Archive for the ‘sexuality’ Category

Double Standard

December 16, 2014

In this op-ed Ross Douthat continues his occasional reflections on the sexual revolution and its impact on class divisions. I think he puts his finger on something fundamental.

America historically has been a highly mobile society, in which the poor, hard-working immigrant could by pluck and luck rise to the top. In the words of Carousel’s Billy Bigelow, musing about the future of his unborn son:

“He might be a champ of the heavyweights,
Or a feller that sells you glue,
Or president of the united states,
That’d be all right, too
His mother would like that
But he wouldn’t be president if he didn’t wanna be!”

That’s the old romance of freedom. My son could be a champion athlete, or a successful businessman, or president. But only if he wants to be!

As I understand it, studies show that such possibilities are considerably more remote than they used to be. The top and the bottom are more than ever permanently divided, with three factors pre-eminent: income, education, and marriage. They tend to go together. If you are well-off and well-educated, the chances are good that you will marry and not divorce. The reverse is also true: if you are poor and poorly educated, the chances are good that you will not marry or stay married, and that you will raise children alone.

The double standard in American sexuality has gone beyond male and female. Now it is between rich and poor. Those who are well off can afford sexual liberty, because there are forces in their lives that limit destruction, not least of which is the power of cash. (The movie Chef offers excellent storytelling of how this works on the ground.) Those who are poor may be destroyed by liberty, as they lose their most valuable asset, family.

The mores of the well-off dominate the cultural scene: think movie stars, TV producers, magazine editors, public intellectuals. They celebrate freedom. The background insinuation is that if only everybody could be as flexible and non-judgmental and open-minded as we are, problems would quickly dissipate.

Douthat suggests that the poor have adopted that philosophy, much to their detriment. And that its adoption by the rich is  more tempered by conservatism than is obvious. “We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster…. If so, it needs to be more widely acknowledged, and even preached, that what’s worth imitating in upper-class family life isn’t purely modern or progressive, but a complex synthesis of new and old.”

Of three fundamental factors—income (jobs), education, and marriage—that correlate and interact closely, I believe marriage has the longest and most tenacious hold on people’s welfare. Clearly there’s no returning to the “happy days” of the Greatest Generation. Birth control has changed everything. So have “softer” factors: the (partial) undoing of the gendered double standard; the rise of two-earner families; the end of blame and shame for children born without benefit of marriage; no-fault divorce; a more positive valuation of sexual desire; pornography. Many of these changes are good, some bad, some worth arguing about. Put it all together and the situation is very complicated. It’s not easy to say how on earth you could change it.

But as we think about it, we would do well to bear in mind this two-class reality: what works for the rich may devastate the poor.


Sexuality and Success

January 29, 2014

Ross Douthat has a long and eloquent blog post regarding sexual and family moralism. Essentially his assertion is one that I made years ago in my columns for teenagers: promiscuous sexuality may be harmless for cultural elites in Hollywood and elsewhere, but it is devastating to the lives of the poor and the less-educated. Ironically, divorce and single parenting are rare among the well educated and rich–ironically because as a class they are shocked, shocked that anybody still holds to old-fashioned moralisms. But divorce and single parenting have utterly devastated the poor and lower-middle classes. And surely those well-insulated cultural elites bear some responsibility.

Of course, it’s more than sexuality and marriage. There are other important causes of devastation: the imprisoning of young men in huge numbers, the loss of industrial jobs, the failure of schools, the insane cost of health care, the epidemic of drug use. But since all the data I’ve seen show a very tight linkage between marriage and success, and an even tighter linkage between divorce and single parenting and disaster, there’s plenty of reason for people who genuinely care about the poor to take seriously divorce and single parenting and all the sexual scripts that lead up to them.

Lost At Sea

January 17, 2014

I didn’t really enjoy watching the movie “Frances Ha,” but I’ve thought a lot about it since. A blurb I read said it was a movie about being young in New York, but that’s not accurate. It’s a movie about being young and lost at sea. Frances is a moderately attractive, somewhat awkward 20-something who wants to be a professional dancer. Like most if not all of the young people who populate her life, she’s depending on her parents for money and (sometimes) for emotional support while at the same time wanting to keep them far away. The plot, if you can call it a plot, steers its way through random events–quirky, embarrassing, clueless and above all awkward. Frances wants friends very much, but she doesn’t know how negotiate friendship. Everybody in her world is on the make, open to anything at any moment yet at the same time unwilling to commit themselves to wanting anything. It brings back memory of junior high school, only these people don’t have braces and their voices aren’t changing.

I don’t know how accurate “Frances Ha” is in its depiction of young, affluent, urban society. I hope not at all. The movie isn’t negative, and it’s not making a point as far as I can see. I’m not sure whether others would see its depiction as horrifying, which I more or less do. To me, it is life at sea–not just for Frances, but as much or more for all her “friends.” They appear to be rooted in nothing, trying to make a life in a fishbowl, like a solitary beta puffing itself up for the mirror image of itself. They talk about sex but would be embarrassed to admit to passion. They say they love each other but they would be unable to say what they want from each other. They have career ambitions–art, publishing, dance, money–and are terrifically competitive but they deny that they really care about success or failure. It’s a shadow world.

So far I’ve failed to find any 20-somethings who have seen it. I would like to know how they perceive it. Is this their world? Do they find it attractive? How do they feel?

The Real Meaning of Tolerance

October 16, 2013

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of tolerance, a virtue that I believe in very deeply. I’m not quite sure I have this figured out correctly, and it’s very sensitive subject matter. Bear with me and correct me (tolerantly) where I’m off.

I’m troubled by the expansion of tolerance into a demand for celebration. The obvious occasion comes when a friend or relative comes out as LGBT. This news may come as quite a shock, especially to people who cling to traditional sexual mores. They may struggle to react with kindness, to accept the person and to accommodate his or her new sexual identity. From what I’ve observed, though, kindness, acceptance and accommodation are often not enough. What is required is affirmation, genuine celebration of the LGBT self. And if the relative or friend can’t truly celebrate? That is felt as a deep offense.

Hardly anyone would insist that all must celebrate their political opinions, tastes in food, and choices in child rearing. But sexual and gender identity is a matter of discovery, not choice, say those who come to a new understanding of themselves. This is who I am–and you must embrace who I am.

No doubt this insistence is also based on the experience of being discriminated against. LGBT people often feel battered. Someone who has painfully found the way to a new self-understanding may say: if you can’t rejoice with me in my new-found freedom, I want nothing to do with you. It’s too painful.

I’m focusing on LGBT, but the demand for affirmation extends to others. Oddly, I think people of orthodox faith often have similar feelings. When they encounter those who think they are fanatics and nuts, some cry foul and complain that they are persecuted. It’s hard to be part of a misunderstood minority, especially when identity in that minority means life to you.

We want to be loved, and in some sense we deserve to be loved.

I think, however, that the insistence on affirmation demands too much. For one thing, you’re insisting that your new self-understanding is the only way to interpret your identity. Yet it’s far from unknown for people to declare a sexual identity and later change their mind. (It’s the same with religious identity.) LGBT identity requires interpretation of feeling and experience. Someone else can question the interpretation–particularly someone who knows the person well, such as a parent. And those doubts will make that person less than celebrative. That’s not necessarily intolerance.

There’s also the extension of identity into lifestyle–as in, I’m LGBT, therefore I must live an LGBT life and you must affirm it. (Or, I’m Catholic and don’t believe in birth control, so you must treat my beliefs as inviolable in public policy.) But one may disagree about what lifestyle should accompany a certain identity. In an entirely different realm, some deaf activists insist that signing, not lip reading or speech, is at the core of true deaf identity. They revile those who teach deaf children to lip read or to speak. Others consider them wrong, though, because (among other reasons) they prevent deaf children from communicating with their own parents and siblings. One can acknowledge that there are good arguments for the signing-only point of view, without accepting that it’s necessarily part of deaf identity.

Most fundamentally, however, no one is required to celebrate every aspect of another person’s core identity. It’s possible to regard a state of life as irreversible, and yet unfortunate. One may love the amputee but regret the amputation. One may celebrate the life of an autistic child, rejoicing in unusual gifts, and yet still wish for a cure. Some may find my white skin and blue eyes creepy and off-putting. I regret that, but I cannot insist that they learn to love white skin before I will have anything to do with them. If they will treat me respectfully, I will do the same to them.

Tolerance, that essential virtue for civility and civilization, is not a virtue for the New Creation. It is for this messy, troubled and sinful creation. Tolerance doesn’t help people who see the world in the same way, it helps people who have core disagreements. Its work is not to obliterate those differences, but to enable us to live together in peace and with dignity despite those differences.

Someone who comes out as LGBT should be honored as a human being made in the image of God, should be treated fairly and without discrimination, should be, in fact, loved. And vice versa. Those who hold the wrong ideas about LGBT should be honored as human beings made in the image of God, should be treated fairly and without discrimination, should be loved, difficult as that may be. Tolerance speaks to our relationships with people whose views we abhor and whose nature we cannot appreciate.

Gnostic Sexuality

July 25, 2013

Gnostic sexuality sounds like an oxymoron, but Andy Crouch makes a very interesting argument in the latest Christianity Today that advocates of gay marriage stand on the side of de-bodied sexuality,  seeing the only essentially important facts as those of the heart–will and desire. Whereas traditional Christian sexual morality is rooted in the creation story, with the bodily realities of male and female defining our identities.

Crouch points out that the terminology rapidly replacing “homosexuality” is “LGBT,” reflecting a wider variety of sexual identity than “gay” and “straight.” He adds that Q and A (for “queer” or “questioning” and “asexual”) and even I (for “intersexual”) are increasingly mentioned by those who find existing categories inadequate. That’s not surprising: gnosticism is a highly fluid way of understanding reality.

Sexuality involves both body and heart. But where you start makes a big difference in where you end up.

(I remember years ago struggling to understand what Andy Comiskey was saying about the “ex-gay” movement.  I was so caught up in “sexual orientation” defined as persistent desire that I found it difficult to grasp that there might be a more basic sexual orientation. Comiskey never denied that same-sex orientation was real and strong and highly resistant to change. But he insisted that a more fundamental reality was that of male and female.)

At the end of his essay, Andy Crouch asks whether orthodox Christians have any common ground with our LGBT neighbors. He says that we do: “All of us know, in the depths of our heart, that we are queer.” That is, we struggle to make sense of our desires, which never align very well with our bodies. He mentions pornography as the perfect evocation of desire that seeks to flee the body, to live purely in the realm of yearning after images. “Every one of us is a member of the coalition of human beings who feel out of place in our bodies east of Eden. And every one of us has fallen far short of honoring God and other human beings with our bodies.”


In Remembrance of Exodus

June 21, 2013

Yesterday Exodus International, the umbrella group for what used to be called “ex-gay” ministries, announced that they were closing up shop after almost forty years. That announcement came one day after Exodus president Alan Chambers issued an apology to gays and others for the harm done to them by the ministry model they had built based on changing sexual orientation. The message, I think, is that sexual orientation doesn’t change, just as “ex-gay” critics have been saying for many years. Exodus was wrong to offer programs claiming that it does, and wrong to hide the fact of the leaders’ own continuing sexual attraction to their own gender.

Not everybody agrees. For example Andy Comiskey, a leader in the movement for many years, posted an article that vaguely compared Chambers to a snake–yes, that snake. (Comiskey and other affiliates left to start a new umbrella organization more than a year ago.)

Even Chambers’ apology, if you read it carefully, doesn’t apologize for believing that the Bible teaches homosexual practice is wrong. Chambers still believes that Exodus helped many people, himself included. His main impulse seems to be to operate from grace, not guilt; to stop fighting against people who don’t agree with him; and to be transparent about what really happens to homosexuals who try to change.

It has been years since I reported on Exodus, but I’ve had quite a bit of exposure to the ministry over most of its history, including a number of in-depth interviews. An important caveat for anything I (or anyone) may say about it: Exodus was always a very floppy umbrella over dozens of tiny organizations. Practically the only thing they all agreed on was to have an annual conference. They never shared funds or organizational control between their affiliates (which, by the way, have not gone out of business). Naturally given this lack of structure, there’s tremendous variation.

One thing I will say is that it was never a deep secret that homosexual feelings persisted. I had a number of Exodus leaders say as much to me over the years. It’s true that they didn’t necessarily mention that fact when first meeting with desperate, guilt-laden, deeply closeted men and women who came to them for help.

Most of the Exodus leaders were Christians of a charismatic or pentecostal persuasion. They believed in transformation. They wanted to offer hope, not uncertainty, the same way charismatics do someone coming to them for healing of brain cancer. However, none of the people I interviewed spoke of transformation as a simple, magical, pray-once-and-it’s-done business.

As I reported in 2007, “An older, wiser ex-gay movement is certainly clearer about what it has to offer. Early hopes for instant healing have given way to belief that transformation occurs through a lifetime of discipleship.”

I had attended the annual Exodus conference. I wrote, “This conference features little motivational hyperbole. Alan Chambers, the low-key opening-night speaker, emphasizes that there is no step-by-step formula for overcoming homosexuality. ‘Hear me loud and clear: You’re not going to get cured this week. … We don’t choose our feelings, but we do choose how we are going to live. I choose every day to deny what comes naturally to me. … I have to rely on Jesus Christ every day.'”

What many ex-gay critics failed to note was that Exodus wasn’t started by preachers or psychologists in order to minister to benighted homosexuals. It was launched by homosexuals who, because of their Christian faith, sought help and rarely found it in the church. So they started tiny, starving organizations that offered understanding and hope. Most of the time churches kept these organizations at arm’s length, as though homosexuality might be catching, while at the same time directing to them the regular flow of agonized Christians struggling with their homosexual identity. The closest parallel is AA–a grassroots organization run by victims for victims. Whenever I talked to Exodus leaders I was struck by the gallows humor, the lack of triumphalism. I wrote in 2007, “This may be the only group in America that realizes all the way to the bottom that when you decide to follow Jesus, you don’t always get to do what you want to do.”

But yes, they did sometimes talk and write triumphalistically, and seemed sometimes to promise great transformation of sexual orientation. They publicized apparent successes, and ignored transparent failures. Backsliding and moral failure were frequent, especially in the early days. Most importantly, most of those who joined their programs failed to experience lasting and meaningful change of sexual desire. For many, such failure was shattering.

Homosexuality is defined by erotic desire for your own gender. Despite much thinking and theorizing, it remains unexplained. Homosexuals do not choose their desires any more than heterosexuals do. But where do these desires come from? They make no evolutionary sense. 

Homosexuality is not exactly “like” anything else, but I think it is helpful to put it into the context of other forms of desire and our attempts to control or change them. Alcoholism is an example: the desire for alcohol is persistent and unexplained, and it is very difficult to change. AA has some success, as does the Betty Ford clinic, but also lots and lots of failure.

The prevalence of obesity, and the general failure of all dieting programs, should equally warn us against any suggestion that we understand desire or know how to transform or control it. If food desires are that strong and resistant to change, surely sexual desires are more so.

But this should not lead to a counsel of despair. Change is difficult; change is not impossible. Some people do lose weight. Some people channel or sublimate their homosexual desires. The current ethos of sexual liberalism would suggest that any attempt to limit sexual expression is inherently stifling if not damaging. But Christians (and others) are likely to find this an unproved assertion, and to regard the legacy of sexual liberalism as highly questionable. Granted that there have been improvements in our lives since the beginning of the sexual revolution, is the overall impact really positive?

 Exodus is gone, and with it any sense that Christians have a “cure” for homosexuality. A lot–not all, by any means–of homophobia has gone too, largely because a generation of homosexuals had the courage to come out and give the rest of the world a chance to know them as ordinary human beings. It’s clear that homosexuals are being visibly integrated into mainstream American life–into the military, into marriage, into sports. They have always been there, of course, but not visibly so.

Christians have to figure out how to deal with this. The impulse to love and accept is strongly embedded in our Scriptures. But so is the belief that homosexual expression is a distortion of God’s intended sexuality. This poses a terrible dilemma. Exodus seemed to point a way out of it: homosexuals can change. Now we know that homosexuality is part of the human condition, that it persists. We know that homosexuals are not “them” but “us.” Difficult? Yes, but not unprecedented. So many aspects of human life are unexplained, persistent and contrary to what we believe should be so. We are creatures of such contradictions, seeking to live in our present reality with love and acceptance, yet also with the powerful urge for transformation. That is why I lie awake at nights. That is why I pray.

Why Abortion Won’t Go Away

April 23, 2013

Ross Douthat has an outstanding short essay on the media response to Kermit Gosnell, the doctor who killed newborns. He quotes, at length, from abortion rights advocates, and gives them their due. They are right in saying that doctors like this would be a lot less likely to exist if there were easy, convenient access to professional abortion clinics. In a perverse way, restrictions on access actually enable devils like Gosnell.

Where such abortion rights advocates never go, however, is the bloody and physical reality of late-term abortions. They don’t focus on the actual fetuses/babies –one different from the other only by the matter of whether a doctor is operating on them inside the womb or outside. And that, Douthat points out, is what is so awful and compelling about Gosnell’s case.

One might have expected abortion controversies to have dried up long ago. The reason they persist–the reason why abortion is not really accepted after forty years of legal practice–is simply those fetuses/babies. It is very difficult to focus on them and remain free and easy about abortion.

Clearly, we live in a time when people want to go about their sexual business without minding anybody’s moral scruples. Most would rather live and let live and not think about it. Given that strong current of sexual individualism, I can’t see abortion rights really becoming threatened in the foreseeable future. But at the same time, I don’t see the issue quite disappearing, either. We don’t have to think about those fetuses/babies most days. But cases will surface to remind us of them.

Gay Marriage is Conservative Victory?

April 3, 2013

A very interesting column from David Brooks. He salutes gay marriage as a lone modern indicator of people voluntarily seeking to bind their freedom in commitments.

“Once, gay culture was erroneously associated with bathhouses and nightclubs. Now, the gay and lesbian rights movement is associated with marriage and military service. Once the movement was associated with self-sacrifice, it was bound to become popular.”

Gay marriage is thus a conservative victory, in his telling, and he wonders whether it will lead to a trend. ” Maybe we’ll see other spheres in life where restraints are placed on maximum personal choice.”

Gay Marriage Is a Done Deal

March 28, 2013

Gay marriage is a done deal. It will soon be legally sanctioned nearly everywhere in America, regardless of what the courts say. Public opinion has swung decisively.

It’s certainly surprised me. I remember reading Andrew Sullivan advocating gay marriage (in 1995?) and thinking he was far out on the edge.

How could America change its mind so quickly? Here are some reasons:

–Gays comprise a very small percentage of the population, indivisible from the rest of us (i.e. not identified with any ethnicity or income level or gender). It’s hard to imagine such a tiny minority making much difference in society. Thus it’s not that threatening. And it’s hard to stigmatize gays as belonging to “them” once you know a few. The brave homosexuals who came out of the closet and demonstrated that they were ordinary folks have driven a lot of this change.

–As David Brooks wrote yesterday, gay marriage is socially conservative. It values family stability and lasting love. In contemporary America gays seem to be virtually the only people thoroughly excited about marriage. How can you be horrified? Plus they make their appeal on the basis of fairness, a hard claim for any American to deny.

The really odd thing is that while gays rush toward marriage, marriage is in trouble among non-elite Americans. If you didn’t finish college your chances of getting married and staying married are small. The odds are good that a child in non-elite America will grow up without two parents.

The acceptance of gay marriage is closely related to a deeper, longer-running trend toward defining marriage by love alone. Through most of history marriage was also an economic partnership and an arrangement for producing offspring. (Reading Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now impressed this on me once again.) Many also saw marriage as religiously holy, a window into God’s relationship to his people. Such factors operate on a longer timeline than merely human love, which is famously volatile. (Consider Shakespeare’s sonnets.)

What will marriage look like a generation from now? Gay marriage will certainly be part of the mix. But marriage may be a temporary, shifting affinity significant to only a minority of people. Because what is the point, if all you need is love? You don’t need marriage to love. And when love dies, is anything left?

While gay marriage is here to stay, it’s not clear how great a prize it will prove to be.

The Sexual Revolution: A Brief Report in Progress

January 17, 2013

I grew up in an era when sexual freedom first intoxicated a generation. It made a perfect match between individualism and technology, loosening the communal ties that bound us.

Thanks to technology we had learned how to have sex without making babies, and we had learned to cure diseases passed on through sex. Liberated from nasty side-effects, people could pursue pleasure without fear. And, many did.

These developments attracted a lot of media fascination, and many denunciations from pulpits. It was a dramatic time, but in the end less confrontational than you might think. The culture mainly groaned and made room for the new ways. Unsupervised coed dorms became the norm. Playboy became the winking bad boy of mainstream culture.

I don’t think it occurred to many people that marriage would really change–only the double standards and hypocrisy of relations leading up to marriage. There had always been hanky panky. Now it was normalized.

So the second wave of the sexual revolution came as a surprise: a dramatic increase in divorce. That wasn’t planned. Again, though, society groaned and rolled over. Experts opined that it was probably good for the children not to be raised in unhappy circumstances; and certainly good for the unhappy partners to leave each other behind.

Simultaneously a revolution was occurring in homosexual behavior: out of the closet, defiantly out of the closet, for a time engulfed in extraordinary displays of promiscuity, eventually settling down, almost, into happy domesticity.

Abortion also became mainstream: often grieved in private, but widely practiced and accepted in public.

We had, by the end of the eighties, generally accepted premarital sexual activity and an unprecedented divorce rate. But in most people’s minds, the fundamental structure still hadn’t changed. Eventually most people got married. Children were produced by married couples.

However, the revolution kept rolling, and it is rolling still. Divorces continued, and the children of divorce were even more prone to divorce, or never to marry in the first place. The scandal of out-of-wedlock babies gradually disappeared. First those young mothers were treated with sympathy; then with admiration. Today, fathers are optional and babies come through many avenues. Test-tube babies, surrogate mothers, lesbian couples producing babies with the help of artificial insemination–once the province of science fiction these choices are all absolutely mainstream today. Young couples not only have sex without a thought of marriage, they live together not as a prelude to marriage but simply as a state of preference or convenience. Weddings are a possible event in the life of a couple, but marriage and partnership are now only loosely connected.

It goes further. The very nature of male and female has come under question. People can and do change gender.

Since my college days alarmists have been predicting that the dominos will continue to fall. They have been consistently proved right. What seemed impossible a generation back–gay marriage? gender transformation?–has come true.

And Christians, while still serving as alarmists, really don’t have much to say. For one thing, by most measures Christians behave much like everybody else. More importantly, nobody much cares what Christians think. We can perhaps scare and shock the believers, but we can’t even get a faint rise in the pulse rate of anybody else. The culture has moved on.


I sometimes used to think the pendulum would swing back, but we’ve lived with some pretty horrendous consequences of the sexual revolution– millions dead of AIDS, a fatherless generation–and there’s not the slightest sign of retreat. What I foresee is more. Whatever structures remain are on shaky ground.

The chief remaining taboos–rape, sexual harassment, child sex abuse, child pornography, man-boy relations–have in common that there is a youthful or non-consenting victim. Maybe that reservation will hold. We’ll see.

I’m not trying to scare anybody. I’m past the alarmist stage. I am just waking up and asking myself: how does one live as a Christian in a truly post-Christian society? In some areas–human rights for example–there is reason for encouragement that post-Christian society has continued to advance Christian values. But sex is pretty basic stuff. Fidelity has some appreciation. Chastity has very little.

My question isn’t finally about sex. It’s more about identity. Do we abandon traditional mores and adapt our expectations to a new situation? Do we become “anonymous Christians,” as I understand is common in Sweden? Do we form strict, isolated counter-cultural colonies, as the Amish do? Do we preach an unrelentingly unpleasant message on the streets, as Jeremiah did?

I’m asking myself, “What would Jesus do?”