Friday, November 26, 2010

An Apology (Sort of) To the Family Research Council

Dear Tony Perkins:

I recently read your announcement demanding an apology from the Southern Policy Law Center for including your organization, the Family Research Council, in its latest list of "hate groups."

Granted, I'm not affiliated with them, so I cannot speak for them. But since I do support them, and since you would very likely include me as someone on "the Left" -- and, perhaps worse, the Religious Left -- then I might as well respond.

I'm sorry the SPLC saw fit to label your organization as a hate group. I'm sorry that they saw so much vitriol in your official publications, and so much effort made towards demonizing an entire group of Americans, that they were afraid for those Americans.

I'm sorry that they were alarmed about your opposition to efforts at ending bullying in public schools, solely because those programs merely mentioned that some people feel attraction and romantic love towards people of the same gender, or identify with a gender which doesn't fit with their biological sex.

I'm sorry that they are worried about the FRC advocating "criminal sanctions against homosexual behavior" being enshrined into law and enforced by police and prosecutors across the country. Forget the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, or the very idea that government shouldn't be intruding into people's private lives. Such basic rights shouldn't apply to those people, right?

I'm sorry that your view of morality is so narrow. You claim to root your positions in the "Judeo-Christian worldview." All well and good, but didn't the prophets call for justice and mercy? And didn't Jesus command that we should love our neighbor, and even our enemies? Didn't he also warn against casting judgment on others, and called on his disciples to serve the poor?

I'm sorry that you are so obsessed with other people's sexuality that you feel the need to raise and spend millions of dollars towards scapegoating them, when those millions could have been used towards, let's see, feeding the hungry.

I'm sorry that you feel the need to appeal to fear and and ignorance, instead of encouraging Christians and gays to come and reason together (Isaiah 1:18). I'm sorry that you feel so threatened by the pluralism of our society -- the very same pluralism which has allowed the religious liberty you enjoy -- that you believe you need to target outsiders for blame and shame, rather than make an effort to understand them.

I'm sorry the Family Research Council has been labeled a hate group. Perhaps now you could do something about it?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Catholics, Condoms and Confusion

So Pope Benedict XVI has said - finally - that he could see some cases where condom use to prevent the spread of HIV as being morally permissible. A small step, but in the minds of many folks (including many Catholics) definitely a step in the right direction.

Here's where the confusion comes in: The Vatican is insisting that this does not represent a change in Catholic teaching on condom use.

Uno momento. For decades now, popes have been saying "no" to condoms. Even if you're married and preventing the spread of HIV. Absolute rule, no exceptions. Then the current pope says he can see where, in certain cases, it's a good thing. That's not a change?

Well, according to the Associated Press report...

The Holy See's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed that Benedict was not "morally justifying" the unbridled exercise of sexuality and the church's main advice in the fight against AIDS remains the same: promoting sexual abstinence and fidelity among married couples.

The logic, apparently, is that since the Vatican is still stressing abstinence and monogamy, then its fundamental teaching hasn't changed. Except for one thing: An even more fundamental aspect of the church's moral philosophy has changed.

Originally, the leadership of the Catholic church adhered to absolutism - there is only one morally correct answer, and no deviation is allowed. And that's been the Vatican's problem in terms of being able to adapt to new facts and realities: absolutism allows no exceptions. As soon as you allow an exception, for whatever reason, you're no longer absolutist.

As soon as the Pope said that condoms can be used in certain circumstances, even very narrow ones, then he crossed the line from absolutism to contextualism. So, in a sense, this is representing a shift in Catholic teaching. Maybe Benedict and the other Cardinals are just too stubborn to admit it.

Well, it should be obvious to anyone who reads this blog that I consider it a welcome change. If the Catholic church is indeed going to stand for life, then they need to take the realities of life into account. And if this small step helps them to do that, we should applaud and support it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Kink Going Mainstream? Are We Forgetting Something?

Lately, I've seen other kinksters posting on Fetlife and other places "examples" of kink going "mainstream" - basically the use of BDSM and fetish imagery in otherwise vanilla media. A few have even argued that this is a "good thing" and that we shouldn't be so worried about reaching out to and educating vanilla folks.

I respectfully disagree.

First of all: Just because someone in mainstream media appropriates the imagery of a particular group of people, that doesn't necessarily mean that they fully comprehend what that means. One clip I saw, for example, were two soap opera characters in a steamy encounter, with the woman dressed like a dominatrix, handcuffing the guy and spouting aggressive dialogue about getting whatever she wants. No negotiation or assurance of safety ("Oh no, where'd I put the key?"). Just another stereotypical portrayal meant to titillate the average viewer.

And the biggest thing lost on folks - both the scriptwriters and actors, and the BDSM folks who might applaud it? That couple could get into trouble just for being kinky.

In many jurisdictions, consensual bondage and sadomasochism could get you arrested for assault and battery, domestic violence, false imprisonment and any other charges a cop can think of. Ridiculous as it may sound, laws can be and continue to be interpreted to make consensual yet unconventional eroticism a punishable offense.

Not to mention kinksters who have been fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, expelled from otherwise liberal faith communities, even verbally and physically abused when outed as kinky.

I think it more accurate to say there is more awareness of kink than to say it's "going mainstream" in any real sense of the word. The GLBT community is much further along than we are, largely because of the efforts of educators and activists. Whether we want to become genuinely mainstream, or merely left alone, we can't rely on flawed and fleeting media images to do that for us. There's more to raising authentic awareness than that, and it requires the hard work of educating our vanilla neighbors.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

We Can Make It Better

I’ve lost count of the stories of GLBTQ youth who, subject to so much bullying and abuse, chose to end their pain by ending their very lives. I’ve seen folks posting and cross-posting videos and blogs telling other victims of bullying to keep living, to hang on, because eventually it will get better. I’ve heard others rightly complain about holding the bullies to account for their actions, or the adults who failed to act.

Here is my story…

I was a skinny and awkward kid – the perfect target for bullies. And, sure enough, they came after me. When I would come home from school angry and in pain, my parents did not just comfort me and tell me to hang in there. My mother marched into the principal’s office and told him she would not put up with it. And when he replied that he could only do so much, she then said: “I’ll help you.” She signed up to be a recess monitor, showing up for school each day, intervening whenever she saw any kid being hit or harassed.

My father joined in. A leader with our town’s Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, he made it clear that bullying would not be tolerated. He reminded the boys in his charge that the principles of the Scout Oath and Scout Law called on them not only to refrain from bullying themselves, but to speak out and step in whenever they saw it. And when a man who is six feet five and two hundred fifty pounds tells you something like that, you listen!

My parents didn’t just tell us, in word and deed, that violence and harassment were unacceptable. They reminded us that we each have the power to do something about it – maybe not the whole world all at once, but one kid at a time, one school at a time, one community at a time. It is what my parents did for me, and for other kids like me, which would empower me to speak up and step in for GLBTQ rights as a hetero ally. It is the example of my parents which led me to Unitarian Universalism, a faith tradition which at its core summons the power in each of us not just to believe that things will get better, but to do what we can to make the world a better place.

Now it’s time to pay it forward…

If you’re a young person reading this, and you know someone in your school or town who is being bullied, speak up and step in. That could be you, or your sister or brother. It can be scary, even painful, but think of the fear and pain that kid is going through. Tell your parents, your teachers, your principal, your Scouting leaders, someone at your religious community – anyone who will listen. Tell other kids about what’s going on, and do what you can to support those who are being bullied, and stand up against those who bully.

If you’re a parent, and you hear about a kid being bullied, speak up and step in. Even if it’s not your kid, it could be. Talk to that kid’s parents. Talk to the parents of the bullies. Talk to any parents who will listen. Tell the school board what’s going on, and remind them just how serious the consequences could be. Step in through the PTA, your community of faith, your local Scouting or youth group. Set an example, and encourage your kids to do the same.

If you’re a teacher, counselor, school administrator, youth advisor, speak up and step in. These kids – all of them – are under your care. If you allow one to bully another, then you give approval for it to get worse. Stop it before it gets worse. Let every kid who bullies another kid know that you will not put up with it. Let every kid who tells you about bullying that you’re proud of them. And let every kid who is bullied know that you’re there for them.

It can get better. It will get better. It must get better. And it can happen a lot quicker if each of us, working together, resolve to do what we can to make it better.

Are you with me?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why I am Not a "New Atheist"

In my younger days, I was quite the infidel. I led a campus groups of freethinkers and secular humanists, and continued for many years after graduation.

And then, I left. I'd had enough of the overwhelming negativity -- the emphasis on how wrong the other side was, and how "we" were not like "them."

From what I've seen, both inside and out, there is nothing all that "new" about the so-called New Atheism. Read the freethought literature of the nineteenth century, and you'll hear the same strident tone of scientific certainty. Problem is, when you embrace such an uncompromising approach, what happens when you disagree with one another? Sadly, I witnessed the answer to that question within hard-core atheist ranks, and it broke my heart.

New Atheism too often comes across as merely the mirror image of the religious absolutists which they tend to target. Worse, they fail to see how their own views and approach are as much a matter of faith as their counterparts. Yes, they pay attention to empirical facts, but sometimes their understanding of those facts seems rather simplistic.

Too many supposedly liberal folks, for example, seem to regurgitate the belief that "homosexuality is genetic," when the facts are much more complex than that. For example, many tendencies may have biological antecedents which are not necessarily genetic in origin. Then there is the interplay of social and psychological factors, the interaction of gender identity with sexual orientation, how people's perception and understanding of themselves can change over time, and so on. And just as a pure genetics argument is simplistically deterministic, believing that homosexuality is a choice still begs the question of why it must be considered as inherently unethical.

Given how vehemently New Atheists put down religion, it's incredible that they would even lower themselves to work with progressive religious folks on common issues like GLBT rights and reproductive choice. They remind me of Ayn Rand denouncing both conservatism and libertarianism because neither was pure enough for her tastes. And it reminds me of the smug BDSM dominant who pejoratively labeled open discussion groups at a Unitarian Universalist congregation as "come to Jesus meetings".

I'm sure that some would argue that this portrayal of New Atheism is itself overly simplistic. Then again, even portrayals of evangelicals can be overly simplistic. Just look at Jim Wallis, who considers arguments over homosexuality and evolution as distractions from more important questions of social justice and equity. Bottom line, the New Atheists appear to be spending so much energy critiquing religion -- whether just the extremists or altogether -- that they beg the question of how they hope to usher in a better world. Just what is their vision, and how does it guide their actions?

That, ultimately, is the real poverty behind the New Atheism. While religious and political movements are at least guided by a positive vision, militant unbelief is trapped in a never-ending cycle of combative philosophical debate. So, if we are to make a better world for all of us, we need to go beyond mere intellectual sparring -- as deep as the human heart, and as broad as the human family.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Time to Get Out of the Leather Ghetto

Is it just me, or has the kink community gotten rather conservative?

I certainly don’t mean in the sense of endorsing Republican or Tea Party candidates, or working with Concerned Women for America. But I do mean a seeming lack of effort in looking for change. I mean the way that members of the Gay Liberation Front looked at the older Mattachine Society.

Truth be told, Mattachine had its own internal conflicts between those pushing for more activism, and those who argued for assimilation and public education. But I’m definitely seeing a parallel here. Like Mattachine, even though the bulk of BDSM and Leather groups espouse educating the public as one of their major goals, I’m hard pressed to find that actually being done.

Worse, even the low-key efforts which I’ve had to do among Unitarian Universalists has led to my being attacked – personally as well as politically – and histrionically labeled as an obnoxious extremist.

If you don’t believe me, go look at the website of the New England Leather Alliance, and see if you can find any signs of life in their “external outreach” efforts. Is there a list of actual accomplishments in this area? Yes, there are relevant documents from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom – but where’s the evidence that they have actually acted on them? And it’s certainly no help that the position of Director of External Outreach has remained vacant for months. You’d think that, if this was indeed a priority, the current leaders of NELA would make an effort to recruit someone.

I’m sure there are some examples of public outreach being done by local groups and activists. The problem is in finding them, especially when the websites of these groups won’t even list them. They’ll talk about events and educational programs for kinksters - which we certainly need – but go into specifics about talking to vanilla folks, and the well comes up dry. Certainly more public events like the Folsom Street Fair provide visibility and a sense of community pride – but if a vanilla tourist is walking about lost among the spanking and bondage demos, what then? Museums have tour guides and information booths, so why can’t Folsom?

It’s as if the BDSM community has ghettoized itself – become so insular and inwardly focused, we forget one of the quintessential principles of political and social change: The smaller the minority, the greater the need to build alliances and coalitions with outside groups. So if we want to change the laws and social attitudes which lead us to remain isolated and misunderstood, then we have to leave the leather ghetto and talk with vanilla folks, whether one on one or in panel discussions or mass media.

It’s been said that the number one rule of the Old Guard was: “Don’t scare the villagers.” Many appear to have interpreted that to mean that we should always keep out of sight. Well, it’s too late for that – the villagers know we exist. And while some will always be scared of us, no matter what we say or how we say it, that’s no reason we should remain so scared that we can’t find a way to engage the rest of the village in dialogue and understanding.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Problem with Christine O'Donnell

As you might expect, I have a problem with Christine O'Donnell.

Before her Republican primary win in Delaware, she had appeared on television and radio preaching an extreme message of "chastity" -- not just abstinence from sex with other people, but abstaining from masturbation as well. She has promoted herself as an example of someone who can remain chaste until married, and generalizes that anyone and everyone can and should follow that example.

She opposes abortion to an extreme degree. When asked if she would allow a critically ill woman to terminate a pregnancy in order to save her life, she said she would allow it if her family consented.

She's claimed that she's "dabbled in witchcraft", that one of her high school dates took her to a "midnight picnic" at a "Satanic altar" complete with evidence of blodd sacrifice. Given my own knowledge of modern paganism, based on both personal contacts and extensive research, this doesn't sound all that believable. Sounds more like some of her high school peers decided to pull a prank on her. Either that, or her perceptions and recollections are way off. Or, she made it up. We'll probably never know at this point.

O'Donnell is also a creationist. She has said in at least one media interview that she considers homosexuality an "identity disorder". She has also repeated the claims expounded in "abstinence-only" propaganda that condoms have holes large enough for HIV to pass through. These are views which run completely counter to the findings of rigorous scientific study. She's yet to produce any solid evidence to prove the scientists wrong, and her comments sound like she's merely regurgitating fundamentalist Christian dogma.

And I won't even get into the allegations of financial mismanagement - personal, professional and political.

Besides, my problem with her is not her beliefs. We're all entitled to believe whatever we want, and to persuade others to agree, no matter how wacky.

My problem with Christine O'Donnell is that if this woman is elected to the Senate, she will be in a position to shape public policy based on these extreme beliefs. And that, quite frankly, is dangerous.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Who Says It's Private?

The right to privacy has long been treasured in American political culture. We don’t want government to interfere in our personal lives, especially regarding sexuality, and we tend to be skeptical of other busybodies as well. It is a cornerstone for many of the advances in sexual justice and freedom, from reproductive rights to GLBT equality.

Privacy has also been invoked in a negative sense as well – to silence and constrain already marginalized groups. Because our culture deems sex “a private matter,” not only do we proscribe sexually explicit media to ridiculous extremes, but we still debate whether couples should be allowed to hold hands or exchange a kiss in public. More often than not, however, privacy is invoked as a reason for upholding double standards upon those less powerful. A woman can put up a picture of her beloved on her desk at work – but if that beloved is another woman, don’t be surprised if someone accuses her of being “militant” or “flaunting” about her sexuality. A spiritual community will encourage folks to come to events with their partners – but no more than one at a time. And no problem saying where you and your partner met – unless you happened to meet at a fetish-themed nightclub.

Granted, some people are just not ready to hear all of that. But there’s a big difference between admitting personal discomfort, and using it to declare an objective moral rule that certain “private” realities are permanently off limits. Many people see this as a form of rationalization, but I wonder if there’s something deeper at work. Western culture, and American culture especially, is one which discourages folks from admitting to weakness. Admitting personal discomfort with something can sound very much like a personal failing, as opposed to creating a moral proscription based on that discomfort.

Nor is it confined to outright conservatives. Many folks who are comfortable with GLBT friends, or who are queer themselves, may bristle at discussions of polyamory or kink. Often they make the distinction between “orientation” and “behavior” – who you’re drawn to, or what gender with which you identify, versus how many partners or what you choose to do with them. Are they forgetting that holding your beloved’s hand on the street, or displaying their picture in your cubicle or office, is also considered behavior – and also likely to be declared “off limits” by someone who takes offense? Should we not ask ourselves whether it is the behavior itself which makes us uncomfortable, or the reality which it represents?

The very meaning of privacy is the power of the individual to discern and decide which aspects of their lives should be free from intrusion, and from whom – to set a boundary, if you will, between what others can and cannot know about you. Respecting privacy is not merely about staying on your side of the boundary, but letting the other person determine who or what belongs on which side. Should the comfort level of others be a part of that decision? Of course - but not the only part, and certainly not when it threatens one's integrity, or otherwise damages souls or relationships. Boundaries ultimately need to be negotiated, in good faith among equals who are willing to learn and grow together.

Monday, September 6, 2010

SHALOM: Towards a Theology of Wholeness

Sermon delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA on September 5, 2010

CHALICE LIGHTING – Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Within us is the soul of the whole; the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal One. When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue, when it flows through our affections, it is love" – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many sermons have been preached from this pulpit based upon a single story, or a single sentence. This one is based upon a single word – but a word with more complex meaning than you may have realized.

SHALOM has often been translated into English as “Peace.” Thus, when we hear of the word being used in the same way as “Hello” and “Good-bye,” we think in terms of bidding one another peace.

But, what kind of peace? Is it the same as the Latin Pax, meaning an agreement between two or more persons or groups? Is it like the ancient Greek Eirene, meaning rest or quiet?

No, SHALOM stems from a different root, one that conveys wholeness, integrity, and well-being. From that root also comes the verb l’shalem, “to pay,” and thus the implication that peace, wholeness and all that come with it must be bought with a price. Biblical scholar James Strong additionally included as possible definitions: to make amends, to make good, to restore, and prosperity.

With all that in mind, think now of the multitude of meanings one could garner when one person greets another with the word SHALOM:
“May you know wholeness.”
“May all things be good with you.”
“May all that is broken be restored.”
“May all you deserve be received.”

I think it no accident that the ancient Hebrews found so much meaning in such a small word. The very structure of the language allows for multiple understandings based on a common imagery. In this day and culture, what imagery can we invoke to better understand the wholeness of SHALOM?

Let me propose the image of a puzzle. Imagine that you are given a box, and inside are a number of intricately shaped pieces. As you look them over, you realize that some fit together in an obvious way. And as you sort and play about with them, you find other, less obvious ways to put those pieces together.

But, it’s a big puzzle, and it takes time and effort. So other folks come over, see what you’re doing, and suggest putting this piece in here, or sliding that piece over there. Once in a while, someone will suggest that you discard a particular piece, while another may insist that the box you were given is missing a piece. Eventually, with enough effort and insight, the pieces come together and a form takes shape – the puzzle is restored to wholeness.

Our lives – both individually and in community – can be seen as very much a puzzle, a collection of different pieces which are meant to fit together. Many times, we seek the insights of others to help us find what fits where. The difference, of course, is that we’re not given all of the pieces all at once. Many come to us over time, in the form of education and experience. Still, we need to find a way to fit them together, to bring the final form to shape.

Now, for those who come from a conservative religious background, this analogy may be pushing buttons for you. The Old Testamant prophet Jeremiah used a similar image, of a potter turning clay into a vessel. To many conservative theologians, the analogy is clear – God is the potter, and we are the clay, to be shaped according to his will. Likewise, one can see a conservative interpretation of the puzzle analogy, with God as the puzzle master, working through us and those around us to put the broken pieces back together.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I have a more positive and complex understanding of both images. I can see the Divine not as the potter, but as the source of the clay and water used to make the pot. We are the potter, kneading the clay, turning it on the wheel, artfully shaping it with our hands, while others do the same and offer help and advice. Likewise, we receive the pieces of our puzzle, and as each piece comes in due course, find its proper place in the whole, with help from those around us.

As useful as this image may be, like all metaphors it is merely a tool, and even the most useful of tools has its limits. For one thing, our industrialized culture has influenced us to think of things like puzzles as uniform objects, like mass-produced jigsaws, or the Rubik’s Cube. But neither the human soul nor the beloved community are mass-produced artifacts; our perceptions and experiences are rarely, if ever, one size fits all. We may share insights, as we share a common humanity, but the myriad details of individual experience call for us to adapt them to the unique realities of our lives.

This, I believe, is the answer to a frequent critique of the pluralistic approach of Unitarian Universalism. How can a movement which eschews doctrine and creed call itself a common faith, much less offer clear answers to the problems of life? It is because of the complexities of life that we need a faith which looks beyond ready-made formulas which often wind up dividing and separating us, even splitting the psyche from within.

Many spiritual traditions, for example, call upon people to overcome anger, fear, hatred and pain. In the quest to find spiritual well-being and peace, too often we read this as a call to discard or extinguish these parts of ourselves. Yet we do so at our peril. The quest for wholeness calls for us not to disown or shove aside unpleasant aspects of our psyche, but to put them in their proper place, to find a way to own them without letting them own us. We can be angry, for example, and it can even empower us to seek justice or avoid further harm. It is when we let it fester into a consuming rage that we risk becoming that which has injured us.

Likewise, in the life of a community, there is often the temptation to downplay the more unsavory elements of our history. A movement may pursue justice, yet adapt tactics which are themselves oppressive. Another community may extol the power of love, yet turn that love inward to the comfortable familiar, and in the process exclude those on the outside who starve for compassion and understanding.

An example can be seen in the tumult surrounding the Stonewall riot of 1969. After so many years of continued repression and violence at the hands of police, a relative handful of drag queens, street kids and other queers decided all at once that enough was enough, and rose in revolt. What is often forgotten is how the events of those summer nights were followed by bitter debates and division within the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. The Mattachine Society decried the violence and distanced themselves from those involved – and those who became involved in the burgeoning Gay Liberation movement responded that such distancing was no mean feat, as the relatively more affluent and assimilated homophile group had constantly kept many in the community at arm’s length.

They further questioned just how effective Mattachine’s more cautious approach had been, and even whether it had unintentionally aided anti-gay oppression in its striving to craft a more respectable image for itself. That debate went on for decades, and continues to this day, just as many gay men, lesbian women, bisexual and transgender folks and other sexual minorities struggle within and amongst each other to find a balance between being true to ourselves and fitting in with a culture which is not yet fully accepting of our truths.

It is that striving for reconciliation, for restoring integrity and wellness within our souls and our communities, that can seem frustrating to us. We may solve that fiendish Rubik’s Cube, and put it down with a sigh of relief – until someone comes along and messes it up again. But unlike the plastic pieces of a machine-made puzzle, the heart is a living thing, and like all living things it grows and changes with time. So even if, by miracle and effort, each of us finds that wholeness and peace of mind we seek, we are still called to grow in that wholeness. And just as every living thing is interconnected one to another, so our fate is bound with others, and so we are called to help others as best we can to find SHALOM together.

Amen and blessed be


May you know wholeness.
May all things be good with you.
May all that is broken be restored.
May all you deserve be received.
And as this brings you peace,
May you strive to share and create
The peace and goodness so needed
In this world of which we are a part.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Stone Age Sex, Modern Polyamory

The new book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality has been getting a great deal of buzz lately, especially with the co-authors' strong refutation that monogamy is not natural for humans. A number of polyamorists and sex radicals have been posting "told-you-so" commentary on blogs and social network pages -- and I can only imagine what more conservative folks are thinking.

Having studied social and behavioral science, I'm always skeptical of any extreme claims about human nature, whether it's about being "hard-wired" one way or another, or the old-fashioned "blank slate" theory. Neither is entirely accurate, even when talking about something as instinctive as sexuality.

For one thing, humans have enormous variability, even in the most basic elements. Some individuals have powerful libidos, while others have little to none. The question of sexual behavior -- how we channel that desire -- is as much molded by culture and psychology as it is by hormones and neurons.

Sex at Dawn provides great scientific insights, and challenges long-held preconceptions about human sexuality. But it's far from a handbook on sexual ethics. Even if we are "wired" for promiscuity, that doesn't mean we're compelled to get it on with anyone and everyone who turns us on. Our brains are also wired for more complex emotional relationships, and to anticipate long term consequences. And a sound ethical approach is one which finds a balance between primal instinct, social necessity, and individual variation.

Human nature is complex, including human sexuality. Just as we need to be skeptical about the false dichotomy of biological determinism versus tabula rasa, we also need to reject the either-or fallacy of "traditional morality" versus "moral chaos". Hopefully the buzz around this book will open people's eyes to the ethical approach adopted by polyamorists and others -- one based on consent and respect, including respect for the realities of human diversity.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Just a thought or two on the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" ...

So many folks are commenting about Par51, also known as the Cordoba House project, also erroneously being called the "Ground Zero Mosque." And how, you might ask, does this tie in with sexuality and spirituality?

Bear with me.

First off, the proposed Islamic center is not being built on Ground Zero, but a couple of blocks away. There are already several businesses there -- bars, street vendors selling baseball caps and cheap souvenirs, a McDonald's, a betting parlor.

And a couple of strip clubs. Yup, strip clubs near the "hallowed ground" of Ground Zero. If you don't believe me, read for yourself.

And what do the strippers think of all the brouhaha? Well, if the ladies that Andrew Grossman are a representative sample, they're fine with it. They support religious freedom -- if you can have churches and synagogues in lower Manhattan, then no problem having a mosque.

Doesn't surprise me.

Lots of folks in the erotic trades tend towards libertarian attitudes. Given the nature of their business -- and the prevailing social attitudes towards them -- its a necessity. And, just like everyone else, many exotic dancers and sex workers are spiritual people.

Fits nicely in another way, too. Because the fellow who wants to build this center is not a rabid extremist, but a Sufi who has been doing years of work reaching out to people of all faiths, making it clear that what the 9/11 terrorists did went completely against the core values of Islam. Obviously he didn't have a problem with having a couple of strip clubs nearby. After all, there had been two mosques in the area, even closer to the World Trade Center, prior to the terrorist attacks. And a makeshift worship site has been set up at the Park51 location to take in the overflow for them. Seems to me that making the arrangement permanent is more than appropriate.

So here's the rub for all those "decent" folks who are opposed to this project. If the ladies who work at the Pussycat Lounge and New York Dolls have no problem with having the center there, and the Imam looking to build the center has no problem with the strip clubs being nearby, isn't that a better example of the kind of world we want to live in than the rancor and hysteria being promoted by Sarah Palin and Company?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Leather & Grace, Part IV: For Those Who Wonder Why

Our culture is filled with preconceptions. One is that religious groups must have a binding creed or dogma, often rooted in a particular mythological narrative. Is it any wonder, then, that many are confused when first hearing about Unitarian Universalism – a pluralistic and non-creedal faith movement? And I’m sure many other UUs out there have experienced the frustration of trying to describe our movement to someone who simply cannot get past their preconception of what a religion ought to be.

Likewise, many of us have inherited preconceptions about sexuality and relationships. One of the biggest is that, since sex is supposed to be pleasurable, and since the opposite of pleasure is pain, then the very idea of being sexually aroused by pain is, well… you get the idea.

Closely related to that is fear. We kinksters often play with fear, uncertainty, and other otherwise unpleasant emotional states. And, just as with pain, that goes against what the vast majority of us have learned about sex and intimate relationships. You’re supposed to be loving and gentle with your partner, feed them strawberries and give good hugs … not scare the bejeezus out of them!

Well, what if they want to be scared? What if they are wired in such a way that they need more extreme stimulus than the average person?

And it’s not like vanilla folks avoid fear and pain completely. How many of you love going to scary movies or riding really wild roller-coasters? Or ordered the extra-spicy Buffalo wings, or more exotic fare like Icelandic cured shark? How many of you out there have run a marathon or lifted weights, and continued even when every muscle in your body screamed with pain? Or done bungee-jumping, hang-gliding or parachuting, even when – or because – it scared the bejeezus out of you?

The fact is that context is very important to how scary or painful we perceive an experience to be. One time when I was a kid, we were rushing out of the house before sunrise for a long drive to my grandparents. I grabbed what I thought was a pitcher of orange juice, hastily poured a glass, and found myself unexpectedly drinking grapefruit juice. It would take years before I drank another glass of grapefruit juice, and it was from that I learned about how your state of mind can affect your perception of reality. And that in turn would help me later in understanding how my submissive play partners so thoroughly enjoyed otherwise painful or frightening experiences, just as some enjoy intensely spicy foods or wild amusement park rides while others may shudder at the thought of them.

Delivering such experiences is no easy task. Just as you need an instructor to guide you in parachuting or bungee-jumping, so BDSM practices require specific knowledge and skills to be done right. There also needs to be full communication between partners, if both are to enjoy the experience they share.

But for many outside of the Scene, the question still remains: Why do these particular things? The exact answer can vary from one individual to another, but overall it is because it’s not simply about intense emotions and sensations. It is also about trusting another, exploring the primal depths of our desires, and creating a safe place to dance with the shadow part of ourselves.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Leather & Grace, Part III: Playing with Power

We UUs have, to put it mildly, a rather ambivalent relationship with power. On the one hand, we come across as extreme individualists; on the other, we retain many of the structures and trappings of our Protestant Christian forebears. We detest creeds and shibboleths, constantly reviewing and questioning every jot and tittle of the covenants and affirmations which hold us together, arguing over resolutions and forcefully asserting our right to disagree. Yet we still call ministers, elect congregational boards, and turn to district and national staff for guidance. And even then, there will be those who complain that all these elected and appointed elites have “too much power” for their tastes.

Perhaps this is a core reason why so many UUs are uneasy with BDSM. It’s not the flogging or the bondage gear or the fetish attire – it’s the issue of power, of one person being dominant and the other submissive. To be more specific, it’s about assumptions regarding power, and how those assumptions can cloud our perception of the reality of D/s relationships. Longtime leatherman Hardy Haberman sums it up best:

For most of the world, domination is a sign of anger and suppression, yet in the context of a leather scene it can be an act of caring and affection. As children we were taught that submission is a sign of weakness, yet in our realm submission becomes a voluntary surrender of power and an act worthy of respect.

Dominants do not simply demand power from a submissive, nor does the submissive simply bow down at any given dominant’s command. The healthy D/s relationship is one of continual communication, negotiation and mutual growth – just as in any other human relationship, including those we find in spiritual community. And while D/s relationships may be overtly hierarchical, they begin from an equal footing, with each partner retaining the right to call for a reassessment of their relationship dynamics.

This is not to say that we don’t have kinksters with their own issues about power and control. But the BDSM community is in many ways a paradigm of an explicitly covenantal community. From customs and etiquette to written rules and contracts, we are constantly negotiating and delineating how we interact with one another, and what it means to be part of our tribe.

“But don’t we do that in UU circles, too?” Sure, although I’d say a considerable number of UUs do so “under protest” – that is, they’d rather not have to deal with power structures within our movement. Even more so in personal relationships, where feminist and progressive sensibilities presume that partners must be completely equal. Problem is, what if you don’t want to be always equal all the time? If equality is imposed – whether by rule of law or force of habit – how is that better than imposing hierarchical relationships? On the other hand, if the partners in a relationship mutually agree to other models for sharing and entrusting power, and they are happy in such an arrangement, how is that worse than any other?

Lord Acton is famous for the warning: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – and you’ll note the emphasis added. When we consider power as a tool, a means to an end, then we are more likely to use it with balance, and to learn when and with whom it can be entrusted. It is when we see power as an end in itself, even as an entity unto itself, that we run into the dangers we so often fear.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Leather & Grace, Part II: Pushing Limits

This summer is my tenth anniversary when I first entered the realm of kink. I was having a summer fling with a wonderful young lady, when she asked if I would be willing to do some role-play. Not just any role-play, mind you. Dark, edgy, downright scary stuff. And it took quite a bit of convincing to get me there, and more work to process the intense emotional after-effects.

I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

BDSM is not easy. It takes learning not only various skills, but learning about oneself and the connection between what we do and the why behind it all. Still, there is a balance between allowing individuals to choose and affirm what speaks to them, and encouraging them to push their limits.

“Pushing limits” is a common phrase within the world of kink. Often it refers to a skilled top or dominant taking a bottom or submissive to the edge of where they want to go – their “limit” – and then carefully and skillfully “pushing” them just a little further. Yet it can also go the other way, just as my first experience pushed me past a limit I thought I’d never cross.

Limits are important for defining who we are, especially our desires and emotional needs. Yet they are not always so clear cut. We often speak in BDSM circles of “hard” and “soft” limits, and even so-called hard limits can be challenged in the right way. I remember hearing a woman describing her first experience with play piercing, which she had always feared because she expected it to be too painful for her to handle. When it was explained to her how it was actually done, and how the body typically reacted, she decided to try it under the guidance of a trusted and expert top. “Now,” she said, “I can’t get enough of it.”

Apply this ideal of pushing limits to spirituality and ethical thinking, and you have Unitarian Universalism at its best. Our whole history has been about pushing limits, from our early history of questioning Christian doctrines, to our evolution into a diverse and welcoming movement. Yet even with this history, we’re still human and too often fall short of that ideal. Where one limit has been pushed, another comes in its place.

An example of this is when, after describing myself as “heretical even by UU standards,” a young woman replied with wide eyes: “You mean … you’re a Republican?” Hilarious, yes, but what if a Republican or Libertarian who was attracted to our faith found herself surrounded by registered Democrats and Greens? What if a liberal Christian found that the only UU congregation in her area was overwhelmingly Humanist, Buddhist, Pagan, or a mixture thereof?

Such “what-if” scenarios have actually happened, and how we respond is the real test of our faith’s core values. And that includes those of us who engage in heretical forms of sexual expression, who not only push our own personal limits, but by our very existence challenge the assumption of how we may find joy and fulfillment in our relationships and erotic experiences.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Leather & Grace, Part I: Being Prophetic Outlaws

A core reason I have worked to build a bridge between Unitarian Universalists and kinksters is that I can see where the two groups could learn from one another. With that in mind, my next few blog posts will be devoted to giving examples of that…

One of the most profound truisms of human nature is what’s been called the “hedonistic paradox” – that pursuing pleasure and happiness in itself will not accomplish those goals in the long run, but pursuing other things somehow does. In fact, what this teaches us is that pleasure is not a goal in itself, but a means of measuring success, and not just in terms of how much but the quality of enjoyment.

Unitarian Universalists seem caught in a similar paradox. We’re constantly asking ourselves how we can fill our pews and coffers, but more often falling short of that goal. That also begs the question: What if we attracted huge numbers of people who did nothing but come to Sunday services and toss money in the collection plate? That could hardly be called a spiritual community! Yet I would argue that, if we continue to focus on increasing numbers as a goal in itself, that is what we risk becoming.

Compare this to the BDSM community. Many of the groups I’m familiar with do not try very hard to recruit members in large numbers, yet they’re able to attract and maintain members much better than many UU congregations. Instead of demanding money from folks, they make an effort to keep their costs down, and in the end are able to balance their books while offering high-quality educational and support services, including most importantly a place to belong and contribute one’s own gifts.

All this, mind you, despite the fact that the kink community is seen as an “outlaw” culture – rebels on the fringe of society. In a puritanical society so conflicted about sexuality, we dare to create a community around our sexuality, and to celebrate the differences among us. More important, we dare to be honest about it, to say: “This is who we are, take it or leave it.”

And, in many ways, Unitarian Universalists come from that same outlaw archetype. As heretics and dissidents, we also provide a challenge to the rest of the world. Where other religions demand adherence to rigid creeds and legalistic moralism, we give our members an even greater challenge – to think about what it means to be good and just, regardless of any particular spiritual path you wish to follow.

So maybe, just maybe, we UUs have been going about this all wrong. Maybe instead of constantly trying to justify who we are and craft a mainstream image of ourselves, we should simply be more honest, even dare to say: This is who we are, take it or leave it. Martin Luther, another religious outlaw, said much the same thing at the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen!”

That being said, we need to actually stand for something, to be rebels with a cause. After all, BDSM groups may be able to sustain themselves, but they haven’t changed the world much. Not for lack of trying, as evidenced by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, and the increased attention given to kink issues at the NGLTF’s Creating Change conferences. And contrast that now with how Unitarian Universalists have created change and advanced social and environmental justice, often in far greater proportion to our numbers.

That is the gift which UUs have to offer the kink community – a strong sense of vision and mission. We’re not just here to keep our church buildings in good shape, teach our kids comparative religion, or plan the next Sunday service. We’re here to bring heaven and earth together, starting from our own individual efforts to embody the values of love and justice in our everyday lives. And from there, coming together to both create spiritual communities around those shared values, both as an example for the rest of the world, and as a place from which we can call on the world to follow that example.

We are outlaws whether we like it or not. We might as well be prophetic outlaws, not content merely to sit apart from the mainstream, but to engage and to challenge. And that includes challenging one another, pushing our own limits, learning to be more creative. But, that’s a topic for another time…

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Compassion for the Closeted - And the Real Hypocrisy Behind It

Recently someone on my Facebook list posted a link to a scandalous story. In it, the president of a prominent Catholic high school in the Midwest had been caught in a sex sting, groping an undercover police officer in a park notorious for anonymous gay sex.

You'll notice I've refused to give any personal details here. It's bad enough this fellow has been forced out of the closet in his home town. Does he really need a kinky heretic like me adding to his misery?

There are different reasons different people keep their sexual identity away from public view. Whatever that reason, we should lean towards respecting them. If the person in question is a public figure renowned for "promoting family values", then exposing such hypocrisy seems more important than privacy.

In this case, however, we're dealing with a private individual with no record of espousing anti-GLBT propaganda. Yet he's also caught in the dilemma of having to deny his desires for intimacy and pleasure out of obedience to church doctrine. Well, you can only do that for so long. Is it any wonder, then, that he resorted to such risky action?

So I feel compassion for this fellow, and I hope he can find a way to come to grips with his sexuality, and to reconcile it with his faith. I feel that way for so many who feel they are caught between competing desires - the erotic and spiritual - and hope that they and their families and communities will come to see that these need not be mutually exclusive.

What really bothers me is the real hypocrisy behind all of this. Men like this school administrator can confess their sins, do their penance, and be forgiven for what is seen as a temporary lapse in moral judgement. If, however, they chose to live in a committed loving relationship, then all bets are off. Thus the churches which continually condemn anything outside of "traditonal marriage" wind up showing greater tolerance for behavior which is furthest away from that ideal.

This is the problem with a sexual moralism which fixates on form instead of being concerned with content. The forms are so many, contradictions and conundrums are inevitable. And in all of this, where is the value of love - not just for those who repent and obey church doctrine, but those who are willing to question bravely how those doctrines do more harm than good?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

It Takes Both Sides to Build a Bridge

Let me begin this post with an apology. If I sound angry, frustrated, or just plain fed up, it has nothing to do with you personally. I’ve been trying to comfort the afflicted for quite some time; now I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to afflict the comfortable. If you feel you don’t deserve the harshness of this message, please remember that there are those who do, or who fail to grasp how harsh silence can be. So, with that in mind, here goes …

As I went through the process of formally joining my congregation, I made it clear to the senior minister that I am openly kinky, and that part of my reason for joining was to help build a bridge between the two communities. And I asked her if she and the congregation were ready for that – to see more kinky folks come into the church, even reach out to the BDSM community, so that people on both sides might share their spiritual gifts with one another, and work together for justice and understanding.

She said that she believed that was possible, and that she could see me in that role of bridge builder. It was encouraging and empowering.

And now, I’m beginning to wonder.

Yes, I’ve come a long way. I’ve never hidden being kinky or polyamorous to anyone in the congregation, and they’ve been great about it. I’ve had others come out to me, even thank me for being as out as I am. Others have shown their appreciation for helping them understand sexuality issues better, whether at a Sacred Eros meeting or in private.

Yet there are others who simply do not want to talk about it. I’ve heard of at least one person who left the congregation over it, even though I had offered to answer any questions or concerns they had. And there are plenty of kinky and poly folks who have come to worship services or other events, found it a warm and inviting place, perhaps even a spiritual home, yet remain wary of going any further than “just visiting.”

I’ve heard from other UU kinksters in other congregations, and the news isn’t always pleasant. Many feel they must remain in the closet, because it’s clear that others are not comfortable with their presence. One woman told how she was hauled before a committee, questioned at length, then told to sign a one-sided covenant which would have barred her from so much as mentioning BDSM with anyone else, while the committee could selectively out her to others. Another told me that, after coming out to the new minister in private (as he had done when he joined years before) he was told it “would be for the best” if he simply left.

Granted, there will always be some who refuse to listen or understand. Even when the bridge is clearly before them, they will not walk across it, or welcome any who come from the other side. The real problem, however, is that there’s no bridge to speak of. Those of us who are kinky UUs often feel as though we have to swim back and forth between the shores, while the folks on either side expect us to build the bridge all by ourselves.

So, let me make it plain. Swimming from shore to shore is exhausting. And it takes more than one or a few hardy souls to build that bridge, and certainly not from one side alone. It takes both sides to build a bridge.

Unitarian Universalists cannot simply wait for BDSM folks to swim over. We’re already in your congregations, worshiping and serving alongside you. Many are silent, because they’ve already heard ignorant and fearful things said about them from others in the pews, or even from the pulpit. And the very reason I chose to come out to the members of my congregation is that I know from those silent kinfolk how soul-scarring that is.

That has to end. And, frankly, I can’t do it all by myself, nor can other kinky UUs be expected to do what I do all by themselves. We need ministers, educators, staff and lay leaders to join in. We need you to learn who we really are and what we’re really about. We need you to speak the truth in love whenever someone maligns us out of ignorance and fear. We need to welcome us as our whole selves, to see that the experience of our sexuality carries spiritual gifts worth sharing, and to encourage other UUs to do the same.

The same goes for those in the kink community. I have heard you talk for so long about changing laws and attitudes. Well, to do so will require allies, and you can’t just wait for them to come to you. You need to reach out to UU congregations, leaders and social justice organization. You need to help them understand what we kinksters have to go through. And yes, at the risk of sounding evangelical, you need to go to church, to understand who we are and what gifts we have to offer you.

Our two communities already have much in common, and much to offer one another – but that alone is not enough. The fact that so many UUs are so wary of us kinksters, and so many kinksters are so wary about church, tells me that we need more. We need to devote the time, resources and hard work to building that bridge, rather than assume that it’s already there. We need to realize that those of us with kinfolk on either side of the shore cannot afford to keep swimming from shore to shore. We need the experience of others who have built bridges, or who have enjoyed what has come over them, to lend a hand.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

When Eros Sings: Variations on a Theme

Sermon delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA - August 3, 2008

The song which calls to me, and which I wish to share with you today, is a love song.

It is a song of passion and pleasure, of joy and joining.

It is also a song of pain, of longing, of be-longing, of the conflicts and tensions which come whenever lives come together so intimately.

Each love song we sing and hear, and each way it is sung, is unique, just as each intimate relationship is unique and beautiful in its own way. The theme which runs through all of these is universal, with endlessly diverse variations.

How often we forget this. How often our minds connect so strongly to one song from our memory, and think of it as the universal song, the ideal by which all others are to be measured.

Consider the song sung as our first hymn this morning: "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine." Even the title is an echo of the first lines of the biblical Song of Solomon: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine … " How could such a song not be universal?

Well, for one thing, it follows the confines of gender, not only in that it is the story of a man and a woman, but of a man pursuing a woman, as traditional gender roles demand. Even more ideal, the man did so having "never been kissed" (and, presumably, neither had his partner), the two falling in love and marrying. As lovely as that story is, the majority of people go through several relationships before choosing to join with another for the long haul; some may never settle into a permanent relationship, yet still be perfectly content. The idealized couple in our song have children, but not all couples do. And while most people couple and remain monogamous (or at least try to) some find love and joy in groupings of three or more.

And what of the qualitative ways in which love is made manifest – the tempo and the mood? Here I would cite another song, by Bill Morrissey, where another husband and wife discuss what kind of wood to put in their stove on a cold winter night. Sipping a glass of wine, she suggests filling it with birches, inviting him to "watch as the fire burns bright" as they did in their younger days; yet he, grumbling about how he hates a cold house, insists on using oak, which "will burn as long and hot as a July afternoon." So often we are drawn to the bright passion, like burning birches, yet told to strive for a more mature and lasting love like oak – yet, like the woman in Morrissey's song, how we miss the splendid "hungry light" of first romance, however brief, wondering how we could have both birches and oak.

Finally, the satirist Tom Lehrer takes that notion of fiery all-consuming passion to a darkly humorous extreme:

I ache for the touch of your lips, dear,
But much more for the touch of your whips, dear.
You can raise welts
Like nobody else
As we dance to the Masochism Tango.
Let our love be a flame, not an ember
Say it's me that you want to dismember
Blacken my eye
Set fire to my tie
As we dance to the Masochism Tango.

Now, who could take something like that to heart? Well, as satirical as that is, many of us in the BDSM or "kink" community have embraced Lehrer's parody as an unofficial anthem. For once, someone has composed a song which, however imperfectly and mockingly, acknowledges that what we do is about love and passion.

So many songs, so many ways to sing them. Such a variety of ways to find joy, love, pleasure and connection with another.

What then is the theme, the common thread, which joins them all together? How do we bring together our diverse sexualities and relationship patterns – queer and straight, monogamous and polyamorous, vanilla and kinky, intersex, asexual, and more – in harmony with the universal song of Eros? This is the challenge which I, in my own self-exploration, have found myself taking up. How do I bring the principles and values of my UU faith to bear on something so intensely powerful and personal? And how can we, as a spiritual community, do so in a way which transforms ourselves and our world for the better?

If we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, then let us affirm in word and deed alike that each of us is deserving of love, joy and pleasure. Sounds easy enough, but how often we forget to affirm this – including for ourselves.

If we believe in justice, equity and compassion, then let us speak out against both discrimination towards sexual and gender minorities, and sexual abuse and exploitation; let us further temper our attitudes and actions with compassionate concern, not only for the victims of these wrongs, but for their perpetrators as well.

If we believe in accepting one another as we are, then let us affirm each person's self-determination in how best to fulfill their desires, encouraging one another in a sexual ethic governed by honesty, respect for oneself and others, mutual consent, awareness of risk, and the affirmation of pleasure. In her book Sensuous Spirituality, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott recalled that one of the greatest gifts of inspiration she received was the advice to avoid condemning any other person's attempts to relate, however imperfect we may find it to be.

If we believe in a free and responsible search for meaning and truth, then let us speak up for comprehensive education on sexuality, not only for our children and youth, but as part of a continuous and lifelong process of growth, as a way of furthering our understanding and appreciation of the human condition.

If we believe in democracy and the right of conscience, and the goal of a just community with liberty for all, then let us provide safe spaces where people can discuss their questions, concerns and desires regarding sexuality, whether with an intimate partner, or in the context of community.

And if we believe that we are a part of an interdependent web of existence, then let us be mindful that our erotic selves are an integral part of our whole selves, and as such, one with a vital spiritual component. Let us not only infuse our respective sexualities with spiritual values and practice, but in return enliven our spirituality with a celebration of the sensuous and erotic, recognizing and affirming as the late John O'Donohue noted, the "secret relationship between our physical being and the rhythm of our soul," that "[t]he body is the place where the soul shows itself."

Above all else, my friends, let us not be complacent. It is easy to compare ourselves with those holding more conservative and puritanical approaches to sexuality and relationships, patting ourselves on the back for being so much more welcoming and open-minded. But the challenge of our progressive faith is that we must constantly question and challenge one another. We must not only speak our truths in love, but listen when others do the same, and be mindful that doing so also means speaking truth to power – including the "powers-that-be" amongst us. To hearken back to the admonition of Jesus, we need to look for the mote in our own eye before pointing to the speck in others.

The love song which calls to each of us is but one variation of the song which Eros sings to us all. Some can sweep us away, others make us think more deeply, and a few may even freak us out. But each one in the repertoire has something to tell us about ourselves and our wider human family. Like love and joy and pleasure, these songs are something to be shared, so that each of us may learn and grow and heal.


Sacred Eros: Embodying the Divine in Our Sexualities

A homily delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA - September 5, 2007

Jesus Christ. The Buddha. The Prophet Mohammed. Lao Tzu.

What do you think of when you hear these names? Their spiritual teachings? The examples of their lives? I’ll wager that the last thing you think about is their lives as sexual human beings, with desires and passions like our own.

This is just one example of how our culture – even in so-called liberal quarters – persists in dividing sexuality and spirituality from one another. Eros, as passionate and primal love, was demoted by early Christian theologians who claimed that the “higher” spiritual love of agape was the ideal to which all people should aspire. In fact, this so-called split between physical passion and spiritual love owes more to the influence of Manichean and Stoic dualism on the thought of Augustine and other church fathers, and ignores how the Bible not only includes the Song of Solomon, but in many places uses the terms agape and eros interchangeably.

Granted, we have come a long way since then, both in theory and in practice. There is the fact that I can stand here and deliver this homily, in one of many churches which welcome people of all sexual and gender identities. Then there is our denomination’s shared work with the United Church of Christ in creating and presenting one of the most widely praised sexuality education series, “Our Whole Lives.” But it’s hard to overcome centuries of anti-sex dualism. Ours is still a rarified atmosphere here at Arlington Street Church, and much of the surrounding American culture would prefer not to talk seriously about sexuality, or to do so in embarrassed, even shameful whispers. Even supposedly progressive and enlightened individuals can be, and often are, reticent to discuss and come to terms with various aspects of human sexual expression.

This is the challenge to progressive spiritual communities such as ours. If sexuality is as important an aspect of our being as any other, then is it not as much spiritual as anything else? If it is a source of joy, pleasure and connection, then should we not then see it as a means by which we may embody the Divine within and amongst ourselves? And if we wish, in the words of lesbian feminist theologian Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, to reclaim Eros as a spiritual urge, then should we not dare to rethink the very presumptions by which we view the myriad ways that we and our fellow human beings express and connect through sexuality?

First: We need to create a safe space where people can talk about sexuality. In her book Our Tribe, Reverend Nancy Wilson talked about how, whenever representatives of the Metropolitan Community Church would attend meetings of the National Council of Churches, they would become impromptu counselors on sexuality and relationships, often having NCC delegates and staff knocking on their hotel room doors in the middle of the night, painfully in need of someone to talk to. Set aside the presumption that openly gay or lesbian people are somehow instant experts on sex. Why would people, many of them trained clergy and pastoral counselors themselves, turn to relative strangers in the middle of the night for advice and information on sex? Could it be that their own churches have failed to provide a safe space to ask and answer these questions? And when turning the lens on our own congregation and movement, to what extent do we provide sanctuary in this area of our lives, not only as a physical space of refuge, but a continuing process of reconciliation and renewal?

Second: We need to rethink what we mean by “sex.” We often confine sex to engaging in intercourse, or some form of genital contact. But what of our hands, our eyes, our mouths, our entire bodies? What of our thoughts and feelings and sensations? By confining the erotic to the mere genital, how much do we disembody sexuality from the rest of our selves, and reduce sex to a mere “thing” that we do? Consider how we express this in our language – how we talk about “having sex” with someone, instead of being sexual – and how your very thoughts and feelings might change if you likewise made that change in phrasing.

Third: We need to rethink the prerequisites for relating sexually with another. By this, I certainly do not mean that we should divorce the erotic from the emotional. On the contrary, I believe our world would be a better place if we engaged in more emotional investment – more caring, more consideration, more respect, more passion – in all we do. What I do question is the insistence that sexual expression requires such a highly idealized level of emotional commitment between partners. Mutual respect, mutual affection and mutual joy – absolutely! But why demand perfection, and then make people feel like failures when they can’t achieve it?

The fourth challenge I wish to offer is perhaps the most daunting: We need to continually question our own individual sexualities. In our effort to be an inclusive community, our acronym of sexual identities has increasingly expanded, and includes a “Q” for “questioning.” But, what if we were, all of us, always questioning, and in the process of doing so, always growing, changing, exploring and discovering?

I was fortunate to have parents who taught me very early about gays and lesbians, and in a nonjudgmental manner. As a teenager, I decided to take the step of deliberately questioning my own sexual orientation, even though I felt quite certain about it. I emerged still identifying as a heterosexual male, but with a deeper appreciation of the difficult process of coming out, and a healthier attitude towards gender roles and gender identity – that one needn’t be “macho” to be masculine.

What I regret is that I did not take this process even further, along other dimensions of sexuality, daring to explore the unconventional side of Eros until much later in life. Now that I have – and continue to do so -- I feel more whole, my sexuality more integrated in all aspects of my humanity, a part of me instead of apart from me. I have a greater appreciation for both the diversity and the unity of Eros, that our different sexualities cannot be so easily boxed into discreet categories, but fall along a continuum of possibilities. Most important, I have come to transcend merely thinking and believing at an intellectual level, to feel and know more profoundly through my physical, emotional and spiritual experiences of the erotic.

And so I stand before you, an example of the metanoia – that state of being transformed in the renewal of one’s mind – that can come from an authentic integration of sexuality and spirituality. My journey is certainly not complete, and it is one which humbles me. But with great challenges come great rewards, and if we are to help heal the wounds of the world, let us start with ourselves.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Core Values ... or Puritanical Legalism?

You'd have to be a hermit in the tundra to be unaware of how conservative Christians have upheld opposition to abortion, contraception, homosexuality and sex education other than "abstinence-only" as going against their beliefs. What you may not have heard is how it's been ratcheted up. These positions aren't just beliefs, or even "deeply-held religious beliefs" -- they are now deemed "core values."

So now we have a conservative Christian university student claiming a right to refuse to counsel openly gay clients because she claims it would contradict the "core values" of her faith.

On the flip side, a nun who approved an abortion to save a critically ill woman's life is not only fired from her post at Saint Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix but excommunicated from her church, because Bishop Thomas Olmstead apparently holds as a core value of Catholic faith that "the mother may in fact die along with her child."

When Jesus was asked: "What is the greatest commandment?" he did not talk about carrying pregnancies to term, rejecting anything outside of heterosexuality, or more generally talking about sexual purity. All of that was secondary. He answered the question about the greatest commandment -- the core value of his day -- thusly:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, "You shall love your neighbor s yourself."

Let me go further, and give an example of how Jesus put this into practice. That would be when a Roman centurion -- not just a gentile, but an active participant in the military occupation of Judea -- comes to him asking that he heal his servant, who is seriously ill. And not just any servant. In the extant Greek, the centurion describes him specifically as his pais and entimos duolos -- denoting not just any male slave but one obtained to share his bed as his lover.

What did Jesus do? Did he tell the centurion: "Sorry, but helping a gentile oppressor, and a homosexual to boot, goes against my core values"? No, he said very simply and clearly that he would go to the centurion's house to heal the young man. And when the centurion asserted his belief that Jesus had the power to heal without having to step into his house, Jesus praised him for his faith, and did so.

The very phrase core value depends on the concept that certain beliefs and principles are dependent upon others. Belief in prayer, for example, depends upon the belief that you are praying to some entity or power worthy of receiving those prayers. And the belief that one should help those in need regardless of their station in life depends in turn on the core values that each human being, created in the image of the Divine, is worthy of respect and love -- even a sinner or an enemy.

To hold up specific doctrines about sexuality above the more central value of compassion is more than mere legalism. It is virtual idolatry. It is confusing means with ends, giving more weight to selected issues than to the central message of one's faith, and in that process, distorting that faith beyond recognition.

Jesus condemned Pharisees and Saducees for doing much the same thing. What would he who healed the "honored slave" of a gentile soldier, and without hesitation, say to those who would refuse to do so today?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It's Still Cheating, Guys!

Two related items crossed my laptop this evening. First, fellow UU blogger Debra Haffner commented on Mark Souder's revelation of infidelity, noting that she often posts the same commentary every few months when some other politico or celebrity is caught with their pants down.

Next, I check out recent posts on Fetlife, the premier social networking site for the BDSM and fetish community. A fellow writes about being married to a wonderful vanilla woman, unable to fulfill his kinky longings, posing the question of whether seeing a professional dominatrix on the side would be considered cheating. And this isn't the first time I've read this question posted somewhere online.

It doesn't matter whether you're a conservative advocate for abstinence-only "education," or an unfulfilled kinkster looking for release. When you secretly break your promise to your partner, it's cheating, and no amount of rationalization can defend it.

I can understand when someone feels that their sexual needs and desires cannot be fulfilled with their current partner. But infidelity is no solution, and certainly not the only option.

Debra Haffner makes the point that "you can have a sexual feeling without acting on it." Very true, but I would add that it is also important to find other ways to deal with those feelings. For one thing, we need to overcome the myth that, just because you're happily married to someone, that doesn't mean you can't find someone attractive, or even fantasize about them.

Sometimes, however, the issue is more fundamental than imagining yourself with someone else. Too many times cultural and religious pressures lead to folks trying to fit rigidly unrealistic expectations about relationships and sexuality. When the only two options given to you are to follow the rules or be miserable, and following the rules only leads to misery, is it any wonder that so many people in these positions are driven to break the rules?

This is not to excuse the dishonesty and betrayal behind infidelity. It is merely an attempt to understand why so many fall into that trap. And, more importantly, to call for a different path of sexual ethics -- one which puts greater value on the emotional and relational context in which we make decisions about sex, instead of the mechanics of who does what with whom.

Conservative critics may call such an approach an easy out, but I would strongly disagree. This path calls for greater awareness of both oneself and the realities of human diversity, and a higher quality of communication about sexuality both between intimate partners and across society. But such demands, once met, reap greater insight and well-being than the more traditional moralism being preached by today's so-called conservatives.

We need to be honest with ourselves, not only about cheating, but about how we can best understand and deal with all of the problems standing in our way of a more healthy approach to sexuality.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Imagine This Couple in Your Church...

I came across this lighthearted piece some time ago, and wondered why it spoke to me. Yes, it's a comedy, clearly not a real couple. And yet, there seems something real about it...

Then it occurred to me: Take away the kinky trappings, and this could be any couple you see anywhere, including church. And for the most part, the vast majority of folks who delve into BDSM are as loving, affectionate, and (for lack of a better word) normal as everyone else.

In fact, chances are you know a couple like this. They may even go to church with you.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Dangers of Erotic Choking

It started with an email from a mother, frantically worried about her daughter. Since then, in the past few weeks I’ve been contacted by several people on the subject. Yesterday, I met with a group of teens and young adults, worried and wanting more information about one of the riskiest forms of sex play.

The technical term is erotic asphyxiation – the practice of restricting either breathing or blood flow to the brain to enhance sexual pleasure, either alone or with another. The very idea scares people, even to the point of silence. Unfortunately, silence can also be deadly.

I had not intended to address this topic, as many others had done so before (such as Jay Wiseman's well-known article) especially after the recent death of actor David Carradine (as Gloria Brame has done). But given the requests of the past few weeks, and the amount of myths and misconceptions I've heard, it's clear we need more people speaking out and informing people about the real risks involved.

First, we need to understand the attraction of erotic choking. When oxygen levels to the brain are reduced (hypoxia) it can lead to a momentary feeling of euphoria. Combine that with the powerful pleasure of orgasm, and you can see why some would find it addictive. But there’s much more to it. There’s the thrill of risk, and the connection of trusting another with your very life. As one young woman tried to explain to me: “It’s so intense, so on the edge, it feels beyond being in love.”

The problem, of course, is the risk inherent in the practice. Whether restricting breathing or applying pressure to blood vessels, robbing the brain of oxygen can lead to severe consequences. Even if the person doesn’t pass out, a relative lack of oxygen can cause some neurological damage, which can accumulate with repetition. It also changes blood chemistry in a way which can lead to a heart attack. Pressure or even a sudden grab on the throat can trigger the vagus nerve to send signals to the heart, causing it to slow down or even stop. And, worst of all, there is no way to predict when any of this might happen. There have even been cases of individuals who initially seemed to have no ill effects from being “playfully” choked, only to suffer cardiac arrest hours later.

We all desire pleasure and connection, and I can understand when some feel compelled to pursue forms “so intense, so on the edge.” Unfortunately with breath play, there’s no real way to keep from falling over the edge completely. So, if you’re thinking of doing this, please think again. And if you know someone who might be doing so, don’t be afraid to share your concerns with them.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The End of Catholicism?

The Roman Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandals have now reached the papacy itself. Der Spiegel is reporting that hundreds of German Catholics have left the faith in the past month, while internal criticism of the church hierarchy continues to grow.

Reading some of the comments filtering to my Facebook account, there are many who wonder if this is the final death-knell for Catholicism itself. With Benedict XVI caught between a rock and a hard place, it would seem that the Vatican's credibility can only go further and further down. And so I see some actually proposing that the Church itself must inevitably go the way of the Byzantine Empire.

Not so fast.

For one thing, the Church and papacy have survived far worse scandals than this. It's also important to remember that faith has a logic all its own. People will choose to remain, perhaps to weather the storm, or more hopefully to rebuild from within. Some will argue that Catholicism is bigger than the papacy, or even the hierarchy of priests and bishops. Others, like Bill Donahue, will persist in trying to dismiss the current wave of criticism.

So the question is not whether the Church will survive, but in what form. Will it revert and retreat into a conservative core of true believers? Or will it accept the challenge to examine the contradictions between its highest values and its most questionable practices?

Ultimately, the Church need not become more "worldly" to maintain influence in the world. But its leaders do need to be mindful of what the world sees -- how we "picture" Catholicism. At one end of the spectrum are cold, cloistered clerics in denial about the damage they have inflicted on their own flock. At the other end are the charities and street ministries reaching out to, and speaking out for, the impoverished and disenfranchised. The College of Cardinals behind closed doors, versus the local church with its doors wide open to all. It is these contradictions which have defined Catholicism in the modern era, and which Catholics must now address.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Stop "Having Sex" - Start Being Sexual

This coming Monday evening, I’ll be co-leading a workshop on safer sex, and one of the sections I’ll be doing is called “alternatives to intercourse” – and I’m beginning to feel some trepidation. Not the subject, but anticipation of the conversation…

“Oh, you mean ‘alternatives to having sex’?”

“No, intercourse.

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“If that were true, then gay and lesbian couples never have sex. Right?”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess so. Still,…”

Given a recent Kinsey Institute study, the debate over what constitutes “having sex” still rages on. Five percent of people interviewed did not consider vaginal intercourse as “having sex”; it gets worse if they’re told the man didn’t ejaculate (eleven percent) or if he used a condom (18 percent of men over 65).

Kind of explains the scores of teens and twenty-somethings, put through “abstinence-only” programs masquerading as sex education, and sincerely believing that they are still virgins because they did fellatio or cunnilingus or anal intercourse – none of which, in their minds, means “having sex.”

In my mind, the very phrase having sex is bothersome. Sex is not something you have or merely do, but something you experience and share. And sexuality is an integral part of who we are. I wonder if thinking about “having sex” in fact contributes to the ways in which we divorce sex and sexuality from our being, making it all to easy to further separate some forms of erotic and intimate expression from the very concept of sex.

So, here’s a rather bold proposal: Replace “having sex” with “being sexual.” Language changes all the time, and with it the way we think. So imagine, instead of saying: “We had sex,” the impact of saying: “We were sexual.” Think of the radical difference – the wonderful, essential difference – between the two, of merely having and actually being.

Some I’m sure would suggest “making love” as an alternative. But that seems almost euphemistic, as if trying to dodge the very question of sex via comfortable couching. I remember a celebrated singer giving a master class to young Julliard students, asking one fellow who’d been singing a torch song what he thought it meant. The young man talked wistfully about longing and yearning, and she simply shook her head, held up her hand, and told him bluntly: “It’s about sex.”

We need to be as blunt. Yet we also need to reintegrate the sexual back into our lives, to see the erotic and intimate not as mere things we can do in dissociated isolation, but as essential to our lives and life stories. We need to stop merely “having sex” and start “being sexual.” Let’s start by saying so, and work our way up from there.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Many Ways We Can Bear Witness

Recently it was announced that the Unitarian Universalist Association will undergo considerable restructuring, including several layoffs, in part because of a shortfall of funds. One of the casualties of this change is the UUA's Washington Office for Advocacy, and this has led to much debate among UUs online. Some are upset that we have lost what they see as a vital voice; others have responded by raising the question of how much and what kind of political activism and advocacy is appropriate for a religious body, how such advocacy might alienate some of our members, and so forth.

Below are my own thoughts on the subject, posted on one of the UUA's discussion lists:

I don't think the issue is whether we have unanimity, or live up to the perceived example of our forebears. The issue IMHO is whether the positions we take are consistent with our shared values and principles.

Supporting marriage equality, for example, is indeed consistent with our values of equality, fairness, love, and the encouragement of spiritual growth. As such, we can voice our approval of proposed legislation which furthers this goal, and the opposite to those proposals which would hinder it.

The more specific we get, however, the more problematic having the UUA as a whole voice support or opposition. What happens when a proposed piece of legislation would advance one goal, but at the expense of another? For example, we may think that restricting the politcal influence of corporations through campaign finance reform is beneficial to democracy, but what if the same legislation also restricts free speech for various non-profit advocacy groups?

At the end of the day, however, I believe the real question is what we mean by "advocacy." Is it just lobbying for Federal legislation, or are there other ways we can bend the moral arc of the universe? In my own congregation, I've been priviledged to know many such advocates -- those who tend to our city's hungry and lonely souls through our Friday Night Supper Program; the doctor who spent a week doing intensive care medicine in Haiti; the Partner Church Committee helping to rebuild homes in New Orleans; the man who has devoted his life to lift up the lives of children in Guatemala. Not only do these stories give me hope, but inspiration in my own work on sexuality issues.

We may disagree about the specific means of acheiving the ends we seek, but if we are to acheive them, then we need to acknowledge and make room for diverse ways of doing so. And, in doing so, we affirm yet another of our cherished values.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Impact of Porn ... May Actually Surprise You

For years, anti-porn activists on the Right and Left have been arguing that porn leads to increased levels of sexual violence. Some have even claimed to provide scientific evidence to support this view.

Now, a recent study by Professor Milton Diamond at the University of Hawaii says otherwise. Looking over data collected over many years and across many countries and cultures, Diamond's research finds no evidence showing a correlation between the two -- and that in some cases, rape and other sex crimes have decreased as availability of porn has gone up.

I'm typically skeptical whenever a sex study hits the headlines, and respond by taking a good hard look at the methodology and data. From what I can see, Diamond's work is thorough, and his critique is sound. Some may want to believe that porn is inherently bad for us, but belief and evidence are two different things. And it looks like the evidence just isn't there.

If anything, how we teach our children to think about sex is an even more important factor. Diamond cites research showing that: "rapists were more likely than nonrapists in the prison population to have been punished for looking at pornography while a youngster, while other research has shown that incarcerated nonrapists had seen more pornography, and seen it at an earlier age, than rapists. What does correlate highly with sex offense is a strict, repressive religious upbringing. Richard Green too has reported that both rapists and child molesters use less pornography than a control group of 'normal' males."

Time to put away puritanical legalism, and embrace a spirituality which celebrates our bodies and our erotic capabilities. And if more people do that, then maybe we'll even see a higher quality of erotic media out there. Wouldn't that be something!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

IMHO: Cut the Hysteria over Circumcision

My weekend morning routine includes turning on the computer, and checking links to comments and news items emailed overnight. Lo and behold, I read that a fellow here in Massachusetts has (yet again) filed a bill trying to restrict circumcision.

First, an explanation. Yes, anyone in Massachusetts can file a bill through their legislator, under a provision called “right of free petition.” Whenever a legislator files such a bill “upon request” (meaning: “I’m only doing this because my constituent asked me to”) it’s usually considered the kiss of death.

Still, it bothers me. The author of this bill, and those who share his views, don’t just regard circumcision as unnecessary; they equate it with clitoridectomy and other forms of female genital mutilation.

Before I state my own position on the matter, a bit of disclosure. Yes, I was circumcised in infancy. I’ve never felt traumatized or damaged because of it. But I’ve endeavored to base my own views on research, not just personal experience.

The problem with equating circumcision with clitoridectomy is anatomy. The foreskin of the penis is not analogous to the external part of the clitoris. It’s more accurate to equate the foreskin to the clitoral hood (the flap of skin that partially covers the clit) and the clit with the glans (the head of the penis).

One can certainly argue that removing an infant boy’s foreskin is rarely necessary – but to equate it with removing a grown girl’s clitoris is both inaccurate and insulting, both to the women who have been actually traumatized, and to the millions of Jews and Moslems who consider circumcision an important rite of passage for their infant sons.

Does this mean that, were I to have a son, I’d insist on having him circumcised? No. Unless a doctor showed there was a medical need or benefit, I’d rather not. But I would also not impose such a decision on any other parent. In my eyes, an alternative to the draconian proposal cited above would be to give every parent considering circumcision all of the facts, so that they could make an informed decision.

Expressing concern – sure. Offering facts and choices – absolutely. But histrionic distortion – count me out.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sexual Misinformation: A Thin Line Between Complacency and Ignorance

Recently, I read a news item online about the results of a survey. Turns out, many young adults are not as savvy as they think about sexual matters. Among the points discussed, many folks between 18 and 35 actually believe that having intercourse standing up will somehow reduce the chances of getting pregnant.


I'm sure many religious liberals would express shock that this level of ignorance exists in America today. But, we shouldn't be. After all, our Federal government has been pushing so-called "abstinence-only education" around the country. When you fund programs which actually discourage condom use and promotes stereotypical views of gender, we should expect that many of the youth continue that process of self-deception.

What I really wonder about -- or worry about -- is how liberals unwittingly contributed to the problem.

Liberals express strong beliefs in education, and in openly discussing sexual issues. The flip side of that is the belief that, because you are more knowledgeable and open than others, that this is enough. Unfortunately, that's not always the case.

I've often wondered, for example, how many congregations go through the process of becoming a "welcoming" or "open and affirming" congregation to LGBT folks, feel satisfied with that process, and then do nothing more. I wonder about clergy who preach one sermon a year about sexuality -- perhaps the same ones, slightly edited and updated -- yet do little in promoting education and social justice in that area.

The fact is, in a culture filled with mixed signals about sexuality, gender and relationships, we cannot and should not be content with an occasional class or public pronouncement. The process of learning and transformation is continual, and at times even painful.

Social conservatives often oppose such measures, citing a fear of a slippery slope that, once one aspect of "traditional morality" is questioned, it is inevitable that the entire package is challenged. It's time to admit that they are right -- and, more importantly, that it is essential. Jesus said: "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." That means confronting the myths and misconceptions which have kept so many enslaved by fear, shame and misery. Including ourselves.