This past week I had the great fortune of attending Stanford University’s Weiland Health Initiative Faith and Sexuality conference. It was a chance to discuss two topics that when put together may seem to make strange bedfellows. In discussing the intersection between sexuality and faiths such as Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, we came to understand the power of sex in uniting and dividing. Perhaps one of the most eye-opening talks was given by the Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D., who discussed the sexual eclipsing of the erotic.
Rev. Johnson asked us to think about desire. Most often, desire is associated with two elements—food and sex. Our societal tendencies for going into overload mode with both have led to grave concerns. We are facing an obesity epidemic and there are discussions about whether sex addiction is a real condition. We have lost our ability to engage in moderation. With respect to sex, we are given hundreds of messages per day. In fact, when we were shown this image during the talk, I realized that while I’d actually used the exact same one in a lecture on eating disorders, I’d failed to recognize its violent aspects. This is just how normalized such images have become. We take them in, without stopping to question them.
Moving beyond imagery, Rev. Johnson explained that when people’s own experiences of sex do not align with the media hype of all that it could be, this becomes problematic. When the expectations of a sexual experience are set to be so high, we are bound to be disappointed. As a therapist, I would argue this could also be the beginning of various sexual dysfunctions. Rev. Johnson suggested four key reasons why sexuality and sexual intimacy tend to be troubled, fraught, or ambiguously valued.
- Touch Deprivation: So often touch and intimacy are implicated to mean genital contact. Obviously, there are numerous other forms of touch that can be powerful in communicating connection and intimacy. As a result of modern-day boundaries, we are taught that touch is not appropriate. Work policies and sexual harassment trainings drive the point home that any form of touch is completely unacceptable. This is understandable given the possibility of harassment or sexual trauma history. However, we’ve also moved into being a touch-deprived society.
- Bodily Shame: Ubiquitous are the images of the unnaturally thin woman and the impossibly muscular man. We are told these are the only bodies desirable enough to be sexually intimate with. If we do not meet these standards, we’d best go about changing ourselves as soon as possible.
- The Binary Gender System: By understanding sex as only occurring between a man and a woman, a masculine and feminine one at that, we are being given an unequivocal message. I would argue that such rigid gender roles also precludes same-sex non-sexual touch. A fellow blogger on Psychology Today once wrote about an observation of a boy band that whose members tousled each other’s hair and were playfully affectionate toward one another. There was nothing particularly erotic or sexual about it, and this too often seems like an outlier rather than a norm.
- It’s Not Like Pizza: The idea behind this concern is the notion that with pizza, even when it’s bad, it can still be pretty good. It has been suggested the same goes for sex. But as the Rev. Johnson pointed out, “when it’s bad, it can be really bad.” This is due in part to the fact that intimacy means opening up a very private piece of ourselves that can be rejected. It has been my observation that too often sex is mechanized, such that it is about the act more than the intimacy involved. I’m reminded of a Christina Aguilera lyric that goes, “I want your body, not your heart.”
The concept of “divine eroticism” was at the crux of Rev. Johnson’s talk. He explained how sex is about more than procreation and that this is where many theological debates get stuck. He discussed the fascinating notion of reclaiming the spiritual significance of the erotic from mystical traditions, or as he said, “what most Christians don’t learn in Sunday school.” The word “eros” is defined as the desire that draws us into encounter, intimacy, and union. While genital and sexual intimacy are one means of achieving this, there are other ways. Deep friendship, companionship with animals, giving of oneself to community are all forms of eros.
Rev. Johnson also discussed the Creator’s longing for communion with creation, as well as God’s love and desire for the individual. He talked about the hope inspired by Christian faith, sharing the following, “at last to be at home in our bodies without shame, at home with others without guilt, at home with God without fear.”
However, regardless of whether one even believes in a god, the conference speakers offered up many ways to think about faith and sexuality. The Rev. Daigan Gaither spoke about Buddhism and sexuality, with a focus on noticing our desires. What does it mean to achieve them? Does this desire fade to give way to another? What does it mean to hold your desire in awareness and simply do nothing about it? The study of self and desire he explained gives us many answers. For example, sex is not the only means of meeting certain needs. If it’s playfulness and attention you are seeking, flirtation may suffice. There are numerous types of connections we may have with people of a nonsexual manner that lead to fulfillment.
The resounding message of the conference for me was that such dialogues need to be had. Faith and sexuality do belong in the same conversations, as it can allow us to reclaim both. Faith need not be used to justify discrimination against sexual minorities, and sexuality need not be all about the hot and heavy romp between the sheets.
For more information see:
Biblical Sexuality and Gender: Renewing Christian Witness to the Gospel, The Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D., Pacific School of Religion, The Graduate Theological Union
Stanford Weiland Health Initiative:
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