Sexual Ethics with Teeth: On Some Limits to Affirmation
David R. Weiss, June 11, 2014
As a church we need to get better at talking about sex, both about what makes sex healthy, and also about what makes it unhealthy. We’re far better at teaching rules (black and white “do’s” and “don’ts”) than ethics (the capacity to reason for oneself about choices that involve shades of gray). And, our rules are mediocre at best, judgmental and shame-based at worst. Adults, moreover, need ethics—we need the capacity to reason for ourselves why some behaviors in some circumstances are healthy or not, Christian and not. Here’s a case in point:
Recently a Minnesota transgender woman escaped from a couple in Louisiana who regarded her as their slave—sexual and otherwise. It’s an incredibly complicated affair. While the woman was forced to do hard physical labor, it seems clear that the situation unfolded out of a sexual fetish for a master-slave (dominance/submissive) relationship. Thus, this is not a “typical” case of human trafficking, although it has certain dimensions of that. It appears she entered the relationship voluntarily (though perhaps not in a state of good mental health) about two years ago and later tried to leave, at which point she was kept against her will and under increasingly violent conditions. Sex run seriously and dangerously amok. And, while this type of master-sex fetish is not exactly common, across a range of expressions, it is far more common than we might imagine.
But as a church, we are utterly ill-equipped to even talk about this. And we have to.
You can read original news accounts here: KARE 11 (NBC); Star Tribune; and WCCO (CBS), whose coverage includes a comment by someone who explains why transgender women, in particular, are vulnerable to this type of exploitation. However, my purpose in this essay is not to explore this particular situation in detail, but rather to argue that a church unable to discuss such troubling cases with reasoned clarity is just as incapable of discussing the less extreme but far more frequent choices that face us—and our high school, college, and young adult members.
This is important in every church, but perhaps especially so in “welcoming” churches, where our affirmation of LTBTQ persons in their wholeness makes clear that we believe that the goodness of human sexuality is far more nuanced than rules can address. But as churches that have dared to move beyond the black-and-white of rules, we have seldom actually formed our members’ consciences with substantial ethics. In other words, we have quietly set aside the “traditional” rules, and, while none of us wants to say, “Now anything goes,” very few of our members could offer a coherent response to what goes and what doesn’t—and why.
So let me be clear, this “anything” has as much to do with a “hook-up” culture on college campuses that is at least as straight as queer. And sexually extreme behaviors (like master-slave fetishes) are no more common among queer persons than straight persons. I note that the woman in the case above is transgender not because there’s anything about master-sex relationships that is particularly trans or queer; rather because she was, and it does seem that, in her case, family rejection on account of her transgender identity may have left her more vulnerable to exploitation.
This challenge of teaching “sexual ethics with teeth” (that is, with a capacity to say NO) matters to me because for two decades now I have been a committed, fervent, vocal Ally for LGBTQ persons. Part of my message has been that not only LGBTQ sexuality, but straight sexuality, too, is astonishingly good. I’ve become convinced that a big part of the church’s difficulty in affirming LGBTQ persons is rooted in the church’s inability to truly affirm the sexuality of straight persons in any real way. Yes, we speak the words. But we speak them quietly, and then opt for discretion as quickly as we can. We have taught generations of even our straight youth that sex is a gift about which we are actually rather embarrassed, even ashamed. So, when I declare that there is no cause for shame—that embodiment is intended to be relished with joyful abandon—there is always the chance that what will be heard is, “Anything goes.” No.
I have developed briefly elsewhere a set of principles that I argue can help us navigate the terrain of our sexual lives with integrity. In short I propose the central values of justice, mercy, and humility (borrowed from Micah 6:8), with the additional measures of procreative (not the way you think—read the piece!) and joyful abandon. Here I just want to focus on why I think master-slave sexual fetishes are problematic—at least for Christians. And, even with that proviso, these reflections matter, because I have little doubt that plenty of Christians dabble in bondage and dominant/submissive sexual behaviors.
I enter this conversation with trembling and … conviction. One reason that I make humility a central value in sexual ethics is that we all need to guard against reading our personal preferences and our culture-bound tastes as grounds for moral judgment. We need to cultivate—by practice—the ability to listen first to the witness of experience by others whose preferences and tastes are markedly different from our own. So I have to speak with caution.
Yet, I also speak with conviction because I don’t believe that all tastes and preferences are simply relative. I do believe we can—and must—make judgments with distinction, because not every choice that seems (even if only momentarily) appealing is healthy, innocent, or without risk. So here I go …
The alchemy of sexual ecstasy turns on mutual presence. Lovers become both fully present and fully open to the other, which presumes a deep level of trust, because they become naked not simply physically but emotionally. In this place—so long as trust is sufficient, vulnerability is wholly erotic. We recognize in a passing way that our selfhood is indeed more than ours alone. We are selves together. Sexuality is not the only place this truth is touched—it is entirely possible for asexual/nonsexual/single persons to know it. And there is no guarantee that sexuality—fraught with its own share of dysfunctional behaviors—will always convey it, but sexuality is one place that is exquisitely revealed.
So vulnerability is potentially erotic. It is potentially part of the delicious way that we weave ourselves together. But when vulnerability is not mutual, and one person becomes defenseless and at risk before another, this may well be titillating, it may well be a turn-on at some level to both persons, but if it is not expressive of mutual presence, it is problematic. It places our sexual energy in the service of a lust for power. And this is unchristian.
There are educated thoughtful persons who espouse a worldview in which some of us are born or bred to dominance, while others are born or bred to submission. In truth, I suspect this worldview is far more common, even if unconsciously held, than we like to think. But it is not a Christian worldview. Part of the power—and the scandal—of both Jesus’ preaching and Paul’s writings, is that they challenge this worldview by proclaiming a vision in which each of us is fundamentally known, not as greater or lesser, Jew or Gentile, dominant or submissive, master or slave, but as child of God. In a Christian worldview, the goal, among our various inborn and acquired gifts and our too plentiful inborn and acquired wounds, is to help one another move toward the fullest possible flourishing of our human agency.
“Agency” is the technical term in ethics for being a full moral self, a person with the capacity (usually understood as a combination of necessary knowledge, power, and freedom) to choose between right of wrong. More broadly speaking, human agency means the capacity to direct our lives toward fulfillment in healthy, life-affirming ways. Christianity declares that all persons are worthy of agency, and that our common duty—our joyful obligation—to one another is to support the agency of each of us to its fullest extent.
But in the world of master-slave fetish behavior, the goal is to erase a person’s agency—even their identity—all the while claiming that their truest “self” is found in being enslaved to another. This is serious business. The woman in the news story was, in effect, reduced to a barcode (literally 813-790-720!) a number tattooed on her neck and registered (my God!) by number, certificate, barcode, and scanable QR code on an international website with nearly 200,000 “registered slaves” on it. She became part of a world in which the erasure of her identity was declared her destiny. The New Testament analogue for this is demon possession.
I do not recommend web surfing around master-slave websites. It’s a soul-churning tour, and I say that not to denigrate the people who appear on them, but to warn about the extremity of ways you’ll see people denigrating themselves. Still, we cannot reject this behavior just because it “feels” wrong to us. We need to articulate how both master and slave become something less than God intended them to be.
So we need to be able to say that healthy sex honors the principle of justice in that it does not exploit power differences. But this fetish celebrates and eroticizes power differences to an absolute extreme—where behaviors that are physically, psychically, emotionally, and spiritually abusive become the goal.
We need to be able to say, that in an arena where vulnerability is present, mercy—the genuine care of the other—is a central value. Yet this fetish deems mercy as the very antithesis of what slaves deserve. It seizes vulnerability without mercy, and in so doing it claims to confer a role, while denying personhood. No. You can’t do that and call it “okay.”
We need to be able to say that healthy sex necessarily heightens personhood through mutual presence, and, if it doesn’t, then what’s happening is either not healthy, or not sex (i.e., eroticized violence).
We need to teach our youth and young adults to think in principled, discriminating ways about why some sexual practices are risky, sometimes in ways quite independent of physical risks. There may be part of our lower brains—our most primal areas of cognition and emotion—where being vulnerable or holding power translates into an adrenaline rush that can be experienced as thrilling. But meth can give you quite a thrill, too, for a while at least. Not every “thrill” is healthy just because it makes your heart race.
As someone who seeks to honor the variety of consensual, life-giving sexual expression, I have to say—with conviction—that I find BDSM (bondage-discipline/dominance-submission/sadism-masochism) behaviors and master-slave relationships morally problematic because they “consensually” “play” at roles that are destructive of selves, worth, identity, and integrity. They eroticize that primal thrill of vulnerability in ways that are not mutually life-giving. They harness some of the deepest power that we know—our sexual energy—and they use it to fray the fabric of our humanity.
If, as the church, we remain awkwardly silent in the face of such news stories, preferring to discuss the weather or sports or even the narthex renovation, we betray our members—especially our youth—by refusing to say that this (justice + mercy + humility + pro-creation + joyful abandon) THIS, and not that, is what healthy sex looks like. Because, honest-to-God, their sexual choices are going to shape them far more deeply than anything happening in the weather or the world of sports or the narthex.
Does all of this mean that simple, playful bondage—silk cords, fur-lined handcuffs, or harmless collars and leashes, coupled with “safe” words—are off limits? That isn’t mine to say. Humility—that other central value—says I am beholden to listen to others who can tell me in good faith that such things can be used in ways that heighten our personhood, convey mutual presence, and do not betray justice or mercy. So talk to me. But, honestly, I worry that we don’t adequately reckon the impact of such practices any more than we take seriously the ecological impact of many of our lifestyle choices or the health impact of many of our food choices.
We live in a culture with a VERY questionable vision of humanity. Christianity—in its best expressions—offers a starkly different vision: a community of persons committed to mutuality, justice, compassion, and mercy. As Christians, we ought to be conversant enough in our vision of humanity to talk back to a culture hell-bent on luring us into choices that are not life-giving.
We don’t do a very good job at teaching ourselves how to talk back to culture ever; we’re so worried that Christianity might look counter-cultural. Surprise: it is. And we are least comfortable doing that with nuance and reason when it comes to sex. But the choices we make in the bedroom about how power is held and wielded, these choice inscribe themselves in our psyches and ultimately incarnate themselves in our world. We need this conversation. Please enter it. Now.
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David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome(2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” He recently published a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book, When God Was a Little Girl. Learn more at www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com.