Quakers, Sexuality, and Spirituality

Talking about sex in any context, even a Quaker one, can be dangerous because we don’t all use the same language. We have different experiences. Sex holds different priorities in various people’s lives. So, I just want to be clear that I am speaking only from my own experience. I am not speaking on behalf of gay men even though I am a member of that circle. I’m not speaking on behalf of first-generation Italian-American immigrants even though I am one. Or Quakers who know how to yodel. I’m just speaking from my own experience.

My own experience includes several different levels. On one level, I was raped and beaten as a young child, so I understand sex as a power to hurt. I am also someone who has spent the last 22 years giving massage and energy work to people who are recovering from traumatic experience. From this I understand the power of touch, sensuality, and intimacy to bring someone back to fullness, to bring someone back to the joy of life after perhaps thinking one could never love life again.

I’m also speaking to you as someone who is 50 years old and came out during that glorious, golden age of gay male sexuality after penicillin but before hiv. I want to tell you it was a good time to learn how to dance—to get out there and have some fun. During this time, gay male sexuality began to move from being sick and illegal towards being something that could be wonderful. It could be a delight. You could meet new people. You could even meet a future spouse at the gay swimming hole like I did.

Another part of my experience, after having a full dance card for several years, is that for 15 years I have been happily monogamous, which is a very different experience. I am talking from all these different perspectives.

I recently spoke with a Quaker sex educator, of which there are very few. When I asked Peggy Brick of New Jersey, “Are you the only one?” she said, “Well, actually Quakers have been very slow about sex education. Other churches have done a lot more than we have.” There were some Quakers who had done sex education a few decades ago but she said they were mostly dead.

I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that it’s nearly impossible for Quakers to have sex. I’m sorry to inform you of this but it’s true for a couple of different reasons.

One obstacle is the tradition of simplicity. There is a desire among Friends—a testimony, a witness—to keep life simple. Those who are going to fall in love or have an affair are going to mess up their simplicity. We are talking major trouble here. Are they going to call back? How does my hair look? And that’s just the beginning. Wait until you’re in the seventh year of a marriage and you realize you’re still at the beginning! If you really want simplicity, if you’re truly devoted to that as a witness, I recommend that you never have sex with anyone and that you never fall in love. It can’t be done simply. It feels too wonderful. It feels too deeply.

There’s another obstacle. This is, essentially, that Quakers don’t like power. Quakers would prefer that no one have a lot of power. We would like to divvy it up so everyone has just a little bit and no one has a great deal of it. If you are looking to retire from the entire concept of power, sex is just not going to work because it’s such a powerful force. It is such a large thing. It’s such a wonderful power.

I had a friend named Mary. When she was almost 70 years old, she was tired and had arthritis and it was changing her body and she was hurting all the time. Well, Mary fell in love with a fellow who was about 22. They went into her bedroom, locked that door, and didn’t come out until about three weeks later. Her arthritis was almost gone. She said, “I wish my doctors had explained this to me years ago.” She was standing upright. She was smiling. The power of true love, the power of sexual attraction is huge. If power scares you, then there is going to be some difficulty. One of the lovely things about sexuality is to discover that power within yourself, to feel how lush it is, to feel how beautiful it is in someone else, and to join those things together. It’s wonderful.

There’s another problem with Quakers having sex. It is that there’s a very strong, unspoken tradition among Quakers: you’re not supposed to bring attention to yourself. Think about that time that you had a while ago—or maybe that you are looking forward to having—when you have been with that person who just melts your butter, who you look at and you think, “Ooh-la-la!” How wonderful. And you start to feel that tingling feeling and you say slowly, with a deep voice and heavy breath: “Darling, I just love what you’re wearing tonight, and I just want to tell you I love you so much and I thank God we’re together and I’m just wondering if you could come over here and be by me for a while.” Now, if you don’t want to call any attention to yourself, you have got to take that whole feeling and set it aside. You’re going to sound like someone with a high, whiny voice, like, “Honey, would you mind if . . . oh no, no, it’s not that important.” With sexuality you want to love that power. You want to feel it. You want to know it in yourself. You want to find a way to work with it, live with it, and love it. That’s very important.

Think what it would be like if we Quakers were more honest about our sexual lives. Think about some of our lovely elders after meeting on Sunday morning, coming out on the porch and saying, “Oh, thank God. Last night we made love! My whole body feels better. Thank God for giving me these feelings. I love my life more now. I like being in the world more. I can spend more time with the pain of the world now because I have felt its beauty deeply. Thank God! I can come home to my body and feel this wonderful inclusion.” Isn’t that great? But, if you can’t call attention to yourself, that’s going to be a problem.

There are some wonderful parallels between a spiritual life and a sexual life. These are parts of our lives that we do not always connect. We live in a very noisy world that in many ways is contrary to a deep spiritual life, working against it. This is especially so in U.S. culture. Popular culture is loud and tells everyone to go out and buy everything all the time.

In some ways, a sexual life is the same. There’s such a noise in popular culture about what sexuality should be or could be, what with our being used to buying and selling things and people. In some ways we don’t touch the deeper parts of either spirituality or sexuality unless we actually seek them out, wonder about them consciously, and try to learn about them within our own lives. If you look at the external details of people’s sexual or spiritual lives, we all look very different. It’s an incredible mosaic. But then if you look at the essential details on the inside, the needs of each of us, the longing that each person has, these essences are remarkably similar, both person to person and from sexuality into spirituality.

Another way in which there is a similarity between sexuality and spirituality is that it’s sort of a big, blind date that everyone goes out on because we have this hunger within us. There’s a desire and a hunger for grace, to feel that aspect of the Divine within ourselves—to feel some familiarity with a power greater than us. There is also that yearning for romance and for touch, just the right touch for us. It is highly individual and unique.

I was talking with a young, gay friend in Mexico. He had just gone out on a date and was wondering if it was true love or simply passionate fun. In describing it, he became sad. After talking about it for a while, he realized it really wasn’t the sadness of what had happened on this date, but a sadness that can come because there is this great longing to stop looking. We all have a great hope that there is going to be true love: someone who we’re not going to have to do a lot of translating with because they know all about us. This great longing within each of us is present in both the realm of the Divine and the realm of sex.

There’s another parallel. This is hard to talk about because it’s a concept that a lot of people are beat up with. It’s the idea of sin. I’m thinking of sin as the things that take us away from the Divine, things that take us away from knowing spiritual life more deeply. The parallel for sexuality—I’m not sure this is the right word, but it’s a word that can be used—is whoring. By that, I don’t mean prostitution. I mean sex that takes you away from honoring yourself; sex that takes you away from feeling deeply, from beautiful intimacy; sex that takes you away from personal power. The interesting thing about the whoring of sex and the sin in spiritual life is that there is no part-time work. If you are signing up for one of those two destructive activities, it’s full-time and it will take you away from your best self. But these concepts have to be applied individually because they are all going to mean different things in our individual lives and experiences. There isn’t going to be someone to tell you the right way to have a life with God or have a life with sex. It is such intimate seeking that it has to be done individually, finding the right language to tell one another what we’ve seen and felt along the way.

I think the most important similarity between these two realms is the concept of surrender. By this, I don’t mean giving up. We have aspects of ourselves that long for something larger and greater than us. If you learn how to surrender in one realm, you can transfer that wisdom into other realms. If you know about surrendering to true love, then there’s the possibility that you can use that learning for surrender to deeper spiritual experience.

If you have done the surrender to deeper spiritual experience, you can use that learning for surrendering to true love. The latter is never an easy surrender because life hurts so much. Sometimes true love comes along—if it does come along, and it sometimes seems we have been waiting a long time, too long—but when it does come along, you have to ask yourself: “Can I unpack the bags? Take out all my disappointments, all my anxiety, and set them aside and really join with this other person?”

This is true of romantic love but it’s also true of more casual relationships. There are lots of different kinds of surrender, lots of ways of learning about this very important concept. When we learn surrender in one place, we can use it to surrender in another place.

I want to conclude with a description. It is this: I take a very tender part of myself and relax it completely. I find that I am able to surrender to something larger than just me. There are many different and amazing feelings and lots of sensation. It can become very exciting and exhausting. It concludes, I experience separation, and it’s just me again. I try to understand everything that’s happened. Now, my query to you is: am I describing surrender to the Holy Spirit in meeting for worship—or am I describing lovemaking? It might be that they are remarkably similar.
This article is an adaptation of an address to a conference on Quakers and sexuality at Guilford College on February 22, 2002.

John Calvi

John Calvi, a member of Putney (Vt.) Meeting, has worked with trauma survivors for 22 years. His book on healing from trauma, The Dance between Hope and Fear: The Soft Touch Journals, will be available later this year.