Monday, December 21, 2009

O, Canada: Sex Toys Can (and Should) be Healthy

When it comes to sexuality issues, our neighbors to the north are often much more pragmatic and far-sighted than many here in the States. Not uniformly or across the board, mind you, but there's a lot to be said for a country where same-sex marriage became legal not only much sooner but with much less brouhaha.

Let's hope the same can be said about healthy sex toys.

That's right. According to this article, two Toronto sisters who co-own an eco-friendly erotic boutique (talk about a niche market) decided to contact a member of the Canadian Parliament about the presence of high-risk chemicals in certain vibrators, dildoes and other sexy insertables. And Dr. Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal MP and a medical doctor, not only listened but composed her own letter to Leona Aglukkaq, Canada's Minister of Health, about "the urgent need for responsible regulation in the adult toy industry."

And keep in mind, we're not talking about making it illegal to sell a dildo or vibrator, or own more than a certain number. We're talking about making sure the materials they're made from don't have adverse effects on your health.

Many "jelly" toys, for example, have incredibly high levels of phthalates -- chemical compounds used to soften plastics, and which have been linked to both cancers and hormonal disruption. While governments consider six parts per billion as "safe" levels for phthalates in the majority of consumer items, a German chemist in 2000 found jelly sex toys with levels as high as 243,000 parts per million. Do the math.

If you're Canadian, please write to Ms. Aglukkaq and urge her to act on Dr. Bennett's recommendation. Her address:

The Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, P.C., M.P.
Health Canada
Brooke Claxton Building, Tunney's Pasture
Postal Locator: 0906C
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0K9

For us down here in the US, it's a lot more tricky. But there are some things you can do:

* Become an educated sex toy consumer, and share your knowledge with others.
* Shop at retailers that stress healthy and eco-friendly products.
* Write to public officials about the need for health and safety regulations for sex toys.
* Raise the issue with women's health and environmental organizations.

We consider it sensible to make sure all sorts of commercial goods are safe to use. It's time erotic goods fit the same expectations.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tiger Woods: A Lesson in Idolatry

The media loves a good scandal, so we shouldn’t be surprised that so much attention has been focused on Tiger Woods’ sexual shenanigans. Add to it the ability to interact online, and the fire continues to be fed, from preaching to off-color jokes to those jaded critics of media overload screaming: “Enough already!”

And questions – lots of them. What will happen to Tiger? Will his wife rewrite their prenup, or just plain leave? What does this say about sports, celebrity, media? More importantly: What does this say about us?

Like all celebrities, Tiger Woods was put up on a pedestal. We didn’t just respect his skill as a golfer, we practically revered him. We made him an idol. When that idol let us down, we tore him down. And, as with all forms of idolatry, we brought ourselves down in the process.

Idolatry to me is not merely the worship of a false god, or putting Creation ahead of the Creator. It is more deeply and profoundly the transposition of means and ends; it is becoming so focused and fixated on the means by which we seek to achieve our highest goals, that we forget those ideal ends themselves.

Tiger Woods is an incredible athlete, both for his talent and his discipline. When we lifted him up as a role model, it was with the hope that our young people would also strive to do the same – to find what they love to do, and develop the discipline to aspire to excellence. Too often, however, we simply admired him rather than aspired for ourselves. One has to wonder if this was the case with the women who became entangled in this mess, not to mention those who enabled Tiger’s destructive course of behavior. Was the idea of being close to Tiger, of being able to satisfy his whims, so powerfully addictive that it became more important than the very principles and values which he seemed to embody?

And what of Tiger himself? Did the adulation of fans, the culture of instant gratification which surrounds so many celebrities, cause him to steer off track? I’m not trying to excuse his behavior, but to understand it. How does a man who learned from his father the discipline necessary to become the youngest Masters winner in history, make such a mess of his personal life?

Idolatry is all too easy, not only for the celebrities who can get whatever (or whomever) they want on a whim, but for all of us caught up in the illusions of our consumer culture. It is, to borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a form of cheap grace – an illusion that all we aspire for and desire is easily accessible, “sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares” without considering their true cost.

Tiger Woods had plenty of people around him to encourage, enable and (until now) cover up his indiscretions. Let’s hope he will now surround himself with people who can help him get back on track and heal the damage done to his family. More importantly, let us all strive to find the courage and develop the discipline to deal with the myriad ways in which idolatry has infected our culture and our souls.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

New York Senate Says "No" to Equality

Today, thirty-eight New York state Senators blocked passage to extend civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.

It's infuriating, and for me ironic. You see, were it not for New York's otherwise progressive political culture, I probably wouldn't be here.

My parents married in New York in 1959. At that time, a dozen states still had laws on the books preventing people with epilepsy - including my dad - from marrying anyone. Even though those laws are now consigned to the proverbial dust-bin, the prejudicial attitudes behind them still carry on. The only difference is that they have been directed to another group of people.

Five states and seven nations have emnbraced marriage equality. None have falled into a pit of fire and brimstone. There has been no increase in crime, unemployment or other "bad things" as a result. Life goes on, and the only difference is that the couples who can now marry have less bureaucracy and more stability - traits exalted by conservatives everywhere.

Let's hope that Governor David Paterson has the courage to put forward the bill again, and to keep pushing along with LGBT activists and their allies for its passage.

New York's motto is "Ever Upward". What better way to live up to that motto by making sure all of their citizens and families are extended the same rights and recognition.

Friday, November 27, 2009

And Now, Ireland: More News of Sexual Abuse in the Church

Living in Boston when news of the Catholic abuse scandals was on every day, one wonders how news of Ireland’s Murphy Commission Report could make it sound worse.

Here’s how: Not only did the Archdiocese of Dublin continually cover up reports of abuse, but Irish police and prosecutors were also complicit in those actions.

Fortunately, Ireland's government and national police force are already responding to these reports, promising swift action. And from the news reports I'm hearing and reading, it sounds like Irish voters will not soon forget those promises by the time elections roll around again.

Unfortunately, I’m sure we’ll also see so-called “Catholic loyalists” complaining that media reports of this are signs of “anti-Catholic bigotry” by the secular media. Yes, they will say, sexual abuse of children is horrible, but why single out the Catholic church?

First: Yes, other groups have sexual predators in their midst. Even my own Unitarian Universalist Association has seen such cases. But the question is how such institutions respond to reports and evidence of such abuse. Do you cover it up, or find the truth? Do you shuffle the abusers around, or remove them permanently? Do you try to silence the victims, or help them to heal? And, most important, do you merely hope that it doesn’t happen again, or take respond with proactive measures to protect those under your care?

Second: Yes, other groups have done atrocious jobs of handling sexual abuse allegations. Two which I can think of are the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Boy Scouts. But when this happens with an institution as large and influential as the Roman Catholic Church, how can you expect the media to cover it any differently? It’s like having two companies going under due to fraudulent practices – a local business worth a hundred thousand dollars, and an international powerhouse with political connections worth a hundred billion – and the bigger company complains that the media is paying too much attention to them.

This brings me to my final point, directed at those within the church who complain about the media: If you are truly loyal to the church – to all of its people, not just those at the top, and to its essential core values as expressed in the Gospels – then why don’t you hold your leaders accountable, just as Jesus did to the religious leaders of his day? Yes, they have called conferences and put forward documents outlining changes. But it would help if you joined those who keep at the bishops to make sure they follow through. So, instead of complaining about the media for holding the church hierarchy accountable, I suggest that you focus your energies on taking on that job yourself.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Moralistic Extremes: The Rock, the Hard Place, and What Lies In Between

Sometimes I wonder which is more exasperating - responding to the moralistic ravings of the Religious Right, or trying to engage in conversation with extremists in the "sexual freedom" camp.

I've often labeled the former as legalists for their penchant of creating rules to regulate people's sexuality. It's easy to do that, to post a ready-made list and convince people that everything will be all right if they just do what they're told and don't question why. Until reality happens.

Well, there's also an opposite extreme. The theological term is antinomianism - the belief that moral rules do not apply to you, so long as you have reached some sufficient level of salvation or enlightenment. And I've grown weary of those who seem to respond to the sexual legalists with the very caricature which those legalists use to describe all of us.

How ironic that my brand of radicalism is now caught in the middle between these two extremes - one which seeks to constrain people to a spiritual death, and the others which could toss too many to the wolves.

Freedom to me does not mean amoralism. It means making choices. With freedom comes responsibility, and responsibility requires knowledge and discernment.

So I'm all for comprehensive sex education ... as long as its accurate and helps young people to think critically and set limits for themselves.

I'm all for abortion ... in consort with other measures to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

I'm all for decriminalizing and destigmatizing prostitution ... as a starting point for empowering sex workers to create better lives for themselves and their families.

I'm all for openly discussing polyamory and BDSM with monogamous and vanilla folks ... so that they can see how seriously we take responsibility, and so we can all learn to share one another's gifts with joy and meaning.

Mother Theresa is famous for saying that she would never join an anti-war rally, but would join a rally for peace. In a sense I find both extremes of legalism and antinomianism to be reactive and negative - and moralistic, in that each reduces morality and ethics to a highly simplistic formula. For the legalists, that formula is purity. For the antinomians, it is defiance. And both seem tinged with a sense of self-righteousness towards those with whom they disagree - including, and especially, those of us caught in the crossfire.

Above all else, both of these extremes seem devoid of communication. Each side comes across more as a lecture than a discourse. When we act on our sexuality, we are involving another, and that essential reality means we need to connect and communicate in the fullest sense - to listen as well as talk, to be open to learning and sharing, and to do so with beauty and joy.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Not Every Battle Has a Headline

Bad enough to wake up this morning, hearing that 53 percent of Maine voters decided their gay and lesbian neighbors don't deserve equal marriage rights. But then...

A friend of mine was having surgery, so I went to visit him at the hospital. In the lounge, I saw a young couple, the mother holding an infant. I couldn't help but smile and say: "Beautiful baby."

They looked up at me, the father giving a soft thank you. Then, the mother exploded into tears, and he turned his attention to comforting her. After a few minutes, he went over to me and explained.

One of the first things every new parent wants to know is: boy or girl? For a small percentage of births, the answer isn't always that clear. And the debate about assigning gender to intersex babies -- up to and including surgery -- still goes on. After discussing their case with the doctors, these parents decided the best course was a "wait and see" approach. Give the child a gender-neutral name, and patiently watch and listen. A brave decision, especially since it might take years. But, as deeply spiritual people, these loving parents believed that it was best to leave this in God's hands.

Unfortunately, the minister of their church disagreed. After telling him about their child and their decision, he replied that he could not "in good conscience" agreed to perform a christening. In his mind, God would never create a child who was not clearly male or female. Either the doctors were all wrong, or this was the Devil's work -- and the parents were letting themselves be deceived.

He was mad. "Royally pissed" would be a better term. And he was conflicted -- tied by deep faith and family roots to his church community, yet enraged by this arrogant and inhumane minister.

So I listened. I affirmed his right to be angry, to want what was best for the beautiful child in his wife's arms. And I did what I could to help, writing down his email address so I could look for another minister to perform the christening.

They thanked me, both for understanding and for the offer. I've just finished calling and emailing, finding some ministers who would be willing to help, emailing the info to the young couple. Such battles for justice rarely make the headlines, but that doesn't make them any less worth the fight.

Before I left them, there were a few more tears. Only now, they came with smiles.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Justice for Strippers!

Recently, performers at the Golden Banana gentlemen's club in Peabody, Massachusetts have filed a class-action lawsuit against the club's owners, over wages and benefits.

Now, before you snicker and make snide remarks, let me set the record on how these ladies are treated -- not just at this establishment, but across the country.

If you're an exotic dancer, the club doesn't consider you an employee. You're categorized as an "independent contractor", which means the club doesn't need to pay payroll taxes, Social Security contributions, healthcare or other benefits.

Now this makes sense if you're a comedy club hiring new talent every night, with the comics touring from one club to another. But the Golden Banana and many other clubs make the performers sign a contract enjoining them from performing at any other establishment. Not to mention dictating what music they can dance to, what wardrobe they can wear ... some independence!

And that's just for starters. Performers are required to pay a fee to get on stage. Their pay is in customer tips -- no salary, no commission for getting customers to buy overpriced drinks -- and they are required to share their tips with salaried employees. If you're sick, or have a kid or elderly parent to take care of, that's one more day you don't make any money.

I've also heard from women who work in these clubs that the owners encourage a "pecking order" among performers, with favorites getting choice money-making slots above others. That means that, while a few will make good money, many just make a living, sometimes just breaking even or losing money on bad nights.

It's about time the so-called "gentlemen" who own these clubs treat their ladies with the respect and dignity they deserve. They are the reason people come in and spend money. They deserve fair payment for their work.

If they're going to be "independent contractors" then let them be independent. Let them perform at any club, not just yours. Drop the performance fees, and take a twenty percent commission of their tips. Let them choose their music and wardrobe, and encourage creativity in their performances. Perhaps the club owners and the performers could get together to set up plans for group health insurance, disability insurance, and 401K's. And if a club wants to retain a performer exclusively, then sit down and negotiate a fair contract for their talent.

Compensation is just one part of the equation. There is also the fundamental issue of respect. Exotic dancers work for their money, and deserve to be treated with the same dignity as any other working artist. And not just from the club's owners, but their clients as well. If they're willing to take it all off for us, then it's high time we take a stand for them.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Whatever Happened to Oberlin's BDSM Club?

There were no Safer Sex parties when I was a student at Oberlin College. Nor did the student-run Sexual Information Center have any reading material on BDSM or kink.

Fast forward to the late 1990's and early 2000's. Students try to set up a BDSM educational group on campus. Folks on the supposedly liberal campus are up in arms. The group's charter application goes to the General Faculty, which debates it to death and blocks approval. Yet, apparently, the group somehow continues to survive - at least for a while.

There's scant information on this, but what I read bothers me. Set aside the questions of free speech and tolerance. The major reason we kinksters organize groups like this is to be safe - to share much-needed information, to look out for one another, and to educate outsiders about who we really are and what we're relly about. Just like every other community out there.

So strange, then, that a respected educational institution like Oberlin College does not get that. Even stranger, considering that, in 2006, they sanctioned a gun club for students. College students can learn gun safety, but they can't learn safe bondage? Does not compute.

But, as I said before, there's little online info out there. So, if you are a fellow alum, or otherwise connected to this, please let me know.

And if you're a student at Oberlin, looking to resurrect the group, let me know if I can help!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Yes, I'm Still Here...

The reason I haven't been posting recently is, among other things, serious computer problems. (Not to be confused with silly computer problems!)

I hope to be up at full capacity again next week. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Farewell, Jack McGeorge

It was today that I heard that Jack McGeorge, a leader and educator in the BDSM community, had passed away due to complications from heart surgery.

I never met Jack, but it was hard to ignore him. I had become involved in the kink community a short time after he had been "outed" by the Washington Post as the notorious UN weapons inspector by day and pervert by night.

Except for one thing. Jack never hid his sexuality. He used his legal name instead of a Scene name, and was open about his involvement with Black Rose, the Leather Leadership Conference and other groups to those with whom he worked. When the story went to print, he offered his resignation to Hans Blix, head of the Iraq weapons inspection team -- and Blix refused, saying that his sex life had no bearing on his competence as an inspector and consultant.

Jack was proof positive that being sexually different was no barrier to being respected as a professional and as a human being. His passion for education in the BDSM community was contagious, and will hopefully continue as his legacy.

I never knew Jack McGeorge, but in many ways I feel a similar sense of loss which many other kinksters now feel. May his spirit live on in each of us.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Now This is a Protest I Can Get Into!

You may have read news reports of gays being strong-armed for daring to kiss, not once but twice -- in El Paso and Salt Lake City.

Well, in response to that and other efforts to trample GLBT equality and civil rights -- such as passage of California's Proposition 8 -- activists organized a nationwide "kiss-in".

Right on!

Better yet, it wasn't just gays who participated, but heteros as well. More fitting to show people's hypocritical attitude and moralistic double standards towards.

Opposing marriage equality is one of the biggest. So many churches like the Mormons insist that sex should be confined to marriage, and marriage done for love -- then deny loving same-sex couples access to marriage, even outside of their own churches.

How strange that so many profess love as one of the strongest values of their faith, yet forget love's power to transcend so many boundaries. But maybe, just maybe, someone will see one of these demonstrations of love and be reminded of that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Last Abortion on Earth

Recently on an online discussion, someone brought up the following for discussion...

Practitioners who counsel women seeking abortions do an exercise called "the last abortion." The participants choose one woman among six who will be allowed to receive the last abortion on earth. It is an exercise in individual ethics and forces one to confront her own prejudices. There is an orphaned teenager, a victim of rape, a woman carrying a medically deformed fetus, a 46-year-old woman with HIV, a 12-year-old, and a graduate student who wants to finish her Ph.D. They all have good reasons, because all the reasons are theirs. And in the end, that is the answer: All the reasons are theirs.

If you were the chooser -- what would be your choice?

The fellow who put this on the table proceeded to state why his particular choice was the "right" one. But in my mind, that misses the whole point of the exercise -- and what makes it so difficult.

The issue is not simply which woman is more deserving, or which fetus is less viable. It is who makes the choice -- and that is what governed my answer.

I would rather have the women meet in a room, explain what needs to be done, provide them all of the information they would need and want, from medical data to possible future outcome, and let them discuss and decide for themselves. And while I'd prefer it to be by consensus, such a decision should also be made by the women themselves, not me or anyone else.

Yes, it would be difficult to have these women look into their hearts and decide whether or not a given pregnancy will come to term, and what to do afterwards. But, then again, that's the difficulty which each and every woman with a crisis pregnancy faces every day.

Something we should strive to remember whenever this debate comes around yet again.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Just for fun...

Found this originally on ministrare's blog and thought I would give it a go...

The Dante's Inferno Test has banished you to the Second Level of Hell!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:
Purgatory (Repenting Believers)Very Low
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)High
Level 2 (Lustful)Very High
Level 3 (Gluttonous)Moderate
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Very Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)Low
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)High
Level 7 (Violent)Moderate
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)Moderate
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)Low

Take the Dante Inferno Hell Test

Okay, so I'm a lustful heretic. Or is it lustful-yet-otherwise-virtuous unbeliever? Well, what else can you expect from a "test" which tries to reduce ethics and character to a pair of checklists with loaded questions to be answered "Yes/No" or "True/False"?

The real tragedy is how so many religious folk try to use such tests in real life. Especially where sexuality is concerned.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Minister of Sexuality? Yes!

I was reading Debra Haffner's latest post from her excellent blog* when something caught my eye. Among the progressive faith leaders joining her in a meeting with White House officials, the United Church of Christ sent Ann Hanson, Minister of Sexuality Education and Justice.

A minister of sexuality?

Absolutely! It's not just that sexuality is an integral part of our lives, with an important spiritual connection. It is that so many religious leaders have either neglected it, or even downright sabotaged it.

Liberals included. So many of us have presumed that being religious liberals means not having hangups about sex, so we don't really need to talk about it. Well, as the Gershwin song says: "It ain't necessarily so." To wit: In response to the Sacred Eros program at Arlington Street Church, I get a lot of contacts from people at other UU congregations because they don't feel comfortable bringing up sexuality with their own ministers.

So yes, we Unitarian Universalists need a minister of sexuality. We need someone who can educate, support, persuade and even cajole other ministers and leaders to address this vital part of our lives.

So if you're a fellow UU reading this post, please consider writing to UUA president Reverend Peter Morales, and putting this proposal to him. With the damage done by "abstinence-only" programs, pervasive homophobia and anti-choice rhetoric and violence, our denomination needs someone who can speak truth to power on these issues, both to the outside world and within our faith movement.

What better way for us to stand on the side of love.

* = If you have not subscribed to Debra's blog, "Sexuality and Religion: What's the Connection?", join me in doing so. She provides great information and insight on these important issues.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Latest Lepers: What Our Hypocrisy Has Wrought

It's been said that a society can be measured by how it treats the least amongst them. What does the Tuttle Causeway Colony say about us?

Many states and communities impose rules on where registered sex offenders may live. If you're a registered sex offender living in Miami-Dade County, you are prohibited from living some 2500 feet from any place where children congregate. Doesn't matter if your offense involved children, or if you have family in the area willing to look out for you, or even if you're appealing your decision. That leaves only one place in the county where you can live -- a shanty town under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. The courts have even told people that they have to go there, actually dumping them there with a blanket and pillow.

There is no running water. No permanent housing. The nonstop sound of cars reverberating overhead. Inhabitants share electrical generators to recharge their cell phones and ankle monitors. They are barred from leaving the area from 6pm to 7am. And imagine writing this down as your address on a job application.

This is the product of our hypocritical attitudes about sex. A murderer who completes their sentence can live where they want. Someone who rips off millions in people's life savings, once finishing their sentence, can live where they want. But if your crime involves sex -- even consensual sex between willing adults -- you can be exiled like a leper. For the rest of your life.

There are efforts to rehabilitate gang members, drug addicts, and violent criminals. We want them to learn a skill, to turn their lives around, to make a positive change. But sex offenders? So many have declared them to be irredeemable and untreatable (despite evidence to the contrary) that we are actually spending more time and taxpayer money making their lives worse.

Recently a woman was told by a Miami-Dade court that, because of her sex-related offense, this was the only place she had to go -- in a shantytown with over one hundred men. The men there provided her with a beaten-up camper, which for them is prime real estate. They've made a pledge to "watch out for her," and sticking by that pledge. In a seemingly hopeless dumping ground, these human beings are behaving more humanely and justly than those who put them there. A soul-stirring irony -- and a lesson for the rest of us.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Abortion and the Health Care Debate

I was listening to a news program interview on health care, and the host asked both guests (one from the Obama administration, another from the GOP) whether a Federally funded health care scheme should use taxpayer money for abortion.

I have a simple answer: Yes.

Abortion is a legal medical procedure. If we're going to refuse coverage for it, what other legal procedures should we also refuse to fund? And on what grounds?

Many people have religious objections to abortion, and that they should not have their taxes used to fund something which goes against their beliefs. Should we also oppose funding blood transfusions, out of respect for Jehovah's Witnesses? Should we oppose funding psychiatric treatment because it goes against Scientology?

The main argument is that abortion involves the taking of a human life, and therefore should not be financed with taxpayer money. I'd love it if our government never paid to have a life taken -- but we already do. Every casualty of war, every suspect shot by police, and every murderer executed, is paid for by tax dollars. Should we give people the option to check off on their income tax forms that they don't want their share of the tax pool to go to these activities?

My question for those who oppose funding abortion: What is your alternative? So many who oppose funding abortion are also opposed to funding contraception, comprehensive sex education, child care for single mothers and so forth, one has to wonder what practical policies they would favor -- or even if they do.

In the end, the more important question is making sure that every American can get the health care they need. The choice of which procedures to have should be left to patients, in consultation with their health care providers. And if those opposed to abortion do not want it chosen, then they should be willing to make as many alternatives as possible available to all, and especially those options which would prevent unwanted pregnancy and abortion to begin with.

I can't think of anything more ethical -- or more American -- than giving every person the power to choose how best to deal with their family's health, even if the choices they make may not be mine, or my choices theirs.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thank you, Michael

Recently I received an email from Michael, an acquaintance of mine who is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. Every time I ask him how he is, he responds the exact same way: “Hanging in there.” Which is indeed an understatement. I am always so amazed at how much this remarkable individual epitomizes grace, forgiveness and resilience. Rather than lash out that those who abused him, or the church which ignored his pleas for help, he’s managed to rebuild his life and to dedicate himself to helping other victims heal and grow.

And before you jump to conclusions … no, not a Roman Catholic. Michael was raised in a relatively moderate evangelical denomination, yet one still afflicted by similar problems of denial and ignorance. Michael has since left that church, but still takes the time to share his experience and insights with religious leaders. His number one piece of advice: Prevention. “Too often we only react to stories of abuse. If we are really against abuse, we should do all we can to keep it from happening. Speak the truth, break the silence, empower people and hold leaders accountable before any of this happens.”

Amen, brother!

One way of breaking the silence is to talk more openly about sexuality in our religious communities. Even in many liberal congregations, it’s not considered appropriate to talk about sex in the same sacred space where we revere the Divine. But if we truly believe that sexuality is a divine gift, then it’s not only right but necessary to speak about it, learn about it, and celebrate the diverse ways in which erotic love can be expressed without exploitation and harm.

While knowing the truth can set us free, it is empowerment which gives us the tools to do right in the light of that freedom. Teaching people to think critically and constructively, to move beyond mere adherence to rules into an authentic ethical discernment, gives us the power to live our lives with integrity and wholeness. Such empowerment also means we have the confidence to set boundaries for ourselves, to choose who will lead us and to what extent, and to hold them to account when they fall short.

A rather general set of points, I agree, but hopefully useful as a guide to finding the specifics. George Bernard Shaw said that there is one religion, but a hundred versions of it. Let us hope and work for every denomination to find the specifics of how to speak truth and empower one another in their sexual lives -- and not let anyone else take that power from them.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What it Means to be a Welcoming Community

I've often had discussions with other UUs about "where we should draw the line" about welcoming people into our congregations. No problem with gays, they agree, but what about ... ?

Go ahead, fill in the blank. There are plenty of categories of "those people" out there who give us pause.

Forty years ago, gays and lesbians were in that category. Even within the UUA and its predecessor denominations.

So how do we determine who we should welcome, and who we should not?

My own answer, in a nutshell is: Yes, we welcome all people -- but not all behaviors.

So, would I welcome a registered sex offender into the church? So long as they agree to specific limits, I would say yes. We often have prejudices about what sex offenders are like, and fail to recognize how isolating them can actually make things worse.

Would I let a professional dominatrix teaching Religious Education, or providing lay pastoral care? Hey, I happen to know a few prodommes, and I can tell you two things. First, they are great educators and counselors. Second, they know how to keep things private, including and especially the facts of their occupation.

What about someone who interrupts worship services and committee meetings, or chases after individuals during social hour, demanding that his grievances (whatever they are) be heard? Clearly there are some people who, for whatever reason, have difficulty understanding that there is a time and a place for everything. We can do what we can to remind them of that fact -- but if they refuse to heed that advice, then we're not obligated to put their desires above the need of community members to feel safe when they come into our shared space.

It is that ideal of community, of welcoming people as they are while challenging one another to grow and change, receiving diverse gifts and responding to diverse needs, which we must always keep in mind. May it always be so.

Well, It Was Bound to Happen...

As many in the UU blogosphere know, there is a fellow who has engaged in some relentless posts and comments about "injustice, abuse and hypocrisy" within Unitarian Universalism. I won't give his name, but I'll describe the course of events for those unfamiliar...

This individual believes that he had a revelatory experience, and went to the minister of a UU congregation about it. The minister, according to this fellow, dismissed his account as "psychotic" -- and it went downhill from there.

Since then the fellow has had his membership revoked by that congregation; he has responded not only with continually writing letters, emails, blog posts and comments on other people's blogs, but he has picketed that congregation until their current minister felt the need to file for a legal restraining order. Worse, he has gone out of his way to verbally attack and harass various people, especially UU ministers, and appears oblivious to how his behavior affects others.

What caught my attention was how his manner of writing, and his seemignly obsessive focus on one topic -- even to the point of boring and annoying others -- resembled another fellow I've encountered. And, in turn, how their common traits could be possible signs of Asperger's syndrome

Well, when I became yet another one of his targets, I wrote to him privately. I told him my suspicions regarding Asperger's, with the caveat that I was not a professional and was only speculating based on partial information. I explained to him that Asperger's is not considered a form of psychosis or insanity, but that it can and does affect one's ability to interact with others. I told him that I did not wish to engage him in discussion again, unless he consulted a specialist on Asperger's for an evaluation.

My reason for suggesting this is not to belittle or attack him. It is to try to help, just as many folks diagnosed with Asperger's as adults have found it helpful in their lives. And my reason for making it a condition for further discussion is that I don't see the point of engaging in an endless exchange with someone who is not willing to work on how they interact with others.

But, he does not see it that way. He sees it as yet another "attack", and has said as much on his blog. My only reason for responding here is because of how he has portrayed things.

And that, my friends, is all I have to say on the matter. I'm sure he will see this and write yet again. As many other UU bloggers have noted, he seems to have a lot of time on his hands.


UPDATE 7/14/09

Recently, two developments have been brought to my attention regarding this individual -- both disturbing.

The first is that, in response to comments from members of the Asperger's community, this fellow has openly admitted that he is, in his own words, "deliberately rude and offensive" towards various UUs.

The second is that, several months before my private speculation that he might have Asperger's, he publicly did his own "amateur diagnosis" of someone else, as an outright attack.

This changes the entire picture. Asperger's or no, we are dealing with an individual who is blatantly malicious and hypocritical, and who is so desperate for attention that he will say and do anything to get it.

Failing to perceive how you harm others is one thing. Failing to care about it is quite another.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

UU Sex Education: Why Aren't We Doing More?

A couple of months ago, our Director of Religious Education joined one of the members of our congregation in a training program about sexuality education. A great step - the more people and congregations able to lead such courses, the better!

Then I learned that, even with such training, it ain't so easy.

"We're looking into teaming up with other congregations in the area," one mom told me, "so we can get a critical mass with a balance of boys and girls, and a good team of teachers."

Well, you can do that here in Boston. There are, after all, four UU churches in downtown Boston, and even more within a short subway or car ride. But what about those relatively small and isolated groups, without so many resources or willing volunteers?

We seem to have locked our own congregations into a Catch-22. We love to promote the heck out of the Our Whole Lives curriculum - and well we should - but then we set up all of these hurdles to actually teaching it. Maybe the folks at UUA headquarters should try to go through those hurdles themselves, as though they were staff or lay volunteers in the average UU congregation.

Imagine that you're a leader of a small to mid-sized UU congregation in the middle of the country. You have a vibrant Religious Education program for children and teens, and you want to hold Our Whole Lives modules for them. So now, according to the UUA's recommendations, you need to...
... find one or more programs within driving distance of your church or fellowship.
... locate both a man and a woman who are not only willing to teach the course, but who have the time to drive out to each training session and back, and for each and every module.
... have parent orientation programs "that affirm parents as the primary sexuality educators of their children" for each and every module - so now another set of meetings.

Get the idea?

Voltaire warned of making the perfect the enemy of the good. Yet I fear that, with all that a congregation needs to do just to get started, we've fallen into that trap. And with the lack of meaningful sex education in so many parts of the country, our young people can't afford to wait for perfection.

Here's one suggestion with regard to training new instructors. Why don't we use various media technology, such as DVD's and online seminars, to provide greater access to OWL's training programs? People don't have to wait for a workshop to come to their area; they can use their computers and phones to bring the workshop to them. And not only would this make the trainings more accessible, but with less driving they would also be greener!

Last but not least, we need to remember that there is more to education than just a lesson plan or written text. There is also the passion and enthusiasm of the teacher, the encouragement of parents, and the desire of students to learn. When these things are properly nurtured, then it doesn't matter if the curriculum is perfect; the very drive to teach and to learn will fill in the gaps.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Forest of the Soul

[This is the text of the sermon I delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA, July 5th 2009]

Growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, my brother and I attended an elementary school which was partly surrounded by woods. The principal and the teachers often admonished us never to go in there during recess; after all, they were obligated to keep an eye on us, and could not do so through the dense cover of trees. Yet there were those of us who loved to explore the woods, learning every path and landmark within, taking shortcuts through it between home and school. We laughed and made fun of those who took the teachers’ warnings so very seriously, those fraidy cats! Yet perhaps it was their very fear of the woods which gave us, in their eyes, an almost outlaw cachet.

Those woods are still there. I searched online to find a satellite map of my old school, and sure enough, those lush green canopies still surround the campus. How it stirs my heart! How I wonder if others are as drawn to those woods so lovely, dark and deep.

Such primeval landscapes have a sublime draw to our spirits. As pagan author Morgan La Fey says in her article “Sacred Trees”:

When walking through a warm and lush forest setting one's thoughts can easily take flights of fancy. It is not difficult to shed the layers of modern life and find one's more subtle or primitive beginnings. Somewhere from deep within the spirit and majesty of each single tree steps forth and at once one can find themselves transported to a world of shadow and shade.

So it is with the landscape of our souls, where the shadows of our more primal selves seem very much like those dense, deep woods – attractive to some, while others hesitate to even set foot inside.

Why do we hesitate? Perhaps it is because we have been taught to think of the soul or spirit as divine light, distinct from and even transcending the material or “mundane” world. By extension, we tend to react to the idea of darkness as a metaphor for evil. But when we speak of a literal forest as dark, we do not mean it is literally evil. No, we mean that it is hard to see into it, from the dense foliage blocking outside sources of light. It is in this sense that psychologists like Jung refer to our shadow selves, hidden from the light of conscious thought.

So often we think of emotions like fear, anger and want as inherently negative, even destructive – and surely they can be. But they also have their place in human life, and can even be utilized for good. We can be fearful of harm, angry at injustice, and wanting of love. What we must caution against is allowing such feelings to be all-consuming – to let fear become blind terror, anger become blind rage, and want become blind addiction.

The question is not simply whether we repress or unleash those parts of ourselves which are hidden, but whether we can acknowledge and draw from them – or, to borrow the language of Carl Jung, whether we can “own” them. It was Jung in fact who warned that, as we continue to disown our shadow, to deny and repress it, we begin to project it onto others. Imagine trying to contain a forest, only to have the untamed plants and animals within it start to encroach on our so-called “civilized” territory. Or, we can learn to live with and learn from the forest, with humility and appreciation.

One area for me is the fear invoked by my father. Dad has a temper – the bellowing, throw-things-against-the-wall kind of temper that would scare the pants off of anyone. One weekend at their house, he couldn’t get his computer printer to work, and erupted, actually hurling a big bottle of soda on the floor in front of me.

I was scared, yet strangely calm. Holding out my hands, I said: “O-o-okay, I’m going to put the cats outside and go for a walk before you kill one of us.”

That shook him. He stood there, all six feet five inches of him, dumbfounded, utterly quiet. He didn’t have to apologize – the expression on his face said it all.

Two things happened after that. First, I’ve never seen him lose his temper like that again. Angry, yes – but not out of control. Second, we’ve been able to talk on more equal footing, with less distance. In a sense, we unwittingly healed one another, by prompting each to become aware of that within us which we would rather not face, so that we could better come to terms with them, and with one another.

It reminds me of one of the great mythic tales, that of Percival and the Grail King, the young adventurer and the wounded old man. Here, from his interview program with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth”, is how the late Joseph Campbell sums it up:

Now, when Percival comes to the Grail castle, he meets the Grail King, who is brought in on a litter, wounded, kept alive simply by the presence of the Grail. Percival’s compassion moves him to ask, “What ails you, Uncle?” But he doesn’t ask the question because he has been taught by his instructor that a knight doesn’t ask unnecessary questions. So he obeys the rule, and the adventure fails.

And then it takes him five years of ordeals and embarrassments and all kinds of things to get back to that castle and ask the question that heals the king and heals society. The question is an expression, not of the rules of the society, but of compassion, the natural opening of the human heart to another human being. That’s the Grail.

And, by the way, before Percival was trained as a knight and instructed to stifle questions and curiosity, he had been raised by his mother apart from courtly society – in a forest. And, the Grail castle which he visits is surrounded by a wasteland which, once the Grail king has been healed, is likewise rejuvenated into … a forest.

We are often given rules for living with others in society, and surely there is reason to understand and respect such customs. But there is also need to return to the very core of our humanity – our compassion, our desires, our fears, and even our anger – rather than let ourselves be so bound to tradition that we cannot heal one another and make ourselves whole.

One of those rules, borne of our Western ideal of individualism, is to neither intrude into the lives of others, nor burden others with the details of our own lives. Yet what are the consequences of living this way, isolated from one another? Go into the forest, and you’ll see that every plant and animal depends upon one another, with even the mighty trees depending on lowly bugs and worms to break down waste matter and replenish the soil. So it is with our humanity, for we are meant to live in community, not in isolation. Children starved of embrace and touch, suffer just as much as if they were starved of food. How, then, do we starve one another when we fail to ask in compassion: “What ails you, friend?”

When Percival failed to ask this question, he awoke the next day in an empty castle, utterly alone. It took a wild woman – a woman of the forest – to show him that this was a sign that his adventure had failed, and that he must begin his quest anew.

My friends, let us begin our quest anew. Let us help to make one another whole, to bring together shadow and light, cultivated homes and primeval forest. In seeking to build the beloved community, let us not be afraid to bring – and to welcome – all of ourselves, so that we may realize more fully how we may sustain one another, grow together, and heal ourselves and our world.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Limits of Diversity

I've been thinking a great deal lately about someone I've encountered online. He is, to put it politely, quite atypical. He appears obsessively focused on a very narrow subject. His language is overly repetitive and pedantic, and he seems to have a hard time grasping what others try to tell him. He comes across as cocksure to the point of arrogance, so sure of his rightness that he won't even consider any other options or opinions, except to try to argue them into the ground. Many say that he seems utterly self-centered, as if he doesn't give a hoot about other people's thoughts and feelings, or is unaware of them.

Some people think he's nuts. Others think he's just a conceited jerk.

I've started to think ... Asperger's Syndrome?

A lot of people with Asperger's are seen as socially awkward, even cold or rude. It doesn't help that two of the classic symptoms are problems with eye contact and vocal inflection. Add to that the tendency to be incredibly logical, literal and rigid in their thinking, and you can see why so many feel isolated, even bullied.

Perhaps because of that isolation, many "Aspies" have developed their own sense of community, even challenging the traditional notion that they are disordered. They've even coined a term for non-Asperger people: neurotypical. And from that, the concept of neurodiversity, - that so-called "normal" neurological makeups are just one part of the continuum of healthy human variation.

I can see that ... up to a point. Many people with Asperger's, ADD, dyslexia and so forth have been able to adapt, function in and contribute to society. On the other hand, what happens when someone's "neurodivergence" is so extreme that it can lead to serious harm, to themselves or others?

Much like how our view of sexuality and sexual diversity continues to evolve, and to be challenged. If being queer, kinky, polyamorous and asexual are just different forms of healthy erotic expression, then why draw the line at other "differences"?

Diversity to me is about more than "embracing difference", because some differences are not worth embracing - sociopathy, for example. Diversity is about recognizing one another's gifts and shortcomings, and working together so that each can give and receive from one another. And with that in mind,...

Aspies like the fellow I mentioned above have gifts to bring. So do kinky and poly folk like me. Each of us has gifts to bring, cultivate and share with the world. We also have shortcomings, blind spots and weaknesses which we need to be aware of and work on. And sometimes those shortcomings are such overwhelming obstacles in our lives that no amount of tolerance or social change can help.

So yes, we need Aspie pride, just as much as we need GLBT pride, kink pride, poly pride, and so on. But we also need to be careful to balance that pride with humility, lest that pride cross over into arrogance and hubris.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mark Sanford & Company: The Real Scandal

Everyone from David Letterman to UU minister/sexologist Debra Haffner has been commenting on the recent news about Mark Sanford. For those of you not checking the news, the GOP governor of South Carolina had been AWOL for a week, and admitted to running off to Argetina with his mistress.

And just before that, Republican Senator John Ensign admitted to cheating on his wife.

Not to mention John Edwards, Elliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, Jim McGreevey, Bill Clinton, ...

Already I've read someone muse if there's something in the mental makeup of politicians, or the culture of political life, which makes them so prone to sexual improprieties. Well, I don't think so. The only real difference between politicos and regular folks in this regard is their level of public exposure. Lots of people cheat on their partners; we just hear more about politicians doing it because they have the press constantly on their tail (pardon the pun).

What bothers me about all of this is society's skewed sense of ethics. No, I'm not talking about folks wanting to throw politicians out for being adulterers (although, given that Sanford actually abandoned his post, I'd say that was justifiable). I'm talking about the automatic assumption that monogamy somehow equals moral virtue. And while it's true that keeping one's promises is a reflection of that ... what if the promise a couple makes does not include being exclusive to one another?

Many people live lives of integrity and honesty in mutually fulfilling polyamorous relationships. Honesty does not require monogamy any more than good governance requires political dogmatism. And how refreshing would it be if a politician came out as having a happy secondary relationship with the knowledge and consent of their spouse and family.

Oh, yeah ... that already happened with Roy Romer. Don't remember that? Probably because when Romer and his family opened up about it, their refreshing honesty made it a non-issue.

That, to me, points to the real scandal behind adultery - the dodging and dishonesty, the futile attempt to hold onto one's office and power and prestige by worrying about what Mrs. Grundy would say. And the real problem is when they make political decisions based on that same short-sighted and cowardly approach.

It's time for politicians - and all of us - to start putting personal integrity above political image-making.

Friday, June 12, 2009

DOMA and Obama ... Oh, Boy!

During the 2008 Presidential race, I did a low-level tongue-in-cheek write-in campaign, complete with a running mate and a platform rooted in sexual freedom. The reason? Because even with all of Obama's rhetoric about LGBT equality and such, both his own words and my own experience made me skeptical. It was also a snub at the limits of our two-party system, where we are all told to hold our noses and vote for the lesser of two evils.

Sound extreme?

Well, judge for yourself. On the plus side, Obama has shifted Federal money and priorities from "abstinence-only" to comprehensive programs; supported reproductive choice and removed the gag rule to US funding of health programs overseas, and proclaimed June "LGBT Pride Month". On the reverse, Obama stripped family planning funding from his stimulus package, has yet to do anything about "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (see my earlier post) and now the Department of Justice has filed a brief supporting DOMA.

Oh, boy.

Many folks have made a comparison between Obama and John F. Kennedy. Given that JFK tended to pay lip service to racial equality and civil rights, looks like we have another parallel ... just not the kind we wanted.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Ethics of Kink & Polyamory

Well, it was bound to happen. “Anonymous” sends a comment to this blog, beginning:

So you dare to lecture people about morality … , you being a self described 'kinky polyamorous' UU? Thanks for the laugh.

Yes, the classic assumption that exploring different ways of expressing eroticism and intimacy automatically disqualifies you from engaging in ethical discussions. How original.

Oh, by the way – the reason I didn’t approve the comment? Because it wasn’t relevant to the topic it was posted under. The person wasn’t even responding to a post on this blog, but responding to a comment I made on another website. If you’re reading this, Anon, would love to know your rationale for doing so, instead of posting on the site in question. But, I digress…

So let’s look at how this person views anyone who dares to identify as kinky:

[D]o you really think it's a good thing for you to be led around by the nose by your various perversions? Isn't there any part of you left that wants to be free? Any part of you that wants to rise above it? And if the only "good" for you is your perversion and you view everything in the context of that, why would you expect anyone to take you seriously when you pretend to care about moral issues?

Wow, talk about leaps of logic! Yet every single one of these is based on a greater assumption that form is more important than context – that the outward mechanics of your actions are more important than the emotional and relational context in which those actions are done.

It also shows a total lack of knowledge about the ethics by which we in the BDSM and polyamory communities abide.
~ We believe first and foremost in consent – that people should know what they’re getting into, and actively agree to it, before engaging in it.
~ We believe in safety – that we do as much as we can to minimize the risks of harm, within reason.
~ We believe in compassion and respect – that we do what we do with the goal of cultivating mutual benefit and joy.
~ Above all else, we believe in honesty and integrity in all that we do, without which the rest would be impossible.

The problem, of course, is that too many people have distorted and superficial views about BDSM (“those people are into pain”) and polyamory (“they’re just swingers having orgies”). There is much more subtlety and complexity to the kink and poly communities than many would realize, just like every other community out there.

Nor are we “obsessed with sex,” as that nameless commenter would so easily like to believe. If we talk a good deal about sexual matters in our communities, it is not just because of our sexual and relational identities, but because there is so little intelligent discourse about the erotic in mainstream society.

So, yes, I do expect people to take me seriously about moral issues. Imagine if those principles of consent, safety respect, compassion and honesty were lived out more fully in everything that we do. Imagine if we really listened to one another, instead of jumping to conclusions and rushing to label someone’s differences as “just plain wrong.” Imagine if we measured right and wrong not by a dusty old rule book, but by love and joy.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

UUs and Sexuality: The Glass Half Full, Half Empty

For the past two years, I've had the privilege of knowing Dan, our ministerial intern here at Arlington Street Church. I wasn't the least bit surprised that he received high marks from the UUA's Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Dan is someone who is both compassionate and wise, pastoral and prophetic, drawing from both academic learning and personal experience to serve our faith.

When he finishes his internship here, he will be serving a UU congregation on the West Coast. So I couldn't help checking out their website.

And, once again, I read what's there with mixed feelings. When it comes to how many UU congregations address sexuality issues, I have a tendency to see a glass half full and half empty.

On the half-full side: They are a welcoming congregation for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender folks. Their social justice work includes a commitment to marriage equality and reproductive rights. They provide Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality education for teens. Looking at their sermon archives, I can find some sermons touching on sexuality issues. Like many UU congregations.

Then, on the half-empty side: You have to dig a bit on the website to find out that they are a welcoming congregation. Two of the three sexuality sermons were from way back in 2005. And no sign of a Safe Congregations Program, teaching Our Whole Lives to adults or other age groups, working for other sexual justice issues or learning about other sexual and gender minorities. Like many UU congregations.

I know, it sounds like I'm being picky. Then again, I've also seen the consequences of the "half-empty" side. Sure, it's great to have an inclusive church where all kinds of love are celebrated ... but when you have some particular issue involving sexuality, and need someone to talk to, and you're not quite sure how your church will deal with it because, well, they don't really talk about it ...

Get the idea?

My own theory is that too many religious liberals, UU and otherwise, take their liberalism for granted. A woman from another church related to me how someone in her congregation wanted them to say simply that they welcomed "all people" -- period, no labels or limits. As wonderful an idea as that may be, there is something to be said for reaching out to members of an excluded minority and saying specifically to them: "You are welcome here." Likewise, it is one thing for a minister or religious educator to tell her parishioners that they can talk to her about anything, and another to specifically offer a listening ear and open heart for those very issues which make people uneasy.

Unitarian Universalists have done so much work in this area, compared to other faith communities. But there's also a great deal more we can and should do. This is something that Dan and I have talked about, and see eye to eye on. So, as he goes off to his new ministry, here are my hopes for him:
~ I hope that he finds the time to preach at least one sexuality sermon from the pulpit, and to start more dialogue about it as a result.
~ I hope that he can encourage the RE Council there to consider expanding their offering of OWL to more age groups, espcially adults.
~ I hope that he can talk to the congregation's board about the UUA's Safe Congregations Program, so that they can feel more confident about the spiritual home they provide for their children and youth.
~ I hope that he can do more sexual justice work in the wider community, from reproductive rights to reaching out to the full range of sexual and gender minorities.

May seem like a lot, but I'm also not expecting him to transform the congregation overnight. Just help them to get started on transforming themselves.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

George Tiller: Murdered in the Name of Life

This morning, Dr. George Tiller of the Women's Health Care Services in Wichita, Kansas, was gunned down in his place of worship. A suspect was later detained in Kansas City some 170 miles away.

Dr. Tiller was one of a handful of physicians who provided late-term abortions. His most memorable phrase was: "Prenatal testing without Prenatal choice is medical fraud." His clinic had been picketed, blockaded, vandalized and attacked; bullet-proof glass had to be installed around it after he had been shot and wounded. In the late 1990's, he courageously invited several political and religious leaders to visit his clinic -- walking them through as though they were patients facing crisis pregnancies.

It is no surprise that the leader of Operation Rescue condemned the attack. I can only hope that those who oppose abortion will do some serious soul-searching about how their rhetoric and tactics contribute to such senseless and cowardly acts.

In the meantime, let's all pray for Dr. Tiller's family, for his colleagues and staff, and for all those who provide reproductive health services for women around the country.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Time to Lift the Ban: An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

[Yes, I did send this to the White House, via their website...]

Dear Mr. President:

During your campaign, you made a promise to rescind the current policy regarding military service known as "Don't Ask Don't Tell". To date, that promise has yet to be kept.

This Sunday morning at my church, we honored the brave men and women who have served in our armed forces. We do so three times every year -- on Memorial Day, on Veterans Day in November, and during a special service commemorating GLBT Pride here in Boston, Massachusetts. During the first two services, we ask those veterans to stand. During the Pride service, however, we feel compelled to advise them to remain seated, so that they have no fear of being "outed". It breaks my heart every time we need to do this.

Studies from the Navy, the Defense Department and the General Accounting Office have determined that there is no rational basis for any prohibition on gay, lesbian or bisexual people from serving openly in our military, and that efforts to restrict or bar them from military service are in fact more costly than letting them serve.

A Zogby International poll showed that 63 percent of current military personnel either supported lifting the ban, or were unopposed or indifferent to it, and that 67 percent of those who had experience with gay, lesbian or bisexual people in their military units said that their presence did not undermine unit morale.

Several retired flag officers, including former Joint Chiefs chairman John Shalikashvili, have called for the ban to be lifted, as well as other current and former members of our armed forces, citing the thousands of gays, lesbians and bisexuals who have served our country in uniform and with distinction.

While I am aware that you have suggested that it is up to Congress to change this policy, experts in military law have also determined that it within the authority of the executive branch to replace the current policy with one of inclusion and nondiscrimination. Even if Congressional action is required, it does not explain your administration's silence on this issue.

It is high time that the United States joined the majority of our NATO allies, who allow all qualified individuals to serve in defense of their countries regardless of sexual orientation. It is high time that we judge our soliders, sailors and Air Force personnel by their level of service and character, not by whom they may be attracted to. It is high time that you keep your promise to the American people.

On June 13th, Arlington Street Church will honor those who have fought for equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. We will honor those who serve in uniform as well. I would like very much if they could stand to be recognized at that time, or at least know that they do not have long to wait for that day. You have the power to make this so. Please move forward on this, so that our uniformed services can indeed reflect more fully the best that is America.

Desmond Ravenstone

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Vexed About Viagra

Every time I see a commercial for Viagra (sildenafil citrate) or other "erectile dysfunction" medications, I grumble. It's not just the side effects and drug interactions, but how the "quick fix" promised by these medications have set back men's sexual health.

Before Pfizer put Viagra on the market, doctors began treatment for erectile dysfunction by determining the cause -- psychological, physiological, or a mix of the two. Often the most common causes are (a) performance anxiety, (b) substance abuse including nicotine, (b) other lifestyle issues such as diet or stress, or (c) diseases affecting blood flow or the nervous system. Since most of these cause being treatable, that means that lots of cases of erectile dysfunction can be successfully treated, and even cured, without the need for special medications. One physician I'm acquainted with informed me that the top three prescriptions he'd give for erectile dysfunction were aerobic exercise, cut back on booze, and quit smoking.

Viagra originally was being developed as a possible treatment for high blood pressure and angina. Wasn't successful for that, but it was found to help men obtain and maintain erections where other treatments had not worked, due to irreversible nerve or blood vessel damage. Prior to that, there weren't many options for such cases. So, given the choice between having an implant put in surgically, or simply taking a pill ... well, you get the idea.

Problem is that Viagra became so successful -- especially with Pfizer's marketing campaign -- that pretty soon it became the treatment of choice. But what about the other treatment options? Well, why bother with changing your lifestyle or treating other underlying causes, when all you have to do is pop a pill? And with the Internet providing Viagra from overseas, without a prescription, why bother even seeing a doctor?

So you can see why I grumble. Too many men are getting these medications, without regard for what's causing their problems in the first place -- kind of like treating every overweight person with diet pills. A good parallel, hm?

The more I read about erectile dysfunction, the more I see it as a symptom more than as a disease unto itself. Likewise it seems this rush to treat so many of our problems with a quick fix -- whether in pill form or some other manifestation -- is part of a larger spiritual problem. We live in a consumer culture which tells us in so many ways that all our troubles can be solved by just buying the right kind of stuff.

Even religious leaders have fallen prey to this idolatry. How many ministries offer "free gifts" in exchange for a donation -- essentially selling stuff to raise money? How many "abstinence-only" programs have been packaged and marketed to schools nationwide, promising a quick fix to the problems of teen pregnancy and STDs? How many congregations focus on "growth plans" like they were a business needing to recruit new customers?

And how strange that both sexuality and spirituality are linked to something priceless which our world needs so much: Love. Think of the world we could create if we closed our wallets and purses, and opened our hearts and minds.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Doing Some Math on Marriage Equality

With more and more states joining the marriage equality bandwagon, here's an interesting bit of news...

James Dobson and other radical right-wingers have argued that same-sex marriage would harm "traditional" hetero marriage. One specific claim is that, since Scandinavian countries began recognizing same-sex unions, the rates of marriage among hetero couples has declined. Well, a recent article by Barrett Brown says otherwise:

"Denmark began allowing gay civil unions in 1989. Ten years later, the heterosexual marriage rate had increased by 10.7 percent. Norway did the same in 1993, and a decade later the heterosexual marriage rate had increased by 12.7 percent. Sweden followed suite in 1995, and ten years later the heterosexual marriage rate had increased by 28.7 percent. And these marriages were actually lasting. During the same time frame, the divorce rate dropped 13.9 percent in Denmark, 6 percent in Norway, and 13.7 percent in Sweden. So, we may probably dispense with the Dobson Theorem."

I hope Dobson and his pals read this article, and if so I'd like to hear what they have to say about it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Craigslist's Shell Game


Read further down. In reality, they are replacing "Erotic Services" with "Adult Services" under stricter guidelines.

Remember the old shell game? Put the pea under one of three shells, move them around, make it look like the pea disappeared? But really, it's still around -- you just had to look more carefully, and see that the fellow with the shells palmed it.

It's clear that Craigslist is the winner here. They look good in the eyes of the public, and can make more money by requiring a ten dollar charge for every adult services ad.

And that would make erotic -- sorry, adult service providers the losers, right?

Yup. But not because of the ten bucks, or because Craigslist can screen and reject certain ads. The service providers lose by being driven further underground, which predictably heightens the risks they have to face.

And that's the real irony here. All of these moves to rein in erotic professionals is being done ostensibly to "protect" them. Look at the reason Rhode Island politicians are giving for passing stricter laws -- to prevent trafficking.

Uh huh. Trafficking, both sexual and non-sexual, is an underground industry. So how is driving sex work further underground supposed to protect people from being forced into it by threats or lies? Doesn't it make more sense to treat sex work like all other forms of work, and bring it into the light of day?

Look at how the trade is done in countries like Germany and the Netherlands -- above ground, with the government able to set standards for safe and fair working conditions, and potential clients knowing they needn't go sneaking around to find what they are looking for. No, the Dutch and German models aren't perfect, but compare them with the shoddy and hypocritical way that sex workers are handled in Poland, the Czech Republic, and other countries.

Let's face it, outlawing sex-for-hire has never worked. Excessive regulation has not fared much better. It's only served to deprive those who work in the trade with the tools to better their circumstances. So let's give them a real chance to do so, by treating their work the same as other forms of work.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sex and the Psychiatrists

There have always been controversies within and about psychiatry, and certainly when it comes to human sexuality. Freud shocked the Victorians with his assertion that even children had libidos. Researchers and clinicians debated whether homosexuality was indeed a “disorder”, and even after the American Psychiatric Association removed it from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in the 1970’s, a small minority persist in labeling it a mental illness and even trying to “cure” it.

Now the controversy has been focusing on the so-called paraphilias, defined in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as:

“recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors generally involving 1) nonhuman objects, 2) the suffering or humiliation of oneself or one’s sex partner, or 3) children or other nonconsenting persons, that occur over a period of at least 6 months … [which] cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning.”

Got that?

So, let’s say your “paraphilia” involves a blow-up doll. You have to think about it, or do it, or both, for at least six months. And it has to “cause clinically significant distress or impairment.” Otherwise, it’s not really a paraphilia – it’s just getting it on with an inflatable plastic doll.

Now imagine that you fantasize about a sexy Olympic gymnast, who has never heard of you and probably never will. You can’t get this person out of your head. It’s distracting you no end, so much so that you consider it distressing, even impairing your ability to function. Is that a paraphilia?

Well, if those vagaries don’t bother you, it could get worse. Ray Blanchard, a member of the committee tasked with proposing a revision to this section, has put forward a new definition: "any intense and persistent sexual interest other than sexual interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, consenting adult human partners." In simple English, if you’re turned on by anything other than consensual sex with a “normal” adult, Blanchard thinks you’re sick.

And before you think I’m jumping the gun, Blanchard and others who share his views have even given paraphilic labels for people who are attracted to large people, older people, and transgender people. Blanchard also stated in a presentation that he believes any "erotic interests that are not focused on copulatory or precopulatory behaviors [read: intercourse], or the equivalent behaviors in same-sex adult partners" ought to be considered paraphilic.

So, oral sex would only be healthy if it led to “copulatory behaviors” or was done by same-sex partners as an “equivalent behavior”?

The logic of this would do the Victorians proud. Sex is for procreation, so any sexual desire or action not contributing to procreation must be “disordered”. Now apply this to food. Since food is for nourishment, any desire or action involving food which does not contribute to nourishment must be an eating disorder. Do you do wine tastings where you spit what you taste into a bucket, never taking in nourishment? Then there must be something wrong with you.

In every other area, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals determine something to be a disorder when it impedes your ability to function. Thousands of people are able to enjoy all sorts of consensual, non-procreative, non-copulatory erotic activities without disrupting their lives or the lives of others. If anything, it is the stigma and shame which our culture still attaches to sexuality of all kinds that is truly debilitating. Perhaps our efforts should be focused on dealing with that “disorder” instead of trying to label the sexually different with questionable diagnoses.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Case for Privatizing Marriage

Anyone reading this blog should not be surprised that I support marriage equality for same-sex couples. In fact, given its positive effect for transgender and intersex folks, we should consider following Norway's lead and just refer to it as "gender-neutral" marriage. For someone of both progressive and romantic leanings, it's a no-brainer -- it affirms love in a fair and straightforward way.

But there's also part of me which is irked by the whole brouhaha over the issue. Take the recent news in New Hampshire, where marriage equality is closer than ever to legislative approval. They actually introduced a clause to "guarantee" that no member of the clergy would have to officiate at a same-sex wedding if they didn't want to. Excuse me, but ... clergy already have that right! They've had the right to refuse to officiate at any marriage ceremony for any reason, for centuries! The only reason I can see that this was written into the bill was to placate the paranoia of the far Right, who keep harping the lie that letting any couple which is not clearly "one man and one woman" get a marriage license would somehow hurt the rest of us.

Right-wingers have also argued that, if we take this step, then what's to stop someone from marrying two or more people, or a child, or their pet dog or cat? Well, the latter two examples are answered simply enough: Consent. Marriage, after all, is about taking responsibility for one another, and that means we should be sure that each partner fully understands those responsibilities, and is fully able to carry them out.

That being said, when it comes to plural marriage arrangements, I have no problem with three or more consenting adults joining together -- and it's my openness on that which makes me part company with many marriage equality activists. Many of them argue that it would make things too complicated, or that you wouldn't have equality in such an arrangement. Again, I'd go back to the issue of consent: If we accept those as a given, and the partners in question fully understand and accept that, then where is the compelling interest to deny them their choice? There is also the issue of whether such complexity and inequality is indeed "a given"; from what I've seen and heard of many polyamorous households, it's not.

So here's the sticky bit ... If we consider marriage a free union entered into by consenting adults, and we consider that it is not the government's business to tell consenting adults which consenting adults they can or cannot marry, then why marriage licenses? A driver's license I understand -- there is no "right to drive a car," and public safety is a compelling reason to make sure that those who do can do so safely. But, being licensed to fall in love and build a family together? Sorry, but that doesn't square with the idea of marriage as a right, or even as a responsibility.

Long before I wrote this blog, I've advocated replacing state-issued marriage licenses with contracts. Each couple (or menage) would draft their own agreement of what their respective rights and responsibilities would be, sign it in the presence of witnesses, and even register it with the appropriate government office. They could even spell out terms for dissolution, including the option to settle their divorce through arbitration rather than the more adversarial court system; or even establish a time limit with the option to renew.

Many people across the political and religious spectrum have argued for a similar approach, and especially as an answer to the same-sex marriage debate. Some like to refer to "getting government out of the marriage business"; I think it more accurate to think of it as changing government's role with respect to marriage, from that of paternalistic protector to one of record-keeper and potential arbiter. Naturally, there are many who would consider this too "radical" a proposal. So, let me address some major objections...

Objection #1: This would demand a radical change in our marriage laws. Response: Not exactly. The most obvious change would be that, instead of the government issuing licenses, they would record contracts. Divorce laws could change by allowing spouses to determine ahead of time how dissolution would proceed, but this would follow existing laws regarding prenuptial agreements. Every other aspect of law regarding marriage would pretty much stay the same.

Objection #2: What about the role of religion? Response: The only major change would be that we would not require clergy to become government agents. If you'd like your priest, minister, rabbi, imam or other spiritual advisor to sign your contract as a witness, you're free to do so. But it would no longer be required that you have such a signature. If anything, having an explicit contract in writing is in keeping with many religious traditions, such as the Jewish ketubah.

Objection #3: If everybody gets to draft their own contract, then we wouldn't have a single standard for determining who can get married, when they can divorce, etc. Response: Currently, we already have such a state of affairs in this country. Each state and territory can determine their own age of consent for marriage, whether they will allow no-fault divorce, community property versus equitable distribution, and so forth. But there would still be a fundamental definition of marriage as a freely-entered union of consenting adults based on love to create a new household or family.

Objection #4: So if a man comes to the town clerk with his five year old daughter, and hands over a contract which says he married her, ... Response: Again, there's the issue of consent. Can we be sure that the five year old fully understands the contract, her rights and responsibilities as this man's wife, and so forth? If not, then it's not a valid contract, and it can be challenged and nullified on those grounds. The real question is whether the government should have the power to tell consenting adults who they can and cannot marry, and the specific terms by which they can enter into or end a marriage, before the fact.

Objection #5: Reducing marriage to "just another contract" would cheapen it, and take away its vital social and spiritual function. Response: If anything, it could heighten appreciation for that. While most marriage contracts would likely follow a common template, potential partners would have to discuss their respective rights and responsibilities with one another before setting their signatures on the contract they draft. That means they would actually have to know what it means to be married, and especially in their circumstance -- a much more robust approach than simply filling out a license form and finding a willing officiant. While there is no guarantee that this would take place, having the specifics written out like this would certainly increase the odds for greater awareness and appreciate of the meaning and role of marriage as an institution.

Objection #6: What about the children? The whole point of having the state issue marriage licenses is to guarantee the welfare of a couple's children. Response: The history of marriage and marital law says otherwise. Marriage used to be a private contract between families, with little or no intervention by state or church. England introduced licensure in the fourteenth century as a way of waiving the three-week waiting period required for declaring banns. In the United States, marriages licenses did not become required until the middle of the nineteenth century, as a means of enforcing anti-miscegenation laws. There is also no reason to believe that children would be harmed by replacing state-issued licenses with private contracts; if anything, the partners could make specific stipulations in their contract for the benefit of any children.

I'm sure folks out there could come up with other objections and questions, but the bottom line is this: If we believe that grown-ups have a right to marry, then we should treat them as grown-ups and let them spell out the terms for themselves. They shouldn't need a paternalistic state to tell them when and how.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

For UUA President ...

Well, the campaign for UUA President is well under way, with two excellent candidates in the field -- Reverend Peter Morales, senior minister of Jefferson Unitarian Church in Colorado, and Reverend Laurel Hallman, senior minister at the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, Texas. Their websites are chock full of endorsements from UUs all over the country.

There's something about such "full-on" campaigns which bring out the skeptic in me. Both candidates seem well qualified and committed to the growth of our congregations and denomination. But I'm also committed to more openness and understanding of sexuality issues in both the UUA and the larger society, believing that a faith such as ours has both something to offer to sexual minorities of all kinds, and much to gain from openly welcoming them.

So, with that in mind, I've sent each candidate the following email:

Dear Reverend __________,

I am a UU lay leader at Arlington Street Church in Boston, and specifically concerned with sexuality issues from a progressive faith perspective. In considering whether to endorse a candidate for UUA President, I would like to understand better your perspective on this important area of ministry.

Unitarian Universalists have often spoken and acted prophetically on issues of sexuality and intimate relationships. We have defended reproductive choice, developed and provided comprehensive sexuality education programs for our youth, opened our doors to BGLTQ people, and now continue to stand on the side of marriage equality.

1) Please finish this sentence: “I believe the next phase of our witness in this area will be __________.”

2) Our work on sexuality issues has often been seen as controversial, even by people within the UUA. How would you view and deal with such controversy?

3) Other than gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, what other sexual and relational minorities are you aware of? How do you thing UUs should minister to them?

Thank you for taking the time to consider these questions, and I look forward to your response.

Desmond Ravenstone

We'll see what they have to say...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Candle for Julissa

Today was quite busy for me at Arlington Street Church. Even when I’m not assisting the minister with worship, or coordinating the candles of joy and concern, I’m often there to help out. In the meditation right after the sermon, I often play the Tibetan singing bowl. But, today, there was much on my mind…

For one thing, there were the repercussions of Philip Markoff’s crime spree. If Internet chatter is any indication, his actions have raised the awareness and anxiety of sex workers all over the US regarding the risks they have to take just to make a living. Then there was the question of what to do if a sex worker came into Sacred Eros, the sexuality support group I run – would they find a safe space to share their thoughts and fears? Plus the group is meeting this week, with people from Boston’s kink community looking to attend.

I started by meeting with our assistant minister, who was preaching. Prior to entering ministry, he was a practicing attorney, and he’s drawn on that experience in the past. I explained my concern about having a sex worker come to Sacred Eros, and worry if there might be someone from law enforcement there. Of course, we consistently advertise that what’s said in that group is to be kept strictly confidential. Dan felt confident that such assurances, and other issues, would provide enough protection for people there. And he also agreed with something else I wanted to do.

At Arlington Street, our candles of joy and concern (sometimes called “prayers from the people” in other churches) are written on cards and read aloud by someone from the worship committee. Of course, we also ask and allow some folks to read their candle cards themselves, and I asked to do so here. So when the time in the service came, I followed John up to the chancel, and he let me read from the card I prepared:

“This is a candle of concern and support for Boston’s sex work community, facing renewed fear and anxiety after Julissa Brisman’s vicious murder, and the legal backlash which has followed.”

There was also a long-time parishioner there, who was there for a candle of his own; he smiled and offered his hand to me. Our music director led us in a song by Libby Roderick, asking us to think of someone who needed to hear the lyrics:

How could anyone ever tell you
you were anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
you were less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice
that your loving is a miracle?
How deeply you’re connected to my soul.

Later on that day, a couple of other folks approached me to express their support and gratitude that I’d raised the issue. We’ve always had a reputation for welcoming people considered “on the margins” – and it was good to see that tradition kept alive.

After the service and coffee hour, there was another meeting we attended. Sure enough, I recognized one of the members of our Prudential Committee (our governing board). I made a point of talking to him, reminding him about Sacred Eros and how much it would mean if someone from the Pru could be there to listen to folks from Boston’s kink community. Mark said he’d be happy to shoot an email to the other members, so hopefully we’ll see someone there.

Now I’m back home, thinking of Julissa. Amidst the sensationalism, the web is full of stories from her friends and family, about the totality of her life, her caring spirit, and her dreams of being able to make a living caring for others. While many said that her work as an erotic masseuse was “just a way to make money,” I wondered if that spirit of love they talked about also came through in that work as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if it did – such spirits are hard to keep contained.

It worries me about the backlash which has come about because of her tragic death – the naïve belief that shutting down online erotic ads will somehow protect women in the trade, when it could instead make things much worse for them. Some in Rhode Island are now pushing to change the laws there, in the name of stopping “sex trafficking” – and forgetting that there are already laws against involuntary servitude on the books to go after traffickers regardless of the kind of work they extract from people.

Even if Julissa had not entered this trade, the life experiences and spirit which I read about from those who knew her best describe a woman who would have thought and felt deeply about what would truly be best for erotic professionals in this country. I hope that more people read about her life, and question the backlash against other sex workers in the same spirit.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Is Kink Going Mainstream?

Often when BDSM is portrayed on the Fox Network -- whether a series episode or a news note -- its with heavy doses of sensationalism, titillation and mythology. Well, if the latest column from their resident sex & advice columnist is any indication, then the times they are a-changin' ... or are they?

To be fair, Yvonne Fulbright is a bona fide Ph.D. and certified sex educator with AASECT, which has long promoted greater awareness and acceptance of consensual kink. And compare how many people will see her web column versus the stuff Fox puts on all of its media outlets.

Then again, there have been more enlightened and positive portrayals of BDSM out there. Lady Heather has been a favorite recurring character on CSI, not least of which because she is more complex and realistic than many portrayals of kinksters in the media. More and more media sexperts praise and even recommend mild forms of kinky play like simple bondage and erotic role-play.

Yet all of this is still mixed with an overwhelmingly negative caricature of the BDSM world. Kink is seamy at least, downright dangerous at most, and kinky people must have something "wrong with them". A lot like portrayals of LGBT people in decades past (and still, to some extent). Not to mention sex workers, swingers, polyamorous people, and so forth.

As much as we can try to dispel the myths, perhaps it is time we faced an awful truth. Perhaps the reason we often see sexual outsiders in such negative and distorted ways, is that our society's view of sexuality in general is negative and distorted.

Look at the other end of the extreme -- the "abstinence-only" programs put forward as "education" in so many schools. They are laden with misinformation and stereotypes about sexual health and gender roles, and all slanted to perpetuate the view that sex is dangerous unless contained. That's why I refuse to call it "education", because they are more about promoting ignorance through fear.

Dr. Fulbright's column is a step in the right direction -- a small step. We all need to take a bigger one, to go outside of our comfort zones and actively question what we've passively learned.