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A Gospel of Quaker Sexuality

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Quakers have sometimes been described as “a peculiar people.” That’s a fair way to describe my religious upbringing, in a geographically remote outpost and an extremely liberal wing of a kind of wacky denomination.

My weird and lovely little faith community was one where people spoke often about their grief and their hope for the brokenness in the world. Growing up, I heard a lot about Quaker values, commitments, and beliefs. I came out as queer without feeling any conflict with my identity as a Friend. But as my commitment to Quakerism as a spiritual path deepened, I realized that there was a disconnect between Quakerism and my emerging sexuality. Sexuality had generally been treated as a private matter in my family and community. I had been taught, however, that taking Quakerism seriously and listening for the leadings of God could potentially change my approach to everything. I realized that I needed to figure out for myself what a sexual ethic grounded in Quaker faith might look like.

Over the course of a decade of thinking, praying, and talking with people about the relationship between sexuality and Quakerism, I’ve come to a number of core convictions. In the most technical sense of the word, “gospel” simply means good news. I believe that this world is sorely in need of good news about bodies and sexuality, and that there is a lot of good news to be given! What follows is some of my gospel.

The gift of our sexuality

As a Christian, I am a disciple of a leader whose first miracle—according to the Gospel of John—was to turn water into wine. Jesus didn’t just refresh the supplies of a three‐day‐long wedding party that had run out of alcohol; he made really good wine—the best that had been served at the party up to that time.

These are not the actions of a God who feels negative, or even neutral, about pleasure, enjoyment, and riotous joy. We have a remarkable capacity for experiencing pleasure in our bodies—from the feeling of warm sun on skin to the smell of rain on pavement to the taste of rich food. Our capacity for pleasure is part of our humanity, a gift from God. Sexual pleasure is part of that gift.

Humans were created for love, in the broadest sense: familial love, spiritual love, the love of deep friendship, romantic love. Our sexuality is one of the ways we can experience and express love in and through our bodies, and that makes it important and potentially very beautiful.

I believe that how we live our sexuality is critically important in our spiritual lives. But I don’t think the rules are all that complicated. I don’t think God is judging us based on whether we have sex, how many people we have sex with, or what kind of sex we have with them. I don’t think God cares what genders of people we’re attracted to or whether we wait to have sex until we’re married. I believe that what God wants from us in our sexuality, as in all other things, is that we act with love and compassion. As the prophet Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” Or, as the prophet Kurt Vonnegut said, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Including sexual violence in our peace witness

As a child growing up in a Liberal Quaker meeting, nonviolence was one of the first things that I was taught to associate with Quakerism. I learned that the Quaker commitment to nonviolence is a witness of our care for everything that is a manifestation of the Divine. I learned to think of peacebuilding as the ultimate goal of Quakerism, and of everything else that was described to me as a Quaker testimony—simplicity, equality, integrity—as a blueprint for what true peace would look like and how it might be achieved.

I was not taught to understand, as a child, that violence intimately permeated the lives of people in my own family and community. I was not taught that, as a person assigned female gender at birth, I would have a one‐in‐four chance of being a target of sexual assault during my life. I don’t remember sexual violence being identified as part of the culture of violence that we sought to dismantle.

If we long for peace, we need to acknowledge the pervasiveness of sexual violence. I need to remember that there are people, among those I love, who experience street harassment every time they leave their houses alone. Survivors of sexual abuse have been my friends, partners, coworkers, and kids I work with, and those are just the ones I know about.

There have also been perpetrators of sexual abuse among my friends and community members, including kids raised in Quaker communities similar to my own. On multiple occasions, in different communities where I’ve held leadership roles, I’ve known sexual violence to have occurred between Quaker young people. I feel a profound responsibility, out of love for my faith community and the kids we raise in it, to do everything in my power to transform the systems that put their safety and well‐being at risk.

Sexual violence is a problem in Quaker communities. It is not restricted to any particular group of Friends. I have seen too much of it to perceive it as anything but a systemic problem: a collective failure to interrupt the cycle of sexual violence that pervades our society as a whole and to prevent it from running similarly unimpeded within our own house.

Friends must start teaching our children, and each other, that understanding and practicing consent is critical to a life of nonviolence. Silence isn’t going to do this teaching for us. If we can’t talk about sex, we leave ourselves at the mercy of the uninterrupted discourse of rape culture, because we have offered no challenge and no alternatives.

Quakerism and rape culture are fundamentally incompatible. Quakers will know we are working for peace well when we find ourselves butting heads with this culture at every turn. We must preach a sexuality of nonviolence, in which every human is allowed to choose freely how, when, and whether to use their body for pleasure and connection. To be an agent of sexual nonviolence, I must cultivate my capacity for listening, empathy, and honest communication. I believe this is within every person’s ability, if we teach and support one another in making it so.

Body positivity

I came to Christianity somewhat reluctantly. I was already out as queer, comfortable in a progressive‐nerdy‐renegade role. I never felt like Christianity was for people like me. But then, like some lead character in a cheesy, gay, young adult novel, I started to develop these … feelings. At first, I thought I could push them away, or deny they meant anything, but I kept finding Jesus kind of unnervingly compelling.

The Jesus I fell in love with doesn’t feel scary or dogmatic or really anything like I expected. I’ve come to understand Christianity in a much more radical and countercultural light than I did as a child. In my view as a sex‐positive person, Christian theology provides a powerful center of gravity for my understanding of the goodness of the human body.

Christianity represents an intersection of the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the profane, that blows those distinctions out of the water. If God chose to take on human form and experience and participate in everything that comes along with having a body—eating and pooping and nose blowing and stuff—how can I consider any part of my life so mundane that it is without goodness or significance? How could I believe that having a body is anything other than a profound and beautiful mystery?

I’ve found body positivity easy to affirm in theory but incredibly challenging in practice. Body shaming is disproportionately leveraged at women, and people perceived as women, as well as people of color, people with disabilities, and lots of other marginalized groups, but it affects everyone. It’s a critical component of the systems of oppression that police certain populations of people and consolidate power among others. I’ve had to convince myself that “fat” isn’t a bad word but a neutral descriptor of lots of amazing, powerful, and beautiful bodies, including my own. I’ve only begun to dismantle some of my ideas about what bodies are “supposed” to be able to do, and to release judgment when my own or other people’s bodies don’t live up to that. There is still so much to do.

Conscious reproduction and village‐dwelling

When I talk with people about connections between sexuality and Quaker values and beliefs, the connection that people seem to struggle with most often is between sexuality and earthcare. I’m not talking about places where sex‐related consumer decisions have an environmental impact; I’m talking bigger, and also more personal.

By far, reproduction is the most significant environmental decision most of us will make. We are living in a pivotal moment of climate change and its effect on long‐term survival prospects of every species on Earth. The prevailing scientific agreement is that this is now an unstoppable catastrophe. We are in a crisis, and it’s time to do what damage control we can, and start to imagine a new way of being on the planet.

In this context, I believe reproduction constitutes a serious moral choice. Humanity desperately needs rising generations of creative, thoughtful problem‐solvers and leaders, but we also need fewer humans competing for the available resources. The moral questions related to bringing a child into what may be a dying world are ones for which I have no glib answers. So many factors go into reproductive decision making that any judgment of other people’s choices or experiences would be harmful and ignorant.

The dignity and importance of good parenting and the need to care for the earth by limiting reproduction are not incompatible. Quakers and others can better honor both by shifting to a model in which the decision to parent is spiritually discerned without predetermined outcome.

I choose to believe, as an act of faith, that there are enough resources on this planet to support every person, if we make reproduction an entirely uncoerced option. It can be one of many choices, including fostering, adopting, village‐dwelling, or not being involved in the raising of kids at all. I’m a village‐dweller myself: I love kids, and find joy and fulfillment in supporting parents and other family members in raising them. I don’t want to have any of my own, but I do want to be there for the kids in my life when they have stuff that is too hard or weird to talk about with their parents. I want to babysit so parents who don’t get enough time together can go on dates. I want to show up for the important things in the lives of the kids I love and help them know they are loved by a big circle of folks.

For reproductive parenting to be freely chosen from a variety of options, we need to take some concrete steps. Freely chosen parenting means freely available birth control in a wide variety of forms. It means universal, truly comprehensive, and holistic sexuality education that addresses not just the physical act of sex but communication, relationships, reproductive decision making, and sexual health throughout life. It means taking a serious look at the causes of socially pressured, personally coerced, or unintended pregnancies around the world, and supporting people in developing thoughtful, culturally sensitive solutions for their own cultures and communities.

It means transforming attitudes about what constitutes a normal life cycle, a fulfilling life, a family, and a legacy. Quakers can set an example for this shift by discussing reproductive decision making when we address topics of morality, discernment, and leadings with both children and adults. People approaching their faith communities for support and clearness around family planning could be a normal practice among us.

The wild idealism of Quaker marriage

The Quaker understanding of marriage is consistent with both the wild idealism and grounded pragmatism of Quaker faith. It’s the simple, radical idea that marriage relationships are created by God, not by other people. Neither a church nor an officiant, a judge, or a legislator—no human being or organization—can perform a marriage; we can only witness that God has married people, and agree (or not) to help care for their marriage.

The first wedding I remember attending took place when I was about five years old. I remember the sun in the courtyard of my meetinghouse and the brides smiling. It was the first time my meeting had married two people of the same gender. As was happening in many Friends meetings around the country and world at the time, this wedding was preceded in our community by years of painful debate. But we learned, somehow. We grew in our understanding of what “marriage” meant.

I’ve identified as polyamorous for years, and know a lot of other non‐monogamous people in lovely, loving relationships. I’ve believed theoretically that deep, spiritual relationships of mutual care and long‐term commitment could exist among more than just two people. Until recently, however, I didn’t personally know anyone who was married to more than one person.

About a year and a half ago, I met a family with three married partners at a Quaker conference. Since then, I have become a devoted long‐distance, social‐media fan of their relationship. I love their “kids going back to school” posts, their “can’t wait for family movie night tonight!” posts, their posts about silly things, and their posts about incredibly hard things. I have seldom seen relationships with such tenderness, affection, and openness, especially in the context of tremendous discrimination. It is inconceivable to me that anyone could know them and not believe them to be married, or fail to find their marriage to be worthy of care and celebration.

The profound hopefulness of the Quaker commitment to continuing revelation is that we are not stuck with what we know right now, or what we know alone. Our work is to be present and attentive in a gloriously complex world. Things will surprise us. We will be required to change our minds, to grow continuously into new understandings of how love manifests in the world.

Seeking wholeness

By affirming the goodness of human sexuality, in all its rich diversity, I am fighting for my wholeness: for all of my identities, desires, and connections to be present in the room, all at once, in dignity and safety. I am fighting for your wholeness. I am fighting for our ability to connect authentically. I am reaching for a place where we know more because we have heard each other’s stories, where we begin to grasp the full truth by sharing the parts of it we can each see from where we are.

Having sex like a Quaker—pursuing a grounded, loving, progressive, and life‐affirming approach to human sexuality—is an act not just of seeking wholeness but of staking out ground and fighting for our wholeness actively and passionately. We need to do this if we are going to resist the machinery of shame, the hierarchy of human worth. These will try to erode and erase our wholeness. But they will not win. We can’t let them.

Micah encourages us to let go of our effort and anxiety about the things that are extraneous in our relationship with God and focus on the essentials: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” We do justice, with regard to sexuality, when we work to dismantle the systems of oppression that lead to sexual violence, seek every opportunity to prevent that violence, and commit ourselves to prevention, justice, and healing.

We are lovers of mercy when we conduct our own relationships with compassion and concern for the well‐being of others. We can walk humbly by acknowledging the things we don’t know, committing ourselves to a lifelong learning process about sexuality, and most of all, refraining from judgment of other people’s consensual relationships.

Finally, Micah tells us: God will be with us. Guidance and help are here, and they will keep coming. We are grounded. We are loved. And we are not alone.


Web exclusive author chat

 

Kody Gabriel Hersh is a queer, trans, polyamorous Quaker youth worker who loves Jesus and is passionate about justice, peacebuilding, and joy. Kody grew up and maintains membership in Southeastern Yearly Meeting and is active with Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns (FLGBTQC) and Christian Peacemaker Teams.

This article was adapted from a talk given during Haverford College’s Religion and Spiritual Life Week in September 2015.


Posted in: Features, May 2016: Gender and Sexuality

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6 Responses to A Gospel of Quaker Sexuality

  1. Margie May 3, 2016 at 11:23 pm #

    City & State
    Philadelphia PA
    I have a lot of love and respect for Kody, and really appreciate and resonate with this article. I’m very glad he is part of my Quaker community. Here’s what I have to add: In my opinion, as someone certainly on the radical end in thinking about young people, I think that when we perpetuate the existence of an option, for adults, not to be involved with kids, it’s another way we are allowing young people’s oppression to continue. Kids are without legal rights or a voice in our governance. They rely wholly on adults to make choices, pass legislation, and elect officials, all with their best interests in mind because they have no say. I think, therefore, it’s imperative that all adults know and have some involvement with children. I realize we, as a society, have a very far way to go from pressuring all people to be parents to creating a world where all people are involved with young people but no one is pressured or coerced into parenthood. But it’s an ideal I want to strive for!

  2. Chris Paige May 4, 2016 at 8:18 am #

    City & State
    Philadelphia, PA
    This is so, so good. So comprehensive. So rich. I hate to be critical. Am I missing the part where intersex and non binary bodies get acknowledged? I just desperately want to find it. It feels like it must be there. Somewhere.

    Non binary bodies and identities are so often left out of the rhetoric of sexuality, that it leaves us almost unrecognizable as our fullest selves in the grammar of desire. Instead, we are subsumed under other labels, left to be impersonators or non participators, except for those who bother to take the time to see us, to really know us and to let go of preconceived scripts.

  3. Kody Hersh May 4, 2016 at 11:58 am #

    City & State
    Philadelphia
    I’m so grateful to each of you for adding these pieces. Thank you.

  4. Kat Richter May 5, 2016 at 10:41 am #

    City & State
    Philadelphia
    This is a fantastic piece of writing, Kody. And while I do see the points of the earlier commenters, I would like to commend you for getting this dialogue started (and to remind everyone, as a former intern with Friends Journal, that they’re always happy to consider new submissions so perhaps some additions to this topic by other authors are in order). Also, while I am always eager to expand my own rather narrow‐minded views of polyamory, what really resonated with me was what you said about creating a culture of spiritual discernment within the Religious Society of Friends regarding child‐rearing. This is something that I have really been wrestling with, especially as an anthropology professor, because my discipline sees all too clearly the effects of overpopulation and climate change and I feel that I can’t, in good conscience, contribute to that problem simply because I want to have children. I always thought I would adopt but now that I’m marrying my best friend, I find myself wanting to have HIS children (everyone always told me the “baby” bug would kick in when I finally found “the one” and dammit, they were right!) but this piece has given me a lot to think about, both pros and cons in this regard. At any rate, thank you for this great work! It’s stuff like this that makes me proud to be Quaker 🙂

  5. Miranda Elliott Rader May 9, 2016 at 7:29 pm #

    City & State
    Charlottesville, VA
    An excellent gospel message, Kody! I love this article (especially with the commentary additions). Yes. Our faith comes from a god who rejoiced in Her body, and commanded us to love one another with loving kindness. And our faith community’s commitment to nonviolence needs to mean work around healing from sexual violence, preventing sexual violence, and teaching our children effective communication in a way that it doesn’t do yet. Thank you for so clearly speaking my mind!

  6. Joshua Feierman August 21, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

    City & State
    Philadelphia, PA
    I was searching today for something to help me articulate my own beliefs on this subject, and happened upon this wonderful piece. I do not think I could have spoken more eloquently on the subject than you have. If God is the loving, compassionate, and kind being we believe Him to be, than why would He disapprove of the love between two individuals simply because they (a) share the same anatomy, (b) don’t happen to be married, etc? Love is a beautiful thing, and I truly believe that so long as the love we have for each other helps us to live better on the path of kindness, peace, and compassion, God would have no problem with us.

    Peace be with you friend, and thank you for sharing.

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