Thursday, October 23, 2014

Towards a More Inclusive Model of Sexual Orientation

Several years ago, I raised the question on this blog about whether kink could be considered a sexual orientation. Since that time, the issue has gained traction, due in large measure to the notorious "Fifty Shades Effect". Slate writer Jillian Keenan wrote this blog post in the affirmative, which prompted Huffington Post to do an online video conversation on the subject, and the discussion has been picking up steam ever since.

Of course, no conversation about human sexuality wouldn't be complete without a few folks waving their hands frantically and raising objections. And just saying "kink is an orientation" doesn’t by itself make it true. So, in this blog post, I'll address some of the more common objections to the idea of a kink orientation, and then present a new model of sexual/affectional orientation for consideration.

Objection # 1: Sexual orientation is about gender

Basically this constitutes a tautological argument that, since certain authorities have officially defined sexual orientation as "an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes," then anything outside of this definition should not be equated as an orientation by, um, well, definition. Essentially, this is the same as saying that a nontheistic religion is not really a religion because, well, religions must believe in a deity "by definition" – similar to an argument a Texas official used to try to deny recognition for Unitarian Universalist congregations in that state.

Aside from that parallel (and the fact that there are more expansive definitions of sexual orientation) there are two other reasons for overruling this objection. The first is the reality of asexual people, who experience no sexual attraction to anyone. They don't necessarily hate sex – indeed, not all asexuals are celibate – they just don't feel the same way about it as the rest of us. Asexuality is being regarded as a sexual orientation, a sort of "none of the above" category, and the asexual community has asserted that sexual orientation is distinct from affectional or romantic orientation (including an aromantic identity). Which raises the question: How do we reconcile both tying orientation to gender or sex and recognizing an orientation where one may be attracted to neither/none?

The second reason is rooted in a challenge of the gender binary, including the idea that we are strictly divided into "male" and "female" categories of biological sex. Both intersex and genderqueer identities defy such categorization, as well as being distinct from one another (a genderqueer person may be born biologically male or female, yet refuse to accept either gender; an intersex person may not "fit" into medical definitions of male or female biological sex, while presenting and identifying as either or none). Now imagine someone who does not feel attracted to people who present clearly as masculine or feminine, but who does experience attraction to individuals who present as androgynous or genderqueer? Do we create a new gender label for non-male/non-female people, and a new orientational label for people who are attracted to them? What about genderqueer folks who are attracted only to men, or to women, or either one but not other genderqueer people? The fact is that there are people who, recognizing their attraction to multiple genders and not just two, identify as pansexual, polysexual, omnisexual and/or just plain queer. But this raises a question similar to the previous one: How do we reconcile tying orientation to gender or sex when even these categories are not as cut-and-dried as we originally thought?

Objection #2: Sexual orientation is about who you are and/or who you love, not what you do

Okay … In order to address this, I'm going to have to engage in some rather frank mention of sexual/erotic activity. If that offends you, I suggest that you skip over to the last paragraph of this section. That warning now said, let me present a couple of somewhat hypothetical examples.
I am a heterosexual cisgender man. My romantic/sexual partners are thus women who are attracted to men (and hence self-identify as either hetero-, bi-, pan-, poly- or omnisexual). Such attraction includes the desire to spend time with one another, to hold hands, to kiss and cuddle, and specifically to engage in vaginal intercourse. Now, if orientation is in no way about "what we do," then how is my desire to put my penis in my partner’s vagina, or her desire to have my penis inside her vagina, separate from each of us being attracted to members of the other sex/gender?

Similarly, I identify as kinky, and more specifically as a dominant or service top. As a hetero kinky dominant male, I am most attracted to kinky women who identify as submissives, bottoms or switches, and who are attracted to men. Our mutual desires may include a whole range of activities including bondage, spanking, fantasy role-play, et cetera. But that raises the question of why we’d want to engage in such play, especially when it meets such strong social disapproval. If "what we do" is not based in "who we are" and who we're attracted to, then why do we fantasize about them?

Folks may be exposed to certain things, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are going to like them; some people hate the taste of cilantro, while others clearly enjoy it. Likewise, people who are exposed to something later in life may enjoy it even when they have been raised to find it distasteful; a generation ago, sushi was considered not just exotic but potentially hazardous and "just plain gross," and even after being more widely embraced there are still Americans who dislike it. So if our gustatory tastes transcend our cultural upbringing, and thus are likely rooted in our individual makeup, then why not our erotic tastes as well? In short, "what we do" depends very much on the totality of who we are.

Objection #3: While some kinksters think their sexual desires are an orientation, others do not.

This may be true, but by the same token, some people do not regard their gender-based attraction as an orientation. The question is what paradigm best explains the range of experiences that people report. For gender-based attraction (gay/lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual) a continuum paradigm not only explains the range of desires, but the relative fluidity with which people perceive and interpret their inner experiences. So a person who is primarily heterosexual with incidental same-gender attractions may engage in same-gender eroticism "experimentally" or "for fun" while still identifying as "straight" or "heterosexual". Also, many non-heterosexual people have often said that, while they were not consciously aware of their same-gender attractions, they were aware at an early age of feeling “different” from other people, making the connection only later on.

Likewise, an individual may experience incidental desires towards certain activities labeled as "kinky" and enjoy engaging with them on occasion or even on a fairly regular basis, yet not consider their desire for kink at the same level as someone with a more deep-seated desire for such interactions. Also, some people may have learned to suppress certain desires or fantasies, or may not have been able to connect a need for intense sensory input and/or role-based relational models with specific fantasies until later in life. Combine this with the significant number of kinksters reporting explicit fantasies or other awareness of their desire at an early age, and we have to consider one of four models:
  1. That kink is not an orientation, despite the strong resemblance of experience with non-heterosexual people;
  2. That kink is “an orientation for some but not for others,” again in spite of the resemblance with gender-based attraction;
  3. That kink is either an orientation like gender-based attraction, suggesting that people have multiple sexual/affectional orientations;
  4. That sexual/affectional orientation is a multifaceted phenomenon, of which both gender-based attraction and kink desires are recognizable elements.
In my mind, this last model is the most parsimonious explanation that fits with the growing body of evidence. And with that said …

A holistic model of sexual/affectional orientation

Alfred Kinsey originally proposed sexual orientation as a two-ended continuum, with exclusive heterosexuality at one end, exclusive homosexuality at the other, and a range of intermediary positions in between. Later researchers, such as Fritz Klein, proposed a more multidimensional paradigm of orientation and identity. The emerging awareness of asexuality as an orientation added even more complexity to the concept of orientation well before members of the BDSM/kink/fetish and polyamory communities began to propose that the orientation model as an explanation behind their respective experiences.

How to bring it all together? Let me propose a metaphorical parallel. Imagine that your understanding of music is based on vocal performance. You recognize a range of vocal types – soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass – with finer gradations within each general category, and even some individuals able to express themselves outside of a single range, or to shift in range over time. But music is not limited to vocal range, just as sexual desire is not limited to gender-based attraction. Even vocalists more often than not perform with instrumental accompaniment, adding another dimension to our experience of music. Thus a holistic model of orientation would embrace the full range of sexual desire and experience, not just gender-based attraction, just as an orchestral score includes layers of vocal and instrumental melodies and harmonies.

With that in mind, we may see gender-based sexual attraction as one dimension of this holistic model, often in line with a gender-based affectional/romantic attraction. Another dimension (or "stave" if we follow the musical metaphor) would be the level of sexual attraction, from asexual through demisexual and onwards; similarly, there would be a dimension for levels of affectional/romantic attraction. BDSM, kink and fetish sexuality would most likely be expressed in multiple staves – intensity and/or type of sensation, attraction to power-based roles, foci of attraction, and so forth. Even monogamy and polyamory may be rooted in a continuum of some type.

Some may object to such a paradigm as overly deterministic, yet I would argue that it provides a balance with individual volition. Each of us has a multitude of desires, just as an orchestral score reveals a carefully harmonized arrangement. How we act upon those desires, and identify with them, is our choice. We may deny some dimension of ourselves at a cost, or we may find a way to express it in accompaniment with others. Thus how our orientation is “scored” provides the foundation for how those desires may be expressed, which relies on (if you'll pardon the pun) how we conduct ourselves in the world.

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Chocolat

I’m known for being an unrepentant chocoholic. That reason alone is enough for me to see a movie where this confection is a central point of the story. But Chocolat is not just about that, or about the gift of indulgence.

The theme of this film is about daring to challenge old habits and rituals, especially when they have become ends in themselves. Even the heroine Vianne, who had entered the town and stirred things up with her preternatural confections and free-spirited ways, is challenged to abandon the family ritual of wandering wherever the wind seems to call her – and to make a new home for herself and her daughter.

It is often said that “traditions are answers to questions long forgotten.” The story and the characters in Chocolat remind us anew what those questions are, and call on us to find different ways to answer them. This film also gives a vision of community that goes beyond the strictures of tradition, created out of love and pleasure and imagination ... a vision articulated so well in the homily given at the end by the village's young priest:



I think it would make a great Saturday at any UU congregation to make chocolate treats in the kitchen, then enjoy them while watching this film. Bon appetite, mes amis!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: The Great Dictator

During the rise of Nazi Germany, two famous filmmakers watched Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will at a special showing in New York. One, the innovative Frenchman René Clair, was horrified, believing that unless the film was censored, Western democracy would be lost. His British-born colleague, however, could not help laughing, and even found it inspiring. Thus, Charlie Chaplin went ahead to produce The Great Dictator.

Chaplin was not known as a political satirist. His comedy was very physical, cultivated in British burlesque and refined by his experimentations with film. Yet he was also adept enough to weave the two together, such as in this famous scene in the film:



He succeeded in skewering Hitler and the Nazis, while simultaneously entertaining his audience, framing a very serious discussion with comedic mastery. And it is Chaplin’s ability to stretch his capacities that is the reason why I’ve included The Great Dictator on this list. One of the great human foibles is to neglect or ignore our adaptability, to cling to past patterns rather than exploring innovation. Chaplin was an innovator from the beginning, filming his own physical routines and watching them so that he could refine his performances. Likewise, Unitarian Universalists have been innovative in the past, and continue to do so now. And let's not forget the value of laughter, including parody and satire, to get our message across.

Another reason why UUs would like this film is its ending. Chaplin plays two characters – a nameless Jewish Barber, and the dictator “Adenoid Hynkel”. When the Barber is mistaken for Hynkel and given the microphone to speak to a large gathering, he gives an unexpected speech, the contents of which would resonate with our principles and vision:

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Only the Lonely

Not every great film is an instant success. When Only the Lonely was first released in 1991, it received mixed reviews and was only moderately successful at the box office. But it’s considered a hidden gem by many movie buffs, myself included, which is why I’ve included it in this list.

The story starts off slow, which is probably why it wasn’t more successful. But a patient viewer will eventually find not only brilliant performances from the main actors – John Candy, Ally Sheedy, and the legendary Maureen O’Hara (who came out of retirement to do the picture) – plus the chemistry between them, but an intriguing tale of a quirky romance. Danny Muldoon is a middle-aged Chicago police officer who still lives with his domineering mother Rose. When he meets Theresa Luna, an extremely shy woman who works in her father’s funeral home, they begin to date and fall in love. Rose, however, continues her overbearing and bigoted ways, causing friction among them all. Danny finally stands up to his mother, and decides to marry Theresa. While she initially accepts, and Rose softens and welcomes her warmly, Danny’s constant worrying about his mother gives Theresa second thoughts. And then there’s the Greek fellow who’s sweet on Rose. Well, I won’t spoil the ending for you, so …

Rose is clearly the antagonist, from her bullying and narrow-mindedness. But the real conflict rests in Danny’s desire to “be a good son” to his mother. He does this by trying to avoid confrontation with her, even if it means being embarrassed or making excuses. It is Theresa, and his desire to be with her, which leads him to finally let loose and tell her how he feels, that her arrogance and guilt-tripping have made others miserable, and that he will no longer let her stand in the way of happiness. Even after this confrontation, however, he still feels dread about his mother as a result of the years of manipulative emotional abuse she had heaped upon him. Only when he’s able to imagine a better future for her, as well as himself, is he able to move on.

Danny’s perception of what it means to “be a good son” resembles what I see among some Unitarian Universalists in terms of avoiding conflict and glossing over problems. Unfortunately, avoidance is not resolution. So, just as Danny blows up at his mother over her treatment of Theresa and other people, long-simmering issues among UUs likewise come to a head. What a pity that we only have people to help us resolve these issues once a year – the Right Relationship Teams during General Assembly.

Granted, it’s not that easy to summon the strength to make such changes in ourselves and our communities, compared to a character in a movie. Then again, we have an advantage over that character. We don’t have to wait for a screenwriter or director to tell us when and how to begin the process of change.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Watership Down

This is a tough movie for most people to watch. When we think of an animated film featuring rabbits, our minds gravitate to "cute-and-fluffy". But Watership Down has many episodes of violence, bloodshed and death.

Still, it is an epic adventure in its own right – not just the main story of a group of rabbits finding a new home, but the rich detail of lapine culture, language and folklore drawn from Richard Adam’s book. The rabbits worship the creator-god Frith, represented by the sun, and revere their mythical progenitor El-ahrairah. Fiver, the younger brother of the chief protagonist Hazel, is a seer with powerful instincts. Rabbit warrens are structured societies, complete with a police force called an owsla.

The journey to their new home is not an easy one. First, Hazel and Fiver must convince other rabbits that their home warren is in danger. Then the small band they assemble must find their way to a new home, guided by Fiver's visions and Hazel's cunning. They are welcomed into another warren, only to find that the farmer in the area routinely catches them. Finally, they reach the hill of Fiver's visions – only now they have no females, so they must figure out where to recruit some. Another rabbit joins them, and tells them of a totalitarian warren called Efrafra, run by the ruthless General Woundwort. A plan is devised to infiltrate the Efrafrans and recruit some of its members to join them, leading to a confrontation.

It's long been debated whether this movie is suitable for children to watch. I personally think that it's better for older kids, not just because of the violence, but the complexity of the story. And yes, I think it's an important film for Unitarian Universalists to watch.

This is a story about risk, and specifically about the need of communities to take risks in order to survive and thrive. Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and other rabbits decide indeed to take the risk – based on their knowledge of how reliable Fiver's visions and instincts have been – to find a new home, and even to fight for its safety. Their opposite is found in the rabbit Cowslip, preferring the easy life of feeding on a farmer's plenty while turning a blind eye to his warren's members being killed by the farmer’s snares.

The early Unitarians and Universalists were risk-takers. It took risk to assert the radical stances in theology and social ethics that they did, to form new religious communities, and eventually to merge under one association. Affirming GLBT equality was also risky, but in the long run changed not only our own faith communities but our nation for the better. And yet … How many congregations, ministers and others cling to old ways of doing things because they seem safe? How many times do we observe abuses in leadership, yet refuse to speak up for fear of being labeled a troublemaker?

Like Hazel's warren, we’re a small scrappy band, our members drawn from many places. But our vision of beloved community may offer hope and guidance – if we are willing to accept that achieving such a vision requires taking a risky journey. Even standing still, while seemingly comfortable, entails a number of inevitable risks. Thus the question is not simply whether we’re willing to risk, but what is truly worthy of taking risks.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Casablanca

While most of the films I listed earlier are at least critically acclaimed, not many are considered iconic classics. Truth be told, even this film was only a moderate success when it was first released. Yet it has risen in popularity to be regarded as one of the best films ever produced (if not the best by some, including yours truly).

One could say it's because Casablanca "has it all" – romance, intrigue, suspense, adventure, an all-star cast and much more. But I would argue that it is also a spiritual story of redemption, centered around Rick Blaine.

Putting the flashbacks ahead of the main story, Rick was active against the forces of fascism, running guns in Ethiopia and fighting in Spain with the Republican forces. He was living in Paris at the beginning of World War II when he met and fell in love with Ilsa Lund. As the Germans made their advance, the couple and Rick's friend Sam make plans to flee south, but Ilsa has a note delivered to Rick, saying that she will not be coming with them.

Now in Casablanca under Vichy control, Rick owns and runs the "Café Americain" nightclub and casino. He is withdrawn and seemingly cynical, frequently telling friends like corrupt police official Louis Renault: "I stick my neck out for nobody." Yet even beneath that façade, his earlier sense of commitment peeks through – denying a German banker credit in the casino, allowing a desperate couple to win enough money for passage to a neutral country, mocking attempts by visiting Nazis to intimidate him.

Things get more complicated when Ilsa arrives with her husband Victor Laszlo. Ilsa's presence alone is enough to unsettle Rick emotionally, but Laszlo’s notoriety as a fervent opponent of the Nazis shakes things up even more …



That scene, in my opinion, is the most pivotal of the film. Rick, having crafted an image of neutrality for himself and his café, must suddenly make a choice. Eventually he helps Ilsa and Victor escape, and flees with Louis to join the Free French in Brazzaville. One might see this as a sign of nobility in Rick, but I think this is also about inevitability, in that Rick realizes that the desire for freedom is too great to be squashed by the Nazis or anyone else.

But to do so, he has to give up not only Ilsa, but the safety and security of his life in Casablanca. And it is that willingness to sacrifice for something greater that we could learn from. Most of the time, we hope to make a difference in little ways, just as Rick did early in the story. But Laszlo's arrival reminds him – and us – that ultimately what is good and right demands that we let go of our transient comforts. That doesn't necessarily mean quitting our jobs or living in tents, but it does mean a willingness to stick our necks out for someone now and again. And that in turn means realizing we're not as powerless as we think, that our capacity to change doesn't depend upon how we earn our paychecks or how big those checks might be. Change occurs all around us, often sweeping us up into events bigger than what goes on in our day-to-day lives. But each of us also has the capacity to bring about change, and not just wait for some pivotal moment.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Babette's Feast

When Gabriel Axel chose to adapt Isak Dinesen’s story Babettes Gaestebud to the screen, he moved the hamlet where it was located from Norway to western Jutland. The Norwegian coastal towns he saw were too colorful and idyllic, and he thought the bleak fishing village he selected better conveyed the sense of physical and spiritual isolation essential to the story.

The town is the home of a small pietistic sect, its founding pastor assisted by two lovely daughters named Martine and Philippa. While the sisters have many suitors, their father turns them away. Two men in particular would be taken with them, one a French opera singer drawn to Philippa, the other a Swedish cavalry officer visiting his aunt nearby. Each fails to win over the woman they have fallen for, and yet they would remain forever touched by them.

Flash forward thirty-five years, and a French woman arrives at the village with a note, introducing her as Babette Hersant, a friend of the baritone who has had to flee the bloodshed of the Paris Commune. She offers her services as a housekeeper, and for the next fourteen years assists the sisters in caring for the aged members of their dwindling flock. Her only remaining connection to home is an annual lottery ticket.

One day, she receives word that she has hit the jackpot of ten thousand francs. Grateful to the sisters, she offers to cook a full-course French dinner for the congregation, on the founding pastor's hundredth birthday. They had thought originally of a simple meal, but happily accept her offer. Babette commissions a relative to obtain the ingredients – along with fine china, silverware and lines appropriate for such a feast – and their arrival by boat shocks the austere congregants. Not wishing to offend, they covenant to behave as though they were eating the plainest of foods, rather than succumb to the temptations of such exotic and sensual fare.

Joining the congregants for the memorial dinner is the lady of the manor nearby, and her nephew – the cavalry officer from years past, now a decorated general. While still sympathetic to the pietism of his hosts, he is still a man of the world who appreciates the feast set before him, gushing with compliments and reminiscences of each dish and glass of wine, unaware of the pledge made by the others. Yet even the stoic villagers are unable to resist the charms of Babette's culinary gifts, and the bitter division that had built up over the years melt away, as the pleasures of the table cultivate the joys of conviviality. They end the evening joining hands under the stars and singing a hymn, all smiles. The general, having never lost affection for Martine, spends a final moment with her.

And Babette? The former chef de cuisine of the famous Café Anglais of Paris has spent her entire lottery winnings on the feast, without regret or concern. As her friend the opera star had told her: "Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of an artist: Give me the chance to do my very best."

Babette's Feast is not just a story about one woman’s effect on the small village where she finds refuge. It is about the spiritual gifts of pleasure, creativity and abundance. Too often religious movements have told us to distrust our senses and deny our desires. But how else do we appreciate the world about us, and feel bonds of affection for one another? As George Santayana said: "Love would never take so high a flight unless it sprung from something profound and elementary."

I'm sure many Unitarian Universalists will be reading this and thinking: "Well, duh!" Yet I've also seen people who are as imprisoned by worry as any puritanical fundamentalist. Just as the villagers in this film worried about the temptations of sensuality, and religious conservatives frequently worry about eternal damnation, many religious liberals worry about achieving our vision of a better world.

Stepping back and allowing ourselves enjoyment is not merely a means of "taking a break" from our efforts at social justice and self-improvement. They are also a reminder of why we do such things – a glimpse, if you will, of the vision we hope to fulfill – and that our means are inextricably tied to the ends we desire. We need not sacrifice savoring our world in order to save it, and indeed we're better able to do so.