A valued congregant once complained that I talk about sex too much. I sympathize with her. It’s a “touchy” topic. It stirs our hurts and…
(I believe in human wholeness – not fragmentation, not partiality, not alienation. Does this include sex? Yes! What the Creator built in we should not shame and alienate. The topic is vast, the approaches to it are many, and the feelings about it can be prone to upheaval. What I offer here is limited, provocative, reasonable, and sincere. I appreciate my liberal congregation, which took this in thoughtful stride. The version they heard was about half as long as what here follows.)
Have you ever cried this out at orgasm? This is raw prayer, honest prayer, uncontrollable prayer. It isn’t a reading in a liturgy, like one we’d use in church, but it can be even closer to God. Perhaps you cried it out when shaken to your thrilled core. Perhaps you then felt foolish or guilty for having put God and sex so close together.
That’s what I want to do here today, put God and sex back together. I want to affirm how we’re made to be inside ourselves and with each other. I want this for all of us of any age, for as Helen Caldecott reminded us, “We’re sexual from womb to tomb.” Good. This is how we’re made. We can live up to ourselves.
Before I go on to say “yes” to sex we need to acknowledge and include that within us, and those with us, that say “no.” I heard that Andy Warhol said, “Sex is the biggest nothing there is.” We’re not always sexual, and when we are it can be an occasion for inner conflict, or guilt, or disgust, or regret. Sometimes, “Oh, God” is an utterance of remorse over sex. There are ample reasons to say “no” (pregnancy, disease, disruption, jealousy, dislike). I could spend the whole sermon on “no.” Such sermons are common, predictable, and safe. But they’re also misleading, un-whole, and unhelpful. I’ve something else in mind and heart, something more suitable for us whole humans and the whole human community, something worthy of the latitude allowed me in a liberal pulpit.
The impetus for this title came during a small group discussion in which three grown women admitted they had sexual feelings, including orgasms, since the age of three or four. They were not affirmed, protected, and allowed in that realm; instead they were ignored, shamed, punished, or used. Many people go through life with guilty, private secrets, not knowing most others also have theirs. Tales of sexual trouble and tragedy are common and can be told in church, but telling of deep gratitude and wild enjoyments is hardly ever shared publically, especially not in church. Such imbalance fails our human condition and our religious authenticity and responsibility. When the women shared their isolation and shame, I resolved to make sure there would be at least one pulpit to say yes to sex. What good is my position as minister unless I live up to my calling to affirm and assist humans as we are and can ideally be?
Putting God close to sex is hardly typical in our western religious mindset. We’re far more familiar with unease and shame than we are with comfort and celebration. There’s ample parts of the Bible admonishing us to avoid and distain sex, and only a few places where it is praised. A printer’s error in 1631 resulted in a Bible that said, “Thou shalt commit adultery,” but few took it as God’s Word. We think of God as beyond sex or against it, fully forgetting sex is how we’re made, and how we’re made is not a shameful thing. Saying otherwise seems to presume to judge Creation with our petty, puritan morality. We’re made sexual, and we’re then made uneasy about it. The only thing to equal our human interest in sex is our propensity to be easily shamed about it. An anti-sexual morality is as persistent as it is presumptuous. For some it is as simple as this: “Ever feel sexy? Guilty!” For those believing human nature is basically flawed and fallen, deserving of condemnation and punishment, needing of supernatural redemption, morality can obsess to anti-sexuality for all but married procreative purposes. Affirming sex can seem devilish. Exactly backward.
In our creation myths in Genesis we remember that although God had created the whole cosmos, from light to humans, in six evolutionary steps called “good,” another creation story intrudes about the alienation that comes from dividing that goodness into what we wrongly think of as “good and evil.” Adam and Eve were “naked and not ashamed” before believing the subtle deceiver that they could know good and evil like the gods do. When they eat of that sort of false knowledge they suddenly realize they are naked. Ashamed (because now they “know” good and evil) they try to hide from God who made them whole and good. Then “they knew they were naked and were ashamed.” What was innocent and whole became fractured and fallen, alienated. False knowledge leads to shame which leads to blame which leads to pain. Alienated from their own bodies, each other, their garden, and their God, they go off to have harsh lives alienated from all the goodness that was rightly theirs. The subtle deceiver has us scurrying ever since, shaming our innate nature and blaming each other about it, barring us from bounty. Sex was not sin; calling sex sinful was.
The subtle deceiver wasn’t just a snake way back when; it was all the subtle deception since and still. Saint Paul advised if we cannot remain celibate we should marry. He advised that even then, it should be performed without passion, perfunctorily, just like it can get in a marriage. Saint Augustine expanded on Paul’s view that sex was the original sin, saying it was God’s punishment on us. Though the old church included the natural sexual attributes of Jesus and Mary in its art, as the ages rolled the church became more and more anti-sexual. Priests barred from marrying could appear chaste but be perverts. Witches would not only be accused of sleeping with the devil, they would be sexually tortured in a combined investigation and punishment, her tormentors aroused by it. This sadism is seen also in depictions of hell, where naked people are tortured. The self-righteous can be aroused by what disgusts them.
There is something very wrong with how anti-sexuality divides us from ourselves, each other, our garden, and our God. Sex is not our sin, but saying it is seems to be. From mutilation of our bodies, souls, and society, deliver us, Lord.
Victorian wives were to be chaste, above it all, no matter how numb it made them. Meanwhile, prostitution flourished for their husbands. Freud opened the topic up. Kinsey took a huge survey. Turns out we are more sexual than we knew. Some reacted, saying we shouldn’t give in to our animal natures, not noticing that animals are only sexual when it pertains to procreation, which is not often, once a year for many. Humans do it round the cycle. Humans are the only animals to do it in the bushes, out of sight. We’re sexy and guilty. The only thing to equal our frequent interest in sex is our propensity to be ashamed about it.
Some animals and most humans engage in self-sex, masturbation. Yet few admit it. When Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders merely mentioned letting children understand it she was quickly fired. Her recent conclusion: We live in a sexually dysfunctional society. I agree. It is because we don’t live in an erotic society that we’re stuck in a neurotic one.
Mark Twain had fun with the topic. He said masturbation had the least to recommend it: “As an amusement it is too fleeting; as an occupation, it is too wearing; as a public exhibition, there’s no money in it.” (Dawn, 285) Dr. Kellog (the cereal magnate) taught the remedy for masturbation in boys was cutting the end of their penis off and sewing it back up, all without anesthetic. The practice crept into American delivery rooms in the 1870’s and is still automatically performed in some areas. Similarly, British gynecologist Isaac Baker Brown claimed women’s troubles were due to the same mono-sexuality, citing eight stages of their diseases from hysteria to idiocy, mania, and death. Clitorectomy was the cure. He finally went insane and was discredited in England, but his advice came here and was a recommended procedure to fix the scourge of self-pleasuring as recently as 1936. Sadly, hideously, mutilating a woman’s precious body by cutting off her tenderest place so she won’t be sexual persists worldwide to the astonishing extent of 137 million girls hacked up a year! The sin isn’t in the sex; it is in the anti-sex.
What I wonder is: what are we naturally and ideally? Some see correlations in the animals. Some think such correlations are pointless, that biology is not destiny and that we have the latitude to be different than our animal inheritance. They dismiss such correlation as “the naturalistic fallacy.” In response, I would call that stance “the naturalistic fallacy fallacy.” Our animal nature doesn’t determine our behaviors but it does have some influence. Ignoring such won’t inform or help us.
Consider whether we are monogamous and should be (for both men and women). For a while we were chided: why can’t humans be more monogamous like most animals are? But when we looked closer at the animals, almost all were non-monogamous. A mere 3% of mammals are monogamous. The chimps and bonobo apes we’re closest to are very promiscuous. We’ve long-looked at chimps, noting they’re like humans in that the males try to hoard and control the females and will use violence both to ward off rivals to have at their females. This seemed to justify the stance that we are inherently sexual, domineering, jealous, and warlike. Then we recently discovered the bonobo apes just across the river from the chimps, also our closest cousins. They too were promiscuously sexual, even more so than chimps, exchanging sex as a favor or to ease social tensions, but in their case, the females are in control of themselves, so they have lots of sex with a variety of the males, and the whole troop is more peaceful. Does this also model and justify our similar behaviors? Could free love be natural for us?
It seems clear both behaviors are common in humans. But even intelligent anthropologists like Helen Fisher tended to dismiss the bonobo example because it seems so alien to how we think we are. (Fisher, Anatomy of Love, 329) Even in science there can be a bias against bonobos – because they’re so polymorphously perverse. Yet when we look closely at chimps and bonobos, we find we’re also like the sexier latter. Both humans and bonobos copulate throughout the menstrual cycle as well as during pregnancy and lactation. Both human and bonobo infants develop slower than chimps, needing more care and community. Both bonobos and humans use sex for sociability. Bonobos and humans French kiss and face each other during sex. Bonobos and humans, but not Chimps, have the gene to release oxytocin, the molecule for compassion, trust, generosity, love, and eroticism. (Sex at Dawn, 72-78) Both are very sexual, but one in a mean and warlike way, the other in a relaxed and peaceful way. If we’re like chimps and bonobos, we need to ask which is more natural for us and which way is better for us. The accusation is that our fallen natures are as bad as chimps. The solution to that shame, blame, and pain is that we could be as good as bonobos.
Are humans naturally monogamous? If so, why would we sneak around so much despite the dangers, prohibitions, and punishments? Helen Fisher in her Anatomy of Love says:
Public whipping, branding, beating, ostracism, mutilation . . . divorce, desertion, death by stoning . . . such cruelties are meted out by people around the world for philandering. Given these punishments, it is astonishing that human beings engage in extramarital affairs at all. Yet we do. (87)
Christopher Ryan and Cecilda Jetha, in their important Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, focus their echo of this even more tightly:
Think about that. No group-living nonhuman primate is monogamous, and adultery has been documented in every human culture studied – including those in which fornicators are routinely stoned to death. In light of all this bloody retribution, it’s hard to see how monogamy comes “naturally” to our species. (98)
Ryan and Jetha study the prehistory of modern sex via animal studies (especially chimps and bonobos) and cross-cultural anthropological studies of monogamous and non-monogamous groups of people. Not only do the closely-related animals indicate we aren’t cut out for monogamy, successful models abound where married women are allowed their many lovers. Ryan and Jetha document how widespread and successful multi-partner love lives are for humans and how frequently and presumptuously anthropologists have tended to ignore, explain away, and judge this. We inherit an assumption: that monogamy and jealousy are natural and even divine. Instead we find communities around the world that have more social cohesion and peace by allowing married couples their multiple lovers. The chimp model is not our only option. There is more bonobo in us than we’ve been allowed to discover, explore and benefit from.
The Mosuo women of southern China are expected and protected in having their autonomy, including regularly having sex with numerous lovers. They have no words for murder, rape, or war, and rather than husband or wife, they have a word meaning friend. The Inuit offer not just beds to travelers, but their wives as well. The Kulina women of Amazonia ritually reward those men of the village who bring them meat, but they’re not to bed their own husbands. The Mehinaku of Brazil find extramarital relations to contribute to community cohesion. The Warao of Brazil suspend ordinary relations for the ritual mamuse, where the free-love fest is considered honorable, as are the children of it (a practice of many communities around the world). The Matis people are typical in thinking many men father a child, where such plural seeding and parenting is considered mandatory. In Islam the Nikah Misyar (traveler’s marriage”) and the Nikah Mut’ah (marriage for pleasure) are both blessed options. (Dawn, 90-104, 113-137) Even in Afghanistan, Rafsanjani blesses the “Sigheh,” a temporary marriage of hours or months.
As a generalization, where sex is coupled to ownership and control, inequality and violence are common, but where sex is more an autonomous decision, equality and peace prevail. Ryan and Jetha locate the change from sexy and bonobo-like to mean and chimp-like in the rise of agriculture. Stable settlements around grain silos allowed for hoarding, inequality, a division of labor (assigning women their restricted roles) scarcity, and war. Even our diet got worse. Agriculture, writing, war, and civilization go together, but how well? Freud said civilization is born of sublimation. Perhaps that’s the problem. We’ve sublimated our natural urges and connections into a perverse economy and a worse ecology. We may have needed a work ethic to discover new lands and work them, but do we still? Does creating jobs to make disposable stuff that has to be recreated make sense in a world of depleting resources and accumulating poisons? If we were to “make love, not war” how might that go?
We know that making love on the sly doesn’t go well. Secret affairs, when discovered, are occasions for ample anger over betrayal. Hurt and reprisal run rampant, then persist. But consider: Reactivity often creates more injury and upheaval than the actual sex did. Affairs need not result in family fracture. We begrudgingly admit and allow F.D.R his Lucy, and Bill his Monica, and we reluctantly accept Eleanor’s and Hilary’s keeping their wayward husbands as if demeaning but necessary. We aren’t so ready to understand and accept that, like the founding fathers and mothers, they might have “an arrangement.”
Some take the whole mess of presumed monogamy, with the secrecy, sneaking, and lies to be itself due to a lack of love, not a protection of it. Some people don’t believe affairs must result in tragedies like divorce. For them, fidelity transcends monogamy. They seek to be true to their lover or mate in the long run, not be ruined if he or she gets close to others during her or his life as is natural to do.
Some seek an honest revealing of who they are and how they feel with and for each other. They seek to allow their mates many lovers, not as an offence against their marriage, but a part of it. Tristan Taormino interviews many sorts of this type of couple in her book Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships. She writes in a frank and realistic tone, admitting the advantages and pitfalls of such values and ventures:
Many people in monogamous relationships deal with cheating all the time: the fear of cheating, the suspicion of cheating, the discovery of cheating, the aftermath of cheating. Nonmonogamous folks recognize that during a lifetime you can and will be attracted to other people even if you are in a wonderful, fulfilling relationship; they make room in their relationship for these attractions rather than allow them to cause anxiety, jealousy, and unreasonable expectations. (Pg. 27)
Instead of fidelity being based on monogamy, fidelity is to the person. Such ventures range from swingers who only want non-romantic sex with strangers to various “arrangements” of couples regarding the sexual, romantic and practical parameters they will or will not allow (which might include non-monogamy) to formal families of three or more sharing legally-binding life-long commitments.
With half of our marriages “failing” (amidst a backdrop of an alienated society prone to launch needless wars while polluting and exhausting our natural resources) perhaps the admitting and embracing of our pleasures and prerogatives in our private sex life, social love lives, and marriages might elevate and heal us. Assuming this can only lead to trouble while then consigning us to the oftentimes lonely, dull, and soul-exhausting confines of monogamy (complete with assumptions of jealousy, betrayal and tragedy) will likely lead to more of the same old social troubles.
Sex is not our sin. Sex is part of the whole goodness God built in. Enjoying that alone or with various others may not ruin us as much as denying and punishing it. Transforming jealousy into compersion (taking joy in one’s mate enjoying another) might be just the key we need to unlock the opening of a more whole, healthy, loving society, difficult though that transition might get. Affairs don’t have to result in divorce. Friendliness and flirting ought not to be occasions for accusation, upheaval, and simmering hostility. Inside us and amongst us, our sexuality needn’t be a big problem, a sin, a sure sign we’re wrong and alien from goodness and God. Sex is part of a blessing we can be grateful for, one we can celebrate privately, socially, and in church.
My effort is not to convince you so much as remind you that you and your loved ones are free to fashion the sort of life you want, including regarding sexual and relational matters. If you want monogamy, choose it and be fulfilled in it. Most do and some of them are satisfied, sexually and otherwise. But many couples and singles are not, and they needn’t remain at odds. If you want something else, say so in an authentic, trusting, and responsible way. If you want a relevant religious community, support each other in the ways that you can. (A UU group discussing this can be found at UUPA.org.)
I am impatient with those who say, “Oh, we tried open marriages in the 60’s and they didn’t work.” Well, we tried marriages in the 60’s as well, and they didn’t work either. Therapists might know what didn’t work, but I doubt very many get paid $100 an hour to hear how well it is working. What we have is an overall puritan culture that assumes we should be monogamous and that we should be ashamed and punished if we’re not.
I would add a caveat to this: Monogamy during the breeding years makes some sense. Even though many primitive cultures practice “partible paternity,” believing many fathers make a baby, we know only one does. Someone else’s child can be a visible reminder to a husband that he’s raising some other man’s offspring. While some can act like Saint Joseph and love the child anyway, many can’t, so I see sensible reason for monogamy in this aspect. And I grant its safety and wisdom for those sincerely wanting monogamy and are able to follow it later in life too. What I don’t assume is that it is suitable for all couples everywhere. It is their business to agree and explore whatever option they choose.
Another caveat is that many of the sexier cultures studied are small, stable, and isolated. They have a supportive culture that understands, accepts, and nurtures what they do. They agree, together. The norm is to share, not hide or hoard. But most modern humans live in large cities of mostly strangers easily moving to other places. Will the children of many fathers have many fathers to care for them? (Too many lack any fathering, even by their genetic one.) Do we have a supportive culture that accepts and honors women’s sexuality and that can overcome our usual jealousy? Can we move from hoarding and hurt to sharing and compersion?
What we need is a supportive culture exploring, blessing, and practicing the freedom and responsibility of a more natural human sexual community. That nascent community is thin and scattered but important for such pioneers and our society. What seems foreign and wrong might turn out to be natural and right. Ryan and Jetha’s point might be right:
. . . when some loudmouth at the bar declares that “patriarchy is universal, and always has been!” It’s not, and it hasn’t. . . Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy. Got that, fellas? If you’re unhappy at the amount of sexual opportunity in your life, don’t blame the women. Instead, make sure they have equal access to power, wealth, and status. Then watch what happens. (Pg. 134)
When women are entrusted, protected, and praised for their sexual choices the men also get what they want. Beyond possessiveness and jealousy might be pleasure and peace.
It isn’t just women’s externalities that are crucial; it is the interior surges and desires that must also be known and valued. A fascinating study (Bailey and Chivers at Northwestern University) paired people’s responses to erotic pictures to their actual arousal as measured by instruments. There was no discrepancy for heterosexual men, homosexual men, and homosexual women; what turned them on really did and what didn’t, didn’t. But for heterosexual women the reporting didn’t match the arousal. They tended to report arousal only at socially-sanctioned activities, especially between husbands and wives. But their actual response was to be turned on to all sorts of sexual combinations and kinky acts. In other words, women tend to hide what turns them on. They’re far sexier than they’ve been said, told, allowed, protected, and praised in being.
This makes some sense when we remember how disproportionately women inherit the long-term results of sex while the other three populations don’t. It is women who get pregnant by men, swelling their bellies, putting them through sometimes difficult births, requiring their nurture, all of it lasting as much as a lifetime. In a society of “all against all” women suffer the most and are easily abandoned by those who escape responsibility. They’re told they’re chaste, hounded if they’re not, used as breeding stock and hearth keeper, and basically not honored for their holy role as mothers and sex mates. A key to renewed sexuality is affirming, honoring, and allowing women to have and admit their sex-making, not just their home-making.
If we are to have freedom we must live up to responsibility. The book Opening Up seemed fun and adventurous at first but became a chore when it got to group rules, property ownership, and tax status for group marriages. We’d like to play, but as the song reminds, “that’s what you get, folks, for making whoopee.” Love leads to sex, yes, but sex also leads to love, and love is sometimes difficult and dutiful. We connect as persons. We connect as a society favoring various norms. How those norms shift is for us to decide, not some prissy, presumptuous prude wagging his finger at us from the 4th century. Considering how various animals and human communities do it helps us reunite the religious with the natural. Instead of “I, hiding and hoarding me and mine,” we might fashion “us, being free with and taking care of each other.”
As we begin to evolve out of the agricultural, patriarchal age of inequality, with scarcity amidst overabundance, frequent warfare, and ecological suicide, where people languish for lack of simple touch, sex, and mutual kindness, where “all against all” is assumed to be better for us than common abundance, widespread freedom, and supportive mutuality – perhaps we can and should call on God via that honest prayer, “Oh, God!” Sex in and of itself is not our sole salvation. But I doubt we’ll have personal and social happiness and peace unless we once again make it part of our healthy wholeness.
So, yes to sex! Thank you, God for this ancient, urgent lure and love. Thank you for our wonderful bodies. Thank you that what we’re attracted to what is really there and easy to find solace and satisfaction with. Thank you for our wild pleasures. May we dare to be ourselves as fully, exuberantly, and responsibly as we are made to be. Walk boldly back through the flaming swords of shame and blame into the honest innocence of your sexual self. Whether wanton and wild or gentle and mild, whether alone, with another, or with others, God is gladly with you. Be ye not ashamed. Be ye restored to your inherent whole self, sex included.
Reverend Brad Carrier
Based on a sermon presented to the
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© November 14, 2010
(The following poem, found after delivering the above sermon, makes a fitting finale. We say “yes” to sex and so come closer to God, but God says “yes” in sex and comes closer to us.)
After Rainer Maria Rilke (c. 1910)
Zeus, always needy for sex,
Readying with whatever trick at hand,
Any ploy he thought might work,
He wanted that girl,
He wanted her real bad,
Yet when he became a swan,
The landscape of his attire, the white,
It blinded him, and for the moment,
The god stopped, he had to orient himself.
And she, she knew what was in store,
I want to tell you,
She was some gal! No question about it.
She desired the experience,
She always sought a role in history.
Her vanity, big time,
She lived in era before acknowledgment,
She had no idea, the seven deadly sins.
The swan suddenly returned to his purpose.
He lowered his neck and his head,
Right through her open arms,
No resistance there, and his bill,
After it kissed her breast,
It easily reached around her neck.
His wings encased both her arms to the shoulders.
Once he entered her,
When he released himself,
He recognized oh how delightful
The feathers, the feel of his feathers,
And verily he became swan in her loins.