Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Ethics of Outing

Since joining Arlington Street Church, I've found that I'm not alone there in terms of being kinky. There are two fellows who each hold different leadership positions, and who have also mentioned to me in private that they've attended Leather events. And the couple who moved to the suburbs, but decided not to go to another church because, as one whispered to me, "we're glad to see one of our own on Sunday worship."

You'll notice the emphases. Yes, I'm not alone as a kinkster at Arlington Street Church -- but I do seem to be the only one willing to be open about it. Still, it is not my place to "out" my fellow pervs, even within a kink-friendly environment like ASC. Despite the benefits to our community to have more people come out to friends and family, I believe that the process of coming out is primarily an act of self-determination.

But just as the GLBTQ community has had to face the likes of John Paulk, Ted Haggard and George Rekers, as BDSM and fetish sexuality becomes more visible -- and more a target of attack -- it is also likely that we will encounter someone who openly opposes us while secretly indulging in the very same behaviors they condemn and try to suppress. This is certainly something I have had to personally consider, as a new organization for Unitarian Universalist kinksters takes shape.

What, then, must we do?

Some within the BDSM community hold to a "never-ever" rule, that we should under no circumstances out anyone for being kinky, no matter what. Others believe it is justified to expose an opponent's hypocrisy, just as the anti-gay activists cited above were exposed in the media. One kinkster noted in an online discussion that the "never-ever" camp seems to be primarily or exclusively heterosexual, while the more "strategic outing" camp is predominantly GLBTQ.

There are few absolutes in life, as evidenced by the fact that I'm hetero and a supporter of the latter position. But I also believe that our community will need guidelines for determining when and how to implement such a decision. And this I am grateful for the work of many in the GLBTQ community who have given much careful thought to the issue, especially Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.

The rationale for "strategic outing"

Some may see a double standard here: How is it that I will not out my fellow kinksters in our kink-friendly church, but I will out kinky people if they do something bad?

First, let's be clear that we are not talking about members of the BDSM community, but people who openly oppose us. Just because they may engage in bondage, flogging or some of the others things that we do, does not automatically entitle them to community membership. If someone learned Spanish in secret, read and enjoyed Spanish literature in secret, and secretly thrilled to the sound of a Spanish-speaking voice, that doesn't mean they are part of the Spanish-speaking community -- even more so if they publicly insult Spanish and those who speak it, or try to get Spanish banned in public places.

Second, we're also not talking about "doing something bad" in general, but of specifically targeting and attacking kinksters. If a member of the BDSM community had done some questionable things within the community, then I believe it right that such conduct should be addressed within the community. And even if they had engaged in unethical conduct in their vanilla life, I don't see how outing them to the vanilla public serves any purpose.

Third, we're definitely not talking about punishing someone for secretly engaging in kink. We're talking about exposing hypocrisy, and for the expressed purpose of reducing and/or stopping their harmful actions towards us -- the equivalent of using reasonable force in self defense. If an anti-kink crusader justified their attacks on us based on "moral purity," and it turned out that same person was engaging in sexual infidelity, that is also hypocrisy, and the same rule applies. I believe the only time a person should actually be punished for their sexual conduct per se is when it is nonconsensual or otherwise abusive.

Suggestions for guidelines

If sexual minority communities are going to consider the option of strategic outing to defend ourselves from harm, then we will need ethical guidelines for determining when, why and how. I would like to propose three general principles:

1) Clear proof -- If we are to "speak truth to power," then we must be sure that we are indeed speaking the truth. Hearsay and innuendo are not evidence, any more than regarding Marcus Bachmann's so-called "flaming behavior" as evidence. And even when evidence is presented to us, we need to examine it carefully. Are there alternate explanations? Is it recent, or so far in the past as to be explained away? Could it even be a setup. Only when there is clear and reliable evidence should we even consider bringing it forward, lest we risk a considerable backlash.

2) Right motivation -- Our reason for doing this should also not stem from malice or a desire for revenge. Our goal is not to humiliate or punish an individual, but to address and put an end to harmful actions. If outing someone will only serve to do the former instead of the latter, then I believe it would be better to back off. This also connects to the next guiding principle...

3) Fair warning -- The person facing possible exposure deserves to at least be told that there is evidence of their hypocrisy, and to be provided both the options and the chance to change the course of their conduct for the better. Every effort should be made to engage the individual in question into dialogue, to present the evidence obtained, to explain our own motivations, and to propose alternate courses of actions. If the individual simply promises to refrain from further attacks against us, then there is no reason to expose them. If they choose to abandon their course altogether, and consider actually joining our community, then we should provide what support and guidance we can. And if the person chooses to out themselves, perhaps attempting to explain away their behavior, then the ball is now entirely in their court.

But if they refuse to engage in dialogue, or decide even afterwards to continue to do harm to our community, then I believe it is justified to present the evidence to reliable media outlets, along with an explanation of the the process of ethical discernment and engagement leading to that point. I hope indeed that the number of times such actions are deemed necessary are few -- but I also hope that we do so mindfully and with respect both for truth and for all people involved.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Dispelling Another Anti-Choice Myth

The returns suggest that Mississippi's voters are rejecting a proposed amendment to their state constitution, which would have declared that fertilized human ova are legally people.

I'm happy and relieved, and not just because it takes one more weapon away from those who would deny women's reproductive rights. It's simply absurd to reduce human personhood to our genetics. Many folks may not be aware that, between the world wars, there was an active eugenics movement in the United States. Some states even passed laws barring certain people from getting married, including epileptics. Yup, had my father lived in Connecticut instead of New York, he might not have been able to marry my mom.

But, that's not the real reason for this post. During the comments on this "zygotic personhood" amendment, several people kept commenting that it would not only ban abortion, but certain forms of contraception, including "morning-after pill."

In short, pro-choice people have been buying into the anti-choicers lie that this form of emergency contraception is a form of abortion.

So here we go, folks -- two basic facts. You can check them yourself...

FACT NUMBER ONE: Emergency contraception only works within 72 hours of intercourse.

FACT NUMBER TWO: The time it takes for sperm to travel from the vagina to the fallopian tubes is 72 hours.

Do the math.

Now, I don't know whether the anti-choice crowd are ignorant of these facts, or they are wilfully misleading people. I don't care. The point is these are people who are willing to say and do anything to deny a woman this option, regardless of whether the reason she's seeking it is a broken condom or a brutal rape.

And to my fellow pro-choicers ... please let's not fall prey to this. We can and should do better. Please let's do our homework, and let's not be afraid to expose how they mislead and frighten people to get what they want -- and to deny others their right to decide for themselves.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Atheists, Fundamentalists, and the Rest of Us

I wonder if anyone else has noticed that the vast majority of people who debate on religious issues tend to sit at the extreme ends -- the militant atheist who snidely dismisses all religion, and the devout fundamentalist who likewise regards liberals and modernists as warmed-over secular humanists.

And the rest of us? Perhaps it's the thought of being caught in their crossfire which makes us shy away from engaging them. Or perhaps the extremes are so fixated on one another, emotionally as well as intellectually, that we just fade from view.

But I'd like to propose that these two ends of the continuum are in fact more alike than they realize -- not merely in their zeal, or their sense of being outsiders, or their all-or-nothing dismissal of anything moderate, but in their logic.

Yes, logic. Fundamentalism has its own appealing logic, albeit a closed and empirically starved variety. For all their talk of faith, they take great pains to demonstrate in debate the superiority of their position.

Then they run headlong into the logic of the equally unwavering infidel. Where fundamentalists distort or ignore evidence (or the lack thereof) to uphold their belief system, atheists value evidence with equal vigor. Atheists accuse fundamentalists of ignoring obvious facts, and fundamentalists respond that atheists are ignoring the biggest truth of all.

Having read and heard all the arguments from each side, here's my conclusion: They're both right, and they're both wrong. Both are so caught up in their own logical presuppositions, nothing else matters or makes sense. At times, they each appear so focused on defining what they are against that it's hard to tell what they are for. And when someone else steps in with a different perspective ... well, you get the idea.

Allow me to dare suggest that the problem is not merely their respective systems of belief, but the common manner in which they reach those conclusions. Logic has its role in life, but even the most valuable tools have their limits. Logic may be essential as the foundation for science and mathematics -- but what of art, beauty, love? When someone entralls us with a story, where is the point of ranting about imperfections in grammar? This seems the tragedy of atheist and fundamentalist alike -- the failure to fully appreciate the poetic narrative of spirituality, because they persist in reading it with mathematician's eyes.

Take, for example, the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Fundamentalist logic starts with the presumption that the Bible must be literally true, and so the story is also true, as a sign of Jesus' power over nature. The logic of the skeptic begins with the presupposition that natural law cannot be broken, and so the story itself must be dismissed as fantasy. But there is another way to read the tale, where its factuality is not as important as how it resonates within the reader. Think of the image of this impoverished, itinerant preacher willing to share what little he and his companions had with a multitude of strangers. What would motivate him to do so? And what, by this example, are we called to do?

There is more to belief than mere precepts. There is what we value in the world, and in ourselves. And if all we value is being right and righteous, what then?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Lust" -- A Sermon

Delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA, July 31st 2011

Parable – "Alien Visitation"

And now, breaking news … Officials at the United Nations have announced that they have been in communication with a race of extraterrestrials, but that the aliens have decided not to pursue any further contact with the human race, as they consider us to be "bereft of moral fiber."

The aliens, who are referred to by Earth scientists as Orthophagians, seem to regard human dietary habits as indulgent, wasteful and unwholesome. UN diplomats reported that Orthophagian delegates actually shuddered at offers of food, explaining that their species only consumes one simple meal every other day in private, and that they regard utterances centered on eating and hunger to be vulgar.

One French official stated in disbelief: "Restaurants are not only shocking to them, but downright disgusting. One of the aliens commented to me that the very thought of using the same plates and utensils as thousands of strangers made him nauseous, and wondered how debased people would have to be to work in such an establishment. I tried to explain that many gourmet chefs are highly regarded educators and celebrities, but he dismissed it as more evidence of an unhealthy obsession on our part, and claimed that this was the root of our civilization being so backwards in their eyes."

There was apparently a debate among the aliens about whether to send educational teams to propagate their own approach to food, which they regard as more natural and allowing greater dedication to higher pursuits, but it was feared that prolonged contact with Earth customs could have a corrupting effect.

The leader of the Orthophagian delegation was reported to have ended discussions with a backhanded expression of gratitude at having encountered the human race. "There are many heretical sects among us seeking to loosen our moral strictures," she stated, "and now we can show them just what a sordid approach will lead to."

Sermon

Seven deadly sins – Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony and Lust. How did it come to pass that lust gained such prominence, not only in the amount of energy dedicated to stamping it out, but in defining it so extremely that the mere desire for sex became dangerous in itself? The parable I offered is analogous to how many Western explorers, and Christian missionaries in particular, viewed the sexual mores and attitudes of other cultures with self-righteous disdain, and with how many on the Religious Right see much of the outside world.

With all the other sins, it’s a question of balance. Nothing wrong with a healthy sense of self-esteem, or finding time to relax and refresh oneself, or even to express anger at wrongdoing. Our culture and religious communities also tend to be more forgiving of transgressions in those areas.

But sex? Some might say that we’ve come a long way since the days of Augustine, Savonarola, the Puritans, and nineteenth century crusaders like Anthony Comstock. Still we have latter-day successors to that tradition, attempting to push sexual minorities back in the closet, interfere with women’s reproductive choices, deprive young people of accurate and meaningful education on sexuality, and even infringe on the rights of consenting adults in our private lives. And still we have a tendency to equate sexual and conformity with morality in general. Even when some attempt to redefine "lust" as unhealthy or excessive desire, we obsess over what we mean by "unhealthy" or "excessive." Fear, shame and obsession about sex looms not only over so-called "social conservatives," but over each and every one of us.

When I started Sacred Eros here a couple of years ago, providing a safe space for people to talk about sexuality issues, it amazed me how many people would contact me by email and phone to say that, as much as they wanted to attend and participate, there was still something holding them back – and yet there was still the need for advice, information, or even the simple assurance that having different desires did not make them depraved monsters.

How did we get here? How did we come to downplay the New Testament’s admonitions about anger and avarice, only to exaggerate to absurdity the idea that sexual desire itself was even worse? I would argue that it is no accident that this is tied to Eurocentric religious traditions, for the problem is not merely ethical or cultural or political, it is also deeply spiritual – and so too are the tools by which we may find a remedy.

In his book Body Theology, James Nelson offers that much of the problem stemming from the Christian tradition’s denigration and demonization of sexuality is rooted in a number of hierarchical dualisms – simplistic attempts to explain the world in binaries of inferior and superior elements. The first of these divides the world into mind, spirit and reason at the top, and body, flesh and passion at the bottom. Such a dualism did not really exist in the Hebraic sacred texts; indeed, many of the dualistic notions we take for granted in traditional Christian thought actually come from Hellenistic philosophy and various mystery cults such as the Manichees. But it is from that influence that the Greek words for love – eros and agape – were no longer interchangeable as before, but rigidly separated into the "higher, spiritual" love of agape and the "lowly, carnal" passion of eros.

The second dualism is that of gender – male over female. To this day, many churches persist in maintaining male privilege in the name of tradition and obedience to God’s law, despite the fact that a careful reading of the New Testament shows that women had a very prominent role in the formation of the early church, and Jesus himself broke the taboos of his day by freely talking with women, even those of supposedly questionable reputation. Even when first-wave feminists argued for reform in the Victorian era, many of them merely reversed stereotypical gender roles rather than challenge them altogether. Whereas before it was argued that men were inherently more rational and women more emotional, Victorian activists for sexual purity proposed that women’s essential spiritual natures should be put to use in guiding and restraining men’s animalistic libido – a theme we can still see being perpetuated in abstinence-only programs offered in high schools across the country.

These dualisms – and the very notion that reality is divided and stacked in such simplistic ways – are rooted in a misguided desire for order. Everything must be in its proper place, fitting into a precise and rational system prescribed by God and nature. Sex is for procreation, and the variety of "unnatural" sexual activities must all be done away with: masturbation, contraception, oral and anal sex, homosexuality and pornography. Forget how women’s lives are diminished and even extinguished by denying them the ability to control their own bodies. Forget the misery caused by such repression, and the energy expended to maintain it. Order must be preserved! I mentioned Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and the leading crusader against all things which he considered obscene and immoral (including artwork, literature and medical texts). Not only did he take great pride cataloging all of the books and pictures and devices he had destroyed in his quest, he even included in that trophy list the names of fifteen individuals whom his actions drove to suicide.

There are many problems with this whole dualistic mindset. The most profound is that it cripples our creative ability to find better ways of addressing the questions and issues facing us. Forcing the world into polar opposites simply will not do, for the world is not so simple. Rather than try to impose our limited sense of order upon nature, why don’t we seek to understand its continual and complex dance towards balance? The US Park Service, for example, for decades would decree that every forest fire must be put out – until ecologists pointed out that natural fires were part of the balance of regenerating those environments. That point was driven home after the Yellowstone fires of 1988, when the burned-over areas exploded with new growth in the months and years to follow.

Let us also find balance within ourselves, and learn to celebrate our bodies and sensuality as spiritual gifts. In this holistic view, eros can be seen as the means by which we connect with one another and with the Divine. It is the means by which the Divine’s incarnation in our flesh, our breath, our thoughts and emotions, and indeed with all of nature, is made profoundly known.

Dualism also leads to moral, social and cultural double standards which restrict how each of us is expected to experience and express our erotic desires. Consider how fervently the Religious Right opposes marriage equality – indeed, any recognition of same-gender relationships – because in their eyes it would "redefine" marriage and even destroy it. Well, if you lived in their subculture, so heavily infused with strict gender hierarchies, you’d understand just how threatening it is to propose a gender-neutral way of looking at marriage and relationships. And think of the stereotypical expectations we have regarding the intersection of sexuality with race, ethnicity, class, age, disability, and so forth.

So how should we define (or re-define) sexual sin? Should we simply look at the list of what specific actions and relationship paradigms are permissible or forbidden, and either scratch things off or write in new ones? I’d suggest that we need something much more radical than merely replacing one form of legalism with another. We need a sexual ethic rooted in the fulfillment of justice – of compassion, right relationship, mutual joy and pleasure. Such an approach is at once liberating and challenging. It is liberating in that it clears away the debris of ancient prohibitions and double standards which have choked at the forest of our souls. But it is also challenging in that it calls on us to look at sexual desire and expression with fresh eyes, and to discern with a new set of questions:
* Is there full consent and awareness here?
* What are the full range of choices available?
* What role does power and privilege play?
* Will there be balance?
* Will there be joy?

My friends, eros calls to us, to let fires burn that life may be renewed, yet not to worship the fire itself, but instead to appreciate its place in the balance of things. We are called to restore that balance – within our hearts, within our intimate relationships, and throughout a world in dire need of justice and freedom, love and delight.

Eros is calling. Do you hear, oh my friends?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Is He, Isn't He ... And Is It Our Right to Say?

Now that I've finished my sermon for next week, as well as a few other things, I can catch up on some writing...

Michele Bachmann and her husband Marcus have been getting considerable coverage lately regarding their shared views about homosexuality, and his clinic's use of questionable practices to "cure" people of same-sex attraction. At first, Marcus denied that he and his staff were engaging in "ex-gay therapy"; then when someone who went undercover revealed that they were indeed trying to "pray away the gay," Marcus attempted some flimsy damage control by saying they would only engage in such practices "at the client's discretion."

It's also been revealed that Bachmann's clinic, which presents itself as "distinctly Christian" and includes prayer as part of "therapy," was accepting Medicaid and other government funds to pay for the treatment of several clients. This from the husband of a Tea Party favorite who frequently denounces waste of taxpayer money -- and let's not forget how this violates the separation of church and state.

And then there's the question of how Marcus Bachmann got into this business in the first place. He claims to have a doctorate in clinical psychology from Union Graduate School -- except that the only Ph.D. that school offered was in interdisciplinary studies, before it was investigated by the Ohio Board of Regents and subsequently reorganized as The Union Institute and University, which did not offer a doctorate in psychology until 2001. Of course, that doesn't matter too much in Minnesota, one of three states where you don't need a license to practice in mental health services. Sure enough, none of Minnesota's three state boards dealing with mental health have Marcus registered with them.

It's perfectly justifiable to question the anti-gay views of Michele and Marcus, to uncover their lies and hypocrisy over how their clinic is run, and even to question Marcus Bachmann's credentials as a counselor. But what bothers me is how many LGBTQ and liberal/progressive activists pose the question of whether Marcus might be a self-loathing closeted gay man. Listen to his voice! Look at the way he moves! He must be! Right?

Hold on a second, folks. For years, advocates for the LGBTQ community have been pointing out that we shouldn't judge a person's sexual identity by stereotypes -- and now people are basing speculation about this man's orientation on those very same stereotypes. When right-wingers have tried to discredit certain progressive politicians as being gay, we've decried such smear tactics -- and now progressives are trying to do the same thing.

Now I'm all for revealing a person's hypocrisy, but you have to do so with clear evidence. Show me that Marcus has led a double life around his sexuality, and you've got something. But until you do, let the matter rest.

Even if someone had such evidence, I'd be hesitant to just throw it out there. I'm grateful to Virginia Ramey Mollenkott's insights into this topic, and I believe that more advocates for the LGBTQ community should take heed of her proposals. She believes that any person discovered to be hiding their sexual orientation, while acting publicly in a way which did harm to lesbigay people, should first be approached in private and given the chance to come clean. Only after a sincere and compassionate attempt to offer a path of reconciliation should that person's hypocrisy be revealed.

When I started this blog, I took Mollenkott's guidance to heart, as well as the loving spirit behind it. Early on, a rather mean-spirited fellow posted a comment alleging that a particular UU minister was kinky. His "evidence" was ludicrous, and his sole intent was to smear that minister as part of a personal vendetta, so I had no problem with deleting it. Even if he had clear evidence, and more lofty motivations, I still would not have outed a minister who had never done any harm to kinksters like myself.

So I'm not going to join in that part of the chorus. Lambaste him for misleading people, for taking taxpayer money in contradiction to his wife's ideology, and for referring to gay kids as "barbarians" -- but even if you have proof that he is actually gay, go to him first and give him fair warning. Whenever we condemn hypocrisy, let's not become hypocrites ourselves.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Searing Way to Heal

Mac McClelland has started a furor. After a stint in Haiti, seeing a victim of gang-rape go “into full paroxysm” on the way back to her tent city, the journalist for Mother Jones returned to the US with symptoms of PTSD. After seeking professional help, she decided to have sex with someone she knew and trusted.

Not just any sex. Violent, brutal sex.

And if that wasn’t enough, she wrote an article about it.

McClelland’s original piece, plus follow-up coverage on ABC.com and the Huffington Post, has garnered a host of responses, from kudos to curiosity to declarations of disgust and amateur diagnoses of her being narcissism or just plain nuts. But in all of the discussions, strangely enough no one has brought up the fact that she’s hardly the first woman to use rape fantasy as a therapeutic tool. And they’re hardly nuts for doing so.

How do I know? Because I’ve not only met them, I’ve been one of those “trusted guys” who are asked to help them.

Ravishment is the way I got into BDSM, and not without considerable hesitation and a great deal of discussion. My partner at the time then introduced me to the online community of devotees; in those days, it was hard to even maintain chatrooms and discussion lists without service providers shutting us down. I learned that this form of erotic role-play, with all its primal energy, was sublimely complex in psychology and methodology. And I found that the cautious and methodical approach I’d cultivated was a much-prized commodity – not least of which because it demanded intensive listening.

The first woman to stage a scene as therapy didn’t tell me that was her motivation. Likely she sensed that I’d shy away from such home-grown psychodrama. And yet it worked for her. When she’d been assaulted in her youth, she was so paralyzed with fear that she couldn’t scream. This time, she did – and with it, let loose years of rage and pain.

Later on, someone passed on my name to a therapist. “I have a client,” she explained, “who could use your help.” While never assaulted herself, her mother had barraged her with graphic descriptions of her own rape, inculcating a deep-seated phobia of being alone with any man, much less being touched. Her therapist had tried every conventional approach at her disposal – to no avail. This was a last resort. And it worked.

In the world of adventurous sex, ravishment is like an extreme sport. It’s not merely the physical and emotional risks involved but the cultural taboo. Sex is supposed to be gentle and loving, with bodies moving in harmony like a ballet. But while that is the prevailing message of our culture, it’s not always what people want – or need. Yet even with the dispassionate psychological studies showing forced-sex fantasies to be both highly common and intensely enjoyable, the majority of people are burdened by cognitive dissonance about it. How could anyone want to be raped? And so a mythology is developed, both around the fantasies themselves, and around those of us who dare to explore and indulge them.

And it is no small feat. It calls for intensive negotiation, planning and preparation – not only to minimize the risks of unwanted injury, and to assure the actuality of consent within the illusion of coercion, but to delve into the emotional motifs and desires behind the fantasy. Whether done for catharsis or for its own sake, the desired end of ravishment is sublime pleasure for all concerned. Care is also essential after the scene, to serve as decompression from the intensity of the experience – and for both partners.

Because of such intensity, I’ve turned down more requests for ravishment than I’ve accepted. I’m even more hesitant when asked to do so for therapeutic reasons, for even though I’ve seen it done successfully myself, and heard many other such accounts, I’m also aware of the risks of plunging into home-brew therapy. I have too much respect for the healing arts to use this as a quick fix, especially knowing that it is certainly not for everyone.

So, what do I think of Mac McClellan’s choice? Were she to approach me, I would likely be as hesitant, and urge her to try other options first. But I do respect her choice, and I can understand how it helped her deal with the trauma she experienced – especially with her friend repeating to her as she sobbed: “You are so strong.”

I can also understand those who are skeptical and even shocked to hear this. The very idea of staging such an episode to deal with the pain of trauma seems counterintuitive – like dealing with a fear of fire by walking through a burning building. Yet for some, that kind of severe approach is what is needed to find solace – one must feel the heat and hear the roar of the flames before one can look at the ashes afterwards and realize: It’s done now.

McClellan isn’t the first to do this. She isn’t even the first to talk about it. The only thing different is that she’s speaking to a wider audience. Her story isn’t an easy one for many to hear, and the lesson is a challenging one to learn. It’s not just about finding one’s own strength, but seeing and respecting that strength in others. And that the path to joy and healing isn’t always simple or easy – sometimes we have to walk through fire to find our way home.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Minister in the Bedroom

It started while attending the opening service at the Mass Bay District's annual meeting, listening to the sermom being given by a longtime UU minister. It was a rallying cry of sorts, and part of that was celebrating what he thought was right and good about Unitarian Universalism. And one of those things was that our ministers stay out of people's bedrooms.

Since then, I've heard other folks -- ministers especially -- use similar phrasing. And it's always led to my fiendish brain kicking in: What if I want my minister in the bedroom?

I'm not being literal here, as I'm sure that minister was not. But I can see how this exhortation to "stay out of the bedroom" might be misapplied -- how a minister who feels uncomfortable or unprepared on sexual matters could use it as a reason to refuse to counsel one of their parishioners on the subject. I don't think that's what this fellow intended, and it sure doesn't sound like good pastoral care.

I'd rather we say that ministers -- whether UU or any other tradition -- do not intrude into people's sex lives. May seem like a picky semantic thing, but there's a huge difference. Saying you won't intrude leaves open being able to provide guidance and support to someone facing an ethical or existential crisis around sex, just as pastors do so for many other events in our lives. It calls for a healthy respect for boundaries, both for the minister and the person being counseled. And it calls for ministers to be prepared, not only by being informed, but also in dealing with their own questions and comfort levels.

Right now, Unitarian Universalists across the continent have been engaging in conversations about the ethics of food production and consumption. That includes ministers preaching on the topic, and giving counsel to their parishioners. I've not heard anyone saying that our ministers should "stay out of" our kitchens and shopping carts -- but we also don't want them to cross the line and impose a list of rules on the rest of us. We turn to them for guidance when needed and invited, and expect that guidance to be suitably informed.

I'd like to see more of the same about sex. I'd like to see more real conversations about the value of consent, mutuality, and healthy boundaries. I'd like to hear more thoughtful sermons on sex and sexuality. I'd like more folks to come out to their ministers -- not just LGBTQ folks, but kinky, polyamorous, asexual and intersexual -- and more ministers giving people permission to do so. I'd like us to be more proactive in welcoming, engaging and supporting one another in this vital aspect of our lives.

Yes, I want my minister in the bedroom -- when needed and invited, to help with healing and discernment.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

To Jim Wallis and Sojourners: Welcoming Gays Is a Social Justice Issue

You've probably read on the news that Believe Out Loud, a project of Intersections International, attempted to purchase ad space on the Sojourners website for a short video. The ad's message was elegantly simple -- see for yourself:



Sojourners decided to turn them down. In a statement posted on the group's site, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis said that, while the group does support civil rights for GLBTQ people, and calls for churches "to be loving and welcoming to all people," the issues raised by the ad "have not been at the core of our calling." Sojourners has always been recognized as a social justice ministry, and has never shied from being controversial before. If this video showed an interracial family, or an obviously impoverished family walking into an affluent church, would this ministry have remained silent? So why now?

I'm thinking -- and hoping -- that the reason for this decision is that the folks at Sojourners have yet to wrestle with the issue themselves. Yes, as many have pointed out, this ad isn't about same-sex marriage or the ordination of openly gay clergy. But it's also been raised that raising one issue inevitably leads to the other, and that's very true. The real question that the folks at Sojourners needs to ask is whether it's consistent with their faith and calling to avoid having that discussion.

When Paul affirmed that Gentile converts should not require circumcision, the early church did not avoid the issue. They heard him out, debated the matter, and made a decision. Perhaps they considered when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, or commended the faith of a Roman centurion. Or Phillip's baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. Perhaps Peter recounted the vision he had before a group of Gentiles was introduced to him, eager to hear the Gospel message.

Margaret Chase Smith pointed out that the right way is not always the easy way. For Jim Wallis and Sojourners, having this discussion is not going to be easy. But it is a discussion that Christian communities across the country are already having, because it's the right thing to do. And it's time for Sojourners to join in.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

In Praise of SlutWalks

When I was in college, there would be a Take Back the Night March every year. Simple idea -- women walking together to protest sexual violence, and to assert their right to go where they choose and when they choose.

Now, a similar action is being done: SlutWalks

It started in Toronto, in response to a police officer's comment: "Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." And women responded by marching together against both sexual violence and the flippant victim-blaming attitudes which hinder real efforts at dealing with the problem.

Since then, there have been SlutWalks all over Canada and the United States -- and more to come, including London, UK. It's also prompted commentary, both print and online. Unfortunately, some of that commentary has consisted of old-school feminists decrying the reclamation of the word "slut." The most noted of these is an opinion piece by Gail Dines and Wendy Murphy, in which they tsk-tsk the women leading this effort. Their rote ideological justification is that the word is so beyond redemption "that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources."

With all due respect to Dr. Dines and Ms. Murphy ... Balderdash!

Words are what we make them to be. Otherwise, a whole host of words would remain off-limits. And let's not forget that, just as language and culture are complex realities, so is the definition of words. Just open any dictionary and see how many have multiple, nuanced meanings.

Besides which, you are ignoring the core message of this movement: It does not matter how a woman dresses, or what she chooses to call herself, or even how many sex partners she's had. What matters is her right to say yes or no at any given moment -- and the responsibility of men to hear and respect that.

Keep marching, women. Keep getting the message out, even when some continue to try to silence or dismiss you. Even if Dines, Murphy and others don't get what you're saying, there are those of us who do -- and who will stand with you every time you don your fishnets and stilettos to take to the streets.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What's In A Name?

Guy Baldwin, an iconic figure in the Leather/BDSM community, has been making waves recently, first with a speech at the Leather Leadership Conference, and then another keynote for the National Leather Association International. There's been much discussion and debate about the remarks he's said at those events. This post is a respectful disagreement to one of his statements.

At the annual meeting of NLA-I, Baldwin pointed out that none of that organization's founders used a Scene name. He then remarked about the number of people he'd seen at leadership events who did go by Scene names, and posed the question: "How can you lead from the closet?"

Now that's where I have a problem -- the automatic presumption that the only motivation for taking a different name is shame or fear. And since no one who is ashamed or frightened can be a leader, then soon we'll be disqualifying for leadership anyone who prefers to be known by a name other than what's on their birth certificate or driver's license.

Let me offer a counter-example. A woman given the birth name of Miriam Simos is well-known as an author, speaker and activist in Pagan, ecofeminist and social justice circles. Thing is, she prefers to be called by her craft name: Starhawk. And while one of the reasons why many Pagans adopt craft names is protection from discrimination, she doesn't hide her legal/birth name. She has simply chosen a name which reflects her spiritual and political identity. She's hardly in the "broom closet" -- but the logic of those who insist on "legal names only" for leaders would reject that reality.

Similarly, many in the BDSM community embrace Scene names to affirm the sense of transformation they experienced. Some people's Scene names were simply nicknames bestowed by others. Meanwhile, I've also known folks who never took Scene names, but who are definitely closeted about their kink. And let's not forget people who change their legal names out of genuine fear for their safety, or shame over being related to someone nefarious.

Not good enough for other kinksters, however. To them, you're either completely out or you're totally in hiding. There's no continuum, no freedom to choose -- it's as simple as black and white. Which, unfortunately, is the same mentality of those who oppose us. Just as right-wing religionists would deprive us of civil rights for not adhering to strict rules about sexuality, so there appear to be some in our own community who would deprive others of the opportunity to serve for not adhering to their own narrow beliefs about names.

I understand the need for our leaders and spokespeople to be honest and unashamed. But one can do that and embrace a new identity as well, just as Starhawk has done. To reduce leadership qualifications to a simplistic "either-or" test, without any concern for the person's actual talents and energy, sounds too much like the employers who would fire or refuse to hire someone just for being kinky. In our fight for freedom and dignity, the last thing we should be doing is behaving like our opponents -- especially towards our own people.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Come Follow the One True _________."

Blame my parents for my raging skeptical streak. My father the physicist insisted that my brother and I learn all we could about science, while my mother took a more Socratic approach to cultivate both critical thinking and a respect for clarity of language.

And the one thing they succeeded in teaching us? Be wary of anyone offering the "one true way" of doing something.

From college to adult life, whenever I encountered "one-true-wayers" of any kind -- fundamentalists, Trotskyists, Ayn Rand devotees -- I quickly became the bane of their existence. My parents trained me to openly question their claims, and often they were not prepared for those questions. Pretty soon they would lose their cool and attach some conveniently dismissive label on me. And with that, the so-called discussion ended.

When I came into the BDSM Scene, I quickly learned that we had our own category of "one-true-wayers," mostly supposed dominants who prescribe a narrow idea of being a "real dom" or "true Master." Uh huh. And I suppose there's an infallible scripture to go along with that?

It doesn't stop there, however. Here in Boston, there appears to be a class of people who believe a particular organization is the "one true way." Their answer to every question regarding kink and our community is to come to the group's board meetings, or attend one of the group's classes, or help the group raise money for some cause (usually the same one every time). But I also notice another similarity with other "true believers": A lack of imagination and creativity, and a blindness -- sometimes even hostility -- to any other approach.

This group, under the direction of an unelected board which fills vacancies by a mysterious process of appointment, just seems to do the same things over and over again. Their "open board meetings" have strict rules about who can speak, and about what. And just how is this board held accountable? Well, don't you dare raise such questions, or you'll be branded as a troublemaker who is "hurting the community."

Perhaps my parents trained me too well, because I really don't see the attraction of belonging to such a closed group. When you have no elections, no accountability, and very little transparency, how can you be sure the leaders do their jobs? And without open and honest discussion, how do you come up with the creative solutions needed for the group to adapt to change?

Whether it's personality, ideology or loyalty, I've come to see overzealous belief in a "one true way" as a form of idolatry. The traditional definition of idolatry is "worshipping a creation as the Creator." I would rephrase it as transposing means and ends. It means that the original vision and core values of the community are subsumed into glorifying a leader, upholding a dogma, or simply defending the group itself for its own sake.

Worst of all, it means that the real needs of real people must take a backseat to the demands of blind faith. And whether those needs are the basics of food and shelter, the comforts of companionship, the fruits of freedom, or the ability to imagine a better future for ourselves and bring that vision to reality, I'd rather be branded a troublemaker for keeping those goals in sight.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Is Being Kinky a Sexual Orientation?

During the recent Board meeting for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, someone proposed a way to deal with discrimination against members of the BDSM community: Claim kink as a sexual orientation.

Problem, of course, is that even within our community, there’s no real consensus on that. Not surprising, as a similar debate occurred within the GLBTQ community earlier on. And given the potential consequences – good and bad – it’s a question which deserves attention.

First off – What do we mean by “sexual orientation”? Most people define it very simply as which sex or gender someone is attracted to. More importantly, it is seen as an inborn and enduring aspect of who we are. This is what distinguishes it in many people’s eyes from a simple “preference” for hair color, behavioral traits, and so forth. But is it really that simple? Many of our preferences, tastes and habits seem to be rooted in factors over which we have little control: genetics, neurology, psychosocial influences. This is not to say we don’t have control over our lives, but it does speak to so many questions about ourselves. Why do some folks crave novelty, while others gravitate to the comfortable familiar? How is one meal delicious to some, disgusting to others, and bland to a few more? Perhaps we should therefore consider that sexual orientation is more complex than whether one likes boys or girls, but also about how one prefers to interact with a prospective partner, what particular forms of expression speak to us, and so forth.

Second – Does being kinky qualify? While few reliable studies have been done on BDSM folk, the ones which have been done indicate that, like being hetero or homo or bi, no single factor seems to correlate with what it is we are drawn to. That jibes with what many kinksters say when asked to explain why we do what we do. Some will attempt to explain, others don’t even bother, but ultimately it boils down to what speaks to us at a deeper level. In response, many will remark that there’s a difference between being attracted to someone and wanting to do a certain set of activities. But is there? Desire is desire, whether for particular personal attributes, or for a particular mode of expression and sensation.

Of course, none of this is conclusive, and it’s sure to provoke other questions as well. But it would suggest that what we find erotic defies simple answers, and is as much about identity as it is about choice. Likewise it affirms the place of community not only in developing one’s sense of identity, but in cultivating ethical means of expressing that identity and the desires in which they are rooted.

Will any of this lead to understanding kink better, or establishing ways of dealing with discrimination? The only way we’ll know is by continuing the discussion – both speaking and listening.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why I'm Signing Change.org's Petition to iPhone

Recently, Exodus International has released an iPhone app which makes it easier for people to send "help" to young folks questioning their sexuality. Translation: If you want to scare and shame a teenager you know into a so-called ex-gay ministry, there's an app for that.

Now if any group wants to offer an app, that's their right. But for Apple to rate such a feature as having "no objectionable content"? I beg to differ.

At best, the claims of these groups to "cure" homosexuality through prayer and/or "reparative therapy" is incredibly dubious. Many of these ministries don't even do long-term follow-up studies on the effectiveness of their programs.

And that's the best you can say about them. From what many men and women who have endured those programs have reported, the potential for psychological harm is very high and very real.

From a spiritual perspective, it seems to me that the whole basis of ex-gay ministries is a legalistic dogma -- that being gay and being "right with God" are mutually exclusive, based on a biased reading of six Bible passages. Now we can debate the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek, and the context of those passages, but instead I'll just pose one simple question:

If you believe that all things are possible with God, then why not the possibility that there's nothing inherently wrong with same-gender love?

The Exodus app is at the very least false advertising, and at worst it is selling poison as medicine. Please join me in signing Change.org's petition, and demand that Apple stop supporting the Exodus app.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Busy, Busy, Busy!

Yes, I know I haven't blogged in quite some time. Other things have taken attention and energy, so much so I've felt too exhausted to go through the whole process.

So, what exactly have I been doing?

Well, there is Sacred Eros, the sexuality discussion group at Arlington Street Church. January and February I invited others to kick off conversations on different topics (unfortunately, our February speaker wound up in the hospital, so we had to "wing it").

I've long lamented that Boston's kink community seems too inwardly drawn, too focused on parties and clubbing, or the next class on some BDSM technique, while so many continue to complain about our legal and political situation. That has finally changed, starting first with a serious discussion on Fetlife, and now a series of roundtable discussions on how we can make our city and state a safer place for kinky folks. This month's roundtable will be brainstorming on educational efforts. Not to mention an all-day conference on legal issues affecting the BDSM community, hosted by Princess Kali of the Kink Academy.

Back at Arlington Street Church, I've raised the issue of how we can better respond to the issue of sexual abuse and misconduct by leaders. As Debra Haffner pointed out in her recent report, for all the good which Unitarian Universalists have done around sexuality and gender equity issues, this is actually one of the weakest areas in terms of having a clear and consistent policy for both preventing and responding to such incidents. At the very least, congregations should consider what they can do, and I hope and trust that my own congregation's leadership will help set an example to follow.

And finally, what about all of us who are both Unitarian Universalist and kinky? I keep hearing from many who are still hesitant to come out, even in confidence to their ministers. I've had ministers and seminarians asking for information, wondering how they can minister to us. Fortunately there are some positive steps being taken, some as part of a more comprehensive effort to equip UU ministers and educators. One grassroots effort is a new website: Leather & Grace, providing information and resources on BDSM to the wider UU world.

Yes, it's been a busy time. But it's also been productive. Hope abounds, and the work goes on...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Virginity: What is it Good For?

Recently, a young woman named Nicki Blue appeared on Kink.com to officially "lose" her virginity on camera and online. They even did a video close-up of her hymen to assure that she was indeed a "true virgin." And sex-positive bloggers have been posting and commenting about this event before the big event.

Now, there are all sorts of questions about the commiditization of sex and sexuality which I won't touch on here. I happen to think that, so long as we live in a society which markets everything including air in "oxygen bars," we might as well allow people to sell sex if they freely choose to do so.

Here's the question which has been bugging me: Why is virginity still a big deal?

In every other human endeavor, knowledge and experience is valued above naivete. Only in the realm of sex is the opposite true. We prize virginity, and even continue to argue about what that means, while looking down on people who have bothered to garner first-hand experience of sexuality and relationships. Worse, we maintain a gender-based double standard about it -- females are expected more than males to remain virgins until marriage, or at least for as long as they can, while male virgins are often ridiculed.

Lack of experience, for whatever reason, says nothing about a person's character, intelligence or capacity for love. A virgin can still be a lousy person, while someone who has been branded a "slut" for can still be caring and trustworthy. By the same token, one's first sexual experience isn't always magical, or traumatic -- sometimes it can be a letdown. So, why don't we stop playing such paradoxical games?

Let's start by ditching the idea of "losing one's virginity." Think about it: Does it really make sense to talk about losing a lack of something? Think of how we talk about a person's maturity with regard to sexuality and relationships...
* First kiss (gain)
* First sense of attraction (gain)
* First date (gain)
* First signs of puberty (gain)
* First steady relationship (gain)
* First sexual experience (loss???)

No, it doesn't make any sense. Especially when so many continue to view it as a loss for one side (female) and a gain for the other (male). It's only a loss when it's coercive and abusive; it's a gain when done in the spirit of love and mutual pleasure.

I usually respect Kink.com, but in this case they fell back on antiquated notions of sex, and especially as it pertains to women. Had they talked about Nicki Blue sharing this milestone on camera -- and ditched the so-called "Hymen-Cam" -- I might be inclined to speak favorably about this. But given how they presented it, I'm not so happy.