Sunday, February 28, 2010

Still Standing on the Side of Love: Love, Sex, and Ethics

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Feb. 28, 2010

Sing with me if you ever went to camp and sang this old song around a campfire:
“Tell me why the stars do shine, tell me why the ivy twines,
Tell me why the sky’s so blue, and I will tell you just why I love you.
Because God made the stars to shine,
Because God made the ivy twine,
Because God made the sky so blue,
Because God made you, that’s why I love you.”
Of course, there’s an old MIT (Mass. Inst. Of Tech.) version of how a science student was supposed to sing it:
“Nuclear fusion makes stars to shine,
It’s heliotropism makes ivy twine,
Celestial refraction makes the sky be blue,
And testicular hormones are why I love you!”

Sort of an interesting rewrite of an old song to fit a sermon that has turned out to be on the topic of Love, Sex, and Ethics.

Because as Karla and I began to talk about this topic, of Standing on the Side of Love, and comparing our own experiences with love and relationships and the ethical dilemmas they present, I realized that our theme this month of “the role of the faith community in human life” is intricately entwined with the themes of love and sex and ethics.

Later, I did some research with the help of St. Google and then made a list of the issues of sexual ethics we humans often encounter. You may think of even more than I have but here’s my list, in no particular order: birth control, abortion, sex education, homosexuality, gender identity, sexism, divorce, marriage, sex slavery, prostitution, rape, appearance, STDs and sexual abuse. Does anyone have anything more to add to the list? These are the ones I thought of and will be what I address this morning.

Chances are that some, maybe even many, of us have experienced difficulty with items on this list, either firsthand or in someone we love. These experiences are common to the human condition and are influenced by our culture, our gender, our age, who we are attracted to, who we have power over or who has power over us, traditions that linger in our society even as our culture has set them aside, our religious beliefs, our own moral code.

Our sexual identity is so essential to our sense of self that when it is damaged in some way, we are left with a wound that may never heal, unless we take the steps necessary to do so. We may paper it over with a veneer of health and wellbeing, but if we have been severely wounded in this critical part of our selfhood, we may be unable to experience a full and satisfying life.

During my forty-plus years of counseling students and their parents and then later as a pastor counseling adults, I have listened to many a tale of persons whose sexual or gender identity had been damaged and who were trying to deal with the consequences of that damage and be whole again. Again, these are not in any particular order and do not represent the experience of all people who have been victims of identity abuse.

Girls and boys who had been sexually abused as children and teenagers took their anger and self-loathing out on themselves and others, often attempting suicide, violence, running away, cutting themselves, developing eating disorders, substance abuse troubles, and bullying.

Adults who had been sexually abused as children, both males and females, struggled with substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, abusive behavior toward others, and other self-destructive behavior. Many of them had trouble maintaining healthy love relationships, even with partners they cared deeply for. Many had trouble expressing affection for friends of the same sex, out of their fear after having been abused by a person of the same sex.

Teens and adults whose gender identity was an issue---that is, they felt they had the wrong genitals for who they felt they were---agonized over how they could be safe in a world where transgender persons are often victimized and treated unfairly.

Teens and adults who were attracted to same-sex partners hid their sexual orientation for fear of being victimized and ridiculed, even persecuted, losing jobs, friends, family, because of their love for a same-sex partner.

Men and women whose love for a same sex partner resulted in many long loving years of a committed relationship hired lawyers to arrange agreements to protect their partners in the event of a death or health crisis, spending thousands and thousands of dollars to give each other the protections that a simple marriage certificate could provide.

Students whose parents objected to the school-based sex education requirement lost out on the chance to learn even the basics of human reproduction and pregnancy and disease prevention in a safe, well-informed environment, overridden by a “just say no”, homophobic, and “abstinence only” approach to sex education.

Girls who lacked adequate knowledge of sexual intercourse and its consequences and responsibilities needed information about pregnancy termination or medical care or adoption or breaking the news to punitive families.

Boys who knew nothing about taking pregnancy and disease precautions needed to learn about their own responsibilities in creating a new life or transmitting a disease.

Children who had been sexually abused at a very early age often did not develop the necessary trust and attachment to a parent or caregiver and suffered the loneliness and confusion of a life without trustworthy connections.

Girls who had gotten abortions despite the heavy moralistic message of guilt and fear of many religious traditions endured the blame and accusations of “murderer” for making this choice in a desperate time.

Teens who had run away from an abusive home found themselves on the street with no way of supporting themselves except to sell their sexual favors.

Parents with their own sexual identity issues worried about how those issues would affect their children. Married men and women who had late in life discovered their attraction to same-sex partners tried to figure out how to tell their families and minimize the hurt. Married men and women who had, late in life, realized that they were not really male or not really female, despite their genitalia, did not know how to break this news to an unsuspecting spouse.

Young men and women, scared to be gay or lesbian, ranted about the evilness of same-sex attraction, teasing and humiliating those classmates who they thought might be gay or lesbian. Young men and women, knowing they were attracted to same-sex partners, tried to change themselves because of the fear of being ostracized or victimized. Young men and women, outed by fearful classmates, tried to crawl back in the closet or at least minimize the fallout by being evasive, even to the point of having to lie.

Young men and women, worried about body image, whether fat or thin, busty or flat-chested, muscular or frail, beautiful or plain, pimply or clear-skinned, starved themselves, mutilated themselves, exploited themselves, hid themselves, to deflect the painful comments about their physical appearance.

Women and men who are lesbian or gay encountered the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy of the military and had to live dishonest lives and to deny their partners for fear of losing their military standing.

These are all examples of the high cost of our society’s confused and convoluted attitudes and behavior toward love and sex and ethics. There are a lot of facets to the issues of sexual ethics. The problems of our society are attributable, in part, to the mixed messages we receive from many sources about the role of gender and sexuality in human life.

When overlaid with the biological issues of survival, the need to procreate, the need to feed ourselves and our progeny, the need to protect ourselves and our offspring from predators, human compassion has often taken a back seat in deference to biology.

The more vulnerable members of the human clan---children, women, the aged and disabled---have often been exploited because of their weakness, often sexually, and to protect themselves, those exploited often devise their own means of safety, achieving a sometimes unhealthy balance that has long-term negative effects.

Some of our worst ethical offenses have grown out of the imbalance of power between people: sexism, in which one gender is considered to be more valuable than another; heterosexism, in which one sexual orientation is considered to be more normal than another;
ageism, in which one age group is considered to be more authoritative than another; racism, in which one race or ethnic group is considered to be more worthy than another.

When the imbalance of power is applied to a relationship in which sexuality is an issue, the vulnerable person may be sexually abused, kept ignorant of his or her sexual rights, forced into sexual servitude, ridiculed for his/her needs or appearance, even used as an item of barter for goods or services.

Some faith traditions have chosen to maintain some of these unfair or even exploitative practices; some separate males and females physically and socially out of a fear that the female may lead the male astray. Some deny the full range of contraception or even sexual knowledge to sexual partners or youths. Some have definitions of embryonic life which are so broad as to make even a necessary abortion or masturbation a terrible evil. Some take young girls as multiple wives, in order to produce more children for the patriarch and his religious beliefs. Some require women to cover themselves almost completely, ostensibly to protect them from male predators. Most do not recognize the love and commitment between partners of the same gender and even ban them from participation in the sacred ceremonies of the faith.

Of course, secular society has its own set of unfair and exploitative practices: the provocative clothing that our young daughters are invited to wear, more suitable for someone on a Las Vegas stage; shows on television and movies which titillate and encourage exploitative behavior; commercials in which sexual attractiveness sells the product or in which one gender or another is suggested to be the appropriate user of a cleaning product or sports car; educational settings where youth look up to and often have crushes on authority figures who then may use them sexually; homes in which incest is practiced by one or both parents or other relatives; marriages in which sexuality cannot be discussed freely and divorces in which sexual infidelity is a factor; laws which prohibit loving couples from marrying if they are the same gender.

But we’re not just looking at sex and ethics, are we? We’re looking at love and sex and ethics. And love can change things. But defining love in a healthy and comprehensive way can be problematic. Too often, “love” is used as a weapon or as a manipulator or as a warning, rather than as compassion or assistance or humanitarian action. It is used to persuade young people to allow themselves to be exploited rather than treated respectfully and with an acknowledgement of a power differential. It is used to deny civil rights or adequate pay or other benefits to some groups out of a professed need to “protect” them or to protect some tradition.

But the Love we’re talking about today is a love that is comprised of respect and acceptance, of freedom to be one’s real self, an autonomy coupled with interdependence, a love that is available to us whether we are young or old or single or partnered or ill or well, no matter what ethnicity we hold, a love that cares for victims, a love that considers consequences, a love that is faithful and freeing.

The love we’re talking about today is inherent in our Unitarian Universalist principles and sources. Here’s how our faith tradition’s values promote loving sexual ethics: I’m quoting from a page of the “Safe Congregations” handbook published by the UUA.

• The inherent worth and dignity of every person
Every person's sexuality is sacred and is worthy of respect, and therefore, is not to be violated.

• Justice, equity and compassion in human relationships 
We treat others as we would want to be treated; therefore, sexual exploitation is wrong.

• Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth 
Accepting each other as we are means not taking advantage of what we have or don't have*physically, psychologically and spiritually.

• A free and responsible search for truth and meaning 
In our relationship to others, our freedom of sexuality is important as is the responsibility for it.

• The right to conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations
As a community and as an institution, we have the responsibility to create a secure and safe environment.

• The goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all 
We have the opportunity to create the kind of environment that lends itself to peace, liberty and justice in human sexuality, and we can become a model for the rest of society.

• Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
When we respect each person's sexual integrity we honor the wholeness of life and we respect the web of all existence.

As a faith community, what are we already doing and what can we do, to model loving sexual ethics to the world around us? How can we support and teach responsible, loving sexual ethics? How can we encourage our young people to be responsible and loving with their own sexual behavior? How can we encourage each other to let go of any behaviors that may be tinged with disrespect and to practice the behaviors that demonstrate our high regard for each other and our community?

These are the questions inherent in the larger theological question of the role of the faith community in human life. Because of our commitment to principles of behavior and fair treatment for others, we have an obligation to share that commitment with the larger community.

We are already doing some of this. Several years ago, we undertook 18 months of study of the issues of homosexuality, in order to qualify as a Welcoming Congregation of the UUA; we changed our bylaws to reflect this status and hope that same sex couples will find a religious home here. A year ago, this congregation publicly announced to the Whidbey Island community that we would give the gift of the use of our sanctuary and my services to perform wedding ceremonies to celebrate the love of same sex couples.

We are currently beginning to lay the foundation for a comprehensive sex education program for our middle school kids, the “Our Whole Lives” program, aka OWL, perhaps followed by a similar program for high school age students. When we are ready to offer the course, we will open it to participation from other congregations and agencies on the island.

One more small step has been our designated offering today, going to Planned Parenthood, and we thank Bernita for her words today, giving us a better idea of how Planned Parenthood offers its help to folks here in our community.

Is there more we can do? Yes, there is. We can work with our children, our grandchildren, and our great grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, our friends and neighbors, to model responsible sexual behavior and respect for each person’s sexuality, to answer questions honestly and forthrightly as best we can, and to be the sexually responsible and well-informed adults that our community needs.

Perhaps someday we can offer a symposium on human sexuality, maybe even an adult OWL class. At the very least, we can signal our willingness to bring sexual ethics out of the closet and into the daylight of truth and honesty. Because that’s the Love part of our topic today.

Healthy sexual ethics are founded on the love that is different from love of pleasure or love of power, or love of money, or the other loves that are based on another person’s usefulness to us. Sexual ethics are founded on the love that recognizes the freedom and equality of human beings, that respects and values each human being for his or her inherent worth and dignity, that wishes to extend compassion and assistance to those in need without requiring something in return, and treats others as we would want to be treated. Let us practice that love ourselves and model it, as best we can, to those around us.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that our values as people of faith can help us in our advocacy for a sexual ethic of love and justice. May we model to the larger community our commitment to loving sexual ethics and may we make a difference in a hurting world. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Joel said...

Oddly enough, I can agree with a fair amount of this. Sexual mores are a very subjective and individual thing, and it's easy to forget that the customs of one's tribe are not the laws of nature. I do this is factually untrue, however:
Students whose parents objected to the school-based sex education requirement lost out on the chance to learn even the basics of human reproduction and pregnancy and disease prevention in a safe, well-informed environment, overridden by a “just say no”, homophobic, and “abstinence only” approach to sex education.

I can't speak for everybody, but I certainly don't think our kids have come out ignorant of anything by being taught the facts of life by parents rather than schoolteachers. Sexual mores being as varied as they are, it does a disservice to children to expect a single approach to be universally adequate.

I would also not have included rape and abortion as matters of sexual ethics. They're acts of violence to which sex is merely incidental.

Bravo on this point, by the way:
Boys who knew nothing about taking pregnancy and disease precautions needed to learn about their own responsibilities in creating a new life or transmitting a disease.

Too many people who should know better expect the girls to be the ones with all the common sense while teenage boys chase after anything in skirts. As they will, even the best-informed of them. But too often they do their damage and then the girls and the children have to suffer the consequences.

ms. kitty said...

All the examples in the sermon are taken from my experience with counselees and do not represent every person; certainly many parents are in a good position to give good sex education. The students I'm talking about didn't have that kind of parents.

Also, rape and abortion may have violent aspects, but they are fundamentally connected to one's sexual nature, particularly in the aftereffects of these acts. And they affect a person's sense of self.

Joel said...

I certainly can't argue with experience. You've seen a much wider range than I have. My own experience is limited mostly to myself and my own kids; hardly a broad sampling. (Must resist bawdy pun... must resist...)

I think the situation has changed even since I was young, and certainly since you were, as far as sex education. Where it used to be taboo to talk about certain subjects at all, now it's hard to escape them. I know I sound like an old curmudgeon going on about the stuff "these darn kids today" hear in music and TV (especially TV!), but really, it's hard to imagine anything sex-related that they haven't absorbed a brainful about by the time they reach their teens. The challenge now isn't so much making sure the kids get good information as distilling the useful and factual from the tsunami of sex talk they hear daily.

In the case of abortion, the actual assault isn't sexual at all; sex only accounts for the presence of the victim. (In fact, the victim's sense of self becomes irrelevant in the process.) You're right about rape striking at the root of a person through their sexuality, however.

Joel said...

Okay, now this has set a whole 'nother train of thought in motion. Given the respective effects on the fundamental personhood of a victim, is rape or murder the more brutal assault? (I'm not even playing devil's advocate here; let's leave abortion out of the equation and assume an adult victim in both cases.) Is it more destructive to obliterate the person altogether while sending them on to a (presumably) heavenly existence, or to inflict irreparable damage and leave the victim to continue to experience it? In short, is sexuality more or less vital as a personal force than physical existence?

(Paging Hamlet...)