Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Should Gay Men and Lesbians Be Abstinent Before Marriage?

I've blogged elsewhere about the principles of chastity, and why I think they are important regardless of sexual orientation. I have spoken and can speak first hand about the ways I've experienced casual attitudes toward sex in the gay community A) making a life-long marital-type commitment more difficult to achieve, and B) generally working in both subtle and unsubtle ways to undermine such a commitment once you make it. I also believe that a life-long marital-type commitment is highly desirable, though it is not always easy to achieve. I believe it offers the greatest potential for happiness within a relationship. But more important than that, I believe it offers us the greatest opportunity to grow into our full spiritual stature -- precisely because of the challenges and difficulties involved in making this kind of relationship work.

I think principles of chastity have the greatest likelihood of working well if we commit to them not out of superstition or legalism, but because we understand the stakes and costs involved in building a committed relationship, and we are willing to make the investment. I believe that our willingness to be abstinent before a relationship does help us to establish habits, norms and discipline that will strengthen our ability to be sexually faithful within a relationship. More importantly, "where our treasure is, there will our heart be also." When we stay abstinent before a relationship and faithful within a relationship, we are essentially making a powerful statement -- both within our own mind and heart, as well as to our partner -- about how we value that relationship, and how we value sex within that relationship. Sex, in other words, becomes special because we are willing to treat it as special. And relationships become special because we are willing to be disciplined in our efforts to cultivate and nurture our relationships in this way.

Chastity is obviously not the only thing we need in order to cultivate a happy relationship. Other values such as communication and a willingness to make sacrifices are essential to make a relationship work. Obviously, chastity isn't even the only thing we need in order to successfully negotiate the sexual aspects of a relationship. In order for sex to be satisfying and mutually relationship-enhancing, we also need to develop traits such as compassion, the ability both to enjoy and to give pleasure, and we need to be able to communicate about sex. (Chastity is good for a relationship but prudishness is bad.) And we also need to have a realistic understanding of the limits as well as the potential of sex. (Sex won't fix conflicts in other areas of the relationship, for instance!) I won't comment a lot on the issue of sexual compatibility (i.e., entering into a relationship with someone with whom you feel a strong mutual attraction) other than to say I think it is very important. Chastity alone does not equal marital happiness. But it is a powerful contributor, and we can learn lessons from cultivating chastity that will help us make a relationship successful in other areas.

Not being sexually abstinent before marriage doesn't mean a committed relationship cannot succeed or even become extraordinarily committed and loving! I know that because, as I have described elsewhere, I certainly was not abstinent before entering into my relationship with my husband. A relationship is nothing if it is not capable of growing, and if it is not flexible. In another post, I used a "dance" metaphor to describe how a relationship works. What makes a relationship succeed or fail has as much to do with one partner's reactions to the moves of the other partner (and vice versa) as it has to do with the specific dance moves. So I feel I ought to temper my comments by stressing that there's no hard, fast formula for success in a relationship.

At the same time, I want to say that gay community social norms encouraging promiscuity and my own earlier unwillingness to commit to principles of chastity, I eventually realized, created problems and issues in my relationship with my husband that needed to be worked through in order for our relationship to become more joyful, loving and fulfilling. I feel there is a lot of damage that was done by some of these attitudes that has had to be repaired. If I had things to do over again, I would do them differently. And it would be my hope that, as future generations of gay men and lesbians begin to establish and build new relationships, they can benefit from the mistakes I and others of my generation have made.

A few members of the Moho Facebook community have started a Facebook group called "Gays Who Favor Premarital Abstinence." This seems to me like a great place for us to explore the issues and challenges related to gay and lesbian relationships in our culture. I see the creation of a group like this as a hopeful sign that we are beginning to transcend the homophobia that has disabled previous generations.


surakmn said...

Favoring premarital abstinence is problematic if you're not in one of the handful of states that provides marriage equality. Also interesting is the difference between chastity and abstinence.

The studies on relationship success are interesting to review. So many are in one way or another coming out of religious communities, there's some inherent bias there even in the well designed studies. Then too, not a lot is quantified in what the lower satisfaction scores mean - does experience give one higher expectations?

Anecdotally you go for a gut check. I've known abstinent marriages that succeeded brilliantly, and others that failed due to sexual hangup0s that would have been discovered earlier otherwise. I've known non abstinent marriages that failed spectacularly and that succeeded brilliantly.

It will be interesting to see how things develop over the next years with the changes in society. My guess is that stereotypical "gay promiscuity" is really more a function of male sexuality than predicated by sexual orientation. As kids grow up with the expectation of having equal rights, of developing stable, recognized relationships, the game changes considerably.

Original Mohomie said...

I've naturally had a lot of questions around celibacy, abstinence, healthy sexuality, etc. I still favor waiting until lifelong commitment for certain things, and at least monogamous commitment for others. My ideas on sex are considered somewhat puritanical by the more licentious crowd, but I may have a fairly 'liberal' perspective on sex when compared to most religious conservatives. But due to a recent and meaningful relationship, I am more sure, by experience, that I want and value "waiting" in my own romantic relationships, making me a prude in most gay circles. And I've been thinking for a long time that we need more groups like the one you mention on Facebook, which I haven't seen but am glad to hear about. Interesting thoughts. Thanks.

J G-W said...

surakmn - I used the term "marital-type commitment" deliberately. Legal, state-sanctioned marriage is still only available for same-sex couples in a handful of states. But for many, many years same-sex couples have been finding ways to publicly announce and acknowledge their commitment to each other.

For instance, my husband and I held a public commitment ceremony in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1995, which was attended by our respective families and about 100 of our friends from all walks of life. We were legally married in CA in 2008. Our marriage is still not legally recognized in the state where we reside (Minnesota).

But from my point of view, what matters is our commitment. It matters that we've decided to be true to each other, and we've asked our closest friends and families to help hold us to that commitment. That's what I'm talking about here...

As I said, I'm not a fan of legalism or hard fast rules. But I think that in general, the principles of restraint and chastity -- submitting lust to love -- serve a relationship well.

I've never been a fan of the "men are promiscuous" trope. We only hurt ourselves by buying into it, rather than acknowledging that we have the power to make more choices and to honor our commitments.

The gay community is squandering its greatest gifts -- our love and our relationships -- when we buy into that.

J G-W said...

Original Mohomie - Why shouldn't gay men and lesbians organize and encourage each other in this area? Why shouldn't we try to create a culture that is more respectful of sex and more devoted to love?

To say that we shouldn't or -- worse -- can't is a kind of insult, don't you think? Doesn't it imply that our relationships don't really matter in the final analysis? That we don't matter?

MoHoHawaii said...

Carol Lynn Pearson said something like "we throw people out into the gutter and then we blame them for getting dirty."

I'm *extremely* proud that we as gay people have picked ourselves up out of that gutter and started to build stable homes for ourselves and the ones we love. We've done this despite the ill will of the righteous. We've done this in spite of the spray painted slurs on our houses and in spite of the well-funded political campaigns against us. We've done this on our own.

That the gay community's top civil rights agenda item is the right to marry fills me with pride and hope. We're not out there campaigning for the right to public orgies. We're marching for the right to be protected as faithful, monogamous couples.

Here's the irony: Why is it that the single most conservative proposal that the gay community has ever come up with-- the idea of commitment and sexual fidelity to a single person-- has produced the most focused and energetic opposition from groups like the LDS? (The level of effort expended by the Church for Prop. 8 was unprecedented.) If you read between the lines, you end up with the perverse conclusion that Mormons think stable gay relationships are somehow *worse* than anonymous sexual encounters. The fact of the matter is that the Church does not want stable gay partnerships. The Church looks bad when gay people show the kind of love and fidelity that you are advocating in this blog post.

As we criticize gay culture for its excesses, it's important to realize the social context that produced them. It was an unavoidable period of social adolescence. And, we can never forget that if it were not for the bravery and commitment of all those sexual libertines who paved the way for basic social recognition of gay people, we wouldn't be in a position today to be having the discussion about the practical benefits of sexual restraint and fidelity. We're the bourgeois who come a generation after the revolution.

Like you, I look forward to the day when young gay people see the exact same set of options as their straight peers. It warms my heart whenever I see a young gay couple who succeed at building a life for themselves. It's happening more and more all the time.

MoHoHawaii said...

To Orig. Mohomie-- I think more and more gay people are warming up to the idea of courtship with postponed sexual activity. It's not as foreign an idea these days as you might think. I see a definite trend in young gay people toward commitment.

I have a good friend who his entire adult life has been sexually active with casual partners. Now he's looking for a stable boyfriend. After a lot of discussion I've convinced him to give sexual restraint a try. He thought I was nuts at first, but he is now dating a guy using this technique. He says that it's made a huge positive difference in the experience.

I tell my kids that sex is glue and you don't want to use it when you've just met someone because there's a huge risk that the people involved shouldn't be glued together. It's better to save it for when you know you want to be glued together for a long time.

As J G-W says, when sex is appropriate isn't subject to hard and fast rules. This is a case where correct principles let people govern themselves. I think a perfectly reasonable compromise is to increase physical intimacy very gradually over time. Sexual relations should mark a point in the relationship where you commit to one another in some significant way. The nature of that commitment can vary from couple to couple.

Original Mohomie said...

I think it can imply what you say. I also think U.S. gay culture is an adolescent culture still, maturing and reasonable, but still volatile and rebellious. I know plenty of guys who say they want monogamy, or would like for sex to be "special", but they shrug that it is just the way it is, and they're "weak", so they'll go along with it, which seems sad to me.

I'm not pitying or judging the guys who honestly don't believe sex is any more a big deal than a conversation or a back rub, even though I disagree. Those who honestly don't seem to experience emotional fallout or attachment from sex beyond the moment can do as they please, hopefully without hurting others. But my heart aches to know those who wish for something lifelong and monogamous but resign themselves to what seems like the norm, seem unable to find what they were hoping for, and seem not to learn how restraint can benefit intimacy and development of foundational love even between two men.

Yes, I do think men have an evolutionary/physiological propensity to be more cavalier about sex. They have less risk involved (child-bearing) than women. Traditional social structure has fostered a severe imbalance in value placed on sexual "purity" between men and women. And then there's my theory about how gay pop culture was initiated in a time when to be out meant to leave your religion and family and flip them off by leaving behind their standards, too. But we are still capable of discerning and choosing principles over appetites.

Maybe people like you and me see it the way we do because we're wired a bit differently. Maybe some men truly aren't affected by casual sex or can still have equally intimate, meaningful relationships with a little 'fun' mingled in where others wouldn't be able to handle that, perhaps because of perception rather than reality. Maybe I have yet to fully understand sexuality as a truly integrated whole. But for now, I know what I value, I know what I want, and I know what I've experienced, and I don't care whether 99% of gay guys have given up on it or decided it's an irrational desire.

Even if it's about sacrifice--arbitrarily "making sacred" something which might not inherently be necessarily 'meaningful'--there's something about it that I can't deny. And even though I suspect one can have "fun relationships" and "meaningful relationships" and treat sex differently between them, I think having multiple casual sexual encounters would make it that much harder to restrain myself when I really want to or could override with euphoric chemicals my deeper desires to find lasting intimacy, pushing me to forget what I really want.

I want others to know that, for whatever reason, rational or not, defensible or not, even a non-theist agnostic gay dude believes that even though safe sexual activity can be fun and mostly harmless at times, sexual or physical expression is so much better with someone you love, when it's at least as much about each other as yourselves, and loving someone can be more beautiful and meaningful when sexual expression is kept to the pace of development of emotional intimacy, true familiarity, earned trust, and dedication, and holding to some principles and standards in that regard is uplifting and rewarding.

Original Mohomie said...

MHH, I agree there's a trend toward sexual restraint/responsibility. I also know a lot of young guys who say they want monogamy but whose behavior does not at all reflect the supposed desire. I think there's an increasing recognition that it's socially more acceptable and even preferable, in certain circles, to want it, and the behavior is slowly trailing that recognition.

But I know we non-heterosexual-lifestyle prudes out there, even if we're hard to spot at night clubs or Pride parades. ;-)

MoHoHawaii said...

I know plenty of guys who say they want monogamy, or would like for sex to be "special", but they shrug that it is just the way it is, and they're "weak", so they'll go along with it, which seems sad to me.

This point is very interesting. Imagine if straight relationships had no social support? How "weak" would they be? Pretty weak. The biology of sex is compelling.

Imagine the day when a gay teen-aged boy can come out to his parents and hear something like, "That's great! We hope you'll do well in school, get yourself settled in a good career and save yourself for the beautiful man you will someday marry and spend your life with. We're expecting grandchildren!" This kind of social support means a lot.

The lack of commitment to principles of sexual restraint that you are seeing has a social context that we often overlook. Gay people are no less (and no more) moral than anybody else. The relevant point is that gay people operate in a disadvantaged social context right now. It's our job to change that. It's why I believe so passionately in the cause of marriage equality, and why I am so gravely disappointed in the the LDS Church's enormously vocal opposition to this most conservative of proposals.

alan said...

When I attended my first Affirmation conference in 2009 and heard Carol Lynn Pearson talk about gay marriage, I have to admit that I got really uncomfortable with her phrasing. For example, even the quote that you use, MohoHawaii -- "we throw people out into the gutter and then we blame them for getting dirty" -- points to her bias regarding acceptable family structures. It's as if gay relationship are okay only if they're monogamous.

Sir Jupiter said...


I don’t know Carol Lynn’s context, but one could also take her statement to mean that religious conservatives are wont to trap gays in what amounts to a Catch-22. People used to comment on how gross it was for gays to troll truck stops and restrooms without acknowledging that such actions were a direct result of the religious shaming of gays and denying them safe places to gather.

alan said...

Sir Jupiter,

Certainly, I see your point. Older conservatives are often baffled by the idea of gay marriage since gays tend to be viewed in these promiscuous, "dirty" terms. But taking blame in how gays got to truck stops and bathrooms shouldn't go so far as to be a repudiation of non-monogamy. With gay Mormon politics, this seems to have to be the position. Pearson isn't just interested in secular gays having marriage, she wants gays to be part of the Mormon fold, which can only happen if they adhere to a 1+1 lifestyle.

As MohoHawaii says above, "We're not out there campaigning for the right to public orgies," but really, gays are campaigning nowadays to the exclusion of "public orgies," which, to me, is troubling. Imagine taking the sexual component out of pride parades. You're left with advertisements.

Beck said...

I like the idea of gay marriage as being just that - a vote within the community for social support for stability in our gay relationships. And I like the idea of not being afraid of discussing abstinence before marriage as being a viable choice for that stability. It has proven to work for the hetero world. Why wouldn't it work for the gay world?

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - I can't disagree with a single thing you've put here, and thank you for putting it so eloquently. We do owe a debt of gratitude to drag queens and libertines, and if anyone wonders whether there's an ounce of judgment in my heart against them, let me disabuse you of that right now.

And you're right, it is a scandal that conservative religious culture across the board has collectively pulled out all the stops to fight marriage. History will judge... Or, from a Christian perspective, God will judge this moment in history.

J G-W said...

Original Mohomie - It takes more than a casual commitment to exercise the kind of restraint we're talking about here. That's why religion puts so much energy into putting protecting marriage and channeling sexuality.

That's why I think we do, in essence, need a kind of gay Moral Hygiene movement. I know it's sounds kind of cheesy putting it this way -- I know plenty of people, both gay and straight, will scoff at a group called "Gays Who Favor Premarital Abstinence." But the stakes are worth it. And why don't we have a right to claim this kind of love and this kind of commitment?

I demand it.

J G-W said...

Alan - Maybe the "dirty" metaphor is not such a good one.

But the idea captured in that quote isn't so different from what Mohohawaii has expressed here, I think. The religious right is blocking the gay community's collective effort to foster committed, monogamous relationships, and then blames us for not being monogamous.

Once same-sex marriage is nice and legal, it will be interesting to see how many gay men and lesbians decide to participate in the institution, and just as interesting to see what the divorce rate is among those who do...

I once tried to make a virtue of disparaging monogamous commitment and marriage as a "heterosexual bourgeois institution." But inverting the values of our oppressors doesn't necessarily make us free...

I'm far happier in that "bourgeois institution," embracing those "bourgeois values," for what it's worth. The power of disciplined, committed love is undeniable. That's what chastity is about -- love that is refined by restraint.

Again, why should we be denied it?

J G-W said...

Beck - I have to smile a bit at your statement that it's "worked" for the hetero world.

Look, let's be honest here (and I say this to all the commentors...)

Hormones and culture and everything else being what they are, chastity is not an easy value to uphold. We're talking about powerful urges, and human nature is what human nature is. People fail to live up to their own values all the time. Nobody's perfect.

And, BTW, IMHO that's not necessarily a reason to throw the values out... If I'm playing a game of soccer, just because I kick the ball and keep missing the goal doesn't mean I don't try again...

But the desire to strive for something like this should NOT be about fostering hypocrisy or shame or a host of other ills that come with a certain legalistic approach to sexuality that seems to be the hallmark of conservative religious culture.

As I said, this is about acknowledging the blessings that come from disciplined love.

And in a higher, religious sense, chaste love and commitment becomes a type or a symbol of God's love for us; of Christ's love for the Church. So marriage -- in a Christian sense -- partakes of this kind of sacramental sense as well. So Christian love -- refined, disciplined, committed love -- becomes a means for us to learn about the kind of love we believe God has for us.

Gay people should be able (should not deny ourselves the opportunity?) to practice and experience that kind of love too.

For me, that's what this is about.

Quiet Song said...

'Imagine the day when a gay teen-aged boy can come out to his parents and hear something like, "That's great! We hope you'll do well in school, get yourself settled in a good career and save yourself for the beautiful man you will someday marry and spend your life with. We're expecting grandchildren!"'

While we weren't excited, nor was he, this is pretty much what the kid got from his parents and still gets, with the overbearing Mormon mother request that he bring a Mormon boy home to meet the folks when the time comes,and, that if the "fluid" part ever kicks in we won't make fun of him if he shows up with a young woman. No imagination necessary.

Steven B said...

One of the challenges for gay people is the need to develop an appropriate moral paradigm for intimacy in a world whose moral conduct was informed by the historical heterosexual model of marriage. Latter-day Saints and other Christians may declare that marriage and its code of conduct was established by God in the Garden of Eden, but it is more likely that traditional marital codes of conduct developed out of patriarchal needs to establish paternity, heirship and property.

But where the possibility of pregnancy is not a factor, as in the case of gay men, the question presents itself, "what is appropriate intimacy for two men who love each other," whether in a long-term relationship or not? Should the moral paradigm for gay people be based on the needs of the heterosexual marital system?

I have sometimes wondered if LSD founder Joseph Smith was pondering similar questions concerning the limits on human intimacy when he began exploring polygamy and polyamory. It seems to me that Joseph was not simply following his hormones, but was asking a similar question.

J G-W said...

Steven B - I think you're on to something when you talk about marriage historically having been shaped (distorted?) by economics and political power. The divine order of marriage must look completely different from what our culture has defined as marriage (what people take for granted about marriage).

I think fidelity is a vital marital principle, regardless of the genders of the participants... There's so much more I could say about that, but I'll leave it at that. Regardless of the ability to procreate.

And finally, I also agree that the theories of plural marriage that chalk it up to Joseph Smith's lust just don't explain enough. But I think Laurence Foster is onto something when he points out that plural marriage elevated selflessness as a key to the divine nature of marriage. Plural marriage required sacrifice; it required a non-sentimental, non-romantic definition of love; and it created new forms of community. It also, incidentally, made room for certain kinds of same-sex intimacy.

Interesting thoughts! Thanks for visiting my blog!

Bravone said...

I've wanted to read this post for several days, and am glad I did. I agree with your thoughts and O-Mo's sentiments. I have long said that if I had a gay child, my advice for marriage (or a committed formalized relationship where marriage is not possible) would be the same as it would be for a straight child. Prepare yourself to be your best self in every possible way. Be prepared spiritually, physically, financially, and emotionally, and remain chaste/abstinent until marriage. Doing so will allow you to enter the relationship from a position of personal strength. Intermixing sexual intimacy into the relationship before marriage can add a confusing element that tends to obscure some of the other critical desirable traits in one's companion.

Thanks for the good discussion.

J G-W said...

Bravone - Thanks for your thoughts. I think especially for gay people in our culture, going slow and being thoughtful and deliberate about relationships and about sexuality is extremely important. Having parented a gay teen, I feel like the greatest gift I could give him has been to help him avoid some of the terrible pitfalls... Of course, no parent can ever do that for any child completely... There's a certain number of hard lessons every human being is entitled to learn all on their own! :)

Duck said...

Hi, John.

I have been thinking a lot about this post. And, it has made a great impact on my life.

Recently, I fell head over heels for someone, and they for me. They were pushing to move the relationship forward by allowing it to become sexual. I wanted that more than I can say, but I told them that no, I was not going to engage in any sexual tryst. I was not going to become someone's mistress. I was not going to engage in sex until I knew that the relationship was going to be longterm. All of this came from the impact your post has had on me. Thank you!

J G-W said...

Duck - I'm so glad this post has been helpful to you.

I think it's so important for us to support each other in these kinds of commitments.