March 15, 2015
Gary and I stayed, as many of you know, at a Trappist Monastery in SC. On one of these restful, silent, peace-filled days, we decided to go into Charleston and see Fifty Shades of Grey. It was all the more stunning because of the contrast with the Abby environment.
But I felt as a minister that I had to go. On our UU minister chat website, ministers were in great disagreement about what 50 Shades of Grey means and what how we should respond to it as a liberal religious community. Many folks were very angry about the film. Christian Grey, the main character, is a stalker and an abuser, some wrote. We should all protest this film as abuse and contest its stated genre of romantic.
Romance does not involve manipulation, obsessive control and surveillance, all of which Christian Grey engages in, some wrote. Some called it the eroticization of torture and domestic abuse. Others disagreed. Some suggested that 50 Shades of Grey presented another kind of erotica that though we may not be used to hearing much about, is just as valid as other types of erotica, as long as it is consensual, and BDSM, the sexual practice explored in 50 Shades, is a consensual practice.
So why preach about this? Why not preach about the Terminator instead? Though the terminator also eroticizes violence, it has not stirred up the response that 50 Shades has stirred up and it is this response that seems most salient to me today.
UU Candidates for ministry are expected to be knowledgeable about sexuality in order to be ordained. We are required to take several sexual education courses that explore LBGTQI (which stands for lesbian, bi-sexual, gay, transgendered, queer and intersex) issues and other sexuality concerns of adults and adolescents so that we can offer appropriate pastoral care and public witness. Candidates are expected to demonstrate a commitment to sexual justice in our Association and in society.
Conservatives Christian preachers also talk about sex, much more often than we do as the liberal religious left. They preach about what they find unacceptable about sex including pre-marital sex, homosexuality and abortion.
The UUA has embraced a Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing that over 3,000 clergy and religious leaders from 50 different denominations have signed, including me. A part of the letter reads:
“We come from diverse religious communities to recognize sexuality as central to our humanity and as integral to our spirituality. We are speaking out against the pain, brokenness, oppression and loss of meaning that many experience about their sexuality.
Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. We sin when this sacred gift is abused or exploited. However, the great promise of our traditions is love, healing and restored relationships.
Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure. Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status or sexual orientation.”
For me and many other ministers, discussions about sexuality, including from the pulpit, are part of religious responsibility.
50 Shades of Grey is what is happening now and the response from outcry to fascination, from repulsion to attraction, is worthy of attention
My mom and I have been talking about the sensation. She read the book and I saw the movie. She asked me, Linda, why are women so outraged about this movie/book? Look at all of the abuse of women on the TV screen. Why not speak to that? It’s a good question. I answered, well mom, the movie was released on Valentine’s Day and called a romance. When women are abused in other films, the abuse is known as abuse and not romance. Women want this film to be called other than a romance and have the unequal power dynamics between a culturally defined beautiful man, a , billionaire, and control freak and a 20 something virgin, middle class college student be called what it is: an abuse of power.
Mom countered, Honey, it’s not true that abuse of women on the screen is universally called abuse. Look at James Bond films. I don’t see women protesting the objectification of women when another one of those films comes out.
That mom of mine. She is good at so sweetly kicking me off my highfalutin horse!
So, why the fuss?
One of the ministers on the UUMA chat site, Rev. Debra Haffner, who was on my ministerial fellowship panel that reviews all of us in seminary to ascertain our fitness for ministry, is a sexologist and director of the Religious Institute, Founded in 2001, the Religious Institute is a multifaith organization dedicated to advocacy for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society. All of us ministers were anxious to have her chime on the chat site. It is through her Institute that we take our sexual health classes, and she is the premier voice on sexuality within the UUA.
Debra Haffner’s take was not what I expected. Here is some of what she said:
There seems to be a general consensus that the movie does not reflect responsible or usual BDSM practices, and that parts border on abusive.
She goes on to say that the Religious Institute does not comment on specific sexual practices but is rather committed to a sexual ethic that is based on relationships that are consensual, safe, non-exploitative, and mutually pleasurable.
Haffner goes on, Most interesting to me is WHY this badly written, very sex role bound, book and movie have hit such a chord. Like other books before it over the decades (The Story of O, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, even Madame Bovary), I think it plays into people's desire to have a more complex, more intense sexual life (even if just in fantasy) than their own lives provide. The biggest sexual problems in long term relationship are boredom and anger.”
Boredom and anger, which many folks I have spoken to define rather as boredom and frustration, has many roots including not feeling heard, not feeling understood sexually, not feeling that the place of sex in the relationship grows intimacy and connection in the ways either party hoped.
So why would 50 Shades of Grey touch this cord?
Newsweek published a special edition in March called, Fifty Shades, Exploring the Sexual Revolution: A Global Conversation Celebrating Love and Romance Today. The magazine hosted articles like, Fifty Shades of Food touting foods that are supposedly sexy, and Buns of Steele, spelled with an e at the end like Ana’s, the lead female character’s, last name, and I’m a Sex Whisperer.
The mag had multiple interviews with women who found Christian Grey sexy because quote, “He takes what he wants.”
Reading this mag, I understood the outrage on the minsters’ chat site. That a man who is uber dominant is still sexy to women means that a woman who is uber submissive is still considered sexy too. That is disappointing after all the work we have done as women to establish equality and the right to the expression of strength.
What I learned primarily from this magazine is that someone did a great job marketing this film and book and that most of it is sexy hype. But it is more than that too.
It also brings up the question of consensus. Many who see the film say that Ana had control at all times. She could say the words yellow or red, her safety words, and all action stopped. There was a contract between them that Ana had a right to amend before signing (though she never got to signing it). And in the end, Ana leaves Christian.
My colleague, Rev. Angela Herrera, discusses the difference between mutual consent and meaningful consent in her recent sermon entitled, Good Sex.1 Meaningful consent, she says, can never happen between an 18 year old and a 50 year old, for instance. Fifty Shades of Grey brings to our attention the question, Was there meaningful consent between a sexually experienced billionaire and a younger, middle class virgin?
And why does this matter? Because what we call sexy matters. It matters to our young children and to all the women out there who still think they can change someone with their love who has been abused, like Christian Grey, who tells us in response to the question from Ana, why can’t you let yourself be loved, touched, understood that his mom was a crack addict and did things to him he is not willing to recount.
We still need to take a stand for ourselves and our children and youth.
As important to look at I think, is the other chord the movie struck, the one to shake up our sex lives, to be released from what many call the boredom and frustration of their sexual lives?
Many of my friends tell me that sex is not about love and should not have to be. There is also the polyamory group that believes that respectful sex and love is possible without monogamy. I agree with Debra Haffner that the point is not about the practices but about meaningful consent, as I would call it, and the mutuality of pleasure and respect.
What strikes me is that how we see another sexually and in all aspects of life, matters.
When Gary and I were at Mepkin Abbey, he read aloud to me a book entitled, Trappist, Living in the Land of Desire, by Michael Downey. I know it seems odd to be looking to the chaste monks to untangled the complex sexual web of life, but I find them good teachers.
Whether we are engaging in monogamous or polyamorous relationships and whether we are lesbian, bi-sexual, gay, transgendered, queer, intersex or heterosexual and whether our practice include kink or not, the question that remains salient for me is this: What do we expect another to offer us as sexual beings and how do we both take responsibility for those expectations and learn to express them? And when I ask this question the next one that pops into my mind is: How have we been trained culturally to see the other, in this case, our sexual partner or partners and what is the role of sex in our lives?
I think we often see each other, in and outside of the bedroom, as existing to affirm us, to complete us, as another who might just be able to relieve us from the intense experience of aloneness that we all know as part of being human and from some of the monotony of day to day life too.
What if we started there?
What if we approached sex not with the focus of getting our needs for pleasure met, those these are important, but with learning who another was, on using this time of great vulnerability and intimacy to discover another, not only how they are made up physically but how they are made up spiritually? This might be a route to increasing pleasure and reducing boredom and frustration. For what brings pleasure I find to be a deeply spiritual question. If our bodies are reflections of the holy which we define all the way from god to the earth as Unitarian Universalists, then what we do with them, how we explain them and feel through them, matters to us as spiritual beings.
From the book, Trappist, Living in the Land of Desire, Downey writes: “The monk searches for the face of the Other of God precisely as other. God is elusive, always more, overspilling our concepts. Decentering the self, making room for the Other of God through humility… means making room in oneself for all who challenge us to see beyond the narrow confines of self-absorption, self-fixation, self-preoccupation. Through constant hospitality the monk is able to make room for the other: the other person, other people, the other who is God…to be a monk is to entertain the stranger, the exile, the other precisely as other, one’s whole life long. It involves getting out of the way so the other can live precisely as other than myself.”2 What would happen if we entered our sexual lives with this prayer of the other the brothers offer us? What if we met in our sexual relationships not only to be to pleased but to discovery another’s difference, to honor another’s difference, sanctity, completeness, unique expression of selfhood?
Downey goes on, “Far too often in our relationships with others we perceive them as mere extensions of ourselves. We relate to them, indeed comply with the demands they make on us, because in doing so there is something for us in it. But it is an altogether different matter to submit to the claim of another precisely as other. There is an other whose otherness is radically different from myself…The other is a person, not just an extension of myself (or my pleasure I would add).
The other has a face…the other has a name, and it is not mine…Is there room enough in our lives for the other we would rather let remain other- the stranger, the exile?”
How often in our sexual and other relationships do we enter into terrain with one whose strangeness, whose otherness strikes us as not ourselves with joy, curiosity and acceptance? If we can imagine this other as uniquely other, as one we can never truly know and who will never truly know us, and we can communicate, we can tell the story of our own personhood through our willingness to be present, I imagine that sex could be not only a way of pleasure but of spiritual joy.
Downey concludes, “The deepest desire of the human heart is for relationship, for living the fullness of communion. When we taste this communion, we come to know…that relationship is the deepest and fullest of divine mysteries. Everything is related to everything else.”
We are all connected, irrevocably. And within this connectedness, the stories that make up our lives are uniquely written on in our minds and on our bodies. It takes time, respect, intention to learn another, to see another. How we look, with which part of who we are we leave room to see, matters. This is a spiritual practice.
What I hope for us all is that we consider what the spirituality of sexuality and of relating means to us and unwrap these dynamic, ever changing and evolving paths of being together in ways that feel safe, respectful, meaningfully consensual and mutually pleasurable.
May we all leave room to open the spiritual door of knowing those who are not us in all the many ways and places that we find ourselves in relationship.
1 Angela Herrera, Good Sex, First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico, February 17, 2015
2 Michael Downey, Trappist: Living in the Land of Desire (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1997) 117.