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Unnatural selection*

Well, color me surprised:  Matt Walsh is at it again.**  I never know where to begin with this guy–should I start with his imaginary friends that write him letters and emails?  Or maybe with the fact that he’s created caricatures of people for the sake of taking them down?  Actually, I might go with just shaking my head at how many people seem to like and follow this guy.

This week’s installment is “stereotypes of liberal college professors.”  Oh, nice one, Matt.  Let’s take on academia!  Because no one has ever done that before and done it better than Matt Walsh!  I think it’s hilarious that Matt tries to sell us on his being the subject of conversation in high schools and colleges (remember the one about health class?).  No, dude, you are just not that important.

I’m pretty sure my favorite part of the fake email is where, since he couldn’t actually think of something to write, Matt says,

[Five more sentences of insults and pretentious self-aggrandizement]

Oh, okay.  We get to hear all about how “worried” this fictional professor is that Matt is a topic of conversation, thus stroking Matt’s ego, but we don’t get to read about the “self-aggrandizement” of the professor.

The gist of the email is that the fictional professor believes monogamy is not natural to humans (particularly men) and is no longer necessary.  He then goes on to personalize it, suggesting that Matt will inevitably cheat on his wife.  I will admit that I’ve met people who believe this and who are unkind about the way that some people choose to live their lives.  However, none of them fall into the stereotypes Matt has suggested here (well-educated atheist in academia), and none of them have had the misogynistic overlays Matt has used in his fictional scenario (that is, only men cheat, only men believe monogamy is unnatural, etc.).

After making a couple of snide remarks about the “professor,” Matt goes on to say:

A married person who doesn’t believe in monogamy seems an awful lot like a Satanist in a church choir, or an existential nihilist performing lifesaving heart surgery. There’s a bit of a philosophical conflict of interest at work, wouldn’t you agree?

No, Matt, I don’t agree, and you’re an ass who doesn’t understand any of the things your conflating here.  Matt is equating non-monogamy with cheating.  Those are not the same thing.  We can have a conversation about whether it’s moral or a good idea or whatever, but we need to do it on the terms of what the concepts actually are.  A person can be non-monogamous in a marriage without sneaking around and having illicit affairs.

Matt tells us why he bothers answering these fake emails:

In fact, I wouldn’t even bother to address such absurdity if it wasn’t becoming so widespread. What you people — you socially “progressive” academics — have realized is that you can not launch a salient attack against the ideals behind marriage, or abstinence for that matter, so instead you’ve decided to make the bizarre case that these things are somehow mythological.

“Widespread”?  Really?  I’m not seeing it.  Also, this is not a new thing.  People who believe humans are not wired for monogamy have been around for a long, long time.  Goodness, I remember reading this stuff back when I was in high school in the ’80s, and it wasn’t new even then (though as a high schooler I thought I’d stumbled on some terrifying new philosophy).  Matt needs to catch up a little.

As for not being able to “launch a salient attack against the ideals behind marriage,” Matt needs to catch up there, too.  In so many ways, marriage and family have changed.  I don’t mean in the last half-century with the changes in divorce laws or in the last ten years with more states legalizing marriage equality.  I mean over the course of human existence.  The purpose, function, and practice of marriage are ever-shifting, and that isn’t a bad thing at all.  I, for one, am happy that I’m not still considered property, for example.  The ideal behind marriage–which I would argue is a mutual expression of love, trust, and commitment–can still be present no matter how a couple decides to live that out.

The more you say it, the more people believe it, and the more they believe it the more true it becomes. It’s a clever trick. You’ve succeeded, at least partially, in shouting at a reality until it disappears.

But conservatives never, ever do this.  Nope.  And it’s never been used to bully, shame, and abuse people.  Ever.

Monogamy is not natural. You’re right about that.

It’s supernatural.

I honestly don’t even know what he means by this.  He also goes on to talk about “rationality” and a whole bunch of other stuff that generally makes very little sense to me.  Maybe I just don’t have Matt’s incredible intellectual powers of debate.  At no point does he bother explaining how monogamy is supernatural.  I was expecting some stuff about, you know, God somewhere in there, but he never gets around to that.

It’s above our nature. It might not be realistic. Space flight isn’t realistic, either.

I think Matt and I have vastly different definitions of “realistic.”  Does he mean “naturalistic”?  Because realism, by definition, is something that is real.  Space flight has been real for over 40 years.

I’m already bored with Matt’s not-really-a-rebuttal.  There’s no direction here.  He’s basically saying that the “professor” is wrong because he’s wrong.  Or because of space flight.  He finally tells us what he really thinks:

If you won 600 million dollars in the lottery, would you go out the next day and break into cars to steal the change from the cup holders? That’s what sleeping around is like when you’ve already found a woman who will pledge her life and her entire being to you for the remainder of her existence.

Ah.  So there we have it–he sees non-monogamy as “sleeping around.”  Because in Matt’s world, there are only two kinds of sexual expression:  Man-Woman-Marriage sex and Get-It-On-With-Anyone sex.  On, off.  Black and white.  He cannot imagine anything outside of those options.  (This is, of course, how we know the “professor” doesn’t exist, by the way–he’s created as the anti-Matt.)

You tell me that you are in an “open marriage.” I will probably be lambasted for “judging” you for it, but, sorry Professor, an “open marriage” makes about as much sense as a plane without wings or a boat that doesn’t float.

Matt means it doesn’t make sense to him.  I’m willing to bet it makes sense to the people who choose something different.  My concern is less about Matt judging a fictional character for a scenario that, in this case, doesn’t actually exist than about the fact that Matt just doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about and isn’t arguing his case particularly well.

Marriages, by definition, are supposed to be closed.

By whose definition?  In the Bible, marriages certainly weren’t “closed.”  Multiple wives?  Check.  Concubines?  Check.  Song of Solomon may even be referring to an unmarried couple.  Human history and culture is full of a wide variety of configurations, all of which were considered acceptable.  The fact that we’ve now caught up with ourselves socially (to an extent) and can embrace marriage as a choice rather than as a business deal is wonderfully freeing.

If you aren’t strong enough to stay committed to one person, that’s your business. Walk down that path of loneliness and confusion, but you can’t drag the entire institution of marriage along with you. Personally, I like circles but I hate squares. Can I subvert the laws of geometry and suddenly decide that all squares shall henceforth be circles? No, because geometry is geometry, despite my strange square-hating quirks. Similarly, marriage is marriage, no matter how many college professors insist otherwise.

Oh, Matt.  You poor soul.  Though I now see exactly where he’s gone with this.  He seems to think that this one fictional character can single-handedly take down marriage.  I don’t think this fake letter is about non-monogamy at all.  I think it’s a disguise for Matt’s frustration with the trajectory of marriage equality.  I’ve heard that argument before, that marriage is on its way out.  You know what’s really shooting down marriage?  It’s not people who live happily in open marriages.  It’s not same-sex couples.  It’s not polys.  Heck, it’s not even divorce (I can’t imagine telling someone who has escaped an abuser that s/he has ripped the fabric of society).  No, it’s people like Matt who want to cling to a very narrow definition of what marriage is or should be (which is fine, if that’s what the couple wants) and then enforce it so everyone else must follow suit.

Matt seems content to blame crumbling marriages on nebulous philosophies and the relatively small number of people who are honest about their non-monogamy.  But that denies abuse, addiction, actual cheating (vs. non-monogamy), religious oppression, misogyny, and homophobia as far bigger contributors.  It’s important to open the conversation about how people can live moral, healthy lives.  That’s not what Matt’s done here.  Perhaps that’s because it’s easier to hide behind imaginary academics than it is to engage with live human beings.

____________________

*I think that was actually the title of a Far Side book.  Man, I miss Far Side.

**If you get the chance, check out this page.  The Five Drunk Rednecks (I love it) posted a couple of comments on my previous posts about Matt Walsh (it’s so gratifying that I have that much reach with my tiny little blog).  So I ventured over to their page.  I would call it a treasure trove, except “treasure” isn’t the word I want and I’m not sure what its antithesis is.  Anyway, read up on it over there.  Matt Walsh has been saying douchey things for ages.

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On stereotyping and pushing back

It’s taken me three days to figure out why a series of tweets rubbed me the wrong way and what I wanted to say about that.  It’s a very dangerous thing to insert oneself into a conversation that is by, about, or for another audience.  In this case, though, I think that I can manage not to alienate the people who started the conversation.  If anyone else is bothered by what I say, then perhaps you are the person I’m talking to here.

I had to do some digging to figure out what started it.  I think it may have been a combination of this post by Rachel Held Evans and the two articles linked in this HuffPost piece (helpfully shared by a friend of mine).  Let me sum up the response (which I completely agree with, by the way): Straight allies are defending LGBT people by telling others that not everyone is a stereotype and by saying or implying that same-sex couples are pretty much exactly like opposite-sex couples only with 100% more gay; don’t do that, because it reinforces the idea that LGBT people must fit into heteronormative boxes.

As far as I’m aware, I have not used any argument that resembles “let gay people get married because then they can prove they are just as moral as straight people.”  You all can correct me if I’m wrong (though I will point out that I’ve been doing this for about 4 years and I’ve evolved, so if you find somewhere I’ve done that, I shall immediately apologize and do better in the future).  Anyway, since I agree with the sentiment–which means the exhortation wasn’t directed at me–then why did it bother me?

Here’s why: It wasn’t the response, particularly to Rachel Held Evans’ post, that bothered me.  It was the original post, but I couldn’t formulate why until I gave it a good deal of thought.  I realized that the stereotype most straight people (particularly those who are not allies, but even some allies do it) is based on what they know/think they know about gay men.

If what we straight people believe is based only on gay men, then of course the pushback is going to be centered on that.  In the process, guess who gets erased?  (In case you didn’t quite get it, that would be anyone under the LGBTQI umbrella who isn’t a gay man and even some who are.) I care very deeply that no one’s voice be lost, especially when those people have consistently been silenced in other ways as well.

Don’t misunderstand me–the pushback is necessary, and the consequences are absolutely not the fault of those who responded.  That’s not what’s flawed here.  The problem is in the fact that anyone still cares about someone else’s life so deeply that they have to find ways to craft their actions as moral in order to support them.

The answer is not really for allies to fight the stereotypes.  It is simply for us to stop caring whether anyone else’s life looks like ours.  So what if it doesn’t?  Why is it so important that everyone share the same belief about what is or is not acceptable for themselves?  And why are we so deeply invested in anyone else’s sex/relationship life, anyway?

If you want to be an ally–really be one, not just be one if you think that the person is morally deserving–then please use a different method.  If you (like me) support marriage equality, then do it because there are people who want it, not because you think the ability to get married will magically make people share your values.  If you (like me) are a Christian and believe that every believer is welcome to love, serve, and lead in the church, then stop wondering about the person taking communion next to you and whether or not they are “just like” you.

Oh, and while you’re at it?  Stop trying to figure out what other people do in the privacy of their lives.  Unless it directly involves you, it doesn’t concern you.  It would be great if we could all concentrate a little harder on what goes on behind our own closed doors.

Health class and hook-ups

Last night, I got an email from one of my readers.*  She sent me the link to this mind-bogglingly awful blog post by Matt “Stay-at-Home-Moms-Are-Awesome” Walsh.  I’m not sure that we should have expected anything different from his guy, given the chipper and vaguely misogynistic tone of the post about motherhood.  Please be sure to read Matt’s post, or none of this will make any sense.

Let’s start with the “email”  Matt received from “Jeremy.”  Aside from the fact that it doesn’t sound like anything a teenage boy would write, I had to laugh at this:

One of my teachers actually mentioned it in class once after you wrote something (she didn’t mention it in a good way lol)

Oh, really, letter-writer?  I suppose it’s possible that one of Matt’s previous posts could have been popular enough to be read by an apparently non-Christian high school health teacher.  It’s not anywhere near likely that the teacher would have mentioned it in class, and almost certainly not including the name of the blogger.

“Jeremy” goes on to say that his teacher does the following things that I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard a teacher do and still keep his or her job:

  1. Calling abstinence “out-dated” and “unrealistic”
  2. Encouraging students to have casual sex
  3. Asking students to raise hands in a show of sexual history

This is a classic argument against sex education in high schools.  It doesn’t actually happen this way–in fact, more often than not, teachers hands are tied in regard to giving students proper information because some parents throw a fit every time the teacher tries.  The conservative families who don’t want comprehensive sex education come up with strange arguments about how teachers are going to start telling kids to just go ahead and do it.

The sad reality is that there isn’t nearly enough good education about sex.  I grew up in a non-religious household, but I knew people whose parents wouldn’t even allow them to go to school during fifth grade puberty lessons.  I remember those classes being embarrassing but halfway decent; my sex education steadily declined thereafter.  It ranged from having to diagram a penis for an exam (but not a uterus, because dicks are more complicated, ya know) to a teacher putting in a filmstrip about STDs.  The one teacher I had who might have done a better job never got the chance.  My grade 10 biology teacher had us submit 3 questions we wanted answered, and he was going to spend one double (lab) period answering them.  That was the year we had a huge ice storm, lost a week of school, and that lab got slashed as “unnecessary.”  Unfortunately, my teacher gave us the list of questions (ranging from “I think this whole thing is a joke” to good questions about relationships) without giving us any of the answers.

Anyway, if I were a teen in need of support, Matt Walsh is probably the last blogger I would write to.  His response to this “kid” is full of the same self-righteous crap spouted by most conservatives.  It’s condescending, it’s shaming, and it won’t help anyone make good decisions.

Believe it or not, I tend to agree with Matt that it’s not a great idea for teenagers to be having sex.  I’m not unrealistic enough to think they won’t, but that doesn’t mean I won’t teach my kids that it’s not a decision they need to make in high school.  I absolutely agree that the vast majority of adolescents are not equipped to make adult decisions about relationships.  We don’t expect our teens to know how to navigate the adult world in other ways; why should sex be different?  But the way Matt approaches it–including referring to teens as “emotionally immature juveniles” (that’s not at all condescending)–isn’t helpful.

I think this may be my favorite part of the post:

There’s plenty of ignorance on the subject. Plenty of confusion. But it’s the lies I hate. The lies that come from people who know better. The people who have made mistakes and now encourage others to make them, too.

I hate the lies, too, Matt.  I hate when people use their religious convictions to make up fake emails (whether this was Matt or a “concerned parent” posing as a kid, we may never know).  I hate when kids are given misinformation or none at all because of fear that telling them something will make them go try it.  I hate that kids are growing into adults who also don’t navigate sex and relationships well.  I hate that people are shamed for what they chose (or were forced) to do.  I hate the heteronormativity inherent in these conversations.

Casual sex proponents are the ones who have turned sex into something trivial, banal, utilitarian, pointless, joyless, one-dimensional, lifeless, lonely, and disappointing. How could the ones who hold it as sacred also be the ones who make it “boring”? No, it’s mainstream culture that’s made sex boring. It’s mainstream culture that is, in fact, afraid of sex. That’s why we spend so much energy shielding ourselves from every natural aspect of it, other than the physical sensation itself.

I’m so glad that Matt thinks he knows the minds of every person and how they feel about their sexual experiences.  Plus, he cleared it up for us–there are only two ways of thinking about sex!  We can have “meaningless” casual encounters, or we can have holy married sex.  Whew!  Good to know.  Now when I talk to my kids, we don’t need to have a conversation about sex in a long-term, non-married relationship.  Great!

This is exactly my problem with having conversations about sex with a certain brand of conservative-minded people.  They set up these straw-man arguments about how “the world” is teaching us that we should (Matt’s words here) “throw ourselves at strangers.”  Not even one word about the damage done by purity culture and how shame plays a big part of it–especially for girls and anyone who isn’t straight.

My second degree is in health education.  One of the first things we learned is that statistically speaking, abstinence-only education does not make any difference in rates of STDs and pregnancy among teens.  On average, teens who pledge abstinence wait 6 months to a year longer than their peers.  What is different is that with abstinence-only programs, students don’t learn how to be responsible.  Would you like to know what does make a difference–regardless of religion–in keeping kids safer and healthier?  Parent involvement.

Yep, that’s right.  It’s not about what the teacher says or doesn’t say.  It’s not about abstinence-only or standard sex ed or even some teacher spouting off about the perks of casual sex (not that the last one ever happens outside the made-up world of certain conservative Christian bloggers).  It’s about parents who are willing to have open communication with kids–not just a one-time “birds and bees” lecture but a lifetime of teaching them to respect themselves and others.

Believe it or not, this is the line that disturbs me most:

And, when the time comes, you’ll express love. Then, you’ll be able to say that you only ever expressed this sort of love to the one person who deserves it.

“Deserves it”?  That phrase haunts me.  Was I more deserving because when I got married, nothing other than a tampon had ever been in my vagina?  Is someone who has had casual sex–and enjoyed it–less deserving?  Or is this just a reference to how awesome married sex is?  I can’t tell.  I would like to hope that Matt didn’t mean it to sound so shaming, but I’m not convinced.

If “Jeremy” is real, here’s what I would like to say to him (and any other “Jeremys” our there):  If you want to wait, that’s cool.  Don’t feel pressured to do anything you’re not ready for just because someone else said you should.  Don’t listen to people who tell you that you must have sex in order to know for sure if that’s the person you want to marry.  But also?  Don’t listen to Matt Walsh or anyone else who tries to tell you that there are only two options–hook up with strangers or marry your one true love.  Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you should feel ashamed of your choices.  And don’t feel like you need to figure this out on your own.  Find people you trust who are open to talking about it.  In the end, the decision is yours and yours alone who you choose to have sex with.  You have the right to live your life without shame.

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*Dave Barry always said those letters were from Alert Readers.  Stephanie Drury (of Stuff Christian Culture Likes) calls them “email of the day” or “comment of the day.”  I suck at naming things, so if anyone wants to suggest a clever name, feel free.

The opposite of Christian

Félix Vallotton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I should be doing some other writing, including getting around to that “words mean things” post I’ve been wanting to write.  But a couple of things I read earlier made me think of something, and when an idea pops into my head, it won’t let go until I get it out.  Today’s big idea: The opposite of Christian is not “selfish jerk.”

This morning, I read a post that reminded me of the way we try to put people in boxes labeled, “Christian, moral” and “Non-Christian, immoral.”  It made me feel strange, like something I’d read before only with different words.  Shaming, harmful words.  While I get it that sex wasn’t the whole point, it still made me rage.  It made me want to ask “but what about…” questions.

This, in particular, pushed my buttons:

The Christian view says sex is a sacred, initmate act between two people, the ultimate place of vulnerability, and is better enjoyed within the context of the marriage covenant, of complete trust, honesty and commitment.

The secular view says we should be free to have sex with whoever we want, whenever we want, however we want, as long as it’s ethical, legal, consensual and doesn’t hurt anyone. It comes from the view that we make our own choices and we should be able to have sex with whoever we want, whenever we want, within the obvious boundaries of ethics, morality and law.

But going deeper, it actually comes from a view of the world which says it’s all about us.

Our enjoyment, our good, comes before anything else. And all the good things should be enjoyed now. Anything which restricts our decisions, or tells us to live in a way we’re not comfortable with, is limiting. We make our own decisions, and if it feels good and it’s legal and morally good, then we should be free to do it.

No. That is not the “secular” view.  The opposite of the “Christian” view (which I would argue is better called the “conservative Christian view”) is most definitely not “it’s all about me.”

Are there people who operate from the perspective that it’s all about them?  Sure.  Those people take what they want, when they want it, and others don’t matter to them.  But that’s not split between Christians and non-Christians.  It’s not even split between those who want to wait and those who don’t .  It’s split between nice people and assholes.

The idea that waiting is unselfish and not waiting is self-centered denies some pretty basic, important truths.  First, it implies that marriage means trust and commitment.  People get married for all sorts of reasons, including some who get married because they are forbidden to have sex otherwise.  Lots and lots of married people don’t have trust or commitment.  Yet when they have sex, it’s sacred because the state issued them a piece of paper and a minister signed it?  What an odd way to look at things.  If trust and commitment are required, there are plenty of married couples that should probably not be morally allowed to have sex.

Second, it implies that being unmarried means there isn’t trust or commitment.  Right there, that rules out anyone living in a state where they can’t legally get married.  (Of course, if one believes same-sex relationships are a sin, then I guess that person would say it doesn’t matter whether they can legally wed or not.)  It also suggests unmarried people are only having sex because they don’t have the self-control to wait til marriage to have orgasms.  I think it’s a pretty bold leap to decide we know what motivations a person has for sexual intimacy and whether or not their relationship includes trust and commitment.

Third, it ignores the reality that selfish sex can occur within a marriage, too.  Some people firmly believe they have the right to someone else’s body once they are married.  Some pastors (ahem) even teach that.  I would rather that two unmarried people have sex that honors one another’s autonomy than that two married people treat each other’s bodies with disrespect.

Fourth, it makes sex into something it isn’t (and shouldn’t be).  Sex, in conservative Christian circles, has taken on meaning and importance that it shouldn’t have.  It has become something considered “sacred,” and therefore it can be used to control others, either by restricting it or by using it against them.  I don’t see sex as “the ultimate place of vulnerability” between two people.  I’ve felt far more naked and exposed when revealing my innermost thoughts than when I’m literally naked and exposing my vagina.  The way we talk about sex should not turn it into something emotionally and physically terrifying.

I wish that it were as simple as married sex = good, unmarried sex = bad, but it isn’t.  Intimacy is so much more complex than that, with all the intricacies of the lives we’ve lived and the experiences we’ve had built into it.  The way to create a healthy sexual ethic, Christian or otherwise, isn’t to draw lines based on perceived motives or what we think is or isn’t part of a relationship.  I’m not suggesting that Christians should necessarily drop the idea that intimacy is best within marriage–it may very well be the case, at least for some people.  But we could certainly learn a thing or two from an ethic that isn’t fixated on the magic moment of marriage.  Doing what’s best for our bodies, giving and receiving consent, feeling good, doing no harm, and making our own choices should always be part of healthy sex, regardless of when it occurs.*

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*One might argue that those things are all part of trust, honesty, and commitment, I suppose, but one cannot argue that those things are an automatic part of marriage.  Too many married people–yes, lots of them Christians–are not experiencing any of those things.

Lust and the Problem of Thought-Policing

By Soffie Hicks from Wales (Lust) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Lust: The Seven Deadly Sins, by Soffie Hicks

Rachel Held Evans’ recent post on Elizabeth Smart and purity culture gave many of us a lot to think about.  I don’t always read the comments on her blog, as there are often so many and it can be tough to wade through them.  But after I posted a comment myself, I received this comment in reply.  Essentially, the person responding to what some of us had posted was trying to make a case against masturbation based on the idea that sexual fantasy is wrong and equivalent to “lust.”

This is something I believe bears examination because Christians (particularly of the conservative evangelical flavor) have an unhealthy relationship with the word lust.  I’ve seen just about every interpretation of the word, and it makes me cringe nearly every time.  I have to stop myself from leaving comments on Christian blogs that say things like, “You need to go back to high school health class” or “I recommend a good physiology lesson” or “Please just check dictionary.com before you try to parse the word” or “You’re making this up as you go along, aren’t you?”  If I had a dime for every time I saw one of the following “definitions” of lust, I’d be living on my own tropical island:

  • Lust is a desire to possess someone
  • Lust is sexual fantasy
  • Lust is being sexually attracted to someone you’re not married to
  • Lust is always an unhealthy reaction
  • Lust is an overblown desire
  • Lust is making someone an object
  • Lust is obsession

Deep sigh.  No, no, no, no, no, no, and also no.  All of those have been used as tools to control people’s sexuality, including by progressive Christians.  On the more liberal end, many feminist Christians use the word lust to mean that if one is sexually aroused by seeing an attractive person, one should not then take that home and fantasize while masturbating.  (And I would go one further–they usually mean men should not do this because it’s “creepy.”)  Meanwhile, on the conservative end, it’s been used for pretty much everything under the sun, from policing women’s clothes to policing boys’ erections.  Any sexual practices the church dislikes often get lumped into the lust category.  Oh, you’re attracted to people of the same sex?  Lust!  Oh, you had a sexy thought about your boyfriend? Lust!  Oh, you got hard in the middle of math class? Must have been lust!

None of those are the dictionary definition, nor are they found in the Bible.

According to the dictionary, lust is intense desire, and it isn’t limited to sex.  One can lust for power or food or money as well.  Additionally, it isn’t always negative, though in Christian circles it certainly has been used that way.  For example, one might describe an exuberant person who lives to the full as having a “lust for life.”  In that context, it’s intended as a good thing.

As for what the Bible says, that’s another matter entirely.  Jesus’ comparison of lust and adultery has been used to club people over the head every bit as much as the anti-gay “clobber” passages.  In fact, it’s been used both to rob women of their agency (by blaming lust on “immodesty”) and to shame men for so much as glancing at a woman in a bikini.  Among more progressive Christians, it’s been used in roughly the same way, unfortunately, with the added bonus that some feminist Christians seem to have a particular inclination to believe that if men just control their “lust” then violence against women will stop.  (Sadly, since “lust” is not the root cause of violence against women, I fear that’s a losing battle.)  Lust is equated with a power differential and a desire to reduce people to objects for our own pleasure.

Not being a Biblical scholar, I had to look it up.  As it turns out, the word “lust” is probably not an accurate translation for what Jesus meant when he said,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28 NIV)

As it happens, the Greek word is the same word as the one for “covet.”  Now, I’m sure that at least some of my fellow feminists know that, and that’s why they’ve defined “lust” as obsessive, objectifying, or possessive.  But I’m going to argue here that the reason it bothers some women that (again, men) might fantasize about women they’ve seen has nothing to do with whether or not those men actually want to have sex with them.  It has more to do with the objectification.  That’s at a valid argument, to an extent, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus said.  The specific thing being warned against is not objectification but possession–the desire to have or own something that does not belong to you–and a general approach to women which includes the intent to possess.

That’s an important distinction to make.  There is a big difference between being aroused by a sexy person on the beach (and even fantasizing about it later) and going to the beach with the intent to troll for people to fantasize about.  In the former, it’s a response to an unanticipated stimulus; in the latter, it’s an intentional search for the stimulus.  Intent matters–it means something.

We need to stop thinking about God as some kind of Cosmic Thought Cop, and we need to stop policing each other.  The way it looks to me is that both ends of the Christian spectrum seem to have an unhealthy obsession themselves with controlling other people.  Stomping your feet and demanding that people stop having sexual fantasies about actual humans is cut from the same cloth as expecting people to never have any sexual thoughts until they are properly married, and then only ever about their spouses.  In both cases, it’s not about anyone’s behavior or intent, it’s merely about the pictures in their heads.  We can–and should–have a conversation about whether what’s in one’s thoughts might translate to behavior.  But it won’t be productive until we stop trying to control every last brain wave that we find personally bothersome.

For more on this topic, I suggest reading “Whoever Looks at a Woman With Lust”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #1.  It’s pretty straight cis male-centric, though, so keep that in mind as you read–not everything in there is universally applicable.

Trust in me

© Chrisharvey | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

As I mentioned yesterday in my Fifty Shades post, I want to explore this idea of trust a bit further.  It’s important, because I’m seeing something huge happening among people who call themselves both feminists and Christians.  We are standing at the threshold of a new (and hopefully healthier) sexual ethic that reflects both our faith and the letting go of patriarchal norms.  This is a marvelous thing that is unfolding, and I am beyond thrilled to be part of it.

Last week, fellow blogger Dianna Anderson posted this fantastic piece titled No Touching: Consent as the First Step.  I absolutely agree wholeheartedly that consent must be a foundational element of our sexual ethic, because otherwise, little else that we say matters.  As important as consent is, however, it cannot by itself be our ethic.  We need other elements–without them, we end up with the potential for “whatever makes you happy.”  That’s not truly healthy either.

The next thing we must talk about is trust.  Consent is good, but it must go hand-in-hand with trust.  What made me think of it was not the lack of trust I see in Fifty Shades (though that did help clarify it).  I was actually inspired by this quote from the aforementioned post by Dianna:

Consent is asking at every step “Is this okay? Does this feel good? Can I touch you here?” and getting a unequivocally positive response before proceeding.

With all due respect, I disagree with this statement.  There are times and situations in which it is certainly true, but it is not universally applicable.  When my husband and I are physically intimate with each other, we don’t ask permission and require an enthusiastic “yes” before every single activity.  To my recollection, we have never done this.  In fact, it would be rather strange if we started.  At this point, the expectation is that if one of us does not want to do something or is not enjoying it, we will speak up; if one of us speaks up, the other is expected to listen.  We communicate if we want to try something we’ve never done, but otherwise, we simply do what feels right in the moment.

That got me thinking: Why is that?

Why don’t we have to ask permission for every kiss, every touch?  And why didn’t we need to even when we began a physically intimate relationship?

The answer is that we trust each other.  We have always had the kind of open, honest relationship that made such trust possible.  This is why we don’t need to ask permission.  It isn’t because permission is merely assumed; it’s because we understand each other well enough that we don’t need words to communicate.

It just so happens that I think that the level of trust one has for a partner and the level of physical intimacy should match.  That means that the “are you married, check yes or no” question is the wrong one to ask.  It also means that “do you have permission” might also be the wrong question to ask if it’s asked in isolation.

I’m not comfortable affixing labels to relationships in such a way that the only equation is consent + trust = married couple.  And for those who do not share my religious sensibilities, it’s not my job to police your ethics or tell you that you shouldn’t have a sexual encounter that requires asking permission for every act.  But as for people calling themselves Christians, I absolutely believe that we should not be sexually linked with people we do not fully trust.

There are a number of other factors that come into play when developing a healthy ethic, but both consent and trust are foundational.  I would like to see us build on these two things as we seek to discern how we can have relationships that honor others and reflect our faith.

Breaking the rules

This is a continuation of my previous post.  I’m dealing with some sensitive issues, including lust, pornography, and addiction. If you are uncomfortable talking about these things, you may not want to read what I have to say. If you’re okay with my subject matter (or are very curious, even if you don’t want to admit it), read on.

Before we can talk about the ways in which self-pleasure can be a positive, healthy thing, we need to have a conversation about lust, pornography, and addiction.  We need to break the rules that those are all interchangeable terms and are all inherently bad.

When it comes to lust, I think we simply have no real way to discuss what it is and what it means without devolving into some variation on thought-policing.  I have some rage about that, actually.  I am truly sick and tired of the way lust gets thrown around as a way to tell people what they should or should not find sexy or what fantasies are acceptable when one is wanking.  I simply cannot buy into the idea of a God who wastes time fretting about what gives His people orgasms rather than, say, caring what happens to starving children.

I think we need to understand the context of Jesus’ remarks about lust, because otherwise, all sexual fantasy is reduced to lust.  I have read numerous articles on the subject, and the problem with all of the Christian versions is exactly the same.  Most people seem to think that before Jesus, the line was drawn at “Don’t screw your neighbor’s wife.”  After Jesus, there was a new line, but no one seems to be able to define it.  It could be anything from “Don’t think sexy thoughts at all” to “Don’t fantasize about the person you just saw in the park.”  All we do is keep moving the line, which does nothing to lead to actual freedom.  It’s just more about monitoring and controlling other people.  I don’t view Jesus’ words about lust that way at all.  When Jesus was speaking about lust and adultery, he was making commentary on legalism–saying, “You want legalism?  Here you go.  Have some more.”  (I suggest you read everything in Matthew 5 after the Beatitudes while picturing Condescending Wonka.)  Every time we move the line and try to define lust in terms of what people view, read, or think about when they get off, we end up with more red tape.

There are two problems with that.  First, if thinking about another person while pleasuring oneself is wrong, then it also applies to partnered couples.  Well, shoot.  That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.  I mean, I consider it damn hot to imagine my husband bringing himself off in the shower while thinking about me!  I really want him to “lust” after me.  I don’t consider it some attempt to possess me or reduce my humanity in any way if he were to think about my hands on his body.  (You are all blushing right now, aren’t you?  That’s so cute.)

Second, it makes people terrified of their own thoughts.  I can remember watching movies with my husband–my husband!–and if there was any sex, I would immediately tense up.  I would think, I can’t find this sexy.  I’m not supposed to find this sexy.  I would worry that he was embarrassed.  I would fear being turned on by it because oh my god that’s porn! even if there wasn’t much being shown.  And for real, folks, that was incredibly damaging.  By shutting off any natural reaction because I was afraid that it was veering into Lust Land, I also shut off any ability to respond to actual sex.  Thought-policing on the lust front is a recipe for repression and depression.  Instead, we need to reframe the conversation so that it’s about how we show respect to others’ humanity rather than about punishing ourselves for naughty thoughts.

So let’s talk about porn, then.  Well, what about it?  My problem with porn is not holy shit naked people humping.  Human beings have sex, and we’ve been creating visual representations of it for thousands of years.  The exaggerations in porn?  Not new.  There is some ancient Japanese art in which men have schlongs the size of their heads.  My problem with porn is largely the abuses in the industry and the ways in which rather than being a reflection of humanity, it has become a standard for humanity.  I could–and probably should–write an entire post about the relationships between porn and sex trafficking, child abuse, drug addiction, and the degradation of women.  I could also include frank discussion of the ways in which use of pornography can cause problems within intimate relationships, often due to differing standards as well as the aforementioned shame attached to it.  I could spend a long time hashing out the difference between a person who simply enjoys porn and a person who has become so wrapped up in it that he or she can’t enjoy sex of any kind without it.  As I said, those are all important issues, but a discussion about self-gratification is not the place to go into detail.  Suffice it to say, watching people get it on is really not the big problem here, but neither do I feel comfortable endorsing it as just another art form.

So now that we’ve gotten lust and porn out of the way, what about sex addiction?  Well, first of all, we have to be clear on what we’re talking about.  There is good evidence that the rate of sex addiction is greatly inflated because people who enjoy daily sexual release are lumped into this category, as are people who regularly view porn. This is more a function of a sexually repressed society than any actual disorders (not that those don’t exist too, but the church has definitely defined “addiction” in pretty broad terms).

In order to qualify as a genuine addiction or as a problem, there are several things that need to be true.  First and foremost, it needs to be a problem for the person, and not just because the person feels embarrassed or ashamed or guilty.  It needs to actually have real-life consequences:  It needs to interfere with activities of daily living or be truly harmful to oneself or others.  Folks, it’s not going to kill you.  This is not the same thing as being an alcohol or drug addict.  I believe (and sex-positive experts agree) that this is just another lie spread by very conservative religious types.  You can fondle yourself multiple times a day and unless you are doing it at inappropriate times or in inappropriate places, you’re pretty much okay.  I have seen a number of people claiming that they were “addicted” because they believed themselves to be using masturbation as a way to fill an unnamed emotional hole, and I understand that perspective.  But even using sexual release as  means of self-soothing is not wrong.  Heck, it’s better than getting drunk or binge-eating or self-harm, and it’s a hell of a lot safer than escaping through sky diving or bungee jumping.  I think the “filling an emotional need” thing is a distractor  anyway.  Would you have the same concerns if I were feeling lonely and soothed myself by spending the night watching my favorite movie for the thirtieth time?  Probably not.

Please don’t think I’m dismissing the harm that can come from lust, porn, and addiction; I’m not.  It’s just very important that we remove the layers of shame and guilt before we can deal with the things underneath that really are harmful.  If something feels like a problem for you personally, then by all means do something about it.  But make sure that your reasons aren’t stemming from the negative messages from the church or culture.

Next time, we get to the good stuff: what makes masturbation a potentially really awesome thing?