to be wearing eyeshadow—what is this?  Awww, man!”.

Apparently now we are all doing natural beauty, and I am behind again.  Stupid hippies.

(They were not snotty or intimidating at all, by the way.  It took about five minutes for me to be telling them all about the eyeshadow, and for all of us to be laughing our asses off together in a warm safe happy space.  These are not the people you remember from high school.  Okay, one of them is.  Actually.  From my high school.  But she’s very nice).

Something I learned is that when you get a bunch of moms away from their kids for a bit, they only talk about ethical living for so long before they move on to… other topics.  By which I mean sex.

There were all these conversations that were fascinating and wonderful and also a little heartbreaking.  About how women are not supposed to prioritize pleasure, or enjoy sex, and what was or wasn’t okay to want out of your sex life.  I was horrified to see the shame that existed.  They used the phrase “what women are supposed to want” a lot, and I thought “Huh.  Clearly I missed a memo somewhere about both eyeshadow and sex, because I always thought you want what you want and you save your guilt up for stuff you actually do.” (And, in the “do” department, only things that hurt people).

I was raised by kind-of-hippies.  By whatever hippies become after they decide that the role of hippy is too constraining and rigidly defined.  When I was very small, my dad taught me to respond to statements about what I should and shouldn’t do or want (in any area) with “I refuse to subscribe to your petit bourgeois mentality”.

As you can imagine, this went over like a lead balloon when I got to school, but that is another story.

So, I’m sitting in the living room wearing my ridiculous eyeshadow and saying “Seriously.  You all need adult OWL.” which caused about half of them to stare at me blinking (those that have no connection to UUism).

OWL is short for Our Whole Lives sexuality education, and it is one of the most amazing things Unitarian Universalists do.  We teach about sex as a part of life, about direct communication and lack of shame.  About gay sex and gender diversity, and sex with disabilities and consent and all kinds of amazingness.  And especially, super significantly, taking the shame and mystery out of sex.

So I started talking about the attitudes I’ve learned from being UU (I’ve never taken adult OWL, but it’s steeped in the culture, especially amongst younger UUs).  And one woman’s eyes actually filled up with tears and she said “how is it that you’re keeping that to yourself when people need it so badly?”.

I didn’t even realize it was unusual or precious, is how.  (And it’s not, of course.  The UUs are not the only people with this philosophy, although I must say I do find it uncommon in churches).

This was about the time that 50 Shades of Gray came out.  And they were all reading it, and I was supposed to read it too.  And after the fiasco with the eyeshadow, I really wanted to fit in.  But I really didn’t like that book.  Which is different from being judg-ey about the book.  I think women (or anyone) reading that stuff is great.

Thing is, I just couldn’t get into the story.  Probably because prior to reading it, David showed me a YouTube video of Gilbert Gottfried reading it satirically.  So that’s the voice I hear in my head.  And the only thing that will unsex something faster than the image of Gilbert Gottfried reading it, is the image of that plus your kid pointing and laughing his ass off.

Also, I was concerned about the way consent was handled in the book (I hadn’t yet researched BDSM enough to know why I was concerned, but I was).  And also, I hate reading.  I had all these books to get through for Seminary, and so every evening this stack of books glared down at me.  Congregational Polity and Liberal Religion blah blah and 50 Shades of Gray.

Years of struggling with reading have taught me how to fake it in a classroom.  But Milf club is another matter.

Natasha:  Did you finish the book yet?  Did you?  What did you think?

Me (having only read up to the point where he is taking her for a ride on his helicopter, which is not a metaphor but an actual thing they do):  I think it is good that he advocates for the use of seatbelts.  Seatbelts are very important.

Natasha <narrowing eyes suspiciously>:  You haven’t read it yet, have you.  Putting on seatbelts is not the most exciting thing that happens in that book.

Me:  But he says a sexy thing when he puts the seatbelt on, right?  I feel like I remember that he said a sexy thing, and…

(long suspicious pause)

Me:  Look.  I just REALLY hate reading.

Also, I hated the book.  (Full disclosure, I didn’t get very far in it, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about.  With regards to 50 Shades or Liberal Religion, actually).  But I wanted to like it.  Not just to fit in.  Also because… well… I liked the changes I saw happening in the lives of my friends as they read it.

It brought with it a sense of it being okay to want things.  To prioritize your own pleasure.  A sense that all people—including women—should feel free to have fantasies and be lustful.  I loved the change in culture that the book produced, which totally put me in a bind.  To say “I hate that book” was to imply a bunch of things that weren’t true…  About it not being okay to have these fantasies, or about sex shaming… and so I found myself thinking “I don’t love this book.  But I love what loving this book seems to be doing for people”.

In particular, it seemed to be a catalyst for the women in Milf club to really come alive.  Not just in their sex lives, but in changes made to careers, new purposes found… like a group midlife crisis but in a really good way.  Failing to read the book gave me a different experience, because I got to know it by watching what happened in the lives of some of my new friends.  (There was a spectrum, of course.  Not everyone found that it resonated.  In retrospect we should have had a separate actually-just-the-ethical-living-part-please group).  Yet, even as I watched all the goodness, it grated on a nerve in me.

It was like when I first read “The Giving Tree” or “Love You Forever”.  And everyone around me is all misty eyed about the sweet stories, feeling warm and happy.  And there’s me, not appreciating it at all, and seriously missing something.  I am all “WHAT THE HELL, PEOPLE?  His mother is climbing in his bedroom window to cuddle him… how is he going to develop healthy adult relationships while all this is going on?”.  Everyone else was able to see the metaphor in the stories, while I was off in the corner writing my anti-story of “The Tree That Combined Giving and Boundary Setting in a Healthy Way”.

I suspect my “50 Shades of Carefully Discussing Consent and Reading Up on Healthy BDSM Practices and Building a Sense of Mutual Trust” would also miss some kind of psychological mark.

It is worth contrasting what I was worried these stories would do with what they actually did—at least in the lives of the people I know and love.  In another post, I will tell you about the work of the Oltumo project in Masai Mara, which Milf club has been an integral part of.  I could go on forever about the changes in the lives of individuals–my friend who works in education, or a half a dozen other stories.  Except I can’t tell you most of these stories, because I always check with people before blogging about them, and most of them worry even about the association with something as benign as “a moms group that talks about sex and liked 50 Shades of Gray”.  What does that say?

IMG_7165-683x1024Natasha, our organizer, is up to stuff I can boast about.  You can read more about the amazing work she’s doing around sex at:

http://natashasalaash.com/?p=80

The 50 shades stories themselves are not toxic—fantasy is fantasy.  You want what you want.  It’s when they’re seen as a model for BDSM play–when they exist in a vacuum of other information–that they become dangerous.  It is that vacuum that creates the risk that people will treat these stories as though they are reasonable models for relationships (rather than erotic stories that contain abuse).

I am not sure this is an entirely fair worry on my part… the women who love these stories, after all, are adults and not idiots, and know how to contextualize things (clearly much better than I do).  I see no evidence of them jumping into relationships with mysogonistic dipshits.  And, even if my concerns about peoples’ inability to recognize abuse and quarantine it to fantasy were valid, the solution would definitely not be to do shaming things like write “50 shades of dipshittery” casually on my Facebook wall.  Which I did.  Thinking I was defending Kinksters.  Who, for the record, never asked me to defend them by shaming others.  In fact, they didn’t ask me to to defend them at all—they seem to be stepping forward pretty maturely and articulately to defend themselves.

It didn’t take long for me to be reminded that shame is the enemy of good, open dialogues about sex… and that includes ShadesShaming as well.  If I really stand behind (and I do) the rule of “you want what you want, and wanting things is universally not a thing to be ashamed of”…  Of course that extends the 50 Shades series.  It is okay to fantasize about anything, period.  And it is not okay for me to deal with concerns (including any I might have about the representation of BDSM in the series), with scorn.  Scorn never helps move the conversation about sex in a positive direction.  Ever.

About the time I was trying to figure all this out, Dawn sailed in with the world’s greatest post on the issue—combining a talk about shame with a reasonable discussion on the potential concerns in the story…  adding useful information without a shred of scorn.  It’s all about context, and how we weave things together.  Our Whole Lives, as they say.  So, I published hir sermon, of course.  (With consent.  Informed, explicit, enthusiastic and sustained consent, I might add).

Dawn’s example was very helpful to me in wrestling with what I can say that is useful… What if I were to stop asking myself “what do I think about this story”, and I started asking myself “what do I think about the larger social context surrounding this story”?  What if I stopped thinking of “harm that can come from trying this at home” and started thinking in terms of “harms that can come from the vacuum of information that might lead to trying this at home”?

What would I say if I were not so focussed on whether that particular narrative needs to be silenced or invalidated, and was instead focussed on what narratives are missing?

2 thoughts on “Congregations and WAY Beyond: The Story of UU Milf Club

  1. Beth Roth says:

    LOVE this post Liz – I haven’t read 50 shades, but now with the movie out I have been reading all the commentary about it and feeling a bit torn/confused/not sure what to think. My favorite line – “What would I say if I were not so focussed on whether that particular narrative needs to be silenced or invalidated, and was instead focussed on what narratives are missing” – really helpful and brilliant framework. Thanks for writing!

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