Of labels and candor

We wrapped up my History 24F class (intro to Lesbian and Gay American History) yesterday. As I usually do in such a class, I asked the students what they would be taking away from the course now that the semester was over. Many expressed excitement at finally learning that “We have a history too”, and some who used the first-person plural of Queerness to describe themselves yesterday did so for the very first time publicly. More so than in past semesters of 24F, I’ve had a high number of students who openly identify as “bi” or “questioning”; a couple mentioned that while they had gained no particular new insight into their own identities and desires, they did feel more comfortable after the class living without a specific label. I’m always happy to hear that.

And of course, the students also asked me to talk about two things: why I teach this class, and how I identify sexually. I’ve answered the first, and part of the second question in writing in this post. I wrote two months ago:

I don’t always identify as straight. I’ve never liked the word much: I’m too conscious, in an evangelical Christian sense, of my own places of brokenness to feel comfortable calling myself “straight.” And calling myself “heterosexual” seems to imply a continued openness to other women in my life. I jokingly call myself “Eira-sexual”, using my wife’s name. It captures the essence of one basic goal of my private journey today, to direct as much of my sexual energy as possible into one relationship. But there’s no point in denying that from adolescence on, my desire has always been primarily directed towards women. That has given me a set of experiences that set me apart from most of my queer brothers and sisters, no matter how often homophobic slurs and threats have been sent my way. I know better than to presume that I can always put myself in the shoes of those whose identity and desires are at odds with what the dominant culture decrees right.

Of course I stand by that. But my use of adverbs is often problematic, and it was in that paragraph. Continue reading

The crowded “cloud of witnesses”: of ex-lovers, ex-wives, and the call to grow

After ten days of “all election, all the time” posting, I’m ready for something different.

I’ve got a remarkable number of friends going through divorces or break-ups right now. And a week or so ago, one of those friends asked me a question I often get: “How did you survive three divorces?” The question is usually half-facetious, half-serious. I have the quick and facetious answer down pat: “I’m the King of Starting Over”, something I’ve blogged about in the past. I know better than most how to move out of a shared space and begin a new life with rented furniture! Three divorces before my 36th birthday (still, and one hopes always, a standing family record) have given me a great many interesting stories about “new beginnings”.

But last week, my friend asked me a question I get far more rarely: “How, Hugo, do you deal with having been in love with so many women? Where do they all ‘go’ in your head and your heart?” My friend is an evangelical cradle Christian; his soon-to-be-ex wife was his first love and his first lover. He can’t imagine ever being as intimate with anyone in the future as he was with her. He’s worried that memories of his first marriage, and his first romance, will haunt any future relationship. He repeated his question: “Where do all these past lovers ‘go’?”

There’s a great line in Jane Hamilton’s otherwise over-wrought A Map of the World (which was turned into an underrated Sigourney Weaver/David Strathairn film). I don’t have the book or the movie handy, so I’ll quote it as I remember. Near the end, the lead character (who has gone through unspeakable tragedy piled on unspeakable tragedy) says of her past loves: “They’re always with you, just not consciously. They’re right beneath the eyelids.” I may be misquoting the line, but the point is reasonably clear: the past is something you heal from, something you get over, but also something you carry with you. And the lovers and exes whose bodies you knew and whose lives you shared are gone — and in some sense, need to be gone — but their influence on your own life continues.

One of the Apostle’s loveliest images is of a “cloud of witnesses” urging us on. Whatever St. Paul meant, I’ve long cherished the idea that I am watched over, and perhaps in some sense even protected, by those who have gone before. I think of my father, my grandparents, and countless other friends and relatives who have “gone to join the great majority” on the other side. As a Christian, I believe not only in a life to come but also in the promise of being reunited with deceased loved ones. I also believe, based on Scripture and on hope, that I am watched over and cared for by these witnesses. I’m not practicing some sort of ancestor worship, never fear — but though my great hope is in Jesus, my quiet comfort is also in the presence of those who cheer me on. (I know this isn’t a comforting image for everyone. I had a friend who was raised with the belief that the dead could see you, and she grew up with a genuine phobia about going to the toilet, worried that dead people were going to watch her poop.)

In any case, I don’t just apply the “cloud of witnesses” image to the dead. Continue reading

The longing to “jump the life to come”: some thoughts on Shakespeare, pregnancy scares, contraception, and romantic myths

There are a great many things I could blog about this morning, my own pre-election anxiety not least among them. I’m grateful that I’m leaving town (actually, the country) from tomorrow afternoon until late Sunday night — and that will give me a break from incessant poll-checking. Yesterday, I visited RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight and the DailyKos at least a dozen times each. I met with Stephanie, my Pilates trainer, this morning at 6:00. Though I normally do a private session with her three times a week, because of my travel schedule I won’t see her until next Wednesday morning — the day after the election. “We won’t see each other until after the election”, I blurted on my way out the door. “Oh God”, Stephanie replied, “I know. Let’s hope we’re both giddily happy at this time a week from now.” “Amen, sister”, I replied.

I will have more posts up about porn soon, but I am always reluctant to post too often about the same issue. I have a diverse group of readers, fortunately, and want to do my best to cover as many bases as possible. Two important voices for sex workers rights and for a “pro-porn” position, Amber Rhea and Renegade Evolution, have thoughtful responses to my recent posts. (Ren’s site may not be work-safe for all.) I’m glad respectful dialogue can happen.

I’m thinking about something else sex-related this morning. In the past month, three of the students I mentor (two women, one man) have come to me reporting pregnancy scares. They are all between 18-21, and each is in a committed relationship, though not with one another. In the case of the lad and one of the gals, the tests came back negative; in the case of the second young woman, she’s planning on taking a pregnancy test later today. (In case you’re wondering, yes, I do have a solid number of students of both sexes whom I mentor — and some of those students choose to seek me out for advice about their private as well as their intellectual lives. In cases where professional counseling is needed, my motto is “affirm and refer”, but in most instances, what these students need is a safe and reliable ear. Given that I teach so many courses on gender and sexuality, it makes sense that some students would seek me out for direction and counsel. I see it as part of my job, remembering that in my college days, I had a few professors from whom I sought personal as well as professional advice.)

I’m familiar with pregnancy scares. Heck, I’m familiar with unintended pregnancies, both in my own life as an adolescent and in my work as a teacher and youth leader. I have helped arrange (and in a couple of instances, helped pay for) abortions, and helped facilitate one adoption. I have been to two weddings of former students who got married as a result of a pregnancy. I’m honored to be trusted by as many young people as I am, and I hope to continue to be worthy of that trust.

But I’ve been thinking more about why so many young people I know choose not to use contraception. The gal who came to see me yesterday had been on the Nuvaring, but her insurance coverage lapsed, and she couldn’t get the scrip refilled. She and her beau had condoms available, but chose not to use them. “I don’t know why we’re so stupid”, she said to me yesterday. The young man I work with who came to me last week, worried his girlfriend might be pregnant, also reported that “condoms were available” at the key moment, but “we went ahead without them anyway.” I wasn’t shocked. When I got my high school girlfriend pregnant, we had condoms nearby as well. I didn’t like wearing them, and my girlfriend said she hated the way they felt. So we used them “some of the time”. And predictably, a pregnancy resulted.

The $64,000 question is: “Why?” Why do bright, educated young people who are very clear about how exactly babies are made choose to have unprotected heterosexual intercourse so very often? Why, on many occasions, do they find such flimsy excuses for not using contraception, even when contraceptive devices are easily available? In some cases, of course, lack of affordability is an issue — condoms aren’t as cheap as some folks think, and other forms of prescription contraception have grown much more expensive in recent years. In other cases, one partner (almost always the male) will nag the other about how “uncomfortable” condoms are. But in plenty of cases, these young people have access to reliable methods of birth control, and choose not to use them. Ignorance is not an all-encompassing explanation, and neither is expense. Something else is at play. Continue reading

A very long post about bisexuality, fidelity, fantasy, masturbation and desire: a response to Neil

One of my readers, “Neil”, is finishing up an M.Div and busy working as a pastor in a small congregation. He’s doing a lot of counseling. He wrote to me a few days ago:

So I’m reading your blog procrastinating from household chores
on my day off and come across (no pun intended–really) one of your
posts on masturbation.

I’ll get to the point now: In my pastoral work, I recently
had a conversation with a married bisexual man–whose wife knows he is
and did even before they got married. Masturbation has come up in the
context of “I’m married to my wife and want to be entirely faithful to
her, but what do I do with my desires for men?” I wonder what your
perspective is on orientation and fidelity for bisexuals in a
Christian context.

Since this topic may not be what everyone wants to read about, the remainder of the post is below the cut. Continue reading

Of abortion, atonement, and the wickedness of politicizing grief: UPDATED

It’s the eve of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, and it’s a good day for asking forgiveness and thinking about the injuries — intentional or accidental — that we inflict on others.

Somewhat in that vein, I’m thinking about regret and experience, particularly around sexuality and abortion. Lynn Gazis-Sax offers this wonderful post inspired by this equally fine piece from Christy at Dry Bones Dance. And I’m thinking about the PR campaign that is spreading like wildfire among my pro-life friends surrounding the new book Changed: Making Sense of Your Own or a Loved One’s Abortion Experience.

The book is by Michaelene Fredenburg (a splendid name, whatever else may be said), who is about my age. From interviews (I haven’t read the book), we learn that she became pregnant at 18 and chose to terminate the pregnancy. Had she carried to term, the child that might have come into the world would have graduated from college (assuming a normative time to degree) this past spring. That caught my eye, because as I have shared many times, I got my high school girlfriend pregnant in 1985. Had a child been born as a result of that pregnancy, he or she would have come into the world sometime in early February 1986 — and would thus have been, like Michaelene’s potential offspring, ready for college graduation this year.

In the interviews I’ve read — and at the AbortionChangesYou site developed to promote the book and the message — the message is emphasized that undergoing an abortion (or being close to someone undergoing an abortion) can have lasting and damaging psychological consequences. And you know, I’ve got no problem with that. Honestly, not a month goes by that I don’t find myself wondering what it would be like to have a child in his or early twenties. Time and again, I have tried to imagine whether my high school ex and I would have had a boy or a girl; I wonder about what the child would look like, what their interests would be, and what it would have been like to become a father so very young. And given the life I led for so many years, I have often wondered if I was responsible for other abortions about which I never knew. (For that matter, I still occasionally contemplate the possibility, one hopes remote, that I might have a child out there somewhere.)

Did going through the abortion experience (as closely as any male can) change me? Of course it did. I’d like to say it turned me into a lifelong advocate of effective contraception, but that would be a substantial fib; I had plenty of foolishly unprotected sex in the years that followed. I didn’t “learn a lesson” quite as well as I would like to imagine. But the experience did touch me, and the memories of what my girlfriend and I went through nearly a quarter century ago still come into my consciousness, particularly around the time of the abortion (late June) and the due date (early February). Continue reading

Manhood, Boyhood, Adulthood: a response to SamSeaborn

Strong language in this post below the fold, at least a smidgen.

In a long comment below this post, SamSeaborn writes and asks:

You can be a great MALE while being a virgin. But can you be a great MAN?

These are three distinct layers of identiy – PERSON – MALE – MAN

So what is it that makes a MALE PERSON a MAN? Of course, sexual success with women is just one arbitrary measure. But what other criterion could be used?

He gets some sharp responses from other commenters, and those responses are excellent.

In one sense, though not perhaps in the sense he intended, Sam is right. We live in a culture in which manhood has been made distinct from biological maleness. “Boys are born, men are made” is the sort of thing repeated over and over again by those who imagine themselves wise about such matters. And there’s no shortage of institutions in our culture which promise to “make boys into men”; the military has done nicely for quite some time by recruiting on that promise very explicitly. Plenty of boys try out for football, or learn to hunt, or join a fraternity, or allow themselves to be jumped into a gang, all because of some desperate hope that through membership in a select company of the be-penised (the team, the gang, the Marines) the boy will be magically transformed into someone recognizable to his peers and to himself as a Man.

Heterosexual initiation is, as Sam makes clear, the sine qua non of real American manhood. That it ought to be otherwise seems wise and reasonable, that American males are generally made to feel it to be essential to their acquisition of manhood is indisputable. There are some wonderful works out there, by the way, about how young Catholic males view their presumably celibate and virginal priests — priests are often granted a special dispensation into ‘manhood’ by virtue of what seems a heroic sacrifice. And after all, priests and monks make a conscious choice to remain virgins (though some, of course, have sexual experience before their vows). And for many men in our culture, having enough “game” to have been able to have sex if one wanted to, but choosing otherwise because of a higher commitment, is sufficient to establish at least a partial manhood. It’s the males who are homosexual and have no interest in intercourse with women, or the males who (for all their desire) lack the “pull”, the “game”, the magnetism to get women into bed who receive the full measure of scorn from their fellows. Continue reading

“Bowflex Boy” and Kristy McNichol: desire, celebrity, and the sexiness of earthy reality: UPDATED

There’s been an interesting discussion going on beneath this post at Feministe. As part of a riposte to some rather silly criticism of Third Wave, sex-positive feminism, Jill last week put up a number of pictures of hot shirtless men. (It’s reasonably work-safe to visit.)

Some commenters (both men and women) criticized the decision to put up the photos. They asked the usual questions: isn’t it reflective of a double standard if we denounce men for objectifying a narrow range of beautiful women, while celebrating when a feminist woman posts pictures of handsome, ripped, relatively young men? Isn’t it problematic to celebrate a narrow ideal when we live in a culture in which body dysmorphia and self-loathing is rising dramatically in the male population?

Jill responds to the criticism in this comment. When the question of poor male self-image is raised, some commenters leap in to make the perfectly legitimate case that all things considered, women today suffer far more from a culture that fetishizes a very narrow notion of perfection. That’s true enough, but the damage done to young men by our contemporary ideal of the “cut, be-sixpacked” physique is very real.

But this post is not an attempt to revive some sort of suffering Olympics discussion about male v. female body image issues. Rather, I’ve been thinking about something I learned twenty years ago about desire, the ideal, and insecurity. In college, I lived for a while in a co-op on the northside of the Berkeley campus. There were 37 of us in the house, nearly as many women as men. One of my best female friends in the house lived in a “single”, and I often visited with her in her room. (I had a triple for most of my time in the co-op). Debbie had a huge poster on her wall — an ad for the “Bowflex Man.” If you remember the ’80s, you remember the ad. I’ve done a Google image search, and can’t find it, but the picture is indelibly carved on my brain. A young, dark-haired man is pulling off his shirt, lifting his arms over his shoulders. His body beneath is tanned and spectacularly toned. A Bowflex machine is in the background. Half the dorm rooms on campus seemed to have this picture up; it was more popular than that college staple, Robert Doisneau’s kissing Parisian street couple. Here’s the picture: Bowflex Boy

Anyhow, Debbie had this picture in her room, over her bed. At one point, Debbie and I made a brief attempt at a romantic relationship. It lasted only a few weeks before we realized we were better off as friends. But I remember that when I was naked in her bed the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about the image of masculine perfection just inches away. I was not terribly out of shape in college, but in both color and texture was a bit doughy around my middle. I certainly wasn’t “Bow-flex boy”. And after we had finished fooling around, as we lay in her very narrow single bed, I made a rather joking, obviously insecure remark. It’s been more than twenty years, so I don’t remember exactly how I put it, but it was something like “I can’t believe you want to be with me when you’ve got this guy to look at.” Continue reading

“Do Me, Do Me Right”: part one (very long) of a four-part series on Christianity and sexual ethics

This is part one of a three-part series this summer on Christianity and sex. Part Two will look more closely at issues of sexuality and global justice and part Three will look at how to reconcile contemporary sexual ethics with Scripture and tradition.

Christian sexual ethics are much on my mind, on the minds of many of my students and youth group kids, and this summer, very much on the public’s radar as well. Next week, we’ll mark the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s famous Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that declared virtually all forms of contraception to be incompatible with Catholic teaching. In many ways, Humanae Vitae was the first blow struck in the reaction against the liberation movements of the 1960s, and it was the seed for much contemporary conservative thought about the meaning and purpose of our bodies and our lives. From a progressive standpoint, its fortieth anniversary is not cause for celebration. (But in all fairness, if you want to read a fine — but very, very wrong-headed — encomium to Humanae Vitae, visit First Things for this Mary Eberstadt piece.)

And of course, the Anglican Communion is on the verge of major schism this summer over, above all else, the issue of sexuality. A church that survived numerous revisions to the prayer book, a church that bravely embraced contraception way back in the 1930s, a church that largely held together when women began to be ordained in the 1970s, is now at last falling apart over the issue of homosexuality. Tied up in the near-certain schism is the basic disagreement among Christians about what constitutes “ethical sex” in the eyes of God. There seems little chance of a resolution that will both keep the church together and, at the same time, be congruent with how two very different groups of Anglicans see the role of sexuality in our lives.

In any case, I’ve been thinking about (and studying about, and writing about) Christian sexual ethics for many years, since I first took a course on Patristic Theology at Berkeley in 1987. I became a Roman Catholic the following year, and then had a tortuous series of peregrinations that led me to — and through — the Assemblies of God, the Mennonites, and the Episcopalians. (I’m just your average, run of the mill “charismatic Anabaptist Roman Anglican”.) Though I continue to worship at a variety of Christian churches today, I am now involved in the work of the Kabbalah Centre. And of course, I have a Ph.D. in Christian history, though that doctorate focused more on the ethics of war than on the ethics of sex.

I also come to the discussion as a heterosexual man in his forties, four times married, thrice divorced. I come as a college gender studies professor who works closely with Christian and non-Christian students alike, many of whom, I am happy to say, have chosen to see me as their mentor. I come to the discussion as a former Episcopal youth leader, who spent seven years teaching workshops on “Sex, All Saints Style” to high schoolers at the largest Anglican parish west of the Mississippi. So I bring a lot of experience, passion, and yes, baggage, to this subject.

From a theological perspective, though I’ve never been a Methodist, I come to the discussion with a healthy reverence for what’s often known as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”: Reason, Experience, Scripture, Tradition. The “Quad” suggests that any understanding of God’s call on our lives needs to rest on those four things. Many Christians from across the theological spectrum have embraced the Quad as a sound method for discerning right thought, right speech, and right action.

So after all that build-up, what am I ready to say about Christianity and sex?

If there’s one core principle I derive from using the “Quad”, it’s this: in the end, God cares more about the content of our sexuality than he does about its form. Traditional Christian sexual ethics are often discussed in the context of what Christians can and can’t do. Modern conservatives will often say things like “the only form of genital contact sanctioned by God is that which happens in a marriage between one husband and one wife.” The implication is clear: if you get the “form” (heterosexual marriage) right, then the sex that follows is licit. If you haven’t got the form right, then sorry, Mabel, sorry, Ernest, you’ve “fallen short of the mark.”

But “form-based” sexual ethics clearly have their problems. For example, it ignores entirely the great likelihood that coercion, disrespect, and force can take place within marriage. The Catholic church did not start condemning marital rape — or even acknowledging that such a concept was possible — until the second half of the twentieth century. Is a situation in which a husband demands sex from his wife against her will somehow more congruent with the spirit of Christ than a situation in which two unmarried people make love with mutual enthusiasm? If you’re a stickler for “form-based ethics”, you bet. For the most traditional of theologians, marital rape is less of a serious sin than homosexuality or pre-marital sex, because form matters more than content. (And when was the last time you heard Focus on the Family put out a series of messages against intra-marital coercion?) Continue reading

Hating to win more than fearing to lose: on competition, Hell’s Kitchen, and surviving in a broken world of finite rewards

My wife and I are, for better or worse, fans of Gordon Ramsey, the foul-mouthed, charismatic, and decidedly non-vegan-friendly celebrity chef. We enjoy all of his various programs produced for the BBC and American television, and last night took in the conclusion of his silly but eminently watchable Hell’s Kitchen. Following the model of so many reality shows, Hell’s Kitchen follows fifteen contestants as they compete for a spot as an executive chef at a new Ramsey restaurant. One contestant is eliminated each week, and last night saw the final two engage in a very close competition before one was selected. It was very tense and exciting — and even if much of that tension is manufactured and much of the excitement is manipulated, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The final two contestants, a man named Petrozza and a woman named Christina, seemed to like each other. They were not hostile or unpleasant towards each other, but each obviously wanted to win very badly. And watching them balance genuine affection with tremendous competitiveness was, for me, quite moving. I found the relationship between these two final contestants to be the most intriguing — and bittersweet — part of the entire show.

What last night’s episode got me thinking about was the pain of competition, and how long it took me to accept the inevitability of going up against another person for a prize only available to one.

When I was a child, frankly, I hated competing at anything I thought I was good at. I was happy enough to play most sports, because there were very few physical games at which I was any good. As long as I wasn’t teased too badly for my lack of athletic prowess, I was content to play team sports at school. (I didn’t discover whatever small talent I had for running until I was in my twenties.) The only games I became good at were table tennis and croquet; in my family, these were the two main “sports” played by the younger generation at our large clan gatherings. And I discovered, particularly with “ping-pong”, that I didn’t like winning.

I remember the first time I bested a friend of mine in a long game (it ended something like 25-23). I was perhaps ten or eleven years old. When I won, I saw the disappointment in his eyes — and I was devastated. I promptly threw the next game, but did it so obviously that he got even angrier with me. Over the years, I got craftier at losing. Sometimes, of course, I was beaten outright. (Including more than once by my very talented father.) But other times, I did deliberately throw the game, often by attempting deliberately unlikely shots that displayed a lot of effort but which were almost guaranteed not to produce a satisfactory result. I got pleasure out of trying to make the other person believe that they had won fair and square, and I got better and better at this people-pleasing deception as my adolescence wore on. Continue reading

“Only disobedience is free”: my mama’s follow-up on sin, rebellion, and autonomy

Last week, I posted about the Calvinist notion of rebelliousness as the gravest of sins, quoting both Richard Mouw and Augustine of Hippo. Mouw and Augustine excoriated themselves for childish destructiveness, not so much because of the damage they did to the objects they attacked but because of their sheer glee in defying authority.

My mother, a retired professor of philosophy, now in her seventies and an atheist since her teens, wrote to me with a different insight about the meaning of rebellion:

I don’t know if I ever told you this story. It is my earliest clear memory; I was only two and a half years old. It was Christmas Eve 1939, and I was in the backseat of the car. We were driving to Grandfather Roeding’s for dinner. I think I had a slight cold. For some reason I had no shoes on but I did have socks and I started to take my socks off. My mother told me not to, but as I continued to remove them, I had this sudden enormous sense of myself as a self. I could take my socks off If I wanted to! I was a separate person. I was genuinely — if only briefly — aware of my own separate consciousness. I’ve certainly never thought of it as a sin. I disobeyed in the revelation that I could disobey: A deliberate act of free will. I’m sure I had done quite a few naughty things before that but this was an act of independence rather than of malice.

Do you know the medieval theory that there can be no true love in marriage? True love involved giving freely and nothing in marriage can be giving freely since everything, according to medieval doctrine, is already owed. Similarly, in our childhood there is a sense that everything good and well behaved is already required of us. We disobey not because we are depraved but because in the tiny sphere of our capacities, only disobedience is free, only disobedience is an expression of our autonomy. I have never forgotten that moment of realization that I could choose not to obey.

The bold emphases are mine.

I am truly, in so many ways, my mother’s son! And though my mother and I disagree about a great many things, I think she’s absolutely right about the essentially healthy, life-affirming function of the kind of childish disobedience she describes here. I am not a philosopher like my parents or Richard Mouw (though I did suffer through a lot of graduate work on medieval English scholasticism). What I do believe is that we must distinguish healthy rebellion from wanton destructiveness. My mother’s defiant removal of her socks, in the face of her own mother’s stated warnings, is evidence of a desire for healthy autonomy; Mouw’s smashing of his grandparents’ plants is less positive because it is the expression of autonomy through the willfull destruction of life (however feeble and unsentient that life may have been). Rebellion for the sake of establishing independence is, in other words, only sinful when it involves deliberate harm to that which is created, good, and valuable. There are different kinds of rebellion. Continue reading