Theology of Erotica: Let’s Be Real

So, I was talking with two out of the four other members of my CREDO small group today, and it dawned on me that a lot of the questions that my dear friend Cristopher was posing were the best sort of questions: loving, hard, no-nonsense and very, very real.  And when I asked him, “Cristopher, what are you thinking about all of this?” I knew what I was asking.  I was asking the man who does not like to be pigeon holed into boxes like ‘conservative christian’ or ‘liberal theologian’ but who can fly under just about anybody’s radar and bridge into everybody’s camp, I was asking him what he thought of the discussion that Jennifer had been so vocally supportive during our Skype conference call, and in which he had been largely (entirely?) silent.

The conversation… well, yes.  You’d want to know that, of course.  It’s the whole, ‘I’m a priest, and I write erotica,’ conversation, which was the first time they’d heard it.  Hilary hasn’t at all yet (poor Hilary – we’ll catch you up soon), and Greg’s already read some of the Magnum Opus that is The Day The Earth Stood Still, in which I, after the fashion of every fanfic writer in twidom, right the wrongs of Ms. Stephenie Meyer.  But anyway.  So, I suppose you could say that I came out to another group of clergy colleagues.  And you know, I’m a priest and I want to publish a whole host of things;  Theology, Liturgical Studies, Romance, Biographies, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Children’s books, and yes, Erotica.  But you know, it looks like the erotica is going to get published first.  Maybe.  Possibly.  Who knows, really, but it’s likely.  And then comes the question of integrity: do I use a pen name, or do I publish under my own name?  Do I tell the publishing house that I am, in fact, an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, canonically resident in the Diocese of Western New York?  My integrity is really clear about what I need to do.  The only question is, am I couragous enough to do it?

And yes, all seven or eight thousand people who have read/are reading The Day The Earth Stood Still are all very aware that I’m a priest, and many of them have written to me and given me more feedback, better feedback, feedback that reflects a deep touch on their life, feedback that reflects a changing perspective on the world that I helped to shape… than I get on my sermons.  It’s clear to me that I already have touched way more lives in a positive manner through this one story than through five years of ordained ministry in the Diocese of Western New York.  And the people whose lives I’m touching?  I don’t have statistics, but I know from the little feedback I’ve gotten (perhaps 8k people have read the story, perhaps more, but on 35+ chapters I’ve only 3500 reviews, so that’s actually a rather small portion we’re dealing with… but I love it – make no mistake, I love it) …from the feedback I’ve gotten, I know that the lives I touch aren’t just people who go to church.  I get feedback from a lot of people who are totally unchurched, church alums, or who bear the scars of their touches with Christianity.  I get to deeply touch the lives of the very people that my church wants to evangelize, at least in theory and on paper.  If we (the Episcopal Church) really wanted to do it, one imagines we would be, all of us, en masse.  Since that isn’t happening en masse, I can only imagine that we’re lying to ourselves… but that is another blogpost for another day.

So, this is the first in my Theology of Erotica series.  Some of you may hear things you’ve heard before.  Really, I’m just trying to engage with these questions in a way that seems to have integrity for me, which also means doing it in the public/semi-public sphere of my blog where all y’all get to weigh in, give your opinion, and ask more questions if you feel so moved.   And today I will be discussing… “Why Erotica?”

I suppose this is the overarching question, really, and I suppose that all of the parts in this series could, in theory, answer this question.  Maybe that won’t be the case, but either way, it seems like this is the place to begin the conversation.

I’ve said earlier that there are lots of things I want to write.  I want to write a biography of my friend, the exorcist from Kansas.  Trust me, she’s only just thirty and it would be a freaking stunning book.  I can only imagine what it will be when she finally lets me actually write it.  Freaking phenomenal is what it will be.  I want to write in collaboration with one of my diocesan colleagues a book on liturgy – ancient, and contemporary/non-traditional that can be used as an idea book for established parishes and emergent churches alike.  (Though honestly, I get it; emergent churches probably don’t need it, bless them.)  I’ve got half written in my head a children’s book that stars my alpha cat, Zuko as cat detective on the case of a rubber ducky stealing squirrel named Jack the Nut.  I want to actually write on the theology of sex and the theology of erotica and the way we are in relation to one another and how we are in relationship with one another… the basis of which I might be preaching next Sunday.  (See Jack Sparrow.)  I write romance all the time, and I look forward to writing something that is publishable.  Ditto sci-fi/fantasy, and for the same reasons as romance – I think it’s a window for how we see and experience God, but more on that in another blogpost, I think.  I want to write novels that just go into that generalized ‘fiction’ section of Barnes and Noble, and of course I want to continue writing fanfic, which I will henceforth refer to as ‘my non-profit work.’  And… and I want to write erotica.  Hah.  I say that like I’m not already doing it. :)  We all know I am.

So, okay. Simplest answer to the ‘why erotica?’ question is: Let’s be real.  This is a harder task than you might imagine.

Let’s be real: What are the two things that can give movies a higher rating?  Sex and violence.  I think that is a good summary about what our culture understands as taboo, sensitive, delicate, unseemly, and inappropriate for those lacking maturity – meaning, in the strictest of senses, requiring a certain level of emotional and intellectual maturity to handle gracefully, responsibly, and respectfully.  Now, we can debate the fact that I know 60 year olds who aren’t actually mature human beings, and I mean that in every honest sense of the phrase, but let’s table the ‘what makes someone mature’ discussion for a moment.  Another blogpost, I promise.  But back to sex and violence, let’s focus it in even more.  What can get a move kicked up to a higher rating, faster?  It isn’t the violence, baby, it’s the sex.  The one notable exception to this is violent speech – violent speech, both blasphemy and obscenity can kick up a film into a higher rating, but two of the three most taboo words in the English language at this point in time are actually related to sex.  To be explicit: fuck and cunt.  Nigger is the other.  So, we can kill each other on screen, we can torture one another on screen, we can watch unfolding before our eyes our worst nightmare of horror and violence, we can see scenes of realistic horrific violence and it’s rated R… or we can see scenes of violence that is simply shocking and it’s only rated PG-13, but we cannot see two naked bodies graphically engaging in a scene of sex without an X, or NC-17 rating?

Let’s be real: Am I the only person here who thinks that our priorities are hugely skewed?  We can, as individuals, make decisions of conscience not to watch violent movies or TV, and that’s fine, no one bothers us about that, and we can and do hear cries of ‘TV is too violent for our children!’  And we can choose to turn the TV off, and no one will come into our homes and turn it back on again.  That’s all well and good, but what I don’t see (perhaps because I am not looking, I’ll grant you that) is a cry to change the way we rate our movies, our television – why?  Because it adequately reflects how our culture actually views the relative ‘badness’ of violence and the relative ‘badness’ of sex.

Let’s be real: As a priest, I suppose most might suspect that I would take a naturally non-sex view on life.  An anti-sex view, if you will.  Quite the opposite.  I choose to take a non-violent view on life, mostly because there was a time where I embraced the violence and I didn’t like who I turned out to be.  Instead I choose a yay-sex view, which is not quite pro-sex, but more like being a cheerleader for the concept that sex is actually neutral.  Certainly I don’t embrace the view that sex is in any way evil, immoral, or bad.

Let’s be real: I absolutely acknowledge that people abuse power, exploit others, cause harm and use sex to do it.  They also do it with food, but you don’t find me villainizing food.  Food is inherently neutral.  We require it to live, but we can also abuse our bodies by consuming too much of it, we can self-medicate with it and live in denial of our deep suffering, we can abuse our power over others by refusing them reasonable access to it (see concepts like urban nutritional desert), we can plow under crops ready to be harvested because it’s cheaper to do so and in some cases our farmers can’t actually afford to harvest while people on another continent starve.  We require low paid and under paid and often illegal migrant workers to harvest our crops because our own citizens refuse to even take such jobs.  We abuse power, exploit others, and cause harm to ourselves and others, all through food, but no one is calling food evil.

Let’s be real: Neither is sex evil.  And if sex isn’t evil why can’t we talk about it without all the hoopla?  Why indeed… because many still understand sex to be… dirty, nasty, low, common, evil, bad, disgusting, wrong, improper, unmentionable, impolite…  Many Christians functionally understand sex to be a sin if performed outside of marriage and some Christians understand sex to be a sin if performed outside of marriage and the intention to procreate.  I won’t even begin to bring up other religions.  We’ve all got hangups about sex.  But the thing is, even outside of these two types of Christians, this understanding that is held by a portion of Christians (please note, not all) has utterly pervaded mainstream American culture.  Meaning: Even if we don’t at all or in any way identify as a Christian, or the sort of Christian who thinks sex outside of marriage is a sin and there’s a handbasket headed to hell with your name on it, we still have this sometimes unconscious association of sex with all that is dirty, nasty, low, common, evil, bad, disgusting, wrong, improper, unmentionable, and impolite.

Let’s be real: You might be surprised at how many writers of erotica that I have seen write in ways that make it clear this is how they, too, understand sex.  Perhaps we’ve all bought into the self-hate to a certain degree.  Perhaps not.  I will admit that I did, before I started to intentionally discern whether or not sex was evil, an assumption that I absorbed from my own family and religious upbringing.  (Why yes, I did start out this world as a conservative christian.  See?  Personal growth is possible.)

Let’s be real: It is my view that we seriously need to heal our understandings of sex.  How do we heal our understandings of sex?  Well, first of all, seriously now people, we need to talk about it.  And while it’s true that I, like many of my clergy colleagues, can talk extemporaneously on any subject, at length, and in a reasoned, intelligent, and reverent manner at the drop of a hat (and in fact, that’s part of the GOEs we have to take), I’m much more of a storyteller, so watch me tell stories about how sex isn’t evil…

Oh wait.  We have a word for that.  Erotica.

7 comments

  1. I seriously hope you find a publisher who will get your work out there. The current world of erotica is littered with very negative views of sex, back-alley scribblings and a dearth of plot. The talent and content produced by Greenleaf Classics in the 60’s wasn’t much better than that of Literotica today, but at least there was a mainstream source for publishing erotic literature.

    I spent the better part of my IRC roleplaying years producing content that if released could only have been considered an erotic serial. Although my friends and I sometimes played with other under-age members that required us to censor the final product, I always found it quite silly that we skipped over the “good bits” when everyone could easily fill in the blanks. To my mind, the lack of explicit sexual descriptions in literature is akin to the FCC bleeps in radio songs – you KNOW what goes in their place and your brain fills it in anyhow.

    To know that an educated, talented and sincere individual is adding to the world’s library is wonderful. It’s even more so to realize that she’s not being confined by manufactured boundaries.

    My answer to Why Erotica? is Why Not?

    • Brian – it’s good to hear from you, and thank you for sharing your thoughtful commentary and experiences.

      Although I am unfamiliar with the Greenleaf Classics you mentioned, I am all too familiar with Literotica, where one can very occasionally find a diamond in the rough, but even so; finding something that is erotic, respectful while not formulaic is like asking for water on the Moon. Even beyond that, I look at fanfic, the medium in which AUs are quickly turned into the author and the reader’s desire for good erotica without respect the original content… (Given Twilight, Bella & Edward are just the character masks to put over the heads of the male and female lead, and in your average all-human alternate universe, it’s really all but original fiction if you just change the names.) Even in these situations where I have gotten to know some of the authors who are all fine upstanding women of good character and well-intentioned to boot, they still treat sex like it is inherently dirty. Their use of plot and grammar cannot cover up this fact.

      Happy to be adding to the world’s library. :)
      Sare

  2. The comparison of sex to food is apt, and reminds me of a conversation I had with my daughter about Buddhism earlier today.

    Actions can be neutral, i.e. karma-less, and denial is an aberration of the Middle Way — a coping cop-out the Buddhas followers fell into.

    Enjoying food doesn’t have to mean gluttony. Sex doesn’t have to be “dirty”. The goal is non-attachment, not avoidance or rejection, which in themselves are another form of attachment, ironically.

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Ken.

      This is a wonderful way to consider it, and I’m grateful you’ve brought it up. Though I haven’t yet tackled it in my Theology of Erotica, I’ll be getting to attachment and non-attachment at some point, I hope.

      The joy we put into an action or a relationship doesn’t have to equate to the suffering and resistance we feel when we are holding on so tightly to a desired outcome, or way of life that our fingers start cramping up, which yes, is another way to describe attachment.

      The Jedi order never did figure it out, but the Buddhist live it every day; how do we live and love joyfully in this world without offering resistance to the Universe, without becoming attached? The drama in so many romance novels, to say nothing of erotica, comes from the characters being attached and resistant to the Universe. This is the sort of drama I try to avoid. The drama I’m cool with in novels is the butterfly beating its wings to come out of the chrysalis sort of drama.

      The butterfly must beat its wings to come out – if you simply cut open the chrysalis, the butterfly will die, as it needed that time to strengthen its wings before it could fly.

      So in our lives, we are all good candidates for enlightenment, or if you will, for resurrection and salvation, and whatever it is you’re calling it, the hallmark is non-resistance, non-attachment, and peace. I love to write about the moments when our eyes are beginning to open, when we’re trying to shed the old ways of doing to embrace something new, different, better, and healthier. There’s drama there, as we fumble our way towards health, but there’s also discernible progress…

      Peace,
      Sare

  3. Sare:

    I am a hard scientist brought up in a thoroughly conservative Christian movement whose treatment of sex consisted largely of ‘unmentionable.’

    As a result, my views on sex and sexual acts lean largely to ‘sin if outside of marriage and intent to procreate.’

    Scientific training has brought me some flexibility and skepticism; logic and fear lead me to masturbation and erotica.

    There’s still something missing, though. Do I need an emotional connection, or a commitment as your characters have to each other?

    Do the directives on standards in I Cor 8-11 apply to this? Is Matthew 5:28 the authoritative scripture? Or, perhaps, Paul’s advice in 1 Cor 7:11?

    My minister would have a fit if I presented these questions to him, and probably pray for the exorcism of the demon possessing me.

    Fanfiction.net and the attendant smaller fan sites are like the forbidden museum to my mind, but I wonder how can a desire God gave me be wrong.

    And then I read the stories where various characters spend time in orgy scenarios and multiperson relationships–where is the right in that? Adultery is strongly condemned in the Bible.

    Needless to say, I believe first of all in absolutes, then in God, then in the absolute nature and truth of the Bible.

    And I appreciate your work; one of the few really unforgettable works on ff.net. :)

    • Joe – I am so sorry that this comment flew under my radar for… eep! Eight years. I think I’m going to do a blogpost that goes more in depth, because your questions are all really wonderful ones, and I know you’re not the only one who has them.

      Thank you in particular for calling out some of the places in scripture that our more conservative bretheren lean on for advice in these circumstances. It will really help me to address the issue. (Not that it will be finished by then. It’s only the beginning of the conversation.)

      Here’s a quick summary:

      1 Corinthians 8-11. This is an awesome piece from Paul, and the key of interpreting it is to remember that he is giving hardcore and absolute advice to a specific community with specific cultural needs. We live in a different culture, and are a different set of communities, so the key is to discover this thing: what is the deep wisdom underlying the specifics that Paul is giving direction about? Once we have teased out the deep wisdom, then we can compare it to the core of Jesus’ teaching and discern if and I do mean if Paul was on track or not.

      It helps, in doing this kind of deep bible study, to begin with an understanding of Corinth and what was going on there. (And if I gave that to you now, this would not be a quick summary. I’ll save it for the blogpost. I do think that Paul’s advice is useful here, but only when we understand what it truly is.

      Matthew 5:28. Nope, I don’t think this is the authoritative scripture for the subject. I do think it’s true, and so we obviously need to A) figure out what the authoritative scripture is, and B) figure out how to incorporate Matthew 5:28 into our lives in a way that makes us healthy people, rather than wretched people. There is a way. I promise.

      1 Corinthians 7:11. Again, fascinating stuff, and when we put it into cultural context, suddenly it does become a moral issue outside of sex. This one is quick, so I’ll go for it. So – marriage in the ancient world, in this time period, in this culture and place. Women have no rights. Bigger than no rights – women have no place in life, in community – outside of being a daughter protected by her father, a widow protected by her adult son, or a wife protected by her husband. What happens when a man divorces a woman? (Because a woman can’t divorce a man. It’s not legal.) A man can go get married again. A woman can return to her father, who will likely reject her as damaged goods, beg in the streets (and thus die of starvation, and absolutely real occurrence), or become a whore (which means a TEMPLE whore, because those are the kinds of whore the ancient world had, and we’re not talking the Temple of the Living God in Jerusalem, who didn’t keep whores, so not only would a woman have to sell her body, she’d also be forced to sell her soul)… and that’s it. Those are her options. A man would typically divorce a woman because she couldn’t bear him children. So no adult male child to fall back on. A woman who can’t bear children won’t be accepted back in her father’s house. So, death by starvation, or selling her soul. Those are a divorced woman’s options in that time and place. Which is why Paul says, ‘would you stop treating your wives like disposable diapers, already? No! You may NOT trade up! It is morally abhorrent to treat people like this!’

      More soon.
      Sare

    • And now the reply outside of biblical commentary.

      Joe, thank you so much for your honesty and trust in even replying to this message, and thank you so much for enjoying the stories that I write.

      I, too, was raised in a conservative christian household, surrounded also by hard science, logic, and genius-level intellects. And the particular conservative christian flavor was mystical – or if you like, heavy on the holy spirit. For years masturbation confused the hell out of me and filled me with both fear and loathing, and a certain amount of ecstasy.

      To answer your question about emotional connection with a partner, or commitment with a partner, that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Here are some quick thoughts on the subject:

      Masturbation. Even if we consider that an emotional connection during sex might bring us a deeper and healthier experience, and even if we consider that having a commitment with the person we’re having a sexual encounter with might bring more integrity and less regrettable outcomes, is masturbation entirely verboten? Nope. One view of masturbation is having sex with ourselves. Now, I’d argue not many of us know how to love ourselves, which is why loving our neighbors actually turns out to be such a trial, but masturbation can be seen as one more way (a rather intimate one, but they exist, too) to be in a healthy and loving relationship with ourselves.

      “But what if I’m daydreaming about [enter name of person you’re not in a relationship with here] while I masturbate, Sare?”

      Well, here we enter in to areas of personal growth. My personal understanding, at this point in my own development, is that it’s a mistake. But mistakes can be corrected, gently, without pain and angst. Is it perhaps not actually good for you? Yes. Is it the end of the world as we know it? No. So be gentle with yourself and start exploring mentally and emotionally (when you’re feeling strong and happy, not when you’re feeling guilty and upset) why you feel so connected to someone you can’t have. The key here is to be gentle and kind to yourself. Exorcisms (which I also perform) are not yet necessary.

      And as for the rest of your comment – I so get it. There are stories that I like and that I don’t that sometimes show healthy depictions of sex, and sometimes don’t. And sometimes I’d like to have a conversation (and sometimes I do!) about ‘what was healthy, and what was unhealthy about that orgy scene?’ because I think those are really valid conversations to have. And because I don’t think that an orgy scene should be dismissed just because it’s an orgy scene. And I’m REALLY curious about whether or not the author depicts the scene truthfully – because there are ramifications for having sex with people, mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, relational, financial, and legal ramifications every time we have sex with someone. Including just ourselves.

      Thank you again for your amazing comment, and again I’m sorry for not responding for literally, a coon’s age.
      Sare

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