Good Sex: A sermon exploring a liberal ethic and theology of sexuality

12661831_1029528670437183_172360807941456559_nListen to the podcast for this sermon here.

Reading – Honoring the Body – Sarah Gibb Millspaugh adapted from the words of Stephanie Paulsell 
In her book Honoring the Body, Stephanie Paulsell writes of “the mending power of sexual intimacy” with a story about the novelist Martin Amis:  “After years of unrelenting tooth pain and disease, all of [Martin’s] teeth were removed and replaced. In the midst of this long, excruciating process, he had to wear, for several weeks, a prosthetic device that filled his mouth with saliva, made it difficult for him to talk or eat, and made him feel distinctly unlovely and undesirable. [In a note] to his wife [about] the night after he had been fitted with the false teeth, he writes,  ‘That night you came belly-dancing out of the bathroom wearing (a) your silk bathrobe and (b) my teeth. Both were then removed. This was the war against shame. The next morning I woke early and lay there quietly laughing and weeping into the pillow. I felt fragile, guileless, and exquisitely consoled.’

Fragile, guileless, and exquisitely consoled. That’s a pretty good description of how we [can be] rendered by [such intimacy] with a loving partner.  Fragile, because it is always a risk to expose ourselves, unguarded, to another. Guileless, because, in the deepest sexual encounters, the many ways we defend ourselves—our masks, our self-deceptions—fall away. And exquisitely consoled. To have our desire met and satisfied by the desire of another is exquisitely consoling.  Honoring our own bodies, and honoring another’s body, in this intimate way can lift the soul. It takes trust and courage to simply let ourselves be the sacred and vulnerable creatures we are.

Sermon – Good Sex 
Over the years, Unitarian Universalists have done a really good job addressing sexuality with our kids and youth – conservative estimates say that over 200,000 kids have taken OWL – Our Whole Lives, sexuality education – we’ve had an increasing reticence to address sexuality and sex with our adults, especially on Sunday morning.  Maybe we think we already know all there is to know, that our issues are all worked out – we’re fine and shame-free……?

The truth is, especially given that most of our adults didn’t go through OWL or anything like it, many of us “grown-ups” are still carrying the messages about sexuality from our own childhood and youth – messages often filled with shame or ignorance. And wrapped up in ideas about religion or God, messages we may have rejected in theory, but not yet fully transformed or reconstructed into new messages, and so are implicitly still governed by them.

Even if we aren’t carrying this sort of baggage, we still need the ongoing conversation.
Sex and sexuality are a major part of life – all of life. As the opening pages of every OWL curriculum affirm – “all persons are sexual, sexuality is a good part of the human experience, and human beings are sexual from the time they are born to the time they die.”

As the program name, Our Whole Lives, implies, we affirm that sexuality is a lifelong journey – like faith as a whole – our bodies change throughout our lives, our relationships change, our desires change, and life around us is changing- always. The conversation, the questions and the learning needs to happen across our whole lives, and not just end at high school or college.

SO, given that our monthly theme is Desire, and it’s Valentine’s Day, it seems like a perfect opportunity to catch up with our kids, and explore an adult liberal religious ethic and theology of sex. There’s way more to say than I have time for today – but luckily we have many more Sundays ahead, which means, we’ll be having a lot more “Good Sex” –
sermons – around here.

So to begin……

In many ways, the conservative fear mongerers were right, marriage has been re-defined –
though less by gay people, than by the straight community, especially impacted by their own and their parents’ divorces, as well as the equal likelihood of advanced degrees
and therefore full time career goals for both women and men.  The median age for women getting married for the first time in 1980 was 22, and for men 23.  Today it’s 27 and 29.
Gender roles and expectations have shifted tremendously over the past few decades, although in some ways have become even more proscribed than ever – just try to buy something pink for a boy today to test that theory.

The easy availability of birth control and fertility treatments means the automatic correlation between heterosexual intercourse and procreation is no longer so automatic –
although I’ve always wondered what those who say God created sex for the purpose of making babies have to say to those who are infertile.  Whether or not it was intentional, the implicit message has been to further shame and pain those who already have plenty of grief all on their own.

All this means that even if we want to preach a “no sex before marriage” ethic, it’s not what people will actually do (and maybe never did). Today we talk about a “hook up culture,” a term that sociologists and popular journalists use to describe an increasing acceptance of casual sex, enabled especially by dating apps and websites. This general acceptance is the reality that most folks under 35 grew up with.  In my experience, living together with your romantic partner without being married is not cause for scandal but the expected norm.

Straight people don’t get all the credit for this redefinition of marriage, however. Sorry.
Young adults today almost universally know someone personally or are themelves gay – and even the most conservative usually have a generally accepting attitude.

Despite all these changes, however, our cultural understanding and implicit messages around sex have not changed all that much. Sex is everywhere, yet real talk about sex –
outside of conservative preachers proscribing healthy sex as that which occurs in heterosexual monogamous marriage – remains relatively taboo.

In most of the population, there is a disturbing ignorance about how bodies really work,
and where all the parts are, and how bodies and desire change throughout our lives. What’s more, there remains an absurdly narrow sense of what a “normal” sex life looks like, and a perpetual, dull roar if not booming din worry that we are the only ones who are weird, undesirable, ashamed, or confused.

For example, rare is the portrayal of a sexually active female septuagenarian (a congregant after the sermon told me I shouldn’t leave out octogenarians!)- it’s why the Netflix show Grace and Frankie with the stunning 70-something Jane Fonda has been such a welcome revelation. Even rarer is a sexy and sexually empowered not-totally-fit person – unless played for comic relief as with Fat Amy in the Pitch Perfect movies.

Sex on TV and in movies gets more and more explicit each year, and even my children have seen more than their share of erectile dysfunction ads, but still mainstream culture fails to portray the realities of sex – realities like only 25 percent of women are consistently able to have an orgasm from vaginal intercourse – or the fact that the average sized woman wears a 14 not 4.

Unitarian Universalists created OWL with the United Church of Christ in the late 90s in response to this combination of increased sexual permissiveness with the continued lack of real knowledge, hoping to offer lots more information within an ethic grounded of liberal values and faith. As articulated in every OWL curriculum, healthy sexuality for us as religious liberals is not so different than a healthy life generally – it requires education, self-worth, consent, safety, developmental appropriateness, respect, responsibility, justice and inclusivity.

Still, I’ve been disappointed with the faith component of OWL in that I don’t think it offers an explicit alternative to the shame-based theological anthropologies or cosmologies that so many of us grew up with, and so some of those old beliefs still linger in the shadows.

My hope today is to lay out one way to think about an alternative framework and the theological claims at the foundation of our liberal religious ethic.

Planning for the service, I thought up all sorts of heady, theoretical readings about sexuality. Ultimately, however, I chose the one Dee and Rich offered because it isn’t heady. It’s embodied. It isn’t analytical or theoretical – it’s vulnerable – I mean, what’s more vulnerable than teeth? It’s vulnerable, intimate, and real.

When we talk about a liberal theology and ethic of sexuality, we need to start here –
here in our vulnerable, needy bodies, here in real life, here, in the struggle to navigate our embodied neediness with others in an embrace of the still-possible mutual wholeness and transformation.

Any theology of sex that doesn’t start with the body fails to address those implicit and injuring messages many of us and our culture carry. Early Christian thinkers – influenced by Plato, Aristotle and Hellenism, imagined human life dualistically – body and soul separate. The soul was eternal and of God, the body was sinful and to be overcome in service of saving the soul.

In the 17th century, the philosopher Rene Descartes further systemetized the division –
promoting a dualism of mind and body. Descartes is the one who proclaimed “I think therefore I am.” The brain means you are a person; your body – inconsequential -incidental, secondary, and problematic – something to be controlled or managed in service of the real you – your mind.

Feminist, queer and other progressive philosophers and theologians finally and thankfully critiqued this dualism – and science further revealed its flaws. A liberal theological anthropology – that is an understanding of the human person – refuses to separate the parts in any way – but rather approaches humanity as one – one of body, mind, spirit, all one. All connected, all alive, indivisible, all gifts of God, or of the universe, all worthy of love and belonging – inherently so, as we say.

The body is not something to be overcome in this framework, but is rather to be honored, respected, loved. Its regular workings and needs are not shameful or dirty or requiring purification or containment. Bodies are funny, mysterious, beautiful, messy and changing – as humans are funny, mysterious, beautiful, messy and changing. That bodies become hungry for food or for touch is simply true – not good, not bad, just true. That bodies take pleasure in food or touch is also true, still not inherently good, or bad, just true.

In this theology of the body, we affirm the goodness of aligning the spirit, the mind, and the body, such that we refuse a strict gender binary dictated by outward cultural norms,
find gender policing unethical, affirm trans identity, and embrace all sorts of gender expression – traditional, non-traditional, and everything in between.  Our theology seeks body/mind/spirit authenticity, and the liberation of all of our spirits in service of truth and a greater love – whatever clothes this might wear, or name or pronoun it might go by.

Most of all bodies – as they are indivisibly life, humanity, personhood – are vulnerable, as life is vulnerable. We go to great lengths to control and avoid this reality, to assert and appear otherwise, but all of us, all of us, are so terribly vulnerable. We are susceptible to illness, injury, aging. Our hearts hurt literally or figuratively – often both, and often the distinction is imperceptible. Open heart surgery leaves most people more readily emotional, more easily teary-eyed, and often profoundly changed and transformed.
This causes some confusion and resistance for some post-surgery, but it makes perfect sense to me: your heart was broken, exposed, and then put back together anew. No doubt things are going to be a little on the surface – maybe for the rest of your heart’s beating life.

Bodies that hurt can also be healed, and because bodies and spirits and minds are one,
the hurt may show itself in the teeth, yet the pain will be felt everywhere: “distinctly unlovely and undesirable.” So too the healing, everywhere: “exquisitely consoled.”
In the midst of all the ways that life tears us apart, sex can pull our pieces back together, tenderly, clumsily, beautifully. And when it does – whether in the context of casual or committed relationships- sex can be holy and sacred.

Still, let us not fail to acknowledge that vulnerability is another word for risk. Sex is risky – emotionally, physically, spiritually. Sex does not always leave us exquisitely consoled. Sometimes it is the thing we need to be consoled about. As one of my favorite thinkers on sex, advice columnist Dan Savage puts it, “there is no such thing as risk-free sex.” Conservatives tend to blow these risks out of proportion resulting in abstinence-only education and anti-abortion hysteria; liberals tend to minimize these same risks
by way of condoms and the pill. Acknowledging that all sex involves risk of some sort helps us right-size our risk assessments, and decide if we can truly live with those risks. And obviously, this sort of risk assessment is best done outside of the heat-of-the-moment – through ongoing conversation, reflection, and prayer.

Some feminist philosophers idealize an ethical framework that disconnects sex from risk entirely, imagining some how we might disentangle pleasure from danger. However, I tend to agree with the perspective of those who like Jewish feminist Rebecca Alpert,
find this an impossible task, acknowledging that “love may be gentle and kind,
but passion isn’t always. Recognizing the dangerous dimension of sexual desire can enable people to find creative ways to work with it.”

If we don’t name the risk and danger of sexuality, it goes underground, spurred on by shame and ignorance. These are the seeds for abuse and dysfunction – which we have seen so terribly for example in clergy sexual misconduct across all denominations, including our own. Some of you lived through Unitarian Universalism in the 1970s, so you may have first hand memories of the ways that a number of clergy pointed to the permissive culture around them to excuse their own sexual experiments rather than acknowledging the special danger their behavior posed given their role as a minister. Pretending there was no special risk meant the risk was even greater, and many of our churches have spent the last few decades finding their way out of the devastating consequences.

Understanding sexuality as an expression of embodied vulnerability with the potential for both danger and healing, the inevitable ethic invites us to consider how our sexual choices can foster the latter rather than the former.

To help with this, I want to turn to a phrase that you might more easily expect to hear in a more traditional or conservative sermon on sexuality – which is to affirm that sex is intended for creative purposes. Of course, our conservative counterparts would add the modifier “pro-” before creative – that sex is for pro-creation. In our liberal religious ethic, however, we like a little less prescription. So we say that sex is simply for creation.

As we navigate the rights and wrongs of sexuality, we might ask ourselves whether or not the sexual expression will be creative, or destructive? Life-affirming, or life denying?
And – given our theology, we ask this not just for ourselves, in the moment – but also for our partner, for our webs of relationships, for life as a whole?

This liberal religious perspective differs from the liberal secular standard of “whatever consenting adults choose to do is fine” in favor of an ethic that clearly defines Good sex as
that which heals, re-constructs, co-creates, and connects. And defines bad sex as that which destroys, denies, and separates – sometimes in one singular moment, but more often over time, little by little, chipping away at wholeness and relationship.

You may have noticed that not much in what I have laid out provides a list of rules –
this act being good, this one bad – meaningful consent and awareness of power are good starting points – but beyond this, we acknowledge that context matters, and the changing, growing nature of the person matters.  What was one day life-affirming and creative may another day be life-denying. And so we make different choices in service of life.

Importantly, our sexual ethic affirms the potential goodness in same-sex partners,
as well as non-monogamous partners, and allows us to affirm all sorts of sex acts and no sex acts as healthy and “normal,” as long as any of these create rather than destroy life,
and as long as they keep the whole person and the whole web of life in view – all of this can be good.

Love, desire, bodies and life are messy and unpredictable – capable of bringing so much good, and so much pain. Sexuality, and all of life, cannot be made otherwise – regardless of the ethical system or theological framework we might employ.

As humans in this great enterprise of life, we can only hope to be aware, and awake to the risks – of sex, of love, of living at all – and the possibility in the most intimate and the grandest possible scale for both healing and devastation – and try our best to partner with life, or with God, in creating more life, more love, more goodness. And we give thanks.

 

This sermon and post is a part of the annual UU blogger exploration of sexuality and faith each February.  #sexUUality 

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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