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.

Sincerely,
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.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Politics and Morality of Plan B

Today, the Food and Drug Administration announced that seventeen year olds will be able to get the Plan B emergency contraception over the counter.

Certainly a step forward! Personally, I'd like to see the age limit brought down to sixteen, and having Plan B as a fully-funded option for all victims of rape everywhere.

And I can hear the leaders of America's Religious Right screaming about teenagers getting access to an "abortion drug". So, let's set the record on that:
1) It takes three days for sperm to travel through the cervix, up the uterus and into the fallopian tubes to fertilize an ova.
2) Plan B can only work during those three days.
3) Ergo, Plan B is contraception -- it prevents pregnancy.

Of course, I don't expect everyone who is against abortion to have this "V-8 moment", smacking their foreheads and saying: "Wow, we made a big mistake here!" It's no secret that so many on the Right have bundled abortion, birth control and sex education into one big nasty evil.

Forget about women who are raped. Or teens living with abusive parents, with good reason to be afraid of disclosing that they might become pregnant. Or women who were responsible enough to have their partners use a condom, only to have it break or slip off.

I recall conversations with an evangelical minister who is staunchly anti-abortion, when he used to live in the Boston area (he's since moved to Connecticut). I'd always pose the question of contraception -- why not support it, since it can prevent unwanted pregnancies and thereby reduce the number of abortions? His response, every time: "Well, many forms of contraception lead to abortion." And nothing else -- no elabortation, no examples of how this supposedly happens, no statement in favor of any which don't lead to abortion. Just a sufficiently vague reason why he won't break with the party line of the Religious Right.

Well, that only begs the question. Sure, you can argue that IUD's, for example, "lead to abortion" by preventing implantation and thus causing a zygote to be expelled and die. But condoms, spermicide, diaphragms, cervical caps -- all they do is block sperm from getting to the egg. No sperm in egg, no conception, no dead zygote. So why lump it in with abortion? And if Plan B accomplishes the same thing -- preventing sperm and egg from getting together -- then why keep calling it abortion?

These are the questions we need to be raising with the Religious Right. Plan B is not abortion, but in fact will reduce the number of abortions, as will condoms and other forms of contraception. So where is their justification in opposing them?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sex Work in the City

So the news is out, police have made an arrest in the "craigslist killer" case. Let's all hope that Julissa Brissman and her family, and the other victims, will see justice.

But let's also hope we can use this opportunity to start a new dialogue about sex work -- both it's reality, and a vision of what it can and should be. Yes, it's dangerous for escorts and other erotic service providers to put themselves out there. It's also dangerous for firefighters, airplane pilots, and people in many other professions.

But we don't ask those professionals to quit. We do what we can to minimize the risks they take, to make it as safe as possible. So why not with sex work? Because we still view it through the lens of stigmatization, as something "dirty" and "beneath us".

Stop and think for a moment, about those who see their erotic profession not just as a job, and not only as a service, but as a calling -- a way to bring forth a measure of joy and healing to our world.

Why not?

Why not encourage that vision amongst more people in the trade, and their clientele? Why not begin to see them with respect and dignity, and from there provide them with the same measure of fairness and safety that people in other professions know, expect and even take for granted?

Recently my friend Miss Calico attended a media workshop for erotic professionals, preparing more to speak their truth. It's about time we listened, and in hearing their words, question so many of the misconceptions we cling to about the demimonde.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Real Problem with Pornography - And Suggestions for a Real Solution

You'd think that a sexually adventurous soul like me, who authored a book called The Principled Libertine, would actually like porn. In truth, I have a love/hate relationship with contemporary smut. My thoughts on erotic entertainment are much like Gandhi's view of Western civilization – I think it's a good idea.

But, there's hardly much erotic entertainment which is truly entertaining. And a good chunk of it is barely erotic. I mean, you can only watch so many close-ups on body parts and repetitive pelvic thrusts before you get downright bored. Maybe I've been spoiled by not-so-sexually-explicit movies where the directors have nitpicked over such mundane things as plot and character.

And this is just the beginning. The "mainstream" media industry is far less exploitive, and far less mercenary in their advertising. You don't hear about mainstream actresses being pressured to do their own stunts, or of movie companies sending tons of spam through unscrupulous third parties to get the word out about their films. (Not to mention how so many porn sites are riddled with viruses – how ironic!)

Yes, I'm dismayed at the state of smut today – not because I'm so anti-sex, but because I'm so pro-quality. I'm not a prude, I'm just picky. Some of the best porn I've seen comes from BDSM sites – real BDSM, not the "pretend" type where they decide to tie up a vanilla porn star and spank her a few times. I'm talking sites like kink.com, where they know how to do suspension bondage, not to mention paying their talent a decent wage and guaranteeing their health and safety. And they don't spam people, either.

So why can't more purveyors of porn be like that? Good question, and the only answer I can think of is that they relish the role of being the persecuted, misunderstood rebels. "Hey, it won't matter to the blue-noses what we do, so we might as well do whatever we want!" Problem with that argument? In between the rebels of raunch and those who would censor them are a whole bunch of folks who aren't quite sure which side to believe. And when you're already on the "wrong side," you've got more chance of convincing people to come to your side when you show some respect, consideration and imagination. The folks at kink.com know that – let's hope they won't be the last.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pushing for Real Sex Education: Let's Not Blow It, Folks

When last I checked the website of the Unitarian Universalist Association, I noticed this newsnote about our movement's role in training young people and their allies to be effective advocates for comprehensive sexuality education.

"Fantastic!" I'm thinking. "Maybe they can take this training from three dozen people at one national meeting, to thousands of people in scores of grassroots meetings all over the country."

One can only hope...

When it comes to educating teens and children about sex, I'm very much with other progressives about giving young people -- all people, in fact -- completely accurate information and critical thinking skills so they can make choices. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of it, that's when I raise some questions.

Hence my observation above. We tend to focus a great deal of our efforts at the Federal level, when it's the local and state levels where those decisions are made. How do you think the Religious Right succeeded in pushing their "abstinence-only" programs? They worked from the grassroots up, and continue to push from that direction.

Not to mention the fact that so many evangelical and fundamentalist churches have been pushing their own indoctrination programs, up to and including purity pledges. So why can't our churches do something? We already have a highly praised sex-ed program, Our Whole Lives -- why not train more and more folks to teach them, and have classes in our congregations open to all?

We also focus on sex education for young people. News flash, folks -- there are lots of adults out there who need sex-ed, too! "Abstinence-only" has been around for a long time, and there are already a goodly number of people who have grown up sexually illiterate, and who are suffering as a result. Just look at the recent boon in "Christian sex therapy" -- the chickens have come home to roost, and it will take considerable time and effort to clean up the mess.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the efforts which are going on now, with Obama and his crew behind us. But I hope we won't stop there. I hope we'll have the vision and commitment to take this effort as far as it can go.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Standing at the Intersection of Church and Kink

I go to church. I'm part of the team of laypeople that assists our minister with Sunday worship. I read and discuss sacred texts, theology, ethics and philosophy. I don't hold much to ancient creeds or dogmas, but I take to heart the affirmation of our church:

Love is the spirit of this congregation, and service is our gift. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to speak our truths in love, and to help one another.

I also crack a single-tail whip. I enjoy listening to a woman's darkest erotic fantasies, and bringing them to life when I can. "Safer sex" for me includes having a first aid kit and spare handcuff keys close by - and, more importantly, thorough discussions of what each of us desires and is willing to do well beforehand.

I go to church. I am kinky. And I see no conflict, no conundrum, no contradiction.

To date, those in my congregation who know about this aspect of my life have been supportive, some even willing to learn more. And I'm glad they are open to learning, understanding, and knowing more. Then again, our congregation is one of the more liberal ones within Unitarian Universalism. I'm sure in some other UU churches, I'd not be so welcome unless I ascribe to a strict "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

I've also found support within the local BDSM and polyamory communities. Great to have "one of their own" in a church, blazing the trail. But many are hesitant to follow, either to join a faith community, or to come out to their fellow believers.

So here I stand, between two communities, wanting to build a bridge between them. And folks on both sides asking me: Why? Why should UUs and other progressive faith communities open their doors to kinky people? (Yes, I'm lumping poly folk under the term "kinky," defining that word broadly to refer to erotic expression outside of the mainstream) Why should kinky people go knocking on their doors asking to be let in?

Let me try to answer those questions, as best I can, from my own experience...

We kinky folks have gifts to bring. Our experience and relationships have brought us awareness of just how complex our sexualities can be. We have learned that our wider culture's assumptions about intimate relationships don't always fit actual reality. We've had to learn and develop new rules for communicating, relating, discovering joy, and the bounds of trust. For us, diversity is not merely a binary, or even along a straight-line continuum. Diversity is a palette of varied colors and shades, and beauty is found by transcending boundaries, daring to color outside the lines.

Church folk could learn from kinky folk - and vice versa. Spirituality is not merely about individual transcendent experiences, but about being part of a wider community, and learning to live ethically within it. And while many would argue that we have "our own" community, at times it feels more like a self-imposed ghetto. Whenever any community becomes too insular, it can easily become stagnant. One sign of this is how we complain about our being oppressed, constantly speaking in the language of despair, defeat, anger and resentment. And we wonder why we make so little progress, why so few of us are willing to organize to turn things around? Such language does not inspire, empower or motivate people to take action. That requires a language of hope - the language I hear consistently within my church, and the gift that progressive people of faith have to offer.

I go to church, a kinky fellow who dwells in peace with vanilla people, each learning from one another, growing together, and willing to help one another. Join me - our door is always open!

[Originally posted September 15, 2007 on Myspace]