Sunday, February 27, 2011

What's Sex Got to Do WIth It?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Feb. 27, 2011

I was born the third child to parents who had lost two baby boys to stillbirth or miscarriage in the years before my arrival. And in those war years, when my parents were struggling with many issues, my birth must have seemed miraculous, after so much disappointment and heartache.

As I look back at my childhood, I realize that I was one of those few lucky girl-children who never (that I can remember) heard: “girls aren’t doctors or lawyers or ministers or police officers”. I don’t remember any comments from my parents about throwing like a girl or pretending to be dumb so as not to discourage boyfriends or that sort of thing.

I also don’t remember anyone saying “you are the son your parents wanted as a first child, so they are going to treat you as though you can do everything any boy can do” and I never got the feeling that I should have been a boy, but I was a major tomboy from day one, rarely shy, rarely diffident, mostly confident about my place in life.

But as I got closer to puberty, things got more complicated. I became interested in boys and my girlfriends’ more advanced knowledge about sexuality began to infiltrate my consciousness. I suddenly realized that I was actually a girl; maybe not exactly the kind of more feminine girl my classmates were, but a girl nevertheless, with the same kind of biological potential that they had, the same kinds of biological worries and awarenesses, and the same dangers that girlhood implied.

American culture in those days did have certain assumptions about girls. We took home ec instead of shop; we had girls rules for basketball; we were the cheerleaders, not the players; we were the secretaries of the class and the FFA sweethearts and the Homecoming Queens and Princesses.

We were not so often the presidents or the athletic stars; we played more of a supporting role. And yet we beat the sox off the boys academically and generally were heavily represented on the honor roll every quarter, all the while pretending that it was just luck, not real brains!

And at the time, this all seemed pretty normal to me. It didn’t much bother me that we had to play half-court basketball, though I knew we were perfectly capable of playing full-court. It just seemed like a privilege not to have to race up and down the court so far and so often; nobody was watching our games anyhow, as it was too early for Title Nine awareness of the inequities between girls and boys sports.

I knew at some level that I was capable of doing just about anything any of my male classmates could do---except maybe for football, which seemed excessively violent---but I could also do anything my female classmates could do: drive a truck in harvest, ride my horse many miles on trail rides, get excellent grades in my classes---except maybe for home ec, which seemed excessively boring. I could and did do anything that was interesting, within the limits of Baptist preacher’s kid boundaries.

No movies, no dancing, no card playing, no drinking, no smoking: all of which added up, pretty much, to no dating. And I didn’t date till college, which was when a lot of the restrictions of female-hood took over, in the guise of “in loco parentis”, and dictated what time the girls needed to be in the dorms or where they could go on sorority and fraternity outings.

I’d been pretty well protected in my parents’ home, so it didn’t seem outrageous that we had to be in our dorms well before the boys were required to be in theirs! If my older brothers had lived, I might have chafed against any inklings that they were given more freedom than I, but there were no big brothers to gloat over my captivity.

All in all, a pretty normal 50’s style upbringing for a girl who was bright, whose parents hoped she would go to college but didn’t have specific expectations for her except for the unspoken hope that she might be in public or religious service of some kind. I don’t even remember any conversation about marriage and children.

During my college years, I majored in Modern Languages, mostly Spanish and French, thinking vaguely about being an interpreter with the United Nations or other diplomatic group, but upon graduation realized that what I’d learned in college was not conversational Spanish or French but rather literary language skills. I’d translated Don Quijote from ancient Spanish to modern English during my senior year but that didn’t seem very helpful when it came to getting a job!

So I went home to Goldendale to live with my parents, help out in the church with the junior choir, be bored, and look for work somewhere besides Goldendale! During this fallow period, I considered my options and nearly applied to go to seminary in Berkeley CA, where a number of my Linfield classmates had gone to study for the American Baptist ministry.

Upon investigation, however, I discovered that the only thing women seminarians were trained to do was to be Directors of Christian Education. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that I might be an actual minister myself, but it rankled that women were restricted in our faith to a role which seemed very subservient. Important, yes, but not autonomous, not independent. Another “supporting” role. And that didn’t interest me at all.

Eventually, I qualified and trained to be a public assistance caseworker for Washington State (also known as welfare worker) and began my career in Klickitat and Skamania counties, down in the Columbia River Gorge.

I was mentored in this work by a woman in my dad’s church, Ruth Miller, a feisty older woman who didn’t take guff from anyone and I suspect she had our supervisor, Mr. Zink, pretty well buffaloed into respecting her and the other women in the department, myself included.

This was a good experience for me, but I was still living at home and eventually left the PNW for Baptist missionary work at the Denver Christian Center, where women also got a pretty good shake, even though we couldn’t be pastors---yet. We had the respect of our clients and our supervisors.

So it took me a long time to “get it”, to understand that there were inequities between treatment of men and women employees, inequities in educational and employment opportunities, stereotypes of both genders and their capabilities, and oppression and injustice on both sides of the fence.

But standing back and looking at the sexism scene through a long lens gave me the perspective to see that, as MLK once said, "We are bound by an inescapable garment of mutuality; whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from the Birmingham jail, 1962.

So just as racism affected people of color, it also affected those who were racist, damaging both sides in irreparable ways. Social disadvantage and discrimination damaged people of color; hate and persecuting ways damaged the souls of those who dealt out oppression.

Since that time, I’ve applied MLK’s words to many forms of oppression: sexism, homophobia, ageism, classism, among others. And I can see that, despite the rewards of privilege, the damage of oppression comes to us all, whether we receive injustice or dish it out.

Getting ready for this service entitled “What’s Sex Got to Do With It?”, I did some brainstorming, trying to delineate between the main modern usages of the word “sex”, seeing if I could clump the actions associated with the usages into helpful groups, as I tussled with the topic.

Gladys and I and her son Ted and husband Mitch sat around their kitchen table and puzzled over the myriad of ways the topic might go, some of which were a bit complicated for a 20-minute sermon, but all of which stirred my brain and got me going.

The word “sex”, in my eventual sorting out of its usages, if not literal meanings, can refer to sexuality---which I am thinking of as the biological capabilities within a male or female organism. It can mean gender---or what I am thinking of as what it means to be male or female within a culture---and it can refer to physical sexual acts.

Working with these fluid and even murky quasi-definitions (and I freely admit that I have tried to define them according to how I see them used in modern culture), I made some lists.

I thought about what our biology as male, female, intersex, and transgender, dictates as far as our behavior goes. Clearly reproduction is delineated by male and female organs and hormones, though modern science has already fiddled with some of these abilities and we see transgender men bearing babies, in one example.

We’ve learned through science that male and female psychological processes seem to be different, genetic and chromosomal makeup of male and female are different, parenting approaches seem to be different, love is expressed differently, and different physical characteristics such as body strength make some tasks easier for males than females and vice versa.

The scientific community has also found some evidence that homosexual men and women may have some biological differences from heterosexual men and women, but it is not completely clear what they may be. And the biology of intersex, bisexual, and transgender folks is yet another issue to be explored more completely.

There is discussion between researchers of sexuality about whether males and females respond to committed relationships differently, whether males or females are generally happier, more likely to be faithful, more prone to addictions, etc. Biology clearly plays a part in “what sex has to do with it”.

How about gender? I have thought about what the word gender means in our culture, because it is not confined to biological gender. Gender often means roles: women’s work, men’s work. Over the years the word has been defined and redefined, as women and men have taken on each other’s gender roles. Men are often house husbands; women are increasingly often CEOs. Never mind that salaries are out of whack; we’ll consider that another day.

Gender used to mean that women cooked, men did the cars and the military. Women were crummy drivers and wussy athletes; men were in politics, went to war, controlled business, were the head of the family, while women stayed home.

All that has shifted and in an Atlantic magazine article last summer, the headline of an article by Hanna Rosin declared “The End of Men: How Women are Taking Control---of Everything”.

Rosin states that “earlier (in 2010), women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in US history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?”

Hmmm, let’s leave that question to the Atlantic to answer and go on to consider the religious and spiritual implications of our topic, “what’s sex got to do with it?”

Sex also means definite physical sexual acts: intercourse of different kinds, erogenous zones enjoying other erogenous zones, sexual stimulation of many kinds, both physical and psychological. Sexual acts can be violent---and thus not about human love at all but about control and humiliation. Sex acts can be horribly damaging to persons who are unwilling or inappropriate as partners.

And it is in this vein that we find the connection to our theme: “what’s sex got to do with it?” For our newsletter blurb this month, I wrote: “Sexuality is a defining characteristic and essential life force of human beings, but it tends to lead us into the temptation of limiting our experience of other people to our preconceived notions of what sex, sexuality, gender, orientation, and biology mean. Why should it matter how anyone “does it”, whether we’re talking about washing dishes, making love, raising kids, or being good persons?”.

Because it’s physical and psychological sexual acts that tend to get us all discombobulated. Many are uncomfortable with same sex relationships either because they themselves are not attracted to members of their own sex and can’t imagine having a sexual relationship with them OR because they are attracted to members of their own sex and feel ashamed and confused by this attraction, therefore try to cover up that attraction by vehemently protesting it in others OR they may have been sexually violated as children by a member of their own sex and have generalized that violation to a whole population of people.

An increasing number of us have gotten beyond all three of these discomfort zones, but the American political and cultural scene reveals deep fear and antipathy for those who “do it” differently.

Let me be clear that I am not condoning the illegal and damaging sexual acts of child molestation, incest, rape, and other violations of human sexual identity and dignity. These are not legitimate sexual acts; they are about control, and they must be dealt with definitively with appropriate punishment and rehabilitation of the perpetrator, where possible.

The places where how people “do it” tend to be mostly in the areas of sexism and homophobia/heterosexism, areas where privilege resides in the dominant person or paradigm.
Patriarchy is still clearly present, though less obvious, in many segments of our culture---salaries, management positions, many religious cultures, many marriages, and the military, for example. Sexual misconduct occurs across the board, primarily directed toward females.

Those in dominant positions tend to be male; sometimes they are benevolent males, sometimes not. Physical strength has often been the rationale for dominance; less value was given to other kinds of strength, though as the Atlantic article points out, this may be changing as women increasingly fill up the workplace. Men tend to be the ones out of work these days, in greater numbers than women.

Deep fear and outright hate for same sex couples seems to be centered in discomfort with how same sex partners “do it”, the variations on the sex act that seem different from heterosexual activity.

Interestingly, there is very little that same sex couples do sexually that is not also done by opposite sex couples! But the fear remains, largely, I think, in the minds of those who worry that their own sexual attractions are unclear---to others and to themselves. There is no logical reason to be afraid of a gay man or lesbian; it is an emotional issue.

But that emotion tends to put gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, and transgender individuals into boxes defined by how they are perceived to behave sexually, just as females are often seen as sex objects by those in dominant positions.

So what does this all mean to us as a religious community, as spiritual seekers, as women and men together who care for each other, who wish to model that caring in appropriate ways?

Our UU principles are pretty clear about our commitment to respecting the worth and dignity of every person, about our hope for justice, equity and compassion in our relationships, about our acceptance of one another for who we are, our desire for world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, and our respect for the interdependent web of all existence, which MLK expressed so eloquently in his letter from the Birmingham jail in 1962.

Our Covenant of Right Relations, which we passed unanimously last Sunday, also calls us to be respectful, kind, honoring our diversity and striving to be honest and loving with each other. It doesn’t say anything specific about dividing work up equitably and without traditional divisions of labor, and I think we need to look at that.

We are lucky to have a couple of men working with our children, but mostly it’s women. We are lucky to have a few men who cook a dish when potlucks come around, but mostly it’s women. We are lucky to have gay and lesbian folks in our congregation, but are they part of our governance and teaching staff? Are we really doing what we say we want to do?

If you are a male who is not working with our children, ask yourself why. Are you stuck in an old paradigm of “that’s for the women to do?” If you are a male who counts on his wife or the other women in the congregation to pull together the potluck dish, ask yourself why. Do you still consider yourself exempt from culinary responsibilities?

If you are a straight person who has some leadership responsibility but is not currently working with a gay person, male or female, ask yourself why. Are you unsure of what it might mean to have a gay person in leadership?

This topic, of course, deserves far more extensive treatment than we are able to handle in an hour-long worship service. But the questions remain and we can tussle with them privately and in our families. I ask you to do so.

What does sex have to do with it? Everything? Nothing? Does it matter? And what does our answer mean, to us individually, in this community, and in the world beyond our doors?

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, considering the roles sex plays in our lives and in the lives of others. May we consciously deal with our habits and fears in ways that open us up to others in new ways and may we as a community not let ourselves slide into unequal patterns of responsibility, for we depend on each other for our happiness. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

No comments: