Being a Body

I had my first “Bodies and Theology” class today. It was great. Apropos of my last post, we started class with theatre-influenced movement exercises. At one point, the professor (who is wonderful) asked us to walk like dogs. While my classmates remained upright, I dropped to the floor and scurried around like a puppy. I got to be silly–and there is exhilarating bravery in silliness. We also created some body sculptures, an exercise borrowed from the Theatre of the Oppressed. Posing together without any foreplanning, we attempted to convey the concepts of “knowledge,” “theology,” and “God” through our bodies. 

“God” was the most challenging; our professor invited those who weren’t part of the sculpture to modify it. They joined our hands together until we formed a circle. As a result, the body sculpture that started as a vision of disconnected hierarchy (one person standing, others kneeling and cowering), became an image of connection and interdependence. A very different understanding of God. Rich discussion arose from the choices that we made to represent each idea, the beliefs and biases that they revealed. 

In this class, we are invited to discover God as people with physical bodies. Christianity isn’t traditionally good at that, so I’m excited about this opportunity. It also feels good to have a break from the intensely cerebral space of other classes. When we shared our reasons for taking the Bodies class, I said that I wanted to work on being ‘present’ as a body and to experience things without immediately intellectualizing them. For those who follow my kink journey, that’s also a goal I have for my current exploration of submission. My Dominant said early on that she wanted to see me “feeling without thinking.” What a terrifying thought!

Thinking and feeling are my bread and butter. My strong feelings are normally mediated through intellectual, critical thought, which is useful most of the time. It can, however, lead to a sense of distance from my body when I most want to be present, as if I’m more of a brain floating along than a full being. It sometimes means that sexual experiences feel ‘hotter in hindsight,’ more intensely erotic after I’m removed from the situation than in the moment. I hope that the movement and physicality that this class requires, my continued kink exploration, and the interplay between those two different realms will encourage me to enjoy my body and connect with the Divine in a new way–as an embodied person.

Why I Don’t Archive ‘Christian’ Sex Shops – Yes, They’re a Thing

Several self-described ‘Christian’ sex shops exist online, from Married Dance and Honoring Intimates to Covenant Spice. These shops sell “marital aids.” I have a lengthy and growing Resources page with several recommended adult retail vendors. I list sex shops because I want to connect readers with the safe, high quality sex toys and other adult items that work for them. I don’t want readers to feel shamed or excluded by the sex toy-buying experience. Thus, I don’t archive Christian sex shops among my recommendations. Why? In short, because they offer similar products to secular shops but vilify pornography, homosexuality, and sex outside of man-woman marriage. Some such sites even recommend that customers not use their toys for solo masturbation. Others don’t carry toys like strapon dildos, the sort of thing they might associate with queerness. 

For them as retailers, Christianity is a matter of marketing to a niche audience. That’s not necessarily an entirely bad thing. The religious selling point is what makes it okay for Christians (especially more conservative ones) to buy sex toys; I’m all for happier marriages and sexual exploration. 

Another differentiating element of Christian sex shops is their general refusal to associate with pornography. While I believe in promoting ethical pornogrpahy, if someone doesn’t want to see pornographic images, I understand. I wish that more websites had customizable menus, allowing viewers to opt into the various ways that it’s possible to engage with sexual information and content. That’s why I’m working on detailed systems of post categorization for this site–I want readers to be able to consent to what they are viewing. 

That said, while they expand the borders of what’s acceptable for Christian sex, these Christian sex shops still serve a purity-based framework that says “All sex is impure unless the participants meet an arbitrary set of standards.” For those who can meet the standards, whatever they are, these sites may be tenuously validating, but they invite a shaky and false sense of moral superiority (Honoring Intimates touts “Passion without perversion”). For those who don’t meet the standards (queer/trans folks, single and polyamorous folks, people who can’t marry, people who just want to explore their own sexuality without a partner, etc.) these sites perpetuate shame. 

When these shops call themselves “Christian-friendly,” they only mean friendly to a specific subset of Christians that fit their mold. It makes me sad. So many Christians (and non-Christians!) with passion to explore, and so few considered pure enough for vibrators and sexy underwear. For now, I’ll stick with the ‘heathens’.

Have you found any more inclusive Christian sex toy shops? If so, let me know!

On “Christian BDSM” in Fundamentalist Culture

Content notice: Toxic, sexist Christianity, rape culture

Gentle readers, few things make my brain overheat faster than “Christian BDSM.” Now, I guess I technically practice Christian BDSM because I’m a kinky Christian…whose play and dynamics are informed by my faith. But when I hear about “Christian BDSM,” what does it mean? Usually, it’s a kinky married man-woman couple that organizes a power exchange based on Bible verses like Ephesians 5:22, which says “Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord.” The couple often comes from an evangelical and biblical literalist standpoint. 

Before I dive into that, I want to note that some Christians believe that BDSM is sinful, disrespectful at best and dangerously abusive at worst. This post doesn’t address that issue in depth. I’m also not specifically talking about “Christian Domestic Discipline,” though there can be some overlap between the rationale and practice of CDD and Christian D/s marriages. As the microcosm of Christian Fetlife discussion groups demonstrates, Christian kinksters are all over the map, from fundamentalists who believe in biblical headship to queer progressives like myself. Right now, I’m talking about a subset of Christians who believe that the Bible mandates male dominance and female submission in the context of marriage and use a combination of BDSM and evangelical/fundamentalist concepts. It’s difficult to research this topic; most of what I can say about it is anecdotal. But over time, I’ve seen enough to get a basic sense of the phenomenon (and for my brain to melt). 

Conservative views have often seemed to float to the top when I’ve looked for information, whether I was googling or searching Fetlife. For example, the first (and most radical) Christian Fet group I found has discussion topics that include…

  • The ‘sinfulness’ that occurs when women and ‘effeminate men’ have governing power in society
  • Scriptural interpretation to support the subordination of women (using Genesis, for example, to say that Eve’s sin was a violation of the natural marriage hierarchy)
  • Biblical polygyny and whether it is acceptable for a Christian man to have more than one wife in the modern day. Somewhat bizarrely, the forum has a sticky thread about “The Evils of Toxic Monogamy Culture” that blames an “egocentric and megalomaniacal version of feminism” for creating a culture in which a woman “threatens to leave because of her husband’s interest in another woman.” 

Concepts like “headship” show up often in these kinds of discussions, along with assertions that women were created to submit and men to dominate. These kinksters see BDSM as a natural extension of the order of creation. 

To be quite honest, I am appalled. Here’s why my brain melts: I respect the right of consenting adults to choose the relationship structures and, to an extent, the sexual ethics that work for them, regardless of whether I share them myself. But as other writers linked in this post have pointed out, consent is not given in a vacuum; it is influenced by all kinds of factors. Thus, my feelings are messy and uncomfortable. 

When married kinky Christians cite scriptures to explain why men deserve to be in charge and to discipline their wives, I worry. Mainly, I worry that the consent in these dynamics, from the choice to engage in them to their ongoing maintenance, may be compromised by heavy social conditioning. What if you were indoctrinated in a fundamentalist Christian community where men were in charge, women were subordinated, female purity was emphasized, and sexual assault was covered up? If you still subscribe to that community’s doctrines as an adult (perhaps even still living in that community), can you engage in a healthy way with a lifestyle whose cornerstone is informed consent? If you start a power exchange, but one partner is thought to be more deserving of power by nature, what is exchanged? 

In a lifestyle whose practitioners sometimes say “The difference between BDSM and abuse is consent” (a statement that I sort of but don’t entirely agree with), how can the partners decide when abuse is occurring? Who even gets to decide? Does the submissive partner have a say, and will she have the unconditional support of her faith community if she needs to leave the situation? Perhaps not, especially if that community doesn’t condone divorce. If the dominant partner is having problems (with shame, with jealousy, with bearing the weight of leadership, etc.), will he be able to lean on his partner, or will assumptions about what he should be able to handle as a Christian husband keep him from getting help? All of these questions trouble me when I consider such marriages on a personal, relational, and political level; they cause my general ethic of acceptance to break down. 

When I ponder these issues, I think I gain some understanding of Christians who think that BDSM is naturally abusive; in their experience, especially if they swim in conservative circles that promote male “spiritual leadership,” it might be. If a marriage is sort of hierarchical to start with, the ‘lower’ partner may feel the need to guard fiercely against the prospect of abuse. Coming from a religious context with a gender hierarchy, perhaps what some people picture is husbands abusing their ‘God-given’ power by beating their wives under the pretext of BDSM. 

Here’s how I would articulate the problem: the coercive, hierarchical fundamentalist framework in which the kink resides limits the options, both real and perceived, of the participants, creating a risky situation in which consent may be compromised. 

I won’t tell individual Christian fundamentalists not to practice power exchange relationships (I can’t know and evaluate every single situation, and my opinion wouldn’t matter anyway). Yet, I can see the theological patterns and social circumstances that give me concern, and those I can challenge to an extent.

I am reminded of how much overlap exists between the patriarchal patterns of fundamentalist Christianity and culture at large in the United States. Even for those of us who didn’t grow up in evangelical purity culture (I just grow up around it), patriarchy and other systems of power and coercion shape our choices and limit our ability to consent. In my home state of North Carolina, for example, you can’t legally withdraw consent if vaginal intercourse is in progress. Guess who that benefits. 

Legislation is just the tip of the iceberg. We have a great deal of work to do to create a better culture (to “unscrew” the sexual culture, as activist Jaclyn Friedman says). We do that work by educating ourselves, holding abusers accountable, supporting survivors, and making consent a baseline in our interpersonal relations (not just sexual ones), among other things.

For me as a Christian, part of my work is acknowledging the ways that Christian scriptural interpretation, theology, and culture have contributed to a coercive sexual culture and finding ways within my faith to shift that culture. I don’t expect to make fundamentalists change their core beliefs, but I do want to understand the sexual consent issues that permeate life in my notch of the Bible Belt. I want to take them seriously, illuminate them where I can, and assist others in our collective healing. That’s my ministry right now. 

Further reading: 

Kinky Christian writer Samantha Field wrote an excellent article (with resources) called “Kink 101 for Purity Culture Survivors” that I found part of the way through writing this post. Read her work for sex-positive post-purity culture recovery.

Queer feminist activist Kitty Stryker is a massive influence on my thinking about consent and consent culture. She was the first thinker I heard say that true ‘consent’ is never fully attainable in our society because so many coercive factors act upon us. 

Feminist theorist Marilyn Frye’s essay “In and Out of Harm’s Way: Arrogance and Love” also heavily influences my views on consent and coercion. 

The National Domestic Violence Hotline – Learn about the signs of abuse, find resources, and get help here.

“How Should Christians Have Sex?” – A Belated Response to Katelyn Beaty

[Image description: Photo is an Escher-inspired painting of red and white birds.]

I’m late to the party on this. Katelyn Beaty’s New York Times opinion piece “How Should Christians Have Sex?” came out on June 15th, and I’ve just read it over a month later–I’m a miserly curmudgeon who won’t buy a subscription. (I did skim a couple of Twitter threads that I’m now unable to find, so I hope I’m not plagiarizing.) Here are my thoughts as a Christian who fortunately didn’t grow up in purity culture: 

In the piece, Beaty describes her negative experiences with Christian purity culture, acknowledging that purity culture has caused a lot of harm. Yet, according to Beaty, “its collapse has left a void for those of us looking for guidance in our intimate lives.” Beaty finds progressive Christianity’s looser guidelines to the question “How Should Christians Have Sex?” lacking. 

She does cover one progressive answer, citing Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Shameless (which I’ve also read). Beaty writes that Bolz-Weber “proposes a sexual ethic grounded in the goodness of bodies and of sexual expression based in consent, mutuality, and care.” My response when reading that was “There it is; there’s a sexual ethic that I can buy into.” 

Beaty felt differently, writing, “One would think that Pastor Bolz-Weber’s shame-free ethic would be a tall glass of water for a grace-parched soul. Instead, I find myself left with a sense of loss.” A bit later, Beaty says, “I yearn for guidance on how to integrate faith and sexuality in ways that honor more than my own desires in a given moment.” Throughout the article, Beaty searches for something more in a sexual ethic but somehow only skims the surface of the “progressive” ethics that she finds wanting. I wonder whether progressive Christianity’s acceptance of so many things that she was taught to condemn makes it difficult for her to take it seriously as a source of ethical wisdom. 

Please note, I don’t think progressive Christianity is beyond reproach, and Beaty may be responding to a ‘watered down’ quality that is apparent in some progressive settings. 

In that vein, Beaty says a couple of things that I agree with. For example, she states, “I long for more robust categories of right and wrong besides consent – a baseline, but only that – and more than a general reminder not to be a jerk.” She has a point; consensual is not a synonym for ‘good’ (I’ve heard that Joseph Fischel’s book Screw Consent provides a great critique of the treatment of consent as a satisfactory ethic in itself). 

But as Beaty says herself, the ethic that Nadia Bolz-Weber describes is about care and mutuality as well. Beaty says, “I also want to know what Jesus thinks.” For people who see Jesus as an exemplar or even a guide, that’s a good question.

But Jesus has almost nothing to say about sex in the Gospels. In fact, he may not share “the traditional Christian vision for married sex” that Beaty idolizes; in Jesus’ context, marriage was largely a matter of economic survival and control, not love.

Frankly, consent and mutuality were not on the radar of a society (the Roman Empire) in which over a third of the population was enslaved. I suspect that much of what Beaty associates with ‘traditional’ Christian sexuality and marriage come from Paul filtered through the commentary of Origen, Saint Augustine, and more recent evangelical thinkers who took up the ‘defense’ of heterosexual marriage as a political cause. 

Jesus does, however, say and show a lot about care. Beaty describes “married sex” as “a bodily expression that two people will be for each other, through all seasons.” Perhaps, for her and many others, (monogamous, sexually active) marriage is the best way to embody values of care and mutuality. It isn’t the most ethical path for everyone, though, and choosing a different path isn’t a sign of moral decay. 

Having ignored wholesale any part of Bolz-Weber’s ethic other than “consent,” Beaty concludes by declaring, “I find the traditional Christian vision for married sex radical, daunting, and extremely compelling – and one I want to uphold, even if I fumble along the way.” Far be it for me, a Christian connoisseur of the queer and kinky, to critique a person’s attraction to anything “daunting.” If she is compelled by this definition of marriage as “spiritual covenant,” it sounds like she has resolved her own problem; there is no void to fill because she has articulated a sexual ethic based on her experience; I’d also add that she likely finds consent, care, and mutuality in her vision of marriage. 

If that is the case, I wonder why she is concerned about the “lack of guidance” outside of purity culture. When I finished reading her opinion piece, I thought, “So what? Why this article?” I wonder whether it worries her that she might have reached a different understanding without the early guidance (and abuse, I daresay) of purity culture. I wonder whether she is searching for more boundaries because she still feels like she must be doing something shameful if she lets herself come to her own conclusions about ethical sexuality. I hear her saying “It can’t be that simple!” as she ignores the rich sexual ethics that Christians (especially queer ones) create every day outside the confines of purity culture. 

It saddens me that so many people think that rigidity is the mark of a good sexual ethic, that it honors God. Ultimately, we all get to craft our own ethics based on our needs and experiences. We needn’t worry that it’s ‘not difficult enough’ to follow; we get to explore for ourselves and find the ways that we can best promote justice and kindness through our actions. It’s not wishy-washy or empty of moral value; it’s courageous. I hope that someday, Katelyn Beaty will make peace with that and feel confident abandoning the pursuit of rules so that she can feel free to pursue a sexual ethic that reflects the love of God instead.

Postscript for clarity: I think that people can use the Bible to develop a sexual ethic. However, most of the sexual ethics on display in the Bible are either rubbish (ex: not caring about consent) or not applicable to our current sociopolitical circumstances. To find a biblical ethic that isn’t rubbish, we need to use interpretation filtered through the lens of experience in tandem with values like the consent and caring.

Further Reading: “Creating a Sexual Ethic After Coming Out” and “Inside the Scam of the Purity Movement

Listening: “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods

BDSM is Not Repentance

[Image description: Photo is of a black flogger draped over a gold handheld mirror.]

Content notice: possible self-harm, police brutality 

Some time ago, I read about a guilt-ridden police officer who went to professional dominatrices to be beaten and humiliated as punishment for his habit of mistreating the people that he stopped on the street. As far as I know, his kinky sessions didn’t stop him from hurting the people under his power. He was still cruel. To put it in religious terms that I understand, he wanted to burn off his sins by ‘suffering’. Instead, he just burned off his guilt and went on his way. Shame covered him like a blanket of ash. 

He wouldn’t be the first to try to use BDSM to cope with guilt and shame. Some reading this post might wonder whether typical kink ‘punishment’ activities like being caned, forced to do chores, or verbally degraded will allow them to compensate for behavior that they’re ashamed of. My answer is “Maybe, but probably not.” 

My full response would be a real treatise, accounting for the various ways that people like to define BDSM and even ‘punishment.’ I’d also have to talk about whether I think that consensual punishments are fruitful (I have complex feelings). I’ll save those for other posts and spare you the ninety-five theses. 

For now, I want to talk about repentance, something more powerful than self-punishment. The Hebrew and Greek words that we often translate as “repent” appear over and over in the Bible.  

In Greek, the original written language of the New Testament, the word is “metanoia,” “to change the mind.” In biblical Hebrew, words literally meaning “to turn” or “turn around” are common (a little more on the language here). 

Wikipedia calls repentance “the activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs, which is accompanied by commitment to change for the better.”

In short, repentance isn’t just about feeling sorry. Feelings are important, but they don’t do much in themselves. Instead, repentance is about harnessing thoughts and feelings through reflection in order to change behavior. 

Let’s consider the police officer. Did he repent? No. He felt bad and used BDSM to feel better. Perhaps, he thought that because he had chosen to experience pain, he now understood the pain he had caused others. Maybe he thought that his pain (carefully calibrated to satisfy him, as kinky pain usually is) would balance out theirs.

Repentance doesn’t work like that. For those who use Christian God language, God doesn’t work like that. 

Jesus didn’t say “I was in prison, but you felt bad and punished yourself.” Jesus said “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Mt. 25:43). 

This passage might sound harsh and confronting to some readers. It is. It doesn’t leave room for us to pretend that feeling bad about something is the same as doing something about it. 

But it also means that God doesn’t demand that you punish yourself to counteract the suffering you have caused. It means that you get to choose how you respond to that suffering. 

In the police officer’s case, there was most likely nothing he could do to repair the harm he had caused. The bodies he bruised (probably black bodies) would have to heal themselves; the heartache and trauma might never fully go away. He numbed them out with his own ‘suffering’. But he has the power to recognize what he has done and to make different choices, I hope with the help of a good therapist and strong community. That in itself is painful, and not in a fun way (think of a much less extreme version of Voldemort’s fractured soul).

The temporary hurt of kinky play is not a shortcut to understanding the harm one has caused, and it isn’t repentance. 

That being said, does BDSM have a role in repentance? Maybe so (and I’ll talk about that more in another post), but it depends on one’s goals and attitude. I want to practice treating others well through kink, and I want to give myself care in the play that I choose. I want what my sub experiences under my direction to have a positive impact on the way that he interacts with the world outside of our dynamic. I believe that kink can help people to reflect and grow. In the end, though, repentance is a chosen struggle, and there is no substitute.