becoming sexually healthy.

12 Nov

Becoming Sexually Healthy
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on November 10, 2013

Let’s talk about sex. In our society, we show it, sell it, display it, do it but we don’t seem to talk about it with each other very much. At least not in depth. The urgent need for this type of conversation was brought home for me recently. I was at a workshop with other religious professionals, and we were listening to a presentation by the Rev. Debra Haffner, co-founder of the Religious Institute – a multifaith organization dedicated to advocating for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society. Haffner is a Unitarian Universalist minister herself, and has dedicated her life to helping individuals and institutions move toward sexual health.

She started by asking us to brainstorm ways that sexuality intersects with the lives of our congregants. Within just a few minutes, the list stretched across numerous sheets of newsprint: marriage, childbirth, people discovering or exploring their sexual orientation or their gender identity, miscarriages, abortion, reproductive justice, early sexuality, lack of sexual desire, parents of intersex children, people exploring a kink identity, infertility issues, assisted reproduction, impotence, frigidity, different sexual expectations in relationship, polyamorous families, dating after a long-term relationship, stalking, sexual abuse, rape, rape culture and how that affects our children, pornography addiction, sexting, and so much more.

It was a great way to start a workshop because it became apparent, very quickly, that issues around sexuality touch on some of the most important aspects of our lives as human beings. And it brought home to me the importance of talking about sex and sexuality from the pulpit, because to not talk about it is to ignore a crucial part of what it means to be a human being, what it means to search for that which has meaning (which we often find in our relationships with others,) and what it means to live knowing we will all eventually die. And these are the very issues that, as a minister, I am called to address!

Sexual health is just as important as physical health, mental health, and spiritual health. In her book A Time To Build: Creating Sexually Healthy Faith Communities, Haffner reminds us that “Our religious traditions affirm that sexuality is a divinely bestowed blessing for the purposes of expressing love, generating new life, and providing companionship and pleasure…[Our religious traditions] celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality…They teach that it is in our relationships with others that we understand God’s love for us, and it is in our experience of our sexuality that we come closest to being revealed to others.”

This is a positive affirmation of our human sexuality which, unfortunately, stands in stark contrast to the cultural messages about sex and sexuality that we receive. All around us, we see bodies portrayed as commodities, used to sell everything from soda to cars, from jeans to kitchen appliances. You can hardly turn on the television without coming across a show that either uses sex as a joke or contains steamy heterosexual sex scenes. Monica Nickelsburg, a production assistant at the online magazine “The Week” recently pointed out that “sexual violence is incredibly prevalent in primetime; it is the central premise of shows like Law and Order SVU and CSI, which week after week churn out episodes focused on rape, abduction, and violence against children. Meanwhile, the CW’s Gossip Girl and NBC’s Friday Night Lights, both geared toward teens, have jarring attempted rape scenes.”

But not “everything goes” on primetime. Gay and lesbian love scenes are still rare. And there are very, very few transgender characters. The rules are not really consistent and showcase the inherent sexism and bias between men and women’s sexuality. A recent show received quite a bit of attention for editing out a female masturbation scene but allowing, in its place, a very graphic sex scene between an older, powerful male character and younger female character. Nickelsburg observed “While not advocating for more censorship, such inconsistent and illogical methodology telegraphs to viewers that rape, sex between adults and minors, and violence are less obscene than a harmless scene depicting an activity most teens are probably already familiar with.”

Then there is the issue of porn. A pornography addiction website asserts that “Children are becoming addicted to pornography at startling rates. Most children view their first pornographic image online at the age of 11, and by the time they are 17, about 80 percent of them have watched pornographic videos online.” This is leading not only to an increase in pornography addiction but also to the normalization of pornographic sex acts. Young people are getting their ideas about what sex is “supposed” to be like – not from their parents, not from their schools sex educations programs (which are often nonexistant,) but from porn, either directly through their own viewing or indirectly through their peers who are watching it.

And lest we think that this is the extent our our ill health around about sex and sexuality in this country, let me me share some more sobering statistics from A Time to Build:

  • With ¾ of a million teenage women becoming pregnant each year, the United States teen pregnancy rate is almost 3x that of Germany and France, despite the similar age of sexual debut;
  • There are approximately 19 million new sexually transmitted infections (STI) each year – almost half of them among young people 15-24 years old. 65 million Americans have at least one viral STI, most commonly genital herpes;
  • Since the AIDS epidemic began, more than half a million people with AIDS have died, and more than 18,000 still die each year. More than a million people live with HIV infection in the United States, but one in five are unaware of their infection;
  • 85% of LGBT teens report being verbally harassed, 40% report being physically harassed, and nearly 20% report being physically assaulted at school due to their sexual orientation;
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men experience child sexual abuse before age 18;
  • 1 in 6 women has been or will be a victim of attempted or completed rape. The numbers for male victims are hard to come by due to the extreme stigmatism, but indications are that at least 3% of men have experienced an attempted or completed rape.

We are not a sexually healthy country. Not by a long shot.

As Unitarian Universalists, we like to think of ourselves as generally counter-cultural but in truth we often have a hard time creating sexually healthy congregations. Many of our congregations, including this one, went through the Welcoming Congregation program years ago, but haven’t revisited it. Also, it is not uncommon for our congregations to treat sexuality education like an immunization – we give it to our children once when they are in middle-school and then pat ourselves on the back for being so progressive. I have been pleased with how important sexuality education is here at First Unitarian Church – we offer the full range of Our Whole Lives (OWL) programming to our children (our 4th and 5th graders are in OWL right now!!) and, for what I believe is the first time, we are going to be offering the Adult OWL class starting next month.

These are important steps towards being a sexually healthy congregation. But there is much more that we can do. There are three foundational steps that I would like to see us take as individuals and as a congregation – foundational steps that can help guide us onto the road towards a becoming more sexually healthy.

First, we can make sure we are using the correct terminology when we are talking about issues of identity.

1bodyWe cannot be welcoming to people if we are not clear about the differences between biology and gender expression, between sexual orientation and gender identity. Our alphabet soup of BGLTIQQAA (bi-sexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning, asexual and allies) is unwieldy and lumps all sorts of identities in together. The European convention of SO-GI (sexual orientation and gender identity) does better, but is still lacking. Thankfully, there is a lovely graphic that can help us understand this terminology.

Biological or natal sex refers to the type of genitalia a child is born with. 2bodyFor a long time, many assumed there were two sexes: male or female. However, western science has recently begun to understand a third option, intersex, meaning that a child has both male and female biological characteristics.

Sexual orientation refers to who we are sexually and romantically attracted to. This is who we love. 3bodyThe Kinsey Scale is the most common way of understanding sexual orientation, with 0 being purely attracted to the opposite sex and 6 being purely attracted to the same sex. Most people, however, fall somewhere in-between. A “3” on the Kinsey scale used to be called bi-sexual, but with our expanded understanding of sex and gender, it is starting to be referred to as pansexual or ambisexual.

Gender identity is how we think of ourselves as either male, female, or 3rd gender or gender-queer. 4bodyWhen a person’s gender identity and biological sex are not the same, the individual may identify as transsexual or as another transgender category.

Gender expression refers to how we present ourselves to the rest of the world in terms of clothing, communication patterns and interests.5body

A person’s gender expression may or may not be consistent with socially prescribed gender roles, and may or may not reflect his or her gender identity.

Media portrayals often only show the polar ends of these identities, leaving the middle lacking in representation. That means people in the middle often don’t see themselves represented in the media, and this can make them feel like they don’t exist or are somehow not ok. If we want to be truly welcoming to people across the broad spectrums of biological sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, we will become fluent in the language of identity.

To be a sexually healthy individual or congregation, we also should educate ourselves about sex and recent developments in the science of sex and intimacy. There have been quite a few really interesting developments, and there is a lot of misinformation out there! And contrary to what many of us might think, we really don’t know everything.  For instance, Rev. Haffner shared with us that contrary to how many people usually feel, everyone is not actually having hotter, better, and more frequent sex than you are (except in the media)! In fact, there is such a wide range of normal that the term is virtually useless. As an example, take an average American heterosexual married couple. They generally have sex 57 times a year for between 15-20 minutes at a time. However, 10% of these couples never have sex. And 33% of them have sex more than once per week.

For longterm couples of any sexual orientation, sex is a recommitment ritual. It is a way to declare “We are more than co-parents – more than business partners.” The biggest sexual problem people have in long term relationships is not attraction, it is anger and boredom, which can lead to lack of desire to engage in the recommitment ritual.

There has also been quite a bit of discovery on the differences between men and women in regards to desire and arousal. Men experience the desire for sex before they experience physical arousal. Since men were used as the norm against which to measure all things, this was assumed to be true of women as well. However, a recent study of female sexuality produced a startling discovery. University of British Columbia psychiatrist Rosemary Basson, M.D., discovered in interviews with hundreds of women that for many women desire is not the cause of lovemaking, but rather, its result. “Women,” Basson explains, “often begin sexual experiences feeling sexually neutral.” But as things heat up, so do they, and they eventually experience desire.

To be sexually healthy as an individual and as a congregation, we need to continue to educate ourselves about sexuality. I highly recommend the Adult OWL course coming up in December – don’t worry, you don’t have to share intimate details in the class!

A third foundational thing we can do to be sexually healthy is to advocate and practice new ways of talking about sex. In particular, moving from a baseball metaphor for sex to a pizza metaphor.

In baseball, Al Vernacchio says in this wonderful TED talk, there is a pitcher who performs a sex acts, and a catcher, who receives a sex act. A “home run” usually refers to penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) with an orgasm for the guy (not necessarily the woman). If you “strike out,” you don’t get any. If you are “warming the bench,” you are either a virgin or someone who is not in the game due to age, ability or skill-set. A “glove” is a condom, a “switch-hitter” refers to someone who is bisexual, and gay and lesbian people are “playing for the other team.” You can only play baseball when it is in season, and there are certain times where you are expected to play whether you want to or not, such as at prom or on your wedding night. And baseball is competitive – you are not playing with each other, you playing against each other: one person is on offense, the other is on defense.

Baseball also has strict rules. You have to hit the ball and then run the bases in order. You can’t just go running into right field. And if you get to second base and decide you like it there, you can’t just hang out there. In baseball, you play to win, scoring as many runs as you can. There is always a winner, and always a loser. And there is no communicating: everyone knows rules, take their position and plays the game. Vernacchio says that this model is sexist, heterosexist, competitive, goal-directed, and, he says, it cannot result in young people or adults developing healthy sexuality.

Pizza, however, is universally understood and most people associate it with a positive experience. You have pizza when you are hungry for it. It starts with an internal sense or desire, so there is some sense of control. You might decide you are hungry but know it is not a great time to eat. You can eat pizza by yourself and be perfectly content, no matter wht the television stations seem to think. When you eat pizza with someone, you are not competing but are instead hoping that it will be a satisfying experience for everyone involved. You talk about it with whomever is joining you: what do you feel like? Pepperoni? Mushrooms? Vernacchio points out that even if you have had pizza with someone for a very long time, you still communicate: So, do you want the usual? Or something more spicy and adventurous?

Pizza is all about what we feel like – there are a million different topping combinations, and a million ways to eat it. You can eat it in the standard way, or roll it up or eat the crust first.  There is no wrong way.  And with pizza, there is no winner and no loser. We eat until we are satisfied and we get to decide when that is. Vernacchio says that the pizza metaphor leads to a way of understanding sexuality that is inclusive, cooperative, communicative, internally controlled, invites exploration and aims for satisfaction. Much better than baseball!

And much healthier, which is the goal. So here are three are some foundational steps towards a countercultural model of sexual health in our congregations and in our individual lives: becoming fluent in the language of identity, educating ourselves about sex and recent developments in the science of sex and intimacy, and starting to use a more inclusive metaphor when we talk about sex. Once we take these steps, we can begin the rest of the journey towards sexual health. As we make the journey as a congregation, both the Religious Institute and the Unitarian Universalist Association have some wonderful tools that can help us.

The Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing says: “Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality….the great promise of our traditions is love, healing and restored relationships…All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure. ”

May we work to make this the reality in our own lives, in our congregations, and in our culture. For sexuality is, indeed, a crucial part of what it means to be human. Blessed Be.

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