The following sermon was shared at the January 13, 2013 worship service at Chalice Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
Reading: “To Praise” by Ellen Bass
Friends, it’s time for us to have a talk. It may feel a little awkward, but I know you have some questions. And I want you to know that your questions are perfectly normal and to be expected at your age.
It’s time for us to have…the sex talk.
Now, for some of you in the room, you may already feel uncomfortable. Just a minute ago I read a poem with a sexual theme, sensual imagery, and one or two explicit words that we don’t usually say in public, much less…HERE…right?
In some ways, our culture is awash in sexual imagery. Advertisements so often feature the exposed and idealized bodies of men and women that it’s not always clear what exactly is for sale. We are accustomed to movies and television programs featuring attractive young people engaged in sexual relationships. Glimpses of nudity and depictions of sexual activity are something many of us see almost every day. And if you want to read about sex or watch sex, stories, images, and videos are readily available to you on the internet. You might not actually think you have more to learn about sex.
But shame around sex is just as prevalent in our culture. Most of us do not have bodies that look anything like the idealized bodies we see in advertisements, movies, and television, and we feel bad about that. We feel bad about our bodies. Most of us are taught from a young age that the body and its smells, its noises, its desires, and its pleasures are to be hidden away, kept invisible, certainly not talked about. Sex education in school is often taught as a matter of biological mechanics: this part goes here, and then there’s a baby. It is not very long ago, and I’m sure still happens, that masturbation was taught as something very shameful, and associated with a variety of ailments, rather than taught as a normal and healthy sexual behavior.
Unfortunately for many people, most of our learning about sexuality comes from advertisements, television, and movies, from popular culture. That, and from our own experiences, which may be clouded by shame, by misinformation, perhaps by the wounds of abuse. Let’s face it, it only takes one bad sexual experience to turn us off…for a while, if not much longer. And although we may know and learn a lot about sexuality, we may not have learned very much about HEALTHY sexuality.
But why is any of this a matter for spiritual reflection?
Historically, many of the messages we’ve received about our bodies have origins in religious teachings. The body has been understood as unclean, something to distrust, the vulgar opposition to matters of the spirit. Celibacy and something called “purity” have been praised by various traditions at different times, lifted up as an ideal. Women’s bodies have been particular objects of theological concern, and continue to be, as religious fundamentalists justify the control of women’s reproductive choices because women must be punished for their sexual expression and experience.
My belief is that our bodies and our spirits are inextricably tied together, and that healthy sexuality is part of our nurturing our spiritual lives. This belief is grounded in the spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions, which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature, the sixth source of our Unitarian Universalist living tradition. Earth-centered traditions understand the body and the material world as sacred, worthy of our care and attention. Earth-centered traditions understand that our physical experiences—lighting candles, dancing, hugging, putting hand motions to words—that all of these things are as important to nurturing our spirits as hearing a provocative sermon is. And Earth-centered traditions understand that healthy sexuality is a celebration of the physical world, the beauty of this life. Healthy sexuality IS spiritual expression.
As children, most of us got the sex talk from our parents or teachers or both. Maybe you were given a book instead of a talk. Maybe you had access to lots of information and a safe place to ask your questions. Maybe you never got a sex talk at all, and learned to keep your questions to yourselves.
Well, whatever your background, today it’s time for the sex talk…for adults.
Here’s the first thing for you to know. You need to love your body. Your body is a wonderful, glorious, AMAZING creature, a sensual feast, an expression of your beautiful spirit and your complex soul. Love “the soft animal of your body,” as the poet Mary Oliver names it. Celebrate your body. CARE for your body.
Stretch in the morning, like all animals do. Get a massage. Take a hot bath. Use a lotion you love, wrap yourself in a REALLY soft blanket. Buy yourself NEW UNDERWEAR.
Buy yourself your favorite type of fruit and eat it—slowly—while you listen to Ravel’s Bolero. It’s better if the fruit drips down your chin and arm. Bolero is a seven-minute piece of music, so it is VITAL that you take the full seven minutes to eat your fruit. SAVOR that fruit, that music, the taste on your tongue, the juice on your skin, the smell of the fruit, let your eyes learn the shape and color and disintegration of what you are eating.
Look at yourself naked in a full-length mirror and say out loud, “I look good! I look damn good!”
<<Invite the congregation to repeat “I look good! I look damn good!”>>
I imagine there are people in the room for whom that was very difficult to say, and I imagine there are people in the room who may be close to tears. We are bombarded with messages to feel ashamed of our bodies. It’s our work, as adults, as Unitarian Universalists, as people of faith, to reject those messages.
Let’s say it again: “I look good! I look damn good!”
Here’s the second thing for you to know. Sexuality, feeling sexy, sex…none of these things need to involve another person. Do you get what I’m saying? Pleasuring yourself is a healthy and natural way of expressing yourself sexually and of loving your body. You know, after you get naked in front of a mirror, let nature take its course, friends. And married couples, people with partners…there’s nothing wrong with solo sexual activity for you too. People in relationships sometimes WORRY that there’s something wrong with them if they still masturbate, so please know, there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re fine. It’s just another item on your menu of possibilities.
Here’s another thing to know: Whatever you fantasize about, it’s okay. It really is. If your fantasy is something you would NEVER do in real life, well, that’s why it’s a fantasy. If your fantasy is something you would OBJECT to in real life, if you would be APPALLED by it…this is why it’s a fantasy. In your fantasy, you are in total control of what’s happening, even if your fantasy is that you’re out of control, because YOU control the fantasy. As long as you can keep the distinction between THOUGHT and BEHAVIOR, you’re fine. You don’t need to be ashamed of your fantasies, you don’t have to explain your fantasies, you don’t even have to UNDERSTAND your fantasies. Just kick back and enjoy what your imagination provides. Don’t over-analyze it.
And by the way, there is no such thing as “purity” when it comes to sex. If you accept the notion of purity, then you accept the idea that there is something called “impurity,” and impurity leads to feeling guilty and shameful and ugly. Human beings are not pure or impure. Sexual activity is not pure or impure. It just is what it is. We just are who we are.
Now, let’s talk about sexual partners. Whether you are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, intersex, queer, monogamous, polyamorous, in a committed relationship, in an open relationship…whatever your identity and proclivities, these guidelines apply. They come from the book “Love Does No Harm” by the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune; this book, by the way, is required reading for everyone entering the Unitarian Universalist ministry.
First, your sexual partner needs to be a PEER, someone whose power is relatively equal to yours. Yes, even for us very liberal-minded Unitarian Universalists, there are some people who are off-limits for our sexual interests. Children, obviously. Your boss and your employees; those are not peer relationships. Teachers and students, therapists and patients…these are people with unequal power dynamics. These are not peer relationships.
Dr. Fortune writes, “Seeking a peer relationship in which to find sexual intimacy is the best insurance there is for avoiding abuse and for finding trust and fulfillment in a relationship. Look for a partner who is your equal, who is a grown up, who knows how to take care of [themselves], earns [their] own living, and is not threatened by your strengths and capabilities. Combine these attributes with common interests and sexual attraction, and you are well on your way to [a] healthy, pleasurable, satisfying relationship…” (p. 84).
Next: You and your partner must both authentically consent to your sexual interaction. Both of you “must have information, awareness, equal power, and the option to say ‘no’ without being punished, as well as the option to say ‘yes.’” (p. 85)
This seems straight-forward, but culturally, we’re having a really hard time understanding this one. Sexual partners need to be of legal age, unimpaired (by which I mean awake, sober, and of sound mind), they must speak the same language as you so as to understand what you are asking, and they must not be coerced or threatened.
So…again: Both of you “must have information, awareness, equal power, and the option to say ‘no’ without being punished, as well as the option to say ‘yes.’”
Our next guideline: You take responsibility for protecting yourself AND your partner against sexually-transmitted diseases and to ensure reproductive choice.
Do you see how these guidelines build on and rely on one another? You need to have an equal amount of power in your relationship in order to give and receive genuine consent. You need to have given and received genuine consent and be people of equal power for both of you to ensure that your sexual activity is safe and responsible.
Now the guidelines get a little juicier. In your relationship with your sexual partner or partners—whether this be the brief relationship of an evening or the long relationship of years—you are committed to sharing sexual pleasure and intimacy in your relationship. The key word there is “intimacy.”
Dr. Fortune writes, “Sometimes sex is about deep and abiding love, sometimes it is about joy and playfulness, sometimes it is about the release of physical tension, sometimes it is about procreation—sometimes it is about all of these things at once. It is always about relationship to another person and to ourselves. If we lose sight of this fact, we run the risk of exploiting or being exploited.” (p. 116)
Your shared commitment to pleasure and intimacy in your relationship means that you make those things a priority. You don’t ignore when things maybe feel “off.” You don’t “settle” for dissatisfaction. You are committed to mutuality, reciprocity, deep communion and affection, and integrity around your body. Whether the pleasure and intimacy you share is holding each other as you fall asleep at night, savoring the comfort of warmth and touch, or something more energetic, you make a commitment to your partner that THEIR experience is just as important as YOUR OWN experience.
Now, the final guideline that Dr. Fortune describes to ensure a healthy sexual relationship: You are faithful to your promises and commitments. That means everyone involved in the relationship knows and understands what those promises and commitments ARE. “[You] make promises about how [you] will handle money, whether [you] want to have children, where [you] will live, how [you] will share your household tasks…” (p. 133).
Certainly, you need to regularly review these commitments to ensure they are still serving you well. Promises and commitments can be reviewed and renegotiated at any time. But the key is that they need to be named, discussed, and agreed upon. It’s when we have unspoken assumptions in our relationships, where one person thinks something is understood, but it turns out not to have been mutually understood AT ALL…that’s when we get into trouble.
Now, this feels like the time to mention pornography. I assume that we have a wide variety of opinions in the room about the ethics of viewing pornography and how pornography intersects with our Unitarian Universalist principles. I think the bottom line for our purposes today is that you and your partner need to have a shared agreement that you both honor about the presence or absence of pornography in your relationship.
You see why this is the sex talk for ADULTS. These are much more difficult guidelines to follow than just figuring out what goes where.
There’s so much more we could talk about. Our sexual experience, exploration, and expression are never over. We’re never done learning about ourselves. We’re never done changing, never done questioning. I can imagine each person here having worries or questions that are particular to your body, your relationship, your life.
What I hope you come away with today is the reminder that our sex lives are important. Feeling good in our bodies is important. It’s worth googling your question or seeing a doctor or a therapist, worth talking to your partner, worth coming to talk to me if you like. Our bodies are a blessing. Pleasure is a blessing. Take it from a Pagan.
Here’s the last thing for you to know today: Unitarian Universalism—in collaboration with the United Church of Christ—has taken the lead on comprehensive, body-positive sex education as part of our religious education programs for the past 40 years. Some of you here raised UU may remember the old religious education curriculum for children, called “About Your Sexuality.” That curriculum was replaced 15 years ago by the curriculum called “Our Whole Lives” or OWL. There are separate and distinct OWL curricula for each of SIX age groups, beginning in kindergarten and ending with adults. The core values of the OWL curricula are self worth, sexual health, responsibility, and justice and inclusivity.
There are now several generations of people who learned about healthy sexuality at their church as part of religious education classes. Our middle school-aged congregants will have the opportunity to take this class next year, in spring 2014.
I want to praise bodies
nerves and synapses
I want to praise the mouth
I want to praise hands, muscle, heart, hair…
…Bodies, our extravagant bodies
May you know yourself blessed by your extravagant body.
And remember, YOU LOOK GOOD.