Christian Sexual Satisfaction and the Marriage Debate

In my Genderal Interest column at Jezebel this week, I look at the recent proliferation of explicit evangelical Christian sex guides.  If You Don’t Have Sex With Your Spouse Every Day, Do the Gays Win? examines the ideological underpinnings of this particularly intense focus on erotic satisfaction in heterosexual marriage.  Excerpt:

Books like Real Marriage and Sexperiment aren’t just full of risible advice and tortured metaphors. (Clark-Flory cites this line from the latter book: “God doesn’t want us to experience little sex in the dog bed; he wants us to experience the power and purpose of big sex in the right bed.”) These aren’t even just manuals for how to have an active and fulfilling sex life with the same person until you die. These are battlefield manuals for the culture war. If heterosexual marriage is the cornerstone of civilization, and a hot sex life is (as even plenty of non-religious folks would concede) a key to a happy relationship, then having lots and lots of sizzling Christian married sex isn’t just about making babies or feeling good. It’s about doing your duty in the great struggle against the forces of moral relativism, homosexuality, and Satan.


My Other Brother

My weekly column at the Good Men Project came as the site focuses on gay men (in honor of Pride month.) My piece, Our Other Brothers: Gay and Straight Men as Friends, focuses on male friendship across the boundaries of sexual identity. Excerpt:

There seem to be two predictable obstacles to friendship between gay and straight men. First, of course, is the “sex thing.” Many straight guys worry that their gay friends are or might be sexually attracted to them. My friend Cole is straight, and often played basketball with a group of buddies, of whom two were gay. They changed and showered in the same locker room after their games. Cole often wondered how his gay buddies handled seeing so many naked men. “I know if I were in the women’s locker, seeing a lot of good-looking women naked, I’d be turned on. I figured it had to the same for gay guys, and the thought creeped me out.”

But as Cole found out when he finally asked, most gay men in our culture grow up surrounded by naked male bodies. They tend to learn to separate nudity from sexuality in a way that straight men don’t. (Ask anyone who grew up in a nudist family, and they’ll tell you the same thing.) Though some gay men are attracted to their straight friends, many aren’t. And those that are are usually very good at keeping that attraction boxed away so that it cannot hurt the friendship.

Gay men have their own fears about straight men. Boys who come out as gay—or are suspected of being gay—are often mercilessly tormented, with the worst of the abuse coming from heterosexual guys. Because American culture sets up masculinity and homosexuality as polar opposites, boys who want to prove their manhood must reject the “faggot” label and all that comes with it. That rejection often shows up in verbal and physical violence against anyone suspected of being gay.

Read the whole thing.

The Indispensable Penis: Louisa’s story

The topic of virginity came up again in my women’s history class yesterday, and I referenced this old story. This post originally appeared in December 2008. Scroll to the end for the post-script.

One of my former youth group kids came to talk to me last week after reading last week’s post about sexual identity. Louisa, 19 years old, has been out as a lesbian since she was in ninth grade, and has been with her girlfriend for two years now.

Louisa is in love with her gal. But lately, she finds herself questioning her self-identification as a lesbian. Though she describes having always hated the label bisexual for what she saw as its wishy-washiness, she talked about her growing curiosity about what it would be like to be (sexually, if not romantically) with a man. Louisa has never done more than simple kissing with a guy, and she finds herself wondering whether she ought to “try something” with a man just to find out what it’s like. She admits she’s been driving her girlfriend crazy with this hemming and hawing about having an experience with a fellow. But her curiosity, more so than her libido (though she’s savvy enough to know that those two are often enmeshed) is causing her to be, in her words, “mildly obsessed” with knowing what it’s like to be sexual with a man.

Louisa has taken my gay and lesbian studies class. She has read her Adrienne Rich; she knows about the reality (not just the theory) of growing up in a culture of “compulsory heterosexuality.” And she knows very well that if she were with a man, she might feel far less psychological pressure to experiment with a woman. “We don’t make straight women prove their straightness by having sex with girls”, Louisa said, “so why do I feel so compelled to prove I’m lesbian by trying something with a guy? It’s like I feel I have to earn my queer credentials.”

Louisa, who has known me since she was 13, wanted one thing from our conversation last week, and it’s something I don’t know if I was able to give to her. She wanted help discerning whether this fascination with having sex with a man (specifically, losing her heterosexual virginity) was something rooted in her own psyche or whether it was a response to the dominant cultural narrative. I pointed out the obvious — that for most, those two things (natural or inherent longings on the one hand and the socially-conditioned ones on the other) are incredibly difficult to separate. A lot of us spend a great deal of time working through this process of discernment; it’s one of the toughest tasks of young adulthood, and not a task everyone succeeds in completing. But the fact that it’s difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Clearly, most of us believe that our internal bundle of desires has innate and cultural-constructed elements. For example, we might say that for someone like Louisa, an attraction to women is largely innate while her attraction to partners who have dark eyes and like anime is largely conditioned. Continue reading

Homosociality and homophobia: why the distorted rules of “manhood” are the real problem

As sociologists and others have noted for years, suicides, particularly among the young, seem to happen in clusters. In the last few weeks in North America, more than half-a-dozen gay or lesbian youngsters have taken their own lives in response to bullying or harassment. On this National Coming Out Day, I’d like to point towards a site — and a movement — that has gone viral in recent days, the It Gets Better project hosted at Youtube. It Gets Better features videos from celebrities and ordinary folks alike; the messages are funny, moving, and consistent in their reassurance that the pain and heartache and loneliness that GLBTQ teens suffer will not last forever. My favorite is BD Wong’s deeply moving contribution.

As it is National Coming Out Day, it’s important to point outthe role that homosociality plays in the harassment of gays and lesbians. Homosociality is a primarily male phenomenon, particularly common among young American guys. Simply put, it’s the idea that the approval of male peers (and male authority figures) is the driving factor in men’s lives. Well documented by sociologists, the theory of homosociality suggests that winning approval from other men is more important to young men than anything else, including validation from women.

A few years ago, C.J. Pascoe wrote a marvelous study that I reviewed here on the blog: Dude, You’re a Fag. A study of compulsory heterosexuality and gender norms in a California high school, it’s the best work I’ve ever seen on the role public displays of homophobia play in shoring up fragile masculinity. From that post:

Pascoe writes of what she calls the fag discourse. The discourse manifests itself in the almost incorrigible way in which young men label each other “fags” while seeking to avoid having that label applied to them. According to this discourse, fear of being called out publicly as a “fag” is the primary driving force behind what Pascoe cleverly calls the display of “compulsive heterosexulity.” Playing on Adrienne Rich’s classic notion that contemporary society functions with a discourse of compulsory heterosexuality, Pascoe notes that among young men desperate to establish their masculine bona fides with their peers, what we see in American high schools amounts to compulsive, almost frantic efforts by young men to prove their manhood.

Anyone who has worked with adolescent boys knows how much anxiety many of them feel about their own masculinity. It’s not news to say that our sons, like their fathers before them, often have to endure or participate in physical or at least verbal violence that we tragically and falsely believe is necessary to transition into manhood. It’s not news that boys torment each other with the “fag” epithet. And it’s not news that the real stigma in being labelled a “fag” doesn’t lie in the association with homosexuality, but with being seen as feminine. Continue reading

Gay marriage and the World Cup

A couple of years ago, I got a swarm of blog hits (and a link from Andrew Sullivan, no less), when I proffered the theory that on the international stage, legalizing gay marriage led to success on the sporting field. I noted Spain’s success in Euro 2008, and South Africa’s success in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, and Canada’s tremendous haul at the 2006 Winter Olympics. All these countries had legalized gay marriage (not domestic partnerships or civil unions) within a short period before winning their titles.

Thirty-two countries played in this year’s World Cup finals. Of those, only four Spain (which legalized it in 2005); Portugal (earlier this year); the Netherlands (2001); and South Africa (2006) offer full marriage equality to gays and lesbians. (Countries like Denmark, the UK and Germany offer versions of civil unions, but not full marriage equality). Portugal lost to Spain in a match between two nations that both offer marriage to all. South Africa, the hosts, did better than expected, shocking the defending championsthe 2006 runners-up, France, by the score of 2-1.

And this year’s final? Between the Netherlands and Spain, the teams whose countries were the first two among the thirty-two contestants to legalize gay marriage. And they shall play their match in the host country, which was the third to do so.

Oh ye stiff-necked unbelievers, can you not read the signs?

UPDATE: Following the principle that when two countries who have both legalized full marriage equality play one another, the country to legalize it first wins (as we saw in Portugal’s loss to Spain), I do predict a win for the Oranje on Sunday. But make no mistake, love hoists the trophy in Joburg, regardless of the outcome.

Boy crushes, and further evidence of men catching up to women: some thoughts on the new Gallup poll

In 2004, several years before the pop culture began to talk about the “bro-mance” (a term that describes straight men’s increasingly intimate friendships with male buddies), my All Saints kids let me know of a term that they were using regularly: “boy-crush”. I wrote about how I learned of the boy crush in this post. What struck me was how much less homophobic banter and anxiety there seemed among the young men I worked with compared to my own memories of high school. Though the teens at an affluent and famously liberal Episcopal parish in suburban Los Angeles might not be representative of all young American males, their ranks included representatives of all the standard cliques familiar to generations of adolescents, the popular and unpopular, the athletic and the bookish, and so on. Nearly across the board, the comfort level with same-sex affection was much higher than it had been when I was in high school a few decades earlier.

I thought about the boys in that high school program while reading this Charles Blow op-ed from Saturday’s Times: Gay? Whatever, Dude. Blow commented on last week’s Gallup poll numbers, showing that for the first time, Americans’ acceptance of what the poll called “gay relations” had crossed the 50% threshold. Blow notes the real surprise, which is that men’s acceptance of homosexuality may now exceeds women’s, an apparent reversal of long-standing assumptions about greater female tolerance of sexual diversity. (Blow does cite evidence that suggests that rather than surpassing women, men have merely “caught up” to women’s traditionally greater levels of acceptance.)

I was pleased that Blow interviewed Michael Kimmel, whose work on men and masculinity created an entirely new academic discipline and a professor who has done more than anyone else to broaden our understanding of male identity. Kimmel, whose recent Guyland is the opus magnissimum on contemporary manhood, is an optimist. Rather than joining those who insist we’re in a national masculinity crisis (a crisis usually blamed on feminism), Kimmel thinks we’re raising young men with far greater emotional dexterity than their father’s or grandfather’s generation. Leaving aside the legitimate concerns about addiction to pot, porn, and video games, the evidence in the Gallup poll backs up what many of us who work with young men have already started to see in the past decade: more than at any time in the past, guys today are developing an unprecedented capacity for intimacy and for friendship (with both sexes). Though hardly immune to anxieties about their masculinity, and overly enamored of cartoonish depictions of manhood (think of the wild popularity of MMA), the evidence is clear that a critical mass of young men are far more accepting of homosexuality than ever before. This is very good news.

Teaching at an urban community college where most students are first-generation immigrants, the young men I work with at school generally come from far less socially progressive backgrounds than those I mentored in my years at All Saints Church. But though class and culture have an undeniable influence on how many young men negotiate their way towards adulthood, it’s clear that this increase in acceptance is not confined to the ranks of middle and upper-middle class white boys. This shift is bigger than that. To see so many young men evincing the same degree of tolerance towards sexual diversity as their sisters — this is a wonderful reminder of the basic truism that high levels of testosterone and the presence of a penis never need be barriers to learning empathy.

We’re winning the fight for hearts and minds. But we still have a very long way to go.

A follow-up on monogamy, a response to IP

After I wrote last month’s “positive definition of monogamy” post, I got a long and thoughtful response from Irrational Point, who blogs at Modus Dopens. IP’s critique of my position that monogamy is a uniquely effective vehicle for personal growth centered around my apparent unwillingness to acknowledge that polyamorous or “open fidelity” relationships could be, for some people, equally successful models for that kind of growth.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know very many folks who have been in long-term, sustained polyamorous relationships. I’ve known lots of folks who’ve been poly for a few years, but none who’ve done it for, say, a dozen years or more. I’d love to hear from folks who have practiced romantic and sexual commitment to more than one person over a period of many years, and learn from them how the opportunities and challenges of the poly lifestyle (I know, the term “lifestyle” grates) have been catalysts for personal growth. I’m genuinely curious.

I do take seriously another of IP’s criticisms. Monogamy is historically rooted in heteronormativity. Our language about commitment remains inseparable from the language of traditional marriage. Indeed, one of the reasons I’ve been such a strong supporter of marriage equality for gays and lesbians is because of my passionate commitment to monogamy. Of course, I don’t think for a minute that monogamy and legal marriage need always be synonymous. It’s perfectly possible to make and honor commitments without state sanction.

It’s also true that the idea of companionate marriage as a vehicle for mutual growth is a relatively recent one. Marriage itself, as researchers like the indispensable Stephanie Coontz have pointed out, has evolved and metamorphosized in extraordinary ways. It certainly wasn’t always an institution designed to bring emotional growth and fulfillment to its participants.

Marriage also wasn’t always an institution closely correlated with monogamy. Though polyandrous (one woman,many husbands) marriages were rare, polygamy and marriage have obviously gone together, and in some places, still do. And even where monogamy was expected, husbands were often expected (or at least permitted) to stray with few if any serious repercussions. Thus my enthusiasm for marriage is entirely for one particular modern understanding of the institution, one that comes with an expectation of mutual monogamy as a challenging, useful, and life-enhancing discipline.

As a feminist, I am acutely conscious of the ways in which the “yoke” of marriage (to borrow Christian language) has been particularly burdensome for women. I’m also aware of our cultural myth that men are naturally promiscuous, women naturally monogamous. That myth suggests that men are thus more reluctant to commit to marriage (or its equivalent). It suggests that if a woman does find a man who is willing and capable of being sexually faithful to her, she should be bloody grateful and not ask for much else. One of the many insidious ways in which the myth of male weakness works is to suggest to women that monogamy is such an incredibly difficult sacrifice for most men that if a wife is fortunate enough to have a faithful husband, she ought to give him a pass on everything else. That lie needs regular repudiation.

As I argued in my May 11 post , however, we need to see that monogamy is more than sexual fidelity. It’s not enough to not fuck other people, or have emotional affairs with them. I think that the case I made for monogamy transcends heterosexuality. I’m not sure, however, it can encompass polyamory. On the other hand, I’m not sure that it can’t. On that latter score, I’d like to hear more.

Hate hides behind propriety: of PDAs, the Black Cat Tavern, and interracial romance

In my Queer History class last week, I lectured on pre-Stonewall gay activism. I focused on Los Angeles, largely because L.A.’s role in the fight for sexual justice tends to be downplayed in the dominant narrative. Folks who know very little about gay and lesbian history often recall just two names “Stonewall” (in New York) and “Harvey Milk” (who was, of course, the assassinated San Francisco supervisor.) L.A., where the first enduring gay rights organization (the Mattachine Society) was founded, and where UCLA’s Evelyn Hooker did the first research to prove that homosexuals were essentially normal, is all-too-frequently ignored. (Lilian Faderman and Stuart Timmons give us the best corrective in their marvelous 2006 work, Gay L.A.)

Last Wednesday, we discussed the Black Cat Tavern arrests. In the first few seconds of 1967, queer patrons at that Silverlake bar kissed their same-sex partners to celebrate the coming of the New Year. They weren’t through one chorus of Auld Lang Syne before LAPD officers, who had been waiting for a “display of vice”, moved in and began to arrest those who had been engaging in public displays of homosexual affection. The arrests, part of a common pattern of police harassment, were in themselves not surprising. What was remarkable was the community response. Over the next three months, demonstrators in Silverlake and across Los Angeles organized to support the defense of those arrested, and public protests were held to demand an end to police crackdowns on the homosexual community. At one point in March 1967, 3000 gay and lesbian protestors (and their allies) blocked Sunset Boulevard at Sanborn Avenue. At that point, the Black Cat protest became the largest such queer rights protest that had ever been held. As important as the Stonewall riots were, they came more than two years later. (One feels tempted to complain of “East Coast media bias”.)

But my point was not just to rehabilitate Los Angeles as the epicenter of early gay activism. Rather, I wanted to make a point about public displays of affection (PDAs). Young people today have a hard time seeing the political component of sexual behavior. What two people do in public, they believe, ought to be regulated by their comfort level and by the “time, place, and manner” in which they touch or kiss each other. Without denying that a public/private distinction is an important one, I asked my students to consider the revolutionary potential for sexual behavior that contradicts established norms. Sometimes, I argued, offending others is desirable and necessary — because the prejudices that undergird the sense of being offended need to be uprooted.

My first wife was of Chinese ancestry. My fourth and final wife is of Afro-Colombian ancestry. Neither looks “white.” (My second and third wives were as WASPy as the day is long.) I remember vividly the first time I went with Alyssa (spouse #1) to San Francisco’s Chinatown. As we walked down the street holding hands, we got hostile stares; one old woman cursed us in Cantonese, which Alyssa partly understood. At one point, I dropped my girlfriend’s hand. Alyssa grabbed it again.

“Why did you do that?” she demanded.

“I don’t want to offend people”, I replied.

“Hugo”, she said firmly as she pressed her body against mine, “they need to be offended. We aren’t doing anything a same-race couple wouldn’t do.”

Her point was that the hostility we were encountering was rooted in ethnic prejudice against interracial couples, not in animus towards public displays of affection. Alyssa, who was hardly flamboyant in her sexuality, believed that it was nonetheless important to confront rather than accommodate bigotry. She who became my first wife believed that acceptance would only come as a result of making interracial romance appear normative. That required a willingness to offend. Continue reading

Jennifer Knapp comes out

What had long been rumored was confirmed this week: Christian recording artist Jennifer Knapp, whose extraordinary talent as a singer and songwriter made her the first religious musician to appear at Lilith Fair, has come out as a lesbian.

Knapp burst on to the Christian Contemporary Music (CCM, as its called) scene in 1998, with her debut album, Kansas. I first heard her music at the end of that year, the same year that I was undergoing my own spiritual rebirth and recovery. Most Christian music bugged me; I’d heard Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant and been left cold or exasperated. But there was something raw and authentic in Knapp’s singing, something that seemed worlds away from the “we’re so happy ’cause we’re saved and God is gonna give us rainbows” praise sound that seemed to dominate the Christian airwaves in the 1990s. The song that grabbed me, and became in many ways the “theme” of my recovery and my return to Christ in those years, was her lovely acoustic “Martyrs and Thieves”:

There are ghosts from my past who’ve owned more of my soul
Than I thought I had given away
They linger in closets and under my bed
And in pictures less proudly displayed
A great fool in my life I have been
Have squandered till pallid and thin
Hung my head in shame and refused to take blame
For the darkness I know I’ve let win

I knew what it was to have surrendered willingly to that darkness; I, an addict and alcoholic, knew what it was to have grown pallid and thin and self-absorbed. And Knapp — of course herself an adult convert — made the wonder at the sheer goodness of God seem palatable and honest rather than forced and saccharine. She witnessed, but never preached — a vital distinction that so many Christian artists miss.

After two superb follow-ups to Kansas, Jennifer Knapp went on a mysterious hiatus in 2003. She stopped touring and recording, and went incommunicado. There were rumors about her sexuality; rumors that she’d lost her faith. She stayed underground for nearly seven years, returning earlier this year with an announcement of a new tour, a new album, and a new willingness to tell the truth about a vital aspect of her identity. Continue reading