Sexual Ethics: What Is Our Goal?

As I understand it, the central Quaker commitment is to listen to the Spirit’s promptings and act faithfully in accordance with them, however difficult or unpopular they may be. This shared commitment allows people with different beliefs, gifts, and wounds to support one another, hold one another accountable, and find true unity. I have seen Friends unite in this way across differences of class, theology, politics, and vocation. This unity is more than mutual tolerance or even respect; it challenges, deepens, and transforms all who take part in it. I believe that we need this kind of healing and transformation as we struggle with our different understandings of sexuality and spirituality.

I discovered Quakers in my mid-teens. Before that, I had left one church because of the pastor’s insistence on the damnation of those who disagreed with his doctrine. I left another church because it offered unconditional acceptance but no challenge or help in spiritual formation. When I read John Woolman’s journals with my family and then visited Portland (Maine) Meeting, I encountered a powerful combination of openness and centering, freedom and accountability. I heard people describing many different understandings of God and saw them living many different lives. I also heard them asking themselves and one another hard questions about their faithfulness to Spirit.

Their faithfulness helped me to discern a leading that took me out of New England. I wasn’t able to participate in a meeting in my new location, but for a time I was blessed with the chance to join several Friends in meetings for extended worship and sharing. We focused on the Spirit’s working in our lives and the ways in which we were distracted or attentive, resistant or obedient. Our vocations and theologies varied widely, but we shared a commitment to spiritual discipline and an understanding that nothing in our lives could be separated from our relationship to God, however we named God.

When I first encountered Quaker conversations about sexual ethics I was dismayed because they seemed to reflect the popular culture’s assumptions and polarities. Most of the Friends I knew were on the liberal end of the dialogue. Many of the older adults spoke passionately about the harm done by our "puritanical" culture, with its emphasis on sexual repression and shaming, and they celebrated the increased sexual freedom enjoyed by my generation. I agree that there is some value in this freedom, but I also think there was some strength and safety in having a shared set of boundaries for sexual behavior. Among people my age and younger I see a great deal of harm done by a sexual culture based on instant gratification without attention to context or consequences.

I think of children I have mentored who were bounced from home to home to home as their parents changed partners. Some were abused in this process; many seemed disoriented and insecure. I think of a guest in her early 20s who said she was trying to figure out how to be a whole person. She had been sexually active since her early teens; she felt successful when she could attract cute guys, and her friends and family valued that ability. She started thinking more about spirituality (for her, Pagan/New Age) in her late teens and began to believe that her mind, body, and spirit were intimately connected. At that point she was dismayed to realize she had been treating her body as an object separate from her mind and soul, and that she had encouraged her partners to treat it in the same way. When I met her she was observing a year of celibacy, trying to find her way back to wholeness. She was discouraged by the disapproval and bewilderment of her family and friends.

When Friends strenuously avoid any semblance of "puritanical" judgment, we risk being co-opted into the instant-gratification model of sexuality. I remember a national gathering where Young Friends discussed their sexual experiences as they might have discussed video games—this move is cool, this is weird, that part’s kind of gross. They didn’t discuss the relationships within which sex occurred, except that some mentioned thinking that everyone else their age was having sex and it was time for them to get with it. I said that I wanted sexual union to be part of a long-term commitment and a shared life and spoke of the challenge that went with my choice: practicing celibacy while delighting in my body and having close nonsexual relationships with people whom I sometimes found attractive. I felt like a visitor from another planet.

Later that week I attended an intergenerational gathering of Quaker women discussing sexuality. Most of the participants were two generations older than me. They spoke of the shame they had felt about their bodies and desires when they were girls and of the wonderful sexual freedom enjoyed by the younger generation. I spoke, again feeling alien. The other young woman who spoke described being sexually harassed and finally raped by co-workers. The older women offered her their sympathy; then the next speakers moved back to describing the restrictions of their youth and wishing aloud that they had grown up in these liberated times.

I have heard a great deal about the harsh judgments of the "puritanical" culture, but my experience of sexual judging and shaming has come from the instant-gratification culture. Instead of condemning sexual activity outside narrow limits as sinful, this culture derides celibacy and sexual self-restraint as signs of neurosis or hopeless unattractiveness. A 12-year-old girl I mentored asked me if there was something wrong with her and her boyfriend. The other kids at school taunted them because they enjoyed holding hands but didn’t feel ready to make out. When I was 13 years old, a girl at summer camp said that she couldn’t believe I hadn’t been kissed yet, since I wasn’t that funny-looking. Five years later a church youth group visited the organic farm where I was volunteering, and the girls asked how I could stand to mess around with dirt and poop and all that stuff; didn’t I know that ruined my chances of ever getting a boyfriend? Three years later, while visiting a yearly meeting, I encountered a group of parents talking about how good it was for their kids to experiment with sex and drugs with other Quaker youth instead of the rougher crowds at their schools. I expressed concern at the assumption that all teenagers would or should engage in these behaviors. One man, a father and psychologist, warned me that young people who don’t experiment with sex and drugs are usually severely neurotic.

During the World Gathering of Young Friends in 2005, a small group gathered to discuss the personnel policy that instructs people who work for Friends United Meeting (FUM) to refrain from sexual activity outside monogamous heterosexual marriage. One person spoke sternly about the immorality and ungodliness of homosexuality and nonmarital relationships. Others condemned group-imposed limits on sexual behavior as abusive, bigoted, ignorant, and destructive. I said I couldn’t choose sides. I had been blessed to attend the marriage of two women under the care of my meeting. I had felt the Spirit moving there and had admired the love, strength, and understanding of that couple. I grieved that their marriage, and others like it, were not recognized by the policy. I also celebrated the policy’s affirmation that sexual relationships are meant to be sacred and covenantal, not casual. No one else spoke publicly from the place between. Two young women came up to me afterward and said they agreed with me but didn’t feel comfortable saying so, because if they spoke of valuing marriage and commitment people would assume that they were homophobic.

Recently I have encountered some conversations that break tthrough these dichotomies. Two years ago, visiting Friends told us about a discussion of sexuality at New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) Sessions. This discussion began with concerns about the FUM personnel policy; it culminated in the members and meetings of the yearly meeting being asked to discern and articulate their own sexual ethics. I was excited and regretted my distance from NEYM and Portland Meeting. When I saw a preliminary statement in Portland’s newsletter dealing mainly with the FUM policy, I was surprised and somewhat uncomfortable. I agreed strongly with this statement’s affirmation of love and commitment between gay or lesbian couples. I was troubled by references to the culture of sexual repression and statements questioning the rightness of celibacy and other forms of sexual self-restraint. I wasn’t sure if my convictions about sexual fidelity were unacceptable in the meeting’s eyes. I wondered what counsel the meeting had for young people trying to deal with sexuality in the instant-gratification culture.

I wrote to Ministry and Counsel with my questions, joys, and concerns about their statement. Their response was generous and thought-provoking. I received a thick envelope with writings from individual members of the committee. Some sent Queries, Advices, and other excerpts from NEYM and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s books of Faith and Practice. Some reflected on their own sexual ethics and the questions and convictions that shaped them. Some recalled their youthful struggles to come to terms with desire, social pressure, and their own sense of integrity. Some tried to differentiate their personal sexual choices and boundaries from those they considered necessary to community life. These writings helped me see my own questions and choices more clearly. I was glad that my experience and questions were an acceptable part of the Quaker continuum and had contributed something valuable to my meeting’s discernment.

The January 2009 NEYM young adult retreat with attention to Quaker sexual ethics was another gift and challenge. I was grateful for our honest and tender sharing. We came to the gathering with hugely different backgrounds, assumptions, values, and wounds. We started with our stories: how we learned about sexuality, spirituality, and relationships; how we had been hurt and blessed by our sexual experiences and choices; what we hoped for and what we feared. I think this groundwork made it easier for us to listen tenderly to each other’s questions and convictions. I certainly heard some things that shocked and troubled me. I think I may have shocked and troubled others. But while I found (and find) some sexual behaviors quite easy to judge, I couldn’t condemn or dismiss the people who found those behaviors acceptable; we had worshiped together, and I had some idea of the gifts and the pains they carried. I did not feel condemned or dismissed, nor did it seem to me that we refrained from speaking the truth as we saw it for fear of giving offense.

Some basic practices helped us to keep sharing deep and safe. We began with experience, owning our own wounds, gifts, doubts, and certainties. We spoke honestly and listened tenderly. We didn’t assume that others experienced either popular culture or Quaker culture in the same way we did. We tried to know those who held different values as whole people, not just as members of the opposite camp. If Friends could practice these behaviors consistently when difficult matters are being discussed, it might help to heal, strengthen, and center our community.

A few common threads emerged from our discussion. One was the desire for more open conversation and guidance around sexuality and spirituality. Many Friends said that they had been well taught about sexual biology as teenagers but lacked guidance or helpful questions about relationships and sexual ethics. Others spoke gratefully of adults involved with the Young Friends program who made it clear that they were willing to listen to teens’ questions and struggles around sexuality. I described my conversations with my mother around puberty in which she shared some of her own stories, convictions, and questions about sexuality, reminded me of friends and relatives with different understandings, suggested some books written by thoughtful people with very different ideas of sexual ethics, and encouraged me to think carefully, listen deeply, and form my own values and guidelines.

We wanted to fully include and welcome people with different experiences of sexuality, and also to set some clear boundaries. One participant warned Friends against letting our understanding of sexual ethics be warped by the wish to declare all our previous sexual choices and actions acceptable. Some participants spoke about experiences of sexual coercion or manipulation, which painfully contradicted the assumption that we Quakers are all respectful people and our gatherings are safe places where young people can relax and trust one another. Several people spoke of the need to publicly acknowledge the potential for abuse within the Quaker community. Such acknowledgment might remind Friends to maintain their own boundaries and respect those of other people. It might also help victims of sexual abuse to feel free to speak out instead of believing they must keep the secret and preserve the image of an ideal community.

We did not reach a shared understanding of sexual ethics beyond preventing sexual manipulation and coercion. Some of us sought ways to help each other with clear discernment and faithful following of Spirit in our sexual lives. Others felt that sexuality and spirituality were unrelated. One participant said that there was bad (abusive) sex, spiritually deepening sex, and then just normal sex, which was sort of like eating potato chips—fun, insignificant, morally neutral. When we spoke of sexual ethics some of us meant making sexual choices consistent with and contributing to our relationship to God (Spirit, Life, whatever name we felt comfortable using for that which we had met), and helping those around us to do likewise. Others, as well as I could understand, meant giving and receiving pleasure without inflicting evident harm (pain, fear, betrayal, trauma, disease, or unwanted pregnancy). Given this basic difference in our understandings, I couldn’t see a way forward for us as a body.

If we intend to go beyond courtesy and respect and try to reach unity as a Religious Society, I think we must begin by clarifying our basic shared commitment, the ground of our unity. We will proceed in one way if our first priority is to include and accept all practices and opinions found within the Quaker community. We will proceed differently if our first priority is to integrate all our lives in listening and obedience to God, however named.

Joanna Hoyt

Joanna Hoyt, a member of Portland (Maine) Meeting, has worked and worshiped for the last eight years at St. Francis Farm, a community in upstate New York that practices an alternative to the consumer culture through prayer, sustainable agriculture/forestry, and presence and assistance to neighbors.