Sunday, December 13, 2009

On the Nature of Fornication

Every once in a while, I check my sitemeter to see which posts of mine continue to attract readers long after I originally published them. A fairly popular one appears to be my dream post of March 26, 2009, The Gay Whore of Babylon. Recently, an anonymous commenter, after explaining to me that my relationship with my husband is essentially an unnatural, "deadly... addiction," advised me, "Heed those warnings in your dreams." I assume this person was referring to my Whore of Babylon dream.

From the moment I clicked "publish" on that post, I suspected it would be susceptible to certain kinds of misinterpretation, and might encourage a certain type of panicky response. But I published it anyway for two reasons. First of all, because I am a believer in "letting the chips fall where they may." In my spiritual journey of recent years, when I have let go of outcomes and focussed more on process, when I have followed spiritual promptings and listened to my heart, without worrying where they would lead, I have been blessed. I have learned things I never would have learned otherwise, and my life has been enriched immeasurably. My Gay Whore of Babylon dream was one of those very significant dreams, and it contained multiple, very powerful messages about sexuality and integrity and community. Even though some of the symbolism was troubling, I needed to wrestle with it, and I felt it was worth wrestling with it in a communal way (thus posting it on my blog), let the chips fall where they may.

The second reason I published it -- despite some of my reservations -- was because, having wrestled with it and discerned some of the meanings embedded in it, I felt it posed questions worth discussing on my blog about the nature of fornication.

If fornication is a sin -- and I believe it is -- then why is it a sin? One way to look at this is to consider how we generally respond to fornication as sin. If a couple is fornicating, we generally expect rectification in one of two ways. Either we expect the physical relationship to end. Stop the sex. Or we expect the couple to formalize their relationship by getting married. Keep the sex coming, but add something to it, namely the spiritual and social commitments entailed by marriage.

Why? Because human beings are more than just a jumble of random urges. We are souls striving for integrity and harmony. We are spiritual beings with physical bodies. Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland once discussed sexuality within the bonds of marriage as a kind of sacrament. A sacrament is typically defined as "an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace." Thus, when the act of physical love is a sign of spiritual, divine love, it is in fact a sacrament. Fornication is an act that denies and violates the spiritual dimensions of the act of physical love.

I once heard a speaker mock Elder Holland's equation of marital sex and sacrament in crude and graphic terms, and I wept. I felt violated by the mockery. It was an assault on my sense of integrity, on my sense of the unity of every sacred aspect of myself, physical, spiritual, and relational. Fornication is wrong for the same reasons that the mockery was wrong. Because it tears asunder the integrity between between body and spirit without which the fullest and finest expressions of our humanity are not possible.

My Gay Whore of Babylon dream spoke to a particular, historically contingent problem related to how the gay community in America has evolved. It also spoke to a way in which the gay community participates the fallen condition of American culture generally. For historical reasons I could discuss in considerably more depth, in the 1960s the gay community and the gay rights movement by and large hitched their fortunes to the philosophy of "sexual liberation." Sexual liberation explicitly disconnects sexuality and sexual expression from any affective, relational or spiritual context. It ultimately denies the reality of the non-physical, and denies the validity of any meaning connected to sex apart from simple physical gratification. Sex is a powerful thing. Having experimented with the idea of sexual liberation, I can attest that because of the power of sex, sexual liberation can feel liberating -- at first. But ultimately it's not any sort of liberation at all. It eventually becomes a form of slavery, condemning us to an impoverished existence, and stripping our lives of humanity and meaning.

I believe that the growth in recent decades of gay community organizations devoted to religion and spirituality attests at least in part to lessons learned the hard way. But I believe the single most significant historical development in terms of the gay community's self-understanding, and its communal approach to the problem of how the spiritual and the physical are related is to be found in the movement for full marriage equality. Many conservatives have acted as if the gay community's agenda was to impoverish marriage. But from the gay community's perspective, this has always been about enrichment not impoverishment, about humanity and integrity and love. Marriage, for us, is and always has been about joining together what no man (or woman) should put asunder. It is about creating that very human union of body and spirit, and of two into one.

We are told that it is impossible for two men or two women to create that kind of union. But gay men and lesbians who have taken the risk to invest in relationships know differently. Our humanity and the integrity of our spirits and bodies, and the kinds of fulfillment we can and do find in intimate relationships are testimony that two men and two women can and do create that kind of union, whether our heterosexual family and friends are willing to believe in it or not. And we are equally hurt by the failure to respect that integrity, whether the failure comes in the form of our own sexual infidelity toward each other, or whether it comes in the form of the broader society's faithlessness toward us.

The scriptures frequently use fornication as a metaphor for humanity's unfaithfulness to God. That unfaithfulness, to read and understand the scriptural testimony, has come primarily in the form of the idolatry of wealth and materialism; in the form of the exploitation of the poor, disregard for widows and orphans, and violent oppression of the stranger. To deny the humanity of our fellow human beings is an estrangement from our own humanity and from God. Thus, fornication is an apt metaphor for the great social "sins of the ages": pride and hate.

My Gay Whore of Babylon dream gave me a metaphorical handle on this nature of the human predicament -- both in terms of our individual, familial relationships, and in terms of the larger social contract in which all of us are called to participate. The dream sharpened my sense that the gay community is urgently in need of seeking out and developing the spiritual aspects of life. We must reject the soulless materialism that is endemic in American culture. If we would be saved, we must reject Babylon and all its ways.

Despite the fact that the Gay Whore of Babylon post still routinely garners readers nine months after I posted it, I have yet to receive a single substantive comment on either the imagery or the message of the dream. (One friend simply responded by commenting that I had "vivid" dreams!) Perhaps this is because the imagery of the dream -- on the surface at least -- lends itself to extreme homophobic interpretations (thus the recent "warning" from an anonymous, homophobic commenter on my blog to "heed" the dream). But perhaps it is also because, despite the fact that our culture constantly exploits sex in order to attract spectators and sell merchandise, we generally can't muster the ability to talk rationally, to reason about sex. And if we can't do that, we can't fully integrate ourselves as sexual, physical, rational, emotional, spiritual beings. We will continue to respond to sex in ways that are merely primal -- with raw hunger or superstitious anxiety.

43 comments:

MoHoHawaii said...

I hear you, and as you know I'm also a fan of sexual fidelity, whether you're speaking of a gay or straight relationship.

I do have one quibble, and it's a minor one so please take it in that spirit. It is this: you and I and every other gay person who lives his or her life openly today owes a profound debt to the drag queens, hustlers and sexual outlaws of the Stonewall era who broke through and demanded their rights, even in the face of violence and intimidation by the police. (The harassment of gay people by police was brutal in those years.) This is an ugly and shameful history, like the history of race in this country. I view the gaudy sexual libertines of 40 years ago not as sinners but as heroes. The right to live openly as a gay person was hard won, and conservative homosexuals of that era did absolutely nothing to help the cause.

It's easy enough for us, from the position of extreme comfort and security that we now enjoy, to pass judgment on those whose options were not or are not the same as ours. Can we do better today than one-night stands? Absolutely. I find nothing more gratifying than to hear of young gay people who have found love and made enduring commitments to each other. This is a purely positive development, as is the trend for gay couples to raise children.

But not everyone has this luxury, even today. Young gay people, for example, from abusive religious backgrounds (including many from harsh, conservative LDS environments) find themselves rejected, broken and alone. For them, sexual liberation may be a necessary phase (as I expect it might have been for you). For those who have been sinned against, it's a rite of passage with a finite duration. It's a way station on a longer path, not a sin.

I would challenge us all to have empathy for those whose life circumstances are not as secure as ours and whose spirits are not yet healed. They too must find their way. I've seen this in my own history, in the life stories of those I have loved and in young gay people today who are just emerging from the netherworld that their conservative religious backgrounds have put them in. We're not where these folks are, and we shouldn't be casting stones in their direction.

My spin on this is for healing to take place and for the wounded to find peace. If it takes a journey of sexual experimentation for some, so be it. If we as a society provide stable institutions (such as marriage or strong civil unions), young people will come to them. Until that day arrives we as a society are the sinners.

J G-W said...

You won't get much argument from me.

I alluded to the complexities of the history in my note that "I could discuss [it] in considerably more depth."

I think there were very good reason why the gay community and gay rights movement evolved the way they did, and my intention is not to point a finger of blame at anybody, least of all "the drag queens, hustlers and sexual outlaws" of Stonewall.

However, I'm aware of a kind of attitude that is entrenched in the gay community today, when we have far more rights and when we have come much further, that continues to glorify and romanticize behavior that is ultimately destructive of relationships, destructive of communities, and destructive of individuals. I've endured more than one self-righteous tirade about how marriage is a corrupt, bourgeois institution, and how absurd it is for me to desire it. And I know far too many couples who have ruined their relationships and squandered their happiness in steam rooms and t-rooms and the free sex circuit.

You are right about the effects of growing up in extremely homophobic environments. Many of us do go through a sexual acting out phase (I certainly did, and I've never shied away from admitting it or discussing it openly, which is partly the reason for this post). I'm not entirely sure it was a necessary phase for me to go through. I learned some lessons the hard way as a result of my own experimentation, but I'm also aware of ways I believe I hurt myself (and my husband) unnecessarily.

I've had numerous conversations with gay Mormons who would like to apply the principles of sexual morality they learned growing up to their search for a same-sex partner. But they come out to gay communities that have evolved norms that literally make that impossible -- and the reaction is often despair. Given the bi-polar choices we face, I understand well why many gay Mormons would prefer celibacy and the support of their Church community -- even when it means extreme loneliness.

As a gay parent raising a teen, I also have to say I am sometimes just furious about the cultural influences that constantly undermine our efforts to help our kids make wise choices about sex and relationships.

I understand the history of the gay community very well, but there's a difference between understanding the history and wanting to stay stuck in the rut of history. I honestly think it's time for us to grow up as a community.

Bravone said...

Very thoughtful post John. Although I am not a perfect example of what I espouse, I would like to think that those who choose gay marriage would follow the same path prescribed for heterosexual marriage - abstinence before marriage and complete fidelity after marriage. I believe it is these marriages that will ultimately last and build a stronger society.

santorio said...

I missed that post, which is too bad because I wonder how I would have reacted to it without the subsequent, secondary interpretations.

I divide wrongful actions ("sins") into two categories: those that directly hurt (physically or emotionally) another person, and those that don't but could.

The problem is that we are not very good at predicting which category applies to any given act. Proceeding under the "what he/she doesn't know can't hurt him/her," we watch porn, masturbate, fornicate, and cheat on spouses.

So sure, for any give person or couple a specific sex act may not be cause harm. But then, again, it may.

MoHoHawaii said...

You won't get much argument from me, either. :- ) I'm in violent agreement with you that we as a community can do a lot better (and by and large are doing a lot better) than one-night stands! This is a trend that will only continue as society becomes more accepting of committed gay couples and also as kids come out at younger ages and have more of a chance to experience "gay adolescence" under the tutelage of their parents, when they are still actual, bona fide adolescents.

As for those who didn't have the advantages of understanding parents, social acceptance or a safe, affirming place of worship, I'm willing to cut these folks a lot of slack as they try to find their way, even if that way isn't what I'd advise for my own children. Given the obstacles these people face, I'm just not willing to cast that first stone.

I'd be interested in what specific advice you give your son or other young gay people. At what point in the development of a relationship do you feel physical intimacy is generally appropriate?

J G-W said...

Bravone - I wish I could say I were a "perfect" example, but I am not either.

Gay couples find much less social support for the kind of fidelity you and I both know to be so important. And the whole gay marriage drama is an example of how, even when we reach for that ideal, so-called conservatives pull out all the stops to block us. It's the classic "Catch 22" -- we are accused of being promiscuous, but then we are prevented from establishing the kinds of social safeguards that reduce promiscuity.

In the meantime, we need to be creative. We need to work to develop the social and spiritual supports that will help us honor the integrity of our spiritual and physical selves.

Santorio - Ah, "secret" sin. Well, that of course has the potential to harm others, but it always harms the individual who engages in it.

Some folks (especially in the gay community) may think I'm crazy, but I'm 100% on board with Church leaders when they talk about the dangers of pornography. Pornography is definitely one of those things we typically use in secret and that we rationalize as not hurting anybody. And I understand that pornography can sometimes meet certain valid needs. But ultimately it harms us, and it undermines our body-spirit integrity.

In a way, it's the ultimate example of alienated sexuality -- people performing sexually for money, to a camera, for people they will never see. People buying images that are ultimately a lie -- images that lie to us about the human body and about ourselves and about what really matters in life. And we can get addicted to the images, and our addiction to the images can impair our ability to relate fully to real people and express ourselves honestly and fully in an intimate context. And its a billions of dollars per year industry...

Mohohawaii - As in all things, shame and guilt is the worst of all possible motivators. And, in the spiritual Babylon which is America, sex and shame are like bread and butter.

So, having just shared my rants about sexual morality and pornography, I think the way forward is to be gentle with ourselves. Let's be honest about what is good and what is bad, but let's always emphasize that we are good people, children of God, struggling to do well in a difficult situation. Let's encourage each other to do better, and not shame each other when we make mistakes.

I believe that making covenants with one another is a vitally important way for us to strengthen ourselves morally. The Church is a covenant community, and part of the failure of our present culture is that gay folks have historically been cast out of the covenant communities that they need no less than anyone else.

I think gay Mormons who are in same-sex relationships desperately need some kind of covenant community, perhaps modeled after the covenant community in Mosiah 21: 31-36.

playasinmar said...

These basic instructions might help:

http://basicinstructions.net/basic-instructions/2009/11/4/how-to-tell-someone-about-your-dreams.html

J G-W said...

Playa - Well, yes. (Brilliant strip! I was ROFLMAO.)

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - I meant to respond to your last question about advice to gay youth...

That's a really, really tough one.

Looking back at my own youth, my parents did a fantastic job teaching me the value of developing courage and standing up for what I believe in, even when everybody else seems to be going the opposite direction. That was probably the single most important thing they taught me. As a youth, everything else I managed to do right somehow stemmed from that -- from learning to find and keep my own moral bearings.

When it comes to making good sexual and relational decisions, it's really important for a young person -- I believe -- to feel unconditionally loved and supported by his or her parents, to know that they are both loved and lovable. That will help reinforce other messages about how refusing to hop into bed with the first person who wants to have sex with you will not result in loneliness. Constant messages that we love our kids -- through word and deed -- combined with a good example will lay the groundwork for teaching them the value of linking sex with love and commitment.

There's a LOT more I could probably say on this topic, but my final word will be that I am really a believer in the "teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves" ideal. We try to foster lots of open, frequent communication about these issues. So that's the "teach them correct principles part." The bigger struggle, for us, has been keeping an appropriate balance between letting our son have enough freedom to make right choices, but providing enough structure to protect him from the worst choices when he's still vulnerable.

I'd say it's not an exaggeration to say we agonize about that a lot.

I also pray for help. Every morning and every night!!! There's not an ounce of spiritual help I can't use in this department.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - One more thought on gay youth and sexual morality...

The special challenge for gay youth is that they can and do get the message that the normal rules of sexual morality don't apply to them, Thank You Very Much, Religious Right and Proposition 8.

The best friend of bad behavior is flimsy excuses, and public policy that treats our relationships as invalid and/or non-existent can serve as an excuse to think that "it doesn't matter what I do, I'll never get acceptance, so why bother?"

The only antidote I've found as a parent is to constantly communicate that the public policy and the political movement behind it is pure bullshit. We communicate that our love and our relationships do matter and are sacred, through concrete acts. One such concrete act was when we traveled to California to get legally married, brought our foster son with us, and allowed him to be one of the witnesses who signed our marriage license. He saw demonstrated in very concrete ways how real that commitment is to us. And that message is reinforced daily, every time Göran and I treat each other in ways that honor our public commitment.

MoHoHawaii said...

That's a really, really tough one.

Apparently.

:- )

Just so you don't think I'm a total smart aleck, I'll share what I said when my son (who was 17 at the time and just about to leave for college) asked me whether it was okay to have sex.

After the usual cautions about unwanted pregnancies and preventing STDs, I said that it was fine, BUT I had some important cautions. The first caution was that sex is unbelievably powerful glue, and you have to be very careful that the wrong people don't get glued together. As a result, I said, it's wise to exercise a great deal of caution.

The second caveat was an ethical rule, that you must tell no lies and make no promises that won't be kept. In other words, sexual ethics must involve tremendous respect, honor and integrity.

I needn't have worried.

It turns out that my son possessed a highly relational kind of sexuality that found most natural expression within the context of an ongoing, exclusive relationship. In the 7 years since I gave him this advice he has had several girlfriends and is now going steady with a fine young woman who might well become his wife. I think he's more secure and better adjusted for having had a certain amount of sexual experience. I honestly believe he is better off now than if he had remained a virgin up to this point (age 24).

Part of the reason I answered as I did is the fact that I knew that the average age of first sexual intercourse is 18 in the US. I figured that like 95% of his peers he was going to have sex at some point in his college years. Rather than deny that most likely of outcomes I wanted to channel him into sensible, practical and honorable paths. Call me a bad father if you wish, but that's the call I made.

Let me rephrase my earlier question. Would give your son advice that is significantly more conservative than I gave my son?

MoHoHawaii said...

I should be clear-- Would give your son advice as he leaves for college that is significantly more conservative than I gave my son?

Also, I misspoke. My son was 18 at the time we had that talk. (I would not give the same advice to a younger teenager.)

Quiet Song said...

I think John correctly identifies the problem of "acting out sexually." While I'm not sure the difference between LGBT kids and Straight kids today is really all that different, I am certain that the fear parents have of LGBT "acting out" as opposed to Straight "acting out" is much greater. It's just as problematic to be the straight person stoned or drunk out of your mind at a party being or sexually exploiting others and not being safe as it is to be the gay person. The problem lies in inadequate venues for LGBT kids not to act out and a very slim pool of role models particularly in popular media.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - Your caution about the bonding power of sexuality and your emphasis on the importance of complete honesty were good.

I wrestle with the "if you have sex, then be safe" advice. I'm not saying it's bad advice... Indeed, if our youth have sex, by all means they should be safe.

But that advice fits in a hierarchy of wisdom somewhere below "sex is best in the context of a committed relationship," and "a relationship should be based on far more than just sex," and "sex is much more special, when you save it for the right situation and the right person." It sounds like your son had internalized some of that wisdom, and I'm sure that you had a hand in that.

Our foster son has received sexual advice from a panoply of social workers, counselors and teachers on his way through the system, and the best we can tell, the only advice that seems to have stuck (if he was ever given any other advice) is the "be safe" advice. Obviously we have far higher hopes for him than a promiscuous but "safe" sex life, so I worry about how that advice is heard by teenage/18-year-old ears.

So I guess the short answer to your question is my approach is perhaps slightly more conservative. I've felt it necessary to stress the upper half of the hierarchy of wisdom, and point out to him that the rewards are much greater if he can follow those principles. I've also stressed the dangers of settling for less, especially if it comes from a place of believing deep down in side that you don't deserve/can't get better.

J G-W said...

Also a note of clarification...

By settling for less, I mean settling for promiscuity because you think you are not capable of a mature relationship.

I've also emphasized that promiscuous behavior can actually undermine our ability to develop the skills we need for a mature relationship.

J G-W said...

Quiet Song - I agree. Mohohawaii spoke earlier to some of the unique problems though...

Secrecy encourages bad behavior, so I think a key for GLBT youth is having a home where they feel safe to come out. Gay teens need to BE teens. They need to date and explore relationships the way ALL teens do, in the protective environment of a loving home. If gay teens are not teens, they grow up to be developmentally arrested gay adults -- what happened to most gay folks of my generation. They then act out their teenage years in an adult setting, without the restraints, and with much more potential to harm themselves and others.

J G-W said...

By the way, I think there is tremendous wisdom in the developmental path outlined by the Church -

* up to 16 - age appropriate interactions with peers, including dances and other similar group activities

* 16-19 - dating (non-sexual, of course!)

* 19-21 - missionary service!

* 21 onward - courtship leading to marriage

Of course, the Church's recommended model is different for women than men. There's less emphasis on the missionary service and more emphasis on marriage for women. To be honest, I think women in the 18-20 age category are much more mature (in general, not always) and capable of missionary service than men in that age category. And I think that missionary service is no less valuable a preparation for marriage and family among women than among men. My two cents.

But I think the fact that the Church recommends a significant time (1.5 - 2 years!) away from dating/courtship, focussed on self-sacrifice and service to be remarkable. Youth who grasp the importance of this and take advantage of this kind of opportunity will, I believe, be so much better prepared for relationships.

I've NEVER regretted -- even during the years I felt most sour about the Church -- my time as a missionary. I've always been grateful for the remarkable ways that time prepared me for so much else that has been important in my life. (Including my relationship with my husband.)

playasinmar said...

http://www.nydailynews.com/lifestyle/health/2009/12/09/2009-12-09_casual_sex_hookups_arent_emotionally_damaging_study_finds.html

J G-W said...

"However, researchers said that this doesn’t mean casual sex is for everyone..."

Also, I suppose it depends on how you define "harm." It looks like the researchers defined harm as decreased self-esteem.

My whole point here from the beginning has been that -- based on my own experience -- promiscuity undermined my ability to be faithful to my husband. It was harmful to my (then future) relationship.

My definition of harm is much broader than individual self-esteem... And is based on a different definition of "self."

MoHoHawaii said...

I appreciate this dialog. It's helpful.

I think we're setting up a false dichotomy if we insist that there's a stark binary choice between
"sleep with whatever moves" and "save it for marriage." (Pet peeve: the Church seems to do this on a lot of subjects.)

In fact, if you take the example of my son, you'll see that he has taken a sensible middle path. I know for a fact that he has never, ever had a "conquest." He once even told me how he had turned down a proposition from someone he was very attracted to sexually because he wasn't interested in a relationship with her. On the other hand, he has had sex with girlfriends (after some period of acquaintanceship and dating).

I'm going to make the claim that this approach benefited my son. The reason is that he by nature does not have a lot of sexual self confidence. He was the kind of quiet, shy guy who is at risk of falling for the first girl who smiled at him. If he had entered into serious courtship with absolutely no sexual experience, I believe he would have been at risk of making a very, very bad marriage choice. It's not just about sex, it's also about learning important relational skills in an age-appropriate manner.

On the other hand, I have an (LDS) nephew who has remained a virgin but is now in his late twenties. He has many, many more challenges than my son when it comes to dating. I think his long period of celibacy has put him at a disadvantage emotionally and in terms of development.

These are examples of straight young people, but I think the situation is just about the same for gay youth.

I guess I would like to advocate two points:

1) If a young person isn't enmeshed in highly reinforced social bubble of Mormonism, it's unrealistic to expect that person to remain celibate past about age 18 or 19. The statistics just don't bear that out. In this case, I think it's better to deal with the reality of the situation rather than one's parental aspirations and teach respect for others and self-respect as the guiding principles, rather than a less realistic goal of complete chastity until marriage.

2) In any case, a strict model of celibacy until marriage may harmful to some young people. It encourages early and ill-considered marriages.

I'm completely in agreement that in the case of a young person like your foster son, there needs to be much more parental education than just "be safe." If I were in your place I would certainly encourage your son to slow down and take his time and wait until at least age 18 and to learn the value of sexuality as part of a loving relationship, although this also depends on his temperament and earlier developmental history.

I guess if I have any specific advice for you and Goran, it would be to factor in the reality of peer expectations into your advice. Recognize that you only have a certain amount of influence, and then work within that sphere of influence to guide your son toward positive outcomes, even if it means that his standards aren't as strict as your own. Don't fight a war you will lose. For example, I think the LDS dating schedule you posted might be too much for him.

I truly believe there is a sensible middle ground here, one that promotes the virtues of stable relationships and self-respect while also taking into consideration the reality of current (non-LDS) courtship practices.

Anyway, I want to express my admiration for how you are helping your son. He is so lucky to have parents like you and Goran.

J G-W said...

Well, I'm the first to admit that the best of principles will play out differently in different situations.

Perhaps there have been situations where a person's virginity was an obstacle to marital bliss; but I will still venture that in the history of marriage, infidelity has been the far bigger obstacle. I've seen far more evidence of the latter than the former.

Kids growing up into young adults MUST make their OWN choices. I've done my best to pass on what wisdom I have, but ultimately, I'll support our son making his own choices, even when they differ from what I think is best. I'll cheer when they work well for him, and I'll be here to help him put the pieces back together when they don't go so well.

People are highly resilient, and we actually do learn from mistakes. In fact the most indelible learning comes from the worst mistakes. Few of us have not insisted at least sometimes on learning the hard way. I certainly have. So again, I'll never treat what I view as a mistake as some kind of permanent mark of evil. That's a terrible way to go through life. Nor do I have much interest in the "I told you so" crap. When it comes to our kid, all I really, truly want is his happiness.

So will he occasionally choose the quick, the easy and the thrilling over the wise? I'd be a fool if I thought he wouldn't. Will it be the end of the world when he does? Of course not. But, I'll still try to point him toward the wise...

MoHoHawaii said...

Are wantonness ("the quick and the thrilling")and saving that first shy kiss for the honeymoon night really the only choices?

I am absolutely not advocating infidelity. I am absolutely not advocating sexual adventurism over investment in durable relationships. If you look at my comments you'll see that nothing in what I've said so far would indicate this. It's a straw man. Maybe we're talking past each other at this point. If I've overreached, I apologize.

J G-W said...

No, they're not the only choices. But gray areas are by definition... gray.

It's my kid who's got to make the call when he's in the gray. I can teach him the general principles of flying, but he's got to pilot the plane.

That's all I was trying to say. I wasn't aware we were arguing?

Is there anything else I need to say to make up?

MoHoHawaii said...

It's all good. :- )

Quiet Song said...

At the risk of chiming in here after this conversation is over, there IS a strong case to be made for a LGBT LDS kid to be raised with exactly the same standards as a straight LDS kid.

It is important to talk about relationships. In the end, that's what most people want regardless of orientation. So, we've talked about the reality of one or both parties being hurt in casual or asymmetrical relationships, making good long term choices, sexual and relationship ethics, personal integrity, how to avoid abusive relationships and how the LGBT community is just as susceptible to all of the above as the straight community (and, in some areas perhaps more susceptible). We've talked about players, gamers and cheaters.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - My response was rushed, because I had to run out the door to go teach a Bible study for atheists (long story!!!).

Just to reiterate... I think we're in fundamental harmony in terms of taking a forgiving and pragmatic approach to this stuff. However, I can't bring myself to give up on the ideal of self-restraint. I've seen too much good come of cultivating it, and I honestly believe the practice of chastity before marriage is one of the best ways to develop restraint, selflessness and faithfulness in marriage.

At the same time, I will admit that I did not live up to this ideal. But that is partly the point of this post -- to discuss what I've learned from that experience.

I realize that in certain cultural contexts where sexuality is demonized (and for LGBT folks, who find ALL expressions of sexuality demonized by the broader culture), the concept of self-restraint can be distorted in unhealthy ways, and prevent us from integrating our sexuality. I can't reiterate strongly enough how utterly opposed I am to that approach to sexuality. In fact, expressing my concern about that approach was a main goal of this post.

As a parent I do also wrestle with the question of whether holding up too high a standard will be discouraging to our son and/or promote self-defeating behavior (this applies to more than just sexual morality issues). I've hoped that by emphasizing the positive rewards of good behavior, by avoiding the use of shame as a negative motivator, and by constantly expressing and reinforcing the love and pride I feel for our son, the high standards will be able to play a positive role.

Is a standard too high if it is observed most often in the breach? I don't know.

But does my rambling at least make some sense?

Quiet Song -- thanks! a lovely summary of the high points of the discussion!

J G-W said...

By the way... I feel this has been a fantastic discussion!! It's really given me an opportunity to think about really important stuff in a concrete way..!

Knight of Nothing said...

This is truly an amazing discussion, and I'm sorry to be coming in so late. But there are a few points that I haven't seen commented upon that I'd like to offer.

1) Sexual contact has a huge range of expression and purpose, even within the boundaries of a loving, monogamous relationship. People have sex for comfort, to relieve stress, to relax, for fun, to fulfill desires. It can be explosive or it can be serene. This discussion seems to focus solely upon the deepest, most spiritual expression of sexual intimacy. Considering the range of human sexuality, it doesn't seem very realistic to focus so narrowly on one kind of sexual expression. I think MoHoHawaii's counsel to his son was loving, wise, and practical, and tacitly acknowledges this broader reality about the range of human sexual behavior.

2) "Monogamy" with an exclusive, life-long partner, at least in the sense of the modern, prevailing romantic ideal, has little historical precedent. So it doesn't really answer to say that "infidelity has been the far bigger obstacle" to a harmonious marriage than "virginity until commitment." There is no control group. Maybe you would argue otherwise..? Just putting it out there.

3) If I may be bold, I think that one of the things MoHoHawaii objects to is the word "sin" when speaking about sex. Even though I can see the wisdom of the thoughts you expressed in your post and in the subsequent discussion, "sin" is an extremely loaded word. It is a very judgmental word, and the rulebook(s) whence that judgment springs is not necessarily held in equal esteem by everyone. I suppose this is just semantics, but I prefer the Buddhist construction of "skillful acts." Either an act is skillful in that it relieves one's suffering and/or contributes to one's enlightenment, or it does not. Using this language, it is far more difficult to make blanket pronouncements regarding sex.

4) You said that fornication is a sin because it falls in a transitional state: either we expect the sex to stop or a marriage to occur. That argument seems fallacious; both end-states are fine and wholesome and natural human conditions, so why is the means of getting to one of those states, itself a natural expression of essential humanity, wrong? Compare it to eating, which is another biological imperative: we would not call eating in itself a sin. How and what one eats has a lot to do with our estimation of its worth and propriety. But no one would argue that eating must only be done at 6AM, 12PM, and 6PM, otherwise it is wrong. So it should be with sex. At least in my opinion. :-)

Thanks for the discussion!

J G-W said...

Hey, Sam! Thanks for chiming in on a discussion you and I have already had some significant conversations about. I was hoping you would comment.

They are great thoughts. Here's my initial reaction:

1) You are right about the different roles that sex plays in our lives. Though my main concern here is how it fits into the relational context, which I believe is the determining factor in whether the different functions of sex in our lives will be salubrious or not.

Sex "for fun" or "to relieve stress" will have a different impact on us depending on whether we are breaking or keeping promises when we have it.

2) Well, I asked for this comment with the hyperbolic phrase "in the history of marriage."

All I'm saying here is, I am aware of many more relationships where infidelity has been a source of tensions and problems than relationships where problems were caused because one or both partners were virgins when they got married.

I'm not saying Mohohawaii's point has no validity... Virginity has created serious problems especially for gay Mormons who were encouraged to believe that their urges would realign after having sex with a "real woman." The problem is, once they learned they had been misinformed, there was already a marriage certificate making resolution of that problem much, much more difficult. Maybe an openness to pre-marital sexual experimentation could have saved a ton of heartache in those cases.

I'm the first to say that it behooves every individual to A) know themselves, and B) understand that some rules don't always make sense. (And, C) have the courage to make the choice that is right for YOU when you discern that to be the case.)

But I'll still insist that the general principle of self-restraint has value, and a good place to draw the line regarding sexual self-restraint is around a sacred, public commitment.

3) I'm a believer in using language that helps people move forward, and not insisting on words that are stumbling blocks. And I like your point about the Buddhist concept of "skillful acts." It's a very cool way to look at this.

However, I also find the word "sin" useful, and I think it is a liberating exercise to learn how to use it without being afraid of it.

But your comment here is encouragement to post on a topic I'd already been sort of mulling in my head... Maybe tomorrow!

4) Actually, I didn't say fornication was a sin because it fell into a transitional state. What I said is that the way we handle fornication points to the fact that we recognize it as an incomplete expression of sexuality.

Body and spirit need to be united! That's the whole point.

To extend this principle to your eating analogy... There are a whole host of eating behaviors that are harmful: gluttony, bulimia, anorexia...

There are also eating practices that are preferable. Communal eating feeds the soul as well as the body! Macrobiotic eating honors our relationship to the web of life on our planet! McDonalds does the opposite, not to mention contributing to the American system of wage slavery (though the kids may enjoy the clown). There are ethics about eating that we need to be attentive to, even if "eating" is of course not a sin in any sense of the word...

Neither is sex a sin, though there are unethical expressions of sexuality.

Quiet Song said...

Read through to the comments on premarital sex:

http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/2002_Dealing_with_Demographics.html

LDS kids are still having a significant rate of reported premarital sex yet the rate is considerably less than that of their non-lds peers.

It's probably impossible to ascertain the frequency and number of partners from the statistical data, but these would be interesting questions as would determining the rate of concurrent alchol and substance abuse among the sexually active lds and non-lds kids.

MoHoHawaii said...

John, you said:

I can't bring myself to give up on the ideal of self-restraint. ... I honestly believe the practice of chastity before marriage is one of the best ways to develop restraint, selflessness and faithfulness in marriage.

It sounds as if you hope, in your heart of hearts, not just for self-restraint (which I also asked of my son) but for complete abstinence. Unless I misinterpret you, it seems that you'd be the happiest if your son refrained from all sexual expression until the day he publicly professes a life-long commitment to another person. You would accept another outcome if he chose it, but you'd see it as falling short of the ideal. You hope that your son will minimize the degree of deviation from the ultimate goal of complete pre-marital chastity.

If I have any deposit of good will left in your bank, I'm going to spend it now and say that it is extraordinarily unlikely that your son will meet your standard of complete abstinence. It's just too far from the social conventions of his peer group to be a realistic option. (Believe me or not, but I have had many years of experience dealing with adolescents. And if you still don't believe me, look at the statistics of sexual activity by age and run the numbers.)

From where I sit, charging him with the Mormon gold standard of chastity sets him up for failure. If you follow through with this, he will know that the best he can do won't be enough to avoid your disappointment. Then the proposition becomes purely negative-- his question will be, "How can I disappoint John the least?" It's a no-win proposition for him; what motivation would he have to invest in it? Achieving the smallest level of disappointment is not a goal that stirs the human heart.

You said:

As a parent I do also wrestle with the question of whether holding up too high a standard will be discouraging to our son and/or promote self-defeating behavior (this applies to more than just sexual morality issues).

I think this is the crux of the matter, and the issue is pragmatic rather than theoretical. How can we interact with the young people we love and whose future care so much about and do this in a way that actually helps? There is absolutely no pat answer for this, and I won't presume to give you one.

But I will say that in my experience it is essential that we give up our own aspirations for our children as painful as that is. (We still set rules and limits, of course, but these are distinct from our vicarious dreams.) We should attempt to fully understand them, their own hopes and fears, the influence of their peers and their developmental stage. (One of the most interesting questions you can ask an adolescent is what they think their peers' opinion on a particular issue might be.)


My experience is that if you want an adolescent's ears to be open, they must believe that you are 100% on their side. If they detect even hint of an "agenda" they will shut down. They're fine with problem solving, new experiences, information and resources, but doing things just to please you is a nonstarter. (And in terms of convincing, the peer group rules.)

I hope this comment doesn't make you cross. I understand that unsolicited advice is rarely of much value. I'm just putting it out there as one data point for you to consider. Food for thought, if you will.

MoHoHawaii said...

Thanks, Knight of Nothing, for your encouraging words. I guess what may not come through in this discussion is how intensely I love my son and how seriously I take my responsibility to answer his questions with integrity.

As far as I can tell, Mormonism's highest value is the notion of obedience. Mormonism defines sin as a lack of obedience. In this view, sin is a transgression of God's law (or Church policies), not an ethical failing with qualities of its own. We sin by disobeying, not by causing harm to others. Sin may incidentally cause harm, but its essence is disobedience. (Harming others through obedience is fully justified in LDS thought, from the killing of Laban to the campaign for Prop 8.)

I no longer have the LDS view of sin. I also like the Buddhist idea of "skillful acts." I see actions in terms of their effects for good or ill, and I also believe that sin is not only of an individual nature, it is often (perhaps usually) collective. For example, the continuing mistreatment of gay youth within LDS culture is our collective sin.

I see the possibility of sexual sin in terms of other ethical lapses such as deceit, cruelty and betrayal that do damage to the self and others. I hope only for sexuality that is a "skillful act," that adds to our common humanity rather than subtracts from it. (That's why I agree so strongly with John about the value of fidelity.)

Anyway, thanks again for your kind words.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - Nothing you've ever said on my blog or anywhere else has ever come close to making me "cross," so put that fear out of your mind.

We've made it abundantly clear to our son that we want him to achieve his major life goal of finding a life partner with whom he can share all of life's gifts and challenges. That's the "prime directive," the goal toward which everything else is geared.

We've also made it clear that whatever other guidance we give in relation to sexual morality is geared toward achieving that goal. We want him to be happy, and we remind him of this almost daily.

He knows that the only way we will ever ultimately be disappointed with the outcome of his life is if he is disappointed with the outcome of his life. (And we will always be there to support him in his efforts to find happiness.)

Finally, we've also explained to him that as parents, we see our role (at this stage in his life) as essentially being training wheels. We're there to help make sure he doesn't fall. But eventually, we have to come off and he has to ride on his own.

I can't say a good deal more without discussing stuff on my very public blog that ought to remain private...

But for what it's worth -- and I think you will agree -- you can only be a parent in the way that you see fit. What you do, right or wrong, is motivated by a love for your kid that is powerful enough to make lesser beings crazy.

But I also agree with what you have said about parental expectations... Being a good parent demands the very Buddhist ethic of "letting go."

It's a virtually impossible task, and yet we attempt it.

J G-W said...

The one other thing worth saying, since you brought up the issue of Mormon norms...

In terms of our approach to sexual morality, Göran, who never hesitates to point out that he is and never has been a Mormon and has NO desire ever to be one, is a good deal more strict in his approach to this stuff than I am. He has often expressed extreme impatience with my very Mormon approach of "teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves." (Something that was well ingrained in me by my parents.)

Göran grew up in a household that I would describe as Bohemian. His parents were musicians and dancers. There was sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. They were not devoid of spiritual values. They tested a variety of religions -- Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Jehovah's Witnesses. (Mormonism never made it into the mix.) Eventually they settled on Assemblies of God, around the time that Göran fled the nest. Somehow that upbringing produced someone with a much stricter view of sexual morality than my "tight-laced" Mormon upbringing.

For what it's worth...

Knight of Nothing said...

MoHoHawaii - you're welcome! It's very genuine admiration; I have two children myself and I wish I had had the focus, wisdom, and confidence to speak as clearly and openly as you have with your son. Now that I am no longer with their mother, I have lost some of my credibility with them, and I struggle to find a voice that resonates (on the infrequent occasions that they actually care to listen). But I love them dearly and I am quite proud of them.

The Mormon conception of "sin" seems quite different than that of Catholicism, the faith in which I was raised. Thank you for your insight.

John, as to your point about "breaking or keeping promises," true enough! I suppose it bears repeating in the context of human sexuality, and I am in agreement with you. But the same could be said about virtually any human action. I think "breaking or keeping" promises ties nicely into the concept of "skillful acts."

I don't disagree with anything you said when you extended the comparison I made of sex to eating. Quite the opposite! But the point I am trying to make, in agreement with MoHoHawaii, is that a blanket prohibition against premarital sex is arbitrary, not very practical, facile from a moral standpoint, and even harmful in the instances you cite. In my opinion, arbitrary prohibitions are the weakest form of moral guidance.

J G-W said...

I hope we can stop short of saying (or implying) that because a person's philosophy of sexual morality is different from one's own, that person must be harming his kids. Sam, or MHH, if either of you felt I was saying or implying that, I apologize, and I will give you the benefit of a doubt and assume that is not what you are saying to me.

Let me emphasize -- if I haven't already -- that in my approach to teaching kids about sex and relationships, the things that rank highest in importance include: having a loving rapport with your kids, fostering open communication, teaching responsibility, and being flexible. I'm not sure if you guys heard that...

I was asked where I draw the line in terms of sexual values... Obviously a bit to the right of you guys. I've also tried to explain to you guys that I have my reasons, and that they are deeply rooted in person experience and observation of friends and family. As Sam well knows (and along the lines of some heartfelt discussions we've already had on this subject) I've evolved in my sense of this. I'm not into blind obedience, in case you haven't noticed.

All the same, it is my sincere belief that where you draw the line matters far less than how you draw the line. Does that make any sense?

Knight of Nothing said...

In regard to differences in teaching sexual morals, no implication of that sort was meant or taken, at least on my part. No worries there :-)

The only "harm" I was speaking of was the case that you cited, in which you began by saying, "Virginity has created serious problems especially for gay Mormons..." Obviously it doesn't apply for any one of us as parents.

"...where you draw the line matters far less than how you draw the line." >> I can fully support and agree with that.

Again, this is a stimulating and productive conversation. And I think it is a quality antidote to one of your post's lament regarding the sorry level of reason and discourse brought to bear on the topic of sexual morality.

MoHoHawaii said...

I've enjoyed this conversation, and I appreciate your loving, thoughtful approach.

Do you want to know something that I find amusing? When your foster son first arrived, I can imagine that he was thinking "Awesome! Two gay dads! Party time!"

What he found was two gay dads with standards of sexual morality that are substantially more conservative than the average U.S. family. Oh, the irony!

I'm sure you'll all be fine because, as you certainly know, there are many good parenting styles. What they all have in common is respect, communication and love. As far as I can tell your little family has these in abundance.

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velska said...

J G-W,

I really appreciate your level-headed arguments and sound ideas. As long as you teach those with love, you'll make a deep impression on your son.

I am coming to an idea that it's possible that civil unions for same-sex couples will be accepted, while temple sealing is reserved for the "traditional" couples.

If we ever get to that, there will be people, who will argue — with good reason — that this distinction does as much violence to the ideal of equality as the current status quo (inside LDS Church is what I mean).

Of course I can't know the future, and it depends on many different developments.

I hope that we can come to a good result, because I can see that you are doing your very best to be faithful to your spouse as well as your spiritual convictions; that is what I think I would advocate. The Church is much more likely to listen to faithful members than rebels in any issue.

I agree with your definition of fornication as a sin, how it is the damage that it does to the current or future committed relationship that is the most destructive part of it. While I wouldn't leave my wife for adultery unless she showed me the door, I understand how it undermines relationship.

I realize that this discussion is more or less closed, but I had to comment, because I seldom see this kind of civil discussion on these topics.

J G-W said...

Velska - Welcome to my blog! And thank you for your thoughtful comments.

You are always welcome to leave a comment anywhere on my blog, even when a discussion seems to have come to an end... I monitor all my posts, and I am always interested in people's thoughts.

Regardless of whether the Church or the broader society recognize our relationships as equal, our happiness still depends primarily on how much responsibility we take to honor and nurture one another in the sacred commitments we make. I believe that having the Church and/or the state recognize our commitments would be an enormous help. But it won't help us unless we first take our own commitments seriously.