Tuesday, February 14, 2012

sex-positive religion

Sex-Positive Religion
Service celebrated at the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Indiana, on 12 February 2012

Denver Butson was born in Maryland, in 1965; this is his poem, “Tuesday 9:00am”

A man standing at the bus stop
reading the newspaper is on fire
Flames are peeking out
from beneath his collar and cuffs
His shoes have begun to melt

The woman next to him
wants to mention it to him
that he is burning
but she is drowning
Water is everywhere
in her mouth and ears
in her eyes
A stream of water runs
steadily from her blouse

Another woman stands at the bus stop
freezing to death
She tries to stand near the man
who is on fire
to try to melt the icicles
that have formed on her eyelashes
and on her nostrils
to stop her teeth long enough
from chattering to say something
to the woman who is drowning
but the woman who is freezing to death
has trouble moving
with blocks of ice on her feet

It takes the three some time
to board the bus
what with the flames
and water and ice
But when they finally climb the stairs
and take their seats
the driver doesn’t even notice
that none of them has paid
because he is tortured
by visions and is wondering
if the man who got off at the last stop
was really being mauled to death
by wild dogs.

If you arrive this morning awash in sorrow, or aflame with anger, or otherwise consumed by difficult emotions, we welcome you, and we wish you peace. If you feel frozen, numbed by modern life, we wish a gentle thaw. If you feel isolated, ignored by those around you, may you feel seen and heard.

This morning, and every morning, may we awaken to the struggles and the successes in every life around us; may we truly feel the Spirit of Life, stubbornly evolving through the conditions of our lives.
So may we be.

Let us not be content to be bystanders at life’s bus stop. “Sometimes we build a barrier to keep love tightly bound. Corrupted by fear, unwilling to hear, denying the beauty we’ve found”—let us rather stand, and act on the side of love. Please rise, in body or spirit, for our opening hymn, and our affirmation of faith. Our opening hymn is #1014, Standing on the Side of Love

We call upon St. Valentine, the wounded healer now known as a prophet of love;

we name some of the many deities of love and desire: Aphrodite Astarte Cupid Freyja Hathor Inanna Kamadeva Oshun Parvati Ragaraja Venus and Xochiquetzal;
we ask their blessing on our loving endeavors;

mindful of the three types of love—the romance of eros,
the deep friendship of philia, and the selfless, redemptive agape—we honor them all and we name our hope that all love draw us out, beyond ourselves, inspiring us to care for others…

we state our gratitude to be alive and as well as we are this day; we are grateful to be gathered with these good people;

we lift up those joys & sorrows just mentioned,
and those which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts;

we are aware of the ongoing atrocities in Syria; we desire restraint, and peace and justice; we desire courage and compassion in all people, especially our leaders;

we desire comfort for all those who mourn Whitney Houston;

we celebrate Evolution weekend; and we desire that the testable hypotheses of science and the more metaphorical meaning-makings of religion *complement* each other, such that they make our lives and the lives of our human cousins more healthy and more satisfying;

we lift up the power of love; we appreciate the immense joys and the difficult challenges we may feel through love; we are grateful for the life lessons that we experience by loving another;

we are saddened by the harm done by shaming anti-sex propaganda;

we are burdened by the physical, emotional and spiritual harm that is too-often acted out in some sexual relationships; we desire healing and support for all those who have experienced such harm; we name our hopes that all beings who want them will experience joyful, healthy, mutually beneficial intimate relationships;

We desire enough food, and shelter, and peace of mind for all beings this day; we pledge ourselves in pursuit of this goal.
Praise for living.
So may we be.

Linda Gregg was born in 1942, near New York City; she grew up in Marin County, California

The Weight

Two horses were put together in the same paddock.
Night and day. In the night and in the day
wet from heat and the chill of the wind
on it. Muzzle to water, snorting, head swinging
and the taste of bay in the shadowed air.
The dignity of being. They slept that way,
knowing each other always.
Withers quivering for a moment,
fetlock and the proud rise at the base of the tail,
width of back. The volume of them, and each other’s weight.
Fences were nothing compared to that.
People were nothing. They slept standing,
their throats curved against the other’s rump.
They breathed against each other,
whinnied and stomped.
There are things they did that I do not know.
The privacy of them had a river in it.
Had our universe in it. And the way
its border looks back at us with its light.
This was finally their freedom.
The freedom an oak tree knows.
That is built at night by stars.

The book of Shir ha-Shirim, from the Hebrew Bible, is better known in the Christian world as the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon. Dated from approximately 900 BCE, or three millennia ago, this simple tale of love and sexual attraction is often interpreted as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel, or between Christ and his church…

This is my own adaptation of part of the fourth chapter of Shir ha-Shirim:

How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, [blindingly clean, with no gap between any of them.] Your lips are like a crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David…on it hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies…You have ravished my heart,…my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes… How sweet is your love… how much better … than wine…Your lips distil nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon.

How many of you have written love poetry, at least once in your life? How many hope to write, or receive, something flowery and loving in the next couple days? How many wish that Valentine’s Day, or “remind everyone that you’re *not* in a love relationship, and rub your nose in it” Day, as it is sometimes called, would just vanish from this year’s calendar?

Speaking only for myself, when I was single, I was not very fond of Valentine’s Day. I felt like the man in Denver Butson’s poem, which we heard as part of our Opening Words. I felt as though I were on fire with passion and joy, eager to share it with another person, but nobody could see the beautiful flames around my collar, or that my shoes were melting.

I should point out that that was my experience, and others may feel differently. Many human beings are quite content to be single. Some of us truly prefer living by ourselves.

Some of us who are happily un-partnered are the approximately 1% of humanity who are asexual—who simply never feel much sexual attraction, to anybody; and/or who are basically uninterested in sex.

*AND* these categories might still be too rigid. In her recent book “The Sex Diaries Project: What We’re Saying About What We’re Doing,” Arianne Cohen relates her findings from 1500 sex diaries. She writes that, “We live in a society where there’s this idea that you’re either in a long-term relationship or taking steps to get there. But if you read [these] diaries, what you find is, that’s not what a lot of people are doing.”

What I take from this is, no matter how you are living your life—in a long-term, exclusive relationship, or with a different partner every weekend; whether you are serially monogamous, or polyamorous, or still a virgin; whether you are happily single or you are desperate to find a partner to share your journey; whatever your relationship status, whatever your dreams and desires, there are many, many ways to find happiness and fulfillment—-including, but certainly not limited to, the dominant cultural narrative.

Love and sex and human relationships are some of the main engines of evolution. Not only do they often lead to the creation of the next generation, they also act as laboratories for us to learn and grow.

Through *all* of our relationships—and especially through the powerful intimacy of sexual relationships—we navigate the opportunities and the challenges of living in community. We attempt, and we fail, and we sometimes succeed at creating joy and meaning in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Of course, with the evolutionary drive to procreate being as strong as it is, in most of us; and with our culture’s seemingly schizophrenic approach to human sexuality—-by turns, demonizing sex as evil and exploiting it, using sex to sell everything and everyone—-it is little wonder that there is a huge potential for the mis-use and outright abuse of our sexual natures.

So, first, I will offer a few caveats drawing distinctions between abuse and healthy, appropriate sexual behaviors.

Then we’ll explore how we got to this point—how some common faith traditions treat sexuality and spirituality. Then we’ll hear a contemporary *liberal* religious perspective; and we’ll examine some recent news stories from that perspective. Finally, we’ll reiterate how an appropriate, care-ful embrace of our human sexuality can enrich our lives, create more justice in the world, and help all of us evolve a better future for the generations to come.

First: everything I talk about today should be heard in the context of informed consent. If this congregation is like any other that I’ve served, there are several of us here who are survivors of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is not about love or sex, it is about power and anger. And it is *not* what I’m talking about this morning. If anybody wants to come talk to me later about sexual abuse, I will listen and offer support. For this morning, please try to hear this sermon in the context of consensual, appropriate, adult relationship.

Second, while I do not insist that sex only occur within a long-term committed relationship, I do have concerns about people who are in committed partnerships, yet have sex outside of that commitment. I try not to judge, and I know that sometimes things happen. But for the duration of this service, even as I recommend and celebrate human sexuality in general, please recognize that I am *NOT* implying that anyone should have an affair or otherwise act against any previous commitments they’ve made.

That is one of the ways that our relationships help us to evolve: we learn about ourselves, and grow in maturity, as we make, struggle with, and re-negotiate our partnerships.

In general, I really do believe that our laws and rules and cultural norms have *usually* started as ways to help people and to protect society. Compared to situations where a powerful leader could do anything that she or he wanted to, with whomever was unlucky enough to be close by, strict rules and committed partnerships are probably a better approach.

Alas, the creative and the powerful among us will always find ways to circumvent or twist to their advantage any rules we create. And the poor and the marginalized will generally be further oppressed by the powerful making the rules.

So, the ancient male leaders, some of whom wanted to protect their physically weaker female cousins, and some other males, who were in awe—-and a bit fearful—-of the miracle of childbirth, and who, at best, misunderstood menstruation, created laws about women’s bodies and female sexuality in general. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for those laws to be used, not to protect women, but to control them.

This is not just about the monotheistic Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Some Buddhist traditions explain that the Buddha was born from his mother’s armpit—-because that was a less-troubling location for the men to contemplate. To this day, some Buddhists consider women to be second-class citizens.

Many of these ancient religious traditions define all human bodies and all fleshly desires to be impure. Most of them do acknowledge that sex is necessary to keep the species alive, so they do permit sexual congress, but *only* for the explicit purpose of procreation. This kind of thinking led the journalist, H.L. Mencken, to define Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.”

More recently, some traditions are recognizing that sex *can* be a good thing. Many of these folks approve of a wide variety of sexual practices—-as long as the two participants are spouses in a long-term committed marriage.

One such group runs the website christianNymphos.org. (See how much research I am willing to do, to provide good, accurate sermons for you all?!) The women at ChristianNymphos.org provide sex advice to women who want to honor *both* their Christian identity and their normal human sexual appetite.

And, at the other end of the spectrum, we have hedonists, who pursue their own sexual gratification with little thought of the long-term; and some marketing firms who appear to have virtually *no* concern for the consequences of their advertising—either for society in general, or for the young people in their advertisements.

Fortunately, there is a better way. We can comprehend our sexuality within a spiritual context. We can approach our human desires as a powerful tool, that—-when used appropriately-—can bring us joy and meaning and help us to evolve into better, more kind, more generous people.

Some psychologists, such as Dr. Harville Hendrix, believe that we are naturally attracted to our opposites. They suggest that we fall in love with people who remind us of our families of origin. Our love partners thus require us to face again the imperfections of our childhood. Our lovers offer us the opportunity to address, engage, and finally integrate our imperfections to become healthier, happier human beings.

Sex can also help us to address our spiritual, as well as our psychological, needs.

The Rev. Ms. Debra Haffner is a UU minister. She is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing. A little over a decade ago, Rev. Haffner was the CEO of SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. While at SIECUS, she helped to create an inter-faith declaration on sexuality.

In part, that declaration states:

“Sexuality is God’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gift. We come from diverse religious communities to recognize sexuality as central to our humanity and as integral to our spirituality. We are speaking out against the pain, brokenness, oppression, and loss of meaning that many experience about their sexuality. Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. We sin when this sacred gift is abused or exploited. However, the great promise of our traditions is love, healing, and restored relationships.

Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than [on] particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure. Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status, or sexual orientation…”

Anybody else think that they’re on the right track, here?

So, what would some contemporary issues look like, if they were viewed through this type of sexual ethic?

Some of you may have been on Facebook recently, and seen a lot of pictures of women breastfeeding babies. This is part of a larger cultural protest about nursing mothers being demonized and labeled as “too sexy” for public places. One item on Facebook showed a scantily-clad waitress with a lot of cleavage showing, and a mother breastfeeding her baby. The item asked why one was appropriate and allowed in a restaurant, but the other was not.

If we adopt a sexual ethic that views sexuality as a gift, which is “grounded in respect for the body,” and which “accepts no double standards,” then it would be straightforward to celebrate and honor breastfeeding as a normal and wonderful human activity.

Most of you probably know that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization withdrew its funding from Planned Parenthood, then restored that funding after a huge backlash from supporters of women’s health. Now, I don’t want to get too political here, and there are some pro-choice Republicans and there are pro-life Democrats, but this seems to me to be just the latest skirmish in a culture war over women’s health and women’s rights in general.

Almost exactly one year ago, our U.S. House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood. Even the person who introduced the measure, Rep. Mike Pence (of Indiana) admitted that he *knew* that Planned Parenthood did not perform-—or fund—-abortions using federal monies. Still, he hoped to cut off enough support that they couldn’t provide *any* abortions with any money.

Planned Parenthood reports that it uses its federal funding to provide pelvic exams, breast cancer exams, safer-sex advice and basic infertility counseling. They do help some needy women to get abortions, but the vast majority of their work is to provide women’s health care.

I wish there were no need for abortions. I wish that every pregnancy were a wanted pregnancy.

I wish that I knew why so many of our lawmakers were willing to allow women to go without adequate health care just to prevent any possibility of them getting an abortion.

Getting back to Haffner’s Declaration, the signers agree that, “Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality.” I think that’s the issue. I think that many of our legislators, including several of those running for President, do *not* believe in the goodness of creation. I think they believe that our bodies and our sexuality—-especially women’s bodies, and women’s sexuality—-are somehow “unclean.” I think that they think that women are evil, and dangerous, and must be “controlled.”

And I dream of a day when we have a positive sexual ethic that celebrates the full glory of *every* person’s sexuality.

The same goes for homosexuality, too, and for same-sex marriage. Just last Tuesday, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel affirmed District Court Judge Vaughan Walker’s previous decision that the California Proposition 8, which tried to eliminate the rights of same-sex couples to marry, was unconstitutional. And one day later, the legislature of the state of Washington voted to legalize same-sex marriage. When Governor Gregoire signs it—-as she has pledged to do—-then Washington will be the seventh state to allow legal marriages between same-sex couples.

If our human sexuality is a gift from God, and if it is between consenting adults, then let us celebrate it, and make it legal everywhere.

Okay…there are many more topics to cover, and we’re already running out of time, so I will be a little more brief about some of the rest of these. Please do see me later if you want to talk about any or all of these issues.

The Cook County Sheriff led a multi-state sting operation, over the last several weeks. Over 300 customers and over 200 sex workers were arrested. My personal opinion here—I am *not* speaking for the Religious Institute, or First Church, or for anybody else but me—my personal opinion is, if they are both consenting adults, if they’re not being forced against their will, if they aren’t addicted (which would diminishes their capacity to give real consent), and if nobody was in a monogamous, committed relationship outside of the economic transaction, then I don’t have a problem with it.

In the ancient past, there were many religions that offered temple prostitutes. If sex is a gift from god, then why wouldn’t you seek it from a place of worship? Why wouldn’t you donate to the temple in return for that wonderful gift?

Today’s sex workers are not temple prostitutes, but some of them are well-informed, responsible adults making choices about their sexuality. I do not believe that sex and child birth are the only things that women have to offer, but they are *part* of their identity.

On the other hand, what are we to think about the revealing clothing that malls sell to teenaged girls, and the popular music with lyrics about oral sex and BDSM to which the girls sing along?

Part of me wants to affirm these young people as they grow into, and claim, their sexuality—-and part of me is troubled that their identity is becoming synonymous with their sexuality. Sex and motherhood are only some of the things that women can offer to the world. I absolutely honor the power and goodness of female sexuality—-and I lift up the power and goodness of female intelligence and female creativity and female athleticism and etc. I wish *those* for our young women, too.

And, despite our culture’s emphasis on sexy clothing and provocative lyrics, teen pregnancies *are* at their lowest point in 40 years, according to a report (pdf) from the Guttmacher Institute. Teen pregnancies and teen abortions are all down, mostly because more teenagers are using contraception.

That is one reason why I am happy with President Obama’s plan to provide free contraception to all women, either through their work insurance, or through direct insurance if they work at a religiously-affiliated hospital or university. This way, women get good health care, and no organization has to provide any insurance for things with which they disagree.

As for the sex abuse scandals at Penn State, Syracuse, and now an elementary school in Los Angeles, that is easy: children cannot provide informed consent. This is *all* wrong, and should be prevented as much as possible; and healing should be provided to all those who have experienced it.

Because education is an excellent form of prevention, I support our excellent sexuality curriculum. Co-developed by our UUA and the United Church of Christ, the Our Whole Lives curriculum, or OWL, as it is known, is an amazing gift to the world. If I were President of the UUA, I would seek to have every* UU
congregation offer the OWL sexuality education course to every child and youth in their community, free of charge. I think healthy sexuality is that important.

For one thing, the OWL curriculum teaches a young person to own her own desires, and to set his own boundaries. That is the opposite of The Giving Tree, from our Story for the Child in Each of Us, in which the tree went well beyond her own healthy boundaries in her efforts to please the boy. Self-sacrifice can be a good thing, but too many people have had the “virtue” of self-sacrifice used against them, to make them do all kinds of things against their own best interests.

…and that gets us back to Arianne Cohen’s book, “The Sex Diaries Project: What We’re Saying About What We’re Doing.” Cohen 0bserves that, “The happiest people in the book are the ones who know what their priorities are, and they feel like they’re on a path to meeting them.”

In the book, she identifies thirteen consistent priorities among all the lives of the people who kept the diaries. These include things like sex, parenthood, financial stability, and romance. As Joe Jackson once sang, “you can’t get what you want until you know what you want.” And when we are not ashamed of our normal human sexuality, then we can know, and name, and pursue our human desires within the context of love, and mutuality, and informed consent and justice and pleasure.

So may we be.

If you want to support positive human sexuality, one way to do that is to support a church which works for sexual justice—-like this one!

In Linda Gregg’s poem, we heard about two horses who had a close relationship: “The privacy of them had a river in it. Had our universe in it. And… This was finally their freedom.” Knowing what we want—-recognizing who we are and what we need—-is a form of liberation.

Self knowledge is the beginning of freedom. So let us indeed circle ‘round for awareness and freedom. Please rise, in body or spirit, for our closing hymn–#155, Circle ‘Round for Freedom We’ll sing it through twice. {singing}

Whether single or partnered, asexual, bisexual, gay, lesbian, straight or transgender, “all persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure.”
So may we be!

(original post, with links, at So May We Be)


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