August 16, 2012 / Theology
Christian worship is the unique context, space, and practice through which the gifts of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation are received and embraced.
TOJ: This issue, as you know, is giving attention to sexuality and gender, and I wanted to start off by asking you to speak to the sexual climate in North America. Some have described our culture as hyper-sexualized, that the pornographic is becoming more interwoven in our cultural discourse, but concurrently rates of sexual satisfaction and intercourse are actually down. Could you comment on whether you agree with this cultural assessment and also perhaps on our culture’s sexual dissatisfaction?
DA: You are talking about so many different levels and layers with the question “is it hyper-sexualized?” Compared to my understanding from Tremper (Longman III) about the Assyrian and Babylonian cultures, no, we’re not hyper-sexualized. If you compare where we are even in the context of other modern cultures’ engagement with sexuality, we’re still somewhat restrained, there is still some regard. Who’s the judge of the term “hyper-sexualization?”
Now, everyone knows at some level there is a profound flaw [in our culture] and there are many efforts to try and gain a window into what is wrong and what needs to be done, I still think there is a strong (and particularly within the conservative culture) notion from many that we live in a repressed culture.
So, it’s a battleground and one in that we need to search the frame of reference. There is still a significant restraint on our TV’s compared to European, South American, and Asian cultures.
TOJ: You mentioned that the conservative end of our culture is still repressed, could you maybe give some examples of that repression?
DA: I spoke or used to speak for Family Life Ministries in their arena events, and, nobody in the leadership did this, but several people suggested that I not use the words penis and vagina during the sex talk that I gave in the arena event. In part because just hearing the words penis and vagina was so unnerving, or supposedly unnerving for a large portion of the audience.
But, the people who told me that, how do they know? They didn’t run focus groups, they just had the sensibility. Particularly whenever I talk about sexuality, in more conservative circles, I’m often told that people have never heard such rank, honest, but also compelling pictures of sexuality.
So again, I have only a small window on this thing called the American culture, so who’s the person [of authority]? I don’t know. All I know is that there are so many different things going on, there’s a montage of reactions.
Certainly in many conservative circles there’s more familiarity with sexual themes than there would have been 20 years ago. A greater ability to engage and talk yet still a profound reluctance and shame that makes the credence of sexuality, at least at this transitional point, very hard to know who one is addressing and who one is tracking with about these issues.
TOJ: What transitional point are you referring to?
DA: If you think in terms of when I began working with (as a counselor) people 20 years ago, in a local church, for a person to share a prayer need that they were struggling with an addiction like food or alcohol, it would be inconceivable. So if that was impossible, how much more so would to it be to say I’m struggling with pornography or I have an endless cycle of chronic masturbation. I mean, it’s so inconceivable that it would ever be in any point of conversation outside of psychotherapy.
Now people can talk about Arterburn’s books on male struggles of sexuality, in some ways, I think he and many others hit a time where there’s much more openness to say that we are sexual beings, we struggle sexually, and these matters are not or cannot remain private with any hope of transition or transformation.
We are in a transitional stage where sexuality has greater ground to be spoken to, but still a high level of reactiveness certainly among the more conservative groups.
TOJ: I want to talk a little bit about pornography and masturbation, those issues as they are affecting the Church, but first I want to ask you about theological approaches to sexuality in the Evangelical church, by reading you a quote from the popular sex book, “Sheet Music.”
Here’s what its author Kevin Leman says: “In many ways, Scripture’s teaching is this: Don’t let anyone besides your spouse enjoy your sexual charms in any way, but then unleash those charms in their full fury upon your husband or wife. Channel all your sexual appeal in one direction. Keep the dam up when others are around; don’t let a trickle escape through the walls. But when you’re behind closed doors, alone with your spouse, open up the floodgates and let the water flow at full force.”
DA: Like any metaphor, with any metaphor, well I don’t think my wife would particularly like my dam to break or my full fury to be unleashed, so I do think it’s interesting that the prime metaphor is one of pent-up rage. The fact that for many people, and I’m sure the author had no intention for that to be misread in the way that it has the potential to be misread, BUT, I also think you are responsible for your metaphors. And so, in that sense, I do think that there is a great deal of our sexuality that feels like a sense of force and rage and pent up momentum, and as a consequence, the idea that sex and violence are so intertwined that it is virtually inevitable that a pouring out of unrestrained momentum is an inevitability in the marriage context.
When you look at the data of marital rape, some estimates site 1 out of 4 marriages has experienced marriage rape. One has to say, on some level, I quake in the presence of that metaphor.
A second issue is “sexuality” depending on what he means by that. If one is talking about sexuality as “genital contact,” then I couldn’t agree with him more. If what he is talking about is a sense of eroticism, and that is little more than sexual energy, I mean, is it possible to talk about God’s love in terms of Eros? Absolutely. And so, the presence of sexuality as an intense presence of one’s masculinity or femininity, an engagement in a dance of sexuality, then no.
An example would be that my oldest daughter and her boyfriend are taking Samba lessons. And she was showing us some of the moves, some of the basic dance steps, and at one point Annie said, “Dad, you’re just not sensual. Relax! Let your hips come into it, move!” And in a short period of time, no one would be mistaking me for an instructor, but after a minute it felt more sensual than at the beginning of attempting to dance.
So what you’re left with is the sensual is part of the joy of something that goes beyond just an art; it’s an engagement in some sort of eroticism. In moving a fly rod, why does that feel better than a stiff rod? Well it’s because you’re participating in elegance, and is it erotic as defined as mere arousal of genitalia? No! I’ve never had an erection while fly-fishing but the participation is a larger part of eroticism.
So what I would say to Leman’s point, there is great validity in regards to validity to one’s fidelity, particularly looking at fidelity with one’s genitals. There are a great amount of rituals around sexuality for adolescents, for instance, giving an adolescent girl a ring, a purity ring, etc… with the primary stance being on of prohibition, “don’t.” Part of the issue is how we engage in conversations about sexuality.
I can tell you without question, though I’ve spoken to as many as 15,000 people about my and about our [intra-marital] sexuality with not much level of anxiety, certainly when my son Andrew was 12 and I began a year long process of talking with him about his sexuality, in the very first conversation I was more nervous than I probably ever have been in any public speaking context. So, trying to step around and through and in to something so precious and so harmed by people’s intent, the ice feels very thin for most parents.
The parent who says, “Oh, my kids and I can talk about sex anytime and anyplace.” I just look at them and think, “You may be far freer from shame that I, but my suspicion is that you are more shameless than you are shame-free.” These are boundary issues, and ones that intensify shame, and wherever there is shame, that brings a level of attachment, so it is certainly a precarious context that has required significant conversations over many difficult issues prior to entering into it. Most parents have never won the right, through long hard significant conversations on many other issues, to warrant the entry in, and as a consequence, the sex talk becomes one weekend at best, at best.
I don’t know the data as to how many so-called conservative or Evangelical parents actually give a sex talk to their children, but the process seldom is a long, yearlong walk through this or every month for a period of time: to engage fully in this conversation is rare.
I remember when my wife Becky took our daughter Annie, away to talk about sex for a weekend, and one thing we did was when she came back was to give her as much time with me after every time she was with her mom to talk about sex. This was a 12 year-old sitting down, she’s now with her father in a formal context to talk about sex, and one of her first questions is: “Do you and mom have oral sex and do you like it?”
Those are moments of, “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into? And maybe it was better to not talk about it at all.”
TOJ: So the inability to talk about the delicate, sacred…
DA: I would say even more, shame filled…
TOJ: …the shame-filled, and in regards to teenage and college men, how do you see this vacuous dialogue around issues of shame and sexuality contributing to, or fueling, the susceptibility or frequency of addiction to online pornography and online sex?
DA: To me there are three categories.
One, our culture’s expectation that the rite of passage and the way of confirmation has to be entered through the sexual. There is an expectancy issue in our culture. Just in a conversation with my son a few weeks ago prior to prom, I asked him, is there a sense of shame or boasting power around if you are no longer a virgin… he looked at me and said, “Oh Dad, that would be like 13 or 14.” So by the time you are in High School the presumption would be, “of course you are not a virgin.” Now it wouldn’t have even been particularly a point of conversation, but it would have been in 8th or 9th grade. So a cultural expectation that one has reached independence of viability is having passed that sexual marker.
Again, 30 or 40 years ago in regards to that expectancy it seems that the pressure is as much on girls if not more so to have finished off that passage at a younger age. It’s just not common in many worlds for women to be the sexual pursuers.
So that then added to the second issue of anonymity, particularly in regard to pornography in a way that has hardly ever existed in quite the same way. Anonymity. Going to a bookstore, going to an adult bookstore, and going to a place that had available pornography used to require passing money directly to the hands of someone that would see you.
The power of anonymity is what I think to be one of the great violences of our culture. Before, everybody knew when you walked in an adult bookstore, that’s what you were there for, especially if there was innocence. I mean this is not something you do familiarly, you’re younger, you’re not a grizzled old pornographer, there’s a sense that you’re a newbie. There’s this wink that, yeah, you’re just getting into this now.
The power that anything, almost anything in the universe a person can do sexually is available through 2-3 clicks of a computer is incomprehensible. Plus, that same ability to link yourself into a community that doesn’t require a great deal of risk, at not least initially, to find people who, are transvestites involved in light S&M, the particular website group to sort of make you familiar to the language or mores of that group don’t require the same level of risk or vestiture that it required 10 or 20 years ago.
TOJ: And the third category…
DA: The third has to do with what I would understand to be a deepening of violence with sexuality.
There is an absence of connection in intimacy, or even immorality, it has become more and more devoid of relationship. Whereas, what could have been viewed as, the “good old days”, 30-40 years, where sexuality might have grown between those who were going steady, you wouldn’t have had sex with a total stranger unless that person were a prostitute. At least in that sense sexuality, or rather immorality, was bound into the presumption of we’re going steady which is the pre-context of getting engaged, which maybe we haven’t committed ourselves to marriage, but on the other hand, this is a serial monogamy.
Just the classic phrase, “hooking up,” there’s no question there’s a shift to the full blown outworking of the sexual revolution of the late 60’s and 70’s. There’s a definite shift in the implications, and in regards to violence far heightened: as relationship is less connected, there is less regard for the face of the other, then one’s non-sexual face[?] is where one’s fear, one’s own shame, one’s own hatred gets a chance to be played out.
TOJ: If I could just ask you about the prevalence of sexual abuse in our country, particularly in the context of your previous statements, and are the frequency or occurrences of abuse in our country occurring at the same rate and frequency as in the church?
DA: Well part of the dilemma with the word frequency is that it implies a research study is able to make its way beyond the veil of shame. So what we know is, any topic, research wise, where there is high levels of shame, the typical paper and pencil format for evaluation always underestimates.
Very few of the research studies that are being done are being done in the context of what could be called interview frameworks. The reason for that is because interview frameworks are incredibly expensive. You have to code the data in a way in which, instead of quantitative you are looking at qualitative research, and there’s still a high degree of disparagement with regard to the efficacy of qualitative research so there are a lot of reasons why qualitative isn’t used as it should be or could be.
But all that leads to the fact that we know it’s underestimated. We’re looking at somewhere in the range of 1 out of 5, 1 out of 4, experiences physical abuse in a dating relationship. 1 out of three 3 has been threatened. So, that alone, just from the standpoint of what could be broadly called domestic violence or physical abuse, we know that’s on a rise. So if that’s on a rise, sexual/physical contact, how do we then name the ongoing presence of what is often called date rape? Folks that I know who work on Christian campuses tell me that the two big issues that they face, one that can be reported and one that can’t be, are bulimia/anorexia or eating disorders, and, the second is date rape. So, the phenomena of sexual violence at that level, date rape is a very hard crime to prosecute because often the two parties were involved with what could be called a level of sexual activity.
A women’s voice saying no has been denied and progresses to some level of sexual touch that violates, may not even be literal rape.
We don’t have, at least that I’m aware of, a lot of data that would indicate where we are today as compared to where we were ten years ago. But, at least in the anecdotal sense, we are seeing a rise in physical abuse, sexual abuse, or sexual violation. And certainly in terms of the broader culture, as much information as has been offered about sexual abuse, even from Oprah and others, the estimates are still that it is rising 4-7% every year.
Again, we’re looking at anecdotal; you look at the Nightline reports on rising pedophilia, and is it a rise or are we only [aware] now because the technology is available to track this? The other sides of the availability, prosecutorial processes are far more able to draw certain pedophiles into contact with chat rooms and so forth. Again, am I reacting to the insanity? It might be by me saying that it certainly appears, through the expectancy, through the anonymity, and through the rise of violence, this is a harsher day today than it was 20 years ago.
TOJ: Give me one thing that the Evangelical church can do to live in a more sexually faithful way, to give witness to a more robust view of sexuality.
DA: To me the first context is the quality of one’s marriage, and that feels in one sense so anemic, because it’s a social context in which sexuality becomes either unspoken or shame-spoken or in many ways prohibitively or narrowly spoken.
If a husband and wife don’t enjoy each other, and by this I mean sexually and otherwise, then the children will know it.
Marriage is so big; [to say to just get married is a way we can address the issue of a healthier sexuality] will almost feel like a truism that at some level everyone knows is true but likely isn’t going to happen. At some level, that is to say, if it doesn’t seem practical and helpful, then probably nothing else will. But at least to be in a place of conversation, I mean I know children as young as 9 or 10 who are being groomed into sexual activity by peers whom either have histories of abuse, therefore higher levels of sophistication, or act out to pornography or with older siblings into sexual activity which I would broadly put into the category of sexual abuse.
To think that sexuality is not reaching into the lives of 3rd, 4th, or 5th graders is a naiveté that no family can afford.
The engagement in talking about the glory of sex, what God intended for sexuality… Again, I’m not loath to make a context for prohibition, but not without a larger category for prescription, what is God’s real intent, or, for a husband and wife’s intimacy, not just sexually, but for relationship. In one sense, the conversation with your own children often will expose what is not present in your own marriage. So if you want for your children the lush, rich, sensual joy of sexuality—they know that the two of you never touch, they know that you don’t like each other, they know that there is a formal contract of fidelity, and that’s not real good.
TOJ: Any theological underpinnings that you see in the church that nurture a context for a higher prevalence for abuse—perhaps in interpretation of scripture?
DA: I do think that one of the core issues is that historically a women’s voice, no matter what your theological convictions are about ordination or elders and so on, the fact that a women’s voice has been segmented from that which matters most.
Where in a family, where in the larger culture, is a women’s voice not only heard and honored but also allowed to play a significant role in helping form the direction of the community? That becomes in some sense a silencing that leads ongoing to stridency [on the part of women], because the only way to be heard is to scream, or a level of presumption that a women’s voice doesn’t have much power.
That just has to be acknowledged as part of a larger structure of why a women’s voice would not be heard when she says no…. because no is just presumed to be either a yes, that all you have to do is take advantage of to get what you wish. Or, even if it is a no, who cares?
TOJ: A lot of work TOJ has been doing, articles that we have been featuring, have looked at economics and relationships, modern modes of exchange, etc… How can the church resist the particular warping of consumerist sexuality, one of rampant individualism, through living more faithfully sexually?
DA: The boomers particularly define how to live or how to die in our culture. The earth will likely survive the boomers, but, you know, we define what aging is, and what it means to look good. With the rise of plastic surgery, it’s just the idea that we don’t honor our facial process of aging. Must we find a way to escape the fact that we are not young? And the interplay between, on one level, a culture that revolves itself around the boomers, particularly financially, and yet, still continues to be incredibly young, youth oriented culture. Who has power is someone who is young. Again trying to think through the individual who is aroused by a child, or by a pre-adolescent: what is the allure? The allure is innocence, the power to mark innocence, to defile innocence.
If you think about the third largest industry in the world, it is the sale of women, and that doesn’t even include pornography. It’s the sex-slave trade industry. This is around the world; this isn’t just American culture. This is an assault against beauty and an assault against innocence.
The desire to have it, and if not have and I can’t have because I’m not young, the desire to mar it. When I talk about beauty, I talk about it in terms of those two categories from Matthew 5:21-28 of lust and anger. What’s my first stance? I want to eat it, consume it, for it to be mine. When it either doesn’t satisfy, because it can’t because what God wishes for me to become beautiful with is my beauty in him, not your beauty that I thieve, so even when I get your beauty it doesn’t satisfy. But most of the time at least at some level, you’ll resist the consumption of your beauty by me. And then your response is one of anger, and so you have the interplay of adultery and murder, when I can’t eat you I’ll kill you.
I reprised an old Beatles album, and I wish I could remember the song, but the last song on the album went something like “little girl don’t leave or I’ll make you pay… I’m a jealous man.” It was song “helping” violence, it’s hard to say what the Beatles, in that sense, they are promoting, but on the other hand there is no condemnation, there’s nothing in the song that would say the lyrics themselves reveal something which is wrong.
So the honoring of violence, it just continues to play out in a way in which you will suffer if you do not give me your beauty. So in resisting these structures, do we, as a church, see in what we have been uniquely written to become, something beautiful, and do we understand that beauty bears marked scars? And in one sense, beauty is an aging face, true beauty is Mother Theresa. If we were to see that, there wouldn’t be as much of a flight from the aging face, a pouching midriff, rather than there just being a “well yeah, age takes you down,” there’s really a sense of an aging man or women bears the mark of living in a fallen world, and there’s something very beautiful about a man or woman who has lived well enough to have suffered, and in their suffering, have come not to hate those marks, but to see them as a revelation of something of the scars of Christ.
TOJ: Thank you Dan for your time, it’s an honor.
DA: Thank you.
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.
Dan Allender is president and professor of counseling at Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, WA. He enjoys fly fishing and riding (sometimes even racing) his motorcycle.