Recently, many queer and Christian friends of mine have waded into questions of sexual ethics. Some of them are reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Shameless, and they are apparently getting a lot out of it. Because I’m prepping to start writing my PhD dissertation on the intersection of Queer and Pentecostal theologies, I’m loving the chance to read Michel Foucault’s three-volume History of Sexuality. These two “conversations” put me in mind of the sex-positive classic that encourages us to recover The Ethical Slut in each of us. And because my theological brain never stops working, I said to myself, I said: “I need to write about this!”
The Short Form (or, TL;DR):
- Sexual concern is a form of “doing what love requires.”
- The Ethical Slut claims, “Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.”
- Nice means “kind and generous”
- Good means “conferring or having wholeness, integrity, fittedness-to-the-situation”
- The core of sex-positivity is, “Be free to have the ethical sex you want, and also to refrain from sex you don’t want or deem unethical.”
- Which means that ace/aro folks and celibates are included, if they want to be!
- We often shame people who exercise this freedom by calling them sluts.
- Sex-positive disposition is compatible with the Gospel and is a bridge to useful conversations in the broader society.
- Mature decision-making requires learning to make sound decisions “from the gut,” as Jesus did.
- Ethical sex is (a) good.
- Primary focus on misuse or abuse of sex leads to debilitating fear and shame.
- God can and does use the ethical sex in my life to teach me about God’s character, and I delight in it thoroughly.
- If all this makes me a Christian “ethical slut,” so be it!
The Long Form (or, Strap yourself in, here we go!):
Bolz-Weber is a badass Lutheran pastor who isn’t afraid to challenge religious dysfunction in the service of helping people experience liberation and flourishing. When Christians do our sexual ethics, she argues that we must go beyond the non-negotiables of informed consent and reducing harm to what she calls concern: Looking out for the genuine well-being of self and others in the realm of sexuality and having sex.
In volume three of his History of Sexuality, Foucault discusses how, in Greek and Roman thought, sex could not be wrong or harmful of itself (because it was Nature’s gift to humanity); on the other hand, the practice of sex could give immediate rise to all kinds of problems for “the care of the self.” One should, if possible, have sex only when the need of the soul and the body are in sync. The body, for these folks, is closer to Nature because it cannot be misled by the soul’s potentially distorted belief about how things are. Be careful not to excite yourself beyond the needs of the body, say the ancients, or you will have poor care of the self.
“Well then,” I said to myself, “taking all of this into account, does that mean The Ethical Slut is wrong?” Donnie Easton and Janet Hardy’s cheeky book (I’ve read the first edition) encourages us to have the ethical sex we want and to refrain freely from sex we deem unwanted or unethical.
“Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you” is a core thesis of TES. I’ve appreciated it because it has allowed me to challenge the sticky fundamentalist sexual programming of my youth, which seems more rooted in shame than in beauty, truth, and goodness. But the question sticks with me: Is intense desire in the soul and the body more dangerous than it’s worth? Has our culture, by embracing a belief in the goodness, appropriateness and even necessity of sexual expression across the adult life span, been misguided?
Never mind the wider culture: What about my own life and practice?! I am currently in (by any conscientious contemporary standard) a deeply healthy monogamous relationship, and I offered a first draft of the following in the context of a discussion about concern in sexual ethics:
I think it was Norman Pittinger who said, “The heart of Christian ethics is this: Do what love requires.” I take this memorable quip as the flip side of “do no harm.”Adapted from Facebook
A central plank of my sexual ethics is joy or delight–what I like to call juiciness. It’s when all of me, including my body, seems to shout, “YAAAAAAS!” Sometimes–although this awareness is not necessary for my sexy times to be wonderful–it seems my lover and I bask in God’s own smile of pleasure.
Part of what helps me get to juicy is being concerned about how my partner wants to feel, and not just what he wants to do. In fact, Knowing the core emotions we desire guides the things we do and how we do them. For example: Kissing always happens in every sexual encounter with my partner. But I’ll kiss him differently if he wants to feel “cute and playful” rather than “sexy and assertive,” yes? We might not always “arrive” at the state we thought we wanted, but the effort to be fully present and enthusiastic is worth it, I think!
One thing I appreciate about Pastor Nadia and others is their desire to see Christians become spiritual adults who make insightful and intuitively sound decisions rather than constantly checking, “Am I following the rules?” Having a checklist is appropriate at a certain stage of learning. But if I’m called to be a friend of Jesus, even in my sex life, then I would like to become consciously and unconsciously competent at “do[ing] what love requires.” And being someone Jesus calls “friend” is the same thing as being an ambassador of God’s Kingdom.
But hold on a second–am I in the wrong about juiciness? For the ancients–and the Christians who read and cited them, shaping Christian theologies of sex and gender–is joy the wrong metric for me to use? Is asking questions about my desires and core emotions unhelpful? And if “doing what love requires” is my Christian conviction, doesn’t “sex is nice and pleasure is good for you” seem rather anemic and superficial? (At this point, I feel the hesitancy of a public speaker: There is no way I can say everything I think all at once. Try to be gracious, please, if you think I miss something important in what follows.)
If I’m truly serious about “concern,” does that mean there is no such thing as a Christian “ethical slut”?
For almost five years in my 20s, I worked for Environics Research Group, conducting opinion polls and social science research over the phone. (Yep, I was one of the phone monkeys calling during your supper, insisting–truthfully!–that I wasn’t selling anything but wanted to pick your brain.) Though the training wasn’t difficult, my supervisors drilled into us the importance of clarifying ambiguous responses.
“Always clarify when someone uses ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ ‘nice,’ or ‘interesting,'” they said. “In our line of work, those are the four least useful words in the English language.”
“Sex is nice, and pleasure is good for you.” Oh, OK. Fair point. So:
“Sex is nice…”
What do you mean by that, Robbie?
For years, until fairly recently, I hated the word nice, as in, “They are a nice person.” A couple tropes were fixed in my mind. “Nice” was:
- A slightly pleasant blandness that is easy to dismiss or overlook (“Nice guys finish last”); AND
- A scrupulous politeness that could still flay you alive:
- like a British bank employee who secretly thinks I’ve asked a stupid question. (To avoid this reaction during my two visits to the UK in the 2010s, I would walk up and say, “Hi. I’m a student from Canada, and I think I’m about to ask a stupid question.” It worked); OR
- like a Southern matron who tells you, offering her warmest smile and a plate of treats, “Well, bless yer heart.” Apparently, she means “Fuck off,” “Go to Hell,” or both!
Everything changed for me, one late night in early 2020, while I watched an archive of a self-described “little rich white girl” named Heidi Baker speak to the students of the School for Supernatural Ministry at Bethel Church in Redding, California. This potent woman of God spends half the year in Mozambique running orphanages, “stopping for the one” she encounters on the street, and healing the sick (she has a particular charism for healing blindness caused by malnutrition).
I was in a particularly open state as Heidi told one “Holy Ghost story” after another. I’ll always remember how, after describing a day full of unnecessary and even silly graces from God that made her feel deeply loved, she exclaimed, “God’s just so nice to me!”
Rev. Liz Edman, author of the book Queer Virtue, has recently become a beloved friend and intellectual playmate of mine. When I shared this experience with her, I remember she offered something like this: “I find myself, lately, saying to people, ‘I need you to be nice to me.’ But I’m not looking for something superficial. I’m looking for a deep blend of kindness and generosity.” Something in me started singing; I’m only just beginning to experience nice this way, at the beginning of my fifth decade of life. (That makes me 40, for those who wonder!)
So: “Sex is nice [ie, kind and generous]…” It seems not so superficial after all, because we’re back in the heart of concern and “doing what love requires.” Can I be generous and kind to my partner if I’m solely focused on gratifying myself? Is it nice to dismiss my own desire for juiciness as bland or stupid? Doesn’t something need healing and compassionate attention if I ever hear, within myself (or from my partner, God forbid!), “Fuck off!”?
As an allosexual with a high sex drive (someone with statistically typical sexual desire who loves a consistently high frequency of sexual encounters) I think it’s important that I say this: My asexual, aromantic, and celibate friends and loves have taught me to resist any pressure, from within or without, to engage in behaviours and relationships which I do not want and/or I find unethical. This is also being nice to myself and others. The freedom to choose, and to refrain from, sexual and romantic relationships which are consistent with my conscience–alongside consent, reducing harm, and concern–is the core of sex-positivity as I understand it.
Unfortunately, society often shames people who desire, advocate for, and practice this kind of freedom. We call the sexually actives ones, at least, sluts. (We’re probably just not-so-secretly envious, yes?) Some of my conservative Christian siblings contribute to this shaming by calling sex-positivity a contemporary name for everything the Bible calls sexual sin. Despite this caricature, disagreement about sexual ethics is not the same as culpably resisting God’s desire comprehensive (including sexual) well-being. If the core tenets of sex-positivity are as I’ve described them, they are congruent with the Gospel of the Kingdom, and can lead to fruitful conversations with our neighbours. (In my experience, most Christians and Christian institutions balk at having these further conversations because we don’t like talking about having sex and we’re afraid to find out we might not be at the bottom of the sex-ethical slippery slope. Mores the pity.)
“…and pleasure is good for you.”
Foucault’s History of Sexuality notes repeatedly the ambiguous nature of pleasure and desire for Greek, Roman and early Christian sources (though he argues, quite cogently, that the reasons such ambiguous attitudes arise stem from very different starting points for classical pagans and Christians). Regardless, as I read, I keep thinking of how Greco-Roman even some of our contemporary Western sexual mores feel to me.
When Hellenistic Christians were learning the Gospel, they used the resources of their cultures to struggle with how best to present a truthful picture of the One God and Creator. Emotion for humans, “moving out” from oneself, requires, they thought, a change. The presence of change in a thing means, according to some philosophers, that the thing in question is imperfect.
The ancient church, then, encountered a major barrier to the acceptance of the Gospel for their circumstances. Dozens of Scriptural texts, on a literal reading (especially of the Hebrew Bible) indicate that God changes his mind often enough to keep things spicy. But I can hear an informed ancient Christian protest, saying something like this:
Change means imperfection–what an insult to God’s character! We need to read these texts in the light of our conviction of God’s perfection. Perhaps God accommodates finite creatures like us by giving us what we can understand at the time. Perhaps there really is no good analogy between human emotion and God’s experience of Godself. God is impassible, and does not change. To believe something so ridiculous as “God the Father can suffer” is a grave heresy that we must not allow!
This view of God has implications for belief about the nature of personhood. Humans are most like God when we have an even and rational disposition. Our emotions are highly disciplined: not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
There are some good things about this view of God and humanity, but here I want to highly what I think is a serious problem: Consistent and intense emotions of all types become suspicious and problematic. In white English-Canadian society, if I express myself passionately about politics or religion, many will perceive as an ideologue, a potentially dangerous dogmatist. Over and over in my experience of Christian institutions, leaders look with suspicion upon those who cannot articulate their faith in well-ordered, defensible statements. When leaders craft theology and legislation to shore up Christian community, they often conflate “questioning theology and ethics” with “personal rebellion against God.” Where this occurs, there is a disastrous blow to the safety and appropriate flexibility of Christian communities. It is a devastating mistake.
What I perceive as an undue suspicion of emotion surfaced one day in my World Missions class at Bible College. My prof, who often fired off brilliant one-liners worth the cost of my tuition in themselves, said this: “Theology is a better motivation for mission than compassion.” At the time, I agreed completely.
To his credit, my professor was trying to warn a roomful of newly Evangelical teenagers about the seriousness of burnout and compassion fatigue in the lives of Christians. Better to operate with a settled theological conviction rather than by the vicissitudes of my emotions, I heard him say. Seems clear, reasonable, and good–to a point.
I admit freely that it’s possible that my 18-year-old self misunderstood him. But here’s my problem with his formulation as I remember it: The four biblical Gospels consistently report Jesus (whom I affirm as fully God and fully human) being “moved with compassion” to respond to the needs of those around him! As I understand it, we could translate “compassion” more literally from the Greek: “And Jesus, moved from his bowels…” From the gut, we say today.
My learned professor, I think, was over-emphasizing cognition and mental will: If your feelings don’t agree, remember your rational commitment to Jesus, and do the job anyway. As training wheels on our “faith bike,” as a stop-gap measure in an acute time of crisis, what can I say except, “Amen”? But I suggest it seems perfectly reasonable to track with the implication of Jesus’ experience: It came “up” from his body, not (only?) “down” from his mind!
Here’s my contention: Because he practiced being in God’s presence so consistently, because he met and talked his Abba so often, because he knew the Holy Spirit on him and in him, Jesus could “trust his gut,” knowing how to respond appropriately to everyone who came to him. And he often did it without stopping to pray first! Jesus reached a point–unclouded by sin in a way we aren’t it’s true–where God could trust him with saving the entire cosmos. Though we adopted siblings of Jesus do not yet have sinless maturity and fully-alive humanity, Jesus’ learning process and ours are identical.
As it was taught to me, St. Teresa of Calcutta founded the Missionaries of Charity, and often said something like this to those who asked to volunteer with her order:
If you wish to come and work with us, do not come because you love the poor; there will be days when you do not love the poor. Do not come because you wish to do works of charity; there will be days when you do not wish to do such works. But if you come because you seek Christ, you are most welcome; you may find Him everywhere you look.”No citation found
St. Teresa, I think, went to the heart of what my professor might have missed. I hear her this way: If you first seek Jesus, everything else will follow. Sure, there will be days when I’ll feel like shit and do the right thing as if on automatic–but is this normal? I think not. Why? Because our best and most integrated experiences come “up” from our bodies and not (first of all) “down” from our rational minds. (I am not blaming people, like Teresa, who did the work in the face of void in her soul–far from it. What I am claiming is that Christians seldom know how to help people reach the place where the conviction “do what love requires” settles into our heads, hearts, guts, hands, feet, and genitals. If someone like Teresa is being tormented, this is wrong. If a believer in Jesus holds to him by mental force without ever feeling and knowing the love of God for them, great is their faith, but the Body of Christ has failed them somehow!
If I could meet my learned friend again, I would say to him, “Sir, the compassion of Jesus is the best motivation for mission there is, and I need to learn it in my body–so thoroughly that it shifts my emotions and bodily dispositions toward his, and not just my intellect.” I hope we would, soon enough, be in happy agreement.
What does this have to do with “pleasure is good for you”? Many Christians fail to consider that our best and most holy responses need to consistently arise from our bodies, including our emotions and feelings, and not just the part that can logically deduce the “right answer.” As difficult as this sometimes is for any number of good reasons (says the boy with cerebral palsy on the autism spectrum!), our bodily nonverbals and gut responses go much deeper than our words.
What if it’s true that (as the Psalms tell us), “At God’s right hand are pleasures forevermore”? What if John Piper, a self-described “Christian hedonist,” is right when he says, “God’s own experience of Godself is joy?” What if, according to the Westminster Catechism, “The chief purpose of humankind is to know God and enjoy God forever?” What if the “Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood?” What if that Word, Jesus, “For the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame”? And what if, like Jesus, we will all eventually experience the resurrection of the body–what if our good bodies are permanent? If, with our whole selves, we want to affirm these things, doesn’t that say something about how the juiciness of the body is a deep, messy, joyful good?
I am increasingly convinced that goodness at its deepest–like truth and beauty–far surpasses a superficial moral evaluation. Good(ness) is not exactly easy to define; it seems a lot more like “I know it when I see it.” (From the gut again!) But I wonder if it means something like this, “Being worthy of, and conferring, fittedness, wholeness, integrity, and sustainable growth in a given situation.”
I don’t know why this should be controversial, but it seems to me that sexual pleasures can confer, and are worthy of recognition as, profound goods. (Focusing only or primarily on the misuse and abuse of these goods leads to shame and paralyzing fear, which never help good discernment.)
Here’s my provocation for you. When:
- my partner is making my toes curl…
- all I can say, over and over, is, “Fuck, it’s so good!”…
- the intensity of sensation and connection becomes so great that my upstairs (queer) neighbours can probably hear my moans…
- kissing is breathy and ordinary…
…it is precisely these experiences that can and do reframe reflect, refract, and refocus how nice God is to my love and me in our whole life together. God teaches me, through my sex life, about God’s own character. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
What was I saying? O yeah: Sex is nice, and pleasure is good for you. If giving thanks to God for the juiciest and most consistent sex of my life, wanting (and getting!) it often, and training myself to be a fully present and enthusiastically messy provocateur for the man I love makes me a slut, than so be it.
I guess I can be a Christian “ethical slut,” after all. Soli Deo Gloria!