Monday, December 20, 2010

Sex and Shame

A couple of weeks ago, I met Jonathan Langford for lunch. He lives not too far away; close enough that a drive into the Twin Cities every once in a while is not too difficult. We had the kind of conversation I live for, where we each shared some of the more significant parts of our respective life journeys, and reflected on faith and day-to-day challenges. We're about the same age too, and with that late forties-something age comes a certain groundedness. We're both sort of past the point where either of us feels we need to prove anything and where most of the loops life throws you for are no longer shocking (if they still don't necessarily get easier). And somehow that deepens the depth of any kind of conversation you can have with somebody. We of course did discuss his book, No Going Back. It entered naturally into the flow of our conversation, because we were discussing faith and life, and of course a novel like that draws on real-life faith and life lessons.

Toward the end of our conversation, Jonathan told me about an incredible discussion he'd read on Feminist Mormon Housewives about "healthy chastity." This particular discussion, not-surprisingly, ended up being about healthy sexuality. And while it's geared toward the challenges girls and women face in a sexist, exploitative culture, it's of direct relevance to men too. And as a gay man in a committed (going on 19-year-long) relationship with a man, I found it incredibly personally relevant. So to those of you who haven't already seen it, regardless of whether you are gay or straight, male or female, it's definitely worth a read.

I had already, for some time, been thinking of posting on the problem of shame and sex, and how shame -- and particularly religiously motivated guilt and shame -- really undermines the goal of chastity, which I would really define here as respect for appropriate sexual boundaries or, more broadly, as life- and relationship-enhancing sexuality. I would further here rather broadly define sexuality not just as sex or sex-acts per se, but also as including self-image, body-image, attitudes toward the giving and receiving of pleasure, and the role that giving and receiving sexual pleasure plays in a broad range of familial and social relationships. So, in my mind, "sexuality" is as much about understanding how and why we say "no" to sex in a host of situations, as it is about understanding and fully appreciating those situations where we can and do appropriately say "yes."

I think any decent theological discussion about chastity has to begin with an acknowledgment of the ways sexuality is abused and exploited in our culture for purposes that can only be described as corrupt. There are two forms of corrupt exploitation of sexuality in our culture. The first broad type of corruption is the "sex sells" proposition. This includes using sex to sell cars or motorcycles or clothes or toothpaste or chewing gum, etc. And it includes ranking bodies (and theoretically the people who inhabit those bodies) in terms of physical beauty or sex-appeal, or whatever, and encourages us to judge ourselves based on the extent to which our bodies approximate some ideal. And it also includes ranking people based on how easily or how often they have sex, etc. And it includes a permissive sort of anything-goes, if-it-feels-good-do-it kind of mentality. And it includes an attitude of "what I do in privacy does not matter." And I think you cannot see the lie in that if you fail to understand how sexuality is connected to a broad range of relationships and social commitments. This first form of corruption is one that folks more easily recognize if they come from a conservative religious culture.

The second form of corruption, however, is often lost on folks from a more religious perspective, and that is the "sex as power" proposition. Whereas the first form of corruption exploits lust for the sake of greed, the second form of corruption exploits shame for the sake of ego. So the more blatant manifestations of this form of corruption include a parent or religious leader or a boss or a therapist or teacher or counselor sexually abusing vulnerable charges or subordinates or clients. Or more nefarious forms of this corruption may not involve actual acts of sexual abuse, but could involve, say, a religious leader using the confidential setting of, say, a worthiness interview, to ask inappropriate questions about a person's sex life. It includes every impulse to control, or compel, or humiliate another human being. It includes an attitude that sex is bad and dirty, and that sexual desire and sexual thoughts make us bad and dirty people. Or it treats sex as something that should be minimized or avoided as much as possible, or used only for procreation (because it's so bad that we should only use it when we really, really have to to propagate the race). And so it ranks people based on their supposed ability to resist the allure of sex, so, for example, a girl (or sometimes a boy, but really, in our culture almost always a girl) who has had sex before marriage is broken, damaged, tainted, and can never have her precious chastity back. Or a gay person who is celibate is a much, much better person than a gay person who is in a relationship. And I think you cannot see the lie in these propositions if you fail to understand how sexuality is connected to a broad range of relationships and social commitments, and how love and relationships make us stronger, how they expand our capacity for good and for service and for sacrifice and community and all the things that really make us human.

Both forms of corruption partake of the lie that sexuality is reducible to an act; that it's disconnected from some larger physical/emotional/spiritual/relational whole. Both, ironically, partake of the lie that sexual morality is defined legalistically. The first form of corruption might denounce sexual laws and sexual rules as overly confining; and the second form of corruption might see laws and sexual rules as all-encompassing (i.e., man is made for the Sabbath!). But both can't seem to get past a legalistic view of sex and of persons as defined by sex acts rather than the meanings invested in sex acts or the relationships within which sexuality forms part of an intricate web of meaning, intimacy and love. This is why the powers that be -- whether economic or religio-political -- seem to be invested in promoting these corrupt attitudes. Both forms of corruption seem to be related to each other as well in the sense that -- like Democrats and Republicans -- they present themselves as the only one of two viable attitudes. They both sell the lie that one must either accept that good sexuality is about "anything goes," or that good sexuality is about "following rules."

Both also -- significantly -- divest the individual of any autonomy or power to figure out how sexuality works for them, or to make moral judgments of their own, independent of some uncompromising external standard that is either promulgated through Calvin Klein ads or that was supposedly written in stone on Mt. Sinai (as interpreted, of course, by infallible religious leaders). Legalism essentially teaches me that I cannot make decisions on my own; that there simply are no choices because everything is black and white. And it instills fear and shame in me to the extent that I don't just shut up and do as I'm told.

I've found one way forward in the realization that shame is simply not a useful emotion in relation to sex. It simply doesn't help me in any way whatsoever. Shame in relation to sex seems independent of the morality or immorality of any particular sexual situation. For instance, as a young teenager, I experienced intense shame about the fact that -- obeying church leaders and avoiding masturbation -- I was having wet dreams literally every night or every other night. Every time I woke up from an erotic dream with moist undergarments, I felt like I was somehow to blame, as though there must be something terribly wrong with me because I ejaculate. Or shame can manifest as the sneaking suspicion that there must be something wrong with me because my partner and I are happy together and because we really enjoy sex.

The antidote, for me, has, interestingly enough, been a simple form of humility. It is simply to accept that this is me, this is how I am made. I am flesh and blood. I eat, I drink, I breathe, I defecate, I urinate, I bleed, I sweat. And yes, I get aroused and I ejaculate. This is all part and parcel of the human condition; of existing as a spiritual being having a physical experience. It is to realize that even if I could somehow purge myself of every sexual impulse or desire, it would not make me better than anyone else. That is the real temptation, the real sin: to think scaling some height of asceticism could somehow make me morally superior. But as Paul wrote, "Though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing." That appeal to some egotistical part of my nature is in fact much more offensive to God than the fact I enjoy the embrace of the man I love.

Gratitude is another antidote, which includes simply taking time to take a deep breath and take account of the wonder and beauty of the world around us. I express to God how thankful I am for this incredible opportunity to have this complex, rich experience with life and physicality, to live in a world where there are such challenges, such pain, such darkness, and such misunderstanding; that I have an opportunity to bring light and love and hope to such a place. I give thanks that this body gives me the opportunity to express love, through work, through nurture, and through physical affection. I embrace life, which is God's finest creation.


yusahana6323 said...

I really have never understood the whole guilt and shame thing when it comes to sex. Thanks for writing this, I enjoyed reading it and thinking about it. :)

Jonathan Langford said...

A very thoughtful post. Thanks for this.

I like in particular your thought that shame seems independent of specific circumstances. The essence of shame (with respect to sexuality) is, I think, the perception that "you are bad because this is part of who you are." Diametrically opposed to actual Mormon doctrine on sexuality, even though we seem to have trouble understanding that.

Another thing that I think moves one forward past both of these negative alternatives is to focus on sexuality as an adjunct to love rather than vice versa. You can almost never go wrong if you think about which actions and attitudes involve kindness and consideration for others, particularly those others with whom we have close personal relationships. I think love of ourselves and other people can provide a meaningful guide even for those who aren't in intimate relationships, although it's somewhat more abstract in those circumstances.

James said...

What a refreshingly well-thought out take on sexuality. I have looked for the balance in between these two polarized viewpoints and been unable to pin it down. I think I may read through this again to process it. Great post.

Erin said...

Thank you for these thoughts. I love your holistic "whole person" approach, and the thoughts are gratitude were appropriate and touching.

J G-W said...

yusahana - I'm glad you enjoyed it... When you say you never understood the guilt and shame thing, it's because your parents did such a great job of raising you without those kinds of shaming attitudes? :)

Jonathan - I tend to think of sex as the physical expression of a certain, very powerful kind of love. Or another way to think of it is that just as the "fullness of joy" is achieved in the union of "spirit and element" (D&C 93:33), the "fullness" of this kind of love is achieved in expressions that unite body, mind and spirit. So I'm not sure which is the adjunct of which... I think of them as inseparably connected.

James and Erin - Welcome to my blog! And thanks, I am glad you found this helpful! I always write this stuff as much to help me figure things out, and it's cool when it touches a chord for others...

alan said...

What's interesting about celibacy is that if it is employed beyond its "acceptable" borders, it can actually serve to undermine the "sex as power" mantra.

For example, imagine women in the Church refusing to marry and have children because they want to remain celibate beyond the average marrying age. If this choice is given as much consideration and respect, then it would eventually undermine Mormon theology underpinned so heavily by marriage and reproduction.