ERIN LOUIS | Author, former adult entertainer
God makes for a terrible threesome
Sex is, for the most part, a very intimate experience. Whether you’re exploring your own body alone or with someone else, sex should be on your own terms. In fact it absolutely must be. For sex to be a healthy and positive experience, consent is imperative.
But for many, there is a ghostly deity that lingers in the background. An uninvited phantom that watches your every move. Judging and maybe even critiquing your most vulnerable moments. Like Rodger Ebert, but with the perceived power to torture you for all eternity should you delve into activities he finds distasteful.
So what are the limits of this ghastly observer?
That all depends on the particular god you believe in. Maybe it is something as common as oral sex. Wearing lingerie, or the gender or genders you’re attracted to. Could it be that simply having sex without a lifelong commitment and expensive party are cause for eternal damnation? Or figuring out how your own body functions and is pleasured?
God is the embodiment of all our sexual hang-ups and insecurities. He is the one that makes us doubt our feelings and desires. Makes us wonder if we should feel bad about feeling good. He is the one that hangs out without permission while we give into the urges that He supposedly equipped us with in the first place.
And it is all by design. A holy set up. A deliberate catch 22 that is intended to keep us in line. Brilliant in its malignancy. A deviant manipulation. A way to exploit our physiology and humanity to gain control over our behavior.
But in all its foul magnificence, it fails most of the time. Suppressing and hiding our sexual desires doesn’t eliminate them. Maybe for a little while, but eventually they break free of their mental confines and resurface in terrible ways. Manifesting as either guilt and shame, or harmful acts.
But this holy perverted ghost has oozed its way into secular sex lives as well. Many of God’s goofy sex rules have permeated the lives for whom God wasn’t a main player. Or even in the lives of people who never believed gods at all. Slut shaming, homophobia, and the hypersexualizing of nudity are godly constructs.
Sex makes more humans. Sex makes us more human as well. It allows us to feel pleasure. It releases chemicals that make us feel better physically, mentally and emotionally. It helps us know ourselves and our fellow humans. It is a part of life that should be enjoyed without guilt or shame imposed by a voyeuristic entity of our own imaginations.
The most important thing in any sex act is consent. God didn’t ask to be in your bedroom. And you are not obligated to give him permission to be there. Like another imagined monster, the vampire, God cannot come in unless you invite Him.
You did not give consent to this ghostly ménage a trois; it’s your right to tell him to get lost.
LIZ LAPOINT | producer of ‘The Naked Advice’ YouTube channel
Puberty through the lens of religion
Puberty is a milestone we all experience as members of the mammalian kingdom. As such, we can expect everyone’s got a story or two about what it was like for them to develop boobs, grow facial hair, and suddenly deal with erections at inopportune times.
My story for you today is about what it was like for me to start that lovely process known as menstruation.
‘Lovely’ is not entirely sarcastic here. I really do see its beauty as a unique biological imperative and have never resented having a period.
I may have been raised by a deeply religious mother, but she didn’t shelter me. That would’ve been very un-Boomer of her; everyone back then was unabashedly hands-off in their parenting. “You’ll be gone all day with your friends and I’ll have no idea where you are or who you’re hanging out with and there’ll be no way for me to contact you because it’s the ‘80s and cell phones haven’t been invented yet but have fun and see you when it gets dark!”
I received a great secular education with comprehensive lessons on sexuality starting in 6th grade. My mother did not. She was raised as an Eastern Orthodox Christian in Ethiopia in the 1950s and ‘60s, with little-to-no sex education. This means my siblings and I never heard the “birds and the bees” talk, as she probably didn’t, either.
My best friend in 6th grade was a bit older than I was at the time, and as we both looked forward to “becoming women” she got her period before I did. She excitedly showed me her maxi pad one day during an after-school hangout at her house. It was covered in bright red blood and I was fascinated.
Thanks to my education I understood it was a natural biological process necessary for our bodies to produce children one day, if we wanted to be parents. I viewed puberty as nothing more than an exciting time of change. I had no idea at twelve years old that not everyone is taught the facts free of sexist myths, stigmas, or religious connotations.
My body, bless its heart, decided to finally start shedding its uterus lining on a gorgeous summer day when I was lounging poolside in a swimsuit. Far from home at my older brother’s girlfriend’s house, I was twelve years old and couldn’t run inside to privately change or grab a “feminine napkin”. I was also mortified because my swimsuit was white, y’all. White.
Mercifully, my brother’s girlfriend calmly brought me into her place and gave me a maxi pad while I changed into my regular clothes. Mortification aside, I was thrilled. Nobody wants to be the late bloomer in junior high school.
When I got home I found my mom in the kitchen and happily told her the good news. “I got my period today!” Imagine my surprise when her eyes didn’t light up like mine did and she replied forlornly, “Oh, my poor daughter…” Then she left the room, leaving me confused and sad by her odd reaction.
It would be many years before I would understand how her strict religious upbringing informed her views on gender and sexuality. Hindsight allowed me to see that her response to hearing Aunt Flo had arrived indicated her focus was on the baggage she knew that persnickety aunt often brought with her, like cramping or PMS. I suspect my mom also saw puberty through a Christian lens of losing one’s innocence. Nevertheless, I grew up to have a healthy self-image and views on sexuality unencumbered by religious mythologies and shame. I’m forever grateful that she spared me the same oppressive religious messages she learned as a child, albeit unintentionally. It makes me sad to reflect on the missed opportunity she had to have a positive, informative discussion with her young daughter.
Our starkly different attitudes about puberty are just one example of how evident it is that with a secular sex education and no religious interference, most of us would have fewer body hang-ups and healthier sex lives with ourselves and each other.
SHAYNE LEE | Sociologist, University of Houston
Secular Sexual Sin
As both a recovering evangelical and a proud libertarian atheist, I find the notion of secular sex quite intriguing. In theory, I imagine its lucidity would be useful toward minimizing guilt and maximizing pleasure.
But what I have observed, at least in academic circles, is quite the opposite in terms of secular moral discourses promoting gratuitous checks on sexual optionality. So while I am intrigued by the promise of secular sex, I am even more perplexed by the propagation of secular sexual sins trending in academic and feminist discourses.
Like its biblical counterpart, secular sexual sin is presumed, rather than proven, to be immoral or necessarily harmful to society. Secular moralists reproach a variety of sexual transgressions with the same tenacity that evangelical clerics propagandize biblical injunctions against fornication, adultery, and homosexuality. More specifically, feminists have been quite adept at persuading secular moralists and the general population to accept certain sexual undertakings as inherently degrading or reprehensible.
To see the logic of secular sexual sin and its problematic implications, we can explore the most notable and documented feminist injunction in the modern Decalogue:
“Thou shalt not engage in any form of sexual objectification.”
The notion of sexual objectification enjoys wide acceptance both in academia and popular culture as the quintessential secular sin. It encompasses a plethora of practices in which a person reduces another complex human being into a mere “object” solely for the former person’s prurient purposes. Everything from the display of scantily-clad models in hip-hop videos to the remorseless stares of horny frat brothers directed toward the nearby coed’s cleavage can be classified (and sternly rebuked) as sexual objectification.
Its sinful status has become so accepted that even would be transgressors often prefix impending infractions with the caveat, “Not to be accused of sexual objectification. . .”
But there is a glitch to secular sexual morality’s most sacrosanct doctrine, a conundrum that most certainly places the prohibition’s prescriptive merit on shaky ground. It goes something like this, if sexual objectification is sinful, then all of us are secular sexual reprobates.
Feminists could appreciate this dilemma if they looked beyond the litany of infractions they ascribe to the usual sexist suspects and considered how the human imagination itself is quite the effective hatchery of sexual objectification. Regrettably, the charge of sexual objectification is tendentiously weaponized against particular castes of male perpetrators and female sex workers to still the tide of female hyper-sexualization, a noble mission nonetheless that inevitably casts feminist moralists as inveterate cherry pickers, accusing their enemies while overlooking their own sins of commission.
We can presume that it is common practice for humans to indulge in indelicate fantasies about other humans. But once we accept sexual fantasy as a natural facet of human life, then the next step is to acknowledge the impossibility of devising a sexually stimulating fantasy without turning at least one complex human into a retrofitted and manipulated mental object of desire.
Thus we can conclude that most modern humans, including feminists, are draftspersons of and prime movers in sexual objectification.
If a fleeting sexual fantasy is an indisputable enterprise of sexual objectification, then what can we say about the more rigorous deployment of sexual fantasy as a means to an orgasmic happy ending? I would imagine that there is very little a person can do that is more sexually objectifying than reducing a complex human subject into a mental object of sexual aggrandizement.
Simply put if sexual fantasy and orgasmic self-pleasure do not constitute sexual objectification then nothing else does. And if such a concession makes most people guilty of committing sexual objectification then does not the secular sin’s ubiquity nullify its own prescriptive necessity?
I once challenged students in my theory course to concoct a sexual fantasy of the kind that omits any hint of sexual objectification. Suffice it to say, they were unsuccessful even after a few comical attempts. Up until that point many of them conceived sexual objectification as someone else’s sin; a common transgression of hip-hop artists and horny teens surfing explicit websites. But my students’ failure to create a non-sexually-objectifying sexual fantasy compelled them to acknowledge how their own sexual imaginations function as repositories of the notorious secular sexual sin.
If it is common for feminists to condemn sexual objectification in porn flicks, hip-hop lyrics, teen magazines, YouTube channels, etc., then it should be just as common for them to denounce the objectifying mechanics of masturbation. Don’t count on it, because such a move toward moral consistency would hit too close to home.
Jesus exhorted the sexual moralists of his day who were set to persecute a transgressor to “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Modified for today’s sexual moralists (with a shout-out to Seinfeld lore), Jesus’s counsel would advise feminists to “Let any among you who is not the master of her own domain to refrain from casting a tweet of condemnation against sexual objectification.”
If the doctrine of sexual objectification proves one thing, it is that religious people hold no monopoly on subscribing to a sinner/saint sexual binary. Consider how the allegory of the lap dancing twins illuminates this point.
Shelly is an erotic technician who swings on poles and offers sensual exchanges with patrons of the local strip club. Shelly’s sexual activity elicits stern rebukes (or condescending pity) from feminists who perceive Shelly’s commodified choreography as debasing to women. But a few blocks away resides the stripper’s identical twin Cindy, who often appropriates Shelly’s outfits and dance moves in the service of enticing her husband. Recalling the denigration ascribed to the commodified activity of Shelly’s erotic dance performances for her clients, we can ponder if those same secular moralists would similarly consider Cindy’s erotic antics as degrading to women.
It is doubtful.
Secular moralists seem to perceive something protective about the privacy of Cindy’s home and the love she has for her husband. In this way, privacy and love act as a metaphysical forcefield to repel the same demonic beams of degradation that Shelly’s erotic exchanges with her clients can’t escape. So even though Cindy and Shelly share the same genome, the same costume, and the same sensual choreography in service of enticing their conquests, the wife’s erotic theatricality is condoned, while the stripper’s sensual performances are condemned as degrading to women.
The underlying logic that dyadic love and fidelity somehow sanctify sexual interplay while commodification corrupts sex and eroticism is a bit too metaphysically rich for my secular blood.
The allegory of the twins explicates the binary that characterizes the secular doctrine of sexual objectification. Wives are sexual saints, impervious to objectification, while erotic entrepreneurs like Shelly are dastardly sinners or pitied victims. But if remuneration undermines a stripper’s moral currency and human dignity, then someone should explain why services rendered for childcare, food preparation, sewer maintenance, and countless other tasks (including feminist theorizing about the evils of sexual commodification) are not similarly soiled by the cash nexus.
Put another way, if money adds exponential guilt to the sin of sexual objectification, then all forms of human commodification are fruit of the same poisonous tree.
Speaking of fruit, secular moralists cherry-pick commodification as dehumanizing in some exchanges, while ignoring other forms of commodification, for instance, the way in which diners reduce restaurant servers into mechanical transporters of delicious cuisine. The diners’ imperative for servers is universally understood: “Don’t tell us your life story! Just bring our soufflés before they get cold, and we’ll be sure to tip you nicely.”
And the next time you cruise past a person flashing a large board at a busy intersection to draw drivers’ attention to a nearby department store, be sure to gasp in disgust. For what is more objectifying than hiring a human sign? Perhaps hiring a human toilet cleaner.
If commodification corrupts, then all activities that convert a complex human being into a mobilizable means to a selfish end must be indexed as inevitably sinful. But a more reasoned alternative is to appreciate how objectification and commodification are organic features of an open market society.
To you stubborn secular moralists who will dig in your heels and continue to preach against the evils of objectification and commodification, I must remind you that before your head hits the pillow tonight, you will treat at least one complex human as a means to achieve your own selfish end.
And since sexual objectification by definition involves reducing a complex human subject into an object of sexual pleasure, then my message to all you masturbating secular moralists is to schedule a few visits to your local confessional and seek absolution for your latest transgression. And your priest will assign as your penance an hour of meditation on another prescient sentiment from Jesus: First take the plank out of your own (objectifying) eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:5).
NATHAN TIMMEL | Stand-up comedian
I was raised in a non-religious household.
As a child, that statement didn’t mean much to me. As an adult, however, I see the benefits of my upbringing. Questions were addressed matter-of-factly, and no guilt or condemnation was ever attached to the explanations.
Homosexuality, for example.
When I was a kid, I saw two men kiss. Confused, I asked my parents, “What’s up with that?”
They explained very simply: “Well, usually, men like women, and women like men. But sometimes, men like men, and women like women, and that’s OK.”
So I grew up without any hang-ups regarding the gay community. I knew girls made my nether regions all tingly, but that didn’t mean I was “right,” and others were “wrong.”
When it came to heterosexual sex, I don’t remember having a specific, sit-down, birds-and-the-bees talk. Information was just… sprinkled in throughout my life. When I wondered where babies came from, I was told. After I discovered masturbation, I learned that everyone does it, you just don’t exactly broadcast your alone-time habits to the world.
As I grew older and realized that many people did have issues with sex and sexuality, I was surprised. Then I learned that more often than not, those issues were tethered to religion.
My confusion was profound. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea someone would be angry about two men holding hands because a book written by goat herders who didn’t know where the sun went at night told them to be mad.
And it wasn’t just homosexuality; religious people seemed to take umbrage with everything related to sex. You were a “sinner” for having “nocturnal emissions,” being naked, or having normal thoughts, urges, and desires.
When I say “normal,” I do mean normal. Many religious folk hold tight to the belief that without religion binding people to a code, chaos would ensue. Without religion keeping everyone in check, we’d all be murderers, rapists, and fans of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
I disagree with this take, simply because of personal experience.
I approached sex with curiosity and an openness disconnected from guilt, and yet still quickly discovered I had very definite boundaries.
Seeing two men hold hands didn’t make me want to try homosexuality, and, freedom from religion didn’t make me want to descend into debauchery. I found that while I enjoyed Playboy, Hustler wasn’t as appealing. Just because I was “allowed” to try anything, didn’t mean I wanted to try everything. I wasn’t bound by “vanilla” acts of sex, but neither was I interested in a Caligula-style free-for all.
Such is the secular approach to life, and specifically, sex.
Religion is about control; sex is about freedom. Religion is about worship, whereas sex is about connecting with another human being. Religion is a series of rules and regulations, set (in some cases, literally) in stone, and sex is two people setting removing physical and emotional boundaries.
If you approach sex as something to be feared—as religion tends to paint it—you won’t enjoy the experience. Which is odd, because sex is one of the absolute best actions you can participate in as a person.
Sex, like many things in life, seems to be better when done secularly.
ANTHONY CRUZ PANTOJAS | Humanist chaplain
Sex and Sensibility
Recently, I had the pleasure of spending time in Chicago with other “Interfaith Innovation Fellows” who hail from different parts of the world. During a night out, one of them asked: What was your sex education like? Was it good and evidence-based? I had no immediate answer. Frankly, I didn’t expect that question within the purview of our “rigorous” inquiries on interreligious engagement. Though, the questions prompted me to think about why conversations around sex, intimacy, and connection were stifled in my formative years.
Growing up in the Caribbean, in a conservative household, I often lived in fear, was alienated by family and friends, and even disconnected from my body. I did not have opportunities to explore sensuousness, desire and pleasure, which imbue our everyday lives. I did not have the language, modeling, or theories to challenge Christian and theistic orientations connected to sex. Particular ideas of the “moral” enforced certain sensibilities that did not comport with Christian doctrine. At home conversations about sex, heteronormative ideals or otherwise, were never encouraged. It was not until my family moved to the South that I discovered that I enjoyed hickies.
The following morning, I came out to my family as same-gender loving.
Exploring sex has been a slow process for me and it has not been at the center of my interests given my dream of pursuing a “solitary, academic life.” However, that outlook on sex, pleasure, and intimacy began to change once I discovered Humanism and the possibility of living a secular life opened doorways of challenging preconceived and limited understanding of sex shifting from something that is divinely ordered – a holy act in which the intention is procreation– to a constellation of pleasures, connections, and even orientations to an ethical life. I also think about the gendered discourses about sex and reproduction. How do these discourses mediate our everyday practices of “activity” and “passivity?”
A secular perspective seeks to elicit the fullness of the human experience which means paying attention to how human beings have continued to evolve, and have become more aware of themselves and those with whom they relate. Such attention Includes diverse understandings regarding sexuality, kinks, fetishes, and the complicated world of intimacy. I see sex as not merely “getting off” and the instant gratification of pleasure, but rather a curated experience between people, an intertwined experience where the specificity of needs, boundaries, respect and relationality to self, unique notions around the embrace and acceptance of the body are part of a conversation, where heteronormative ideals frameworks are not to be extrapolated or seen as benchmark, but considering possibility and multiplicity.